I have a confession to make: I hate reality television. And it’s not because I think I’m too good for it. (Though I am.) The truth is, I already watch plenty of garbage. It’s just that I happen to prefer very different kinds of garbage. I find the storytelling conventions of most “reality” shows to be unbearably grating. Their highly scripted “reality” occupies an uncanny space between fiction and nonfiction. As a viewer, it’s an uncomfortably liminal place I can never quite settle into. I find it far easier to get emotionally invested in the “reality” of a show about human-space lizard cohabitation in a sometime socialist space utopia (Star Trek) than a goofy, aesthetically repellent “drama” between humans who quite literally seem to exist on a different planet. In short, when it’s Cardassian vs. Kardashian, the choice is clear.
So, I went into the new Netflix series Jewish Matchmaking with the lowest of expectations, and understandably so. Last year, I caved to peer pressure and watched the entire first season of the utterly dreadful My Unorthodox Life, and I am still feeling residual trauma from that mistake. It was with gritted teeth that I sat down recently to slog my way through eight episodes of cringey matchmaking drama, “for research.” But by the end of episode 2, I was incredulously texting my best friend, “I think I kind of love this?” and she was texting back in excited agreement, having already binged all eight episodes ahead of me.
Jewish Matchmaking follows matchmaker Aleeza Ben Shalom, an American bal-tshuve now living in Israel. She is warm and funny and full of folksy matchmaker sayings, like “date ’em til you hate ’em.” The show drew me in, in part, by avoiding reality-show tropes like overly scripted interactions, hyper-choppy editing, and cartoonish musical cues. Which is not to say that the show is not scripted or that it somehow exists outside the genre. But that for a person who doesn’t enjoy the genre as a whole, this one was far, far easier to enjoy.
The obvious fantasy of Jewish Matchmaking is that in a world where finding a loving, honest partner, let alone a “soulmate,” can seem painfully out of reach, maybe all we really need is the right matchmaker, someone as caring and creative as Ben Shalom, to cut through the agonizing BS that is dating in 2023. She floats through the show’s various locales like a Jewish Santa Claus, with a sack full of well-groomed match candidates, each somehow magically meeting the quirky checklist of her clients.
Underneath the fantasy of being rescued by Shidekh Claus, though, I think is something even more compelling. Though Ben Shalom herself lives within a traditional Jewish community (keeping kosher and shabes, covering her hair, etc.), she presents a remarkably embracing vision of modern Jewishness. Her clients range all the way from ultra-frum Boro Park to a self-identified “cultural” Jew in Kansas. To me, this is the real fantasy: that in the depressingly polarized Jewish world today, where it can feel like various segments of global Jewry exist only to invalidate each other, someone representing “traditional” Judaism can simply walk into frame and validate each and every manifestation of contemporary Jewishness, unconditionally. (That is, as long as you’re relatively well-off and seeking a heteronormative bashert, of course. As far as I know, there are no queer matches to be made on Jewish Matchmaking.)
And while the show features segments in the Jewish capitals of Tel Aviv and New York, it also takes us to Miami, Los Angeles, Kansas, and more. The Jewish backgrounds of her clients are far more varied than usually found in mainstream pop culture; one of her potential matches is the president of a Sephardic social club in Miami! There’s still plenty of room for the next season to include even more diverse clients. But as a basic, white, Ashkenazi, New Yorker myself, it’s surprisingly thrilling to watch something that doesn’t only center Jews who look or live exactly like I do.
The show is an American-Israeli co-production, something signaled in the opening credits, where the show’s title is announced in English, Jewish Matchmaking, and modern Hebrew, Shadkhanut Modernit (modern matchmaking). There’s a fascinating disjuncture between the two titles. The show is apparently a spinoff of sorts from an earlier hit series, Indian Matchmaking, and the English title makes the connection obvious. But the Hebrew title says something different. Not only is “Jewish” implied by the use of the word “shadkhanut,” but the word itself brings connotations of being old fashioned, if not Old World. Hence the need to modify it with the reassuring “modern.” This ain’t your grandmother’s shadkhones, as they say, but not necessarily in the ways the show may think.
In modern Hebrew, a shadkhn can mean a stapler or a matchmaker. Both things have the sense of bringing two things together. Yiddish, though, has only the one meaning, that of matchmaker. Shadkhn was a profession among European Jews, and an indispensable one, at that. As the YIVO Encyclopedia notes, in an age before widespread photography, the shadkhn relied on words “rather than pictures to convince the parents of two marriageable children to consent to their union.” This shaped the language used in relation to the transaction. In Yiddish, we “redn a shidekh” or speak a match. Pre-photographic evidence, a Yiddish proverb spoke to the shadkhn’s perceived leeway with stretching the truth: “God does not punish a shadkhn for lying.”
The shadkhn’s propensity to minimize a client’s flaws is central to classic portrayals of the shadkhn, especially comic portrayals. Here I’m going to give a content warning. This is the culture of a far less sensitive age, where physical and intellectual difference was fair game for comedy.
