Outdated, Chapter Nine, Part One, by Nathan Wolff
Chapter Nine-Part One
Joe was sitting on the steps to his basement apartment when Sharon called, his head buried in his hands. So much had happened since he met Mrs. Rosenzweig that he didn’t have the guts to refuse her call. He hoped that talking to Sharon would help calm his inner frenzy, but it didn’t.
The day after he went to Borough Park, Joe went by Mr. Siegel’s office to tell him he had met Mrs. Rosenzweig and to thank him, but his secretary didn’t know where he was. Joe wasn’t too surprised by his absence; he was the head of acquisitions and was often out acquiring. Joe did have his cell phone number, but he didn’t feel right calling him on a non-work-related issue and texting felt too casual.
On Tuesday Joe woke up at 7:30 to daven with the yeshiva. He got on his $20 bicycle, purchased from a friend who moved to Jerusalem after graduation, and rode to the yeshiva building housed in an old Colonial-looking two-story house with a big sign on the front that said, “Zichron Mordechai”, the name of the boys’ school downstairs.
On the second floor was the beis medrash of Ohr Eliyahu, which had been Rabbi Yoni’s home before he inherited a house in Seagate. The old kitchen doubled as a lunchroom where free food was served every morning and night as a ploy to get guys to come in and learn, and two bedrooms in the back were designated as the rabbis’ offices. The big main room was well-lit and filled with foldable tables and plastic chairs, bookshelves on the walls and a metal combination-lock Aron Kodesh on the east wall.
Joe arrived so early that the door was still locked, but after two minutes one of the regulars who knew the combination showed up. Upstairs they turned on the lights and Joe put on his tefillin. By the appointed time of 7:50 their minyan came but remained at only ten men. After davening, a spread of cereals, random pastries, coffee, juice, and some wrinkled apples was laid out in the kitchen. Joe joined their predominantly silent breakfast; these guys were the serious ones who wanted to learn and didn’t come to joke.
At 8:45 Rabbi Tzvi arrived, bringing with him a contagious enthusiasm that immediately changed the mood.
“Good morning everybody!” he exclaimed. Looking around the kitchen, he asked, “What’s with the gloom? Not only do you get free food, but you get the constant smile of Rabbi Josh. Nu, Ricky, it was worth getting up just for Rabbi Josh’s smile, eh?”
He gave high-fives, handshakes or shoulder pats to each guy, reaching Joe last, smacking him lightly with the newspaper he was carrying. “Yosef! How’s the new schedule treating you?”
“It’s great,” he replied, putting down his spoon.
“Benji’s a good guy to learn with, no?”
“Yeah, we’re doing well…I didn’t see him yet today.”
Rabbi Tzvi made a sweeping inspection of the guys. “Hmm, well then come to the back when you’re done, all right?”
Before Joe could ask why, the Rabbi had already turned to address the table. “OK, enough time spent reading the recipe for Rice Krispies Treats. Get to your Gemaras already.”
After the rabbi left the room, Joe finished his cereal with unease. He had no clue why Rabbi Tzvi would want to speak to him privately. Besides for a “how’s it going?” or the occasional “how’s the chavrusa working out?” he didn’t have much to do with Joe, his hands full with the guys who came for the hangout but rarely sat more than ten minutes at a time. Joe was so absorbed in his thoughts that he forgot to make an after-berachah as he stood up, eliciting curious glances from the other guys.
Joe knocked on the door to Rabbi Tzvi’s office, which he shared with Rabbi Yoni who came once a week and dealt with administrative issues. In the back corner was Rabbi Yoni’s completely empty, spotless desk, while directly behind the door Rabbi Tzvi was already sitting on his chair.
“Come and sit,” he told Joe as he perused an open newspaper.
A single folding chair was leaning against the wall, which Joe figured was good enough. He unfolded it and sat opposite Rabbi Tzvi, who spared no time in jumping to the point.
“I got an interesting phone call last night,” he said. “A mother from St. Louis asking questions about a Joseph Charnoff in our yeshiva. Do you know anything about it?”
Joe wanted to crawl into the filing cabinet and hide. Rabbi Tzvi didn’t sound so happy to have received such a call.
“Um,” Joe said meekly before Rabbi Tzvi continued. “Did you give my name as a reference for a shidduch?”
Joe shook his head vigorously. “No, I didn’t give your name.” I gave Rabbi Josh’s name, he thought.
