No JDate Here: Making Jewish Matches in India
In a world of JDate, Frumster, and SawYouAtSinai, American Jews don’t seem to want for opportunities to meet other American Jews—preferably cute, single ones with stable jobs.
But across the ocean, the Jewish community of India struggles with the challenges of a shrinking population and hurries to marry off its youth before all the eligible partners are gone or these singles turn to non-Jewish alternatives.
The younger generation bristles at their elders’ anxiety. “Now there are only 5,000 Jews in India, half of which are females…we need some variety to choose from,” jokes Jennifer Jacob, 16.
This is quite an old problem for the Indian Jewish community. When a ship bearing Israelite travelers legendarily sank off the Konkan coast of western India in 175 BCE, only 14 passengers survived—seven men and seven women—to begin a new Jewish life in India. Now that’s slim pickings.
Eventually, other migrant Jewish communities joined the descendents of these fourteen, but these groups left India in large numbers after the Partition of India in 1947. Only a scattered handful remains. Just before the founding of the State of Israel, an estimated 20-30,000 Bene Israel Jews lived in India. But in recent decades, thousands have immigrated to Israel, with only 5,000 Jews remaining in India.
As India’s economic boom has created new opportunity and boundless optimism, the impulse to emigrate eased. Because more young Indian Jews are looking for a future at home, the demand for finding Jewish spouses within India has grown, as has the controversy between choosing arranged marriages and “love matches.” At least one new bride-to-be rejoices in her “love match.”
Lovena Haeems, 25, met Nissim Pingle, 28, in India, through the Jewish Youth Pioneers, the Mumbai-based youth group for Indian Jews ages 13-30, coordinated by the Evelyn Peters Jewish Community Center and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. She and Nissim decided to get married, though they still asked both his and her parents for permission. If their parents had not approved, she says, the marriage—planned for March—would not have been able to take place.
“Our culture is so that people generally take their parents’ approval,” Lovena explains. “Even if they like someone, they would definitely inform their parents about it. If their parents say no, and they just marry, they leave the family unhappy, which people sometimes do when they marry Hindus and Christians. For me, parents’ approval is required.”
In many cases, the parents do not wait to be asked, but actively seek out a potential bride or a groom for their child or a matchmaker to aid in the process. Hannah Pezarkar has been just such a matchmaker for the last 10 years. “Nice boys, nice girls are [marrying out of the community]. The parents try to find them someone, but they can’t,” Hannah laments.
Hannah outlines the matchmaking procedure. “Mostly parents come with what they want for their kids,” she explains. “Then I try to think of a good match: that both families should be equal, the couple should look nice together, their education should be on the same level. They have one or two sittings and then they decide. No one forces them; if the boy or the girl don’t like each other, then it’s not a match.”
Hannah refuses to accept compensation for her services, not even the token gold ring, a common Bene Israel gift to the person responsible for a successful match. “My main thing is that Jewish boys and girls should marry in the community,” she emphasizes. Solomon Charikar arranges marriages for his friends and family in his spare time from his work at the Evelyn Peters Jewish Community Center. Like Hannah, he provides this service for the love of his community and its future, not for payment. “The most important thing I look for when I am making a match is whether the person is a Jew who is keeping the traditions of Judaism. I also check to see if any of his family has ever married [out of our religion].
Lovena’s sister, Florence Haeems, 29, also emphasizes the important service arranged marriages provide for the community, though she approves of her sister’s love match. “The community is so small, sometimes people can’t find a good match on their own and they need their parents or someone in the community to help them. Arranged marriages help people find the right person,” Florence explains.
Natasha Joseph, 20, concurs. “Arranged marriages today aren’t as bad as they used to be. You meet, spend time together, and then decide if you like each other or not. It’s just that your first meeting was fixed by your parents. It’s a little more demanding, maybe, in the sense that you might discover something about the other person after getting married, and in that case, a little more adjustment is required. As long as both partners make an effort and are mature, it works out really well.”
In fact, arranged marriages have such widespread appeal that instead of marrying within the local community, many Bene Israels living outside of India return there and enlist the aid of matchmakers, family members or friends to find them a partner willing to live abroad.
But while many assert that arranged marriages are still much more common and successful than love marriages, Lovena disagrees, pointing out the rapidly westernizing society. “With the modernization of India, women want to work,” Lovena explains. “These days, arranged marriages might not be as successful as they were years ago. Back then, people knew what was expected of a woman, to be more house-oriented, but these days more and more women want different things.”
Jennifer agrees. “It’s me who will find the guy for me, not my parents, because I’m not in for marrying someone I don’t know. I’ll find someone who my parents will approve of me marrying, whether he’s Jewish or not.”
Though Jennifer’s attitude seems prevalent among Indian youth, it’s actually in the minority, considering that the intermarriage rates in this highly traditional community are still much lower than their Western counterparts. Even with the limited selection, most Jews continue to marry other Jews.
Azriel Samson, 19, affirms this estimate. “Marrying someone Jewish is important to me because it has been drilled into my head by my parents. It is also important to propagate our religion,” he offers.
Family life among young Indian couples still remains very traditional, despite the shift towards love matches. For example, Lovena will live with Nissim and his parents after the wedding. “I’ll stay with his family in their three-bedroom flat in Navi Mumbai,” Lovena says. “Mostly, the bride goes to the groom’s family. It’s very rare that young couples have their own place.”
However, in keeping with the changing trends for Mumbai women, Lovena will continue to work as a manager of a gym franchise even after her wedding, though Nissim will still help support the entire family as an assistant manager at a call center, a common occupation among Indian youth.
While the trends in India are changing, the tradition of arranged marriages remains a reliable option. So when the singles scene seems impossible to crack, fear not. There is yet one more alternative to JDate. Buy a roundtrip ticket to India and see what Hannah can find for you in the Indian Jewish community. Just make sure you bring your parents.
About the Mendhi Ceremony
The Mendhi ceremony, held traditionally the night before the wedding, is a ritual borrowed from the Indian community at large. The people living in the state of Maharashtra, no matter what their religion, adorn the bride’s hands with henna, hang flowers from her hair for happiness, and feed her sweets for a sweet new life. They throw rice over her shoulders so that there should be abundant grains in her mother’s home which she leaves, and put rice on her knees so that she has abundant food grains in her new home, her husband’s house.
The Bene Israel wedding ceremony more resembles the Western Jewish wedding than the Mendhi. The bride dons a white dress, distinguishing herself from the Hindu majority which wears red on wedding days, considering white the color of mourning.
The ceremony takes place in the synagogue, beneath a chuppah (wedding canopy), with a chazan (cantor) officiating, as rabbis can be hard to come by in India, with an interactive call-and-response participation from the congregation.
The bride walks down the aisle with not only her nuclear family, but her immediate one as well, as the groom sings the standard “Yonati Ziv” (“My Beloved is a Dove”) psalm in the traditional Bene Israel melody. These verses from the Song of Songs have been sung by every Bene Israel groom in the community’s living memory.
The groom does not stomp on the glass to conclude the service (the traditional somber commemoration of the destruction of the Temple occurs earlier in the service), but rather the new couple makes their rounds of the crowd on their way to the ark, where they leave a small offering of money. They then exit the synagogue, with the bride’s parents feeding them sugar to enhance the sweetness of their first steps as husband and wife.