he was 28. Single. The world of shidduchim offered its typical roller coaster ride: highs of potential promise followed by crashing letdowns and intense disappointment. And sometimes, for months at a time, it offered nothing.
“I come from a real litvish home. My father is a Litvak through and through,” Mindy says. “After a few years of teaching, a job came up in a chassidish school, so I was able to pick up Yiddish, and I also got to observe chassidim up close. I found that they were regular, normal people.” A co-teacher at Mindy’s school knew of an “older chassidish bochur,” a plumber by trade, who rented on her block. One Friday afternoon, faced with a plumbing emergency, this woman called him over. Impressed by his efficiency and super-helpful demeanor, she wondered if perhaps he’d be a suitable shidduch for her personable, refined workmate, Mindy.
“Would you marry a shtreimel?” she asked Mindy, who had been in shidduchim for close to a decade.
“A shtreimel?” Mindy responded. “I’m not marrying a hat — I’m marrying a person. What’s he like?” After thorough inquiries, the couple met — and married. Although some people might shrug and say, “What’s the big deal — they’re both frum, aren’t they?” Mindy says she would never have entertained the shidduch if not for her positive experiences working in the chassidish sector. She describes her husband Sender as “chassidish, but not ultra-chassidish.”
Sender, who was a chassidish working boy in his late 20s, didn’t want to hear about this suggestion at first. “I thought it couldn’t work with such different backgrounds. But when the shadchan described how Mindy said she wanted to marry a person, not his levush, I was impressed. It gave me the push to meet her.”
As the litvish world alternately raises collective hands in horror and brainstorms for possible ways to alleviate the struggles of its single daughters, the chassidish sector struggles with an inverse issue: older bochurim who have not found their bashert.
Shadchanim positioned in the midst of both societies claim they hear opposite complaints from parents of chassidim and Litvaks. One side worries about daughters growing older single, the other is desperate to find wives for their sons. In the chassidish world, boys commonly marry before 20, and in many chassidic groups, it’s not unusual for a girl to marry a boy a year or two younger (the “good boys” get grabbed up at 19, even by 21-year-old girls). There’s also an “order” protocol, where many families are particular about children marrying in the order they were born. Many families are careful about “not skipping” an older sibling — and gender makes no difference in who’s skipping or who’s being skipped. So once a chassidish boy reaches his early 20s, he’s lost his window and becomes an “alte bucher,” left behind and concerned for his future — a type of reverse shidduch crisis.
Can marriages between older litvish girls and chassidish boys offer a solution for both sides of the shidduch predicament?
Passionate shadchanim, open-minded singles, and a gradually emergent trend of happily married “mixed” couples think that the answer is yes, but is the initiative only for the intrepid few, or a key to happiness for hundreds?
Devora grew up in a typical yeshivish home, and by the time she’d been “in shidduchim” for around five years, she made a decision to be open-minded. “I dated from litvish to chassidish to heimish to baal teshuvah,” she says. After a few years, she found her bashert, whom she describes as a “wonderful chassidish guy.”
Shadchan’te Mrs. Miriam Stone of Boro Park admits that most litvish girls don’t react like Mindy or consider suggestions as diverse as Devora did. “As a shadchan, I always ask the older girls who come to me, ‘How do you feel about a shtreimel?’ Honestly, most girls who aren’t chassidish won’t consider it at all.”
On the chassidish side of the fence however, shadchanim say the suggestion usually goes down well. An older chassidish bochur will more readily consider marrying a girl from a non-chassidish background. Firstly, there’s less at stake for him to negotiate. Although some compromise is inevitable in a “mixed marriage,” the husband will still set the tone in his home and raise his family in the way of his chassidus. But there’s another reason why chassidish bochurim are more open to these suggestions, according to Mrs. Stone. Raised with a strong emphasis on the importance of marriage and family, chassidish young men take the mandate seriously. “These older boys are chalishing to marry and raise a Yiddishe family already, and would almost go to China to do so. My phone rings off the hook with mothers of these older bochurim.”