Rabbi Tzvi turned a page in his newspaper. “Well, somehow she called me. Was it a mistake? Are you dating?”
“Who at my age isn’t?” Joe tried joking.
The Rabbi wasn’t amused. He looked up from the newspaper and stared into Joe’s eyes with a blank face. “No, I want to know, because I didn’t know what to say. I have no problem with my guys dating; I just want to know about it.”
Joe stalled, chewing on his fingernail. “Look, my boss at work gave me the number of a shadchan and I met with her on Sunday. She asked where I learned, and I mentioned Ohr Eliyahu, so she must have traced you that way. I can’t really say that I’m dating.”
Rabbi Tzvi inhaled half the air in the room and leaned back in his chair. “Is this your first time meeting a shadchan?” Joe nodded. “Can I ask why you decided to call her?”
Joe looked down at the floor. He didn’t feel enough of a rapport to explain his predicament, but Rabbi Tzvi was involved now, however unwillingly. “I don’t know exactly. I feel pretty frustrated with girls and wanted to try something else and getting her phone number was just, I guess, good timing.”
He looked up to find the Rabbi nodding pensively. After a short silence, Rabbi Tzvi broke into a smile. “Well, good,” he said. “Much better place to turn to than where some guys in your situation might go. How old are you?”
“Twenty-two,” Joe answered quickly.
“You have a way to support yourself?”
“Like, a job?” The rabbi nodded. “Is that necessary?”
The rabbi widened his eyes. “It certainly helps. I mean, you could have some farmland in Kentucky on which you plan to raise your own grain and dairy, but most women nowadays live urban lifestyles where groceries and such things are purchased with money.”
Joe laughed. “I meant do I need to have a job now. I’m a paid intern for a research firm and I’m finishing a Masters, but I don’t have a full-time position.”
Rabbi Tzvi put up his hand. “That’s fine. I’m just making sure you’re not expecting to be supported your whole life. Not that there aren’t women out there willing to do so, I just don’t know your situation.” He turned a page in the newspaper. “So, give me her references and I’ll see what I can do.”
“What do you mean?” Joe asked.
“You probably need someone to check her references for you.” Rabbi Tzvi looked up. “I’ll assume that if I didn’t know, your parents certainly don’t, correct?”
“Nor should they, necessarily, for a guy in your situation. You look puzzled.”
“You don’t have to bother. I didn’t want to burden anyone in the first place.”
The Rabbi leaned forward and rested his elbows on the desk. “Well, who’s going to do it for you?”
Joe stammered. “I don’t really see the need. I mean, I’m perfectly capable—”
The Rabbi interrupted him. “Hold on, Yosef. I’m sensing that you might not know exactly what you got yourself into. You see, a shadchan doesn’t just act as a headhunter of sorts, pairing up potential couples and leaving them to their own devices. Shidduchim is much more than that.”
Joe folded his arms. “How so?”
“I’ll tell you,” he said as he heaved himself out of his chair. “But I need some coffee. Do you also want?”
Joe shook his head. “I had.”
“And that’s enough? Kol HaKavod. I’ll be right back.” He opened the door and stood for a moment, listening to the sound of Torah argued at high volume. “Know what? Let’s talk in the kitchen and see when Benji arrives.”
Joe stood up slowly. “In front of everyone?”
“We’ll be quiet,” he assured him. Still, when Joe joined him in the hallway, Rabbi Tzvi spoke in a hushed tone. “Look, shidduchim is an entire framework of matchmaking that follows a potential couple from a suggestion through to the engagement. It doesn’t just abandon two strangers, hoping everything works out. Certain…precautions, for lack of a better word, are taken to smooth the initial awkwardness that comes with two unfamiliar people trying to start a marriage.”
Joe wasn’t buying it. He stopped walking. “Come on, rabbi. We’re talking about matchmaking, not mediation.”
“I would say that it’s more like facilitating,” he clarified, gently nudging Joe towards the kitchen. “Any relationship has the potential to be a disaster if it doesn’t start on the right foot. More so with a marriage, which is meant to last forever. We have very solid traditions about how to carefully guide a couple in those initial stages, and the whole shidduch follows those steps. In particular, though, the shadchan works as an objective third party who listens to each side and either moves things along or acts as a buffer in the event the suggestion is a no-go.” They reached the kitchen and Rabbi Tzvi started opening the top cabinets, asking out loud, “Where’s the Sanka supposed to be?”
