Review of The Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures
by Rebecca Kaplan Boroson
Psychologist Michael J. Salamon begins his wise and rueful book about how Orthodox Jewish singles meet (or don’t meet) with the transcript of a telephone call that cries out to be reprinted:
Caller: Dr. Salamon, I am calling because I have to find out some important information regarding a shidduch.
Dr. S.: Of course, you know that I am not at liberty to discuss any private information. Not only is it illegal; it is unethical.
Caller: This situation is different.
Dr. S.: I am afraid that there is no situation that is different unless the people involved give explicit permission.
Caller: Well, they don’t know that I am calling, but they have spoken highly of you and I was asked to get this information so that we can decide to proceed with the shidduch or not.
Dr. S.: I still cannot give you such information.
Caller: Well, let me ask the question anyway and you will see how important it is for the decision-making process. So the question is: At what age was this young man toilet-trained?
Salamon, who is himself Orthodox and has worked with Jewish communities in the greater New York area, notes that he “simply hung up at that point.” Nevertheless, the supremely inappropriate question “got me to thinking… about what has gone wrong in the shidduch scene.”
That question sparked another question: “Have we lost our common sense?”
He answers that most Jewishly by citing yet another question that a shadchan asked a mother of a young woman: ‘Does she wear a seat belt in the car?’”
The answer is, as the law dictates, “Of course.” But, Salamon continues, “It seems that the young man’s family felt that if the young woman wore a seatbelt, the chest strap would heighten her physical attraction, causing the young man to lose control of himself. Of course,” he saturninely observes, “it would not be the young man’s fault but rather the fault of the young woman, who was behaving immodestly by wearing a seat belt.”
In Salamon’s view, such misapplied questioning — which may verge on lashon hara, gossip or even slander — misses the point about what makes a good marriage. It also makes it particularly hard for Orthodox singles to find their mates. He cites cases in which prospective mates are declared unsuitable for reasons that might be called, in any other community, frivolous (such as wearing a feather in one’s hat), while more serious concerns, such as abusive behavior, may go unmentioned.
And, he maintains, “several crises in our community are related in one way or another to the current shidduch approach. These range from a shortage of men to increasing rates of divorce, domestic violence, eating disorders, greater use of medication, and, ultimately, leaving the fold entirely.” (By the way, he cites a 2006 Jewish Standard article, “It’s hard to be a body: Eating disorders in the Jewish Community,” by Lois Goldrich, the newspaper’s associate editor.)
Salamon writes that “[t]he concepts described in Eshet Chayil [the biblical poem ‘A Woman of Valor’], where physical beauty is secondary to middot [good character traits] and proper spirituality, are overlooked or completely forgotten in the quest for the perfect shidduch. After all,” he notes, “most of these young women [with eating disorders] truly believe that if their dress size goes above two, they will not get the best of the wedding prospects for themselves.”
They may be right. “These young men,” he writes, “often talk about a girl’s ‘fat potential’….” In one case, “[t]he shadchan wanted a picture of the girl’s grandmother. It seems that knowing the dress sizes of both the girl and her mother was not enough to assure a potential choson [groom] that the girl would not later become heavy because perhaps her mother lost weight for the sake of her daughter’s shidduch.”
As for young men, “Who decided,” he asks, “that a young man who wears a kippah seruga [which is crocheted] is less valuable on the dating market than one who wears a black hat?”
Salamon says that these and similar distinctions, dividing Orthodoxy and driving many further into the Orthodox right wing, “[set] up roadblocks to the development of relationships.”
“How many young Orthodox people are leaving the fold,” he asks, “either gradually or completely? How many are doing so because of the pressures of the dating scene, physical appearance, and compulsive behaviors that are not at all relevant to a Jewish lifestyle?”
Salamon’s examples may seem entertaining to some and baffling and even infuriating to others, but the book is much more than a collection of anecdotes. He writes, using sociological and psychological findings, about the anxiety and depression that can result from the search for a mate who fits a prescribed profile. He writes about the search to find a partner whose psychological profile fits one’s own. And throughout, he shows a deep knowledge of and reverence for Jewish texts and an intimate knowledge of the Orthodox community.
In certain Orthodox circles, Salamon’s suggestions would be spurned. But that would be a loss to the young (and sometimes not so young) men and women who are seeking their basherts in this confusing world.
Available at Urim Publications
The original text of the review is located here.