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


Chapter One

A Sentimental Education

Over all the quiet sea-shore
Shadowing falls the hour of Hesper,
Through the clouds the moon is breaking,
And I hear the billows whisper.

“Can that man who wanders yonder
Be a lover or a dunce?
For he seems so sad and merry,
Sad and merry both at once.”

But the laughing moon looks downward,
And she speaks, for she doth know it:
“Yes, he is both fool and lover,
And, to cap it all, a poet!”

—Heinrich Heine, Songs to Seraphine, II

Loving The Love of Zion

In the summer of 1869, shortly before leaving his Lithuanian hometown of Vilkomir (Polish, Wilkomierz; Lithuanian, Ukmergẹ) in pursuit of secular education, the twenty-six-year-old Moshe Leib Lilienblum met a young woman who was finding herself in similar conflict with the traditional world. As Lilienblum recounts in his 1876 Hebrew autobiography, many of his friends had already left town “in fear of the fanatics,” and Lilienblum felt lonely, persecuted, and confused. His wife, to whom he was married when he was fifteen and she thirteen, provided no intellectual companionship. But “N,” as Lilienblum referred to his new friend, was a woman who shared Lilienblum’s literary tastes. What would otherwise have been a difficult summer thus passed with the young people meeting almost daily. Lilienblum writes that “N. did well when she asked me to read to her The Love of Zion [Ahavat Tsiyon], since it gave us something to talk about when we met each evening.”1 The book Lilienblum was referring to was Abraham Mapu’s 1853 biblical romance, which is generally considered the first Hebrew novel and which Lilienblum had fallen in love with at the very beginning of his move away from tradition.

Between 1853 and 1928, The Love of Zion appeared in fifteen editions (there were another eleven editions of Mapu’s collected works) and was translated into Yiddish at least three times, as well as into Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, Ladino, Arabic, German, Italian, French, English, and other languages.2 The novel had an impact in many spheres, but its influence was particularly strong in Eastern Europe: Joseph Klausner vividly describes the potent impression Mapu’s book made on its first readers:

Before the eyes of the young reader arose new-old Jews, with no resemblance to the Jews living in the small Jewish towns of Poland and Lithuania, but who nevertheless were connected with them through a powerful bond: this bond was—the Bible, the greatest and holiest of all Jewish books. These Jews of those days were living free lives, blossoming young lives, overflowing with physical strength and powerful emotions at the same time. And yet these lives were the lives of true Hebrews, since among them also lived Isaiah the Prophet and King Hezekiah, sacred figures even to the young children in the heder or to the boys in the yeshiva. The Jewish life described in The Love of Zion, then, was both ours and not ours: ours—because it was the life of our ancestors in the Land of Israel, and not ours—because it was a million miles away from the contemporary life in the dark corners of Lithuania and Poland.3

Klausner’s description of the effect of The Love of Zion is corroborated and lent nuance by a variety of nineteenth-century accounts (even if was undoubtedly also colored by the Zionist context in which his words were written). In a passage of her memoir that echoes her description of the effect Schiller produced on the Jewish “ghetto,” Pauline Wengeroff recalled the otherworldly impression made by Mapu, whom she met when he tutored her eldest son in German and Russian in Kovno in the 1850s: “From the narrow, crooked little streets of the Pale of Settlement with all its misery and poverty, out of the stifling, oppressive atmosphere of ghetto life, his imagination carried him to the great, brilliant past of his people. . . . He gave the youth new ideas, showed them new directions, opened new horizons and life possibilities for them.”4

We know from a host of Jewish autobiographies besides Lilienblum’s that the novel shook the Jewish world to the core. In a memoir describing growing up in the 1860s and 1870s, Buki ben Yogli (the pseudonym of the writer Yehudah Leib Katzenelson) blamed Mapu’s novel for his reluctance to marry the daughter of the head of the yeshiva he was attending:

I had never dreamed of such a suitable match; in fact, in my dreams I had seen an entirely different picture, one that remained with me in waking life—that was the picture of Tamar, Amnon’s beloved, as Mapu had described her in The Love of Zion. Oh, Mapu, Mapu, if you had only known what you were doing to me. For whenever I gazed at the face of the girl who was supposed to be my bride, the exalted figure of Tamar rose up before the eyes of my spirit with all the sublime glory that Mapu had granted her; and when I measured this image against the short round girl with the small eyes and thick lips and nose, “a great terror seized me” and in my heart I cursed her handsome, tall father, and refused to forgive him for knowing how to give birth only to beautiful Talmudic ideas, taking no care also to produce just one beautiful daughter for a son-in-law.5

The ethnographer and playwright S. An-sky (born Shloyme Zaynvil Rapoport) remembered leaving his hometown of Vitebsk in 1881 in search of enlightenment with four books in his satchel, one of them Mapu’s romance (Lilienblum’s autobiography was another).6 In 1895, at the age of fourteen, the future poet and literary critic Ya’akov Fichman ran away from home with just a change of clothes, some food, and his copy of The Love of Zion.7 In his autobiographical novel From the Fair (1914–16), Sholem Aleichem relates that Sholem, the protagonist, first realized he wanted to be a writer after “he devoured” The Love of Zion, reading it from beginning to end in one Sabbath, lying on the floor “tingling with excitement.” As the narrator describes it,

He wept and shed bitter tears over the fate of the unfortunate Amnon. And like the hero of the novel, he fell madly in love with the beautiful, divine Tamar, perhaps even more than Amnon. He saw her in his dreams and talked to her in the language of the Song of Songs, hugging and embracing and kissing her.

