My Single Peeps: Meredith Salenger


I met Meredith through my friend, Matt. I was riding my bike in the hood when he pulled up next to me in his car, with Meredith sitting in the passenger seat. He introduced us, and she said, “You’re cute.” I said, “Thanks. I’m married.” With barely a blink, she asked, “Do you have any friends?” Very forward. No shame. She knows what she wants. Yet I remember thinking, “I’m on a little BMX bike — a man-child doing pop wheelies in the street. What’s wrong with this girl?”

Later, she added me as a friend on Facebook, and I realized who she was. Natty Gann! Of course she loves boys on trick bikes —she’s just a tomboyish girl, trying to make her way across the country to find her dad. And along the way, she’ll find love. Of course in the movie, “The Journey of Natty Gann,” her love interest was John Cusack — but as a kid I hoped it would be me. And because L.A. is that kind of a place, now Natty Gann was hitting on me. But she’s too late. My wife and kid are in the way. So I’m hooking you guys up.  

The most surprising thing about Meredith is how grounded she is.  There’s an expectation of craziness that goes along with being a child actor. But instead of rehab at 18, Meredith went to Harvard and got a degree in psychology. She came back to Los Angeles and continued working as an actor. It’s the only job she’s ever had.  Yet you could sit with her for an hour, and the subject would never come up. You’d be more likely to hear about how much she loves kids. What she wants is a family.

“I want to come home from being at the beach with my baby and have to hold her butt under the shower to get the sand off … and I want my husband helping me,” she said. To which I said, “When you’re at the beach with your kid, and you forget the sunblock, and the kid’s burning, and you’re trying to find shade but the umbrella keeps falling over because of the wind, and the car’s parked far away because your husband was too cheap to use the pay lot, then these moments can feel pretty stressful. You’re idealizing them.”

She said, “I don’t idealize planning my wedding and picking out the dress. I want to go grocery shopping together, make dinner, spill salad dressing on the floor and argue about having to mop it up. I want real life.”

Recently, Meredith went back to school — Pepperdine Law — where she got a degree in mediation. She’s decided that she wants another career, in addition to her acting, and she enjoys resolving disputes. After a year and a half of on-the-job training, she got hired by a firm, full time. Mediating conflicts between bitter band members, angry employees and jaded spouses has shown her the uglier side of relationships. And it doesn’t scare her. It’s what she wants. Love — warts and all.

If you’re interested in anyone you see on My Single Peeps, send an e-mail and a picture, including the person’s name in the subject line, to {encode=”mysinglepeeps@jewishjournal.com” title=”mysinglepeeps@jewishjournal.com”}, and we’ll forward it to your favorite peep.


Seth Menachem is an actor and writer living in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter. You can see more of his work on his Web site, sethmenachem.com, and meet even more single peeps at mysinglepeeps.com.

Finding Tools That Give Life Meaning


In the Louisiana where I grew up, the Monday ritual involved a pot of red beans simmering on the stove and a washing machine chugging in the laundry room. On one of those wash days, circa 1965, our washing machine overflowed.

Hearing noises, I ran into the washroom to find my mother banging on appliances and crying to the heavens. Bellowing a phrase from the existential literature she was reading, she shouted, “Life is absurd. Life is absurd.”

“Yes,” I said, as I swooped in, “but that’s where you start.”

Having taken the existential leap into accepting life’s ambiguity has gotten me through a lot over the years, particularly this year, as the extremes of experience challenge any vestiges of hope I have held for things to have predictable outcomes. Say what you will about Katrina and cancer, they can be excellent teachers.

I think that Jews have an edge in holding what psychotherapist Marion Woodman calls “the tension of opposites.” The Torah gives us the Book of Deuteronomy, where we are carefully told that good will be rewarded and bad punished. Yet Torah also gives us the Book of Job, where those who assert the Deuteronomical truth are severely chastised by God for telling falsehood. We Jews break our brains early.

The very first chapters of the Book of Genesis tell us first that the human was created on the sixth day, yet a few lines down we get an entirely different human creation story. God scoops up earth, breathes into it and hiene Adam. Wait, which is right? The sixth day or the earthling? Just rewards or Job’s unfathomable universe? It’s like the Certs conundrum: Is it a candy mint or a breath mint? Wait, you are both right.

Paradox heals. How else would it be possible for me to assert that my experience returning as a volunteer post-Katrina to my childhood home in the Gulf South, in the midst of an unimaginably horrible human and environmental catastrophe, was one of the most professionally fulfilling experiences I have ever had? Or to claim that this time, now, when I am struggling with cancer, chemotherapy and severe limitations to my energy and activities, has afforded me immeasurable quality time with friends and an unexpected sense of peace and well-being?