Mrs. Leah Rubinstein, a chassidish shadchan’te in Boro Park, agrees that chassidish boys are more open-minded regarding these shidduch suggestions than their litvish counterparts. “A chassidish boy in his early 20s feels a responsibility to set up a home,” she explains. “His friends are married already and he wants to move on with life. He’ll be more amenable to looking away from external or superficial factors, and a fine litvish girl is certainly easily considered.”
A litvish bochur, however, is in no rush. “He’ll just wait another two years until he gets what he thinks of as ‘the ideal,’ ” says Mrs. Rubinstein. “That’s why I try to explain to older girls that they may get better quality suggestions if they consider someone chassidish.”
The solid synthesis of spiritual values and involvement in the day-to-day world — a fundamental chassidic pillar — is another potential draw for young litvish women seeking a certain profile not abundantly available in the mainstream yeshivah world. Many chassidish circles attach less stigma to young men leaving the yeshivah framework and going out to work; therefore the phenomenon of “erlich working boys” — responsible, frum young men who attend minyan and daily shiurim while spending their day in white- or blue-collar jobs — is more common among chassidim. (But it bears mentioning that the yeshivish ideal of a husband learning in kollel is certainly valued among chassidim, and it’s not uncommon for a chassidish young woman to reject a shidduch because the boy has gone out to work while still single.)
More Unites than Divides Over the centuries since its inception, chassidus has taken on many layers and levels. There are still bedrock principles that differentiate chassidim from other religious Jews — the deep connection to a tzaddik as a spiritual pipeline to the Divine, the access of holiness even in mundane pursuits, the emphasis on avodah and prayer, the centrality of community. At the same time, there are many gradations of fealty to the original chassidic vision among today’s adherents. Today, much of what is viewed as “chassidus” is cultural, and those cultural norms are not as unbridgeable as the original misnagdim might have predicted.
Common goals and complementary personalities are the glue that holds any couple together. And that virtual glue can be just as effective when stretched across boundaries of community affiliation. For example, an intensely frum litvish girl can find more in common than she might think with a serious chassidish young man, while a fun-loving girl might discover that she shares attitudes and preferences with a similar type of guy from a chassidish family. Yiras Shamayim, middos, scholarship, and other desirable qualities exist across all communities.
Famed maggid and author Rabbi Paysach Krohn is passionate about helping Klal Yisrael alleviate the suffering of older singles. He feels that girls benefit when they retain an open mind to all suggestions, including chassidic ones, even if a chassidic lifestyle is not their culture. “There are wonderful, erlich people in all communities, and that should be the focus. If a young man comes on time to davening, makes time for learning, is sensitive, sincere, honest, and a pleasant person, it’s those inner qualities, the inner goodness, which will create a good life and a happy marriage. It’s not the clothes that make the man, but the man that truly defines himself by his character. It’s certainly worth looking into.”
David, from Brooklyn, was taken aback when a beketshe-and-future-shtreimel-wearer was suggested as a shidduch for his daughter Sari, who was in her early 20s. “It was kind of surprising, but when I thought about it, I realized that we have many friends across the spectrum with different kinds of yarmulkes and hats. I told the shadchan — and many other people who asked me whether the shtreimel would be a problem after the wedding — ‘I don’t care what’s on his head, I care what’s in his head.’ Baruch Hashem our son-in-law is a real mentsh.”
Far more unites us than divides us, especially today, when boundaries have become so blurred and vague, and many communities absorb influences from each other, according to Rebbetzin Schwarz, a mechaneches in Monsey who works within both chassidish and litvish communities.
“But stereotypes are a big obstacle here,” she admits, “and that’s to everyone’s detriment. If a girl is open about her concerns, everything can be checked into, explained, and discussed openly. Compromise is possible on almost every issue. But if a girl just gives an automatic no, because she thinks ‘All chassidim depend too heavily on rebbes, and that’s not for me,’ that’s just a generalization, and she’s losing out.”
