Four Questions for: Naomi Seidman

Naomi Seidman (Internship '86) is the Koret Professor of Jewish Culture at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and was a 2016 Guggenheim fellow. Her newest book, The Marriage Plot: or, How Jews Fell in Love with Love, and with Literature (Stanford University Press), looks at how Jewish readers in a modernizing world—one in which the traditional arranged marriage was replaced by the notion of the "love match"—turned to literature to understand new concepts of love, courtship, and marriage. But Jews were ambivalent about these notions, which were rooted, she notes, in Christian tradition—and that ambivalence continued to play out in works by modern Jewish writers, from Sigmund Freud to Philip Roth and Erica Jong.

Why did Jews need to learn the "rules" of romantic love? 
Traditional Jewish practices, especially among the elite (poorer people, with less at stake, were freer to choose their own mates), dictated that families and matchmakers arrange marriages, and European courtship practices were foreign to Jewish culture. 

Why did the novel play such a major role in that transformation? 
Traditional Jews lived far away from bourgeois circles in which modern courtship was practiced, so they learned about courtship not from what they saw around them but rather what they read in novels. Romantic novels swept not only young girls off their feet (as in other cultures) but also young boys.

Why did Jews hold on to traditional notions of love and marriage while also adopting a modern model? 
Because Jews were latecomers and outsiders to the ideologies that underlay modern romance (which are based on Christian and chivalric ideals), they never adopted them wholesale. For instance, the ideology of romance rules that parents are irrelevant to the all-important and sublime love that unites young couples. Chava in the Tevye stories converts to Russian Orthodoxy, but prior to that converts to this ideology of love. For some Jews, this ideology increasingly seemed to demand too high a price—the deterioration of extended kinship ties and ultimately of the community itself. That rendered traditional marriage practices, in retrospect, as more attractive and even erotic.

What's your favorite Jewish love story?
I do love the Tevye stories, but for me they're "heretical" love stories, since they feature the love that is ruled out in modern romance, which is to say, the love between father and daughter. 

Spring/Summer 2017