I’m pleased to share two more dramaturgical essays (both packed with research) that relate to Renee Calarco’s G-D’S HONEST TRUTH, coming from Jodi Kanter’s dramaturgy class at George Washington University. The topics were each inspired by the play, but the pieces investigate their themes in even greater depth. The first essay reflects on Jewish Marriage throughout history; the second examines the relationship between Jews and commerce.
Josh and Alanna in G-D’S HONEST TRUTH (photo by C. Stanley Photography)
by Jeremy Neff
Judaism, like any ancient culture still alive today, has undergone massive shifts in social mores and customs. Judaism is unique, however, in the way that it has fractured and partially assimilated into mainstream culture (particularly in America). Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed Jews share many common marriage practices or beliefs, but vary greatly in their tendencies. This research will examine historical Jewish marriage, the differences in modern Jewish marriage, and particularly the current state of Reformed Jewish marriage (the most populous in the United States).
Historical and Religious Background – Jewish Marriage Age Pre-Holocaust
“Traditional Judaism was based on a system of early marriage. The mishnaic statement ‘at 18 a man marries’ [ben shmoneh-esreh le-huppa] was often regarded by medieval commentators as representing an upper limit in age” There would often be marriages between 14 year olds, etc. There is anecdotal evidence of marriages between children of 11 or 12 years of age, but this is not strongly supported by statistical evidence.
Jews became increasingly assimilated into European culture in the 19th century and even more so in the 20th century, and marriage age followed suit – although not uniformly. By and large, Germanic Jewry adopted late marriage by World War I, either because of general acculturation to the majority or because of legislation that prevented early marriage in Germanic lands. Indeed, in Germany there is a trend away from early marriage among Jewish people in the 19th century even compared to the general population, while marriage age was still low in Russia until the turn of the century. “In 1867, for example, 43 percent of Jewish grooms and 60.8 percent of Jewish brides were under the age of 21 in the Russian Empire; by 1897, however, only 5.8 percent of grooms and 25 percent of brides were under 21.”
Jewish Marriage age in United States & Israel – Post-Holocaust to Present Day
In both American and in Israel, Jewish marriage age has steadily risen over the course of the 20th century. In her book Jewish Life and American Culture, Sylvia Fishman writes: “American Jewish women are currently most likely to have their children during the fifteen year period between ages 27 to 42; their mothers were most likely have their children between ages 20 to 35. For women currently ages 55 to 64, the average age of marriage was 22 and the average age of first childbirth was 24. In contrast, among married, fertile 1990 NJPS respondents ages 35-44, the average age of marriage was 25 and the average age of first childbirth was 27”.
She continues, “Not surprisingly, women who call themselves Orthodox are more likely than others in the same age group to be married and have children; as a group, Orthodox women alone are currently having children above replacement (replacement = 2.1 children per family) … among 35 to 44 year old Conservative and Reform women few differences in actual family size exist.
As for Israel, the Israel National News reports: “The average age of marriage among first-time grooms was 27.5 (29.5 among the Jewish grooms). The average age of marriage among first-time brides was 24.7 (25.7 among the Jewish brides). In comparison, in 1970 this age among grooms was 25.0 (both among the general population as well as among the Jewish population). In the same year the average age of first-time brides was 21.7 (21.8 among Jewish brides).”
Jewish Intermarriage – Present Day
The tables below show how intermarriage has increased, particularly among non-Orthodox Jews. These tables are for American Jews.
Jewish Marriage in G-d’s Honest Truth
How does this research inform the play? In G-d’s Honest Truth we witness two, well-developed, conflicting experiences of marriage (there are other marriages, but none are as well developed or discussed as Larry and Roberta’s marriage and Josh and Alanna’s marriage). The conflict between the two marriages stems from shifting desires across generations – shifting expectations of what marriage should be.
This research tells us that there is a religious history of younger marriage that stems directly from the Torah – a religious history that manifests itself most strongly in Orthodox Jews (those most connected to the literal word of the Torah). But even for non-Orthodox, the conceptual idea of young marriage being good can never be erased from Jewish thought. Jewish history, on the other hand, frequently demonstrates that Jews have shifted toward later marriage when other cultural forces influence them. It seems that the actors/director must make a choice about whether the different character’s opinions on marriage age are influenced by religion or simply social expectation.
Both choices are available to Larry and Roberta. In addition to religious concepts, Larry and Roberta married at a time when age 22 was average. Now the average is significantly later, but Josh and Alanna are still older than typical marrying age.
For Josh and Alanna, it might be important to consider how much it matters to them that most of the friends they grew up with are already married and have kids. Is this something that compels them to marry or something that intimidates them? On another note, is the fact that they are marrying another Jew (unlike most of their cohort) something that makes them feel insulated from their parents criticisms?
Regardless of how these questions are answered, understanding peer group and differences in social expectations of different generations is key to understanding the divide in perceptions of marriage we see in G-d’s Honest Truth.
