By Andrew Adler
If Netflix is to be believed, matchmaking is a conspicuously thriving industry. 2020 brought us “Indian Matchmaking,” in which Sima Taparia – a Mumbai-based “marriage consultant” — applied her human-relations expertise to clients from as nearby as her home city and as distant as the selectively lovelorn town of Morris Plains, N.J. So far, this series has provided sufficient romantic entanglements, on at least two continents, to occupy three eight-episode seasons.
That reality-TV show’s popularity birthed a parallel universe spin-off: “Jewish Matchmaking,” centering on Aleeza Ben Shalom, a shadchan (marriage broker) from Tel Aviv who, in contemporary parlance, is referred to as a “dating coach.”
So, what makes for a successful matchmaker? Is there some secret sauce that makes a woman (this is an overwhelmingly female enterprise) know who’s right for whom? And what if you’re a Jewish Louisvillian seeking a partner, you’ve swiped left too many times on JDate and similar OLD (online dating) sites, and now you’re sitting at home – alone – wondering if you’ll ever crack the elusive Compatibility Code.
Fortunately, there are experienced local intermediaries who can help. But don’t expect instant gratification. Patience is necessary – except when it isn’t. All it may require is an observant third party able to recognize a potential spark. Because sometimes, Fate/Karma/The Universe speaks in a spontaneous and unrehearsed utterance.
“Whenever it happens, it happens,” says Deborah Goldberg, a lifelong Louisvillian steeped in the methodology of romantic introduction. “You see two people on the same wavelength, and you go for it – you put them together. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
A skilled matchmaker keeps her romantic antennae properly tuned. “It’s always in the back of your mind,” says Goldie Litvin, who’s been married to Chabad of Louisville Rabbi Avrohom Litvin for more than 40 years. “You want people to be as happy as you are. So if you think something will work, you’re always going to mention it.”
The oddest circumstances can bring the happiest results. Dara Cohen – who directs senior adult activities at the Trager Family JCC – recalls how her future mother-in-law employed the power of electronic media to boost her thirtysomething son Michael’s odds of finding a suitable partner.
“She wanted to get him married off,” Cohen says. “One of the TV stations had a contest: ‘Please write in and tell us why your son is so great, and we’ll match him with a woman.’ She was so excited that she wrote a poem about Michael, sent it in to the station – and they picked him! They got his hair cut, got him new clothes, had him styled and ready to go on the date. He went out with the girl, and it was a disaster – they had nothing in common.”
Cohen ended up meeting spouse-to-be a few years later after moving to from Boston to Louisville, where her mother was living. “Michael and I met at Keneseth Israel, where I was taking a class to be a masgiach (a kosher kitchen supervisor), and his best friend, Jack, was in the class. I got my courage up one day and said to Jack, ‘I’d like to meet somebody nice. Do you know anybody?’ And he said, ‘I know just the guy.’ We met in January, got engaged in July and got married in November” — 20 years ago.
Maternal energy is not to be denied.
“My daughter in Denver told me a funny story recently,” Goldberg recalled, relating how a business acquaintance asked her if she was dating anyone. “She said, ‘no, not really,’” — and without missing a beat, the acquaintance added, ‘because I have a grandson, and he’s going here for Rosh Hashanah, so what are you doing for yontif?’And I said to my daughter: ‘You know all Jewish moms have an underground intercom system to tell everybody what’s going on.’”
Livin’s reality is at once comfortably familiar and radically different. “Dating is not for like it is in the secular world, where dating is just like, ‘Let’s go to a movie.’ It’s usually for a purpose. Which is not to say that there that you only discuss very important, deep philosophical things. You’re allowed to have fun.
“In the Orthodox world there are certain denominations where the parents do all the research and do most of the going out. Then it’s just a formality that the boy and the girl meet. We don’t work that way. We actually go out and get to know each other before we have any Yea or Nay type of things” from the parents. “I was very lucky: I went out with one guy, and it was all over. And it’s been downhill ever since.”
The Litvins met after the young Avrohom – who ate Shabbat meals regularly at a friend of Goldie’s father – was introduced to the woman who’d soon become his wife.
Arriving in Louisville in 1983, they established a Chabad House on Landor Ave that would grow inro one of Louisville’s principal Jewish communities. Along the way they had nine children, six of whom eventually returned to Kentucky as adults. Mom was a matrimonial sounding board – vetting prospective sons and daughters-in-law with her husband whenever a candidate visited their home.
As her children were growing up, the question of who they’d one day marry was seldom forgotten.
“I think it’s always in the back of your mind,” Goldie Litvin says. You want people to be as happy as you were. So, if you feel something is good – if you think something will work – you’re going to mention it.’
Because Louisville’s Orthodox Jewish community is small, and the lack of a suitable Jewish high school means children typically go away for yeshiva studies, prospective husbands and wives tend to come from distant cities. But in the matchmaking realm, this can become an advantage in making connections.
“My sister does this,” Goldie Litvin says. “She lives in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, and she has tons of people that come to her house to stay over. She’s an empty nester, so she has bedrooms that are available. And bedrooms are at a premium in Brooklyn. People come from all over the world, and she meets people her children would bring home. She’s made a couple of matches just from people who’ve come to her house.”
Go-betweens are also valuable as neutral diplomats.
“Say I’ve gone out maybe twice or three times with somebody,” Goldie Litvin says. “The first one was good. The second one was good.” But by the third one, they’re like, ‘he or she is really nice, but I just don’t see it going further.’ We do this through an intermediary, so they don’t have to say that to each other. There’s no ‘Dear John’ letter.”
There’s an additional hallmark of Orthodox pre-matrimonial practice: Almost everyone gets genetic testing, screened anonymously for diseases like Tay-Sachs that disproportionally affect Jews of Eastern European extraction. “You get both the boy’s number and the girl’s number,” Goldie Litvin explains, “then you call (the testing service) and you say, ‘Are they compatible?’”
Meanwhile, what does she think of how Netflix’s Aleeza Ben Shalom navigates the matchmaking waters?
“I thought she was a very good ambassador for Judaism,” Goldie Litvin says. “I don’t think she said anything negative. I do find it very interesting that in eight episodes she did not make one (successful) match. I thought, ‘Hello, not even one from any of them? Not from the tattooed lady on the motorcycle to the really religious girl in Flatbush? What’s going on?’ That sounds a little weird.
“I’ve never had to do that,” she says in a tone suggesting both triumph and relief. “I have, thank God, seven married children.”