The next day the infatuated Sholem walked around all day like a shadow. He had a splitting headache; his appetite was gone.8

Along with a headache and loss of appetite, Sholem’s reading of The Love of Zion resulted in his decision to write a novel “à la Mapu.” However, “Sholem called his book Daughter of Zion, and his heroes Solomon and Shulamis.”9 Both this infatuation with Mapu’s novel and the desire to mimic its language are echoed in the autobiography of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the “Father of the Hebrew Revival,” who recounts that after reading Mapu, his friends “went out to a field so as not to be overheard, and tried to speak exactly like Amnon and Tamar, with all that artificial flowery Biblicism that Mapu put in the mouths of his characters.”10 In 1900, the Hebrew writer Reuven Brainin recorded the extent to which Mapu’s novel “became a model for real people, who attempted to imitate it. Male and female lovers on the Jewish street now called each other ‘Amnon’ and ‘Tamar.’11

The impact of the novel lasted well into the twentieth century. Writing in the 1930s, Klausner claimed that “the names Amnon and Tamar were beloved among maskilim [Jewish Enlighteners], who from the first days of national awakening [Hibbat Tsiyon] and onward called their sons Amnon and daughters Tamar—popular names in the Land of Israel until this very day.”12 The effects of Mapu’s novel were not lost on traditionalists: One Orthodox pamphlet declared in 1870 that, with the publication of The Love of Zion, “new benches were added in the brothels.”13 According to Klausner (who claims to have heard these calumnies with his own ears), traditionalists referred to Mapu as “Mapke, may-his-name-be-blotted-out.”14

Scenes recounting the intense impression made by The Love of Zion appear not only in traditionalist screeds, Hebrew autobiographies, and literary criticism but also in novels of the period. David in S. Y. Abramovitsh’s first novel, Learn to Do Well (1862), advises his writer friend to transfer his energies from writing Bible commentary to the novel:

I am sure, Nahum, that if you wrote a story instead of your exegesis “On the daughters of Lot and the daughters of Zelophehad” you would be rewarded for your labor and it would prove useful, for there are many readers in Israel. Evidence is The Mysteries of Paris, translated into our own language. . . . Many have read that book multiple times, and the book The Love of Zion is sought out like a great treasure and its price is driven up.15

Fictional references to The Love of Zion were made even in Mapu’s own later work: Mapu may be doing some self-promotion when he repeatedly mentions The Love of Zion in The Hypocrite, but in sharing and discussing the biblical romance and in comparing their own lives to the ones depicted in The Love of Zion, the characters of The Hypocrite are also enacting social practices abundantly attested among Mapu’s real-life readers. Thus, the hero Na’aman (whose name is a near-anagram of Amnon’s) thanks his friend in a letter for sending him the wondrous Love of Zion and adds that he has found his own Tamar in Elisheva and duly passed along the book for her to enjoy. “The situation described in The Love of Zion and my own with Elisheva are one and the same,” Na’aman writes to his friend. “And who knows, perhaps Elisheva will say to me, as Tamar said to Amnon: ‘Hope, Amnon! Because hope is stronger than life.’16 In the course of the novel, Elisheva indeed has the opportunity to fulfill Na’aman’s prediction by quoting these very words from Mapu’s debut novel. Such adoring references and self-references inevitably gave way to satirical echoes, as in the 1887 novel by A. S. Rabinowitz, At the Crossroads (Al ha-perek), in which the hero gives a copy of The Love of Zion to his pious wife in the hopes of arousing amorous feelings in her, to no avail.17

These varied texts all suggest the power of secular literature and, more particularly, a single novel, to transform both consciousness and social practice. According to these accounts, Mapu’s novel supplied conversational material for the budding romance between Lilienblum and “N,” provided Wengeroff with a glimpse of the exalted biblical past, played a role in the adolescent break with their families for An-sky and Fichman, erotically awakened Sholem Aleichem’s autobiographical protagonist and led him to take his first steps as a writer, helped instigate Ben-Yehuda’s famous linguistic revolution, soured the young Katzenelson on an otherwise distinguished match, and inspired generations of readers to name their children not after a dead relative—as is the norm among Ashkenazic Jews—but after a fictional character.

Because these accounts are so similar that they seem to form a collective meta-narrative, it is easy to miss the complexity of the novel’s effects, which resonate in at least four distinct spheres. The first and perhaps most obvious is the linguistic dimension of the novel, its resurrection of biblical Hebrew to write detailed pastoral descriptions and create believable dialogue; it was this aspect of the novel that laid the groundwork for Ben Yehuda’s revolutionary language project. The second influential aspect of the novel is its unique literary character and status, as a modern novel set against the backdrop of biblical Israel, combining biblical and invented characters and plots; it was this aspect that excited admiration by Wengeroff, imitation by Sholem Aleichem and others, and has been credited, as well, with founding modern Hebrew literature (and providing a literary vision of Zionist return avant la lettre). The third dimension, which makes itself apparent especially in Hebrew autobiographies, was its role in encouraging at least some of its readers to break with their traditional families and religious practices; the presence of Mapu’s book in the satchels of runaway teenage boys is testimony to this power. Finally, the novel exerted erotic and romantic power, which sexually awakened a generation of young readers, drove a nail in the old system of arranging marriage, and provided a template for modern courtship, marriage, and family practices. In what follows, my interest is primarily in this last dimension, in the complex interconnections between literary genre and sexual experience that both expressed and propelled the erotic transformation and sexual secularization of Eastern European Jews.

The role of Mapu’s novel in literary history has often been discussed in the context of its astonishing mobilization of biblical Hebrew for the construction of a modern novel in the European mode, a crucial exercise that rendered possible modern Hebrew literature—even if that literature had to expand Mapu’s linguistic palette before it could become truly flexible as a literary medium. That Mapu provided a template not only for the revival of Hebrew as a vernacular and for the construction of a Jewish homeland in Palestine but also for the destruction of traditional families in Eastern Europe is evident from at least four of the autobiographies just cited. Mapu exercised both the constructive and destructive power of secularization by reviving, through intertextual citation, the “profane” love affair of the Song of Songs obscured by rabbinic allegoresis and by rendering such characters as the biblical prophet Isaiah, through the conventions of the novel, as a man of flesh and blood. Secularization, in this analysis, proceeds not through direct philosophical or metaphysical (or antimetaphysical) argument but through indirect literary-erotic means. Works such as Mapu’s Love of Zion thus played an important role in the sexual modernization and Europeanization of traditional Jews; as in Sholem Aleichem’s autobiographical account, Mapu’s romance awakened Jews to the intoxicating and headache-inducing power of literature and sexuality simultaneously. Demonstrating this thesis requires an interdisciplinary approach, bringing together the study of Jewish sexual secularization as a historical phenomenon with Jewish literary history and criticism. While historians of Jewish secularization have long mined literary texts—particularly autobiography and memoir—for historical and sociological evidence, my own research takes a different approach, focusing on the co-emergence of sexual secularization and modern Jewish literature.