As late as the 1940s, the outsider novelty record mogul Benny Bell was making Yiddish records that played on centuries-old stereotypes of the shadkhn. His “Moyshe Pipik” is among his most famous records, advertising the services of one Mr. Pipik (or bellybutton), a “tayere shadkhn,” an expensive matchmaker. And because shadkhn conveniently rhymes with badkhn (wedding entertainer), Moyshe Pipik offers a two in one.
In the song, Moyshe Pipik shows off his “merchandise” to the men and boys listening in. The merchandise includes a 20-year-old girl whose father owns real estate. There’s only one problem. She’s just six weeks “shvengerdik,” or pregnant. Oops. Another girl is 25 with blue eyes and blond hair, with plenty of cash in the bank. (Sounds like someone requested by one of Aleeza Ben Shalom’s clients.) There’s only one problem: She’s missing three fingers on the left hand and she limps with her right foot. And so on.
The song is packed with more (some might say too much) comic detail, most of which is no doubt unappetizing to modern listeners. What’s so fascinating to me is that this song, recorded in New York City, sometime probably in the early 1940s, draws on comic tropes going back at least to 1880, when Avrom Goldfaden premiered his Yiddish comic operetta Di tsvey kuni-leml, or The Two Kuni-Lemls. In that show, a classic shadkhn type, Kalmen Shadkhen, attempts to marry off the very eligible, and very modern Carolina to a stuttering, limping, blind-in-one-eye suitor called Kuni-Leml. Carolina, however, is in love with her worldly German tutor Max, who, as chance would have it, looks exactly like Kuni-Leml. Naturally, farce ensues.
In the early 1960s, a marvelous Hebrew adaptation of Kuni-Leml was brought to the Israeli stage, with lyrics by Moshe Sachar and starring a young Mike Burstyn. In 1966, the show was adapted for film, with Burstyn playing both roles, Kuni and Max. Here, you can see the embodiment of the classic shadkhn type from the Yiddish stage. As my friend Shane Baker reminded me, the key to representing a shadkhn was the umbrella and valise. What’s in the valise? Cards of his potential clients and merchandise, of course. Also, a bottle of bronfn (spirits) and some lekakh or honey cake, ready at hand to celebrate the conclusion of a successful shidekh.
Kuni-Leml was so successful that it became an important part of Israel’s national mythos, airing every year on Israeli television for Independence Day, a fact I learned from Burstyn himself. I suspect that at least part of the reason that the show is called Shadkhanut Modernit (Modern Shadkhones) is that for certain generations of Israelis, the old-fashioned figure of the shadkhn is still very much present in the collective imagination, courtesy of Kuni-Leml.
Note that things are clearly changing, however. Throughout the eight episodes of Jewish Matchmaking, more than one reference is made to a famous cinematic shadkhn. But it’s not Kalmen Shadkhen they’re talking about, it’s Fiddler on the Roof’s Yente. Even in Israel, it’s Yente that people point to as a matchmaking touchstone. This shadkhn sex-change strikes me as a bit ironic, if not depressingly sexist. The matchmaker in Sholem Aleichem’s original Tevye story was a man called Efrayim. According to Alisa Solomon’s fantastic cultural history of Fiddler, Wonder of Wonders, Fiddler book author Joe Stein created the character of Yente for the Fiddler musical, “transforming the male matchmaker Efrayim … into a larger, familiar type: the garrulous busybody, obliviously revealing her peccadilloes through comic business (stuffing extra cakes into her purse when she visits Golde) and ironically contradictory remarks.” It’s further infuriating to read that in “calling her Yente, Stein made one of his book’s few concessions to the Yiddish language, which the authors had vowed to avoid; it was too associated with cheap plays for laughs, they believed. A common enough name, Yente had come to mean meddlesome gossip-monger, and that was one old-biddy yuk Stein was willing to exploit.”
As much as I found myself enjoying Jewish Matchmaking, I couldn’t quite shake my old wariness at the manipulation and exploitation baked into reality television. And the show has no time for reflection on the problematic history or less comfortable aspects of its own subject. There was absolutely no discussion, for example, of the cost of Ben Shalom’s services, something that has always been at the heart of what is, at the end of the day, a very Jewish business. Who can afford the magic of Shidekh Claus and who can’t? It’s something I’d love to see addressed in season 2, which, despite my reservations, I’ve already put on my wish list.
ALSO: Coming soon, “Words of Fire: Yiddish Women Writers of Ukraine,” a six-session course (virtual) taught by Hinda Ena Burstin. May 18-June 22. More details here … I love the concept of Klezkanada’s Picnic Table Series, year-round digital workshops led by community members. May 21 is “The Single-Page Zine as a Yortsayt for the Future: An Introductory Zine Workshop with Jess Goldman.” More information and tickets here … I’ve been digging “The Building & Other Songs,” the new duo album from my friends Jake Shulman-Ment (fidl) and Daniel Kahn (voice, accordion, everything else). If Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, and more in new Yiddish translations sounds intriguing, get down to NYC’s Drom on June 15 for the early show. Details here.
Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.