What’s Yichus Got to Do with It?

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

by Naomi Seidman 

Stanford University Press, 368 pp, $29.95

The heart wants what it wants. Or so we moderns—from Emily Dickinson to Selena Gomez—think. For most of us living in the Western world, Jews and non-Jews alike, it would be unthinkable to have our marriage partners chosen for us by our families. True, in haredi communities, as among educated Indian families, arranged marriage persists as a practice. But even in those circles it is rare for young people today not to be allowed to meet each other and exercise a veto before the deal is done. The era when it was only under the chuppah that the groom and the bride glimpsed each other for the first (or perhaps second) time belongs to the benighted past. But that past, it turns out, was not very long ago. For the whole history of Jewish society, until less than two hundred years ago, love and attraction played little or no role in the making of marriages, which were arranged and contracted according to the interests—commercial, religious, and social—of the families involved.

What is truly stunning is how little time it took for this millennia-old practice to collapse. With the advent of the Enlightenment and emancipation—in Western Europe in the 18th century and a hundred years later in the East—it became self-evident almost overnight that young Jewish people should wed out of romantic feeling and shared values, and that their union should, at least ideally, be a companionship based on love. To create such a union, it would be wrong, even perverse, for boys or girls to be forced to marry before their individual characters had taken shape and they had the capacity to choose. As with many cultural changes, this shift in marriage practices, which evolved gradually in European society over the course of centuries, took place among the Jews in less than a generation or two. If you were born in the latter part of the 19th century in Eastern Europe, it is likely that your parents’ marriage was entered into as an agreement between two families, while you insisted upon choosing your spouse for yourself. And all the more so if you emigrated to America.

“Examining the groom,” an undated postcard by Hayyim Goldberg. (From the William A. Rosenthall  Judaica Collection, courtesy of The College of Charleston Libraries.)

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About the Author

Alan Mintz recently edited (with Jeffrey Saks) A City in Its Fullness, a translation of S. Y. Agnon’s stories about his Galician hometown of Buczacz. His critical study of those stories is forthcoming from Stanford University Press.


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