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A House of Matches

May 9, 2009 | by Ruchama Feuerman

In Jerusalem you can feel the very trees conspiring to marry off its inhabitants.

When I was 17, I went to Israel on a one way ticket, with the idea of working, studying Torah, and eventually marrying and settling there. I lived for ten years in Jerusalem, two of which were spent in the home of a prominent matchmaker. Truth be told, I couldn't walk more than ten feet in Israel without bumping into matchmakers. Out of the blue, anyone could approach you -- bus drivers, postal clerks, deans of universities. You didn't even have to know them. In Jerusalem you can feel the very trees conspiring to marry off its inhabitants. It is simultaneously the most wonderful and most oppressive feeling.

This was in the 80s, when Israel was experiencing a relatively idyllic time. Nonetheless, I acutely felt Israel's boundary problems. Not the ones happening on the border of Lebanon, the Golan Heights, or the Sinai Desert, but the boundary problems taking place at the laundromat, or at the makolet grocery store, or at people's homes on Shabbat -- the unrelenting barrage of pointed questions, advice and tips directed at me because of my single status.

And always that question: "Why aren't you married yet?" My favorite reply: "Because the desirable is unobtainable and the obtainable is undesirable." Often I wanted to bop these boundary-less people on the head. And yet part of me enjoyed the attention. I felt special, as though my getting married rated up there, with news of national importance.

After years of dorm and roommate life, I decided to live in a family's home. Perhaps experiencing a warm Jewish family would highlight for me what I was missing and hasten me to the huppah. That the mother was a matchmaker helped. Surely something would rub off on me. The matchmaker, who I'll call Yael, struck a deal. For three hours in the morning I'd help out with her twins. In exchange she'd give me the bottom floor in her beautiful villa, rent-free, in the Ramat Eshkol neighborhood.

As I had expected, my stay at Yael's generated numerous shidduchs -- blind dates. Her 3 1/2 year old son, a precocious freckled red head, would stand at the top of my stairs and call out: "Where are you going tonight? A shidduch or shiur (Torah class)?" The next day he wanted to know how it went, along with his mother. Still, the real action was going on in Yael's living room.

Going to a matchmaker didn't signify loser-status. It mostly meant the person wanted to get the show on the road.

I'd come home from my editing job, and on the way downstairs I'd get a glimpse of someone sitting on Yael's leather sofa -- a matchmaking interview in progress. Everybody came through her living room: the young, the old, the never married, the many times married, the downright ugly to the stunning, men missing parts of their bodies from the wars, new immigrants, seventh generation Israelis, and visitors passing through from other countries, Hassidic, devoutly secular, and everything in between, though more tilted toward Anglo-Saxon traditional and Yeshiva types. People might feel a little awkward at first, but no shame. Going to a matchmaker didn't signify loser-status. It mostly meant the person wanted to get the show on the road. Time was a wasting.

Yael presided over this court of spouse seekers with good-humored matriarchal authority. She swept in and out of the living room, her twins squabbling and trailing Bamba, Bisli and other bags of Israeli junk food behind her. She was tall, red-haired, large-nosed and beautiful. She tried to find out what kind of mate people wanted but they all seemed to be describing the same warm, funny, thin, kind, intelligent, attractive person. So instead she'd ask: "What aren't you looking for? What traits can you not live with in a spouse?" and put that way, they were able to conjure up the un-ideal mate with amazing clarity and detail. She recorded everything in her matchmaking notebook. I used to wonder if I took up space in that notebook, too.

For Yael matchmaking wasn't simply a matter of hooking up this one with that one. She actually made the matches happen. She critiqued shy Talmudic scholars -- told them to trim their beards, spruce up their suits, buy new glasses. They took notes and did what she said. She decked out uptight women in outfits they never would've picked on their own.

After the first date, the 'couple' would report back to Yael with their decision: to continue or not to continue. Of course, if a matchmaker reported word for word what the other party had said ("He's kind of 'eh' and his eating habits are revolting but I'm willing to give it a second try"), then no one ever would've made it to a second date. Part of Yael's art was knowing what to say, what to omit, and when to exaggerate.

