Thursday, April 21, 2011

Most navel-gazingest blog post ever

When meeting new people, two things that typically come up early on are what one does and who, if anyone, is coupled off with you. When I meet other grad students/academics especially, the general outline of what we work on tends to get mentioned. And sometimes, I feel as though I'm repeating myself: intermarriage, specifically Catholic-Jewish intermarriage, answers both questions.

I will, in keeping with the title of this post, address this in the form of an interview with myself.

WWPD: Would you describe your dissertation as autobiographical?
PM: No.

WWPD: Maybe just a little bit?
PM: Dissertation=19th-C France, history and literature. Life=one couple in 21st-C NY, whose more salient "inter" is country of origin. Neither Belgium nor America come up much in my research.

WWPD: But you research intermarriage, and you're about to enter into one. Are these things related?
PM: Yes and no. Mostly no.

WWPD: How fascinating! Do explain.
PM: I'll begin with the "no." My interest in representations of intermarriage in literature began with one of my two senior projects (called a "thesis" - ha!) in high school English class, when I wrote about two young female characters in Philip Roth novels whose curse was that they were the offspring of one Jew and one Christian. Back in 12th grade, I had, strangely enough, not yet met my fiancé, who was busy being in the 12th-grade equivalent in Belgium. So it's fair to say that this interest - depictions of Jewishness and its limits in literature - preceded my meeting him, let alone having set a date.

WWPD: But surely you entered grad school with no set topic in mind... 
PM: I came to grad school wanting to study French Jews, Zionism, and the Dreyfus Affair. Apparently this had already been done, so after a variety of other incarnations (Algerian Jews, conversion among French Jews), my topic evolved into one about intermarriage. It met the various criteria (hadn't been done, about both French and Jewish identity, about literature and history, and about issues of gender that I had not come to grad school expecting to work on but had ended up getting interested in), and I had a hunch there'd be something there. And there is! That's what keeps me busy. 

WWPD: But the timing of this... Had you met your now-betrothed when your project, as you so grad-studentishly put it, evolved in that direction?
PM: Yes, and here's the "yes" part of the "yes and no." A certain Birthright Israel trip I took not long after Jo and I had started dating got me thinking more about how preoccupied Jews today are with intermarriage, which no doubt played a role in making me wonder what the nineteenth-century French Jews I'd already gotten to know fairly well thought about the matter. So when I saw that there were sources for this (and I now see that there are more than I'd expected, even), the topic met that extra-important dissertation-topic requirement of being something that could sustain my attention.

WWPD: Do you have trouble conflating Then and Now, Here and There (more like There and Here)?
PM: Not really. The aim of my dissertation - well, one of them - is to understand the phenomenon and how it was represented in the context of nineteenth century France, and in doing so, to learn new things about 19th C France and its Jews. This means looking at the issue with, to the extent possible, no preconceived ideas of how it would have been discussed - by Jews or Christians - at any given moment. And it's often quite surprising!

WWPD: Is it difficult, given your personal involvement, to avoid taking a stand? Or do you take one?
PM: I make arguments in my dissertation, but these are arguments about, for example, what the evolution in representations of intermarriage tells us about French and Jewish identity. I don't have any opinion whatsoever on whether 19th C French Jews ought to have married out more or less frequently than they did, and so there's no danger that my thoughts on this would seep into my work. Also, I don't think about the question in must-justify-my-life-through-categorical-imperative terms, which is to say, I don't think Jews who marry out are in some way superior - more enlightened, etc. - than those who don't... nor do I think, obviously, that those of us who end up in such couples are 'continuing what Hitler started,' especially given how not keen racial anti-Semites were/are on this sort of 'racial' mixing. A problem with writing on this topic is it often enough does take a stance 'for' or 'against,' rather than trying to explain a historical issue on its own terms.

WWPD: So has your relationship status in any way impacted your work?
PM: Actually, yes, but it's not that straightforward. Basically, while I'm not a religious Jew (or, for that matter, a religious anything), I am, as you well know, WWPD, more interested in Jewish matters than the average person, perhaps than the average Jew, certainly than the average non-observant Jew. I'm a Zionist (new readers ready to get angsty, not in the right-wing sense; see the archives for further explanation), and I have at various points semi-seriously considered moving to Israel. In other words, not pious, but not apathetic, not self-hating, not interested in converting to anything else, etc. And yet! I've ended up with someone who isn't Jewish. Meanwhile, if I'd been even a super-apathetic, not-at-all-practicing Jew in 19th C France, I would have almost certainly ended up with a fellow Jew. This has led me to wonder whether perhaps factors beyond one's attitude towards one's own Jewish identity - such as how integrated Jews are into society, how oriented families are to orchestrating matches - impact intermarriage. 

This is important, I think, (WWPD, stop yawning!) because the way the question is typically discussed these days, one gets the impression that Jews who marry out do so as a way of sticking it to Judaism, of asserting themselves as universalists, of breaking free of the shackles of overbearing relatives-read-mothers. In short, one gets the impression that spousal choice is a political or ideological decision on the part of individuals. When in fact, a ton of other factors enter into it. I could go on...