Despite the intensely personal way in which Mapu’s novel was received by its readers, it is evident that one can draw only an indirect connection between its themes and plot and the transformations in the world of its readers. No character in The Love of Zion experiences anything resembling the break with tradition described by Wengeroff, Lilienblum, An-sky, and Fichman; the novel, given its ancient setting, could hardly make a direct case for the modernization of Jewish life, marital or otherwise. Mapu himself was and remained in most respects a traditional Jew, if one committed to the enlightened reform of Jewish life. Nevertheless, the novel does indirectly refer to a few of the controversies of Mapu’s own time, insisting, for instance, on the right of young people to choose their own mates: Tamar’s high-born parents, concerned that their daughter has fallen in love with the penniless shepherd Amnon while resisting the affections of the man to whom they have betrothed her, discuss the winds of change that have caught up their daughter. It is Tirzah, more inclined to sympathize with her daughter, who reminds her husband of what the prophet Isaiah had recent prophesied: “In that day, seven women shall take hold of one man, saying, ‘We will eat our own bread and wear our own clothes; only let us be called by your name.’” As Tirzah comments, “These days are approaching, and a new era is coming to the land, when women seek the men.”18

Selectively quoting Isaiah 4:1 to placate her husband, Tirzah takes the prophecy out of its biblical context, in which Isaiah laments the calamitous wartime shortage of marriageable men; she manages to avoid Isaiah’s tone by omitting the final words of the verse, “esof herpatenu” (take away our disgrace). Tirzah instead draws on the authority of the prophet to put their rebellious daughter’s scandalous pursuit of a man into the larger social and religious context of cultural change. Her husband, Yedidiah, disinclined to take Tamar’s rebelliousness in stride, revives the prophetic tone of lament even as he accepts that his daughter’s actions reflect the new era in which she is maturing: “‘Woe for such days!’ groaned Yedidiah—‘woe that they have come to our palace and turned our daughter’s heart against her parents, to lead her astray after her own desires.’19 Just as Tirzah finds prophetic perspective for Tamar’s overthrow of traditional gender roles, Yedidiah reverses Malachi 3:24 (“And he shall turn the heart of the parents to the children, and the heart of the children to their parents”) to lament the “generation gap” wracking his family.20 These multiple citations and displacements of Isaiah and Malachi reach beyond the biblical context (and its prophesied near future) to express the worries of the parents of newly assertive girls in the Pale of Settlement in the very late 1840s and the 1850s. As did Wengeroff, ChaeRan Y. Freeze describes this period as one of rapid change, in which the political and cultural liberalization of Russian attitudes toward the Jewish population and, especially, the advent of the Era of Great Reforms (1855–81) under Alexander II had profound ramifications for a host of Jewish practices and ideologies:

Despite all the vagaries, contradictions, and partial retractions of later decades, the new order created immense new opportunities for mobility, education, litigation, and careers for men and women. All this inevitably had far-reaching repercussions on the institution of the family, marriage, and gender relations and expectations. The new order enhanced intellectual and economic independence, fostering not only a greater sense of individuality but also a more critical view of traditional Jewish values and customs. Contemporary intellectual movements in Russia shifted the emphasis from “economic and social considerations in marriage” to the importance of “individual emotions, feelings, and self-fulfillment,” a shift in values that inescapably affected spousal expectations and relationships. Whereas couples once tolerated certain forms of behavior and lower levels of affection, they now insisted that marriages embody the ideals of mutual love and respect being promoted by educated society.21

David Biale, analyzing sources from the same period, calls attention to the “new possibilities for boys and girls to meet unchaperoned,” adding that nature played a role in these new social practices and ideologies: “In particular, walks in the fields and forests, beyond the boundaries of the shtetl, became increasingly popular and provided an unsupervised opportunity for intercourse (of all kinds) between the sexes.”22 The modernization of gender relations should be understood against the background of traditional marriage. Mining the traditional marriage system for its implicit rationale and justifications, Jacob Katz argues that the practice of arranging marriages among very young boys and girls, as he claims was typical of Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe until the modern era, combines a clear-eyed assessment of the power and danger of sexual desire with a range of other concerns. Early arranged marriage sprang “from the parents’ desire to settle their children’s future while they, the parents, were still alive,” as well as from the influence of “the traditional religious and ethical norms regarding sexual activity,” which emphasizes that “he who is without a wife has almost no hope of withstanding the temptations of the flesh.”23 Such a reading accords with Lilienblum’s description of how he overcame his reluctance to marry; as a young adolescent beset by nocturnal emissions, which he understood as seductive attacks by female demons, he agreed to be wed “in order not to help along Lilith and her crew.”24

Alongside the importance of marriage as a bulwark against prohibited sexual activity (which was accompanied by a frank appreciation for mutual satisfaction in marital sex and a resistance to masculine ascetic impulses), Katz argues that traditional Ashkenazic Jewish marriages served the social need of securing class boundaries in a society that in theory allowed for all Jewish marriages.25 The ideology of traditional marriage, according to Katz, fully acknowledged the power of sexual desire while ruling out erotic attraction as legitimate grounds for constructing a marriage, not only because erotic attraction might lead to “unsuitable” matches—especially those that transgressed class boundaries—but also because traditional Jewish attitudes resisted “the deliberate cultivation of erotic life.” In the absence of such motivating factors, marriages were determined by a range of other, ostensibly more significant considerations. A desirable feature was “a good lineage, that is, descent from prominent scholars and other famous personages,” while, more negatively, “a familial blemish—sexual licentiousness or apostasy occurring among the proposed spouse’s relatives—was a negative value that had to be balanced out by other, positive assets.” Other considerations could more directly involve the prospective bride or groom, for instance, “a prospective groom’s learning or the bride-to-be’s efficiency.” Katz continues, “Beauty and good appearance were also considered, although they were not as important as they would be in a society that based its marital system on free choice.” In summary, “The outstanding characteristic of this society’s approach to marriage was the extreme rationalism with which it calculated the chances of that ‘proper match’ to which each aspired in his own way. Such criteria as personal compatibility, not to speak of romantic attachment, were not considered at all.” Sexual attraction did sometimes play a role in traditional marriage, but when it did, “a matchmaker would still be used for appearance’ sake.”26

