It's an introduction with implications.
Shidduch. It's a Hebrew word. The exact translation is a little fuzzy; I go for 'introduction', but others might prefer 'arrangement' or 'negotiation'. Whatever the translation, the meaning is the same. It's an arrangement by which two young Jewish people are introduced to each other with the expectation that they will form a compatible couple and live happily ever after and be fruitful and multiply. What it isn't is an arranged marriage. They're not allowed. Shidduchim, however, are big business, in orthodox circles at least. In less orthodox circles they're regarded with varying degrees of derision, amusement, or bewilderment.
So when can I expect you to make me a great-grandmother?
Young orthodox men and women will begin to think about getting married aged 17 or 18. Marriage and procreation are two of the most significant mitzvot in Judaism, so cracking on early is seen as a good thing. However, orthodoxy means very little interaction between the sexes. Girls and boys will be educated separately and sit separately in schul. Their opportunities for social interaction are severely limited, so to help them to find the loves of their lives as quickly as possible, they will usually rely on someone else to make the necessary introductions. There's nothing to stop two sets of parents who know each other and have children roughly the same age with similar backgrounds and interests from introducing their children to each other. It happens quite a bit. However, there is also a more formal, professional approach.
Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match...
In addition to the founders of OKCupid, there are others who devote their lives to professional matchmaking. The Hebrew term is shadchan. They're usually women, but some men do it, too. Young men or women looking to be introduced to someone suitable will go to a shadchan, explain their background, their interests, their outlook, and the kind of person with whom they'd like to share the rest of their lives, and wait for the shadchan to work her (or his) magic to put them in touch with a potential husband or wife. Following that, the family will almost certainly conduct some investigations of their own to find out the person's background from other sources, and then if they are happy to, they will arrange to meet, perhaps at the home of one of their parents, or in a public place. Hotel lobbies seem to be a favourite. Walk into a posh hotel in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv and you will confront a barrage of young couples, nervously — or maybe not so nervously, depending on how many times they've met — conversing.
You honestly want to know how long I knew her before we got engaged? One week.
Given the amount of information they have shared with the shadchan, and how much of this would have been passed on to their prospective other half, it is expected that deciding whether or not they are right for each other will happen very quickly. Honestly, we're talking about them meeting three or four times before they get engaged. For the children of very religious rabbis, it can be just one meeting; and other couples might meet ten or 20 times. Oh, and in case you were wondering, yes, physical attraction is a consideration. At least, that's what I've been told. If they don't think that their long term prospects are worth pursuing, they don't even have to tell the other person themselves. They can inform the shadchan, who will pass on the message, and also start to look for a new match.
In the orthodox community this is seen as one of the great benefits of the the shidduch system: the lack of emotional investment in the relationships means that people can make objective decisions, and move on quickly and cleanly if necessary. And there is very little opportunity for modesty to be compromised and reputations to be damaged, which is of course a major consideration. The orthodox community will also tell you that it is a successful system because their divorce rates are so much lower than those across secular society. In truth, that's not a fair comparison because culturally they are far less likely to engage in divorce proceedings. And I've seen both very successful and desperately miserable marriages arise from shidduchim.
There are other negative aspects to the shidduch process, though. People who maybe flirted with a secular lifestyle and have since returned to orthodoxy often find it more difficult to be matched, as do people who come from less financially affluent backgrounds. The same goes for people who might have disabilities or poor health of some sort. That the shidduch system doesn't really allow you to get to know someone for the person they are, rather, you are told what they're like and where they're from, means building a relationship aside from or inspite of these aspects is far more difficult. And, for those of us who aren't accustomed to the idea of the shidduch, we see getting to know each other as a vital, and fun, aspect of the relationship.
Hi! Ella, tell me, are you still single?
In truth, a very relaxed version of making shidduchim goes on all the time. I've been invited to dinners to meet people whom it is believed would be a good match for me; I've been asked if it's okay for my telephone number to be given to someone who is 'just perfect' for me. When making three successful matches assures you of a place in the world to come — or so tradition says — who can resist? I've already got one to my name, and given my distinctly poor track record of keeping the mitzvot, I'd probably better set about making another two.