I wonder if I am delusional or in denial. I certainly wouldn’t have chosen either of these trials. And while I am coping well with my current treatment, I make no assumptions about how I will manage what may be waiting for me down the line.

Still at this point, my sense is that in these challenges, there is the paradoxical embrace of both horror and beauty. Horror in the diagnosis and possible outcome, beauty in the treasure of each moment — an awareness that is somehow focused by the terrifying knowledge of what else might be possible.

I think my comfort with paradox stems from being prematurely eldered. It happened when I was in the third grade and my grandfather lay on his deathbed.

Grandpa Brener, who had come from Bialystok to New Orleans as a young man, was a pious Jew. He traveled the South raising money for Zionist organizations. His family, which included seven children, often went wanting as he sent whatever money he could to the Jewish National Fund to buy land to build the Jewish homeland.

As he lay dying in his bedroom, his right hand paralyzed and his mouth unable to speak, I sat at his bedside and was sometimes given the honor of feeding him through his IV tube.

One day when I left my post, I wandered from his bedroom into his study. I saw a plaque attached to the wall near his Hebrew books. It said, “If I forget thee O Jerusalem, may my right hand fail and my tongue cleave to my mouth.” I knew that my frail and mute grandfather hadn’t forgotten Jerusalem.

At that moment, I was liberated from the clutches of fundamentalism. Confronting the fact that bad things happen to good people gave me tools to make my own meaning and look beyond black and white. It gave me a facility with paradox, a big advantage in confronting a nuanced world.

The result was a tolerance for irony, paradox and absurdity. I learned that I would have to create my own answers, and that ultimately, we all must care for each other in order to save ourselves. And that the process can even be fun.

The familiar words of Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav comfort without sounding like Pollyanna: “All the world is a narrow bridge. The most important thing is to not be afraid.”

The injustice of my grandfather’s suffering in light of the promise that was pinned to his wall, catapulted me into the awareness of life on the narrow bridge, where we cannot escape the fact that life is precarious and mysterious. To help others, we stand with them on bridge, offering witness, encouragement, soup and rides.

If we are to be helpful and not condescending, we should never forget that we, too, are vulnerable. And together we seek justice, courage and delight.

Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001), a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.

 

Leaving the Fold — Not the Family


My father doesn’t believe in Father’s Day.

I mean he knows it exists, but he doesn’t celebrate it because it’s not a Jewish holiday.

When my three siblings and I were growing up in Brooklyn, he wouldn’t allow us to go to New Year’s parties, because they celebrate the birth of JC, as he was referred to, if he were referred to at all. Ditto, Halloween and trick or treating, because the whole thing was pagan. Whatever that meant. Goyishe was the term we used: gentile. Not Jewish. Not Religious.

For us, it was all the same thing. Everyone we knew was religious. My family, my friends, my parents’ friends, my schoolmates, everyone.

Maybe you think it’s weird to grow up so sheltered, among such homogeny, maybe even I think it’s weird, but that’s only now, only sometimes. Then? Then it was all I knew. It was normal. We were normal.

Normal back then meant Modern Orthodox — that we kept kosher and celebrated Shabbat and holidays. We went to coed yeshivas and sleepaway camps; we wore skirts to school, pants and shorts at home and bathing suits at the beach.

There’s a joke about religion that anyone more religious than you is crazy, and anyone less than you — a goy! And that was our family: not super-religious black-hat like most of my father’s family, who attended separate schools and studied in kollel yeshivas instead of college, and definitely not Conservative or “not religious,” as we equated it, like much of my mother’s family, who went to Solomon Schecter and drove on Saturdays. (Not to our house; they weren’t allowed.) We weren’t like them. We were just … normal.

In today’s increasingly polarized religious world, the Modern Orthodoxy I grew up with hardly exists, but that’s nishta hin, nishta heir — Yiddish for neither here nor there — because I’m no longer Orthodox. How I left Orthodoxy, why I left Orthodoxy, well, that’s a long story, and a different one. This is the story of how it affected my relationship with my family, particularly my father.

See, he was the driving force behind our religious education.

My father always says that he became more religious in Vietnam. After attending Yeshiva University — he was captain of the wrestling team — he went to dental school at Temple University in Philadelphia. “It wasn’t easy for us then,” he liked to tell us, about being the only religious Jew, forced to attend classes on Shabbos and holidays. In fact, one of the reasons he decided to become a dentist instead of a doctor was because he didn’t want to deal with the halachic problems — the religious conflicts doctors must face. He served in the Vietnam Medical Corps from 1967-1968. He never really talked much about his years in Vietnam, except to say that the experience strengthened his faith and practice of a religion that, I assume, might have been strictly rote beforehand.

