he Best Bochur in Lakewood is finally out of the freezer and I’m recruited to gather information about the girl’s side. When I call that first reference I’m told the young lady in question definitely has personality but isn’t the “head counselor type.” She’s smart but not too smart. Relaxed but not too easygoing.
Frustrated I ask “Can you tell me what stands out about your friend? What makes her different from everyone else?” After a long pause the reference offers a masterstroke of diplomacy: “She’s so… normal. So well balanced all around!”
In a world where all girls are “amaaazing” blessed with “exactly” the right amount of personality we suffer from an ambiguity crisis: Boys receive an endless parade of generic non-informative r?sum?s of girls they can’t differentiate between. This worsens the appearance of an extreme imbalance; although most shidduchim suggested are probably irrelevant it can be pretty hard to tell which ones are on target and which aren’t resulting in the infamous Lists.
A little forethought and planning can go a long way toward improving our methods of getting and giving over information. By adopting useful strategies we can transform references into effective advocates and parents into successful sleuths.
Put Your Best Foot Forward
These days every girl and most boys entering shidduchim launch their careers with a shidduch r?sum? . Aside from sharing the prospective candidate’s basic background information the purpose of a r?sum? is to facilitate that venerable pastime Jewish geography.
There’s rarely a possibility of including too many names says veteranLakewoodshadchan Rabbi Shlomo Lewenstein. Any name the other side recognizes automatically creates some level of connection boosting the chances the reference will actually be called. Unless the family tree has some stain that wouldn’t be prudent to advertise include grandparents and parents’ siblings; they provide more opportunities for potential suitors to notice connections and common acquaintances.
Listing mechutanim is a must asserts Rabbi Lewenstein both for the way they extend the network of acquaintances and because they know you in a unique relevant context.
Rabbi Lewenstein cautions against including a description of the young man or woman. “If you write that you’re a bit on the quieter side and the boy’s looking for someone leibidig that can kill a shidduch right there.” On the other hand if the mother hears that the girl has a lovely personality albeit a little less bubbly she might decide that’s more than adequate for her son.
When choosing references bear in mind that the person who knows you best may not represent you best. Ask yourself: Is this person articulate? Effusive? Would I trust this person if I were calling for shidduch information? “It’s the spontaneous expression of delight that makes all the difference” says Mrs. Zlata Press long-time principal of Bnos Leah Prospect Park Yeshiva inBrooklyn. Favor references who will enthuse about you rather than someone who esteems you very much but may be more guarded or less forthcoming with praise.
Ask permission before including a reference. While not strictly necessary it’s an appreciated courtesy besides a smart move. When you obtain permission to give out their contact information you have the opportunity to update them on important details of your life such as your educational plans or employment and what’s important to you in a spouse. Filling in this background detail is important. “As a high school teacher I often have lovely things to say but seminary can be transformative ” says teacher and shul-rebbetzin Sara Wiederblank who is frequently called for information about students and community members.
Once the résumé is compiled treat it as you would any important application or business document: Check it for accuracy. Are phone numbers current? If there are Israeli DSL lines are they noted as such? Waking up a seminary teacher at three a.m. local time is not an auspicious start to a shidduch.
Making the Call
With six married children who spent a collective 27 years in shidduchim Miriam Grossman is an experienced veteran of the information-gathering process. “I actually avoided calling anyone on the resume when I could” admits Mrs. Grossman. Instead she looked for mutual acquaintances who wouldn’t be prejudiced by loyalty to their close friend.
When she found a reference who was open and honest she’d often call back about other prospects too. “After a few times you learn each person’s biases — this one is enthusiastic about everyone this one disapproves of girls in college and so on but it gives you a frame of reference to interpret their responses.”
Track down neighbors and mechutanim, even if their numbers haven’t been provided. These relationships, which can’t be hidden, provide a unique perspective. Neighbors see the prospective candidate’s family day to day, not just on their best behavior; mechutanim witness high stress levels that often accompany a simchah and can report firsthand about in-law dynamics.