The rebbetzin advises focusing on personality more than specific minhagim. Just as there are all types of litvish boys, there are all types of chassidish boys: intense, light, balanced, ultra-frum, fun-loving. “Find out all you can about the bochur being suggested,” she says, “and you might be surprised. Labels like ‘chassidish’ distract us from the person underneath. Is he responsible? Family minded? Straight and decent and sincere without being too ‘intense’? Then maybe he’s for you, and the shtreimel and beketshe on Shabbos are just external things you could get used to.”
Rebbetzin Schwarz says talking to girls about looking into a chassidish shidduch reminds her of the reluctance felt by the first students in Krakow’s Bais Yaakov about marrying yeshivah boys. “I heard this from Rebbetzin Bender, who heard it directly from Rav Eliezer Gershon Friedenson, a leader of the Bais Yaakov movement,” she says. “This inspired educator famously reassured them, ‘Unter di kapote klapt oich a hartz [A heart beats under a yeshivah jacket too].’ He meant to convey that a yeshivah bochur is also human, also a mentsh, and can make a fine, warm, understanding husband. I tell girls the same regarding chassidish young men — there is a person and a heart under the beketshe.”
Finding Middle Ground
Flexibility and compromise are crucial keywords in any marriage, but are even more essential when marriage partners come from different backgrounds. They must be present from the initial dating process onward, because cultural differences start there. Will there be compromise about “sitting in” (the chassidish way, in the privacy of someone’s home) and “going out”? One middle-ground option for a girl who’s used to going out and a chassid who’s not comfortable with the idea of picking her up, driving her, and being seen on a date in public, is for both to travel independently and meet in a neutral, quiet venue.
In Mrs. Rubinstein’s experience, “Older couples might find it easier to schedule first dates indoors. It makes things simpler to end early if it’s really not working out, and provides privacy.”
When Mindy decided to meet Sender, she says she asked the shadchan if they could date “litvish-style,” as she was used to. “Sender was a sport about that, so we went out to restaurants. Then, after two dates, he was ready to get engaged! I needed more time, so he respected that, and we met a few more times.”
Because these “mixed” shidduchim involve adults who’ve been “in the parshah” for years, dating, engagement, and even shanah rishonah rules can be modified to find a balance somewhere in the middle of the two worlds. Infinite variations of “the rules” can be found to suit different norms and comfort levels. For example, the chassan can call his kallah just briefly to wish a “gut Shabbos,” offering her the reassurance of connection without straying too far from his family’s custom of no contact for an engaged couple. For a chassidish boy who’s thrilled to have finally found his bashert, such small compromises become insignificant in the bigger picture — his aspiration to build a happy home with a good wife.
Differences both large and small can be resolved when both sides are open to discussion and negotiation, but Rebbetzin Schwarz avers that the area most fraught with fear on the part of the girl — at least initially — is regarding dress and hair covering. The bochur’s family might insist on a certain shade and thickness of stocking, for example, but more than that, they might be adamant about family mesorah that goes beyond a regular sheitel when it comes to covering hair — is the family custom a wig with a band? A wig with a hat? A frisette? A shpitzel? A tichel? And depending on the chassidus, shaving the hair? Some chassidic families are flexible about it, especially if they’re sensitive to what a leap it can be for the girl; for others, the mesorah — with its roots in Kabbalah — is so strong that it’s nonnegotiable. A girl who hasn’t grown up with this practice will surely find it challenging, and it takes real maturity and self-knowledge to determine whether she can take on something that seems so foreign.
And what happens when a girl who’s used to driving considers a shidduch with a chassid in whose circles women don’t drive? Rebbetzin Schwarz believes all these potential minefields can be worked out, if the larger goals are kept in mind.
Further down the road, choosing a community to settle in and schools for the children can also be hot-button issues. Mindy says that she lives in an area where a wide variety of chadarim are available. She and Sender will seek the middle ground, choosing either a heimish Yiddish-speaking school or a “chassidish-lite” style for their son. At this point, Sender speaks to him exclusively in Yiddish, while Mindy uses both Yiddish and English, her natural first language.
“It’s the couple who have to get along, not their families,” popular wisdom dictates. But still, especially when families are close-knit, in-laws are part of life, and fitting into your spouse’s family definitely makes things more comfortable.
