The Online Shtetl


How JDate is like a reprogrammed and updated version of the original.
by Hinda Mandell

The dark, dusty life that comprised shtetl livin’ was an existence lived in plain view for all prying mothers’ eyes to judge and watch every child’s move. Hopefully, for the sake of shalom beyis (peace and harmony between husband and wife), the young men behaved like the yeshiva buchers they were, and the young ladies like little maidele, ripe for the plucking. If not, a serious tongue lashing was in store, one that involved spitting over the shoulder and language that rivaled a fishmonger’s wife.

As a people, we have moved through the years of living with chickens to communing with cellular phones; employing a Shabbas goy to marrying him; envying the sun-kissed locks of the luscious shikseh to emulating her with cascades of golden highlights courtesy of the finest stylists in town.

New and improved shtetl

Iconic shtetl living exists only in the misery of our history. But Shtetl 2.0 is up and running right now, a reprogrammed and updated version of the original. It’s not necessarily “new and improved” software; rather, it exhibits remnants of the shtetl lifestyle, from the gossiping, monitoring, and meddling, in a new technological format. The shtetl has gone live—online, that is—and its fundamental purpose reinforces the fundamental purpose of yore: procreate so your Jewish babies can make more Jewish babies, and make your mammele proud. Let her nachas pervade the remodeled rooms of her Boca Raton condo. In other words, there’s hope for you yet on JDate.

I first realized that JDate allows people to channel their latent shtetl tendencies when I recently returned home from work and promptly plopped myself in front of the television. My mother, father, and sister were already there, huddled together in the same corner of the couch, as if the rest of the ample u-shaped piece of furniture did not even exist. They were staring at a computer screen with the tenderness reserved for a savory piece of meat on Shabbos.

“We found the perfect man for you,” my 24-year-old sister said. My mother and father beamed at the electronic picture of their future son-in-law from the JDate portal. He was a professor of communications and he lived in Providence, Rhode Island. I took the laptop from them and stared at the results of their matchmaking work. In theory, he would do quite nicely. On the physical side of things he had that studious look I find attractive, and his height was allegedly 6’1” (allegedly, because I have found that people always add a few inches to their frame, just as they subtract a few pounds from their girth). There’s a similarity between matchmaking at the online shtetl and the historic one: It never hurts to fib a little in an effort to present oneself in the best light. Reality will reveal an accurate image soon enough.

Settle no more

However, when I contacted my parents’ future son-in-law through Instant Messenger a few days later, I learned that something important was missing from the appealing picture/profile package: personality and a sense of humor. He no doubt had a few choice things to say about me as well. After hundreds of years of shtetl marriages, we no longer have to settle. And boy can we be picky. Subsequently, my mother mourned the son-in-law she never had. Oy, how she cursed me.
And may God have pity on the poor man who is interested in a young woman whose sister also has an online shtetl account and lives under the same roof! My sister was recently contacted by a nice man who kindly recounted his hobbies and work life. A patient man he certainly seemed. A worldly man, too. But my sister insisted on sharing every email he wrote with me, recounting all possible innuendoes and potential relationship baggage. The poor bucher probably doesn’t even have a clue that he is being sized up by both his potential beshert and her sister.

However, there are other times when shtetl-style meddling comes in handy.

“Someone’s IMing me; someone’s IMing me,” my sister shouted to me although I was sitting right next to her; we were both on our own laptops browsing the online shtetl one evening. I looked over to see who the mensch was. But a mensch, he was not. Hours before, I cut short his advances as he attempted to solicit from me how I would order him around if he was powerless and I had all the control.
“He’s a nebbish,” I advised. “He’ll only bring tsures to our poor mammele.”

About the Author

Hinda Mandell
Hinda Mandell is a writer living in Boston.

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