Adam Leigh

The Talmud is the reason Jews make such good romcoms

The best romance films and love songs have always been disproportionately created by Jews

May 24, 2023 14:28

Annie Hall is the only rom-com to have won a Best Picture Oscar in the last 50 years and it concludes with Woody Allen’s sentimental analysis of romance by way of a joke.

“A guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, ‘Hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken’. Then the doc says, ‘Why don’t you turn him in?’ Then the guy says, ‘I would but I need the eggs.’ I guess that’s how I feel about relationships. They’re totally crazy, irrational, and absurd, but we keep going through it because we need the eggs.”

However familiar this may feel, it is worth remembering the concept of romance itself is decidedly un-Jewish in its origins. Derived from a 12th-century French word, it refers to the narratives declaimed by travelling troubadours concerning chivalric knights pursuing the favour of unattainable maidens locked up in a faraway castle.

How ironic, therefore, that hundreds of years later crooners not troubadours belted out the the Great American Songbook. Arguably some of the greatest love songs of all time, the overwhelming majority were penned by the sons of immigrant Jews such as Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and the Gershwin brothers.

Indeed, the cultural expression of contemporary romance has unquestionably been moulded by a Jewish sensibility. Hollywood was built by Jews desperately trying to assimilate into American life by creating wholesome gentle and gentile love stories.

The great rom-coms of the past 30 years have been created by a disproportionate cohort of Jewish writers. What in our psyche and history makes us such great experts on the explosive chemistry of attraction and love?

Jewish scripture is filled with some of the greatest love stories ever written. Look at Jacob’s agony and ecstasy in the pursuit of romantic happiness. He falls in love with Rachel; all is going so well until his wicked uncle tricks him and he marries the wrong sister, Leah, waits seven years and finally marries his true love. Just imagine material like that in the hands of Nora Ephron.

Indeed, our annual religious cycle is a succession of love stories that are as much an illustration of hopeless passion as religious entreaty. For example, at Pesach we read the enigmatic Song of Songs trying to decode the analogy of our love for Hashem with the sensual and idealised romance between man and woman that is described by King Solomon.
At Purim, we read the story of Esther, which is basically a dramatic and violent love story that does not mention God once. And on Shavuot we hear of Ruth’s love for Boaz and the obstacles overcome to have a happy ending.

There is endless guidance to be found in the Talmud for every aspect of a relationship and how it should be managed, with an emphasis that the romantic component of love must be transposed into complete fulfilled love in the form of marriage.

The wedding service is an inherently romantic co-joining of a couple embarking on a journey of self-discovery. The ketubah is a contract of their relationship, and a glass is smashed to remind them not just of suffering but the need to be unified in confronting it — and the yichud (when a couple is left alone together after the ceremony) a reminder that intimacy and togetherness are the foundation of future happiness.

At its core, Judaism is religion that romanticises the quest for bringing two people together. We celebrate the concept of beshert, our destiny to find a soul mate, and what could be more romantic than that?

The Talmud tells us that since the work of Creation was finished, God has been engaged in matchmaking, and that “it is as difficult to match a couple together as was the splitting of the Red Sea”.

Perhaps that’s why the work was often subcontracted to a shadchan (matchmaker) to accelerate the process of bringing people together.

At some point in the mid-19th century, according to the academic Naomi Seidman, “Jews fell in love with love”. Enlightenment thinking and literature began the process of more autonomous behaviour and choices, with often mixed results. Just ask Tevye.

It is unsurprising that a religion that celebrates the love of man and woman as a proxy for our love for the Almighty has made such a significant considerable cultural impact on defining romance.

Nevertheless, this has no doubt been heightened by constant persecution and vulnerability across centuries and geographies.

It doesn’t take Freud, a great debunker of romance, to understand that falling in love is feeling vulnerable and that this is even more painful if you are an underdog. For Jews, a romantic sensibility is the inevitable consequence of all that pain and suffering.

I guess that’s why we all still need the eggs.

May 24, 2023 14:28

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