Mon, Jan 10, 2011 - Page 13 News List

A match made in Jerusalem

The ‘shadchan’ plays a pivotal role in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community bringing unmarried individuals together. But how did an outsider come to perform such an important function?

By Harriet Sherwood  /  The Guardian, London

Ultra-Orthodox Jews take part in prayers at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, in Jerusalem.

Photo: EPA

Heather Sirota is a loquacious Jewish grandmother of 14 living in the heart of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox community. In one hand she holds a filing card with a photograph stapled to it. In the other is her phone. She peers at the card and tells the rabbi on the end of the line: “She’s 20, 1.5m, from Philadelphia. Her parents are separated, not divorced. She’s the fourth child of five — two are married. She’s absolutely lovely — and I don’t often say that.”

Sirota flips the card over and reads out a couple of names and phone numbers: references provided by the young woman for community elders who will attest to her character. The rabbi, acting on behalf of a young man whose details are to be found on a similar card in Sirota’s possession, will call the numbers, ask pertinent questions and then convey his approval — or otherwise. All being well, a meeting between the pair will be arranged and then, Sirota hopes, an engagement.

Sirota, 67, is a shadchan, a traditional Jewish matchmaker. Beneath the vaulted ceilings of her house in Mea Shearim, one of the earliest settlements outside the Old City walls and home to the strictest adherents of the Jewish faith, a wicker basket of filing cards lies on a large cloth-covered dining table. Some are clipped together with laundry pegs: these are couples Sirota has introduced and who are now dating with a view to marriage.

The shadchan performs a pivotal role in ultra-Orthodox Jewish circles where young men and women rarely mix, but marriage at an early age — 17 or 18 — followed by a large brood of children is considered highly desirable.

In this largely insular world, there is, according to Sirota, a spectrum of religious observance, from “black,” the strictest ultra-Orthodox communities, to “colored,” modern Orthodox. At the “black” end, she says, it’s relatively simple for parents to identify suitable potential partners for their children. “It’s a very small community so it’s very easy to find out about people. The parents can do all the checking.”

What are they checking? “Personality, good character traits, how bright or what kind of learner the boy is, whether he’s outgoing or quiet, whether he wants to study Torah [religious texts], or whether he wants to go out to work — which is not usual here — what his interests are, if he has any. Everyone checks. The parents want to know how he relates to his friends, what his brothers do, what kind of family he comes from. It’s a whole investigation.”

Once the checking — by both sets of parents — is complete and satisfactory, financial issues are discussed, sometimes assisted by the rabbi. “The parents will try to work out if they’ve got enough money to buy the couple an apartment, and if so, where. Or they will rent one.” At this stage, the young couple will probably not have met.

Sometimes the parents will involve a shadchan. “You go to the shadchan and say my daughter is now ready to get married,” says Sirota. “And someone else comes and says their son is ready to get married. And the shadchan says, ‘why don’t we put this one together with that one?’ That’s what I do.”

The young people would not necessarily be told what was happening. These are, she concedes, arranged marriages, but once the couple meet they “have free choice to say no. It’s not a forced marriage. They are 100 percent entitled to say I don’t like that person.”

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