Family, Money and Love: Jewish Dating in Pre-state Israel

A 1938 book on matchmaking turns up at a bookstore to give a glimpse of 'grandfather and grandmother's Tinder.'

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Super-stylish customers at a Cafe Cooky,  Dizengoff ST. in Tel Aviv, 1958.
Super-stylish customers at a Cafe Cooky, Dizengoff ST. in Tel Aviv, 1958.Credit: Cohen Fritz, GPO
Dafna Arad
Dafna Arad
Dafna Arad
Dafna Arad

The book’s title translates as “The Modern Matchmaker: A Modern Guide to Marriage in the Land of Israel.” It was published in Hebrew in 1938 and ultimately made its way to second-hand bookshops in Tel Aviv. The book provides a fascinating and rare glimpse of the matchmaking scene in the pre-state Jewish community and more generally, of people’s lives from that period.

The book, which includes 300 ads placed by men and women looking for a match, was written by Yosef Lieber, the owner of matchmaking service that he established in 1929 on Brenner Street in Tel Aviv. The Israel National Library catalog reveals that Lieber published at least one other matchmaking book, in 1933.

Ilai Green, an owner of the Green Brothers bookstore in Tel Aviv, found “The Modern Matchmaker” in the estate of a man who had lived in the country during the British Mandate and died in 1960. The man’s apartment had just recently been cleared out. Green posted photos of excerpts from the book on the bookstore’s Facebook page.

“We have just found your grandfather and grandmother’s Tinder,” Green wrote in the post, referring to the popular Tinder dating app. “Let us tell you that they really loved money,” he added. Green also asked members of the public to help find out what became of the people who placed ads in Lieber’s book as well as what became of Lieber himself.

The issue of money is indeed a major topic in all of the ads, including one that reads: “Intelligent and settled! Up to 38, seeking a nurse from a famous medical institution, educated, with steady employment and with 50 pounds.” The Palestinian pound, also know as the Eretz Israel lira, was the currency used in pre-state Israel during the British Mandate.

And then there were these: “A nice brunette, 32, with a dowry of 300 Palestinian pounds and a plot of land in Bnei Brak looking for a nice, settled guy up to age 28”; “4,000 Palestinian pounds in property owned by a nice university student from Germany, 23, religious, seeking to marry a girl up to age 21 with money”; “Looking for a good wife and not money? Marry a 25-year-old seamstress earning 6 Palestinian pounds a month and a small sum of money, someone who is exceptionally beautiful, a good housewife and quick and industrious for a nice and settled guy”; and this: “I don’t want a girl with money! A wonder of a 25-year-old guy, native born (only someone born in the country is capable of this!), working as a manager at a large enterprise and earning 20 Palestinian pounds a month, seeking to marry a beautiful girl up to age 19, but without money, under no circumstances, because ‘money spoils her’ – that’s what he says.”

According to “Tel Aviv: Memories 1919-1939” by Yavne’el Matalon, which was put on the internet as part of Project Ben-Yehuda, which seeks to make available early modern Hebrew classics, Lieber “took over the market” after opening what Matalon described as “a modern office with organized index cards containing the candidates’ photos and references, an office with a telephone. He didn’t make do with Tel Aviv and would publicize when he was coming to visit Haifa and Jerusalem.”

Lieber would publish his matchmaking ads in a number of newspapers – Maariv, Hatzofeh, Iton Meyuhad and Hamashkif. One ad in Hamashkif that appeared on August 13, 1948, described the matchmaking office as “having been established in accordance with the most innovative method, the first in the country, successfully arranging happy matches in absolutely complete confidentiality. Good connections among all intellectual circles from all [ethnic] communities. Business hours from 10 in the morning to 10 at night.”

Two years prior to the placement of the advertisement, however, the same newspaper reported that Lieber had been picked up by the British police for putting up posters inviting new immigrants and demobilized soldiers to come to his office to find a mate.

