The Marriage Plot

Dory Fox

Nao­mi Sei­d­man, The Mar­riage Plot: Or, How Jews Fell in Love with Love, and with Lit­er­a­ture (Stan­ford: Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2016), 368 pages, $29.95.

Love doesn’t get much respect. Take Silicon Valley folk wisdom as an example: “Love what you do,” they say, “and you’ll never work a day in your life.” I’ve heard this so many times that it seems like the golden rule of the new millennium. The axiom suggests that love is a solvent for labor. Love, they say, transforms work through affect. Work is serious, but love makes it less dire; love can melt anything into simplicity and ease. By positing love as the antithesis of work, this saying devalues love and the various forms of labor that can constitute love, which are often performed by women. This stance toward love does not seem to me more than a stone’s throw away from a cultural logic that devalues romance as well. Romantic love—or romantic labor, or romantic literature for that matter—belongs in the realm of women, which holds little prestige.

Such an argument is not new, nor is it limited to contemporary American culture. The marginalization of femininity might seem as old a story ever told—especially in the context of modern Jewish culture and literary studies. Yiddish—also called vayber-taytsh (women’s language) and mame-loshn (mother tongue)—has long been understood to hold a lesser value in Ashkenazi Jewish culture because of its association with women and with the home. The converse privileging of masculinity over femininity has played a key role in Hebraism, which transformed the traditional Jewish association of Hebrew, holiness, masculinity, and prestige into a nationalist movement. Naomi Seidman has been one of the scholars who has most powerfully articulated the gendered associations and the gendered hierarchy of Yiddish and Hebrew in both traditional and modern Jewish culture. 1 1 Naomi Seidman, A Marriage Made in Heaven: The Sexual Politics of Hebrew and Yiddish (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997). Yet the very strength of the “marginalization thesis” regarding femininity is precisely why Naomi Seidman’s new book The Marriage Plot, Or How Jews Fell in Love With Love, and With Literature is so exciting. Seidman boldly shows how centrally powerful love has been to Jewish culture, and to Jewish modernization. In so doing, she redeems love from the margins of seriousness and illustrates the degree to which love and marriage can be seen as a foundation of many of Jewish modernity’s main concerns and conceits.

In The Marriage Plot, Seidman explores the nuances of sexual modernity in modernizing and secularizing movements of nineteenth-century Ashkenazi culture. Jewish modernization, she argues, was the result of two radically different sex-gender systems coming into contact. Whereas traditional Jewish culture had a sex-gender system that valued “female competence” and “male learning,” a new bourgeois system championed an ideal of gender complementarity and dialectically-opposed femininity and masculinity. 2 2 Naomi Seidman, The Marriage Plot, Or How Jews Fell in Love With Love, and With Literature (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2016), 179. Subsequent references will be provided in parenthesis in the body of the text. While traditional Jewish heterosexual marriage was dependant on the eroticized homosocial spheres of the yeshivah and the Hasidic court, the bourgeois “sex religion” located eros in the heterosexual courtship and marriage alone. According to Seidman, “Nineteenth-century Jewish literature arose in a transitional moment in which competing notions of marriage and sexual difference coexisted” (188). The literature created in this time reflects the negotiation of these competing systems. 3 3 Seidman intentionally takes a nod in this element of her argument from Ian Watt’s The Rise of the English Novel (1957), which illuminates the coupled emergence of modern bourgeois marriage and the English novel.

One might even say that the texts that Seidman addresses in her books include the clash and negotiation of three different sex-gender systems: the traditional Jewish, the modern bourgeois, and the chivalric European. Nineteenth-century Yiddish and Hebrew authors, trying to establish national literatures, recognized the cultural power and literary caché of writing romance. Even though these writers might have challenged, parodied, or scoffed at European-style romance as it was on its way out of vogue, many still recognized the genre as a national literature’s core—and as out of their reach.

Seidman explains that chivalric romantic tropes were also incompatible with the traditional Jewish sex-gender system. Jewish culture did not value Marian chastity in young women; nor did young men aspire to assert themselves in a tradition of chivalry. Various male Yiddish authors articulated the particular challenge of writing a Jewish love story. In the inaugural issue of Di yiddishe folksbibliotek, I.L. Peretz burst onto the literary scene with his comic ballad Monish—a satire of a bildungsroman, a story in which a young Jewish man’s moral and sexual education prove to be incompatible. In the very same journal issue, we see Sholem Aleichem’s famous declaration that writing a Jewish romance presents a unique challenge, as “the circumstances under which a Jew falls in love, and declare his passion, are altogether different from the circumstances which control the lives of other men” (44). According to Sholem Aleichem, in order to represent life as it happens (the task of a realist text), a Jewish story of sex or love had to be “altogether different.” In this complaint about Jewish romantic peculiarity—if not impossibility—Sholem Aleichem also demonstrates the transition between dominant literary modes, from Romance to Realism. Therefore, the works of literature in this study represent both a literary shift and a sexual, cultural shift. Much like Don Quixote, which critiques the Romance and therefore includes the Romance, these texts challenge prior sexual, cultural, and literary forms, while also containing them.