When placing that call, courtesy dictates that you introduce yourself. “You’re asking for confidential, often highly sensitive information about another person; be a big boy or girl and identify yourself,” says Mrs. Weiderblank. Although leaked information about a phone call could damage relationships, these instances are rare and can be addressed on an individual basis.
Once you’ve introduced yourself, a little context is in order. How does the reference know the subject? How long have they been in touch, and how recently? With this background information, you can evaluate the other person’s input.
Details, Details, Details
The number one rule, experts concur, is be as specific as possible. “The more specific your questions, the harder it is for the reference to dodge real issues,” explains Mrs. Wiederblank. Asking whether the person has a temper makes it easier for a reference to answer vaguely than asking whether he’s ever heard the boy raise his voice. “Describing someone as ‘growing’ or ‘machshiv Torah’ sounds great, but what do they mean?” Instead, specify what you’d like to know — does she go to shiurim? Is he makpid to daven every tefillah with a minyan?
In phrasing your questions, avoid lingo or euphemisms unless you’re certain they’ll be interpreted as you intend. “It took several years before I realized that to some people, ‘eidel’ was a polite way to say ‘nerdy,’ ” relates Mrs. Grossman.
Listening to answers is a skill honed with practice. Pay careful attention to what people don’t say, hesitations, evasiveness, or lukewarm responses, and try to get answers that are as complete and descriptive as possible. Otherwise, you are likely to fill in the gaps in ways that align with your preconceived notions. As Mrs. Press says, “What we get is often exactly as described, but not at all as anticipated.” Don’t make assumptions beyond what the references tell you.
Parents of boys often wonder how to ask about plans to support the young couple. Rabbi Lewenstein discourages financial discussion before you’re ready to agree to a shidduch. “People don’t like to give numbers without having any idea who they are talking about. Say yes, let them check out your son. Once they hear about the quality of your son, they’ll be much more willing to talk.”
Many times, references or shadchanim will be uncomfortable volunteering sensitive information, but will answer when asked directly. So be blunt; instead of beating around the bush and attempting to ferret out clues, ask if there is a history of any type of illness, or if there is any character flaw or weakness that you should know about. Some people have the practice of asking the shadchan to confirm verbally with the boy’s or girl’s parents that there is no physical or mental illness, and whether he or she is taking any type of medication.
“You have the right to ask anything,” asserts Mrs. Wiederblank. If a reference won’t, or can’t, answer a question, that’s his prerogative, but don’t hesitate to ask about anything that could impact a potential marriage. Sometimes, an unwillingness to answer may be the actual answer you’re looking for.
Taking the Call
A novice entering the intimidating world of shidduchim has likely imbibed years of cautionary tales and pessimistic advice. She anticipates a world populated by unsympathetic shadchanim, duplicitous references, and sinister bogey mothers looking for excuses to reject innocent young girls.
Mrs. Press would like to unravel that myth. She maintains that she has found the process of giving information to be a very positive one. “Rarely, if ever, have I met the arrogant mother who demands to know why the girl is worthy of her son. Generally, they are lovely women trying to minimize wear and tear on their children.”
Rabbi Lewenstein agrees that urban legends about plastic tablecloths and stacking plates are exaggerated. While there are people who care deeply about insignificant details, he finds his clients to be generally reasonable people with their children’s best interests at heart.
Still, the callers are actively listening not just to what you say but how you answer. References who hesitate or conjecture about the candidate’s goals and choices tend not to inspire confidence. Be proactive: If you find yourself frequently called about a specific person, find out what he or she is looking for in a spouse and his or her life goals.
If you’re close with someone who has a potential obstacle to shidduchim, such as an unsavory background or physical or emotional illness, prepare before the calls come. Clarify the actual circumstances, and find out what you can share. Has the problem been resolved, and if not, how is it being dealt with? Is there a doctor or mentor to whom you can refer questioners? Does the family intend to disclose the facts during the dating process? Once you have the details clear, present your sh’eilah to a competent rav for halachic clarity. (See sidebar.)