WWPD: No, thanks. One last question, though. Do you see yourself in the scenarios you read about?
PM: I almost wish I did, but no, not so much. The mid-19th ones are all about belles Juives, and from the descriptions of these women (well, girls), I do not resemble them physically. (That I'm not a 15-year-old maiden hidden away by male relatives in an Orientalist palace is, I think, a given.) I picture them looking like Lisa Edelstein/Cuddy on "House," and indeed if I were casting one of these works, she and Hugh Laurie would be perfect, especially what with the latter's experience in period dress. Also, in these works, the union must survive attacks from stubborn relatives and communities who oppose it. Not an issue Jo and I have faced, with the exception of my free 10-day trip to Israel. The fin-de-siècle stories, meanwhile, are about bankers' daughters marrying penniless aristocrats. I don't come with a dowry, nor Jo with a title. 

The closest I've found to something resembling our situation is in Les Eaux mêlées, a 1950s French novel about a couple a bit as we'd have been if we'd met in the interwar years, with the small-town Catholic wine-producing family meeting an urban Jewish schmatta-peddling one just escaped from the shtetl, in what is the most spectacular meet-the-parents scene ever. But that novel falls outside the years my project looks at, so basically, no, I don't typically get to identify with these stories, for better or worse.


X.Trapnel said...

Which were the Roth characters in question, btw?

It sounds like you're focusing on the intermarrying couples, but are you also encountering a lot about the children of such marriages? (A woman I know in Frankfurt has been trying to start up a website/forum for children of mixed marriages, particularly those whose mothers aren't jewish and thus aren't halachically jewish themselves, which struck me as quite interesting, especially with the extra complications flowing from the whole, well, German thing.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Merry from American Pastoral and the daughter whose name I don't remember from I Married a Communist.

For a variety of reasons too, uh, particular to bore WWPD readers with, I'm looking more at how the idea of intermarriage was dealt with than at real-life couples and their experiences, or those of their children. Half-Jewish fictional characters, however...

As for 19th C Germany (I assume the woman you know is starting the website for 21st C individuals), work not unlike what I'm doing has been done for that country (see Deborah Hertz), and real-life couples are easier to know about now because the Nazis were big on keeping records of such information. The equivalent apparently does not exist for France.

Flavia said...

I think the lines of influence between a scholar's life and work are both more common and much more complex than they're commonly imagined to be.

The standard narrative seems to go: Scholar has this Identity (or Background or Issue or Experience), and that led him to work on his Topic. And that's true enough for some people. More commonly, it's the stuff that we work on, even when it's in earlier time periods, that starts to influence what we see around us or even how we live our lives. (That is, we may have had a preexisting interest in a larger subject, but working on it then transforms and deepens and changes that interest even in ways unrelated to the scholarly project itself.)

Now, I'm not suggesting that you're marrying a non-Jewish European because you're writing on intermarriage! But I presume that your thinking about and interest in the contemporary debates surrounding, and contemporary representations of, such things as intermarriage, immigration, assimilation, and public/private religiosity are influenced and shaped by the fact that you spend so much time thinking about these issues in your work life.

It's certainly true for me, with both of the Big Issues my work engages with. But I wish we had more sophisticated ways of talking about these lines of influence--ways that didn't imagine an incredibly reductive form of causality, or see such scholarship as necessarily being about personal advocacy.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"But I wish we had more sophisticated ways of talking about these lines of influence--ways that didn't imagine an incredibly reductive form of causality, or see such scholarship as necessarily being about personal advocacy."

Thank you! That was what I was hoping to get at but couldn't quite articulate.

Whenever the topic comes up, I think it would be ridiculous to say that it was one great big coincidence that my life and work ended up having these parallels, but that at the same time, obviously if what interested me were writing about my life, I would, you know, write about my life, or at the very least about a contemporary topic that could go in an advocacy direction. There is such a thing as a memoir. There's fictionalization of one's experience. This is quite a ways from that territory.

I think what makes this complicated is that having any personal connection to one's work is viewed as dangerous both from a bias perspective and simply from the perspective of, what if you only think it's interesting because it applies to you? There seems to be a greater burden placed on work that does appear to come out of personal experience to show that the work is objectively important, not entirely unfairly. Of course, with a topic like intermarriage, the fact that it is now so common as well as so contentious in the Jewish community means that even if the only people who find it interesting were motivated by personal reasons, that's still a lot of people by academic-topic standards. Although I think I make the case for why this matters even if you're 'just' interested in France, or questions of identity more broadly.

Anyway, in other cases, scholars swing far in the other direction, as with some writing on historical intermarriage that includes the author's family or romantic history. I'm not sure what I make of this - on the one hand it's being upfront, but on the other, if what you're dealing with is historical, and exceedingly different from your own experience, it's not clear what bias you'd potentially have beyond being inclined to find the topic compelling in the first place. Then again, I think it is useful, if only to show a) that, as you say, the relationship between self and work is there but not straightforward, and b) that one is not writing an autobiography.

Britta said...

Are the Flemish traditionally Catholic, or are they Dutch Reform?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Catholic. A bit of Protestant culture, maybe, but Catholic by religion.