Seidman emphasizes rightly that female Jewish authors responded differently to traditional Jewish society’s sex-gender system. Authors like Kadya Molodowsky and Dvora Baron had to write themselves into a textual tradition, which was by definition exclusively male. Many of Baron’s stories dramatize women’s fraught relationship with Jewish texts. For example, in “Genizah” a man refuses to ritually bury his mother’s tkhines (a book of personal prayers written for, and sometimes by, women), as one would bury other sacred texts. In this story, Baron critiques Jewish sexual segregation, which keeps women, and their books, separate from the sacred sphere of learning. The tenor and technique of Baron’s criticism is also significantly distinct from those often used by male authors—rather than exposing female marginalization through parody or satire, Baron presents Jewish sexual dynamics as painfully unfunny.

One of the strongest arguments in Seidman’s book is about the way that literature not only represented cultural shifts, but in fact catalyzed and perpetuated them. She uses both canonical fictional texts and works of life writing to present a feedback loop involving literature, reading practices, and sexual practices. Indeed, an implicit argument of this volume is that literature does things. Not only does Seidman perform subtle literary analysis of the texts considered; she also introduces these texts to us as actants of great influence in Jewish culture, and eventually, in European and American culture as well.

In order to demonstrate how literature contributed to the secularization and modernization of Jewish marriage practices in the nineteenth century, Seidman engages repeatedly with the classic maskilic text, Love of Zion by Abraham Mapu. She interprets the novel’s messages about pedigree, sexual and social matches, and the conflict between generations’ notions of romance. She argues that this novel champions the ideology of Europe’s modern, bourgeois “sex religion,” even though the romance is set in an idealized ancient past that is uniquely and “authentically” Jewish. Seidman also situates the novel culturally and historically through recorded reactions to it. For many Jewish—male—authors, this novel provided an affective awakening and an erotic education. Moreover, many wrote enthusiastically about reading this novel with young women. This novel—and other secular, romantic texts—heralded a new kind of social interaction and a new kind of reading practice: rather than reading taking place in a homosocial sphere, among two young men as khevrusa in a yeshiva, these men began reading with young women in a mixed-gender, secular sphere.

Seidman emphasizes that this new kind of social-erotic practice was not entirely a colonial “mimicry” of the European mode of mixed-gender socializing or courtship. Nor was it a “purely” Jewish practice, resistant to European manners. Rather, this hybrid reading practice exemplifies the way in which Jews modernized—by adopting some European practices and values, though only partially, and blending them with Jewish practices. In conversation with other Jewish gender scholars such as Jonathan Boyarin, Seidman asserts that Jews never quite let go of their own alternate modes of constructing masculinity and femininity, even as they conformed in some ways to the bourgeois sex religion.

Accordingly, a novel such as S.Y. Abramovitsh’s The Travels of Benjamin the Third (1878) poses a hybrid critique of Jewish and European courtship practices. In fact, Benjamin the Third is an example of a text that puts all three of the previously mentioned sex-gender systems in contact. Abramovitsh often describes the two main characters—Benjamin and Senderl (the novel’s Don Quixote and Sancho Panza)—using cliches of European chivalric romance. The novel thus de-familiarizes and mocks European chivalry by applying it within the Jewish homosocial sphere. At one point, Benjamin tries to woo Senderl away on an adventure while the latter is sitting, peeling potatoes for dinner. Senderl’s wife sees this and exclaims, “Just look at these two lovers, hugging and kissing while the goat is in the house eating the potatoes” (206). Seidman points out that Senderl’s wife admonishes them, not because Senderl’s flirtation endangers their heterosexual marriage, but because it endangers their dinner. The novel thus simultaneously skewers traditional Jewish marriages in which there is not sufficient romantic attraction or sexual difference between the spouses, and challenges the bourgeois European notion that love should be more important than all other concerns—all in the style of a mock romance.

This scene exemplifies Seidman’s point that when it came to ideas about gender, learning, family structures, pedigree, and genealogy, Jewish modernization entailed neither a wholesale “adoption” of Western practices, nor a wholesale “rejection.” Using a postcolonial framework to study Jewish sexual modernity, Seidman is able to present a critique of Jewish culture and Jewish sexuality, as well as a critique of European cultural practices around sexuality and courtship. In fact, Seidman’s study emphasizes the place that Jews and Jewish cultural production have had in critiquing and shaping European and American discourse around sexuality. She writes,

“While Jewish sexual modernity begins with the adoption of European literary conventions, by the end of the twentieth century, modern Jewish culture had come to play a critical role (in both senses) in European sexual discourse. In the sexual ideologies expressed in twentieth-century Hebrew, Yiddish, and Jewish American literature, the modern religion of romantic love met first its most profound challenge and ultimately its heretical overthrow” (13).

