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Originally published in the Nextbook, November 30, 2007.

The Girls' Guide to Hot Rabbis and Tattooed Chefs

What does the Modern Love column tell us about contemporary Judaism?

Nearly three years ago, a column debuted in The New York Times Sunday Styles section, rubbing shoulders with articles on parenting methods, upscale beauty treatments, luxury handbags, and the embarrassingly addictive roll call of wedding announcements. With its far-reaching title, Modern Love has since proven a reliable exercise in voyeurism, offering weekly peeks at the needling obsessions that both feed and destroy relationships. Whether it’s an essay about a courtship that lives and dies through text messaging, the weirdness of a wedding reception after the ceremony is cancelled, or Ayelet Waldman’s controversial musings about loving her husband more than her children, Modern Love is by turns compelling, heartbreaking, and exasperating, not to mention compulsively readable.

It’s perhaps telling that a disproportionate share of contributions invoke Judaism, even if the stories being told aren’t explicitly Jewish. The sheer numbers suggest that though contemporary Jewish life may be fractured—a subject of constant and occasionally hysterical concern to Jewish organizations of all stripes—it certainly persists (though maybe not in ways that would please Rebbe Schneerson, or even Jack Wertheimer). No matter: Modern Love stories illustrate the distance between the advice Shmuley Boteach dispenses in his column for the Forward, and the ways people are actually negotiating their Jewish identities. In one essay, Cindy Chupack writes about getting an official Jewish divorce, and finds the old-school religiousness of the ritual less valuable than the basic closure it affords. Her story is a comment on the tensions between Judaism’s ancient insularity (where bearded men sit in judgment of her ex’s homosexuality), and its more contemporary shape, complete with a “hot rabbi” and a “bad-boy motorcycle-riding tattooed lawyer/poet/chef” fiancé whose Jewishness is a happy coincidence but not a requirement.

In the context of Modern Love, an author’s passing mention that she is Jewish—the writers are overwhelmingly women—serves as a bit of cultural shorthand, a way of calling attention to what readers know (or believe) about the kind of people Jews are: intellectual, liberal, hilariously wracked with guilt. This shorthand—scrawled all over contemporary culture, from Seinfeld to Superbad; The Daily Show to, yes, The New York Times—often works to comic effect, as in Amy Cohen’s piece about playing the field at the same time as her father, who is more successful at 76 than she is at 35. “We all need to be reincarnated as an older Jewish man with an apartment on the Upper East Side,” Cohen quips. Often, though, the humor has a bittersweet tinge, as in Anya Ulinich’s account of her marriage of convenience. “After I told him I was Jewish,” explains Ulinich, a Russian immigrant, “he promptly assured me that he personally didn’t think all Jews were stingy and nicknamed me ‘Anne Frank.’” It’s funny, but the laughs aren’t easy or comfortable. Being married to this guy couldn’t have been much fun, but his anti-Semitism is never explored—apart from that striking line—nor, for that matter, is her Judaism.

The message seems to be that Jewishness is a characteristic that explains as much or more about a person than any other identity category she may subscribe to. He lost his wife, and he’s a Jewish widower. She’s a lesbian, and thus a gay Jew. They had a baby, and now they are Jewish parents. It’s a kind of code, even if it’s not always clear how we’re meant to decipher it. Meanwhile, mention that someone is Christian and the assumption is that they’re really Christian—as in religious. Jewishness in the modern world, though, can be an integral characteristic without being definitive; a cultural identity even if not a religious affiliation. This makes it possible to discuss its many quirks without straying into uncomfortable religiosity and dogma. It lets people easily claim Jewishness as just one part of who they are. It makes it okay to bring up Judaism in a discussion of the various procedures and ceremonies that count as “modern love,” and acceptable to express ambivalence about a religion that is seen more than it is understood. At least in the Styles section of The New York Times, Jews can know and feel that they are Jews without having to do anything Jewish. Just claiming the label is enough; being compelled to do so without quite knowing why is okay, too. And outside those pages, an awful lot of people value their Jewish identities without keeping kosher or going to synagogue. They see their lives as stories that are not about just any kind of people, but specifically about Jewish people. Definitions may sprawl and shift, but it doesn’t make the terms meaningless.

At the often-broken heart of love in our time is a clash between new desires and old expectations. Jews are hardly alone in negotiating this, as we struggle with family, adopt kids, decide not to have children, intermarry or choose not to get married at all. But as we move forward, Judaism is a likely factor in our decisions, even if it takes a backseat to other concerns. “I was raised Jewish, but in some fundamental way, it didn’t take,” Lauren Fox confesses in her poignant essay, one of the few Modern Love columns to discuss Judaism directly. This feeling stems largely from her ambivalence about God, who couldn’t be avoided “even on the weirdest left-wing fringe of Judaism, where you met in a basement and sang songs about ending world hunger.” Fox is deeply in love with her boyfriend, an Irish atheist who eats ham sandwiches at home while she attends Yom Kippur services. Then she finds a box of letters written by her great-grandmother during World War II. Her “words echoed in my thoughts, nudging at the corners of my daily life,” Fox writes, making Judaism more immediate than years of High Holiday observance could. Fox struggles with the conflict between what history seems to demand of her (that she ditch the boyfriend and find a Jew to marry, “defy genocide in this small but significant way”) and the more complicated joy of her relationship.

Fox’s story has its own kind of fairy-tale ending. “Letting go of Andrew couldn’t have defied genocide or undone sorrow,” she concludes. “It would have only defied our love and undone the possibility of the happy life he and I now share with our little girl, in whom I try to instill both my history and my hope.” Not as tidy as those wedding announcements, to be sure, but infinitely more modern.

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