Match points

An Orthodox psychologist decries the intimate queries common to today's shidduch process.

Shidduch 88 224 (photo credit: )
Shidduch 88 224
(photo credit: )
The Shidduch Crisis Dr. Michael J. Salamon Urim 141 pages; $19.50 A poor girl without a dowry can't be particular. If you want hair, marry a monkey. Even a poor girl has to look at her husband sometimes. A husband is not to look at, a husband is to get. Yente the Matchmaker from Fiddler on the Roof So, how does one "get" a husband, or a wife, for that matter? According to Dr. Michael J. Salamon, founder and director of the Adult Developmental Center, Inc., a comprehensive psychological consulting practice in Hewlett, New York, and author of the recently published The Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures, it is no longer so easy and seems to be getting more difficult with each passing day. In fact, he and others contend, the whole situation has reached a kind of crisis. Getting a spouse, a la Yente, is not the same as finding a spouse. The latter implies an informal process whereby unmarried individuals initially meet and interact in some neutral social setting, such as at school or the workplace, and on their own terms and at their own pace develop a romantic relationship that leads to marriage. In contrast, the term shidduch, when not referring to a prearranged, done-deal marriage, is used in Orthodox Jewish circles to refer to a careful matching of an eligible female and male whose generally short dating experience is for the specific purpose of matrimony. Once upon a time, even among the most traditional families, a matched couple would meet once, twice, thrice on the average, by which time they would decide whether or not they were compatible. Perhaps, though the feeling was never openly expressed, they even felt physically attracted to each other. But the decision whether to meet next under the huppa, or alternatively just call it quits, was based on some sense of whether they could successfully, perhaps even happily, remain together the rest of their lives in the course of raising a family. As befits his biography, Salamon writes from an American Jewish, rather than Israeli perspective. And not just any American Jewish perspective, but one that is associated with the "yeshivish" or "working haredi" communities of the greater New York area. Consequently, some of the scenarios he describes may seem strange to Israeli readers. They may even sound foreign to American Jews who live outside this community and are not familiar with its traditions. A glossary of relevant Hebrew, as well as some Yiddish, terms is provided at the back of the book as an aid to readers unfamiliar with this semi-segregated culture. As a member of these circles, Salamon has no hesitation in injecting such phrases as "frum community" and "kippa seruga." But Salamon the psychologist also speaks fluently of anxiety, compulsivity and destructive standards, and devotes an entire chapter to the psychological principles related to "first impression" decision-making and the role of cognitive dissonance, thus demonstrating his corresponding academic credentials. What will undoubtedly fascinate readers are the many real-life anecdotes the author provides, some from his own experiences as a family counselor. One of these has been making the rounds via e-mail lists, as well as by word of mouth, and is by now a relative classic. It concerns what Salamon refers to as the "foolish and superficial" question regarding the color of the Shabbat tablecloth (it better not be anything other than white) used by the prospective spouse's mother. In general, what he decries are the myriad personal, even intimate, queries common to today's Orthodox matchmaking process that he considers not only irrelevant, but "often merely destructive and represent lashon hara [gossip]." The system, in a nutshell, has been reduced to running down a list of largely facile and immaterial criteria, and it isn't working like it used to. How does Salamon know this, and why does he call the situation a crisis? Among the social consequences he cites are "a shortage of men... increasing rates of divorce, domestic violence, eating disorders, greater use of medication and ultimately, leaving the fold entirely" (which, from his perspective, could mean leaving Orthodox Judaism for another stream of Judaism, embracing a completely secular lifestyle or conversion to another religion). To this we add the deferment of marriage to a later age with the concomitant decrease in fecundity. Chapter 1 is entitled "Have We Lost Our Common Sense?" In other words, how have we come to this? Insofar as what has brought this situation about, Salamon says that extremism is at fault. "We have allowed ourselves to be led - even misled - by a small group of individuals who, by employing their own anxiety and compulsivity now have the power to dictate what have become destructive standards." This is the analysis of Salamon the psychologist. Salamon the Orthodox Jew asks what Jewish authority is responsible for allowing such self-defeating, destructive standards to define the shidduch process. His answer is "the drive for more of a 'right wing' approach to life" in an effort to "make us more spiritual and religious" and to adopt a more correct hashkafa (religious life perspective). This hashkafa is reflected in a simplistic list of questions whose contents have no bearing upon finding one's life partner. It is an example of misdirected piety. Ironically, Internet technology has only strengthened the "piety checklist" approach to matchmaking. On-line dating has become a multimillion dollar enterprise, even within the Orthodox Jewish community. Salamon provides a list of Internet dating sites that cater specifically to Jewish singles, including those intended for only Orthodox patrons. But "even in those sites that try to focus on personality, there is perhaps only one that employs a valid scientific method in order to assess the respondent's personality." The book's final two chapters offer readers a more sophisticated and presumably healthier approach to dating and matrimony. "One of the most important things that daters can do for themselves is to throw away their shidduch list." The only list Salamon recommends is a list of who you are yourself. He recommends making this list short on superficial traits and long on personality. His book is a call for serious reassessment and reform. "There is clearly," says Salamon, "a vested interest in continuing these varied forms of shidduch dating despite their difficulties." Still, his case would have been more complete, and more interesting, had he offered his own analysis of this vested interest, but this might have gotten him in trouble in some precincts. Is there just money behind it, or is it primarily ideological, or both? The difficulties attending a good shidduch are an ancient subject. The story is told in the Mishna that a wealthy Roman woman once asked Rabbi Yosi ben Halafta: "How has your God been occupying his time since He finished the creation of the world?" "He has been busy pairing couples," answered Rabbi Yosi. The woman was amazed. "Is that His trade? Even I can do that job. As many manservants and maidservants as I have, I am able to match." "Perhaps it is a simple matter in your eyes," replied Rabbi Yosi. "For God, it is as intricate as the splitting of the Reed Sea."