Maybe that was why it was so difficult for him to see me leave something he’d fought so hard to keep. But I suppose — and I can only say this now, 10 years later — my choice may also have felt like a bitter slap in the face to a parent who has worked so hard to inculcate his own values in his child.

But it wasn’t personal. Not really. Hardly at all. I mean, I wasn’t becoming less religious to rebel against him — although now I can see with clarity that there was a time when I certainly didn’t mind taunting him. On my yearly visits to America, when I was in my 20s and living in Israel, we went at it like Talmudic scholars while the rest of the family sat around the Shabbos table trying to enjoy their meal in peace. My father’s wife would clear the table (he and my mother divorced when I was 23), and my younger brother and sister would roll their eyes in frustration, helpless to stop the degeneration of the conversation, which predictably descended into feverish debate at first opportunity.

“The rabbi made an interesting speech today in shul,” my father would say, as he’s said at every Saturday meal I can ever remember. Usually a sentence or two later, and we’d be off: “How dare the rabbi talk about Israel and the settlements when he lives comfortably in America?” I’d say, because prior to my religious transformation, my political convictions had shifted seismically left, as well. Or, “I’d like to see what the rabbi would do if his son came home and announced he was gay; then how easy would it be to denounce homosexuality?” I’d say, proud of my newfound liberalism.

Those early years of debating always seemed to focus on external issues — Israel, abortion, homosexuality, tolerance, feminism, equality — but we were dancing around the edges of the heart of the matter: What was this religion he had taught me, and how much of it was I going to accept? How much would he accept me, even if I weren’t what he wanted me to be? It went on like this for years, me insisting I was happy with my career, my friends, my single life and him unable to accept my version of a happy life, warning me I should work on getting married and building a family, a bayit ne’eman byisrael. A home faithful to the traditions of Israel.

“Wouldn’t you rather I be happy than shomer Shabbos?” I finally screamed. It was a seemingly ridiculous question because, of course, every father wants his child to be happy.

“I think you should be shomer Shabbos,” he replied; for him, it wasn’t an either/or question. He lived in both worlds — interacting with people from all walks of life in his dental practice, going to the movies, playing golf, reading news magazines — so why couldn’t I?

They say that the Jewish people keep Shabbos, but Shabbos keeps the Jewish people. Which means that although we “sanctify the Sabbath,” in the end, by keeping Sabbath, we remain Jewish. It is the cornerstone of the religion, and it is usually one of the last things to go for an X-O, an ex-Orthodox person.

Not that I was ex-anything. By age 29, when I was back in America, I wasn’t sure what I was or wasn’t, and my father and I kept a “Don’t ask, don’t tell policy.”

“Secret Shabbos Breakers?” my father said to me during our weekly conversations, referring to an article I wrote for The Forward about how people hid from their relatives the fact that they were no longer observant in order to keep the peace.

And that was that. After all those arguments, all those years, it was anti-climactic. I had outted myself.

“You’re an adult now, you can do what you want,” he said, sadly.

Somehow it was worse than all the fighting, all the debate, all the times I wanted to rip every single hair out of my head waiting for three stars to come out in the sky so that Shabbos would be over, and I could get out of Brooklyn.

Of course, that wasn’t it; that wasn’t the end of the debate. But in a way we had reached an impasse: He was trying to let go, and I was beginning to realize that I didn’t need to prove my life to him, I just needed to accept it for myself.

There were other hurdles — like him allowing me to come for only part of the weekend, as opposed to from Friday sundown to Saturday night — and I’m sure there will be many more in the future: Would he come to my wedding if a Conservative rabbi officiated? Would I be able to wear strapless? What if I married someone who converted through the Reform movement? The list goes on and on.

But that’s always the way it works between the more religious and less; my family — my siblings are also observant — doesn’t seem to understand that sometimes it’s just as hard for me to accept them as it is for them to accept me. When I sit around their Shabbos tables, no longer debating anyone, I often wonder how it would all sound to an outsider: The Torah portion, Talmudic references, Hebrew and Yiddish phrases interspersed casually in conversation, like seasoning. (Do they think it will be easy to describe to a future husband that my family’s not exactly homophobic, they just think being gay is an abomination as it is stated in the Torah?)

Look, it’s not as if I’m secular; I’m the most religious non-Orthodox person I know. I’ve worked in Jewish journalism for the last 10 years, and not a week goes by where I’m not flipping through the Bible, the prayer book and, more recently, the Internet in search of a quote or a phrase to fit a story I’m writing about the holidays, religion, Jewish life.

Most times, though, I find it’s easier to just call my father.

“What’s a phrase that talks about the sins of the father on the sons?” I ask him for this article. We don’t even say hello anymore on these calls; when he sees it’s from my office, and it’s not our pre-Shabbos calls, he knows I’m about to pump him for a Jewish source.

