The Marriage Plot: Or, How Jews Fell in Love with Love, and with Literature by Naomi Seidman (Review)

By Butwin, Joseph | Shofar, Summer 2018 | Go to article overview

The Marriage Plot: Or, How Jews Fell in Love with Love, and with Literature by Naomi Seidman (Review)


Butwin, Joseph, Shofar


Halfway through Jane Eyre (1847), the enigmatic master of the house, Rochester, abandons his own house party and reappears as a gypsy woman, a fortune teller, and in effect a matchmaker for all of the attendant maidens. Finally, he comes to Jane, who is already weary of the chatter of the other young women. "'They generally run on the same theme,'" she says, "'—courtship; and promise to end in the same catastrophe—marriage.'" Most likely, she simply means to give catastrophe its literary turn: the denouement or end of a play, death in tragedy, marriage in comedy. But of course, her choice may also sustain common usage. Marriage can be a calamity. Rochester, at this point in the novel, might agree. This novel nonetheless ends as many nineteenth-century novels end: "Reader, I married him."

Charlotte Brontë's heroine is the savvy granddaughter of Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740), who serves in turn as the grandmother for all of the Jewish brides in Naomi Seidman's The Marriage Plot: Or, How Jews Fell in Love with Love, and with Literature. The go-between in this case is the English critic Ian Watt, whose Rise of the Novel, now sixty years old, provides an eighteenth-century British model for something that would happen to Eastern European Jews in the middle of the nineteenth century. The European Enlightenment preceded the Jewish equivalent, or Haskalah, by that much. Although Seidman does not suggest that Goldfaden and Mapu (both Abraham) necessarily read English fiction—they probably didn't—she looks to Richardson, or rather to Watt, for a model of the advent of modern love and, with it, Jewish modernity across the board. What is indeed remarkable about the advent of Jewish modernity is its suddenness. Seidman begins her account with a memoir written (long after the fact) by a young contemporary of Charlotte Brontë's, Pauline Wengeroff, for whom "the dramatic and traumatic transformation between traditional marriage and modern love came between her sister Eva's 1848 engagement and her own engagement in 1849."

Seidman acknowledges the limits of her application of Watt's model of the marriage plot to her own. His depends on a precedent of courtly love that emerged from worship of the Virgin; hers does not. I might add that her tradition requires a shadkhan (matchmaker); his does not. Seidman borrows a term from Vilfredo Pareto (through Watt)—"sex religion"—whose installation among Eastern European Jews is indeed central to her argument. Although she leans a bit too heavily (and frequently) on Watt and Pareto (who goes unnamed), the case she makes for a shift in Jewish courtship that follows from the Jewish Enlightenment is solid. As a part of the full-scale critique of traditional conduct on the part of the Maskilim, love, courtship, and free choice among young people seem to erupt all across the literary landscape at midcentury. Its epicenter for Seidman is Mapu's Love of Zion (1853), where the passionate attraction of the young principals, Tamar and Amnon, displaces (or seems to displace, for the break is incomplete) traditional values of social class and Judaic scholarship. In effect, Mapu installs the novel idea that is also central in Watt: the shift from marriages of interest to so-called companionate marriage. But what is fascinating about Seidman's account comes when she departs from Watt precisely where Jewish modernity refuses to follow the pattern of the eighteenth-century British model or the clean sweep suggested by its nineteenth-century Jewish equivalent. …

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