Katz describes the modern bourgeois marriages that increasingly became the norm among Jews beginning in late-eighteenth-century Central Europe as essentially the reverse of the traditional model, raising romantic attraction to the status of a cultural norm in contracting marriages and indeed as a supreme value in human existence. Such an ideological transformation is manifest not only in the modes by which each ideology is practiced and embodied but also—perhaps especially—in the ways that the ideology of romantic love camouflaged aspects of marriage that contradicted its tenets. Thus, where traditional parents might have rendered “love matches” legitimate by the retroactive employment of a marriage broker, modern couples disguised any “practical” considerations behind their marital decisions through a required discourse of sublime mutual love.27

In Katz’s view traditional Jewish marriage stands in stark contrast with its modern counterpart, particularly when one takes into account the relative weight paid in each system to sentimental attachment or erotic attraction rather than more practical considerations. It is striking, then, that Katz suggests that the dramatic contrast in erotic ideologies may be less clear-cut than at first appears, since what constitutes the dominant ideology in each instance may function as a mask for realities that deviate from the approved model. Traditional marriages conceal the workings of attraction in contracting a match, while modern bourgeois marriages obscure the practical or externally arranged aspects of what must publicly be presented as a product of spontaneous mutual love and attraction. Katz’s qualifications imply that traditional and modern marriage ideologies may function in consort with significantly more complex and concealed social and psychological realities, signifying a practice in which multiple ideologies and strategies work together to negotiate and maximize social and individual benefits.28 These complexities further suggest that, as dramatic as the transformations from traditional to modern Jewish marriage practices might appear, there are undoubtedly also submerged continuities between them. Given that secularization was a long process, with multiple “waves” that moved gradually eastward, uneven application, and traditionalizing countermovements, the presence of overlapping models should not surprise us. And since traditional marriages were typically contracted at an early age and modern marriages later, the nineteenth century saw many complex marital histories in which an older sister’s marriage was arranged, while a younger sister had considerably more freedom in choosing—or at least approving her parents’ choice of—her own mate (Wengeroff’s memoirs are particularly revealing in this regard); or in which an arranged first marriage gave way to a romance or “modern” second marriage; or for such unlucky and, as he saw it, permanently encumbered and psychologically damaged men as Lilienblum, a modern romance arose after the young man was already married and could never be consummated.

Recent scholarship has revised Katz’s description of traditional marriage and its evolution in modernity in a number of significant ways. While Katz readily acknowledges that his account of traditional marriage does not apply to poorer, less educated, or more rural Jews, the emphasis of his work leaves the impression that it constituted the practice of a Jewish majority; this impression is certainly bolstered by the ubiquity of descriptions in memoirs, rabbinic responsa, and other textual records that conform to Katz’s model. With the research of David Biale, Immanuel Etkes, Shaul Stampfer, and others, it is now abundantly clear that these records reflect the experience of the educated class of Lomdim (those who “learn” the Talmud) and that early arranged marriage and kest (called in Hebrew mezonot; parental room and board for the young couple) were practiced only among a small minority of Jews in the period preceding the introduction of bourgeois marriage models, which similarly had the most direct effect on Jewish elites.29 Moreover, Biale reminds us, the marital age of the traditional elite rose in the course of the nineteenth century “independent of Haskalah polemics,” alongside other changes within traditional marriage.30 Thus, the practice of early arranged marriage, universally decried by modernizing reformers, was itself far from universal.

As Stampfer summarizes Eastern European Jewish marriage practices in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “Most Jews did not marry in their early teens and many did so only in their twenties,” given that commercial, property, and lineage considerations had little relevance for those without means or pedigree. Poorer and less learned Jews married later, more locally, and without the “benefit” of matchmakers or intricate arrangements for dowry and kest. Reflecting on the nonelite marriages that constituted the majority in this period, Stampfer supposes that they were often propelled by the romantic considerations that Katz views as arising only as part of the modern bourgeois “erotic ideology.” In the eighteenth century, Stampfer writes, it was in the circles of the poor that there was room for romance and love and from which came the popular Yiddish folk songs that began to emerge in that era, if not earlier.31

I would add to these critical interventions that Katz’s description of the modern marriage as underwritten by an erotic ideology must also be reread in the light of the finer sociological distinctions made in recent histories of the European family between the role of “sentiment” and “sex” in modern marriage.32 This distinction actually points to two successive revolutions in conceiving of the proper grounds for marriage, which can also be mapped onto the romantic styles of Haskalah literature and the more sexually direct literary trends that followed. The distinctions and overlaps between the sentimental and the sexual revolutions that characterize Jewish sexual modernity (along with other varieties) are thus significant not only for evaluating the sociological transformations documented by Katz and the historians that followed; they may also illuminate the development of Jewish literature from the Haskalah to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Jewish modernisms. The Haskalah, it is now clear, promoted a sentimental revolution that concealed powerful, conflicted, and transgressive sexual impulses. The more explicit recognition of sexuality that characterized the fin-de-siècle Hebrew writers recently analyzed by Shachar Pinsker signaled both a radicalization of the Haskalah sentimental revolution and, in some way, a dialectical return to the frank recognition of “the temptations of the flesh” that, in Katz’s view, was a feature of traditional views of sex and marriage but was obscured by the sentimental rhetoric of bourgeois marriage.33