Mindy’s family was initially incredulous about her chassidish chassan. “But once they saw he’s a regular mentsh, they were fine with it. My parents love him.” As for Sender’s family, most of whom are more chassidish than himself, Mindy says that they’ve accepted her even with her differences.
Devora credits her husband’s family for being very warm and accepting and her connection to them is exceptionally strong, although she admits that sometimes, when the Yiddish spoken around the table gets quicker or more complex than she can follow, she feels like an outsider. “But I choose not to focus on that feeling. It doesn’t happen often enough to bother me.”
Yanky, who was considered an “alte bucher” when he got engaged in his mid- 20s to a litvish girl, says that his family’s chassidish community was thrilled for him when he became a chassan. “No one said anything about my kallah not being from our community. They were just so happy that I was a chassan at last.”
The nuances of upbringing and education accompany every single couple who enters a marriage partnership; getting used to the differences between you and your spouse is the universal shanah rishonah rite of passage.
When husband and wife have their roots in diverse communities, differences range from the subtle to the obvious, and the journey toward happy togetherness can feature additional cultural hurdles.
Across much of the Orthodox spectrum, girls graduate their respective school systems with a higher level of secular knowledge than boys. Among older single girls, many of whom pursue higher education and excel in the working world, that gap can be exacerbated. Degrees and qualifications offer sophistication and increased earning power, but at the same time they can drive a wedge between young ladies and bochurim who’ve had little secular education. This wedge is often wider when the bochur is the product of a chassidish mesivta, which often doesn’t offer a Regents diploma or high-school equivalency — and so a young chassid’s lack of general knowledge can be a culture shock for these educationally advanced young women.
“I think it began to dawn on me at the l’chayim,” says Devora. “When we were dating, so many things impressed and attracted me. We shared wonderful conversations. It was at the l’chayim, surrounded by my family and relatives, that I really noticed how chassidish his family was, with their covered sheitels and rapid-fire Yiddish. It gave me a jolt. Then, after we married I began to notice his less-than-perfect English. But of course, his mother tongue is Yiddish.”
Other newlyweds noticed that there was more segregation between the genders than they were used to. Most chassidish couples do not eat out socially with other couples or invite them over. On the other hand, most chassidish communities offer a social network for women, with functions, lectures, activities, and opportunities to volunteer. “Communal life is rich, and for the most part they welcome anyone who is ready to be part of it,” Rebbetzin Schwarz explains.
Mindy’s Bais Yaakov pronunciation is a strong contrast to her husband’s chassidish havarah. “I try to adapt it, so that we speak the same way,” she says, “but the old way still sticks. My young son knows that Mommy says Shema differently than Tatty. It’s not a big deal.”
When a man’s connection to a rebbe is one of genuine spiritual value, his wife will usually recognize its worth to him and to the family — even if she is a newcomer to chassidus. Devora’s husband leaves home every year to spend the Yamim Noraim with his rebbe. While her family might have initially been taken aback that she’s left alone, she’s diffused much of the drama from the situation. “For me it works out well,” she reflects. “I get to go back to Boro Park and spend time with my family. Why should it be an issue? Yamim Noraim is a time to spend davening anyway. It’s no different from the thousands who go to Uman.
“As far as seeing those long, curled peyos on my sons,” she says, “I’ll have to cross that bridge in a year, and it’ll be a tough one for me. But it’s one step at a time.”
David, whose daughter Sari married a chassidish bochur two years ago, finds the differences between the families’ customs superficial, minor. “I guess they’re more machmir on hechsherim and chalav Yisrael, stuff like that. And of course, Yiddish is his first language. But it’s one Torah, one common goal. In my mind, everything else is secondary.”
But boiling down differences to minor cultural veneers may not be fully honest. In some cases, subtle differences reach far beyond accents and languages and touch on attitudes, lifestyle, and mentality. For example, a girl who has been raised in a litvish home with a standard Bais Yaakov education has usually absorbed an emphasis on halachah and formal tefillah. Mindy was taught that women should daven before the zeman tefillah. Her husband saw things differently. In the eyes of many chassidic leaders and groups, there is no need for a young mother to daven formally or fast on the minor fast days. Mindy was initially taken aback but slowly adjusted to Sender’s mindset.
