“Come hear the first lecture in Dr. Globus’s series on love and marriage from a social and medical perspective.” Polish and Yiddish poster. Printed in Vilna, 1929. The poster notes that the lecture will be accompanied by magic lantern slides. (YIVO)

Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the


The concept of romantic love was seen as foreign in East European Jewish culture, a society that relied on arranged marriages and carefully separated the sexes in its religious and educational institutions. The critique of this attitude toward romantic love was fundamental to the project of modernizing traditional Jewish life. In Mendele Moykher-Sforim’s introduction to his fictionalized autobiography, Of Bygone Days, the writer lamented that his childhood and youth had failed to provide him with the ingredients of good literature:

Dukes, governors, generals and soldiers we were not; we had no romantic attachments with lovely princesses; we didn’t fight duels . . . we didn’t dance the quadrille at balls . . . we carried on with no actresses or prima donnas: . . . in short, we were completely lacking in all those colorful details that grace a story and whet the reader’s appetite. In place of these we had the cheder, the cheder-teacher, and the cheder-teacher’s assistant; marriage brokers, grooms, and brides; housewives and children; abandoned women, widows with orphans and widows without orphans. . . . This was our life, if you call it a life. . . . (trans. Raymond Sheindlin, in Abramovitsh, 1986, p. 272)

Among the features Mendele claimed were lacking in Jewish life was romantic love, the very staple of European literature (indeed, the words for novel and for romance—roman—are identical in many languages). What the traditional milieu had in place of the love that animated so much of European culture—if only in literary fantasy—were arranged marriages and kinship ties. Indeed, as many maskilic critics of traditional Jewish culture in Eastern Europe charged, not love but rather pedigree was the primary currency in the marriage market.

Rosh Hashanah greeting postcard depicting a woman and her suitor; the Yiddish verse reads, “Float high and fast, my blessing / It’s a new year, after all / Bring my beloved consolation and hope / Bring her happiness and joy!” (YIVO)

It is thus not surprising that in biographies that describe a break with the traditional world, love became a path to modernity and secularism. Among the forbidden reading material devoured by yeshiva students were anarchist pamphlets championing free love, and in the literature produced by those writers whose lives conformed to this pattern, tradition was often presented as the natural enemy of young love: Yehudah Leib Gordon’s 1875 long poem “Kotso shel yod” (The Tip of the [Hebrew letter] Yud), in which a rabbi’s hairsplitting legalism prevents a loving couple from marrying, is a classic in this genre. For the early waves of secularizing Jews, the turn to romantic freedom was often more theoretical or literary than actual; their autobiographies reveal an inability to achieve fulfillment in their “free” adulthood as much as in their constrained youth. Indeed, scholars have suggested that Haskalah culture rather included a cult of male friendship that was an unwitting reproduction of the male camaraderie characteristic of the great foe of Haskalah—the Hasidic movement.

The narrative that views East European Jewish life as inimical to the demands of love owes much to the maskilic polemic against tradition, and has been repeatedly revised in more recent times. Jewish folk music suggests that a thriving culture of romantic love did exist among the Jewish masses, before as well as during the age of modernization. Restrictions against romance may have been more prevalent or more closely controlled among the middle classes or within rabbinical circles than among the general population. The eydl (delicate, noble) yeshiva student, a figure deemed “unmanly” and devoid of romantic appeal in maskilic literature, was an eroticized image in traditional culture.

After the first wave of antireligious sentiment, writers in the first part of the twentieth century were increasingly able to discern the workings of a wide range of loving relationships at the very heart of the traditional world. In numerous short stories set in Lithuanian rabbinic circles, Devorah Baron described the fierce love of a father for his daughter, a rabbi for his Torah scroll, an old rebetsin (rabbi’s wife) and her husband for each other. S. An-ski, in The Dybbuk, set his passionate love story in a Hasidic court; he did not neglect to include in his drama the mutual love of two yeshiva students as well as of their son and daughter for each other. Shemu’el Yosef Agnon reinvested the passions of religion life—the scribe for his scroll, the artist for the Holy Ark he carves—with an erotic force that owed as much to psychoanalysis as to kabbalistic motifs. In this new light, it became apparent that love had been as native to the traditional as to the modern world, and was perhaps equally a dangerous force in both.

In both maskilic and post-maskilic writing, the literary embrace of the power of love was tempered by a concern that romantic freedom would lead to intermarriage—witness the sharp shift in tone between the Hodl and Khave chapters of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories. Love thus represented both the intricate tapestry of East European Jewish society and its most potent threat.

Suggested Reading

S. Y. Abramovitsh (Mendele Moyker-Sforim), “Of Bygone Days,” in A Shtetl and Other Yiddish Novellas, ed. Ruth. R. Wisse, pp. 249–358 (Detroit, 1986), in Yiddish, the first complete text of the novella is available in the Jubilee edition: Mendele Moykher-Sforim, “Shloyme Reb Khayims,” in Ale Verk fun Mendele Moykher Sforim, vols. 18–19 (Warsaw, 1911–1913), in Hebrew, “Ba-Yamim ha-hem,” in Kol kitve Mendele Mokher Sefarim, pp. 253–305 (Tel Aviv, 1958); S. An-ski (Ansky), The Dybbuk and Other Writings, ed. David Roskies (New York, 1992); Devorah Baron, “The First Day” and Other Stories, trans. and ed. Naomi Seidman and Chana Kronfeld (Berkeley, 2001); David Biale, Eros and the Jews: From Biblical Israel to Contemporary America (New York, 1992); Daniel Boyarin, Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man (Berkeley, 1997); Alan Mintz, “Banished from Their Father’s Table”: Loss of Faith and Hebrew Autobiography (Bloomington, Ind., 1989); Ruth Rubin, Voices of a People: The Story of Yiddish Folksong (New York, 1963); Sholem Aleichem, Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories, trans. Hillel Halkin (New York, 1987).