Despite these critical interventions, many of Katz’s insights have held up and been further substantiated. Marion Kaplan, for instance, takes the full measure of Katz’s view that the erotic ideology of love matches sometimes masked more practical considerations, discovering that, in nineteenth-century German Jewish bourgeois households, matches arranged by parents or others were often made to appear as if they were an outcome of the free choice of the young couple. Kaplan describes “the fine art of coincidence” by which Jewish families camouflaged their matchmaking maneuvers: “Conscious of the growing contradictions between social ideology and social reality, some [Jewish] parents ‘covered up’ traditional, arranged marriages. Others arranged circumstances where certain young people could meet each other.” When an engagement resulted, it was declared a “real love match.”34 ChaeRan Y. Freeze documents that the opposite was the case, too; as in more traditional eras, modern love matches were sometimes accompanied by “traditional formalities to lend respectability to the betrothal.” Thus, “Golda Meir’s grandparents summoned a shadkhan to negotiate the technical arrangements after their daughter had already met and become engaged to a young army recruit on her own.”35 Children also learned to play a double game. In an early twentieth-century letter from a brivnshteler (model letter collection) that Nathan Hurvitz cites, a prospective bridegroom presents the young woman he is courting with a choice: “I will approach your good parents and ask for your hand myself as soon as you let me know that this is agreeable to you; or I will send a matchmaker to your family in the name of my parents.”36 Traditional forms and new romantic models coexisted for many decades, with parents and children strategically mobilizing multiple ideologies and conventions for maximum erotic, social, and economic gain.

This historical research clearly has ramifications for literary history. While Katz implicitly encourages us to view the transformation of Jewish marriage alongside the adoption of European literary and cultural models, Biale reminds us that such turn-of-the-twentieth-century Hebrew writers as Micha Yosef Berdichevsky “found vitality and eroticism” in Jewish folklore as well.37 There is evidence that even nineteenth-century Jewish writers who identified with the modernizing avant-garde and the European bourgeoisie were well aware of the “indigenous” Jewish experiences with love Stampfer mentions, recognizing that romance could be found not only in the European novel, in faraway capitals, or in ancient Israel (where Mapu discovered his lovers) but also in the lower classes and social margins of Eastern European Jewish society: Shloyme Ettinger’s 1861 closet drama Serkele stages three parallel love stories, with the most “natural” and believable one arising between a maid and manservant, with no assistance from parents or matchmakers. As Dan Miron points out, Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh set the only persuasive love story he wrote among a traveling band of beggars in his 1869 novel Fishke the Lame.38 And in the 1888 novella Stempenyu (subtitled A Jewish Romance), Sholem Aleichem found a romantic Jewish hero in the wandering klezmer musician who gives the novella its title.

Modern literature thus emerges not only from the broad revolution in sex and marriage described by Katz and others but also from the ambivalent social formations that complicated this revolution. Indeed, modern Jewish marriage continues to be troubled by the dangers that, in Katz’s analysis, traditional marriage was designed to combat: the contraction of “unsuitable” matches. While some modernizers of the Eastern European Haskalah, particularly those influenced by Russian radicalism in the 1860s and 1870s, championed free love, more moderate or conservative Jewish social reformers were compelled to resolve, contain, or circumvent the explosive powers of sexual desire, even if what they considered an unsuitable match was different from those an older generation might have ruled out. Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman stories (the first of which appeared in 1894) take the breakdown of the old system of arranged marriage as primary focus and quickly move from the question of whether young people have the right to choose their own mate to the more vexing issue of intermarriage. With these anxieties, the question of the ideal method of organizing Jewish marriages comes full circle. What seemed to modernizers an obvious benefit, the elimination of a system that negated the erotic freedoms and suppressed the healthy development of young people, only gradually and dialectically revealed its underlying justifications.

The Love of Zion was written and read within the environment Biale and Freeze describe, and it seems clear that the novel provided a model of romantic love drawn from the new practices of finding a mate without the participation of family and new ideals of mutual love for which Tamar’s pursuit of a poor shepherd provided exemplary cultural expression. Nevertheless, Mapu constructed this model not by directly mobilizing the Russian rhetoric of companionate marriage but by discovering ancient Jewish support—in the prophecies of Isaiah himself!—for new modern ideals (if not realities). The Love of Zion turned back the clock to an era of Jewish history earlier than the rabbinic, finding models for Jewish modernity in the amorous atmosphere it discovered in the Bible. As in other spheres of Haskalah cultural production, the Bible functioned as a potentially modernizing alternative to the Talmud, the mainstay of the traditional male curriculum associated with diasporic Jewish insularity; the Bible, however, was known to and esteemed by Christians so could provide Jews a royal road into European culture. The novel is thus primary evidence for what Tova Cohen calls the model of “double influence” in the new Jewish literature, of both European literature and the classical Jewish sources. The literature of the Haskalah, according to Cohen, “wanted and intended to weave together European and Jewish culture in order to create—nearly ex nihilo—a literature that was simultaneously both Hebrew and European.”39

As an alternative to traditional rabbinic texts, the novel functioned both as an expression of new approaches to Jewish marriage and the basis for a new form of Jewish reading, with its own pleasures and practices; thus, the novel was not a wholesale escape from Jewish textual culture but a translation of this textual identity into another sphere, one as saturated with passionate devotion—and practical instruction—as the religious literature it came to replace. While the modern novel is often associated with silent private reading, in the case of Lilienblum and “N” The Love of Zion provided the material for shared or partner reading, instituting a hybrid practice that partook in equal measures of the partner study that is the hallmark of Talmud study and the rituals of modern heterosexual courtship (adulterous and unconsummated as it was in this case). The literature of Jewish modernization was thus not a simple reflection of modern European reading or social practices, much less the wholesale imitation that later critics sometimes saw and see in it. The modern Jewish novel, in exposing young readers to the rituals of heterosexual courtship and serving as a nexus for new forms of reading, simultaneously inherited, transformed, and replaced some of the more distinctive cultural practices associated with traditional marriage and traditional learning.

