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On Marriage

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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. EV: When we talked to Ronald Harwood, he said England was the most welcoming country, that he has never experienced antisemitism.

I'm an Associate Professor in English Literature and Critical Theory at the University of Southampton.And that’s not just a secular idea: that idea of sanctifying or desecrating the name of God through your behaviours in public really belongs to the religion, as well. From Freud to Ferrante, and One Thousand and One Nights to Fleabag, she looks at marriage in all of its forms – from act of love to leap of faith, and asks: what are we really doing when we say ‘I do’? And that’s the familiar Jewish stereotype, but it’s also the product of a specific social situation, and I think it’s quite extreme in some ways, in a culture like this one – in particular where there’s a strong class system, where everybody knows their place, and you’re the people who don’t seem to have one. Because in comedy you can only get away with it by virtue of the fact that everybody thinks you’re ‘only joking’.

Unlike her films, On Marriage turns away from the personal in pursuit of a more far-reaching understanding of marriage as a philosophical, cultural and political phenomenon. The low level or unconscious prejudices are the most common I’ve encountered, and the most interesting. If somebody tells you a joke well and fresh, and you get a laugh out of it, that’s a real relief – and it’s a strengthening moment, as well.So, that would be a question: Have you ever experienced antisemitism in London, either blatant, or low-level? DB: I think perhaps one thing that I would say to that is that in the British culture, Jews are conspicuous by their kind of emotional incontinence. I think it implies that people feel there’s a danger in humourlessness, which shows just how much savagery there can be in humour. 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.

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. It has often been regarded as the most bourgeois and conservative of institutions, while proving flexible enough to accommodate radical reinventions. For better or worse, for richer for poorer, till death us do part – we’ve always done it and we’re still doing it. She draws on a formidably broad frame of reference, from Kant to Fleabag via George Eliot and Nora Ephron, and any number of intriguing detours through less familiar literary and cinematic representations.So, all the feelings I’ve selected are ones that have a kind of ‘bad’ reputation that I wanted to overturn: I don’t wish to say that they’re bad feelings, though I do admit that they are or can be painful. For if the word ‘Jew’ is not fitting in comfortably with other words, if there’s a kind of pause before the word, a momentary decision about how to utter it exactly, then that tells us something. And, actually, during a period in British politics – when the word ‘Jew’ is trending on Twitter and people are googling the word ‘Jew’ and looking probably in all sorts of insalubrious places to find out what Jews are up to –, you have a very strong wish and desire to speak to other people going through the same thing, in a somewhat contained and close setting. Because you see how Jews have prospered there, with that psychology that there is a chance to start anew. Because when you’re feeling hopeless, really hopeless and despairing, if something manages to make you laugh, your gratitude for that is overwhelming – like a kind of prayer.

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