Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Jewish Valentine Story: How People Meet


By Ann Rabinowitz

Whenever Valentine’s Day, February 14th, comes around each year, my mind often ponders the mechanics of how people meet and fall in love.  And, before we start on that discussion, it might be of interest to note that Jews have their very own day of romance which is Tu B’Av, the fifteenth day of the month of Av (August), and the last festival of the Jewish year.  It was utilized in the Second Temple days as an occasion for matchmaking and later as a propitious time for weddings and it is celebrated in Israel today.

Our ancestors, very often, were fixed up by a shadchan or matchmaker and had no real choice in the matter.  Very often, the bride and groom did not see each other until their wedding day.  Theirs was not usually a match of love, but of commonalities and family ties and of the proper yichus or proper pedigree.  It was hoped that the Yiddish term beshert for the Talmudic concept that G-d makes the choice of a soul mate for each person would prove the case in these matches.  

The shadchan has been a long-standing fixture in Jewish communities and in today’s world the tradition continues in such permutations as the third generation shadchan Patti Stanger, the millionaire matchmaker on the American Bravo television channel.  One is even reminded of matchmakers in regard to the on-line dating services which are so popular nowadays.  This includes the ubiquitous JDate.com which bills itself as the “modern alternative to traditional Jewish matchmaking” and “a source of Jewish romance around the world”. 

Music even reminds us of them as in the “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” tune from “Fiddler on the Roof”.  The result of the matchmaker’s art can be seen in many references which give the researcher a wonderfully rich view of one of Judaism’s primary life milestones, the wedding.  One can see this in the Yiddish play “Khasene Shtetl” (a wedding in shtetl) which was performed by the well-known Burstein family which focused on love in “der heim” and its complications.   The play can be heard on the Judaica Sound Archives site here.
 
Other resources include the book about life in Galicia entitled “A World Apart” by Joseph Margoshes, which can be found on Google Book Search, and discusses, in part, matchmakers and other such things.  A discussion of the role of the matchmaker and the wedding can even be found on JewishGen in a piece about the shtetl of Postovy, Lithuania
There are also photographs of weddings and celebrations which can be found in many places such as the following wedding in Uzpaliai, Lithuania, where the whole town turned up for the festivities.  It can be found on the Uzpaliai shtetlinks site:
 
A Wedding in Uzpaliai, Lithuania

Sometimes, it is one’s own family that can illustrate the customs and quirks of Jewish matchmaking and marriage.  Collecting stories from relatives about how one’s family met their loved ones can be quite helpful in enhancing your family’s history.

For instance, some couples in “der heim” were matched rather early, in their teens, but were married a bit later when they were more mature.  This was the case with my maternal grandparents, Lewis and Rose Fink, who were from Drohobycz and Boryslaw, Ukraine, and were matched when Lewis was 17 and Rose was 15.  Their marriage ceremony took place two years later in 1891.  They remained happily married until Rose’s untimely death during the Flu Pandemic in 1917. 

The coming of the modern age and the family’s emigration to England signaled a new way of finding one’s true love.  One of my mother’s brothers found his beshert on his own, but she died of consumption before they could marry.  Devastated, his family suggested that he resort to the time-honored use of a shadchan to find his chosen one.  He did and found the woman he eventually married. 

My mother’s sister Sadie met her husband Abe on a train coming back from an engagement party in Leeds.  A nicely dressed gentleman sat next to my grandfather on the train and started to chat him up as my mother and her sister sat quietly by during this conversation.  He made a very good impression as he had a steady job, he was a solid person and was intelligent and easy to talk to.  As they were about to get off the train, the gentleman asked if he could come and take my aunt out.  My grandfather approved and, the next thing you know, he showed up on the doorstep at lunchtime the next day with candy and flowers.  They later married. 

Very often relatives provided the introductions to couples as was the case of one of my grandmother’s relatives, Mina Schlisselhein, who regularly introduced couples and was the unofficial shadchan of the family.  In addition, my mother’s sister Bessie provided introductions for relatives including her cousin Julia and her future husband Phillip.

Family celebrations were also venues for introductions such as engagement and wedding parties and also bar mitzvahs and even landsmannschaftn meetings.  Unattached members of the family would be placed next to each other at the same tables with the hope that the close propinquity of the event would foster a lasting relationship.

In the case of my mother, she found her beshert at a dance in the middle of war-torn Manchester, England.  Her beshert was an American soldier who chanced to come to the dance whilst on leave.  Out of all of the girls at the dance, he happened upon one of the few Jewish ones, my mother, whom he was married to for forty-three years.

 
 Bill and Fay Rabinowitz

In my father’s family, his father and mother met in a rooming house in Manhattan owned by my great grandfather.  My great grandparents brought four daughters with them to America from Kupiskis, Lithuania.  What better way to find a chasen (bridegroom) for them than by marrying them off to their borders.  It so happened that several of these borders were brothers, so there was added reason for the families to remain close.  My grandfather was also from the same shtetl as my grandmother and this added to the positive aspects of their marriage.

As men and women went out into the workforce and toiled together side by side, it became common to find one’s future spouse on the job.  This was especially true of couples who worked in sweatshops and factories.  One fellow, Solly, a friend of my mother’s brother, came to America to make his mark and went to work in an electrical lighting company.  There, he met the boss’s daughter and fell in love.  He found both his beshert and his livelihood in one fell swoop.

Another venue was education where immigrants attended English classes or other such means of increasing their adjustment skills to their new homelands.  Other gatherings for labor unions, religious groups, political organizations, social groups, all played their roles in providing a venue for romance.

After all these years though of individuals moving away from the formalized matchmaking of the shtetls, it is strange to learn that people are going back to some of the old ways of doing things in the romance department.  They let their parents introduce them to viable candidates and they use actual matchmakers.  Perhaps they are finding that the world is just too large and complex to depend on their own means of choosing a life mate.

Whatever the modus operandi, the romantic genealogist has a broad canvas to research and paint a vibrant story of their ancestor’s lives.  It is well worth the  effort to find and explore these clues to the past. 

4 comments:

  1. Ann, you have a wonderful talent for educating by intertwining macrocosmic and microcosmic history.

    Thank you also for providing links to supplemental material.

    Joy Rich

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ann, you have a wonderful talent for educating by intertwining macrocosmic and microcosmic history.

    Thank you also for providing links to supplementary material.

    Joy Rich

    ReplyDelete
  3. I agree with Joy. The articles from Ann are fascinating and I always look forward to them.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I believe that Bessie Fink was married to Abe or Abraham Spindler - who was the brother of my husband's grandfather Sam. All of Manchester. My name is Judith Kirwilliam and I can be contacted through Facebook. I am having trouble tracing this side of the family - so any help appreciated. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete

Comments are welcome. Please post responsibly.