As someone who mostly steers clear of reality television in favor of more premium (read: snobbier) fare, I was a little hesitant to check out Netflix’s new reality series, "Jewish Matchmaking." Based on the same format as the streaming service’s hit show “Indian Matchmaking,” the series follows Aleeza Ben Shalom, an ultra-Orthodox matchmaker who grew up in a relatively secular family, as she travels between the U.S. and Israel helping Jewish singles meet their bashert (soulmate). The first season has eight episodes, which I devoured in two days. It turns out that watching people stumble and struggle to meet someone they truly connect with, and finally finding that spark, makes for very compelling television!
A Pennsylvania native, Aleeza lives in Israel with her husband of 20 years and their five kids. In a brief scene, we’re allowed a glimpse of her marriage, as she tenderly cuts her husband’s hair. She explains that they were shomeir negiah, not touching until their wedding day. It is a custom she advocates not only with her Orthodox clients, but also with her less observant clients, as well. In one case, she counsels Harmonie, a middle-aged yoga practitioner, to not touch at all for several dates, hoping that this will allow her to make an emotional connection before a physical one.
One of the more difficult aspects of the show is watching as many of her clients don’t seem to grasp her advice or are unwilling to put it into practice. Aleeza remains upbeat, even in the face of truly challenging circumstances. In one such instance, Aleeza tries to match Ori, a charming yet oblivious man-child who lives with his parents, with his dream woman: a beautiful blonde-haired, blue-eyed, Moroccan Israeli who wants three or more children. Aleeza’s ability to actually find Ori a match who meets most of his requirements is a testament to her prowess. In the case of Cindy, an eligible bachelorette who clearly is still hung up on her ex, Aleeza demonstrates some tough love: She tells Cindy that she has to decide if she is going to close the door while citing the statistic that over a third of break-ups end up back together.
In addition to shomeir negiah, Aleeza has many ideas for dating which can be summed up in snappy catchphrases such as, “date ‘em till you hate ‘em,” “when in doubt, go out,” and “mystery in your history.” One of the fantastic things about the show is that it can appeal to Jewish and non-Jewish viewers alike. Specific Jewish terminology is bandied about but never goes unexplained. “Tikkun olam” (healing the world), “frum” (strictly observant), and “tefillin” (black leather boxes used for prayer) are all defined onscreen with glossary-style pop-up boxes. Added to these traditionally Jewish terms are more of Aleeza’s personal dating vernacular such as “flexidox,” meaning someone who observes some Orthodox traditions but not others.
One of the most impressive aspects of the series is the breadth of Jewish representation on display. Aleeza’s clients range from a frumkeit (religious) woman in a traditional Brooklyn ultra-Orthodox community to a Reform Jewish Woman of Color in Kansas who likes guns and motorcycles. For someone who hasn’t had much exposure to the Jewish community, I would wager this series would be extremely eye-opening, especially in terms of the complexity of the greater Jewish community. Part of Aleeza’s dating process is making a checklist of preferences and religious practices that are desirable in a match, which underscores how different everyone can be.
While some dates are cringey and others sweet, they’re all interesting. Take Stuart, a 50-something, self-deprecating Chicago musician who says he’s looking for somebody to whom he doesn’t need to explain the humor of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” He’s set up with two women, Pamela and Hope, both of whom have worked with the Reform youth organization NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth). I won’t give away which woman he connects with, but it’s a joy to behold when a bit of an eccentric finally finds someone who gets him.
With so much negativity in the news, it’s refreshing to view something on the lighter side of life. There are people out there still searching for and finding love. Watching people connect with each other and seeing the sparkle in their eyes when there’s obvious chemistry is both thrilling and comforting. Given the state of dating and “swipe” culture, I suspect this show will cause a spike in the number of people seeking out matchmakers. “Jewish Matchmaking” certainly makes the case that, for some, the old ways might still be the best ways.
Now streaming on Netflix.