Just inside the ornate glass doors stands a cluster of modestly dressed young women, not too overtly scanning the crowd.
The objects of their attentions are sitting restlessly in the lobby, periodically getting up to pace the floor. Each side is looking for the prearranged clue — a gold necklace, a forest green tie — that’ll identify their partner.
One by one pairs form. Each man leads a woman to a corner where they’ll spend the next hour, maybe two. Both hope that the person sitting across from them just might be the one.
It’s the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Central Jerusalem and these young men and women are engaged in “shidduch dating,” a system of matchmaking used by religious Jews, from the liberal Modern Orthodox to the ultra-Orthodox Haredim.
Tourists sharing the lobby stare openly at the daters. There’s something about the shidduch date process — the constrained romance, perhaps — that piques curiosity, even envy.
A friend of mine recently wondered why she couldn’t just “outsource her love life to a shadchan” — a Jewish matchmaker. Even though they’d been best friends for over a year, my yoga teacher’s first date with her now-husband was a “shidduch-style” meeting at the King David Hotel just down the road. While they weren’t fully part of the culture, they tapped into a process that evidently works for many.
The ultra-organized world of shidduch dating follows a strict set of practices to guide young people from the time they are deemed of age all the way through to the chuppah, the altar, Jerusalem matchmaker Sarah Dena Katz explained. That could be 18 for women and early 20s for men, although the ages vary according to custom and religiosity.
Additionally, especially in Haredi communities, parents take the lead in finding acceptable candidates for their children. They compose shidduch resumes and, in a manner vaguely reminiscent of college honors societies, compile lists of references to be contacted for further research by a prospective date’s parents.
Kippa or bald spot?
Jenna Bazelon, 26, is the founder of FrumGirlProblems, a private Facebook group with over 9,500 members, all women. Sporting the tagline, “Is that a kippa? Oh, no… just a bald spot,” the group spun from Bazelon’s desire to enjoy the process of shidduch dating by finding the humor in it with like-minded young women.
She recalled that one time, a potential date called her directly without any pre-vetting or involvement of an intermediary. Confused, Bazelon asked if he was calling her as a reference for someone else. “No,” he said, “for you. I was just looking through a stack of resumes and I saw yours. It looked interesting and I thought I would give you a call.”
Naturally, he did not get a date. Like the Passover Seder, there’s an order to things, and it’s best to stick to it for positive results.
For many, the first date is also the first interaction with a member of the opposite sex outside of their family
Once the resumes have been read, the references have been called, and both parties and parents have agreed to the match, a time and location are set and the preparation can begin. For many, the first date is also the first interaction with a member of the opposite sex outside of their family. The shadchan preps the novices on the intricacies of having a conversation, ordering off a menu, and tipping.
People who have been through the process tend to focus on the experience of the female — conventions of modesty make talking with male dates a challenge. The women who spoke of their experiences also preferred to be identified by their first names only.
One woman, Esti, went on over 50 shidduch dates before finding her now-husband. Before every date, she said, she would go for a run, then reapply deodorant and show up armed with a healthy flush.
Tali, now engaged, first took up dating as an extracurricular activity, maintaining multiple leads at any given moment. “Like you would schedule yoga or hanging out with friends after work, I scheduled dates,” she said.
Prepared daters come with questions in mind. Tali used the popular New York Times’ article 36 Questions That Lead to Love as a base. Katz, the Jerusalem matchmaker, recommended preparing three “pocket questions” for emergency lulls in the conversation.
What to wear?
But the real question is what to wear to the hotel lobby. Dark, muted tones are popular among the girls, often paired with a flash of color in the necklace or scarf. Others — like Tali, who kept a special “shidduch date dress” — opt for color to show a bit more personality. Some women prefer to outsource hair, makeup and nails to a professional. Men tend to wear dark suits.
Why a hotel lobby? Katz said it’s formal and clean, public enough that one is always around other people — as the modesty rules prescribe — yet private enough to hear each other. Couples can also get a drink and take their time without any pressure to order food.
Daters in Jerusalem typically start simple and build up their repertoire of hotels as the relationship progresses; the Prima Kings, Leonardo or King Solomon are considered respectable-yet-modest choices for a first date. If things go well, perhaps the Inbal will come next. When things get serious, the nascent couple will move on to the Waldorf or King David, where the patio is really nice during the summer.
From there — depending, of course, on the couples and their customs — they venture outside the lobby, maybe in a shared activity. In the Haredi community, food might not come into the equation until an engagement is around the corner. Admittedly, that sometimes can be within weeks of the first date; there’s no exact formula.
Then there are those who prefer to stay away from hotel lobbies.
“The hotel makes me feel a part of what every frum [religious] girl does,” remarked Shira, now married. Amanda also didn’t want to be “that girl” dating in the hotel lobby. These women tend to meet in popular Jerusalem cafes, where food will be on the table earlier in the relationship.
But before entertaining the prospect of a shared meal, women have to locate their date.
This can prove rather difficult, as daters typically show up without a phone number or picture for reference, and have to pick their guy out of a sea of similarly dressed prospects. Katz urges her male clients to distinguish themselves by the color of their tie — and to make it something other than light blue — which is one of the only ways for the woman to discern them in the crowd.
Jihad, a supervisor at the Prima Kings, has been observing the scene as a hotel worker for over 40 years. “[The daters] circle the hotel lobby, looking excited and nervous, straightening their ties while trying to find their date,” he said, “and I’ll tell them to sit down and relax.”
Upon finding one another and after settling on couches a careful distance apart, they order drinks. Alcohol is off the table, and Jihad said the most popular orders are water, grapefruit or orange juice, and, less frequently, coffee or tea.
A woman who orders a bottled water unnerves the man, said Katz. “What’s worse for the guy is if the girl then doesn’t drink the water.”
If she orders something interesting, Katz added, it shows she isn’t just a “plain Jane.” Esti, for example, always went for the most festive drink on the menu, “as a reward,” she said, for going on the date.
The quick turnaround time of shidduch dating makes every detail fair game for scrutiny. Did the man bring his black hat? Did he wear it during the date? If not, he’s going to need a chair or table to place it on. So why did he bring it at all? Did he bring a Jewish study book along to busy himself before the date arrives (that’s the bulkier religious equivalent of scrolling through Twitter while waiting)? Some women, said Katz, are put off when the male brings a book along — sometimes in a grocery bag — while others are impressed by his devotion to Torah study.
Once the two are settled, a conversation resembling a light tango commences. That’s the real meat of the date. Katz reminds her daters to smile, return questions with questions and not panic when there are small silences. Deeper conversation can follow with time.
There are certain conversation dos and don’ts. Part of determining compatibility is playing a little house, but according to Bazelon, the Facebook group administrator, “If a guy describes his ideal home and he’s very specific about it really early on, it gives me a weird feeling.” Finding the balance between saying what one wants and not being hyper-particular is key.
The longer some people date, the more the content of their previous dates becomes conversation fodder for the next ones, Bazelon said, though she cautioned that while “it’s fine once in a while… too much is not good.”
A good date should also have a reasonable endpoint — for a first date that would be a little over an hour into the meeting, Katz said.
Back at the Waldorf, as the evening goes on, newly formed couples walk out into the cool Jerusalem streets, some with a little more pep in their step, others looking keen to escape. Every shadchan will soon get a call from both parties for a full debriefing.
According to Jihad of the Prima Kings, If the two walk out in step, it’s a sign they’ll be coming back for a second date.