“Behind the cereal,” Joe replied, leaning on the countertop. “It gets stuffed back there. Most of us drink from the coffee maker.”
“And don’t leave any for me,” Rabbi Tzvi commented as he took out the jar of Sanka and shook some of the crystals into a paper cup. “Is Benji here?”
Joe poked his head into the beis medrash. “Not yet. So, what’s the big deal with the references?”
The Rabbi chuckled. “A suggestion is not prophesy. Matchmakers do their best to make a match, but it has to be checked to the particular needs of the man or the woman.” Rabbi Tzvi then filled the fast-pot boiler and turned it on. “That’s really the job for what I call the agent.”
“The agent?” Joe repeated.
They paused as Boruch, who had opened the door for Joe in the morning, came in for a cup of water.
“Yes,” he continued after Boruch left. “Just like an athlete. No ball player negotiates his own contracts; he pays an agent who knows the business and deals with the team owners so that he can concentrate on playing ball. You’re fortunate enough that I’m willing to do it for free.” He grinned widely.
Joe smiled back sarcastically. “Thank you for the offer, but why must I bother you? I can make a few calls.”
Rabbi Tzvi went and put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Trust me. It’s better that someone who doesn’t have a personal interest in the matter hears what the references have to say.”
“I can be objective,” Joe declared, standing up straight.
Rabbi Tzvi took a step back and looked at him. “Don’t fool yourself. We’re all victims of our subconscious preferences. Try giving an honest assessment of a woman you don’t find so attractive. She could be the sweetest, nicest, most compatible, caring…perfect for you, but it’ll be very hard to look beyond your initial disappointment. Or imagine the opposite: that you’re set up with the prettiest woman you’ve ever seen in your life but she’s terribly wrong for you. You’ll give her first chances and second chances, and you’ll rationalize everything—”
“You’re saying that looks aren’t important? The water’s boiled.”
“Thank you,” Rabbi Tzvi turned to pour the water into his coffee cup. “Are you sure you don’t want any?” Joe shook his head. “It’s a shame to waste this hot water.”
“Ask in the beis medrash if anyone wants.”
“And interrupt their learning?” The rabbi left it at that. “What were we talking about?”
“First impressions and looks.”
“Right. Physical attraction is surely an important element, but it shouldn’t be the first thing a man, or a woman for that matter, decides about the person he or she will build a lifetime with.”
Joe crossed his arms and leaned back on the counter. “But that’s going to happen the first time a couple meets on a shidduch as well.”
Rabbi Tzvi’s face lit up. “Yes, you are one-hundred percent correct, but in shidduchim we are prepared. Come,” he walked towards the office and Joe followed. “By the time the couple meets, all the technical details have already been checked out so that no couple becomes deeply attached and suddenly discovers five months later that they strongly disagree on fundamental issues. Instead, the couple is left to discover whether there is a potential for an emotional relationship and let that be their only concern.”
Joe made a face of disbelief. “How does the fact that there’s a shadchan and an agent ensure that?”
“It takes away the burden of dealing with the other person’s emotional needs. If you decide that the girl isn’t for you, then you simply talk it out with the shadchan who protects you from the backlash of the disappointed girl, or vice versa. You also won’t get strung along because you feel too bad ending it.”
“But the shadchan can’t be the intermediary for their entire lives.”
“Don’t worry,” the Rabbi said. “The shidduch process isn’t long enough for that. When both sides are ready to commit, a good shadchan steps down.”
Joe stopped when they reached the office. “So, what do I have to do?”
Rabbi Tzvi turned to him and smiled. “You sit back and let me make these calls. Just don’t go telling the whole world that you’re getting into shidduchim. It might not seem like a big deal, but it’s best to limit who knows your business. Too many opinions will overwhelm you.”
He didn’t understand why, but he nodded anyway. “Look, I gave Rabbi Josh as a reference, but the shadchan asked what yeshiva I learned in, and I guess they traced you that way.”
“You already told me,” Rabbi Tzvi comforted him. “Did you get her references?”
Joe reached into his pocket and pulled out the folded torn sheet from Mrs. Rosenzweig. “Still fresh,” he said as he handed it over to the rabbi.
“Good.” With his open hand, he took Joe’s hand and gave him a heavy shake. “Mazal tov.”
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