Think Different, Not Better
When someone calls for information, the last thing they want to hear is a long pause as you struggle to find something — anything — complimentary to say. If possible, respond warmly to the mention of the name, and mention something generally positive before inviting specific questions.
While hilchos lashon hara mandate specific questions and answers, and callers crave clarity, references often fear that by sharing details that are very specific, they are labeling or boxing their friends in, possibly ruining their chances for a particular shidduch. Nevertheless, remember the truth that every advertising professional knows: Different is more important than better. Not everyone is looking for the Top Boy or Top Girl.
While “sweet,” “warm,” and “outgoing” are always assumed to be in demand, references are slower to use words that might have a narrower audience, such as “reserved,” “blunt,” or “artsy.” While these words might be just right for a particular shidduch, references who fear alienating callers tend to stick with generic less-descriptive terms.
Instead, Mrs. Press suggests you erase the image of the ruthless mother of the boy hovering, red pen at the ready, eager to strike off candidates who don’t match a particular gleaming profile. “Mothers of sons need permission to look outside the box. It’s not that they’re so taken with their sons — what they’re really saying is, ‘That sounds a little unusual; am I really allowed to do that?’ ” If you succeed in describing someone in a way that is unique but positive, the mother will often be receptive. A blunt person might be “someone forthright who’s comfortable expressing herself emphatically,” but “sweet” is probably unhelpful.
It’s the unexpected details, not clich?d superlatives, that make a person stand out from a stack of faceless profiles. Mrs. Press recalls telling one mother that while the girl in question made a fine impression, she had always gone through school with the conviction that the administration and teachers didn’t truly know and value her, and that there were strengths the school hadn’t succeeded in drawing out. Exclaimed the excited mother, “That’s exactly how my son always felt about his rebbeim!”
Anecdotes, Not Adjectives
Frequently, Mrs. Press explains, we develop a mental picture of a person based on one interaction. Instead of offering your evaluation of the person’s character, it’s more helpful — and halachically preferable — to describe the incidents that formed your opinion. This way, your biases don’t color the image you are conveying, and the questioner can form her own picture of the subject.
She recalls a colleague who was asked if a particular student was tzniyusdig. Instead of blurting out her initial, unfavorable assessment, the teacher instead offered a single detail indicative of the student’s style of dress. “That’s great, I wear that myself,” the cheerful questioner assured the teacher.
An English teacher, Mrs. Grossman contends that the cardinal rule of writing holds true for shidduchim as well: Show me, don’t tell me. “Give me examples so I can judge for myself,” she says. Illustrating the quality you are describing helps avoid the problem of the caller and reference using language differently.
In one memorable conversation, Mrs. Grossman asked a high school principal if a girl was thoughtful and was reassured that she was a highly considerate person. “Actually, I meant to ask whether she is a thinking person, someone with a curious mind,” clarified Mrs. Grossman. “Oh no, we don’t encourage that here,” exclaimed the scandalized principal.
As a good reference, your responsibility is to report as objectively as you can. “Don’t argue that my son needs a wife and not a chavrusa,” says Mrs. Grossman. “Please just provide any information that seems relevant and leave the evaluation to me.” Most mothers know what their children are looking for, and if not, it’s not the reference’s job to set them straight. Simply give your best, unembellished assessment of the truth.
The Shadchan Above
After giving the research your best shot, it’s time to sit back and trust in the guiding Providence that permeates our lives. Rabbi Lewenstein urges girls’ families not to get carried away by research. If the boy’s side has agreed, they’ve already done a large amount of the sifting for you. “Don’t over-analyze,” he begs. “So no one said he has leadership qualities? Let your daughter meet him and make her own decision. I see engagements all the time that I wouldn’t have predicted.”