If she thought it would help, she'd tell the girl, "He spent the whole night thinking about you!" She once tried this tactic on me. Corny and obvious as it was, it really worked. She did whatever it took to make the match. And she never asked for payment, as some matchmakers did -- in those days a thousand dollars from each party, if a marriage resulted. She only asked that engaged couples make a donation to a fertility research unit at her favorite hospital.

She and her husband (who often got in on the act) used data bases and computers before anyone else even thought of it. Sometimes I'd find them sitting on their living room couch, drinking tea, with an air of contentment. "Just think," they'd say, toasting each other. "Right now, at this very moment, sixteen men and women are out on a date somewhere in Jerusalem." Her husband, ever ambitious, would smack his palm into his fist: "When I reach a hundred dates, then I'll know we're really getting somewhere."

A date was a chance to make a marriage happen, a chance to reverse Hitler's statistics.

They were obsessed. A date wasn't merely a romantic opportunity, but a chance to make a marriage happen, a chance to reverse Hitler's statistics. Each couple that came together was cause for national celebration.

Often Yael had me speak briefly with the interviewee just to get a second opinion. Apparently, I had a good eye for picking out quacks and flakes. If a matchmaker set you up with an unstable guy, it undermined her credibility. One man, a handsome, square-jawed veterinarian, rated high in her eyes, but then as his stay passed the half hour mark, (the point at which those trying to fake normality find it harder and harder to dissemble) he mentioned to me that he recited special blessings -- mishabeyrachs -- in shul on behalf of all his ailing animal clients. I stared at him. Then I nodded politely. "That's nice."

Later, Yael came up to me, her eyes alight with a match. "He's a catch, Ruchama! Go out with him!"

I shook my head and said, "Not for me," but she pushed and persisted until I said, exasperated, "Yael, he makes mishabeyrachs for hamsters and cats."

"Oh!" she said, startled and a little crestfallen. I saw her make a mark somewhere in her dark blue notebook. "Never mind, then."

What I most admired about Yael was that she had no qualms about throwing together the most unlikely people. The Yemenite 20-year-old masseuse with the aging economics professor? Sure. The crude-sounding bus driver with the ethereal high school Bible teacher? Why not. Somehow she saw the link between two people that no one else could see. Or perhaps, in her mind, almost everything boiled down to chemistry. "What," I asked, "do a Czechoslovakian police woman and a Russian Breslov Hassid have in common?" And yet they too got married after the woman proposed by pointing a gun at him. (A new twist on the shotgun marriage, I suppose). I actually met that couple. Last I heard they're going strong, on their sixth kid.

Me -- I thought everything had to be just right if I ever approached friends with a shidduch suggestion -- educational levels should correspond, emotional temperaments should complement each other, goals, values and financial expectations should align, but how deflating it was when all points finally tallied, only to be grumpily told by both parties: 'No attraction.' Yael went for chemistry first and the matches kept coming. One year yielded 20 engaged couples. "And every marriage better than my own," she liked to brag. I believe it was her sheer gutsiness -- and total lack of fear if her efforts flopped -- that made her successful.

And something else. The Hebrew word for matchmaker is 'shadchan.' In modern Hebrew it also means 'a stapler,' which is a very apt description of a matchmaker in action. A stapler brings together separate entities, joining two things by applying moderate pressure. She and her husband knew how to put on the pressure, but there was an art to knowing when to do it and for which age group. If a young person couldn't make up his or her mind, they didn't push much. Could be it just wasn't the right match. But if an older person went back and forth, obsessing, equivocating on the pros and cons of a prospective mate, that signified something else: that the match had much to recommend it, that the older single was probably stuck, and that he or she was in need of a little 'encouragement.'

I myself was a thorn at Yael's side. I had read too many self-help books which only made me more exacting and critical of the qualities my dates lacked. I analyzed their ordinal positions (first born sons were a thing to be avoided), their handwriting, (I took a course in graphology, and how innocently I asked for samples of their writing) their relationships to their mothers, and of course, their hashkafa -- religious philosophical outlook. Here in particular I was hard to please. I wanted a man with a Hassidic yearning and a modern sensibility. I wanted someone capable of irony and totally committed to halacha, Jewish law. No one passed muster. I was exhausting the poor matchmaker (not to mention myself), and besides, I was terrible PR if she couldn't even find a match for someone living on her own premises.

