A full third of the Jewish Chronicle’s obituary of Jetti Wohllerner, who died in 1891 at the age of 78, describes her first marriage match. She had been betrothed at 14 to a boy of the same age, with whom she corresponded in Hebrew. Jetti was already a consummate Hebraist and the letters were never a private possession: the Chief Rabbi of Prague weighed in on their literary merits, calling them “a veritable echo of the Song of Songs”, though Jetti declined an offer to publish them. When the boy died before the wedding took place, Jetti’s grief was compounded by her mother, who confiscated and burned the letters.
Although Jetti’s story is not mentioned in The Marriage Plot: Or, How Jews Fell in Love with Love, and with Literature, Naomi Seidman’s book deftly historicises the elements that it contains: a match made by parents for their adolescent children, the premium placed on Rabbinic learning and family lineage, the textual nature of the courtship and the quashed autonomy of the death-robbed bride. Seidman shows how the Jewish encounter with modernity and secularisation during the nineteenth century in Europe caused marriage plots to proliferate, creating courtships and unions that were variously erotic, metaphysical, nationalistic and economic.
Seidman’s compelling argument is that Jewish literature did not merely replicate the European conventions it borrowed, but used them to generate Jewish literary tropes and actual sexual structures. Fiction and autobiography were produced which described distinctive collisions, the Haskalah plot, in which parents and early marriage (between children as young as eleven) act as blocking figures to the European narrative of personal fulfilment and romantic love. Seidman’s lucid reading of Abraham Mapu’s The Love of Zion alongside The Dybbuk shows that both texts found their mirror in the personal reminiscences of philosopher and autobiographer Salomon Maimon and other maskilim such as Mordecai Aaron Gunzburg and Moshe Leib Lilienblum.
If modern Jewish literature both fictionalised and mobilised readers’ “libidinal energies”, then novels could also anticipate changes in reality. Such changes might include the rise in marital age, especially for girls (necessary when European literary models emphasised the courtship and sexual awakening of characters who are seventeen rather than eleven), and the figure of the matchmaker who, Seidman argues, was “an invention of Jewish literary modernity”. The literary rise of this often vilified agent of arranged marriage formed a critique of this practice just ata time when personal choice in sexual selection was increasingly valorised. It also allowed readers to consider how tradition might be valued in an increasingly post-traditional culture. In chapters on arranged marriage, pedigree, the extended family and sexual segregation, Seidman shows how pre-Haskalah Jewish sexual practices persist or return through literary expression, even as those same literary texts anticipate their demise.
The book follows these literary forms to the US, where Seidman seeks Jewish literary modernity on stage and screen: The Melting Pot, by Israel Zangwill; the Broadway adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof; Tony Kushner’s Angels in America; Stephen Spielberg’s Yentl—showing how “American popular culture stages both communitarian obligation and individual rights”.
The question is whether secular Jews continue to have a distinct romantic and sexual culture of a kind analysed in the earlier parts of the book. For Seidman, this has never been in doubt, given that “[secular] Jewish culture developed as distinctively Jewish even in its (always partial and ambivalent) embrace of European cultural models”. In other words, the embrace of these models never represented “cultural capitulation”; far from seeing American Jewish writers as merely emulating the culture of their now secular context, Seidman argues that their borrowings allowed them to actually help shape that context. From Philip Roth and Woody Allen, to Betty Freidan and Sarah Silverman, she gives examples of contemporary figures who, in formulating a Jewish understanding of sexual modernity, have helped make “the world… sexually Jewish”. The dazzling erudition of Seidman’s project is complemented by her rigorous theoretical and argumentative framework, proffering the persuasive view of Jetti and her contemporaries as trailblazers of a new Jewish modernity.
Richa Dwor is the author of Jewish Feeling: Difference and Affect in Nineteenth-Century Jewish Women’s Writing (Bloomsbury, 2015). She is a faculty member at Douglas College in New Westminster, Canada and an Honorary Fellow of the Victorian Studies Centre at the University of Leicester.