Unexpectedly Charmed by "Jewish Matchmaking"
I’m a newbie when it comes to reality TV. But being sick in bed for a couple days gave me lots of downtime, and having made one successful shidduch made me curious to watch Jewish Matchmaking, Netflix’s new spinoff of the hit show Indian Matchmaking.
Going in, I wasn’t sure what to expect from a show in which an Orthodox matchmaker sets up clients who mostly look secular. It seemed like an unlikely fit at first glance. But I was pleasantly surprised. Two things kept me engaged and entertained throughout the series. First, this was one of the first times I’ve seen a show that portrayed Judaism in a dynamic, nuanced way that felt familiar to me. I felt like the people on the show could be people I know, saying things like, “I keep kosher in [the house] but not out [at restaurants].” The second strength of the show is the matchmaker herself, Aleeza Ben Shalom, who is charming, smart, and authentic.
In each episode, Aleeza meets Jewish men and women who are looking to be set up for marriage. They range in age from their 20s to 50s, come from a wide range of places—from cities with big Jewish communities like LA and Miami to places with small Jewish communities like Kansas City to more remote locations like Jackson Hole, Wyoming—and diverse Jewish backgrounds. She begins each meeting by asking them about their Jewish identity and values and the qualities of their ideal life partner, their bashert. Then, she shows her client a photo of a potential match or two. If they approve, she sets them up on their first date.
We follow each client for several episodes and get introduced to new ones along the way. There’s Noah, a 36-year-old man from Jackson Hole. He used to be very religious and has become less so (but still periodically stocks up on kosher meat from Denver), has a teenage son from a previous marriage, and enjoys the outdoors. There’s Nakysha, a motorcycle-riding woman of color who likes to cook, hates to clean, can’t wait to get out of Kansas City, and confidently calls herself “fat” (but isn’t attracted to “fat guys”).
As Aleeza points out early in the series, Jews have used matchmakers as far back as biblical times. Today, many Orthodox Jewish communities continue to use matchmakers. In these communities, marriage and family is central to leading a fulfilling religious life, and young men and women are encouraged to start working with a matchmaker in their late teens or early twenties to build a “dating resume.” In general, both sets of parents are deeply involved in the process. Aleeza believes that ultimately everyone will find their match—her job is simply to expedite the process.
Having already made over 200 successful matches before the start of the show, Aleeza is confident in her process, and in her belief that traditional Jewish values “work” for everyone—not only people who are religious. For example, she introduces her clients to the concept of Shomer Negiah—refraining from touch until marriage so that the couple can form a deep values-based connection without being distracted by the physical aspect of the relationship. This is a challenge for Harmonie, a youthful 45-year-old looking for passion. Aleeza suggests that if her clients haven’t been successful up until now, maybe it’s time to try something new. Harmonie is open to Aleeza’s advice but finds that old habits die hard: in one episode, within seconds of meeting her date, she swoops in for a giant hug and then giggles to her date that she’s already broken Aleeza’s “no touching” rule.
Aleeza uses catchphrases—“Date ‘em till you hate ‘em,” for example, and “When in doubt go out,”—to express the Jewish concept of hishtadlut, that we have to put in effort in order to get the results we want. She even touches on therapeutic techniques when she digs into people’s pasts and encourages them to understand their own “dating baggage,” go through “dating detox,” and understand the “mystery in your history.”
What makes Aleeza so captivating is that she’s a master at human interaction and communication. Although she encourages her clients to try her approach, she never pushes them. She accepts each client as they are and encourages them to articulate what they’re looking for and what’s important to them so that she can be more effective in her job. Aleeza is validating, non-judgmental (except for maybe once at a particularly unlikable client) and truly believes that each person can and will find their life partner.
Aleeza’s authenticity adds to her likability. In the show, we meet her husband and a few of her five children and get a peek of their relationship in action in their home in Israel. We learn that Aleeza and her husband are ba’al teshuva (a term used to describe people who were secular and have become observant of Jewish traditions and laws) and immigrated to Israel from Philadelphia. Despite being observant and living a completely different lifestyle from most of her clients, Aleeza can identify with them because of her secular past. Maybe that’s what allows them to put their trust in her.
As in any show—reality or not—there are more and less likable characters. Some clients are only interested in looks. This wasn’t only unappealing to me as a viewer, but it was also clear that they couldn’t enjoy themselves on the dates if the person didn’t match their physical criteria. In contrast, those who were looking for interesting personalities and genuinely seemed curious to learn about their date, like Stuart and Pamella, seemed to have a much better time and were more open to the possibility of future dates.
As a charming contrast to the singles, the show features older couples talking about how they met, à la When Harry Met Sally. These short interviews are interspersed throughout the series and add a hopeful and lighthearted feel to the show. The couples also bestow practical advice: “look for a spouse who is good hearted,” and once you are married, “have fun,” “laugh a lot,” and “don’t sweat the small stuff.”
Throughout the show, Aleeza blesses her clients to have the clarity to recognize when the right person is in front of them. That person can come from anywhere, she says. In one episode, as Aleeza is sitting in a restaurant with a client and her mother, she asks the restaurant manager if he happens to know of any Jewish single males in their 40s. That conversation leads to another first date for her client. Aleeza is always on the lookout for potential matches.
I can understand why Aleeza gets so much satisfaction out of making matches. My husband and I set up two friends who are now married with two beautiful children, and it was incredibly meaningful to play a part in bringing them together. Our friends, relatives, and community members who are searching for their life partner sometimes need help finding those people. As it happens, just this week a friend sent me an invitation to join the Loop—a new matchmaking app designed by Moriya Blumenfeld, an Israeli Harvard Business School graduate, to help people connect using matchmakers. As we say here in Israel: Yalla! Let’s all make some introductions!