The connection between Jewish sexual modernization and the emergence of secular Jewish literature is thus a rich and ambivalent one, as even my brief reading of the cultural reception of Mapu’s novel can illustrate. At the simplest level, what I am exploring in this study is the emergence of what could be called, in awkward shorthand, a “sexual-literary form,” in which literary romance and heterosexual practices are simultaneously propagated. Jews adopted European gender models alongside and through European genre conventions, learning the choreography of modern courtship and its attendant gender roles from the characters, plot, pacing, and conventions of romantic novels; one common term for the novel in mid-nineteenth-century Eastern Europe was “love story” (sippur ahavim), while another was “romance” (roman).40 As this terminological and cultural knot indicates, narrative literature embodied the erotic hopes and ideals of modernizing Jews. The example of The Love of Zion should caution us, however, that neither the secularization of Eastern European Jews nor the literature of this community should be understood as cultural mimicry, a straightforward appropriation of values and cultural forms alien to traditional Jewish culture. Rather, Jewish literature and Jewish modernity took on distinctive shapes even in their literary and cultural borrowing.

The role of mimesis in the double process of sexual modernization and the formation of a modern Jewish literature is thus a crucial but complex one, and the ideological reduction of mimesis to the pejorative terms “imitation” and “assimilation” among generations of critiques from the earliest post-Haskalah nationalists to contemporary postcolonialist and queer theorists has only served to muddy the critical understanding of the multiple valences and literary character of this cultural operation. This is not to deny the role of imitation as part of the cultural and literary effects of such works as The Love of Zion: Ben Yehuda’s circle of friends and Sholem Aleichem’s protagonist vacillated between extraordinary attraction to and identification with the characters of Mapu’s novel, attempting to speak their language, falling in ecstatic love with them, taking on their very names, or bestowing them on their lovers and children.

This literary effect is already evident within the workings of the novel itself. Despite the efforts Mapu took to depict his characters’ passions as “natural,” they insistently present themselves as also textual (and thus both “traditionally Jewish” and in keeping with the European role of literature as sexual stimulant). The characters of Amnon and Tamar participate in this imitative and self-reflective game, falling in love with each other not directly but through a kind of visual and textual hall of mirrors: Tamar is drawn to Amnon not (only) because of his beauty and song but also because of his resemblance to the young man of whom her grandfather dreamed, described to her in a letter from him. When she encounters Amnon at the riverbank the day after her dream, “like doves by the river, so did their eyes drink in the reflection on the face of the water, which filled them with pleasant feelings, for the vision of their desire faithfully appeared in the water, since they were embarrassed to gaze at each other’s face directly.”41 Despite the ideological associations of sexual desire with the individual in his or her most primal essence, Amnon and Tamar fully demonstrate the workings of textual mediation, the imagination, and self-reflexivity in the construction of romantic love. The “natural” location in which their love unfolds, described by Dan Miron as “the pleasant place” (locus amoenus) outside the constraints of the social order, has been understood by Yahil Zaban as the place of literature, or more specifically of the Haskalah novel. The pleasant place is a fictional site in which the intimate double encounter of the hero and his beloved and the maskilic reader and the Haskalah novel takes place, demonstrating how closely intertwined love in the Haskalah novel is with the love of reading.42 Not nature but its textual production and cultural idealization become the site of modern love, just as this love is less the natural love of young people for one another than the cultural love of reading itself.

The self-reflexivity, indirection, and vicarious erotic experience that Zaban sees as characteristic of the Haskalah novel may in fact attest to more widespread connections between literature and Eros than be a special case deriving from the uniquely “artificial” or “colonial” conditions of Jewish modernization. René Girard, in Deceit, Desire and the Novel, argues for the ubiquity of “triangular desire,” the concept he later and more famously termed “mimetic desire.” As he writes, “Emma Bovary would not have taken Rudoph for a Prince Charming had she not been imitating romantic heroines.” We love not others but our own image of these others and their image of us, which in turn propels us to construct an image of ourselves as lovers. We love what others love, and we love them in the way that characters in the novels love, which is to say that we love because we love novels. For Girard, the novel embodies “the spiritual wedding without which the virgin imagination could not give birth to fantasies,” since “the printed word has a magical power of suggestion.”43 It is evident enough that, for Jews, the printed word has always had a magical power of suggestion; the manifold effects of The Love of Zion suggest that this power did not diminish but perhaps even increased with the “disenchanting” advent of modernization and secularization.

It is already clear that, for all the evident distance between Mapu’s fiction and the realities of his readers, the effect of the introduction of Mapu’s pastoral romance into the Jewish world complicated the ostensibly clear distinctions between fiction and reality. As Wolfgang Iser points out, the opposition between fiction and nonfiction always dissolves under closer scrutiny: “Are fictional texts truly fictions, and are nonfiction texts truly without fictions? . . . How can something exist that, although actual and present, does not partake of the character of reality?” Iser’s interests are directed not only to the relations between fiction and nonfiction but also to “literary anthropology,” to the function of fictions in “the repatterning of the culturally conditioned shapes human beings have assumed.” Iser argues, “If literature permits limitless patternings of human plasticity, it indicates the inveterate urge of human beings to become present to themselves; this urge, however, will never issue into a definitive shape, because self-grasping arises out of overstepping limitations.”44 His primary case for thinking through the relationship between fiction and reality is the pastoral romance:

Pastoralism held sway in the West as a literary device for over fifteen hundred years. Its basic pattern features two worlds that are distinctly marked from one another by a boundary, the crossing of which can be effected only by donning a mask. The disguise allows those who have veiled their identity to act out either what they are denied in the socio-historical world out of which they have come, or what seems impossible even in the pastoral realm of artifice that they have penetrated. Thus duality is maintained, unfolding the distinguished positions into a changing multiplicity of their possible relationships, which issue into proliferating iterations between the two worlds as well as between the characters and their disguises.45

