12/08/2016 11:59 BST | Updated 13/08/2017 06:12 BST

What It's Like to Have an Arranged Marriage at Age 19

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I want to tell you the story of how my shidduch, or "arranged marriage" turned out. Technically, a shidduch isn't an arranged marriage, but more like a date; the matching up of a man and a woman for purposes of marriage. Mine happened when I was 19 years old.

I dislike that phrase "arranged marriage" because in my mind, that equals a "forced" marriage. And mine, like most others in my community, was anything but. At any time you have the option of saying no.

In my culture, Hasidic Judaism, when girl turns 18 it gives "matchmakers" a green light to start calling the parents. I belong to a particular Hasidic sect, so the suggestions were all going to be eligible young men from the same sect.

So, as I turned 18, the phones started ringing with suggestions. If a suggestion sounded promising, my parents went ahead and made many inquiries. As much as the Jewish world is big, it's actually very small. We quickly found some mutual acquaintances who could tell us more about the boy. We wanted to know about his character traits: is he kind hearted? Is he a messy kind of person? Happy? Helpful? Is he basically a good person who would make a good husband? We can only do our best and hope the reports we got were truthful. For the first few months none of the suggestions panned out. The boy was either not right for me or they decided I wasn't right for them.

When I was almost 19, my neighbor from around the block was suggested to me. He was, for our circles, considered a bit older at the ripe age of 23. My father knew him well from the daily prayers at the synagogue. He didn't need to hear much; he believed him to be a fine young man who was always willing to help others, and was known to have a heart of gold. That's what matters most, doesn't it?

As I was told of the potential match, my first reaction was NO WAY! I knew the family superficially. I was aware his father passed away young and left behind his widow and her 12 children. I knew they were a very close-knit family; you always saw the mom and her daughters together, in their own world.

I was intimidated.

My parents were highly interested and thought this would be the perfect guy for me. They let me to think it over and give them an answer. After giving it some thought, I decided I had no valid reason to say no. So the first step was taken. A meeting was scheduled between the young man's mother and myself. Can you imagine meeting and essentially "interviewing" with your potential mother-in-law before meeting your actual husband!

My stomach turned as I got ready. As she saw me for the first time she said, "You should know, I'm just as nervous as you." That put me at ease. As the conversation progressed, I relaxed, and the meeting was actually nice.

Everything goes through a "matchmaker" which meant that we went home and waited to hear what the other side had to say. It didn't take very long for them to let us know that they were interested in continuing. The time had come to set up a date for me to meet my potential groom.

We call it a b'show which means a sit-in date. We decided to meet in a friend's house, on the other side of town so as not to run into anyone we knew.

Most of the ultra-orthodox Jews have an average of five dates; I am Hasidic which means we do things a bit different. We have one or two b'shows after which, the couple usually gets engaged. I realize this sounds strange, but research shows that there are no more divorces in our circles than in the rest of the world. But you should understand, this is what I knew, this is how I grew up, and this is my normal.

A b'show is quite intimidating. In my world, it is first close contact a boy/girl has with the opposite gender as we are separated throughout our childhoods. Can you imagine not being alone with a boy until you are 19 years old? And then, it is for the purpose of deciding your marriage?

To say the first few minutes were awkward is an understatement. But it didn't take long for him to make me feel comfortable and for the conversation to become enjoyable. We spoke about our families, our time in seminary or Yeshivah (an institution that focuses on teaching Talmud to boys and young men) and other things. We do not talk about the "deeper" stuff. This may sound strange, but since we are both come from the same background, it's usually a given that we will be on the same page. We spent a nice few hours together.

My parents gave me the option to meet him again the next day. I was young, barely 19, and I didn't realize what a momentous decision this was.

I thought it over. I liked a lot of what I saw... at least what I could see from one meeting anyway. In addition to all the good things I'd heard about him, he was nice to me, and had a great sense of humor. He was extremely dedicated to his widow mom, and I could tell he would go through fire for anyone he cared about. I didn't think I would find out much more by a second meeting, and I didn't want to spend the night not sleeping from nerves.

My decision was made. I would marry this guy.

The parents had already taken care of the other important stuff, like discussions about money, and I happily told my parents to go ahead and let the other side know my answer. After, the matchmaker called to tell us he wanted to marry me too, and we were officially engaged.

It's true, we do actually get married to a stranger, and there usually isn't such a thing as "falling in love."

In this situation, we are forced to work hard from the very beginning at making our marriage grow; just like everyone comes to discover in the end. Marriage is about hard work. The love that comes, is a deep and long lasting one.

And I'm proud to report that after 18 years, I'm still very happily in love, and our marriage isn't any different than any of yours.

My dear husband is everything I thought he would be; caring, heart of gold, great sense of humor, and does everything for me and our children.

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