Thursday, February 03, 2011

Shidduch questions in question

I was in a local restaurant the other day and I couldn’t help overhearing a few young women talking at a nearby table. (Admittedly, listening in was not exactly polite on my part, but it was very enlightening.) The women were talking about going before a shadchan, or in the case of one of them, before a group of shadchans. One woman described the experience as a “scary, like being called to the principal’s office.” The others agreed. Then they began to discuss the questions that they were asked. What they all found most curious was that each of them was presented with the same questions even though they had seen different shadchans. One young woman believed that it might be because there is “some halacha” that dictates asking these set questions. I found it even more interesting that everyone accepted this explanation.

The experience of hearing shidduch questions is not a new one for me. I have written about the many and varied questions that are asked of people who “are in the parsha,” i.e. getting ready to date for the purpose of marriage. Of course there are the foolish ones, “What color tablecloth does your family use on Shabbos?” “Where do you go to buy your clothes?” But what are the true core questions and from where are they derived?

After some research I found that there are essentially six or seven basic inquiries. I asked people more knowledgeable than myself what might be the source of those questions. No one could provide a direct Biblical or halachic foundation. Several individuals indicated that they were essentially a common sense way to inquire about the essence of an individual. I was not satisfied. Late in my high school career a very persuasive teacher suggested we read Oscar Wilde’s play “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Wilde was an Irish playwright, novelist and poet who, at one time, was considered to be the most successful artist of the Victorian era. The humor of the play stems from the overly polite and extremely sincere manners that members of Victorian society used to cover their manipulative and cruel behaviors. The title is a play on words because few in the play are earnest, honest or sincere. What is most notable though is what occurs in the first act when Lady Bracknell, the matriarch of the family, begins to interview a young man for her very eligible daughter. Lady Bracknell says to the young man who her daughter has taken a fancy to that he is “not on her list of eligible young men,” but she might change her mind if the fellow answers her questions satisfactorily. What are those questions? If you have ever met a shadchan you already know them — they are the core shidduch questions: age, intelligence/education, income, family, town, and political and religious beliefs. In the play, the candidate does not pass muster. In the third act Lady Bracknell proceeds to question a woman that her nephew wishes to marry. Again, she asks the same questions. This time, because the young woman is in possession of a very large trust fund, Lady Bracknell consents.

The play is currently on Broadway and if you have never seen it I suggest you do. It’s a fun play, but I also found it a bit disheartening since it reminded me of the shidduch scene. In all honesty, some of the questions deserve to be asked — it is important to know about someone’s education and his or her plan for life — but it shouldn’t be the Spanish Inquisition and the focus shouldn’t only be about how much money a person’s family has, what someone looks like and a person’s social status. Not long ago a young man showed me a t-shirt he loved to wear under his regular shirt. The words on the shirt were “Sorry girls, I only date models.” He assured me that many of his friends had the same shirts and were of the same philosophy. He was no model. It looks as if superficial externals still rule the day despite the fact that we believe that we are not members of the snobbery classes of Victorian society. Maybe we want to be. Maybe we even believe that these questions have a longer history and are therefore justified. Stephanie Coontz, the historian who has built a prominent career on studying marriage, indicates that almost all marital unions prior to the mid 1800s were arranged for the sole purpose of survival, not status building. Wilde can cause us to look at the Victorian era and laugh at the snobbery but it isn’t nearly as funny when it’s so close to the truth.

Dr. Salamon, a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, is the founder and director of ADC Psychological Services in Hewlett, NY and a Board member of Ptach and The Awareness Center. He is the author of numerous articles and several psychological tests. His recent books include, The Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures, published by Urim Publications and Every Pot Has a Cover: A Proven Guide to Finding, Keeping and Enhancing the Ideal Relationship, published by Rowman & Littlefield. His new book on Abuse will be available March, 2011.

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