By ILAN STAVANS with VERÓNICA ALBIN
A minor Jewish holiday, Tu B'av—which literally means the
15th day of the month of Av—has been associated with courtship since ancient
times. First mentioned in the mishnah, the precise origins of the
festive holiday are unknown. Today, Tu B'av is celebrated as a holiday of love,
similar to Valentine's Day.
For this JBooks Tu B'av issue, we present a discussion on love between Ilan
Stavans and Veronica Albin. Stavans' book Love and Language (Yale
University Press, 2007), from which the piece is excerpted, is comprised of six
dialogues between Albin and Stavans, in which they trace the evolution of
Jewish love, from the biblical idea—a mainly procreative function—to a more
modern, secular concept in the post-Enlightenment era.
Verónica Albin: How has Jewish
love changed through history?
Ilan Stavans: Jewish love isn’t
portrayed in the Bible as an emotion. Instead, it’s a biological duty. From
Adam and Eve on, sexual encounters are described tangentially, as a means of
reproduction. The liaison of the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,
and the four matriarchs, Sarah, Leah, Rachel, and Rivkah, are consistently
about the duty to be paired and multiply. Of course the Bible does make
exceptions, most importantly the Shir
ha-Shirim, which the King James version calls the Song of Songs.
VA: Has Jewish love undergone a
metamorphosis since the Song of Songs?
IS: No doubt. The Solomonic ethos is
but one variety of Jewish love. The Talmud offers a “safe” approach to love,
portraying females as passive reproductive machines yet containing in
themselves an essential form of wisdom that doesn’t require intellectual
learning. The Kabbalah, instead, presents the longing between male and female
opposites through a Neoplatonic prism. The Enlightenment, however, pushed
Jewish communities in Europe and, with some delay, in the Ottoman orbit, into a
civil life where neither approach was usable any longer. Among other things,
that meant that the old-fashioned ways of caring between couples needed to be
VA: How did the upgrade take place?
IS: The Maskilim, as the agents of Enlightenment were known in the Pale of
Settlement, believed in pedagogy as a tool for renewal. They ridiculed religion
as awkward, persuading people, mostly the poor, that the only way to be
full-fledged members of Western Civilization was by adopting its modes of
behavior. Through pamphlets, novels, theater, and later on through newspapers,
Jews became modern. And that modernity redefined Jewish love. I always think of
Forverts, as The Jewish Daily Forward is known in Yiddish, as the most
emblematic of tools. Its editors (with Abraham Cahan at the lead) introduced
new concepts of hygiene, fashion, child bearing, even voting, as a ticket for
Eastern European immigrants in New York to become full Americans. Similar
efforts, each adapted to its circumstance, took place in Warsaw, Vilna, Odessa,
and other cities of the Old World. In the Sephardic landscape, Ladino
periodicals had a similar effect. Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis is crucial in understating
the drive toward modernity. What do we think about today when we think about
Jews loving Jews? Maybe of the neurosis in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and in the movies of Woody Allen. The liaison
between two Jews is conflictful, unstable, at war with itself. Where does the
conflict come from? The impossible need to reconcile two opposites: the love
for oneself and the love for others. But let us not be foolish: that conflict
is an agent of mobility. Freud focused on the tension between the id (or is it
“yid”?) and the superego, between our erotic impulses (ah, if only I could
have, like King Solomon, 700 wives and 300 concubines…)
and the need to conform to society. Our impulses, in the end, need to be
subdued. But they won’t acquiesce without fuss. And therein lies the central
feature of Jewish love: anxiety, the drive to complain. The Jewish family,
broken as it might be, is a base for the perpetuation of self-love (call it
narcissism). The family might be intense in the way it disperses energy but its
values are clear: individuality at all cost, and love as a form of sustenance
based on merit (or the perception of merit).
VA: In your description, Jewish love
appears to be quite suffocating?
IS: What else is new?