She'd say to me, "The problem with you is you talk too much. You're too intense."

"Guys tell me they like that," I said defensively.

She gave me one of her tart matchmaking looks. "Up to a point."

I wondered what she knew that I didn't. For a month after I did a lot of nodding and smiling on dates. A young man I was seeing at the time thought I'd had a lobotomy. Sadly, he seemed to prefer me lobotomized, and shortly after we mutually dumped each other. That's when I realized Yael's limitations as a matchmaker. She wanted me and others to be married at almost any cost.

She saw me as a case? I would prove her wrong. I would compete with her in her own game, but on a grander scale. I organized a conference of matchmakers to take place in Yael's living room specifically for the age group 35 and above. Singles were to be described, given a number but remain nameless, for the sake of their dignity. I would not be assigned a number (I was too young, still in my twenties) or even be allowed to attend (no singles invited) which didn't seem fair because I'd organized the conference, but Yael reported to me afterward. About 15 matchmakers came with pens and notepads, two of them big, burly Hassids. They all sat around her dining room table.

"How did you keep all the numbers and descriptions distinct in your mind," I wanted to know.

"A matchmaker would call out, 'Lives with her elderly father, has a Masters in Special Education, works at a bank, is 47, and wants an eclectic, vegetarian Talmudic scholar' and all the matchmakers would hold their heads and sigh, 'Oy, what's going to be with so and so.' They knew her, name or not." Yael shook her head. "They knew them all, every sad case." And so the evening went, one diehard single after the other, basically all the failures the matchmakers had accumulated over the years, the men and women who couldn't -- wouldn't be mated. Yael had never seen a more depressed bunch of matchmakers, who obviously felt personally responsible. Later I heard a number of dates resulted from that conference, but not a single match. I felt pretty depressed myself.

By now I'd seriously caught the matchmaking bug and was determined to make a match of my own, even while trying to get myself married. Once I was on the phone with a woman, working out the details of when I was going to move into her apartment - in short, a future roommate. Just then a man I'd dated long ago happened to call. Having them both on line at once, it struck me how they both spoke with a Californian easygoing-ness, and yet they were both judgmental in exactly the same way. Here was a match! I clicked back and forth between the phone lines: No, they told me. They'd dated years ago. But they seemed so right for each other and I convinced them to give it another try. They did and got married. It would've made a great ad for Call-Waiting, I thought at the time, which had only recently come out. The only downside was when her husband moved into the apartment, I had to move out.

The match I'm most proud of, though, is one for which I can't claim total responsibility. I was a counselor at a Jewish family retreat which drew many singles, too. At the end of the weekend the director made an announcement: "If there's anyone here you'd like to meet go up to one of the staff people and ask them to introduce you."

Immediately a tall, bony man by the name of Mutti started making his way toward me. A friend had pointed out Mutti as a worthy guy and said he was interested in going out with me, but I nixed him as being too straight and Clark-Kentish. However, subsequent conversations had revealed a more interesting side to him. When I saw Mutti making his way to me, I decided: This time if he asks me out, I'll say yes.

Mutti with a shy duck of his head said, "Could you introduce me to Rina over there?"

I froze. Then I smiled and said, "Sure."

Now I stood at Rina's table. Rina was talking with a friend and eating fruit salad. "I said, "Mutti over there" I jerked a thumb backwards "wants to go out with you."

She looked doubtfully at lanky Mutti standing near a buffet table of pita bread and hummus. "Well, I don't know…" she began. "He's kinda-"

I said, "Make up your mind fast girl, because if you're not going out with him, I am."

She blurted, half rising from her seat, "I want to go out!"

When they got engaged, they both called to thank me, crediting me with being the matchmaker. They invited me to the wedding, one of the most lavish I'd ever seen, and I danced like a crazy woman. I don't know if Yael would've nodded approvingly at my hand in the match or thrown her arms up in disgust at another opportunity I'd squandered. In fact, I didn't dare tell her the story until I was safely and happily ensconced in a marriage of my own. She slapped my back and beamed, thrilled at my matchmaking gall.

This article originally appeared in the January issue of the World Jewish Digest ( and is reprinted with permission.

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