The “shadchen” is an ever-recurring figure in Jewish comic tales…. or used to be. The shadchen is a marriage broker. Originally the word apparently meant “persuader”. He (or she) will persuade a reluctant groom that the girl he is about to meet is a dazzling beauty – a veritable Helen of Troy – when in truth, she is a mousy little pudding.
A typical such story ends with the line: “But dear boy, it’s only a little hunchback!” A large a dowry will glamourize any girl. But of course a shadchen has to be inventive to earn his percentage. I had never expected to meet a shadchen in my lifetime. They had long gone out of fashion – or so I thought. Even when my parents married over 90 years ago no broker made the introduction and no dowry passed hands. I guess the great German inflation of the 1920s dealt a final blow to an old tradition.
And yet it was my fate to fall into the hands of a marriage broker. Of course, Mrs Levy did not conform to the stereotype. She was an elegant lady, still good-looking in her 50s — a grande dame one might say. She had been my mother’s friend, the wife of our doctor in Northern Rhodesia, but her husband had died in a car crash. He had been rushing to a patient in the throes of a heart attack. The patient survived. The doctor didn’t. My mother had comforted the widow in her bereavement but Mrs Levy had left the country soon after.
However, some three years later I ran into her again. I had just started university in Johannesburg. I was sipping a coca cola in a cafe (probably the cheapest drink they served) when she hailed me from a neighbouring table. Yes, she told me, she had remarried – a prominent industrialist. She had also hyphenated herself: Mrs Levy-Mauerberger. She invited me to one of her soirees. Their villa was in one of the wealthiest suburbs of the City of Gold. Guests arrived in Cadillacs. I walked from a distant bus stop. She took me to meet her husband.
“You can congratulate him”, she whispered.
“What for?” “Don’t you read the newspapers?” I did, but obviously the wrong pages.
“His horse”, she whispered, “has just won the race.” I did not dare ask which race. Obviously the other guests knew and were shaking his hand. I followed suite. He offered cigars all round. I declined with thanks.
It was not a sparkling occasion. Most of the conversation was about horses and that left me out. However, as the party was breaking up she said “I’ll drive you back”. In the car she broached the subject: “You’re a bright lad. And a nice lad. And you’re not bad looking. There is only one thing wrong with you.”
“What’s that, madam?”
“You don’t have any money.” There was no point in denying this. She knew my family circumstances. . “I’m hoping to find a part-time job,” I explained.
“We’ll have to see what we can do about that. Drop in tomorrow or the day after”.
The next day she picked up her phone and spoke to the editor of a Jewish weekly. She praised me most extravagantly – embarrassingly so – but winked as she spoke. Then, shielding her phone with her hand, she whispered “Let’s see what that will produce.”
Next day I had a job. Every Thursday I was to report at the printing works to proofread pages of the weekly. After two weeks the editor offered me more work. Would I also come in on Wednesdays – but to their editorial offices? Their social columns, he explained, were compiled from contributions written by … and he grinned cynically: “Mrs Finkelstein describes the wonderful community event hosted by …. Mrs Finkelstein.” My new job would be to turn these contribution into correct English and – ever so gently – to tone down the self-advertising.
Overnight was rich – at least by my standards. I could now afford an occasional lager at the Golden City Hotel or even invite Sharon to the flicks. Of course I would never be one of those golden boys. I had not been given a flashy sports car for my 18th birthday, but at least I was no longer an Oliver Twist. I was duly grateful to Mrs Levy-Mauerberger. When she invited me to another of her “dos”, I felt obliged to go. As the guests were dispersing she took me aside.
“We’ve been thinking …. my husband and I. What you need is obvious: a rich wife. And we know the right families.”
That was the beginning of her shadchen activities – unpaid, of course. I was embarrassed, sometimes acutely embarrassed, but felt it would be ill-mannered and ungrateful to rebuff her.
She took me with her to visit several grand houses. The daughters did not have hunchbacks. No, not even little ones. In fact, since many of the houses had swimming pools I could verify that some of the girls had well-shaped figures which engendered flashes of lust in me! But I saw nothing else of interest. I was concerned about race – and South Africa certainly had race problems. Their interests focussed on race meetings and the hats to wear at the next one. They read Vogue. I read Dostoyevsky. We didn’t ‘click’.
I think I was taken to two or three such houses. Often I got on better with the fathers than the daughters. I was more likely to be offered a trainee-managerial job in their businesses than the hand of their daughter. But perhaps one was the prerequisite for the other?
One father suggested that, during my vacations, I might accompany one of his commercial travellers. I would learn a lot about his business which was canning fruit and vegetables. I said unfortunately these coming vacations I had several long essays to write. That seemed to reassure him that I was a serious young man.
I discussed the problem with my friend Robin. I could rely on his discretion. Several more introductions were threatened. How could I escape from this circuit without giving great offence? He suggested I might declare myself gay. I refused. It would ruin my chances with any girl I did find interesting. His second suggestion was that I should announce my engagement – “And if you want to be dead certain there will be no more invitations, tell them she’s not Jewish.”
The occasion came upon me only a day or two later. I had not had time to prepare my story. I was to be introduced to an eminently suitable girl, the daughter of a motorcar wholesaler.
“I’m about to become engaged”, I lied.
“Who’s the lucky girl?”
The first name that came into mind was that of a girl I had had a crush on many years earlier: “Francina.”
“But….but that’s Dutch!”
“Afrikaans. Her family are Afrikaners.” Her mouth dropped open. Was I really, seriously, going to marry “out”?
“Your poor, poor mother!”
I quickly wrote a letter home to reassure my parents that I was not engaged and had no intentions. My father thought it a great joke. My mother didn’t. But in the City of Gold the story must have spread. Invitations ceased. The last time I saw Mrs Levy-Mauerberger she could barely look me in the eyes.
“I see,” she said, shaking her head sadly “I put my money on the wrong horse.”