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By Kyle Swenson
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Francine Katz is not happy. The 68-year-old Jewish matchmaker sits at her dining room table in Miami Beach, leafing through her big black date book. She shuffles through printouts of a 45-year-old divorcee looking for someone who is great with kids, a 28-year-old Hasidic man looking for a woman willing to relocate to Israel, and a 30-something conservadox man who does not mind if his wife shows a little leg. Pages are paperclipped and folded over. Words like "sweet" and "kind-hearted" are underlined and circled. She stops at the printout of one orthodox man who is looking for an "attractive woman" preferably one who wears a size 3.
Katz sighs. She pushes back her blue headband, which holds her shoulder- length brown wig in place. Her eyebrows pinch together, tent-like, and she folds one squat leg over the other. "Men are always looking for the skinny girls," she says. "Such a shame. I know a lot of heavy people with unbelievable qualities. People are always looking for such superficial things -- they should be asking what sorts of wonderful things the other person does, what type of person she is."
Then she points to the three glass dishes on the table that she has filled up with candy.
"Have some food," she says.
Francine Katz is one of a decreasing number of shadchanim -- Jewish matchmakers -- in the South Florida area. In the Internet age, it's a sinking ship. Traditional matchmakers in religious communities are now finding themselves in direct competition with Jewish online dating sources, which offer the same matchmaking services and vast databases of names, without the intermediary.
A few years back, though, there was a local community of shadchanim here. These were not just matchmakers but skilled service providers expert in Jewish rituals. The group of women would meet monthly at one another's houses, exchanging their prospective clients' information the way young boys trade baseball cards. Over glasses of Diet Coke and plates of pareve kosher cakes, the women would advocate their prospective clients, espousing their attributes and waving their pictures about. "Have I got a great girl for you," one would say, and the rest would dive through their books, sculling for prospective matches. At the end of a session, the shadchanim would come home with more numbers to call, more references to seek out.
Sometimes these women would take to the streets in South Florida, carrying pictures of their prospective clients and stopping eligible men and women in their tracks to show them profiles of their latest catches. Even if the pit stop did not result in a match, there was always the chance, Katz says, that that person would know someone else who was looking.
"Being a matchmaker is hard work," says Katz, who herself is married to a doctor. (She offers her services not for money, she says -- though she has been known to accept a four-figure gift, which she promptly donates to charitable Jewish causes.)
Today, however, Katz finds the need for her services waning. Plummeting, in fact. Though she prides herself on her almost innate ability to recognize good matches, she has not mated a couple in a year.
This concerns her deeply, not just for her own well-being but for the matchmaking tradition in Judaism as a whole.
The matchmaker has always played a central role in religious Jewish circles. Because marriage is seen as the closest real-life interpretation of God's relationship with man, marriage is seen as an important force in a person's life. A matchmaker, then, has been viewed as a purveyor of God's will and was thus granted a high position in society. Creating a successful shidekh, or match, is one of the greatest mitzvot (good deeds) a person can perform.
A good shadchan, Katz says, is one who has a good marriage and who recognizes the faults in other people's. It doesn't hurt to have an intimate understanding of human nature -- or a minor in psychology, as Katz does, from Ohio State University. The important thing is the personal touch.
This is why the subject of online dating peeves her so much.
Jewish online dating services have surged in the past few years. Jdate.com, which has been in existence for five years, now boasts a 500,000-person membership. The site caters to the general Jewish community, with no preference given to the different religious sects. And two years ago Frumster.com, a site specifically aimed at the Orthodox and Hasidic communities emerged. With 17,000 members, Frumster.com lists South Florida as one of its biggest markets. Its mission is to help Orthodox men and women find their soul mates. But not just anyone can enter a profile; there are minimum religiosity requirements. The user must believe in God and basic Jewish law. He or she must also abstain from work on the Sabbath and keep a kosher home. There are also no sexual references on the site -- anything deemed even remotely revealing or inappropriate is quickly deleted, says Derek Saker, its marketing director.
To find the perfect match, then, Orthodox men can search through profiles of women who profess their love of the Torah and boast about the number of times a day they study it. They can look at how willing the potential candidate is to move to Israel, how much she covers up her legs, and whether she will tuck her hair into a wig when she marries. And women can browse through pictures of black-hatted Hasidic men with long beards and curly tendrils, looking for a match who engages in tefilah at least three times a day and comes from a very observant family.
"We're a minority group," says Saker, "with particular marriage requirements. We're not trying to replace the shadchan. We're just trying to make matches. It's really a rather traditional method if you think about it."
Katz does not buy this.
"It's ridiculous," she says. "It's so easy to tell half-truths on there. There's no one checking out backgrounds, no one to ask for references. In the Orthodox circle, there is always someone who knows a person, either from the yeshivah or from synagogue. You talk to a few people, you find out a few things. You see when the red flags go up. You always have to look for the red flags."
Katz is big on red flags.
"How do you know that this perfectly nice-looking person isn't a kleptomaniac? How do you know they don't have cancer? You have a right to know these things. You need to know these things."
Katz folds her hands, flashing gold, chunky rings on each hand. "I, on the other hand," Katz says, "have never had anyone come back to me after a date and tell me something about the other person that surprises me. They might come back complaining of some flaw, and I always say, 'Yeah, well, that sounds about right.' "
It's Katz's job to inform the partner whether there was a successful match and whether there will be another date.
"It's a big responsibility," Katz says, "but you know that going in. It's not my fault if the date doesn't work out. But it's my joy if it does."
To that end, Katz pooh-poohs the idea of citing numbers on the rate of successful matches. "It's enough," is all she'll say. Besides, she adds somewhat defensively, good matches are not just ones that end in marriage. A good match can be a relationship that continues for more than one date. People have such wrong ideas of the word success today, she says. They also have the wrong idea of marriage, but that's another story entirely.
Rabbi Edward Davis, the head rabbi at Hollywood-Fort Lauderdale's Young Israel, has been contacted by Katz and other shadchanim about congregants' backgrounds. A roly-poly man with a white scratchy beard and a round sunburned face, he has some expertise of his own in the art of bringing eligible young people together. He has married off three of his children, which, he says, sounds impressive until you realize he has six more to go.
But in his role as a rabbi, serving his congregants, Davis must deal with some of the same concerns that Katz addresses. "People will call with the weirdest questions," he says. "They'll want to know what the prospective bride's mother wore to services on Friday night, or what type of silverware the family uses when they entertain guests for a Saturday lunch."
It can be a delicate task. When asked about certain persons' characteristics, he confides, he has to be careful about what he says. "There's a reason," he says, "why in England they're called 'virgin queens.' It's because you can't call them 'ugly queens.'"
But, Katz says, when it comes to matchmaking, rabbis like Davis often have their flaws. "I shouldn't tell you this," she says, "but the rabbi [Davis] has set up some not-so-good matches."
This is what really gets Katz's goat: The goal should not be just to find a match but to find a good match, an accomplishment she is sure an online dating service cannot do.
"An online site does not show how good you are to your parents, how you treat your siblings, what your family life is like," she says. "It takes superficial things and attempts to make matches that way."
Now all that Katz has to do is get her clientele back.
"Any ideas?" she asks, sighing.