Mic drop at the ‘Jewish Matchmaking’ premier
But will it be good for the Jews?
That was my reaction when I heard that Netflix would be having a new show on Jewish matchmaking (“Jewish Matchmaking”). It was also the reaction of most Orthodox women I know.
Would this show be cringe? Would it lean into stereotypes? Would it give people the wrong impression? Would they make us Orthodox Jews look oppressed? Ignorant? Frumpy? Would Jewish practices seem misogynistic or would Halacha be cast as mysterious or titillating?
The show’s trailer was tentatively reassuring. It introduces Aleeza, the matchmaker. She is bright-eyed, with a shining smile and styled sheitel (wig). She speaks in bumper sticker bytes of wisdom about the difficulties of finding suitable partners. I’m pleasantly surprised to see that the show would not be focusing on Orthodox matchmaking within the Orthodox community, but that it’s Jewish matchmaking for everyone. The eligible singles come from a wide variety of backgrounds, cultural influences, race, and levels of Jewish observance.
When a friend invited me to be a “plus-one” at the Jerusalem premiere of the show, I couldn’t say no. I arrived at the red carpet tentatively, however, curious to see how the show would be received. The crowd in the theater was diverse: family and friends of the singles who appear in the show, local social media influencers, an assortment of older Haredi individuals, and handfuls of yeshiva-aged guys and girls. Wine glasses in hand, we settled into our seats to watch the show.
The bright Netflix “N” blinks red as the series begins. Not the first episode or an entire episode, but scenes from the first season that have been selected by the evening’s organizers. To start, they showcase the host, Aleeza-the-matchmaker, and her family. The scenes take us outside the theater in Jerusalem to other local hotspots, from the colorful Jerusalem shuk (marketplace) to indulging in shawarma. Modern fashion hit the ancient cobbled stones, and we all could relate.
The first eligible single in the selected scenes is Cindy, dynamic, personable, and beautiful. She is endearing and lovable, despite the large personality and self-stated ego that she acknowledges as potential turn-offs. To its credit, Netflix presents Cindy’s robust heritage, including her Libyan grandmother, who makes her own appearance on the show.
Next is Noah. His single Tel Aviv bachelor life may be stereotypical, with the iconic Tel Aviv beach montage scenes honing in on happy, sexy, Israelis soaking up the Middle Eastern sun, but he is charming and breezy and brings out the laughs.
In the role of dating coach, Aleeza is insightful and accepting. She discusses dating goals, values, God, family, the future, and more with her clients. If these clips are to be believed, Judaism seems to have a good deal to offer the modern perspective on dating. I breathe a sigh of cautious relief; this seems okay for the Jews, as far as I can tell. It’s a fun watch too. I relax and enjoy the rest of the show.
After the screening, the organizers opened the floor for a short Question-and-Answer session. And suddenly the evening changed — from being a fun night out, seeing people I knew from all over, to a sobering look at my own community.
From the start, a smattering of hands was raised, but we’re in Israel, so of course some questions were called out. One was posed to Noah: “What is your secret to being handsome?” “Zionism!” he responded, to great cheer. And to Cindy: “Are you single? I know a great guy for you!” “You’ll have to watch the show,” she laughed enigmatically.
In the middle row, a young woman stood up: she had a question. I guessed that she was a seminary girl, at a midrasha in Israel for a year of study in a “gap year,” after high school. Her hair was parted down the middle, and two long braids draped her face. She was wearing a purple jumper over a long-sleeved black t-shirt. Speaking clearly into the microphone, she asked: “Who is Netflix trying to reach with featuring these older singles? Shouldn’t they be settling for less at their ages?”
Older?! Cindy is 27. Noah is 24. Older singles?? I’m indignant. These people are not “older.”
And it suddenly struck me that the collective worries of me and my friends about how Netflix was going to portray Jewish culture were a distraction from the real issue with “shidduchim” — matchmaking services — in the Orthodox communities. In this series, Aleeza the matchmaker embraces the individuality and uniqueness of her clients. Even from the clips at the premier, that is clear. The approach to dating within the Orthodox community itself is starkly different. At times, it seems that one’s conformity to external standards is all that matters, which changes the nature of an “interview” with a matchmaker immeasurably.
For example, in shidduchim, men and women are often asked a battery of intrusive questions, never mind that the interrogation takes place one-on-one. I myself was asked all of the following and more: Would you go to see a movie in a theater? Where did you learn for seminary? (And because I studied in the US): Why not Israel? Are you big-boned? What is your bra size? Would you say you are naturally a good homemaker? Is it any surprise that that’s not how I met my husband? But people do — the matchmakers are generally successful, at least over time).
It is not just the shidduch-intake interviews that are minimizing and degrading. Girls are raised with reminders that their ability to cook and clean, their body shape (thinner is more appealing, in case that needed to be spelled out), where they went to school, what their last name is, their family’s money (or lack thereof) are what determines their rankings on the “shidduch desirability” scale. And of course, on that scale, a potential match’s age is of primary importance.
If a woman is still (!) single after 22, something is surely wrong with her. If no flaw can be determined, then she is labeled “too picky.” In so many ways, the modern shidduch system within the Orthodox community is ageist, classist, and misogynist.
It dawned on me that our fear hadn’t really been that Netflix would misrepresent the shidduch system, but that it would present it accurately!
The young woman was asking what she felt was a reasonable question — and she’s probably not yet “in shidduchim” (actively seeking to be set up) yet herself. The prejudice she revealed precisely echoed the messaging that the Orthodox community conveys: the older you are, the lower you rank, the less desirable you are, the less likely anyone is to set you up with potential suitors. In this context, her question makes sense: who is Netflix even trying to appeal to in showcasing these, older, less desirable singles?
Might Netflix be doing a service to the Orthodox community, by reminding its members of the core values of the dating process — or what they should be? Where a matchmaker can be a mentor to help those seeking a match to stay focused, to help pinpoint red flags, to help them connect to their inner voice, to not be too quickly swayed by superficial ideas, to be vulnerable, but not be unsafe. Perhaps, surprisingly, Aleeza could be a role model, rather than a mirror in which we won’t like what we see.
To her absolute credit, Cindy took the question from the stage. She looked purple-jumper girl in the eye, and said, “Listen to me very carefully. A woman’s age does not determine her worth. Does. Not. Determine. Her. Worth.”
For his part, Noah took his mic and symbolically dropped it.
* * *
It’s time for us to reevaluate the shidduch process. It’s time to sit in the discomfort and cringe of having our culture laid out publicly. It’s time to rewrite the messaging that the current shidduch system instills in our young singles. Maybe our trepidation needs to shift from concern over how the outside world might perceive us, to how we can make this better within our own communities? And maybe Aleeza with her optimism and clarity, and Cindy with her unapologetic self-acceptance, are the perfect role models needed to make this change.
In fact, Netflix is doing a service to the frum community itself, revisiting the core values of what the dating process could be and should be within Judaism. Shidduchim should be empowering support while navigating the hairy process of trying to meet your bashert. Shidduchim should be healthy guidance to remind singles to stay focused on values, to help pinpoint red flags, to stay connected to their inner voice, to not be too quickly swayed by superficial ideas, to be real and vulnerable, but not be unsafe. To keep God and values in the picture.
Is “Jewish Matchmaking” good for the Jews? It certainly could be.