Reading Tracy Frydberg‘s account of the Jerusalem hotel lobby dating scene evoked memories of the great broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough. Imagine him, in his venerable yet condescending English accent, describing the mating rituals of the curious Haredis: “The top priority for a Haredi male in his prime is breeding. They come out in earnest in the springtime after the Passover festival, filling hotel lobbies in their natural habitat of Jerusalem, maintaining a short yet respectful distance from the female, who sits coyly sipping her non-alcoholic beverage as they discuss how many children they might have together”.
If you are there during ‘mating season’, it can be hard to miss the shidduch dates in action in hotel lobbies, and my wife and I have often observed and tried to read the body language: is this a first date? will there be another date?
The shidduch system has pervaded in Orthodox and Haredi society for hundreds of years, and while it is deeply flawed and easy to poke fun at, it is remarkably effective and efficient in helping people find a spouse.
It’s not for everyone: not all of us want or need parental approval for a date, nor to have our pedigree and family medical history examined in gross detail as part of the vetting process.
That said, the system embodies an understanding of dating and marriage that are worthy of note and that perhaps we can all learn from:
1. The foundation for a successful marriage is shared values more than love. The shidduch system turns dating on its head. Before the first non-alcoholic drink is enjoyed together, each side has been ‘checked out’ and determined to be compatible for marriage. In extreme cases, the two mothers will have already met and reached a level of comfort with each other as possible mechutanesters. Dates are not so much about enjoying fun, shared experiences like a movie or a concert, rather are strictly between two people who know exactly why they are there. Accordingly, discussion quickly gets down to serious topics relating to marriage and life together.
This doesn’t discount the importance of enjoying each other’s company, rather it puts it into context as one of a number of factors needed for a couple to marry. Shared values and an emotional connection come first, and love often (hopefully) follows once the couple are already married.
2. Don’t start what you can’t stop. The shidduch system takes a pre-emptive strike against intermarriage by recognising the power of emotions and our inability to control them. A casual friendship with a non-Jew can develop into something more serious, and if that happens, who wants to stand in the way of love? Kashrut laws relating to bread and wine have exactly this in mind – avoiding fraternisation with non-Jews that can lead to … (dancing)
The socially insular approach, combined with the structures and rituals associated with dating avoid the slippery slope to intermarriage at the earliest time possible.
Of course this isn’t for everyone. In today’s mixed society, we freely associate with non-Jews in school, in the workplace, and socially. While adopting the shidduch system would be unthinkable, there is certainly plenty we can learn from its underpinning values to improve our approach to finding a Jewish spouse in the 21st century.