Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Jews' "sheer sexiness," and the insist-too-much paradox

At various points in the gargantuan stack of paper called my dissertation, I needed to cite something to do with modern-day intermarriage panic. Because the way it works, in academic writing, is that the fact that I know from living and breathing that the American Jewish community has long concerned itself with this topic isn't sufficient. That's not how scholarship works, nor should it. You can't footnote 'Take my word for it.' So in the process, I ended up finding that the whole 'intermarriage finishes what Hitler started' line comes up more often in references to anti-intermarriage sentiment (such as) than in the anti-intermarriage articles themselves. It's not that there isn't panic, just that it's often less hysterical than its more hysterical extremes.


In any case, if only I'd seen this sooner. I've now read Jack Wertheimer's essays and a couple of the others, but will need to read the lot of it. Mosaic Magazine (which... how had I just found this?) has an very useful array of the range of standard Jewish opinion on the matter, albeit the most informed and intelligent array one is likely to find. (And hey, a UChicago student is among the participants!) 

I have, as you might imagine, exactly ten trillion things to say in response even just to the parts of this series I have read, and maybe five trillion ideas of ways and places to pitch whichever aspect of my response doesn't get channeled into the academic version of this that I'm also working on. And I suppose, Petey, I also have thoughts on the new finding that Jews are actually Northern Italian, although this is really a single thought, one I'd already expressed on Facebook, which is that this explains why my apartment is basically the kitchen of an Italian restaurant, Casa Della Bisou. But in the interest of not blathering on altogether forever, I'm going to narrow this post down to the awkward question that always comes up with this topic: How, or really if, Jews who oppose intermarriage should try to eroticize endogamy.

Sylvia Barack Fishman, probably the leading scholar in the field of contemporary Jewish intermarriage, writes: "Individuals, families, and communities need to show, by example and by word, why Jewishness matters—to create in sons and daughters an appreciation of the appeal, and the sheer sexiness, of Jewish men and women." This came up on my Birthright trip as well, when the group leader asked the young men in the auditorium to behold the beauty of Jewish women. The first part - "why Jewishness matters" makes sense, but the second? There's nothing like a well-meaning authority figure telling you that someone - or some group - should do something for you erotically for that not to happen. While I personally have no trouble believing Jewish men can be good-looking, somehow the statement that I, as a Jewish woman, ought to think this summons the image of Brian Krakow - the guy you know you should like, but can't get yourself to. 

Which brings us to the problem with addressing intermarriage with more outreach along existing lines. As it stands, Jewish events aimed at the maybe-not-yet-married age demographic are virtually always thinly-veiled attempts at matchmaking. College students are invited to attend Jewish "singles" events, as though one can be an urban American single at 19. What if you just wanted to see an Israeli movie, or learn about the Dreyfus Affair, and if you happened to be unattached and met someone romantically, so be it? Why couldn't it all be a bit more casual? College itself, for instance, doesn't feel, while you're there, like an elaborate plot to mate you off to someone on a similar socioeconomic path.

Mostly, I'm just skeptical that unless we return to an era of something drastically less casual - arranged or quasi-arranged marriages, or unless all Jews up and moved to Israel, any sort of large-scale change in this area could occur. Points of contact among Jews can be increased, but without a full-on secession from the mainstream community, socialization will continue between Jews and non-Jews. And if every time Jews are placed in close proximity, there needs to be this overt now go mate vibe, a certain number of Jews with an interest in Jewish culture end up not going to what they fear will be a meat market. 

It would be much simpler to say (as used to be said) that marriage is about reproducing the community, forging allegiances between families, and whether or not you find your spouse "sexy" is irrelevant. But once spouses are to be chosen on the basis of individual desire - which is to say, once a baseline of chemistry needs to be there before either party even considers compatibility in other areas, not that chemistry trumps incompatibility - it's only natural that the conversation about how to stop intermarriage would veer towards the ill-fated project of asking Jews to find one another hot. 

5 comments:

Petey said...

So, you are saying that you are Phillip Roth, essentially.

Phoebe said...

Ha! In that case, where's my Nobel Prize for literature?