Even the best research will still leave surprises waiting to be uncovered, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Good things come in all kinds of packages. When we put aside preconceived notions, ask intelligent questions, and listen carefully to the answers, we can cut through some of the confusion surrounding shidduchim, and be thankful for the simchah that finally comes our way — even when the form it takes surprises us.
While personality is important, it’s also one of the things that’s nearly impossible to hide on a date. More important topics to focus on are questions of character, life goals, and the values that each partner will bring to the table.
While it’s tempting to say, “So tell me about Suri,” or, “Would you say Mendy is a baal middos?” both halachah and years of collective shidduch experience intimate a specific, goal-oriented approach. Consider using detailed questions about qualities that are crucial for marriage:
- Is Ezzy open to hearing other people’s opinions? Whose hadrachah does he accept?
- What qualities are important to Shani in a spouse?
- What is Shmuel’s relationship with his parents like?
- What does Aliza do in her spare time?
- How does Zalman react to disappointment? Can you remember a specific time when he was let down?
- Is Malka a hard worker? How does she cope when life gets overwhelming?
- Who are the role models that Dovid looks up to?
The Art of Speaking Lashon Hara
When Mendy’s aunt asked him for information about his roommate, he was torn between loyalty toward his friend and his cousin. Opting for what he felt was the safest path, he honestly enumerated his roommate’s fine qualities — neglecting to mention that the roommate suffered from a poorly controlled mental illness.
The subsequent marriage ended during sheva brachos, and Mendy and his cousin’s family haven’t spoken since.
With all of our best intentions to help family and friends, every reference will be faced at some point with the unpleasant task of relaying negative information. The basis for all determinations about the permissibility of lashon hara l’toeles is the Chofetz Chaim’s list of seven conditions, but not all the conditions apply in every case.
“The obligation to give tochachah rarely applies in shidduch situations,” says Rabbi Yisroel Reisman, Rav of Agudath Israel of Madison and a rosh yeshivah in Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. The requirement for tochachah is suspended when the listener won’t accept the rebuke, and very few people will take to heart mussar from their references.
According to Rav Yitzchok Berkovits, noted posek and rosh kollel in Yerushalayim, we can minimize lashon hara by being as specific as possible with our answers. Answering general questions, e.g. “Tell me about the boy,” leads people to spill generic lashon hara that is likely subjective, and may not be relevant to the shidduch in question. Instead, respond with a positive remark about the person, and then ask “What, specifically, would you like to know?”
When something negative must be conveyed, it should be done in the most delicate manner possible. Rabbi Reisman relates the story of a gem of a bochur who just wasn’t cut out for the yeshivah schedule. When asked about the boy’s punctuality, Rabbi Reisman praised his middos, describing how he was constantly busy helping people. “I don’t understand!” said the frustrated mother of the girl. “I’ve asked six people whether he comes on time to seder, and no one has given me a straight answer!”
“Sometimes, not getting a straight answer is your answer. To a certain extent, It’s the achrayus of the people asking the questions to read between the lines,” says Rabbi Reisman. If the information is negative, but not critical to the success of a marriage, the reference relaying the information must do it gently.
Often, the presentation makes all the difference. “ ‘Nerdy’ is a trigger word. But you can describe the qualities of nerdy by describing a girl with a strong sense of who she is, who looks attractive without attention to the dictates of style,” suggests Mrs. Press.
However, the evasive tactics above apply only to information that, while negative, is not destructive to the health of a marriage. One may never obscure truly damaging information. “If someone is not marriage material, you absolutely must volunteer that information. You have a chiyuv of ‘Lo saamod al dam reiecha — don’t allow your friend’s blood to be spilled,’ ” emphasizes Rabbi Reisman. This may require legwork to clarify the situation and then ask a sh’eilah, but you have a definite obligation to warn the caller to steer clear.
The magnitude of the two juxtaposed imperatives — lo seilech rachil b’amecha (not to slander) and lo saamod al dam reiecha —challenges us with a serious balancing act that requires a rav’s input to ensure that we act in accordance with halachah.
(Originally featured in Family First Issue 505)