Among the reasons that pastoralism is so persistent in literary history is that it “thematizes the act of fictionalizing, thereby enabling literary fictionality to be vividly perceived.” Fictionality, Iser stresses, has political effects less in reflecting “the socio-historical world” than precisely in standing outside it as a “counterimage” or double of it: “Being outside does not mean transcending oneself; it means staging oneself.” In Iser’s method, reading involves the reciprocal relationship between fiction and the sociohistorical world, as a means of reintroducing “into what is present whatever the present has excluded.”46

Iser’s approach to literary anthropology allows us to conceptualize the effects of Haskalah literature beyond the “problem” of its betrayal of the rules of mimetic realism (as many post-Haskalah critics charged). The “doubling” effect of make-believe—pastoral romance above all—influences readers not because these fictions accurately reflect the nineteenth-century Jewish sociohistorical world but precisely because they do not. Haskalah novels should not be read only as aspirational models to guide the efforts of Jewish reformers or as satirical jabs designed to provide a critical distance from traditional habits. As in the pastorals Iser analyzes, Mapu’s Love of Zion presents double worlds, that of the Jerusalem nobility and of the pastoral hills, as well as double characters, shepherds masquerading as princes and princes masquerading as shepherds. It is this doubling, which also thematizes the workings of fiction, that communicates and embodies new possibilities of human experience. Klausner saw this clearly: “The Jewish life described in The Love of Zion, then, was both ours and not ours.”47 Fiction is thus real and has absolutely real effects in staging the self “ecstatically” (as Iser puts it), which prior Jewish genres had failed to accomplish. Iser considers the effects of the pastoral romance over a millennium, but in the case of Jewish Ashkenaz, these effects were largely accomplished over a few decades in which the challenges of rapidly shifting social norms were serendipitously met with a fictional work in which the “plasticity” of social selves could be opened and explored.

Iser suggests that among the paradoxes mobilized by fiction is the simultaneous accessibility and impermeability of experiences and selves, the impossibility of distinguishing experience from appearance; this paradox explains why love “is the most central topic of literary staging.” We are “within” this experience, but it also approaches us “almost like an assault” from the outside, which in turn “awakens in us a desire to look at what has happened to us, and this is when the evidence explodes into alternatives.”48 If Iser is correct, then the romantic fictions explored here are not simply a “theme” or series of conventions (literary and social both) but also a fundamental site for exploring what it means to be human beyond what is evident and real. It is on just such an anthropological level that the phenomenon of Mapu’s fiction must be understood.


1. Moshe Leib Lilienblum, Sins of Youth [Hat’ot ne’urim], Autobiographical Writings, ed. Shlomo Breiman (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1970), 1:191. The title is a rabbinic euphemism for masturbation. Translations are my own unless otherwise indicated.

2. For more on these translations, see Joseph Klausner, History of the New Hebrew Literature [Historyah shel ha-sifrut ha-’Ivrit ha-hadashah] (Jerusalem: Ahiasaf, 1952), 297. For a more recent survey, particularly into Yiddish, see Shmuel Werses, “The Yiddish Translations of Abraham Mapu’s The Love of Zion” [Ha-targumim le-Yidish shel Ahavat Tsiyon le-Avraham Mapu] (Jerusalem: Akademon, 1989).

3. Klausner, History, 295.

4. Wengeroff, , 2:116–17.

5. Yehudah Leib Katzenelson (Buki ben Yogli), What My Eyes Saw and My Ears Heard: Remembrances of My Life [Ma shera’u eynay ve-sham’u oznay: Zikhronot mini hayai] (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1917), 64.

6. S. An-sky, “Sins of Youth,” in The Dybbuk and Other Writings, ed. David Roskies, trans. Golda Werman (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), 71.

7. Ya’akov Fichman, Men of Tidings [Anshe besorah] (Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1937–38), 152.

8. Sholem Aleichem, From the Fair: The Autobiography of Sholem Aleichem, ed. and trans. Curt Leviant (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985), 146. In the Yiddish original, the space between these passages is marked by two lines of dashes. See Sholem Aleichem, Funm Yarid: Lebensbeshreibungen (New York: Varheit, 1917), 2:142–43.

9. Sholem Aleichem, From the Fair, 147.

10. Eliezer Ben Yehuda, A Dream Come True, ed. George Mandel, trans. T. Muraoka (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1993), 34.

11. Reuven Brainin, Abraham Mapu: His Life and Works [Avraham Mapu: Hayav u-sefarav] (Piotrków, Poland: Tushiyah, 1900), 48.

12. Klausner, History, 295.

13. The pamphlet was signed by “The Committee Vindicating the Many” (or, as we might say, “the Moral Majority”) and published in Vilna in 1870. See Klausner, History, 296n165; and Dan Miron, From Romance to the Novel: Studies in the Emergence of the Hebrew and Yiddish Novel in the Nineteenth Century [Ben hazon le-emet: Nitsane ha-roman ha-’ivri veha-yidi ba-me’ah ha-tesha’-’esreh] (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1979), 9.

14. Klausner, History, 296n165.

15. S. Y. Abramovitsh, Learn to Do Well, Which Is a Love Story [Limdu hetev, hu sipur ahavim], ed. Dan Miron (New York: YIVO, 1969), 31.

16. Avraham Mapu, The Hypocrite [’Ayit tsavu’a], in The Complete Works of Abraham Mapu [Kol kitve Avraham Mapu] (Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1947), 252.

17. See David Patterson, The Hebrew Novel in Czarist Russia (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), 222.

18. Avraham Mapu, The Love of Zion, in The Complete Works of Abraham Mapu, 37. I quote the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) TANAKH here and throughout, except where otherwise noted.

