If there is one expression Jessica Fass loathes, it’s “There was no chemistry between us.” The 32-year-old, single woman has had occasion to hear those words more than once since moving to Tel Aviv from Los Angeles several years ago.
“I remember going on a date with a good-looking guy here in Israel,” she recalls, “and at the end came the worst kiss of my life. He just rolled his tongue in my mouth monotonously, like the motion of a washing machine. God, it was awful. And then, after that, he calls the next day and says, ‘I think there’s no chemistry between us.’ Do you get the chutzpah? I know now that ‘There’s no chemistry between us’ is politically correct for ‘I don’t find you attractive.’”
About a year after that date, Fass finds herself employing the despised expression frequently. Around two years ago, she established a dating agency – Fass Pass to Love – for new immigrants, mainly of the English-speaking variety. One of the services she offers is an exemption from the most oppressive and most embarrassing burden in the world of dating: the “I don’t think it’s going to work” conversation.
Fass: “I conduct that conversation, but only if the couple has been on just one date. From the second date on, responsibility to end the relationship rests with the people involved.”
The procedure is that Fass brings two people together and sends them on a date. The next day she speaks to both of them, and if she finds that one has no interest in a second date, she herself breaks the news.
“Guys not calling after a date can drive you crazy,” she says, “whether they’re playing hard to get or didn’t care for the girl but don’t feel like telling her. So I decided that there would be no games – everyone would know where they stand. It’s always a rough conversation, like telling someone he isn’t being hired after a job interview. I say something like, ‘Look, it was a very nice date, but he’s just not into it,’ and I don’t elaborate.”
What if the person insists on knowing what was wrong?
“Then I say that there was just no chemistry.”
Reviving the shtetl
In religious communities matchmakers are part of the scenery, but among secular Israelis the profession evokes the era of the prewar Eastern European shtetl. The idea of going to a stranger who shows you pictures of potential objects of love and lists their good points is off-putting and outdated. However, the Anglo community in Israel, especially its Tel Aviv branch, has its own rules. The search for a Jewish bride or groom is a key factor (along with Zionism and career change) in prompting young Jews from the United States, Canada, Britain and elsewhere immigrate here.
The calculation is clear: In a country where 80 percent of the population is Jewish, your chances of finding that special person are greater than in a small community where everyone has already dated everyone else.
Still, the vast supply of Jews here can be confusing for love-thirsty immigrants. They find it hard to distinguish between attractive offers and false profiles on dating websites, and they’re not knowledgeable about the ethnic and identity discourses that play a major role in the country. In the end, most of the young Anglo immigrants reach the conclusion that the partner they’re looking for is an Anglo like them, or possibly an Israeli who lived abroad for some time and is acquainted with the other culture.
In the past year, secular Anglo matchmaking has become a growth industry among new immigrants, notably in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The combination of American female-and-Israeli male is quite common. Matchmakers have also taken to organizing events for singles, in order to increase the possibilities. Many of these events are held in Tel Aviv synagogues, a prospect that Israelis will find very unsexy. But sabras are not the target audience of this scene, which obeys the unwritten rules of overseas dating cultures.
A few weeks ago, the first meeting of what could be called the matchmakers’ guild – Fass; the founder of the Facebook page and website Secret Tel Aviv, Jonny Stark; and the independent matchmaker Ariel Wolkowicki – took place held in Tel Aviv. They discussed the possibility of cooperating in organizing events, holding singles’ parties in synagogues, and uniting their databases of potential brides and grooms.
“It absolutely doesn’t surprise me that Anglos are going to matchmaking services – it’s terribly hard to find a serious relationship in a foreign country,” says Manchester-born Stark, 34, who immigrated to Israel six years ago. He himself had some bizarre dating experiences.
“One time I went out with an Israeli girl, and two weeks later she took me to meet her parents. I was flabbergasted. I also wasn’t aware that girls in Israel expect you to call them the day after the first date and want everything to be intensive,” he says. “In England, dating moves ahead slowly, and there’s no way a guy will call a girl day or even two days after the [first] date.”
Stark had a hard time finding Jewish girls to date in London, where he worked as an organizational consultant before moving to Israel. Once here, he hooked up with other newcomers (“There are people from South Africa, Mexico, Brazil and Italy in my company’s WhatsApp group”), scouted around for something to do, and decided to open a Tel Aviv equivalent of the Secret London Facebook site, which serves as a community for thousands of Londoners to exchange impressions, recommendations, job offers and more.