“Lo Yumtu Avot al Banim? he asks.

“No, that’s not what I’m looking for.”

“V’Heshiv Lev Avot al Banim?” he suggests, and I sing it, the song about how fathers and sons will be reunited during the time of the Messiah.

We have a symbiotic writing relationship here. He provides me with quotes, sources, even divrei Torah, if I have to deliver a speech at a religious person’s house. And sometimes, I even publish his writing — such as his essay on his daily Daf Yomi classes (although his essay on finding the afikomen is still in the slush pile).

For this essay, though, it’s not a biblical quote I’m looking for. After all, when I think about how, after years of separating myself from the religious community, years of living apart — now in Venice Beach, running marathons, surfing, skiing, studying literature, engaging in as many secular activities as possible — I am at times a stranger in this strange land. And when I’m at a religious event — a Shabbat dinner, a shul Kiddush, a Pico-Robertson barbecue — I no longer feel such hostility. I actually feel a kinship. Is it nostalgia? Is it familiarity? Is it because I’m among friends? Or, as my brother might say, is it because I have a Jewish soul?

It turns out the line I’m looking for comes from a novel, Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History”:

“I have come to realize that while for years I might have imagined myself to be somewhere else, in reality I have been there all the time.”

Who knows where I will end up? What my future family will be like?

As for me, right now, without children and without a husband, I am very close to my family, to my father. They’re observant, and I love them. I’m not observant, but they love me, too. I know they hope I will become more observant, and I haven’t given up on them either: I still try to open their minds to my way of thinking. Who knows what effect we have on each other?

Sometimes, I believe my father was right about many things — about getting married early before it became too difficult, about keeping Shabbat, keeping kosher and a half a dozen other things he tried to warn me about. But that’s only sometimes. Other times, I love my life and all the opportunities I’ve had since I branched out into the world.

Anyway, I’d never tell him he might be right. Not to his face, anyway. So here it is:

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy.

 

Love, Journal Style?


Did you meet the love of your life through The Jewish Journal’s personals? Was it lasting devotion or did it crash and burn? We’re compiling the best stories of people who met through The Journal to run as part of our 20th anniversary edition. Send your stories — happy or horrid — to letters@jewishjournal.com with the subject line: JJ Love. Be sure to include your name, since we will not run anonymous submissions.

Deadline is May 31.

 

Unhappy New Year!


OK, I’ll be absolutely honest — I spent this past New Year’s Eve alone. Sure, I could have salvaged the situation with a round of frantic last-minute calling, but I never got around to it because I had to go and get into a fight. Fortunately, I was the only one who got hurt. You see, I picked a fight with myself. And on New Year’s Eve day, no less. Almost out of nowhere and with virtually no warning, I started in on myself.

So, who’s your lucky date for New Year’s Eve?

Please. You know darn well I don’t have any date tonight.

What? The Duke of Dating flying solo on New Year’s? I’m stunned. How can it be?

I don’t want to talk about it. It just worked out that way.

It doesn’t “just work out that way.” You worked it out that way. How many coffee dates have you had this past year?

Too painfully many to remember.

And not one of them was available for New Year’s Eve?

You don’t just ask someone out on a date for New Year’s Eve. It’s a very meaningful night. A very expensive night. It’s not for “a” date; it’s for “the” date.”

So with all those coffee dates, how come none of them worked out into “the” date?

You want a reason for each? She wasn’t attracted to me. I wasn’t attracted to her. She wanted someone who made more money. I wanted someone who talked about something other than herself. She wanted to have more kids. I wasn’t communicative enough for her. She didn’t have a sense of humor. I didn’t have a passion for four cats. Shall I continue?

You know what you’re doing, don’t you?

What am I doing?

It’s so obvious. For every woman you meet, you’re finding some reason, any reason, to keep you from starting a relationship.

That’s ridiculous.

Is it? You mean to tell me you meet a woman who’s perfect in every way, except she has four cats, and that’s the deal-breaker?

Look, I never said she was perfect otherwise. And besides, if I didn’t want a relationship, what am I doing spending all this time and energy meeting women?

You really want to know?

I asked, didn’t I?

You’re addicted to dating.

Get out of here.

Exactly. That’s the message you’re giving these poor women: “Get out of here.” For you, it’s all about the thrill of the chase. Ms. Right’s just around the corner. The next one’s going to be flawless. Well, get this, oh Sultan of Singles: There is no Ms. Right; there is no flawless, and there is no satisfaction for you if you keep on this way. One day you’re going to wake up to find yourself 78 years old and on your way to your next coffee date. That what you want, Pops?

Of course not. But none of the ones I’ve met this year feel right. I’ve had coffee dates where everything just clicks, we start dating, and before long, we’re in a relationship.

