The Marriage Plot
Or, How Jews Fell in Love with Love, and with Literature
Naomi Seidman


Contents and Abstracts
Introduction: Plotting Jewish Marriage
chapter abstract

The introduction describes the ways that East European Jews simultaneously encountered European literary genres and new models of marriage, romance, sexual practices and gender roles in the middle of the nineteenth century. Because novels were so closely associated with romantic love, these had a particular effect on their traditional but modernizing readers. The introduction also distinguishes the approach of the book from other trends in Jewish Studies, particularly Queer Studies approaches to the study of Jewish gender.

1 A Sentimental Education
chapter abstract

This chapter traces the nineteenth-century beginnings of modern Hebrew and Yiddish romantic literature and its connection with emerging trends in organizing marriage and sexuality in nineteenth-century East Europe. The chapter analyzes the immense impression made by the first Hebrew novel, Mapu's 1853 The Love of Zion, in the realm of Jewish sexuality, questioning the power of literature to transform lives. The chapter ends by discussing the debates that arose toward the end of the nineteenth century, which focused on the mismatch between European literary conventions and Jewish social realities, and on the question of what constitutes the particularity of Jewish sex and marital arrangements.

2 Matchmaking and Modernity
chapter abstract

This chapter analyzes the role of arranged marriage in Jewish literature through the figure of the marriage broker, first as the enemy of true love and then, in later works, as its enabler or even mystical embodiment. Nineteenth-century memoirs decry the intrusions and deceptions of matchmakers, and urge the replacement of arranged marriage with romantic choice. While Jewish literature in some sense served as this replacement—with the author "arranging" matches between characters—literary works also rescued and even invented the matchmaker. In Sholem Aleichem's Menachem Mendl, the matchmaker is given Yiddish literary voice, while in Bernard Malamud's The Magic Barrel, the matchmaker finds a place in modern America, and Jewish American literature, as a recognizable "type," and a figure of erotic fascination in his own right.

3 Pride and Pedigree
chapter abstract

This chapter presents a genealogy of lineage in Jewish marriage, another aspect of traditional marital negotiations derided in Haskalah polemic. Pedigree finds a surprising afterlife even in those literary works that champion erotic attraction in the construction of a marriage partnership. At first performing the conservative-bourgeois function of maintaining class boundaries in a post-traditional society that ostensibly espouses the class-neutral ideology of romantic love, pedigree takes on a far wider range of meanings in modern Jewish literature. Along with the mystical eroticism that links romance with intergenerational ties, lineage has a long afterlife in the realist novel, both narrating the generational disruptions of modernity and serving as narrative cure. In the late twentieth century, the literary tracing of lineage reemerges in Tony Kushner's Angels in America, finding genealogical expression for even the post-genealogical phenomenon of queer kinship in the era of AIDS.

4 The Choreography of Courtship
chapter abstract

This chapter describes the role of literature in constructing a modern Jewish ideology of heterosexual romance through its articulation of new notions of romantic time, on the one hand, and gender complementarity, on the other. While traditional marriages had collapsed the time between puberty and marriage, attraction and consummation (while expanding the historical perspective of a match by including ancestors in the arrangements), the novel introduced new romantic temporalities in the rhythms of sexual maturation, attraction, and (deliciously delayed) consummation. These models of romance depended on strictly delineated gender roles, which the novel served to map and inculcate. Twentieth-century Jewish cultural productions form a counter-discourse to the gender complementarity on which European romance rested, featuring cross-dressed, anti-romantic heroines who resist and denaturalize European gender conventions. And in Erica Jong, readers encountered a full-fledged (Jewish) argument against the erotic tempos set out in literary romance.

5 In-laws and Outlaws
chapter abstract

This chapter follows the process of "nuclearization," in which the move to romantic, companionate marriage reduced the role of parents and extended family in the construction of modern family. Reading Sholem Aleichem's Tevye the Dairyman not through its usual focus—the move from arranged marriage to romantic love—but rather through what this move entails—the end of the system whereby marriage is produced by and produces broad kinship networks, this chapter argues that the stories reproduce in submerged form the traditional practices whereby a father-in-law chooses a groom for his daughter. In the final section of the chapter, I explore the "aunt-niece" relationship in Grace Paley's story "Goodbye and Good Luck," which presents the persistence and cultural productivity of alternative models of kinship at the margins of Jewish American literature and society.

6 Sex and Segregation
chapter abstract

explores the structure of sexual segregation through its literary expressions. Among the evils of traditional Jewish society denounced by the Haskalah was the strictness of its sexual segregation, which left no room for social interaction or erotic discovery between the sexes. In the twentieth century, however, writers discovered erotic pleasures in what earlier generations had seen as repressive social structures. S.Y. Agnon, in "The Tale of the Scribe," Sholem Asch, in God of Vengeance, and Dvora Baron, in "Fedke," stage love affairs within sexually segregated spaces, while Singer's "Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy" makes an explicit case for the superiority of romances that proceed through the (homosocial and agonistic) camaraderie of Torah learning over those conducted according to Western conventions.

Afterword: After Marriage
chapter abstract

The epilogue, which touches on the work of Freud, Philip Roth, and Erica Jong, argues that Jewish writers played a crucial role in the twentieth-century desublimation of Eros, stripping the "erotic sublime" of its mystification and grounding sexuality in the "natural" bodily realities that characterize many varieties of Jewish sexual discourse. For the sublime notion of the "soul mate," Freud, Roth and Jong suggest that sexual partners are easily interchanged—an ideology that, in its "conservative" form, also underpins arranged marriage. 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.