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Jewish Matchmaking Is a Terrible Dating Show, But a Wonderful Showcase of Jewish Diversity

The Netflix show makes a point of featuring Jews of different races, ethnicities, and levels of observance.
  • Nakysha and Evan prove to be one of Aleeza Ben Shalom's more successful matches. (Photo: Netflix)
    Nakysha and Evan prove to be one of Aleeza Ben Shalom's more successful matches. (Photo: Netflix)

    Netflix's Jewish Matchmaking makes for an interesting paradox. Produced by the team behind Indian Matchmaking, the eight-episode series fails spectacularly as a dating show. Matchmaker Aleeza Ben Shalom spends hardly any time with this group of love-seeking singles, and the series readily introduces and then abandons its subjects, leaving viewers without updates, let alone closure, on the couples that do emerge. At the same time, however, Jewish Matchmaking is one of the first shows on television to embrace the diversity of the Jewish community by featuring Jews of different races and ethnicities and with varying degrees of observance.

    From a structural standpoint, Netflix's new dating show is a mess. The premiere, "Date 'Em 'Til You Hate 'Em" (a reference to Aleeza's cardinal dating rule), introduces three singles: Dani, a South African Jew living in Miami; Harmonie, an eccentric 44-year-old looking for a passionate life partner; and Ori, a Los Angeles-based Israeli searching for a supermodel-esque woman to bring home to his mother. Their stories drive the first three episodes, but producers don't see them through to the finale, as they stop following Ori and Harmonie after a single, relatively normal date — and in Harmonie's case, she admits "the spark is TBD," which doesn't exactly scream success.

    Meanwhile, Dani's story is dropped entirely in Episode 5, "How big is his mezuzah?" after she dumps her first match, a Sephardic Jew named David who becomes obsessed with the fact that Dani is Ashkenazi. (Sephardim are traditionally from Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East, while Ashkenazim have roots in Eastern Europe.) We don't even see Dani tell Aleeza that she's in need of a new match; she just disappears into the Miami sun, never to be mentioned again.

    These three offer more than enough intrigue to fuel the entire season — Ori, who still lives with his parents and demands Aleeza find him a Moroccan-Israeli with blonde hair and blue eyes, could sustain an entire show on his own — but instead of following this small, core cast throughout the entire dating process, Jewish Matchmaking introduces six (!) more singles over the course of the season. With people coming in and out at such a fast clip, it's difficult to get invested in the cast's romantic journeys, and as a result, the show feels more like an awkward round of speed dating than something capable of fostering real emotional connection.

    Aleeza's methods also prove inconsistent at best, and downright questionable at worst. Over the course of the season, she blends the centuries-old Orthodox Jewish tradition of shidduchim with the realities of modern dating, but she does so unpredictably and without acknowledging the specific quirks of the person she's advising in the moment.

    Early on, Aleeza instructs Harmonie not to touch her date, explaining that abiding by the practice of shomer negiah (no physical contact) will encourage them to "touch hearts" instead. But there's an obvious problem here. It's not just that Harmonie is the only single who receives this directive from Aleeza; it's that this advice runs counter to Harmonie's natural warmth and ignores her desire for a strong sexual connection with her partner, one of her dating must-haves.

    Aleeza's actual matchmaking abilities may be wanting, but her commitment to finding a partner for Jews of all kinds is remarkable. While Aleeza herself is Orthodox — she grew up secular in Philadelphia and became more religious when she met her husband — the show features Jews from across the spirituality spectrum, and unlike the actual dating, their personal stories are given appropriate room to breathe.

    Episode 3, "Yalla," introduces Noah, who grew up ultra-Orthodox, but has since embraced a "flexidox" ideology that includes daily prayer and keeping kosher in his home, but not out. (Because it's impossible to find kosher food in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, he drives eight hours to bring in coolers of meat from Denver.) The following episode, "Year of the Cindy," sees Aleeza meet with Fay, a 28-year-old Orthodox woman looking for a man who is equally as frum (religious) as her, if not more. And towards the end of the season, we meet culturally-Jewish musician Stuart and Tel Avivian Noah, who believes in God, but considers himself non-practicing.

    Jewish Matchmaking also makes a point to include the experience of Jews of color, as seen through the story of Nakysha. The 26-year-old, who is Reform, explains that she's struggled to find her place in Kansas City's Jewish community because she's biracial. "They're like, 'How does that work?'" she tells Aleeza. "And I'm like, 'Well, when a Jewish mommy loves a daddy, bada-boom, here I am.'" Aleeza works to find someone who appreciates Nakysha for who she really is, and when she succeeds, Nakysha's joy is palpable. If only we had a chance to see beyond her first date with Evan, a kind-hearted Lord of the Rings fan whom Nakysha insists is "everything [she's] been looking for" in a partner.

    While television is shifting away from a binary representation of Jews as either Orthodox (Unorthodox, Shtisel) or secular (Curb Your Enthusiasm), it's rare to see so many different kinds of Judaism depicted in a single show — and it's even better to see it done without judgment. If there's a lesson to be learned from Jewish Matchmaking, it's that there's no right or wrong way to be Jewish (despite what certain racist and antisemitic public figures would have you believe). With that said, Jewish viewers looking for a partner may have better luck relying on Jdate than Aleeza Ben Shalom's rolodex.

    Jewish Matchmaking is now streaming on Netflix. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Jewish Matchmaking, Netflix, Aleeza Ben Shalom