Like sentinels, a series of photographs stand in a row in the living room of my parents’ home. They depict several couples who, stiffly at attention, face the camera. The women are encased in lacy white gowns that cover every inch of their bodies; the men are similarly entombed in suits, ties, and top hats. Near as I can tell, there’s no sparkle in anyone’s eyes; the kind of moony glances characteristic of the lovelorn are absent, too. No one is smiling.
This grim lot were my grandparents and great-grandparents.
I have no idea whether their unhappy mien had to do with the unfamiliar weight of their wedding attire or the novelty of the occasion—it might well have been the first time they were in the company of a professional photographer, which made them uncomfortable. Perhaps the prospect of marriage didn’t thrill them, either. Whatever the reason, these brides and grooms are frozen in time and space. The liveliest thing about each couple is the ornate metal frame that contains them.
Growing up, I didn’t think twice about these solemn, modestly clad forebears of mine. I’d see them all the time, but their presence as people rather than ornament hardly registered. Nowadays, though, I think about them a lot, contemplating the circumstances of their romantic lives. What, or who, brought them together? A chance encounter? Mazel or serendipity? A co-worker? A relative? Did they date for a while, their protracted courtship a matter of leisurely walks in the park or of dancing the night away at one of the many dance halls that peppered Jewish immigrant neighborhoods? Or was theirs an arranged marriage, an alliance orchestrated by a shadchan, a marriage broker, rather than Cupid?
Regrettably, I’ll never know the answer. Those relatives who might have been in a position to furnish the backstory and fill in the blanks are no more. And when I had the chance, I didn’t think to ask. But then, I can always speculate—can’t I?—relying on the historical record for context, for the macro-picture, if not the idiosyncratic details.
When it comes to matters matrimonial, history lays bare the looming presence of the shadchan. In Jewish circles, a suitable match, a shidduch, was not left to chance but to the intercession of a heavenly power and its earthly representatives, professional marriage brokers. Pressing their ear to the ground and blessed with a nose for gossip and a corresponding sense of discretion, these men and women functioned like good-will ambassadors, diplomatically scoping out the pool of possibilities and securing alliances between families—for a fee.
As modernity seized hold of the Jews, introducing them to new forms of social interaction and new ways of thinking about just about everything, including the prospect of intimacy and the meaning of love, Jewish marriage brokers lost their footing as well as their standing. Taken to task and vilified for having commercialized affairs of the heart, they symbolized the old, and increasingly outmoded, order.
Their power diminished, marriage brokers—the men especially—increasingly became the butt of humor and sly derision. By the late 19th and early 20th century, the shadchan was grist for the mill of contemporary Jewish writers with a keen eye for the absurdities of daily life, scribblers such as Abraham Cahan and Israel Zangwill.
Lampooned for their garrulousness and guile, the Jewish marriage broker made for good copy, and in some cases, for a good cry, too. In Cahan’s short story “A Providential Match,” published in English in 1895, the smooth promises of Feivele the matchmaker transformed Robert, ne Rouvke, from a “simple bokher into a khoson,” from a rough-hewn immigrant into a swain. It didn’t take long, though—just a few pages of flowery text—before those promises came to nothing, leaving Robert brokenhearted and alone.
Meanwhile, in his 1896 short story, “A Rose of the Ghetto,” Zangwill trained his sights on Sugarman the Shadchan, a master of the retort, whose ability to put the best possible face on every proposition, no matter how dreary or implausible, was something to behold. When one customer refused to consider a potential candidate claiming “she has a hump,” Sugarman didn’t miss a beat. “Moses Mendelssohn had a hump,” he said in response, as if that kind of yichus, or pedigree, would surely seal the deal. It didn’t.
In other instances, including a 1905 short story, “The Shadchen’s Luck,” published in the Settlement Journal, the house publication of the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side, an aspiring writer named Samuel Lewenkrohn pitted the Old World sensibility of the shadchan against the New World sensibility of would-be Americans named Annie Feldman and Joe Greenberg. In this cautionary tale, the skills of Baruch the matchmaker were no match for the dance hall where young men and women kicked up their heels and coupled freely, much to the consternation of their old-fashioned parents and the detriment of his income.
In the years that followed, the Jewish marriage maven became more of a curiosity than a casualty of Americanization. By 1938, when a profile of Rubin’s Matrimonial Bureau appeared in the pages of The New Yorker, his days seemed numbered. Written by Meyer Berger, the piece detailed the comings and goings of a “bearded Cupid” named Louis Rubin. Close kin to some of the endearingly oddball characters who inhabited the universe frequented by Joseph Mitchell, Berger’s colleague at the magazine, Mr. Rubin was one of those people who were in, but not of, the times. “Call and see the World-Prominent MR. RUBIN,” bubbled his business cards and circulars where he fulsomely described his clientele as “respectable business and professional high class working people and nice, intelligent girls from rich business families also widows and widowers.” To which Berger couldn’t resist noting: “It’s a bit breathless…but it gets results.”
Today, as so many of us know firsthand, successful matches among the non-Orthodox are no longer made in heaven or facilitated by the Mr. Rubins of the world. An algorithm calls the shots. Drawing on data rather than intuition, JDate and JSwipe put the prospect of romance just a click away.
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Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.