Forward Thinking

Will Hollywood Get New Intermarriage Script?

By Phoebe Maltz Bovy

  • Print
  • Share Share

A still from the Woody Allen film “Annie Hall” represents a fading paradigm of intermarriage.

These days, more American Jewish women than men are marrying out, as the Forward’s Josh Nathan-Kazis recently reported. The story’s headline, “Jewish Woman Is New Face of Intermarriage, Pew Study Data Reveals,” led me to wonder: If Jewish women have become the demographic “face” of the phenomenon, will we soon become its cultural face as well? Will “intermarriage” now imply a Jewish bride? Will we be hearing from Alexandra Portnoy?

As it stands, there’s no cultural stereotype about Jewish women intermarrying. We find individual representations, but no consistent script. We might think of the cringe-inducing plot line in “The Brothers McMullan,” involving an Irish-Catholic man’s broken engagement to a rich Jewish woman. And, if we go back further to “The Way We Were,” there’s Barbra Streisand falling for Robert Redford, as one does, and marrying him, as one does if presented with the opportunity. “The Nanny” comes to mind. Also “Rhoda.” But there are too few examples for a cliché to have formed.

Stereotypes of Jewish women — and there are plenty — have historically related to how (some) Jewish men see Jewish women, rather than how Jewish women are seen more broadly. The general culture doesn’t seem all that curious about what, if anything, goes on between Jewish women and non-Jewish men.

“Intermarriage,” unless otherwise specified, refers to men marrying out. A 2012 New York Times article about Jewish-Asian intermarriage mentioned seven such couples, all Jewish men married to Asian women, yet made no reference to gender. For those of us who grew up with Philip Roth, Woody Allen, and “Seinfeld,” this default can feel eternal.

Things weren’t always this way. In 19th-century France, depictions of Jewish intermarriage typically involved Jewish women. Jewish wives or fiancées appear in countless works, often with “juive” in the title: plays like Théophile Gautier and Noël Parfait’s 1846 La Juive de Constantine and Hippolyte Lucas’s 1849 Rachel ou la belle Juive, and fiction including Petrus Borel’s 1833 Dina, la belle juive.

As I discovered while conducting dissertation research on this topic, the “belle Juive” (beautiful Jewess) trope was to early 19th-century French literature something like what the “shiksa” would become for American Jewish writers: an exotic object of desire, but also someone one might marry to affirm progressive, universalist ideals. Writers of Christian origin saw Jewish women as the key to Jewish assimilation.

Much like Muslim women in France today, Jewish women were imagined to be in need of rescue from their traditionalist male relatives. Meanwhile, few seemed curious about what, if anything, went on between Jewish men and non-Jewish women.

At the end of that century, French writers continued to depict this pairing, but now the women were presented as unattractive heiresses with decadent Catholic aristocrats. We see this in Paul Bourget’s 1892 novel Cosmopolis; C. de La Badine’s 1899 anti-Semitic essays, Sac à juifs; and more. These scenarios, in which an old-family name is exchanged for new money, drew condemnation from writers ranging from notorious anti-Semite Edouard Drumont to J’Accuse author Emile Zola. Zola’s 1903 novel Truth, a fictionalization of the Dreyfus Affair, praises Jewish intermarriage generally but is highly critical of that arrangement.

In 19th-century France, “intermarriage” implied a Jewish bride. But because France didn’t keep records of the religion or ethnicity of those entering civil marriages, we don’t know whether this reflected reality.

It is therefore possible for “intermarriage” to evoke something other than what it does in the United States today. So should we expect a shift?

I suspect not. Jewish women have been marrying out in significant numbers for decades, yet the cliché hasn’t budged. Contemporary shows like “The Big Bang Theory” and “Girls” continue to mention “shiksas.” In 2009, Judd Apatow referred to his wife as his “shiksa goddess.” The gendered intermarriage cliché may owe more to the gender breakdown of the entertainment industry than to representations mirroring realities. Movies and television shows on Jewish themes tend to focus on romantic intrigue that involves Jewish men.

How, then, will the culture account for all these Jewish women with Gentile husbands? Quite possibly, it won’t. Commenters responding to the above-mentioned Forward story saw fit to speculate that such women must have first tried to find a Jewish man. Only when faced with the choice between adopting a sixth cat or giving Christopher a chance did they resign themselves to the latter. I’m loosely paraphrasing the comments in question, but for a sense of what they do say, here’s part of one: “After being rejected by hundreds of Jewish men, what is [a Jewish woman] supposed to do?” Hundreds!

As long as Jewish women who marry out are imagined to do so only out of desperation, the cultural “face of intermarriage” will continue to be that of a Jewish man disappointing his mother.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy, a freelance writer, has a doctorate in French and French Studies from New York University.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: seesaw2, intermarriage, Jewish women, France

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach!
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.