From Taboo to Afterthought: A Literary History of Intermarriage

By Rabbi Philip Graubart


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Tevye the Dairyman
The story of intermarriage in modern fiction really begins with Tevye the Dairyman, by Sholem Aleichem. In it, Tevye’s third daughter, Chava, runs off with a non-Jew.

True, the category of “American Jewish literature about intermarriage” may be a niche within a niche. But it’s an illuminating one, as the (fictional) testimony of Jewish American authors attests. From Philip Roth to Thane Rosenbaum and E.L. Doctorow, novelists have long held a mirror to Jewish mores and attitudes; and a close look at their writing shows how those attitudes have evolved over many generations.

Interestingly, the starting point for American Jewish literature about intermarriage isn’t a work of American Jewish literature at all. Rather, it’s a famous Yiddish novel, perhaps the most famous Yiddish novel of all time: Tevye the Dairyman, by Sholem Aleichem. As anyone who’s read Tevye knows, the dramatic highpoint is the chapter called “Chava,” in which Tevye’s rebellious third daughter runs off with Chvedka, a non-Jew. Tevye tears his shirt in mourning, pronounces Chava dead, and sits shiva. But he also entertains what he calls “weird thoughts,” which paves the way for later, more nuanced depictions of intermarriage in Jewish literature. “What did being a Jew or not a Jew matter?” Tevye asks himself. “…why put such walls between them?” Of course, he ends up rejecting the relationship altogether–for Tevye, intermarriage symbolizes an unbearable assault on his authority. But his roving reflections plant the seed for later acceptance.

Ironically enough, those seeds come to fruition in the American play “Fiddler on the Roof,” which, while otherwise hewing closely to Sholem Aleichem’s stories, diverges in one important way–with regard to Tevye’s attitude toward Chava and her non-Jewish lover (now suddenly named Fyedka). In the novel, Chava eventually leaves Chvedka, who turns out to be a brute–thus proving Tevye right all along. But in the play, Chava and Fyedka show up at the very end, leaving Anatevka out of sympathy for the expelled Jews. Tevye even blesses them (well, sort of: he does it under his breath, but loud enough for them to hear). Thus Tevye illustrates intermarriage’s journey through the American-Jewish literary landscape. At first it’s utterly rejected; it’s the thing that can never be accepted. But then heretical, “weird thoughts” pop up about universality and tolerance. From then on, intermarriage still symbolizes rebellion, but the admirable rebellion of liberals, like Chava and Fyedka (not Chvedka). And then? What’s left but total acceptance?

My Life as a Man
In Philip Roth’s first novel featuring Nathan Zuckerman, My Life as a Man, there’s something vaguely heroic in his pursuite of a a divorced non-Jewish woman.

But not so fast. Many American-Jewish stories and novels of the pre-war period, particularly the works of Abe Cahan and Anna Yezierska–especially her two novels Hungry Hearts and The Breadgivers–feature interfaith couples. These literary works all portray total and utter alienation from Jewish life: intermarriage as gateway to total assimilation. It’s not until the ’50s and ’60s, in fact, that we reach the more interesting, intermediate stage of intermarriage literature, wherein intermarriage is depicted as the admirably rebellious act of an enlightened liberal.

Here, the leading artist is Philip Roth. In fact, Roth’s most famous creation, Nathan Zuckerman, is a kind of anti-Tevye, more an heir to the rebel Chava than to the Dairyman. We first meet Nathan in the underappreciated minor masterpiece My Life as a Man, where his marriage to the non-Jewish Lydia Ketterer is part of a wider pattern of rebellion. Nathan marries Lydia after he defiantly resigns from a Jewish fraternity, after he refuses to move back home, after numerous fights with his conventionally Jewish parents. And Lydia is not only not Jewish; she’s a divorcee, and a former fan of two famous anti-Semites, Father Coughlin and Charles Lindbergh. Of course, like many Roth protagonists, the young Zuckerman is as much brat as rebel, and Roth is a skilled enough writer to give sensitive portraits of Zuckerman’s long-suffering parents. But the reader’s sympathy is still very much with Nathan. We admire his rebellion, and associate his choice of women with his struggle to break free. And even when these relationships end in disaster, there’s still something heroic–and fruitful–in Nathan’s quest for independence.

Interestingly, it’s Roth who takes the next step of the literary journey through intermarriage’s shifting representations and resonances. In the fifth Zuckerman novel, The Counterlife (1986), it’s Nathan’s brother Henry who rebels–by leaving his non-Jewish wife and moving to a West Bank settlement in Israel. This looks like a case of art reflecting life: By the 1980s, intermarriage had become so commonplace in America that heroic rebellion now meant rejecting the former symbol of rejection. Nathan engages in his own quasi-rebellion at the very end of The Counterlife when his non-Jewish lover leaves him, and he insists on circumcising their new baby. Rebelling by embracing Judaism, a new phase.

Crossing California
By the time of Adam Langer’s 2005 novel Crossing California, interfaith romance had become an accepted–and unremarkable–fact of modern life.

In my opinion, the best literary use of interfaith love as a symbol comes in the short story “Romancing the Yahrzeit Candle,” from the book Elijah Visible (1996), by Thane Rosenbaum. Its plot pits symbol against symbol: Shabbat candles versus Christmas trees; Holocaust survivors versus smoked ham; and, most powerfully, a yahrzeit candle versus a tall, blond Swedish girlfriend. The story’s climax comes when the girlfriend announces that she wants to have sex–now!–on the very table where her Jewish lover, Adam, had just placed a lit yahrzeit candle in honor of his dead mother, a Holocaust survivor. Adam at first resists; Tasha can’t blow out the candle. But she wins in the end, snuffing out the candle along with Adam’s resistance. In the story’s final scene, Adam falls asleep under a Christmas tree, “curled up like an unwrapped Christmas present, a lifeless ornament.” Meaning, I suppose, that it’s over. We’ve tried to resist interfaith romance, but we’ve failed, and now we have to face the consequences, which, for Rosenbaum, seem fairly bleak. Without our yahrzeit candles, we’ve become “lifeless ornaments.”

Of course, that’s not the end of the story for all contemporary American-Jewish writers. E. L. Doctorow recently wrote an interesting book called City of God, in which an Episcopalian priest marries a Reform rabbi, and they both maintain their customs and identities. But very few young Jewish writers nowadays wrestle with intermarriage the way Roth et al. used to. Crossing California and The Washington Story, Adam Langer’s lovely and funny books about Chicago’s Jewish neighborhoods, feature a love story between a Jew and an African-American, but the books’ dramatic tension doesn’t come from the interfaith nature of the romance. There are no more Tevyes in our current literature, sitting shiva over lost daughters, or even Nathan Zuckermans, chasing shiksas just to annoy their parents. For better or worse, intermarriage has become normal.


About Rabbi Philip Graubart

Rabbi Philip Graubart is senior rabbi of Congregation Beth El in San Diego. His latest book, A Suicide Note, will be published this April.