The difference in Pesach minhagim can also be daunting. Many chassidim are accustomed to using few manufactured goods and none eat gebrochts. For a newcomer, the Pesach menu can seem restrictive, the chumros and requirements bewildering.
The hardest single issue for Yanky and his litvish-born-and-bred wife Simi was the town’s eiruv. “I couldn’t understand why Simi could not accept my minhag and carry,” Yanky says. “But for her it was an absolutely huge issue. She was so afraid of it. How could she bring herself to carry in an eiruv that her father so strongly disapproves of?” Yanky and Simi asked guidance from the dayan of his community, who advised them how to proceed. When issues such as this arise, the only recourse is to seek counsel from a halachic authority.
Under the Shtreimel
Mrs. Rubinstein feels strongly that given today’s shidduch map, non-chassidish singles should consider the chassidish route. “If there’s a crisis, the community should be opening our minds to more creative solutions, willing to consider chassidish boys for older single daughters. If someone is drowning, would they refuse to be saved because they didn’t like the lifeguard’s clothing? Let them view the person’s essential characteristics and work out the externals together, and not let outer garb prevent an opportunity to marry a suitable young man.”
But in most circumstances, a view of chassidus as merely an external matter of levush and pronunciation is a gross oversimplification.
Mindy, happily married to chassidish Sender for five years, admits that the gap between her and her husband was wider than she had anticipated. “Chassidim think differently, they see the world differently. The first year and a half of our marriage was a huge adjustment — not easy at all. Baruch Hashem we worked it all out and reached a great balance. We’ve completely come to terms with each other’s view of the world. I’m so happy with what I did.” She pauses, then adds some advice. “I would advise other such couples to have an unbiased advisor during that first year to help them reach comfortable compromises. There are a lot of potential pitfalls and misunderstandings.”
While a girl cannot (and shouldn’t) change her personality, if she has an open mind, she can achieve a successful marriage with a man from a background different from her own. Devora’s wisdom, gleaned from personal experience, is that “if you care about the person, and the personalities are a great match, and you are a happy, normal person, it is no different than dealing with any other issue that comes up in marriage. It was never the elephant in the room, it was just another issue.”
Would she advise others to hop over the cultural fence like she did? “Well, I would say to be open-minded. If you hear about someone wonderful, and he’s chassidish and you’re not, don’t let that fact alone push you away.”
Shadchanim and mentors agree that a chassidish/litvish shidduch is not recommended for a young man who is strongly, intensely defined by his chassidish affiliation, or a young woman who is particularly litvish in hashkafah and personal style and has no desire to be flexible. Even Mindy agrees that the friction would be too great. “I would never encourage my cousin, more litvish than I ever was, to marry a chassidish boy. She’s litvish to the core, and I just can’t see her dealing with the differences in mentality and worldview.”
Rebbetzin Schwarz, though, is cautiously optimistic. “I know several, but not many people who have done this kind of shidduch, and I don’t know any who were broad and brave enough to take this step yet failed. I think that barriers are perceived as higher than they really are — something about the shtreimel scares girls off, but it doesn’t bite! — and in most cases, differences are fairly superficial. Two healthy young people who are well-suited personality-wise can build a beautiful home, despite differences in background.”
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky was once approached by an older bochur who had not found his zivug, and was unsure about meeting a chassidish girl who had been suggested. Rav Yaakov reassured him warmly, “Ich hob auch genummen fun a chassidishe shtub.” (His own second marriage was to a chassidish woman and was famously blessed with much happiness and respect.)
Of course, a shidduch is a personal decision, not a communal one, and it has to make sense emotionally, practically, and spiritually for the two individuals involved. But in many cases, openness to different backgrounds can be the portal to future happiness. Perhaps it’s time to stop looking at the shtreimel, and instead consider the man underneath.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 578)