Sounds lovely. And where are those “everything-clicks” women now?

They didn’t work out.

They didn’t work out? Or you subconsciously torpedoed the relationship so you could get back to your addiction?

I, uh…

You know, I’ve about had it with you. You disgust me. Get out of my sight.

I can’t. I’m you and you’re me.

What did I do to deserve this?

Well, come on, don’t give up on me. What do you suggest?

I don’t know. Since I am you, I’m somewhat limited in my perceptions and insights.

You don’t have to insult me.

I’m sorry. OK, look, let’s try something different this year. One word: “Stop.” Stop the coffee dates. Stop the singles Web sites. Stop the matchmaking services. Stop the personals ads. Stop the singles parties and dances. Just stop.

Are you heading for a celibacy thing? Because that’s not what…

I’m trying to keep you from a celibacy thing. Just live your life. Do your work. Be with your friends and family. Volunteer for something. Be out in the real world. She’s out there, but you’re trying too hard. Stop trying. Start living.

I don’t know. I’ll think about it.

That’s all I ask. Now let’s get some Thai food, and for the love of God, no “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.”

I was in no mood to fight with myself any more. I picked up some Thai food. I called a few loved ones. I watched a Marx Brothers movie. And I gave some serious thought to what I’d said to myself. It wasn’t so bad. Yes, I was alone, but not lonely, really. And maybe next New Year’s Eve, I’ll have a date. She can even bring her cats.

Mark Miller, a comedy writer and performer, can be reached at

The Soldier I Could Have Saved


Thirty-three years ago an Israeli soldier was killed during the War of Attrition in Fort Kantara on the Suez Canal. The soldier’s name was Kobi; he was 19. I think about Kobi every day, and sometimes I don’t sleep at night. Thirty-three years have passed, and I still live with it like it happened recently.

Do you think I am insane? Disturbed? Suffering from post-war trauma?

I don’t know, I was never treated by a doctor for it.

During the war I was a staff sergeant at Fort Kantara. I was there for more than a year. I saw young Israeli soldiers come and go. In Hebrew we called them “cannon meat.” They came to us from boot camp, 18 years old. Wanting to see the blue water of the Suez Canal, they raised their heads above the sandbags and were killed instantly by Russian snipers. The next day they were sent back home in caskets. Just like that, within seconds, they were alive and suddenly gone. We told you not to raise your heads. You didn’t listen to us. By then it was too late.

But this is not what happened to Kobi. Kobi could have been saved, but something else happened. A short time after Kobi arrived at Fort Kantara, a new officer joined us — Lt. Moti. Moti came directly from officers school, with a lot of energy, and let us feel that he was the new boss of the place. We didn’t make a big deal of it at first. He seemed to be a nice guy from from a good family. He was from the town of Hadera, wanted to go up the ranks fast and acted a little like an oyber chuchem (smart ass).

Time passed, and except for a few disputes Moti got along with most of us, including myself — until the horrible day came. It was Kobi’s shift to watch the Egyptians on the other side of the canal from the observation post. Moti and I were in the war room below. The phone from Kobi’s post rang.

“The Egyptians are looking at me with binoculars and aiming a bazooka at me,” Kobi said.

“Get off your post right now,” I yelled to him. I knew what was going to happen, and a gush of fear went though me.

Moti yelled, “Stay there and keep looking. Do not get off your post.”

I yelled again, “Get off right now, let’s go, now, now, now. There is no time.”

Moti yelled, “If you get off, you are going straight go jail.”

I yelled, “Kobi, please come down. Moti doesn’t know what’s happening here, I’ve been there before. Do me and yourself a favor, come down now.”

Moti kept going: “If you come down now, you will be in trouble for the rest of your service, I am the officer in charge, do not listen to Yoram.”

It was too late. The bazooka from the other side was launched. Kobi was dead. Another 19-year-old kid was gone. Moti and I looked at each other for five solid minutes and did not say a word. We froze. Afterward I told Moti, “You will pay for this someday.”

I went to the post and collected what was left from this cute kid from Ashkelon who wanted to be a doctor.

The newspaper wrote that Kobi was killed by heavy Egyptian artillery. His grandfather was killed in the Warsaw Ghetto. His parents were Holocaust survivors. His uncle was killed in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948.

Kobi’s parents didn’t know the truth of how he died. Maybe it’s better that way.

Moti completed his service in the army after three years. He did not want to be a big shot in the army anymore. He attended the Technion. I saw him a few times in Haifa. We never talked about what happened. It was more like “Hi” and “Bye.”

Thirty-three years have passed since then. Even today I say to myself “Why didn’t I go to his post and drag him down?”

I could have called him today in Israel and say “Doctor, how are ya? How’s the family? Remember that day on the Suez Canal? Wow, what a mess. You almost got killed. Luckily you got off the post.”

