A Novel of Matchmaking, Then and Now

Matchmaker, matchmaker

Look through your book,

And make me a perfect match. 

So goes one of the most famous songs from the famous musicals, Fiddler on the Roof.  But the tradition of Jewish match making was not confined to the old world or the last century, and in her new novel, THE MATCHMAKER’S GIFT, (St. Martin’s, $27.99) Lynda Cohen Loigman explores not only matchmaking’s past but also its future.  She chats with fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the notion of the bashert and the real source of the magic she invokes. 

YZM: What was the inspiration for this novel?  How did COVID play into the writing of it? 

LCL: The spark for The Matchmaker’s Gift originated during the Covid-19 lockdown, when my daughter—then in her junior year of college—moved back home along with her roommate. Before they arrived, I’d gotten used being the only woman in a household of men. But with the addition of two outspoken, insightful, college-aged women, the conversation around our dinner table shifted. We talked about what they were studying in their classes, but also about the challenges young women face: socially, academically, and in the professional world.   

The more they revealed about their lives, the more I thought about my own past experiences. Mostly, I thought about the fact that although thirty years had passed between my experiences and my daughter’s, so very little had actually changed.  

That summer, our favorite lockdown television binge was the Netflix show Indian Matchmaking. At some point, my daughter’s roommate told us about her grandmother, who had worked as an Orthodox Jewish matchmaker in Brooklyn. The New York Times had even run an article about her. Suddenly, a multigenerational matchmaker book began to occupy my thoughts. 

As the story came together, I poured my frustration for all young women into its pages. I thought about my own experiences as a young lawyer in the 1990s and wove those disappointments and insecurities into my character Abby’s professional life. The Matchmaker’s Gift became more than a story about love––it became a story about women whose intelligence, ambition, and gifts were suppressed, but who nonetheless found the strength to follow their calling.  

YZM: Tell me what you learned about the history Jewish matchmakers on the Lower East Side.  Were many of them women? How about today? 

LCL: After reading about “Love on the Lower East Side” on the Museum at Eldridge Street’s website, I decided to anchor my fictitious matchmaker in that same neighborhood during the 1910’s and 1920’s. Although the pandemic made it impossible to travel to the Lower East Side streets I wanted to write about, I was aided in my research by the on-line collections of The Tenement Museum, The Center for Jewish History, the New York Public Library, and, of course, The Museum at Eldridge Street. It was from these sources, as well as others, that I learned about the wedding of “The Pickle Millionaire,” the real knish war of 1916, and the formation of a matchmaker union in Poland. 

Before I began my research in earnest, I assumed that the typical matchmaker at the time was an older and somewhat meddlesome woman. In my mind, she was Yenta from Fiddler on the Roof or Dolly Levi from Thornton Wilder’s play. I assumed that there were just a handful of such women, but my assumptions couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only were there thousands of Jewish matchmakers in New York, but the majority of them were men. According to a 1910 New York Times article, there were, by “a conservative estimate, about 5,000 professional schatchens in the city. . . The traditional picture is the man of the tenements with a three-pound watch chain and a polka-dotted vest, whose work in life is to see his neighbors happily married.” 

In order to explore the portrayal of matchmakers in early 1900’s New York, I turned to the Gimpel Beylish cartoons, a popular comic strip by Samuel Zagat, which ran in at least two daily Yiddish newspapers (including The Warheit and The Forward) beginning in 1912. Gimpel was a matchmaker who constantly found himself in problematic and amusing situations. I drew inspiration from fiction as well, including Bernard Malamud’s short story, The Magic Barrel, Tashrak’s novel, Shulem the Shadchen, and Abraham Cahan’s Yekl and the Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of the New York Ghetto. In all of those stories, the matchmakers were men.

Of course, there have always been female Jewish matchmakers and that tradition continues today. But even today’s religious modesty laws require that matchmakers be married. The idea of a young, female, unmarried matchmaker like Sara would be surprising both in the 1920’s and now.

YZM: What does matchmaker Sara know about Abby that Abby doesn’t know about herself? 

LCL: Sara knows that Abby is far more perceptive than she thinks she is, and that Abby has a gift for understanding and truly seeing people. She suspects that Abby shares her own talent for finding matches for people. However, in the wake of the trauma of her parents’ divorce, she also knows that Abby rejected this gift. 

Sara can also sense that Abby isn’t truly happy with her career. Although divorce law is a field Abby has always wanted to pursue, representing Diane’s wealthy and often difficult clients isn’t as rewarding as Abby hoped it would be. This is something that is incredibly painful for Abby to admit to herself.

YZM: Let’s talk about the evolution of Abby’s professional life; how does she find her way into a more gratifying career? 

LCL: Like Sara, Abby is drawn to her calling at a very young age. When Sara is a child, Rabbi Sheinkopf tells her that he senses she will be a matchmaker. In Abby’s case, it is her father whose flippant remark about becoming a divorce attorney spurs Abby on to her chosen career. Both Abby and Sara excel at their jobs, but, unlike Sara, Abby does not feel proud of her professional accomplishments.

As the story progresses, Abby remembers why it was that she wanted to become a divorce lawyer in the first place. She wanted to help people like her mother, who couldn’t afford quality legal representation. She wanted to be a support for women being bullied by powerful and wealthy men. 

After Abby finally accepts that her personal and professional talents are more diverse than she once assumed, she is able to admit to herself that working in her law firm does not make her happy. She does not want to give up law, but she hopes to find a position where she can use her talents in order to help the people who need her most. Perhaps she will follow in her grandfather’s footsteps and seek a position with Legal Aid.

YZM: This novel contains a touch of magic; can you say more about that? Do you believe there’s a bit of magic in every happy romantic union? 

LCL: I have always been drawn to stories that have an element of magical realism to them. Although this element is something I wanted to include in my own writing, I didn’t choose to pursue it until I began writing The Matchmaker’s Gift

In recent years, some of my favorite novels have been those I would categorize as historical fantasy. These include The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan and The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden.

A story about love definitely lends itself more easily than other topics to a mystical element. Love isn’t always magical, of course, but it’s certainly nice to think that it can be. It’s also incredibly comforting to imagine that someone might actually have the power to introduce us to the person we are meant to share our life with. The idea of having a soulmate is about as magical as it gets.  

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