Of all the mysterious statements in the Talmud, one of the best known says that finding a true partner in life is as difficult as parting the Red Sea.
In the world of Orthodox Judaism, where family is second to God alone, people are always working to part the seas so men and women can get married, fulfill the commandment to multiply and ensure the faith for another generation.
As the father of a recent bride put it: "Matchmaking is the favorite indoor sport of Jews."
Whether they are professionals using computers, a yeshiva rabbi intimate with all the qualities and quirks of his students, or Aunt Malkie who just happens to know a nice boy from a good family, somebody is always trying to fix people up.
Certain Hasidic families in the United States still choose mates for their sons and daughters as they did in 18th-century Poland.
Before Orthodox Jews get to the wedding canopy, they must navigate a dating process governed by religious laws and customs that most of society would find unthinkable, beginning with informal but detailed checks of family, character and health.
(One young man just starting to date has kept a recent surgery secret so as not to hurt his chances of finding a wife.)
The way the Orthodox see it, the average American does more homework deciding to buy a car than choosing a spouse. The Orthodox divorce rate, estimated at about 5 percent, suggests they do their homework well.
Dating prohibitions include touching, which is said to hamper the work of picking a mate since physical contact intoxicates the senses. Time spent completely alone is forbidden, since it might set the stage for touching, and outings just for fun are frowned upon.
Such boundaries lead to a lot of evenings sipping soda in the lobbies of big hotels while trying to fathom another person's dreams and visions.
Other safe places include museums, the zoo and a place that's become something of an inside joke: the airport.
"I've been on an airport date once or twice, hasn't everybody?" Chuckie Epstein, a 25-year-old Orthodox pilot, says with a laugh. "It's a cliche now, but the airport is a good place for a first date. It's not heavily populated at night, it's quiet, there's a lot of room to walk around, it's indoors, which helps in the winter, and it's safe."
Movies are usually out of the question until a couple is engaged, and even then, many Orthodox Jews do not partake of pop culture. Because laws of modesty largely keep the genders separate from about grade school until dating begins, early dates are often awkward experiments.
"It can be pretty tough," said an Orthodox man, who did not want to be named for fear that his views might hurt his standing in the Jewish community. "I can count on one hand the crushes I've had. If a boy or girl has a reputation for flirting too much, it might be harder for them to get married."
On one of his first dates, this young man was mortified to discover that the bench he'd picked in New York's Battery Park for conversation was in a gay area.
The rules are often stretched (some daters hold hands, others kiss) and can be broken in ways anyone who has been on a date can understand. One young woman breached the law that demands sensitivity to the feelings of others when she kept looking at her watch as her date attempted to explain his goals in life.
Shadowing everything is the idea that this dating has tachlis, or purpose. That purpose is to find your bashert, or "meant to be."
Dating usually begins at 19 or 20 for a woman, about 21 for a man. Some young people let their parents know when they're ready, others need to be prodded by their parents to get in the game.
Our rabbinical student, let's call him Yaakov, describes a typical case: "For starters, everyone's a nice girl. The shadkhan [matchmaker] tells you when it's OK to call, and the guy gets very nervous trying to create a conversation with someone he's never met.
"You say you'll pick her up at a certain time and get spitzed up in a suit and hat. A lot of guys hate wearing the hat on a date, but it shows respect. Mom and Dad answer the door, and she's hiding in her room so you have a few minutes to meet the parents, who ask stuff they already know: 'Where do you go to yeshiva?' 'What does your father do for a living?'
"And then the girl walks in, you say hello and turn right back to talk to the parents again. You're thinking: 'This could be my wife.' She's thinking: 'This could be my husband.' And the parents are thinking: 'This could be my son-in-law.'
"It's hard even if it goes well," he says. "If it doesn't go so well, it's horrible."
The rabbis tell the young men the same thing mothers advise young women: Trust the system, everything will work out.
As it did for Rivkah Goldfinger, 21, and Dovid Stein, 24, married May 19 after knowing each other for eight months in an almost storybook example of Orthodox courtship, complete with the kind of surprises that pop up while you're busy following rules.
"Usually people spend a couple of weeks looking into each other's backgrounds before agreeing to a date, but this time I got the phone call without even knowing his name," remembers Goldfinger, who grew up in Northwest Baltimore.