I heard that the Israeli Department of Defense decided to give the soldiers who served during the War of Attrition a new medal of courage.

Suddenly, just like that, they want to give a medal to the “cannon meat?”

We served there from 1967 to 1973, and every day 20 to 40 soldiers, just kids, were killed. My medal will arrive at my last address in Israel — Kiryat Tivon. Maybe I should ask Jojo, the mail carrier, to forward it to Moti’s family in Ashkelon.


Yoram Samuel lives in Los Angeles.

Desperately Seeking Soulmates


The most successful matchmakers in the Jewish community don’t want to talk romance.

His own romance "happened so long ago, there is really not much to say about it," Alon Carmel, the co-founder, of JDate.com, the largest Jewish online personals site, tells The Journal when asked for some personal tips of the romance trade.

Carmel’s business partner, Joe Shapira, is even less inspiring.

"I have been on JDate," he said. "Every woman I contacted rejected me."

The fact that romance know-how isn’t their strong suit just shows how much finding love in the Jewish community — and in the wider world — has changed with the advent of the Internet. No longer are matchmakers the hunchbacked yentas who finagled Tevye’s daughters to marry someone who was "tall from side to side."

Now matchmakers are men like Carmel, an Israeli ex-pat who wears a cell phone on a necklace with a jaunty and annoying ring and commands an office on Wilshire Boulevard that has floor-to-ceiling windows, panoramic views of Los Angeles, sectional couches and a signed picture of President Bush.

Carmel is a calm man, and unlike "Fiddler’s" meddling Yenta, he doesn’t need to wheedle anyone into trying his product like he did in the old days, when JDate first started and he begged his friends to post their profiles as a favor to him. Now he concentrates on IPOs and increasing market share, growing the business while he lets the software interface do all that "romance" work for him. The modern day matchmaker is a laissez faire businessman who lets people find their own loves through his site.

And while JDate recently took over JCupid (its biggest American competitor) and Cupidon (JCupid’s million-strong Israeli site), Carmel’s business style is less corporate barracuda and more casual Friday, where millions of dollars can be made without anyone needing to shed their Abercrombie running outfit for a three-piece and tie.

"He’s not very formal," said Adam Kravitz, general counsel to Matchnet PLC, JDate’s parent company. "He’s very Israeli in that way. He is very relaxed and friendly, very personable one to one, and a very good negotiator."

SO What’s love got to do with it? Not much. It’s like this weekend’s overmarketed Valentine’s Day , which is an opportunity for flower/chocolate/diamond sellers to market their goods. For JDate, it’s an opportunity to hold parties in cities across the United States from Bethesda, Md., ($10); to Denver, Colo. ($20); to Los Angeles, Boston and New York ($25). (Parties, events and travel contributed $469,678 to total revenue — or 2 percent of Matchnet’s entire revenue of $25 million.)

For men like Carmel, matchmaking and romance have gone multinational and high tech. Instead of paying the matchmaker a fee or musing about love in the time of Pentium processors, you might want to think about getting in on the action and purchasing some stock options in an online personals company.

While there are more singles now than ever before — U.S. census statistics show that people are getting married later, getting divorced faster and more are choosing to live alone — there are also more people looking for someone to connect to, emotionally or physically or, preferably, both.

Even though the dot-com bubble has burst, and Americans are suffering from romance fatigue (according to a recent New York Times article), millions of Americans still visit online dating sites every month. According to Comscore networks, a site that tracks consumer behavior on the Internet, in the past two years spending for online dating sites has increased more than 500 percent, making online sites some of the most valuable Internet real estate on the web.

The Jewish community, too, has been affected by the paradoxical culture of fewer people getting married, more people looking for love. The National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-2001 found that Jews are getting married later in life than the majority of Americans, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t actively looking for love, and sites like JDate provide an outlet for those looking for Jewish hookups, Jewish relationships and Jewish marriages.

Since its inception six years ago in the crowded sea of dating Web sites, JDate has cornered the market and become the largest and most popular Jewish site on the web. While news sites like the Jerusalem Post’s gets 55,000 unique visitors a month, JDate receives 247,000, according to Comscore networks. Among Jewish dating sites — such as JMatch, JSingles, JQS, Frumster to name a few (see sidebar) — JDate, with more than half a million members is the largest. By comparison, JMatch says it has 150,000 members; Frumster, an Orthodox-only site, has 11,000.

JDate is also the only site that is so part of the millennial Jewish zeitgeist, that not only has posting a profile on it become a rite of passage of sorts for most single Jews, but it has practically spawned its own lexicon. JDate is used as a noun, to describe not just the site, but also the type of date that results from the site ("he went on a JDate last night); a verb ("I’m so sick of JDating every night of the week"); even an adjective that describes a date that is like many others ("she was nice, but the whole experience was very JDate"). Most Jews know someone who dated someone they met on the site, and have heard of people who married from the site.

