April, 1993. Jerusalem.
I am 18 and studying in seminary in Israel. I have never had a boyfriend. It is Friday during the holiday of Passover (Pesach) and I am at my aunt’s house. I call my parents to wish them a good Shabbos, and my mother asks me if I am sitting down. I sit, then say yes.
Mom: Someone approached me to ask if you would be interesting in dating while in Israel.
Mom: It seems the Koval boy is in yeshiva in Israel right now and was suggested for you.
Me: But-but I’m still in seminary.
Mom: Why don’t you think about it?
Most Orthodox girls “start dating” for marriage when they return from their year/s in Israel. Unless she’s not ready, a girl’s parents will start fielding suggestions from friends or relatives who “know someone” – ie, their neighbor, cousin, nephew. My case was unusual because the guy was my neighbor and our parents were friends, so his mother basically suggested the idea to my mother, whereas typically a middle-man or woman is involved to minimize the awkwardness if one party is disinterested. These are not “arranged marriages” – the dates are arranged, and not dissimilar from a classic blind date, and the marriage itself must be entirely consensual after getting to know one another. Parents typically do a rather thorough background check, talking to neighbors, relatives, teachers, roommates.
I’m not ready for this. This is so exciting! I’m not ready for this. How cool is this! Am I ready for this? The Kovals are really special people. Are you ever truly ready for this?
April, 1993. Jerusalem.
The holiday is over. I call my mother.
Me: So, what’s going on with the Koval situation?
Mom: Well, they are definitely interested.
Me: But I can’t go out while in seminary. That’s too weird. And everyone in the dorm will know! I think we should wait till after finals.
Seminary is a time to focus on spiritual growth and textual knowledge. I wanted to close one chapter before opening another. It helped that seminary offered philosophical lectures and practical advice on dating and marriage, and I wanted to get that all in before I got started with the dating bit. Also, typically the dating process is very private. The guy and the girl don’t share with friends whom they are dating. This is for two reasons: one, to protect the couple from awkward explanations and gossip in the event it doesn’t work out, and two, as the Talmud states: Blessing only rests on that which is hidden from the eye. Put differently, if you’ve got it, don’t flaunt it, or you risk losing it.
How will I borrow that killer outfit from my Belgian friend in the dorm without letting on that it’s for a date?
June, 1993. Jerusalem.
The “Koval guy” pulls up in a taxi to my aunt and uncle’s apartment in Jerusalem to pick me up. He knocks, comes in, and sits at the table that is set with refreshments no one will touch. We chat, and leave. All according to script. He speaks Israeli Hebrew to the cabbie and is very, very, nice.
After the date I return to my aunt and uncle’s apartment. I am happy. We went to a lounge and chatted for a few hours, then took a walk in a park. It was a good date. He’s very nice. I’m willing to go out again. My aunt and uncle are the “shadchanim” – matchmakers or middlemen, but that’s a lousy definition – meaning they mediate after each date. It is de rigueur for both boy and girl to get back to the shadchan within 24 hours. He does and also had a nice time. The second date is handled through the mediators and is set for a few days hence.
The purpose of Torah dating is for marriage – no delusions there. There is absolutely no touching before marriage, so the dates are spent chatting and in casual activities like touring, playing games, or eating out. The subsequent dates are either arranged via the shadchan, or by the couple themselves over the phone once they become more comfortable.
He’s so nice! Could I marry this guy? Wait. I don’t need to know if I want to marry him. I just need to know if I want to go out again. I do. That Israeli accent was pretty impressive.
End of June, 1993. New York.
We’ve gone out 4 times in Israel. Our dates have included a safari trip, an air hockey stint, a pizza date, and the boardwalk in Tel Aviv. He’s really, really, really nice. I respect his values and his opinions. I am truly impressed with how he treats the waitress, the toll booth guy, and the parking attendant. He is thoughtful of my schedule and respectful of Torah leaders. I like that he’s also normal. Very spiritual, but likes to have fun too. Great family. He obviously thinks this is going places, because he left his yeshiva mid-semester in Israel to continue dating. Our next date is to meet his parents, which is hilarious, because I totally know them from the block. But OK, to spend some time chatting. As a potential daughter-in-law. We meet in Central Park, then head over to a restaurant for dinner. Future FIL jokes about my boyfriend ordering garlic spaghetti. I blush. FIL is sweet. My parents are very supportive and talk me through the whole process. At this point we do blood tests to rule out Tay-Sachs incompatibility.
If all continues to progress, the sixth or seventh date will be proposal time. If either party feels they need more time, or are unsure if this is it, the shadchan will be notified and will relay this info to the other party with as much tact as possible. Ideal shadchanim are kind, thoughtful, tactful, reachable, and responsible.
If he would propose today, I would say yes. I feel that I know everything that I need to know. I feel confident that I making this decision with my head and not just my heart. Thank you, Hashem (God)! I am so grateful! Thank you for sending me such an amazing guy, with no effort on my part! You are so good to me. May this be good, may this be right, may I only know happiness. And if it’s not right for me, won’t you kindly alert me soon?
July, 1993. NY/Cleveland.
Three dates later, he proposes at Medici’s in Manhattan. I am glowing, I am ecstatic, I can’t believe it. We have to keep it a secret because his grandparents are on a cruise and we don’t want to announce it without them here. We’ll tell hand-picked family members only. My grandparents have tears in their eyes. They love him. I am popping with joy. A week later, we arrive in Cleveland, announce our engagement, and schedule a vort (engagement party), which the entire city attends. Delighted comments range from “I had no idea!” to “I should’ve thought of this one!” to “I thought of this idea, but you were in Israel/I didn’t think you were dating yet/you guys beat me to it” to “Mazel tov! May you build a wonderful Jewish home!” It’s wonderful and my cheeks ache from smiling. We set the wedding date for three months hence – October 18.
No touching = short engagements. Can’t say the David’s Bridal peeps were too keen on this. (“October 1994?” “No, October 1993.” “OCTOBER 1993?? That’s very soon, ma’am.”) However, all the Ortho-folk involved in this shindig are totally used to this (the caterer, the Italian hall owners, musicians, photographers, and flower people).
I’m so excited! I’m so lucky! This is serious. I have to start learning about marriage. I’m so excited!
August-September 1993. Cleveland.
We arrange for a local Jewish rebbetzin to teach me about a Jewish marriage. This includes all the mikveh laws. I read lots of books and take classes on communication, the holiness of marriage, and the spirituality in building a family. I feel very entrusted with millennia of sacred texts and learning. The “Koval guy” has returned to Israel to continue yeshiva study, much to my chagrin and pride. We talk once a week on the phone as he stands on his friend’s balcony in Israel with a cordless. It’s noisy and hard to hear him. It has to suffice. I am so happy knowing that he, too, is taking many classes on marriage and how to be a good husband. I pray a lot, in gratitude and supplication for our future. I turn 19 in August and my birthday is celebrated with my fiance and his family, as well as mine.
This is crazy! Is this me?? Getting married?? Am I playing house? Hashem, please let this be good. Please let me deserve this. Please let me know how to be a good wife and him to be a good husband. Let us be healthy and happy and build a wonderful family together, kind, spiritual, loving. This is crazy!
October 18, 1993. La Malfa, Mentor, Ohio.
Marty La Malfa joins hundreds of guests in our special day!
And… how did you meet?