Napoleon and his cronies declared, via George Orwell, that ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’ I have my own version: All Jews are equal, but some Jews have more yichus than others.
Yichus is the delicate tissue paper and silk bows used to wrap up a very ordinary gift. Once the fancy packaging is stripped away, all you’ve got is the very ordinary, and often very disappointing, gift. A distinguished lineage and respectable breeding can make a difference to one’s social standing, and so Yichus is touted by the matchmakers when the boy or girl in question doesn’t have very much to offer themselves. For example, the son of well known Rosh Yeshiva has excellent yichus while the daughter of a Latvian convert to Judaism would have very little yichus. Where serious yichus is at stake, marriages are often about forging dynasties, establishing power bases and consolidating the number of loyal followers.
While many parents regard good yichus of their prospective son or daughter-in-law as a drawcard, it hides the very real failings of some people. Paralysed by their yichus, a young person living in the shadow of their ancestors’ achievements may never amount to much. While they may get the proverbial ‘foot through the front door,’ their accomplishments are often mimized precisely because of the head start granted by their yichus. However, yichus is only one of the components of a successful resume in the matchmaking world. Potential brides are gauged by their beauty and despite all exhortations that a girl’s kindness, modest demeanour and homemaking skills are highly valued, the fact is that unless she is pretty and skinny, her chances of finding a ‘good boy’ are severely curtailed. Unless, of course, she has a rich father – in which case, she can eat as much as she wants.
Traditionally, young men were measured according to their learning prowess. I have always found it strange that the young women only willing to go out with boys ‘in learning’ known to excel in their ‘learning’ even though they are unable to understand what these potential husbands are actually learning because the women were not allowed to study Talmud. How sad that they must rely on other men for an evaluation of their potential spouse’s intellectual capacities.
The contemporary Ba’al Teshuvah movement has impacted on the traditional notions of yichus, given that many young Jews who become observant have actively chosen a life path that is radically different from their parents. The family reputation and lineage of a ba’al teshuvah, although there may have a smattering of rabbis from the shetetls of Eastern Europe, has been ravaged by assimilation and mothers who probably did not attend the mikvah. These blemishes continue to punish the struggling ba’alei teshuvah and often hinder their ability to marry into some of the most prestigious religious families. However, one constant remains – the young pretty woman who becomes religious, and has a wealthy father, will always have less trouble finding a husband than her poorer, plumper sister.