They were brought together after Stein's rabbi moved to Baltimore from Australia. The rabbi's wife knew a friend of Goldfinger's mother, and that's all it took for wheels to start turning.
After being told about Stein, Goldfinger requested more information. That got garbled into a message that she was willing to go out, which soon put her in an awkward conversation.
"I had a sense that I didn't want to go out with him; he sounded too much like the standard yeshiva guy. I decided he wasn't unusual enough," she recalls. "But I couldn't say no. He'd been told I wanted to go out."
What Goldfinger regards as the "standard yeshiva guy" -- someone pursuing a worldly career simply because their parents are afraid they'll starve with an education in Talmud alone -- is acceptable to many Orthodox women.
Margie Pensak, one of about six traditional matchmakers in Baltimore, has nearly 750 clients, about 90 percent of them Orthodox.
Working for a small registration fee to cover her expenses (mostly long-distance phone calls), Pensak says she often feels like a "waitress taking orders." Wish lists include everything from age and weight to tastes in music, to willingness to live in Israel and unwillingness to watch television.
Some people who have used matchmakers are put off by being reduced to a paragraph of statistics "like the back of a baseball card -- I'm deeper than that," says one Baltimore man. Others are content to find "the generic Orthodox Jew -- kosher home, observe the Sabbath, Torah study and raising kids to go to yeshiva," says Pensak.
Generic just wasn't going to do for Goldfinger, who comes from a very observant yet whimsical and open-minded Hasidic family -- a woman whose independent thinking is symbolized by her choice of Catholic-run Loyola College for a biology degree.
She knew her bashert had to be Hasidic -- someone given to wearing satin caftans and round fur hats, who favored oil to light the Sabbath candles over wax -- but beyond that she "couldn't put into words" her notion of a soul mate. From the 20 or so dates she had before meeting Stein, she knew what she didn't want.
There was the art museum date, with a guy who "walked by all the pictures I wanted to see."
There was the 45-minute "sit-in" around the dining room table with a devoutly Hasidic man while her parents entertained his parents in the next room.
"He couldn't believe I knew the Talmud and was shocked that an zTC Orthodox girl had taken a class in evolution," she says. "I wasn't about to tell him I was going to be a doctor."
And then she found herself having dinner with Stein without having seen him. But four months and nine dates later, after long evenings talking in hotel lobbies, they were engaged.
"The right one is preordained. My job was to meet a number of girls before I met the right one," says Stein, an Australian studying in New York. "Some girls were too loud, some girls were too quiet. I went out with good-looking girls and not such good-looking girls. They were all nice girls, fine Orthodox girls. But you want someone with the same ideas as you. Rivkah had the right combination of all of them."
Stein plans to become a pulpit rabbi while Goldfinger is about to embark on medical school, an arduous beginning for any marriage. "It will be hard but rewarding in the long run," says Goldfinger. "I love the idea of being a rabbi's wife, and he thinks being a doctor is one of the greatest jobs a person can have."
Ted Friedman also thinks being a doctor is great and has been looking for someone to share a doctor's life for about five years. The music on his home telephone answering machine has Bruce Springsteen singing: "I just want someone to talk to and a little of that human touch. "
The 37-year-old endocrinologist from Los Angeles, who became observant as a teen-ager, has had well over a hundred dating adventures, ranging from a Chinese convert he encountered on the Internet to a mountain climber he met in Alaska with a Jewish hiking club.
He'd exhausted at least one matchmaker in Los Angeles before meeting Pensak at a religious retreat for singles.
A few weeks ago, Pensak set Friedman up with seven dates over two days, all in New York. None panned out.
"In general, people seem good at first but they hide things or mislead you," says Friedman, who is looking for a woman between ages 25 and 33 to start a family.
Many of the very observant women he's been out with weren't educated enough for him, and many of the professional women were not religious enough.
As the old Jewish saying goes, the right girl at the wrong time is the wrong girl.
For now, it's back to Pensak the matchmaker, who has 12 marriages to her credit since 1988. When a match ends in a marriage, it is traditional for the bride and groom to buy the shadkhan a gift. Friedman hopes he'll be sending something Pensak's way soon.
"The right person will come when the time is right," he says. "It's going to happen when it's going to happen."
Pub Date: 5/26/96