Inside The World Of Jewish Matchmaking

Feb 14, 2014
Originally published on February 19, 2014 11:55 am

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

The 1964 production made history: the first musical to surpass 3,000 performances, it went on to win nine Tony awards, including Best Musical and Best Score.

Four Broadway revivals and one successful film adaptation later, the story of Tevye and his daughters remains alive in popular culture.

Based on the book by Yiddish master storyteller Sholem Aleichem, Tevye attempts to preserve his family and Jewish traditions while outside influences threaten to derail all he knows.

Much of the preservation begins with marriage, and a matchmaker is one of the most important and powerful members of the community. Still today, the matchmaker holds a special role.

Aleeza Ben Shalom is a modern-day professional Jewish matchmaker in Philadelphia. She joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss her job.

Interview Highlights: Aleeza Ben Shalom

How she operates as a matchmaker

“For me, everything is viewed through a dating-for-marriage lens, so it’s not just a life coach, ‘let’s help you get your life in order.’ It’s, you know, if you don’t have a job and you need a job, we’re getting one because you’re stabilizing yourself so you’re ready for what’s about to come, if you have plans of being engaged and married. I have those same plans for my clients, so we want to get things in line and keep everybody’s lives stable and smooth.”

On the importance of the matchmaker in Judaism

“Without a matchmaker, really, the Jewish people wouldn’t be here. Any part of the world where people want and believe in their people and want to see them live on, the only way to do that is by being matched up and continuing to bring more people into the world and to continue on with your beliefs.”

“I would say like in ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ you know, like, ‘Tradition!’ You know, like, we want to continue with our traditions. And a matchmaker doesn’t have to be somebody professional. It can be a friend or a relative or a neighbor.”

On getting paid for her services

“Traditionally, once a match is made, a matchmaker is paid, you know, either upon engagement or marriage, depending on what the customs are, and the fees range anywhere from a thousand to several thousand dollars.”

“Matchmakers were always paid, and it’s actually something that’s in the Torah, which is the Jewish Bible, that tells us we are obligated to pay our matchmaker, whether they’re professional or not professional, because it is supposed to bring you blessings in your relationship.”

“There’s no better bargain than a really good spouse. It’ll save you thousands of dollars in a divorce.”

Other ways Jewish singles often meet

“I know especially in our community, matches are often made at the Shabbat table. Shabbat is the Jewish Sabbath. Right now, there is an awesome organization called Shabbat.com, and people can go onto the website, click to have a Shabbat meal with any family, in any part of the world, and you might just end up meeting your soul mate at that table.”

“The Jewish tradition has delegated it to others, whether it’s somebody professional or not. When you’re talking about a dating website, SawYouAtSinai is for more religious Jews, and they don’t search for themselves. Matchmakers only search for them. But something like JDate is a search engine like any other matchmaking website, and a person can go on themselves. So really, a person is doing the matchmaking themselves. I seem to think what’s missing is the mentoring piece.”

Guest

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ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

It's been 50 years since "Fiddler on the Roof" debuted on Broadway, something we were well aware of. My brother John played one of the sons - so exciting. But I digress. "Fiddler" was based on the book by the Yiddish master storyteller Sholem Aleichem. It tells the story of Tevye, trying to preserve Jewish traditions like marriage, and a matchmaker.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MATCHMAKER")

YOUNG: Well, we thought on this Valentine's Day, why not talk to a modern day matchmaker? Aleeza Ben Shalom actually calls herself a marriage-minded mentor. She's based in Philadelphia. Her book is "Get Real, Get Married: Get Over Your Hurdles and Under the Chuppah." That's the traditional Jewish canopy used for weddings. So, Aleeza, you say there are three levels of matchmaking. What are they?

ALEEZA BEN SHALOM: There's a matchmaker in fact, in act, and intact. So you've got the matchmaker that sticks you together just like we're all used to. But there's also the matchmaker in act, the one that helps us when, you know, you're not so sure about what to do, on what direction to go in. It's sort of the person that walks the walk and talks the talk with you. And then there's the matchmaker intact that holds things intact when you have that inevitable downswing in a relationship because all relationships go up and down. So there's really those three pieces. So, yes, I am a matchmaker and I'm also a marriage-minded mentor.

YOUNG: Well, so interesting. So you're the person that we traditionally think of who says, you and you, you don't know each other, but I think you'd be good together. But the rest of it sounds like kind of a life coach.

SHALOM: For me, everything is viewed through a dating-for-marriage lens, so it's not just a life coach, let's help you get your life in order. It's, you know, if you don't have a job and you need a job, we're getting one because you're stabilizing yourself so you're ready for what's about to come and if you have plans of being engaged and married. I have those same plans for my clients, so we want to get things in line and keep everybody's lives stable and smooth.

YOUNG: Why is this such a pivotal person in the Jewish faith? I mean, there are people who make matches, obviously, in other faiths. But why is it so pivotal to the Jewish faith?