Seidman illustrates the “heretical overthrow” by extending her analytic reach to the films of Woody Allen, the novels of Erica Jong and Philip Roth, and the plays of Tony Kushner. One of the most fascinating choices that Seidman makes in her book is that she traces a history of Ashkenazi Jewish culture and literature that begins in Europe and lands in the United States. While more America-centric readers might not bat an eyelash at this choice, I feel that it is worth pausing over. Such a move certainly diverges from the approach of scholars who would shudder to see the “zipless fuck” (from Jong’s Fear of Flying) as a link in the same goldene keyt (golden chain of Yiddish literature) as Sholem Aleichem’s Chava, who rebelliously asks why the world must be separated between Jews and gentiles.

This move is also somewhat surprising due to The Marriage Plot’s own internal construction. Seeing as much of Seidman’s book is dedicated to interpreting a Hebrew text (Love of Zion), it would make sense for her to continue the story into contemporary Hebrew literature coming out of Israel, rather than American Jewish literature, film, and theater written in English. But rather than questioning this choice, I wish instead to hold this study up as an example of how rich the possibilities are for viewing English-language Jewish literature as a vital part of Ashkenazi literary culture. We should also take time to consider the ramifications and commitments that come along with the decision.

By studying how Jews have influenced wider culture, Seidman takes part in what the historian David Hollinger has called a “dispersionist” approach—asking questions, not about the internal workings of a Jewish community, but about how Jews have impacted a wider society. 4 4 David A. Hollinger, “Communalist and Dispersionist Approaches to American Jewish History in an Increasingly Post-Jewish Era,” American Jewish History, 95, no. 1 (2009): 1-32. Seidman even poses an answer to one question that Hollinger has pointed out to be a rather sorry lacuna in both Jewish and “non-Jewish” historical accounts of second-wave American feminism: namely, why is it that so many leaders in this movement were Jewish women? Seidman places Jews’ “visibility” and “enthusiastic participation” in the women’s movement within the same Ashkenazi culture that questioned Western bourgeois gender norms throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (214). The same cultural strain, according to Seidman, is visible in Benjamin the Third, which pokes fun at European fantasies about sexually and martially dominant masculinity; or in the stardom of American Yiddish film actress Molly Picon, who refused to play traditionally feminine roles and even cross-dressed in a time when American Jews were widely undergoing embourgeoisement. Seidman argues that Jewish women involved in second-wave feminism thus represent “a late echo of the Jewish resistance to bourgeois gender norms” (214). This is a powerful claim, which should matter a great deal to scholars both inside and outside of Jewish studies. At the same time, the claim only holds water because of Seidman’s expert presentation and nimble analysis of specifically Jewish cultural material. In other words, Seidman’s “outward-looking,” or “dispersionist” argument is only possible after looking “inward”—in terms of both material and methodology—to a Jewish cultural archive.

The argument offered about second-wave feminism also stands as an example of how The Marriage Plot brings Jewish sexual modernity to the center of Jewish modernity writ large. Seidman’s focus shows how many of the most crucial intellectual and political issues of the Jewish community since Emancipation have been contiguous to romantic love, marriage, and/or sex. After all, what are “continuity” and “heritage,” but matters of marriage and sex? What is being “a man on the street and a Jew in the home,” but a particular way of being a man—which is to say, a particular way of performing gender? One can easily observe that the topic of “Jewish continuity” or “Jewish marriage” continues to be particularly fraught. Contemporary Jewish society in the United States surely emphasizes—some might say fetishizes, or even catastrophizes—this very issue. 5 5 Riv-Ellen Prell’s Fighting to Become Americans is a great example of a study that explores the impact of Americanization and embourgeoisement on intra-Jewish gender relations in the American twentieth century. Seidman’s book delves into the topic’s long literary and cultural history. The Marriage Plot shows the manner in which Jewish communal change has been influenced by Jewish sexual practices—and vice versa—since the nineteenth century. Therefore, while Seidman’s study of romantic love and literature unpacks the baggy discourse of continuity, she also reveals for readers that this discourse exhibits a continuity of its own sort.

Fox, Dory. “The Marriage Plot.” In geveb, March 2017:
Fox, Dory. “The Marriage Plot.” In geveb (March 2017): Accessed May 21, 2024.


Dory Fox

Dory Fox is a PhD Candidate in the department of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan.