Better Living Through Chemistry

“Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match. Find me a find. Catch me a catch.” Even though I’m single, I’ve never hummed the tune or thought of asking a matchmaker to find my dream man. But I must admit I was more than a little curious when asked to explore the updated art of matchmaking. After all, it’s been a while since the ’80s, when all I had to do was put on a short skirt and hit the dance floor.

The business of matchmaking is booming, not just through the old-fashioned personal touch but through an overwhelming number of matchmaking Websites that pair people by race, sexual orientation or religion. One of the most successful of these sites, eHarmony, even goes so far as to offer questionnaires that match members through “29 dimensions of compatibility.” Heck, it worked for Stephanie Parish and Tony Forrand, who are the epitome not just of romance but of romance rekindled. The happy couple first fell for each other at work. They dated for almost two years, until Stephanie decided to call it quits. “Tony was amazing,” she says, “but I was, like, 21. I wanted to be young, date and not have a boyfriend.”

Two years later, Stephanie found herself on eHarmony. She dated a couple of guys, but no one clicked. In fact, a few were scoundrels. Just when she was about to go back to the analog world, the site gave her a new match. “I opened it and saw his picture and fell off the chair.” It was Tony. Realizing you get a second chance only once, Stephanie didn’t waste any time. A few years later, the couple married.

I take solace in the story of Richard Metzger and Tara McGinley, who met not on a dating site but on the social-networking site Friendster. Makes me feel there’s a little serendipity online. “Five years ago, it was considered a little strange,” says Tara, a costume and wardrobe designer, who to this day hasn’t told her mother how she met her husband. “It would have seemed out there and desperate,” she says. “Now it’s more acceptable.” “In a city like Los Angeles, it’s difficult to meet people,” says Richard—a publisher and multimedia personality with erudite tastes—who liked Tara’s eccentric profile and photo. “In her profile picture she was holding a test tube with her eyes crossed,” he recalls. “It exuded this zany energy that’s very hard to fake.”

They engaged in a long courtship, talking on the phone for hours a day for two months. “I knew that was a voice I could listen to for the rest of my life,” says Richard. So, like any great self-promoting Angelino, he sent her a DVD of a talk show he had hosted for British Channel C4. “It’s so L.A.,” he admits, “but if you can take advantage of something like that, why not use it unashamedly?”

Tara watched the four-hour DVD in one sitting. She says she thought from the show that he would be short and stout in person but agreed to meet him nevertheless. She was relieved to find he was neither. The two were married less than a year later. “We are absolutely off-the-scale perfect for each other,” raves Richard. But not everyone can leave things up to destiny. Sometimes you need an actual human being to show you the promised land. Filling out an online profile and calling it a day feels a bit contrived for a divorced boomer like myself.

Enter Rena Hirsch. Even though she wouldn’t take me as a client (you have to be ultra-Orthodox, and I’m Irish-Catholic), Rena’s life is devoted to bringing together soul mates—and she’ll do it for free! This 21st-century godmother feels that helping people find love is her mission in life, “her mitzvah,” and she truly wants nothing in return. Every Friday night, Hirsch gathers single men and women at her Shabbat dinner table, which seats Hirsch; her husband, Aryeh; their seven children; and the invited singles. That’s one big table.

“I call it the chemistry factor,” says Hirsch, sipping tea in her Fairfax-area home, wearing a traditional fringed Orthodox scarf to cover her hair. She’s a warm, comforting woman, and the more she talks, the more intuitive she seems: “You can never tell if there is going to be chemistry. I invited one couple to my house to meet each other—there was nothing. But then he saw another women at the table, and there was chemistry. They ended up getting married, and they have a child. I had one single woman who came to our party (she wasn’t even invited), and she ended up meeting her soul mate. When he was filling out his form, he said, ‘I don’t want anyone who is overweight.’ And yet he met her, they got married and have a child, and she is huge.”

Hirsch combines high tech with low, serving as a consultant to the Orthodox Internet site Saw You at Sinai. Using the Web gives her a much larger database, and it has expanded her search area from Los Angeles to the world. “For my group of older singles, the Internet has had a tremendous impact,” she says. “I know a lot of couples who have met on Jewish Orthodox sites and even non-Orthodox sites like JDate. When I meet somebody, I also recommend Frumster and JRetroMatch. My neighbor met a woman who lived in England, and she is now his wife.”

But Internet dating isn’t for everyone. Hirsch cautions her clients about the risks seekers of love have to accept before logging on, including sexual predators and con men who prey on lonely people for their money. One of the great obstacles to success, in her opinion, is the lack of chemistry on the Internet. “People make split-second decisions based solely on a person’s photograph,” she says, “so one thing I do is help people pick the right photograph.”

“We are in a singles crisis,” says Hirsch, who blames Holly­wood’s “you’ve got to feel good about it” values, plus the fact that in the last few years women have decidedly become more like men in terms of picking a mate. “They didn’t used to care if a guy was bald or overweight. They wanted a good provider. Now they want younger, they want good looks, and they don’t want pot bellies.”

What about those who aren’t fortysomething and ultra-Orthodox Jewish? I explore further. Turns out there’s a matchmaker for them, too—April Beyer, though she works a bit differently. You have to be a man, typically fortyish—and it’s going to cost you: Beyer charges $35,000–$40,000 per client. “I’m very high end,” she says. “These men are paying me to find their future wife, and I facilitate those serious introductions.”

Beyer, like Hirsch, often disregards the forms clients fill out describing what they are—and are not—looking for in a prospective mate. She gets to know her clients and the pool of candidates she’s created for them to meet. That’s where the skill as a matchmaker comes into play. For Beyer, “old-fashioned, organic dating” is preferred—no Internet, not even cell-phone texting, is allowed in courting (Beyer says the high-tech route makes men lazy and not as vulnerable). And it has worked: Beyer is busy through word-of-mouth recommendations and has 30 unions to her credit. “Success,” she says, “isn’t always measured by marriage but through relationships and happiness.”

As for Hirsch, her efforts have resulted in 50 marriages, three of which took place in her backyard. “My husband always says that even if they don’t get married, I’m giving them hope. Every time you call up a single and offer them a name to go out with, they get excited. My husband says to just keep at it. The results are not up to you; they’re up to God. But our work is not to sit back and say, ‘Forget it, let God do the job.’ Our work is to try to be part of the process.”

So what did I take away from all of this? Well, I have a big table, beautiful china and crystal and lots of single friends. And I’m pretty good at matchmaking—one couple I introduced is celebrating 30 years of marriage this month. And as long as it’s up to God to close the deal, well, I think I’m going to start having an Irish-style soul-mating form of Shabbat dinner.

And of course, I’ll do it for free.

Additional reporting provided by Shana Ting Lipton.

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