Technically, I think you want to be accusing me of being Alexander Portnoy. But the issue here is, the more the organized Jewish community orders Jews to find one another appealing, the more desirable it's bound to become for Jews of both sexes to look elsewhere. Not in a that-which-is-forbidden sense, so much as, if Jews' attractiveness needs to be asserted, one starts to wonder if there's some kind of... deficit. Which, no (see: Israeli movie stars), but anyway.

What I find most surprising about the entire series, having read all of it now, is how many people seem to think that the activities aimed at Jewish young adults aren't already about pairing off. I can't possibly be the only one who's noticed that they are. Is it really that subtle? Specifically, from the UChicago student's essay: "In the kibbutz-like atmosphere of campus Jewish communities, young Jews are subtly encouraged to see each other as friends, as cousins, as academics, but very rarely as potential life partners." That's... about as far from my experience as I could imagine.

Petey said...

"Ha! In that case, where's my Nobel Prize for literature?"

They called. Twice. And it went to voicemail both times.

So, while waiting to call a third time, they went back and re-checked. And it turns out there were some significant issues with your formatting...

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"Individuals, families, and communities need to show, by example and by word, why Jewishness matters—to create in sons and daughters an appreciation of the appeal, and the sheer sexiness, of Jewish men and women." This came up on my Birthright trip as well, when the group leader asked the young men in the auditorium to behold the beauty of Jewish women. The first part - "why Jewishness matters" makes sense, but the second? There's nothing like a well-meaning authority figure telling you that someone - or some group - should do something for you erotically for that not to happen."

Reason #53 why Shelly Adelson is Bad For The Jews.

I was raised as a good Hellenized Jew, who obviously would have nothing to do with such likudnik meshugaas . But yet!

More than half of my non-casual romantic partners have been females Born To A Jewish Mother. Why? Well, there is the sheer sexiness factor of them oriental Jewesses. Plus, there is an additional, best described as coziness factor. Finally, perhaps an undersold additional factor is that each and every one of them were willing and happy to cook me competent pasta, while also happily eating the pasta I cooked for them.

(And we get to that 'more than half' even though during my sojourn in the Midwest, I was faced with hordes of model-ish Lutherans attracted to my Jewish sheer sexinesss as if I were made of magnets.)

Moral of the story: absent the crazy propaganda (which I fully agree with you ends up pushing folks away), things kinda take their own course.

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Bonus Diaspora Jewish 40 Minute Pasta Gravy, (with borrowings from Chinese garlic sauce, as befits American Jews):

- Absurd amount of olive oil
- Absurd amount of garlic
- Medium amount of red pepper flakes. (Half a habenero may be substitued if one wants to get fancy and add extra flavor.)

Sautee under medium heat.

- Lots of mushrooms

Sautee under medium heat while covered to retain the mushroom juices until mushrooms are fully reduced.

- One peeled tomato. (Yes, one is all we need. We're not Sicilian. The mushrooms already add thickening, and we're about to add a different acidic ingredient.)

- Absurd amount of cheap red wine

Now we have a very soupy brew. Cook under medium to high heat for a while, uncovered, to let the brew greatly reduce to a pesto-like oily gravy. Ends up being an almost Winter pesto. Serve with a pasta designed to pick up the gravy, such as shells or bucatini. Whole wheat preferred, but not required. Serves 2.

Britta said...

Finally, perhaps an undersold additional factor is that each and every one of them were willing and happy to cook me competent pasta, while also happily eating the pasta I cooked for them.

Yeah, this is the hard part about dating an actual Italian. On the plus side (and this is truly a significant plus), they make amazing pastas, and have no problem with eating pasta 7 days a week. On the downside, my 'dump vegetables on pasta and coat with cheese' dinner making method doesn't go over nearly as well. I remember the first time I made something like this, and my boyfriend asked what the dish was called, since clearly any pasta dish must have a name. He is nice enough to eat my 'pasta' with minimal grimacing, but he obviously isn't enjoying it.

Your winter pesto sounds delicious.

I do think with romantic partners it can be a "grass is greener" situation. The Scandinavian ladies I know, myself included, tend to prefer "tall dark & handsome," while my Jewish and Chinese female friends seem to go for the blond guys.

Petey said...

"I remember the first time I made something like this, and my boyfriend asked what the dish was called, since clearly any pasta dish must have a name ... Your winter pesto sounds delicious."

Well, if you make it for you and your boyfriend, at least you'll have a name for it!