19. Ibid., 37–38.

20. The JPS has, less familiarly or poetically, “He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents.”

21. ChaeRan Y. Freeze, Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Late Imperial Russia (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2002), 190–91. Freeze’s citations are from William B. Wanger, Marriage, Property and the Struggle for Legality in Late Imperial Russia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 84. Tova Cohen and Shmuel Feiner, writing about women’s participation in the literature of the Haskalah in Eastern Europe, similarly note a sea change in social attitudes among those who wrote and read this literature:

Young women in Eastern Europe, “girls of a new generation,” found jobs in stores, in workshops or in the houses of merchants, saved money, and searched for a mate without the participation of their families. The romantic ethos continued to capture a place for itself among the young people of this generation, and brought with it not only relatively later marriages of choice but also religious laxity among working girls of the lower classes and female students of the middle and upper classes, among whom there were relatively high numbers of gymnasium and university students.

In Tova Cohen and Shmuel Feiner, “The Voice of a Hebrew Maiden”: Women’s Writings of the Nineteenth-Century Haskalah [ol ’almah ’Ivriyah: Kitve nashim maski-lot ba-me’ah ha-tesha’-’esreh] (Tel Aviv: Ha-kibuts ha-me’uhad, 2006), 27.

22. David Biale, Eros and the Jews: From Biblical Israel to Contemporary America (New York: Basic, 1992), 165.

23. Katz, Tradition and Crisis, 116–17.

24. Lilienblum, Sins of Youth, 1:104.

25. “We have before us a society based on strict class division, but which lacked adequate barriers between one class and another. Precisely because Judaism ruled that ‘all families are presumed to be fit’ and might intermarry with one another—and in exceptional cases did so—society could not permit the choice of a spouse on the basis of a chance encounter. But this was certainly not the only reason. The objection to marriage by personal choice in this society was bound up with its entire conception of the role of love and sex. As we have seen, the temptations of the flesh were clearly recognized and frankly admitted. On the other hand, there was no deliberate cultivation of the erotic life, in which the individual might find an emotional outlet or even room for self-expression.” Katz, Tradition and Crisis, 143–44.

26. Ibid., 118–19.

27. Ibid., 231. In this regard, as in so many others, Moses Mendelssohn functions as a pioneering exemplar: Katz points to Mendelssohn’s pride at having courted his bride “in the modern fashion,” without the aid of parents or matchmakers; Mendelssohn downplayed the fact that the bride and groom met through the matchmaking exertions of mutual friends and tried “to emphasize that everything connected with the marriage had been his own personal decision.” Katz takes a somewhat different tone here than Alexander Altmann, who says that the acquaintance with Fromet, although suggested by others, was a matter of real, passionate love and that “it was rather unusual in Jewish society for a marriage to be arranged without the services of professional matchmakers, but convention was ignored in this instance.” Alexander Altmann, Moses Mendelssohn: A Biographical Study (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1973), 93.

28. I owe this insight to Bourdieu’s formulation in The Logic of Practice, which provides a close reading of marriage strategies in 1950s Algeria that aims to complicate the notion that agents act according to social “rules” in contracting marriages rather than employ flexible strategies to maximize beneficial outcomes within a set of shifting constraints, taking into consideration “the quality of the hand—the strength of the cards that have been dealt.” See Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992), 148.

29. See Immanuel Etkes, “Marriage and Torah Study among the Lomdim,” in The Jewish Family: Metaphor and Memory, ed. David Kraemer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 156.

30. Biale, Eros and the Jews, 163.

31. Shaul Stampfer, Families, Rabbis and Education: Traditional Jewish Society in Nineteenth-Century Eastern Europe (Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2010), 13–14, 19.

32. Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: Penguin, 2006), 145–215; and Edward Shorter, The Making of the Modern Family (New York: Basic, 1976), 79–167.

33. See Shachar Pinsker, Literary Passports: The Making of Modernist Hebrew Fiction in Europe (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), 147–64. Against this periodization, however, we might mention the work of Yahil Zaban and Olga Litvak, who have separately drawn attention to the powerful and transgressive sexual currents that underlie the apparently “sentimental” attachments in The Love of Zion. Yahil Zaban, Choicest Meal: Food and Sexuality in Jewish Enlightenment Literature [Ve-nafsho ma’akhal ta’avah: Mazon u-meniyut be-sifrut ha-haskalah] (Tel Aviv: Ha-kibuts ha-me’uhad, 2014), 31–57; and Litvak, Haskalah, 131–56.

34. Marion Kaplan, The Making of the Jewish Middle Class: Women, Family, and Identity in Imperial Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 109.

35. Freeze, Jewish Marriage and Divorce, 24.

36. Nathan Hurvitz, “Courtship and Arranged Marriages among Eastern European Jews prior to World War I as Depicted in a Briefenshteller,” Journal of Marriage and Family 37, no. 2 (1975): 427.

37. Biale, Eros and the Jews, 169.

38. Miron, From Romance to the Novel, 270. Miron argues that Abramovitsh was so discouraged by his failure to produce a convincing love story in his first attempts that “even in Fishke the Lame, Abramovitsh’s ‘prototypical’ love story, the model of the ‘romance’ (if we can so describe this love between a cripple and hunchback) remains literarily unresolved.”

39. Tova Cohen, “One Beloved, the Other Hated”: Between Fiction and Reality in Haskalah Depictions of Women [“Ha-ahat ahuvah veha-ahat senu’ah”: Ben metsi’ut le-vidyon be-te’ure ha-ishah be-sifrut ha-Haskalah] (Jerusalem: Magnes, 2002), 36.

40. For a discussion, see Miron, From Romance to the Novel, 320.

41. Mapu, Love of Zion, 10.

42. Miron, From Romance to the Novel, 24–25; Yahil Zaban, “A Place for Love: Literature of the Enlightenment and the ‘Pleasant Place,’” in A Garden East of Eden: Traditions of Paradise [Gan be-’Eden mi-kedem: Mesorot Gan ’Eden be-Yisra’el uva-’amim], ed. Rachel Elior (Jerusalem: Scholion, 2010), 339–58.

43. René Girard, Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965), 18, 30.

44. Wolfgang Iser, The Fictive and the Imaginary: Charting Literary Anthropology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 1–2, xi.

45. Ibid., xv.

46. Ibid., 24, 78, 226.

47. Klausner, History, 295.

48. Iser, Fictive and the Imaginary, 299–300.