Stark launched Secret Tel Aviv in early 2010, and since then it has expanded (there are now nearly 66,000 members) and also generated a website. In the past year, he has been occupied exclusively with the Facebook page and the site. One sign of its success is that it has spawned satirical sites of homage, such as Very Well Known Tel Aviv, which mocks some of the original’s over-the-top and mindless posts.
Stark: “My Facebook page is trying to solve a problem: Forty percent of English-speaking immigrants between the ages of 20 and 40 leave within five years. For Zionist reasons, it’s important for me to help with information and make them feel they are living in a community, which will induce them to stay. I offer job-hunting services, a list of apartments for rent, which helps immigrants avoid Israeli agents who stiff them, and now also matchmaking services.”
For a $15 fee, the Secret Tel Aviv client gets to speak by phone with an English-speaking matchmaker who is not based in Israel, but has lists of thousands of other Anglos in Israel who are looking for a partner. After interviewing the client and getting to know him or her, a few potential matches are suggested. Since last September, when the site began offering the service, at least one date a day has been arranged, Stark says.
A very different approach is taken by Ariel Wolkowicki, who is in many ways a direct descendant of the classic matchmaker in the shtetl of the 19th and early-20th centuries: His aim is to get Jews to marry. In fact, so focused is he on this target that he takes no money from his clients, who are religious and secular alike, until they have been under the chuppah.
“The minimum is 1,000 shekels [about $250], but most people pay more, because they are so happy to be married and want to thank me,” he relates. “Sometimes they pay with gifts, such as jewelry, expensive liquor and so on.”
Wolkowicki, 36, is a Holon resident who immigrated from New York in 2004 who works for a large Israeli import firm. Matchmaking is a spare-time job.
“People find me on Facebook or by word of mouth,” he says. “I tell them I accept only clients who want to get married, and right away. Those who fit that criterion meet with me for half an hour, and I ask them the same series of questions. The last one is, ‘What song represents the place you would like to get to in a romantic relationship?’ If the answer is a dumb, frivolous song, I know the person doesn’t really want to get married.
“Men who want to get married usually choose a classic rock song, by the Eagles or REM, say. If someone chooses a song by Sinatra or some other oldie, I know he’s probably lied about his age. Women who are looking for a sugar daddy tend to choose a hip-hop or rap song, and guys who just want a lay go for trance and house.”
Wolkowicki currently has 24 clients – 22 of them men – for whom he’s looking for a match. Since coming here, he says, he’s brought together 30 couples who got married. His strong point, in contrast to Fass and Stark, lies in the events and parties he organizes, such as ushering in the Sabbath on the roof of his Holon home, cheese-and-wine evenings, jazz events and standup comedy shows. In addition to his clients, he invites dozens to hundreds of other potential matchmaking candidates to these events, recruited via the social networks. Some of the events take off, such as a speed-dating marathon he organized together with an ultra-Orthodox marital counselor in a Tel Aviv synagogue; others fail, notably a Zumba dance-fitness class he organized for which only men showed up.
In comparison to the others, Jessica Fass presents what she calls a “boutique” approach to matchmaking: personal treatment for every client. Her resume, since she got into the business here, includes one married couple, two couples who are engaged, five couples in relationships and around 45 clients still waiting to find the love of their life.
A meeting with a new client – at which she is joined by two assistant matchmakers, Rachel Kosberg, from the United States, and Claudia Gindic, from Mexico – can last two hours. When the three of them sat down in a café on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv opposite a 37-year-old man from England with a perpetual smile and classic British manners – he looked delighted. They pointed out, based on the information he gave them, that the tendency of some of the women he dated in the past year to see him as a friend and not a candidate for a romantic relationship shows that he is a warm, giving person.
They then proceeded, in a most indecorous fashion, to talk about the women he’d gone out with. “This one is fine, that one less so, she’s nice and her you have to drop immediately,” Claudia asserted in English, with a decisive Latin American accent, as she scrolled down the Facebook pictures that he posted of himself. She told him to delete a photograph in which he’s wearing a shamrock hat, apparently taken on St. Patrick’s Day in a pub in Hull, his hometown; she also discovered that pictures dumb hats were a recurring motif and told him it was counterproductive. He promised to get rid of them.
