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On Marriage

On Marriage

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So, that would be a question: Have you ever experienced antisemitism in London, either blatant, or low-level? DB: That’s very interesting… The notion that satire has somehow become the only plausible way of getting your news.

I think it implies that people feel there’s a danger in humourlessness, which shows just how much savagery there can be in humour.But the answer isn’t that everybody gets to have power, but that everybody gets to feel the degree to which power is a fantasy. Devorah Baum brings her literary understandings, psychoanalytic scholarship and great aplomb to the marriage conundrum. It was left to me, therefore, to point out that Shakespeare’s Jew was an anti-Semitic stereotype and that Shylock was in fact not an accurate depiction of how I generally acted, nor how my family acted and nor how my ancestors acted, even when faced with persecution and prejudice. This is not so much a cop-out as a recognition of the fact that marriage, for all its legal and social connotations, remains the ultimate subjective experience.

And for me also it’s about the shared nature of feelings – they’re not private, and they shouldn’t be bound up with an ideology of privacy and property. Marriage is unknowable to anyone outside it’: Devorah Baum and husband Josh Appignanesi with their children in 2016. Because in comedy you can only get away with it by virtue of the fact that everybody thinks you’re ‘only joking’.So, the notion – that we had 27 other countries we could go to, and now we don’t – feels absolutely existential for many Jews in this country.

Just because if you read, for example, Nina Raine’s Tribes, there are the most hilarious jokes in there. EV: The point that you’re making in your book Feeling Jewish : A Book for Just About Anyone (2017), that Jewishness is kind of short-hand for urbanism, for modernity, in some kind of way. Baum is an erudite and entertaining guide through the landscape of marriage, bringing a lively intellectual rigour to changing attitudes on matters of religion, feminism, parenting and sexuality. EV: We wondered if this idea of the joke in your book The Jewish Joke (2018) could be linked to theatre.

I was one of the only Jews around and I had a very strong sense of my Jewish identity for that reason. And both my books regard that situation as becoming increasingly common to all people who feel themselves the subjects of a globalised world.

The feeling of being European has arisen, I think, in particular amongst Jews in this country, partly because some of them, since the Referendum, have discovered that they can go and get passports – from Germany, Poland. What I’m really interested in is the way in which all feelings split us – and how we cope with that, what we do with that. I don’t like this increasing focus on identity – to demarcate who you are, what you are… and that you can’t transcend these boundaries.

She is the author of three books: On Marriage (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Random House; Yale University Press; CITIC; others) which came out in 2023, Feeling Jewish: a book for just about anyone (Yale University Press) and The Jewish Joke: an essay with examples (less essay, more examples) (Profile), which came out in 2017. Some of our correspondents have described this as ‘feeling European’ – because the dominant backgrounds are Ashkenazi. The point, of course, is that a marriage is unknowable to anyone outside it (and often to the people in it), so that only the couple themselves know where the lines between autofiction, truth and comedy blur in these retellings. In fact, the reverse was true; Baum is interested as much in the expectations created around marriage, for women in particular, by a society that is still principally organised around married couples and the resulting family unit, and what those expectations mean for anyone who chooses to arrange their life and relationships differently. So that wasn’t a direct experience of aggressive, hostile antisemitism, but it was implicit in the acceptance of Shylock as staged Jew.

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