 Lowenstein, Steven. “Ashkenazic Jewry and the European Marriage Pattern: A Preliminary Survey of Jewish Marriage Age” Jewish History Vol. 8, No. 1/2. 1994. p. 155-175. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20101195
 Ibid., 156.
 Ibid., 156.
 Freeze, CheaRan. “Marriage” Yivo Institute for Jewish Research. 2010. http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Marriage
 Fishman, Sylvia Barack. Jewish Life and American Culture. Albany: State U of New York, 2000. 98.
 Ibid., 99.
 “Marriage Age is Rising” Israel National News. 2010. http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/138720#.VO3l-XzF_iU
Jews & Money: The History, Myths, and Realities of a Pervasive Stereotype
Larry and Roberta in G-D’S HONEST TRUTH (photo by C. Stanley Photography)
by Madison Awalt
“How many people know what religion that former jailbird Martha Stewart is? Answer: Catholic. If she had been Jewish, you would have known.” – Warren Boroson, The Jewish Standard
Throughout history, Jews have been associated with a number of different stereotypes. One of the most pervasive of these stereotypes is that of Jews being a greedy and “money-mad” group of people. This stereotype is one that stemmed from the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Church forbade Jews to own land, to farm, and to join guilds. It was because of this forbiddance that many Jews were forced to become involved in the illegal practice of usury. For this reason, Jews have frequently been stereotyped as unscrupulous businessmen.
Jews were accused of being money manipulators in the Middle Ages, and they were often blamed (wrongly so) for being the source of Christian economic difficulties. The stereotype of Jewish greed permeated the popular literature of the day, in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. The stereotype was thus exacerbated by the negative portrayals of Jewish characters such as Shakespeare’s infamous money-lender, Shylock and Dickens’ irrepressible pickpocket, Fagin.
It should be noted, however, that the acquisition of money has been central to Jewish existence. Obviously everyone needs money to survive, but for Jews, money has been both an offensive and defensive survival technique. Money has stood between the survival and extinction of the Jewish race and has been an essential tool for survival. It would seem that, without financial success, Jews would have been wiped out long ago– as Jews that were not seen as financially successful were often subject to pogroms and persecution. Additionally, since Jews were often under the threat of expulsion, it made no sense for them to buy land and property that they could not easily move. Wealth, on the other hand, can be easily relocated. Therefore, the acquisition of money has been almost like a reflexive reaction, as, “…instinctive as blinking when a hand menaces the eye” (Krefetz, 30).
Fortunately, in recent years, the stereotype of Jewish greed has been significantly reduced. Much of this has to do with the fact that many Jews immigrated to the much more tolerant United States. Nowhere have Jews prospered more than in American society. From a statistical standpoint, the Jewish community in the United States today is said to be the most fortunate community in terms of assets, income, occupational prestige, and educational status.
[Ed. note: It’s worth noting, from the 2013 Pew Study on Jewish Americans: Fully one-quarter of Jews (25%) say they have a household income exceeding $150,000, compared with 8% of adults in the public as a whole. At the same time, 20% of U.S. Jews report household incomes of less than $30,000 per year; about six-in-ten Jews in this low-income category are either under age 30 or 65 or older. In addition, the economic status of Holocaust survivors–especially in Israel–is of great concern to the Jewish community. A recent report revealed that of the 193,000 Holocaust survivors living in Israel today, 50,000 live in poverty.]
History has clearly indicated that Jewish wealth stems in part from it being a survival technique. But what else has contributed to Jewish financial success? It has been argued that the Jewish tradition of risk-taking has allowed Jewish entrepreneurs to seek out and discover novel forms of business. Risk-taking has led Jews to thrive- especially in the areas of finance, trade, and exchange. Indeed, it would seem that this proclivity for risk-taking led Jews right into capitalism- a practice that certainly is one of the most important forces that has shaped Jews in today’s society.
Although the stereotypes have been significantly reduced in recent years, they have not been entirely eliminated. Some people still believe that Jews have too much power in the business world. In fact, a popular claim is that most white-collar criminals come from Jewish backgrounds. This notion, however, is misguided. Because of the stereotype, the media exaggerates any business offenses made by Jewish financiers. But if a non-Jew is accused of a white-collar crime, his or her religious affiliation is overlooked. Psychologically speaking, this is clear evidence of our tendency to forward confirmation bias. We search for information that will confirm our preconceptions and stereotypes–often wrongly so.
Boroson, Warren. “The Money Libel: Confronting a Dangerous Stereotype.” Jewish Standard. The Jewish Standard, 24 Dec. 2010. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.
Krefetz, Gerald. Jews and Money: The Myths and the Reality. New Haven: Ticknor & Fields, 1982. Print.
Menashi, Steven. “Jews and Money.” Politics & Ideas 129.2 (2010): 49-52. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.