May 25, 2024
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Jewish Dating Through the Generations

Since the times of the original shadchan, the biblical Eliezer, dating and matchmaking have been a significant part of our tradition. Our forefathers were part of both shidduchim and natural romances which were intricately described in the words of the Torah. For example, the pesukim describe Yaakov’s first interaction with Rachel in which “Yaakov came forward and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well and watered the sheep of Lavan, his mother’s brother. Then Yaakov kissed Rachel, and he raised his voice and he wept.” (Vayetzei 29:10-12)

Considering the multitude of successful relationships among our ancestors, Jewish dating, generally speaking, has shifted greatly in the modern era. Culturally, there are many differences that have become apparent within and among sects of Judaism. Specifically, in more modern generations, the dichotomy between Jewish dating during the times of the Silent Generation/Baby Boomers and the Millennials/Gen Z is quite significant. After speaking with a few veterans of the Jewish dating world, as well as shadchanim, from various generations, the progression of dating over time, as well as differences among Jews of various levels of observance, can be better assessed.

An 89-year-old gentleman, originally from Brooklyn, who successfully navigated the mid-1900s Jewish dating scene, had a fairly organic courtship process. He would “attend young Jewish social events, get a bunch of girls’ numbers, walk home, pass by a phone booth, and call each one up to schedule dates for the next few weeks.” He did this until he met his wife of nearly 60 years, at which point he only went out with her, and eventually transitioned from casual dating to courtship to a relationship. This experience applied to a more modern crowd, but one with strong traditional Jewish values.

Offering a perspective on mid-1900s secular Jewish dating, one 85-year old woman noted the evolution of Jewish dating norms as running parallel with the progression of American society. To her, the 1930s and ‘40s included a generation of parents who often warned their children to “not get too physically close to their dating partners.” Despite occasional house parties and sneaky co-ed socialization, parents often made it clear that any close contact was not acceptable.

As society progressed into the 1950s-’70s, with many Jewish teens attending universities and acquiring access to cars, she viewed singles as having more individuality and freedom than ever before, despite parents continuing to crack down on dating.

Among the more observant communities, however, shidduchim have been the gold standard for decades. According to Rabbi Yeheskel and Pearl Lebovic, veteran shadchanim for over 25 years and founders of “Likrat Shidduch,” in the pre-war era, matchmakers would travel from shtetl to shtetl, determined to find an adequate match for the singles who solicited their services. Later on, they noticed it became more “fashionable” to meet naturally, and if that strategy was unsuccessful, those who desired a matchmaker would then seek one out for assistance.

In those times, the issue was that there were limited choices of partners among the shtetl communities. However, this came with the benefit of easily knowing if a certain person was a “proper” match for another. Today, the couple stated, there are almost too many choices, and it makes eligible singles confused as to whom to pursue.

Providing a younger shadchan’s perspective, Ahuva Greenberg, of YUConnects, discussed her perception of the contemporary observant dating scene.

Greenberg noted that, often, the reason singles preemptively reject dating requests is because they “think the perfect spouse has to meet their [entire] list of specific qualities they are looking for.” However, she explained, “in reality, you may never find someone who checks off every item on your ‘list.’ If people internalized this, there would be a lot more ‘yeses’ and fewer rejections.”

Along with remaining flexible, refraining from overthinking dating can be an important point to remember for those “in the parsha.” Greenberg relayed a story that captures just this: “During covid, my husband, my friends and I created a series of virtual singles events. At one of the events, one person we invited did not realize it was a dating event until the middle of the event, and was not [actively] dating at the time, so they exited. However, after the event, they got the most requests from others at the event to date them. I think the lesson here is not to overthink dating and remember that it’s about being your ‘true’ self.” According to Greenberg, that is often when a person is most attractive to others.

While this is extremely important to keep in mind, it sometimes becomes more complicated in the more “strict” shidduch world, which prefers daters to stick to the communally accepted norms, as explained by Tzipporah*, a 21-year old woman who was set up with her fiance by friends. She noted that the “greatest challenges are often not knowing [how and] when to take certain steps. It’s hard to feel something and then question whether it’s too early to reveal certain parts of yourself or start texting and calling, or think, ‘Is this what we’re supposed to do?’”

The rules of this stricter shidduch world are often very rigid, though offering a more tzniut approach, Tzipporah noted. It may be difficult to be set up without even having the other person’s phone number, she shared. Things are not as organic, leaving singles unaware of when to advance certain aspects of their relationship, in some ways making dating more difficult, but in other ways offering direction and structure.

The theme Greenberg raised of singles attempting to “check off boxes” without seeing individuals for who they are seems to coincide with the experiences of a myriad of observant Jewish daters. Ellie, a 21-year old American woman living in Jerusalem, noted, “In terms of the modern Jewish dating world, there is definitely the challenge of ‘the boxes.’ … As a single woman living in Israel, I see so many variations of religiosity. While those variations may help the more right-leaning community, it puts the people in the Modern Orthodox community in a more gray area, which can cause confusion in terms of the ‘types’ of people that they are looking for.”

To Ellie, “meeting naturally” includes challenges, but often carries many benefits. Sharing this opinion, Michael, a 21-year old Modern Orthodox college student currently in a relationship, noted, “ I’ve found that the more involved you are in a Jewish community, the easier it is to find someone you match with. … Dating can be a difficult and stressful endeavor, but I think the Jewish community’s focus on raising a family, and having shared values, produces happy and healthy relationships that stand up to the challenges of life.”

While aspects of dating may have changed over the years, certain things have not. Whether meeting people organically, through friends, on apps, via resumes, through shadchanim or using any other means, the end goal has been and continues to be the same: to meet a life partner. Each person reaches that goal in the way that is most comfortable for him or her, but for Jews of all different levels of observance, and shadchanim from different generations, the way a person achieves that goal seems to matter less than the end result.

Yet we would be doing our younger generations a disservice if we discounted the changes that have evolved throughout the years. While shadchanim are still the norm in the more frum communities, in more Modern Orthodox communities, other forms of meeting one’s bashert have started to become accepted. As a community, we must recognize this change.

Without assessing and accepting the needs of those in “the parsha,” and normalizing this discussion culturally, we are doing a disservice to both our ancestors and our posterity.

Addressing and acknowledging the challenges and advantages of dating, among Jews of different generations and observance levels, is critical to the resilience of our nation, and to encouraging our single youth to continue to seek out partners with whom they will live lives rich with Torah values.


Hannah Kirsch is the summer intern coordinator and a rising senior at Binghamton University.

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