You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate “The Matchmaker’s Gift,” you just have to have a grandmother you love and admire.
In Lynda Cohen Loigman’s historical fiction, it’s clear that for NYC women not much has changed since the early 1900s, at least not when it comes to relationships as well as career success.
The author travels a dual timeline alternating between Sara, a turn-of-the-20th-century matchmaker from the Lower East Side, and Abby, her ‘90s, Upper East Side divorce attorney granddaughter. The younger woman decides she’d rather follow in her grandmother’s footsteps and bring people together instead of helping them tear each other apart. As Sara advises: “Fight for something, not just against. And if you can’t decide what to fight for, love is as good a cause as any.”
Aside from being about two women with the gift of introducing soulmates to one another, it’s about finding their own better halves and fighting for their places at the proverbial table.
In the early days, “New York was a place of limitless opportunity and shocking scarcity all at once.” (This also sounds a lot like 2022, but I digress.) Before Sara could officially make a living as a matchmaker, she had to take on the men in her Holocaust-survivor community who didn’t want some “little girl” — who happened to be 21 and college-educated — horning in on their livelihoods. As the saying goes, nevertheless, she persisted.
Abby’s life in 1995 loosely parallels Sara’s to the extent she is educated and career-driven, but she is unfulfilled. It isn’t until Abby reads her deceased grandmother’s journals chronicling the matches she made as well as her eye for matches that should never have been (Sara apparently helped rescue women from abusive relationships) that Abby recognizes her calling.
The attorney, like her grandmother, must interfere with another’s livelihood (her boss will lose revenue if Abby helps clients patch things up) in order to do what she was meant to do in life. But as her grandmother said: “We begin in dust and end in dust. In the middle, it’s good to have something sweet.”
Holy Grail of Dating
When it did come to love, both women stepped away from interested men who guaranteed marriage (the holy grail of dating) because they knew instinctively that they weren’t the real thing and that is was worth waiting for. “It’s never too late to die or get married,” even though, “Love is not always a straight, shining line.”
Even though matchmaking doesn’t run in my family and my immigrant grandmother hailed from Naples and settled in Italian Harlem, I understood the bond between the two main characters; the innate wisdom of the elder one and the desperation for direction of the younger. Just like Abby, my grandmother was my childhood caregiver and I remember her need to be needed corresponded perfectly with my neediness.
The conversations between Sara and Abby also reminded me of how all the psychobabble and modern tricks of the trade cannot hold a candle to old-world common sense from plain-speaking people. (“I see what I see and I know what I know.”)
For me, though the story continued on to the present day watching my 99-year-old mother and my 24-year-old daughter who are truly two sides of the same coin: kind, generous, and helpful to a fault with an oppositional streak for which there is no metric. They argue when the grandmother, who knows everything, tries to set straight the granddaughter, who thinks she does. They get along best when they team up against me.
Although I could relate more to Abby, I enjoyed Sara’s story more. She was ahead of her time and kept up with the times evinced by the same-sex match she, at 90, facilitated between her doorman and a neighbor in her Upper West Side building.
Perhaps instead of swiping right and left, people should read “The Matchmaker’s Gift” and benefit from the wisdom of Sarah who said: “When you weep, the one you are meant for tastes the salt of your tears,” as well as, “Never underestimate the power of a quality undergarment.”
Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the novel “The Last Single Woman in New York City.”