A search of historic Jewish newspapers through the National Library’s website reveals other morsels that shed light on Lieber. Hamashkif, for example, reported that following Lieber’s brush with the police, other matchmakers stole outdoors with posters and glue in the middle of the night “in the hope that some armed guard might also cast a glance at the them too so they would also get a little free publicity at no charge.” Lieber ultimately called his office “Mazal Tov.”

In an article in the Davar newspaper from March 22, 1957, reporter Miriam Oren gave her impressions of a visit to Lieber’s office. In reference to the name of the office, which literally means “good luck,” she asked rhetorically: “Who doesn’t need good luck?”

“I entered,” she wrote. “The room in front is almost a regular office. Shelves, files, paperwork, a telephone. A large desk and sitting next to it a man with light-colored hair – Mr. Lieber, a modern matchmaker. Without unnecessary introductions, he shot a question at me: ‘What do you want?’ I was apparently confused because the first response that came to mind was ‘to go ice skating,’ but on another occasion I recalled that it was a bit not to the point and I stopped myself. This time I answered very much to the point: “To get married!”

She then was told what it would cost: 15 pounds on the spot, which would be refunded if the matchmaking resulted in marriage. But then instead, she would owe the office 200 pounds. That same evening, she was invited to come to Lieber’s home, where she was fixed up with an accountant who was about 40 and who owned a bicycle. They went out on one date, on which Oren admitted that she had pursued the date as a journalist. They kept talking, however, for two hours, after which the accountant offered to take her home. After she got off the bike and the man left, she burst into tears and then returned to her husband and children.

The veteran journalist Natan Donevitz, who was born in 1926 and wrote the book “Lions on Hayarkon Street,” which features stories about people and events in Tel Aviv, remembers Yosef Lieber’s office well. “Lieber was a tall, strong man with light curly hair,” he told Haaretz. “His wife, Bronia, was full-figured. During the summer, the two matchmakers would sit on their balcony and eat watermelon, like everybody did.” Yosef Lieber would wear an undershirt and the young people would make fun of them, Donevitz recalled.

But the advertising techniques that this modern matchmaking duo used were new at the time, Donevitz said. “They were pioneers in the placement of small ads. Until then, matchmakers used to come to the homes of those who needed them or were interested,” he said, explaining that at that time, the Liebers’ office was set up in a room of their apartment.

“Until then, it was something discreet, but then new immigrants arrived from Europe who were found to be good clients,” he said, “since the longtime families here in Israel were looking for a match with engineers, architects and those from the free professions from European countries” – a reference to doctors, lawyers and accountants, for instance.

“The better, more well-to-do families didn’t approach [the Liebers]. They would invite a matchmaker who would come to their house with proposals. There were only two or three firms then that would publish small ads,” Donevitz explained. The Liebers’ ads in the newspaper would alternate with ads placed by a pharmacist by the name of Tabachnik for a drug store that still exists at the corner of King George and Dizengoff Streets in Tel Aviv, along with another ad for shoe insoles, he recalled.

The writer Dahn Ben-Amotz wrote about the Liebers in a column in Davar in 1953. The column included statistical data provided by the Liebers. “For one moment in the 20th century, there were about 15,000 women and 12,000 men registered with them who had for some reason found it difficult to find a mate,” Ben-Amotz stated.

“I work based on the client’s requirements,” Lieber explained to the columnist. “If he wants want an Ashkenazi woman, he gets an Ashkenazi woman. If he wants a Sephardi woman, he’ll take a Sephardi woman. Even though I am very much in favor of the mixing of the races. It’s very important.”

In his column, Ben-Amotz also revealed that Lieber cooperated with the rabbinate and the police to locate fraudulent or married clients. Ben-Amotz also discovered that Lieber himself hadn’t needed a matchmaker to find his own wife and business partner.

For her part, Bronia LIeber added: “I take an interest primarily in the girls. They love me because I know how to match people up. I get a lot of satisfaction from my work. Being a matchmaker, you know, means you have to be clever.”

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