SHALOM: Without a matchmaker, really, the Jewish people wouldn't be here. Any part of the world where people want and believe in their people and want to see them live on, the only way to do that is by being matched up and continuing to bring more people into the world and to continue on with your beliefs.

YOUNG: Well, I mean, I'm sure people know a lot of Jewish people who weren't put together by matchmakers, but you're speaking to a sense that it's a smaller faith in numbers. It's one that's been persecuted against. There is sort of an - almost an obligation to keep the faith going.

SHALOM: I would say like in "Fiddler on the Roof," you know, like, "Tradition," you know, like, we want to continue with our traditions. And a matchmaker doesn't have to be somebody professional. It can be a friend or a relative or a neighbor. I know, especially in our community, matches are often made the Shabbat table. Shabbat is the Jewish Sabbath. Right now, there is an awesome organization called Shabbat.com, and people can go on to the website, click to have a Shabbat meal with any family in any part of the world, and you might just end up meeting your soul mate at that table.

YOUNG: Well, and we also know that the very religious can't just go out and date like everyone else. They have to meet in public. Tell us more about the needs there.

SHALOM: So on the very religious side, the matches are set up, meaning, you know, a client will call me. We'll go back and forth to see whether both parties are interested once I get the official go-ahead from both parties. Sometimes parents are involved. It depends on where - what community somebody is from. And then once you get the go-ahead, we set up the date, and the couple would meet in a public area and go out for their first date.

YOUNG: Well, and this is all very professional on your part. As you said, anybody can be a matchmaker, but this is a profession for you. Do you mind my asking how much would you charge someone to find them a match?

SHALOM: Traditionally, once a match is made, a matchmaker is paid, you know, either upon engagement or marriage, depending on what the customs are, and the fees range anywhere from a thousand to several thousand dollars.

YOUNG: It might seem like a lot of money, but if you've found somebody the love of their life, it's - that's priceless.

SHALOM: Absolutely. There's no better bargain than a really good spouse. It'll save you thousands of dollars in a divorce.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: Do some of them - I mean, how often do people not like each other?

SHALOM: The main goal that I have is to get to know somebody really well to make sure that I really think that there goals and their values are in line so that when they meet, we have a much higher chance of success.

YOUNG: That's Aleeza Ben Shalom, a professional Jewish matchmaker based in Philadelphia, also the author of "Get Real, Get Married: Get Over Your Hurdles and Under the Chuppah." You're listening to HERE AND NOW.

So, Aleeza, it sounds like you were doing good work. But do you ever feel guilty about taking money for it? Making a match is supposed to be a mitzvah, you know, a good deed. I don't know. Have matchmakers always been paid, even during Tevye's time?

SHALOM: First of all, yes. Matchmakers were always paid, and it's actually something that's in the Torah, which is the Jewish Bible, that tells us we are obligated to pay our matchmaker, whether they're professional or not professional, because it is supposed to bring you blessings in your relationship.

YOUNG: You mentioned the website. There's Met You at Sinai. That's where you work. There's JDate. But there's also been some criticism of these online sites. Shmuley Boteach was called America's rabbi by Newsweek. He was once matchmaker in chief for JDate. He thinks there's a problem with the matchmaking system. He doesn't believe in delegating life's most important responsibilities to others. Your thoughts?

SHALOM: The Jewish tradition has delegated it to others, whether it's somebody professional or not. When you're talking about a dating website, SawYouAtSinai is for more religious Jews, and they don't search for themselves. Matchmakers only search for them. But something like JDate is a search engine like any other matchmaking website, and a person can go on themselves. So really, a person is doing the matchmaking themselves. I seem to think what's missing is the mentoring piece.

YOUNG: Well, and you say that these things are necessary because of what you see as a single's crisis in the Jewish community and that you work with all of these older singles who just are not getting married. And I was stunned to see that by old, you mean 28.

(LAUGHTER)

SHALOM: So what's very interesting is in more religious circles, at age 19 or 20, men and women are starting to date and to get married within a very short time period. So, yes, an older single - if somebody has been dating seriously for marriage for the last eight years and they're 28, it has been a long time because dating in the Jewish world is not just for fun. It's something that leads to marriage and that has purpose.

YOUNG: Which is having children and carrying on the faith. Well, it's Valentine's Day. What's your advice for single listeners out there?

SHALOM: So, you know, it's ironic that the symbol for Valentine's Day is a heart. To successfully date for marriage, the heart needs to follow the head. It doesn't mean you shouldn't have fun, but make sure that your values are in line and make sure that the person that you're with is somebody that you enjoy being with not only for the moment but for a lifetime.

YOUNG: Aleeza Ben Shalom, her matchmaking business is called Marriage-Minded Mentor, based in Philadelphia. She's also the author of the book "Get Real, Get Married: Get Over Your Hurdles and Under the Chuppah." Again, the marriage canopy. Aleeza, thank you.

SHALOM: Thank you so much, Robin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.