Fass explains to the man, who wants to marry an Israeli woman and recently found an administrative job in a law firm, that he has to take up hobbies that will divert conversation on the date from the fact that he’s a new immigrant. And no, watching games of the faltering Hull City soccer team in a Tel Aviv pub is not considered an attractive hobby.
“You said you do yoga occasionally, so try to play that up on dates,” Fass tells him, “and also join all kinds of Facebook groups with odd themes. That will lend you an air of mystery.”
“I have to admit that for me, the meeting with Jessica was the perfect date,” says Eric, 33, a Canadian who’s been living in Tel Aviv for a year and is looking for a match. “I was able to talk only about myself, and she took an interest in everything I had to say. It was very liberating. It’s always great when someone is interested in you and asks questions.”
However, Eric had a problem with Fass’ technique: her insistence on arranging dates for clients who seek serious relationships, and with one person only at any given time – not letting them go out with a number of people simultaneously.
“I want to date three people at the same time if I can,” Eric complains. “That’s the way it works in Canada. Why not do it that way here, too?”
Eric has put his finger on a critical difference between the dating culture overseas and in Israel. In North America and Britain, only when a relationship becomes more serious and binding does a couple shift to an exclusive format, having so declared to one another. Those who are looking for a more serious relationship, women especially, tend to let a few dates go by before having sex. The intensity of the relationship in the first stages is usually low key.
However, here, it’s the other way around: Going out with a few people at the same time is not usually accepted, and even if sexual relations begin relatively early, on the second or third date, that doesn’t mean the relationship isn’t serious.
Last September, Kfir Banin, 31, who works for the Tel Aviv Municipality and is heir to the city’s famous Falafel Banin place, married Ilana Zygman, 27, a new immigrant from Boston.
“After a few weeks of dating, and there was a click between us, I realized that she intended to go out with other guys in addition to me, and I was stunned,” Banin relates.
Says Zygman: “When Kfir told me one day after we met that he expected me not to go out with other people, I was really uptight. I thought that was a major declaration of intent, and I wasn’t ready for it. The fact that he called the day after our first date was stressful, too. I made it clear there were no strings attached. But the most stressful thing was when he invited me to Rosh Hashanah with his family after two months. He said that I should join them because I had no family in Israel, but I didn’t understand where he was coming from.”
Fass says she usually gathers from her call on the day after the first date how things went: “You can pick up from the tone of voice whether there was a spark, or disappointment, or whether things aren’t yet clear.”
What does the voice of someone who had sex on a first date sound like?
“Oh, that’s easy to spot. The voice sounds satisfied and mellow – there’s no mistaking it. But my policy is no sex on the first date, that’s an ironclad rule.”
Isn’t it possible to sleep together on the first date and still fall in love?
“No. People who want a serious relationship don’t behave like that, and I make sure to make that clear to both members of the couple before the date.”
Maybe that strict prohibition actually drives your clients to have sex on the first date? Suddenly they’re accomplices to a crime, and the need to hide it from the matchmaker only makes things more exciting.
“The truth is that I hadn’t thought of that. Could be.”
Vive la difference
In North America it’s customary to date a few people at the same time in the first stages of a relationship. Only after the relationship becomes more serious is mutual exclusivity declared. In Israel, that’s a no-no: The usual practice is to date one person at a time.
In Israel, according to the matchmakers, sexual relations typically begin earlier than in the United States. The behavior in Britain is similar to that in Israel, while in Spain, as in America, couples wait five or six dates before getting into bed.
In Israel it’s customary to call the partner a day or two after the first date, but in America a week or more can go by between the first and second date, and no one will get stressed or think they’ve been rejected. The British are in step with the Americans here.
In European countries, such as Spain and Italy, it’s customary for matchmakers to arrange a group meeting for prospective match-ups.
Israelis tend to go to a bar on a first date, in contrast to North America, where the preferred venue is a restaurant, for dinner or even lunch. The common scenario in Israel, where at least one of the participants gets tipsy, is considered uncouth in North America.
American men, who are often more conservative, sometimes bring flowers or chocolates on a first date. In Israel that would be considered cloyingly romantic, not to say weird.
In Israel it’s legitimate to invite the other person to meet one’s parents within a few weeks or even less; in Europe and America that step takes much longer – usually more than a year in the United States.