In other words, JDate has morphed from a Web site into a Jewish phenomenon, and it has made Carmel into a big businessman.

Alon Carmel’s life didn’t start out with much promise 48 years ago. His father died while his mother was pregnant with him. She struggled to raise him and his older brother in Haifa, but couldn’t. When he was 5, she sent him to an orphanage, called, ironically, considering his later JDate career, "Mosad Ahava," an institution of love.

Far from being traumatized by the move, Carmel remembers the period with fondness.

"It was wonderful. I had a great social life there. Everybody was nice especially the kids. It was a good place," he said.

When he was 10, he went to live on a kibbutz, and three years later, he moved back in with his mother.

"We were the poorest family possible. We ate meat only on holidays," the millionaire said.

Carmel joined the Israeli army and then got a degree at the Technion in civil engineering, but he never worked in the field. "It was not my desire to be an engineer, not my personality. I always knew that I was going to be an entrepreneur."

He came to Los Angeles in 1981 — without a plan. "I came here, my English wasn’t so good, I didn’t know many people. I met an old friend who was in school together with me. He was a supervisor on the construction site and he got me a job there. The first day I came to work, they said, ‘Here is the broom, here is the shovel, now go clean.’ I was making $3.25 an hour. It wasn’t enough, so I had to valet park at night."

Working at L’Orangerie whetted his appetite for a finer life.

Having no money forced Carmel to work around-the-clock, and it also provided him with the seed to make his first $100 million. He worked on construction in the morning, in the afternoon he volunteered as a gofer with a real estate broker, and in the evening he parked cars.

"I offered my services for free so that I could learn the real estate business. I was busy and happy," he said.

By the late 1980s he had accumulated close to 1,000 apartments and was making a lot of money. By the early 1990s, he had more than $100 million in real estate equity, which he lost when the bottom fell out of the real estate market. Carmel went bankrupt and had to sell his house.

"I was extremely depressed," he said. "But my wife was very supportive of me," he said, referring to the woman he married in 1984 but prefers not to discuss.

The low was also the start of the current high. At around the time he went bankrupt, Carmel met Shapira, the man he now calls "his better half." The two started a video manufacturing business that they sold in 1996. In 1997, Shapira got divorced and was considering signing up with Great Expectation, a dating service where people pay more than $1,000 to make a video of themselves that is shown to other members.

"We were sitting at lunch and Joe was telling me about the Internet and he was saying that [Great Expectations] should be online, not offline," Carmel said. "I didn’t have a computer then. He went home and he logged onto his computer and found that there were 100 Jewish dating sites, and 3,000 dating sites at the time. We said ‘So there will be 3,001.’"

Carmel and Shapira then started researching and developing their business model, aiming to make a site that was more user-friendly and sophisticated than the other sites.

The issue, though, was naming the site. JDate got its name through a fortuitous accident of slim pickings.

"Everybody had taken all the possible names," Carmel said. "AOL had bought the name Jewish, everybody else got all the other names. The only name left was JDate, and we were really unhappy about it. We thought, ‘God, how are we going to market a name like that?’"

They ended up marketing it through search engines and small newspaper ads. They provided 24-hour customer service for people who had trouble figuring out how to post their profiles, with Shapira doing a lot of the customer service himself, and Carmel increasing his computer literacy by having his son teach him how to crop and post photographs. Word of mouth about the site started to spread, and the number of members who signed up in the first year (about 10,000) doubled, then tripled, then quadrupled and then started multiplying so fast to the point that JDate now says they have "thousands joining each day."

"It wasn’t like we were a company," Carmel recalled. "We were part of the community, part of the social setting."

Being part of the community or, more accurately, creating its own community, meant that JDate started making a lot of money. Matchnet PLC is now a public company traded on the Frankfurt Exchange (because the initial investors in the company came from Germany), and a possible NASDAQ offering is being planned for later this year. It did more than $25 million in revenue last year — the projected revenue for 2004 is $40 million, of which they hope $15 million will be profit. Matchnet has 10 subsidiary companies, including Americansingles.com, which according to Nielsen/Net ratings is the third-largest personals site; glimpse.com, a gay and lesbian relationship site; and collegeluv.com, a site aimed at college students. In the first nine months of 2003, more than 5 million new members joined Matchnet sites.

Carmel loves what he does. It’s a constant refrain in interviews: He has a dream job, he feels like the luckiest person on earth, he loves what he does.

For Carmel, an observant Jew, JDate is more than just a business. It’s a mission. "Alon has a personal attachment to JDate," said Kravitz, Matchnet’s general counsel. Although the company has grown to 138 employees, Carmel strives to engender a family atmosphere, and is friendly and approachable.

