"What should we do? Should we go out again?"
A purple-encased BlackBerry in one hand, and a mixing spoon in the other, Esther Levy cradles a phone between her ear and her shoulder, a long black cord stretching behind her. Standing in her Brooklyn kitchen, she hastily greets her 10-year old son as he returns from school, then turns her attention back to her two phone calls, all the while preparing an apple pie for the upcoming Sabbath.
"Tell me, is he a girly boy?" Esther wants to know, speaking into the phone. "He's so nice, how can you not go out with him again?"
With phones literally ringing off the hook, BlackBerry abuzz, it's a typically hectic day for Levy, a matchmaker, or shadchan, in the Orthodox Jewish community in Midwood. It's noon on Thursday, and she's been on the phone all morning, being debriefed by each side -- and the parents -- of her eight couples who went out night before. Levy spends virtually all hours of the day setting up young men and women on blind dates, and counseling them throughout the dating process. She says she fell asleep with her BlackBerry last night, waiting to hear back from the young men who had returned from their dates well after midnight.
"I have very bad news," she says to a man's mother on the other end of the phone. "She doesn't want to go out again. She said he was a very nice, refreshing boy, but she just doesn't see it."
Levy, a mother of ten, has made dozens of matches, or shidduchim, over the last decade, mostly by networking and through word of mouth in the community.
"It's just something that either you have or you don't," she says about her knack for working with singles. "I think of ideas where something about the match just seems right, whether it's similarities in physical traits or religious background. It comes from being involved with people and learning from those experiences."
Midwood is home to a large right-wing Orthodox community where social interaction between men and women is limited, creating a need for people like Levy.
Chana Rose, another local shadchan, has been doing similar work for over 20 years, and has helped hundreds of people find their marriage partners. She says that today, there are a lot of "wanna-be shadchanim," and she herself has hundreds of clients. "The community is very big and there are thousands that need shidduchim," she says. "But there is a limit to how many I can deal with at one time. You need another thousand matchmakers doing this." She goes to weddings every week, which are often the best locations at which to network and meet new singles.
According to the ancient Jewish texts, a heavenly voice declares who will be destined for whom 40 days before a baby is conceived. The matchmakers feel that they are acting as God's messengers in helping these Jewish singles find their mates.
"The ideas just come to me, and they're all from God," Rose says. "If God wants you to be somewhere and meet someone, it can happen in the strangest ways. There's no rhyme or reason to it."
Making a shidduch is considered a mitzvah, or a good deed. According to Jewish law, it is obligatory for the people who get engaged to give their matchmaker a present, often monetary or other gifts of value.
"I can't speak for all shadchanim, but I personally don't take any money," Levy says. Instead, she asks each side to write a check for $500, and she donates the money to a charity in Israel that pays for a wedding that takes place the same day as theirs. "It makes me very happy to know that another bride and groom are getting a beautiful wedding that came out of the shidduch that I made."
The courtship period in these Orthodox communities is relatively short, with couples becoming engaged after just seven or eight dates. But they often know virtually everything about their potential spouses before meeting. Parents are intimately involved in the process and mothers often do research on their child's behalf. Part of the process includes filling out a shidduch "resume," which contains a picture, as well as basic information including family background, schooling, and occupation. Levy has several thick binders full of shidduch profiles, while Rose keeps the resumes of her clients in folders.
Even with the fulfillment that comes with knowing that she's helped hundreds of people get married, Rose acknowledges that the job of a matchmaker is sometimes difficult. For starters, she is the mediator between the two parties. Often the man and woman will not communicate over the phone until the fifth date, leaving the shadchan to track them down to find out their availability. "It's ridiculous," she admits. "I'm like a traffic cop, trying to coordinate their dating schedules.
For the first date, the man will pick up the woman from her house, where he meets the parents. Though the table is always prepared with food and drink, it is rare for anything to be eaten. "It's not mazel [luck] to eat in the parents' house until the shidduch is clinched," Rose explains. "It's only when they get engaged that they have a L'chaim [toast to life] and take a drink."
The first few dates usually take place in local hotel lobbies or lounges. The couples talk about their backgrounds and their goals for the future, including how much time a man will designate towards Torah study. After six or seven dates, they are expected to move forward.
"They need to get to the next step," says Rose, "because at a certain point, they run out of things to talk about."
Engagements are short as well, typically lasting two to three months. "It's easier for people in this community to get engaged," Rose observes. "There is no physical contact, and everything moves in stages. It's a mindset."
Beyond arranging the initial dates, shadchanim are often involved in the entire relationship process, acting as a mediators and giving advice through the engagement period until the wedding. For Levy, this is often the hardest part. "It can get emotionally trying, even for me, especially when things don't work out the way you want it to be," she says. "Sometimes you did the best you could and the shidduch still doesn't happen."
But when it does work out, the reward is worth it. "I'm so happy when a shidduch goes through," she says. "It's a really good feeling to know that you brought two people together."