Carmel believes JDate is the high-tech antidote to intermarriage. And with openings planned in Spanish, French and Portuguese, Carmel thinks JDate can be a community unifier that brings Jews of all creeds, colors and languages together.

"The short term is to bring all Jews around the world into one place, one big happy place," Carmel said. "When we have 1 or 2 million Jews on our site, I don’t know what can happen. But we can deliver. We are inventing the future."

That future includes a recent change in the business model of Internet dating. Like many Internet sites which started out providing services cheaply or for free and later started charging, JDate recently changed its business model. Originally, posting a profile on the site was free, as was reading messages received from other members; the only people who had to pay were those who wanted to initiate contact with other members. Last summer, JDate began to charge its members to both send and receive e-mail on the site, and to access a mailbox there.

While anecdotal evidence suggests that this change has soured a number of existing members from using the site because they do not want to pay, it is hard to figure out the effect it has had on JDate and the Internet community at large. Carmel will not disclose individual JDate figures, but will only say that 27 percent more people have subscribed to all Matchnet sites since they implemented the new policy. (That’s about 170,514 total subscribers out of 16 million across the board.) Carmel asserts the reason for charging more people was not just a business decision: he did it to make the JDate community more active.

"I hope that nobody expects [his or her] love life to be free," he said. "A lot of those who posted their profiles for free actually did not answer e-mails. They felt that they were above the rest. Once you pay, you start to respect the other side. The business has to be profitable, but [this new system] also allows us to weed out the fly-by-night and uninterested and unserious members of the site."

Carmel said that recent changes are not unlike changes they had made in the beginning. "The first year it was for free, and we had around 10,000 or 20,000 users. In those days of the Internet everything was free. When we started charging a few people dropped off, but only a few."

Six years ago, who could have known that this weirdly named Web site would become so profitable?

"I did everything I could to keep JDate alive for the first three years," Carmel said. "It was impossible. I sold everything we had, we sold almost any asset, and even the ones that we didn’t have. We borrowed from family and friends to keep it up," he said.

Who could have known 48 years ago that this boy from an Israeli orphanage would become one of America’s most successful and richest matchmakers?

Maybe Carmel.

"JDate happened not because we were really smart," Carmel said, "but because it was meant to be."

A Personal Success


Dear Jewish Journal:

About five years ago, I ended a very serious relationship. I was devastated, but knew that my life could not end over this. I did everything to try and resolve my pain but it was hopeless. I eventually moved to another city, started a new career, and got on with my life. About two years later, I was ready to return to Southern California and pick up where I had left off. I figured I would contact some of the old people I used to hang out with. To my surprise, they too had moved on. Many got married, started families, etc. This was going to be a lot harder than I thought it would be.

Ever since I can remember, I have wanted to get married to the perfect guy, have a family and live happily ever after. That is the way it always was in the storybooks. If that was going to happen, I had to get serious about this whole relationship and dating thing now!

I received The Jewish Journal and often thumbed through the personals. Occasionally, I made a couple of calls, but I never really found that connection — the kind of connection where you feel absolutely comfortable and free with another person. One evening in September 1998 while flipping through The Journal, the 900 number just about jumped off the page. I don’t know what made me call, but there was a strange force pulling me in. I called the number and browsed through a couple of ads until I heard a male voice that actually drew me in. I listened to the ad in its entirety hoping to hear the guy’s name, but no name was given. I left a message anyway. The next day someone called me back and I knew instantly who it was. It was that familiar voice that was so captivating the day before. We spoke that evening for several hours and arranged to meet that week. Each night until we met we spoke on the phone. The excitement was so intense for both of us. I remember on the afternoon of the day we were supposed to meet he called me. He said he couldn’t wait to meet me and all he could do was think about that night!

We met and it was as if we had known each other forever! He was so perfect. Tall, handsome, sweet and very funny. We laughed and talked until very late in the evening. We spoke and saw each other on a regular basis for the next two years. Recently, we took a cruise and there on the bow of the boat with the wind blowing in my hair, he got down on one knee and asked me to marry him. I was breathless! It was right out of a movie. Nothing could have been more perfect.

Our wedding is planned for May 2000. I am doing something I always dreamed of — marrying my best friend, my soulmate. If you never believed it could happen to you, think again. They say there is someone for everyone out there, you just have to know where to look. For all of you hopeless romantics out there who are still looking for love in all the wrong places, look right here in The Jewish Journal. Your true love could just be a phone call away. Mine was!

Thank you, Jewish Journal, for making this connection possible! Without the personals we probably never would have met.

Sincerely,

Debbie

(last name withheld upon request)

Singles


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