What do we talk about when we talk about marriage?

The marriage equality series continues with Jordy Silverstein’s reflections on alternative perceptions of weddedness in the Australian Jewish community.

Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Jewish wedding rings. Image via Jüdisches Museum Berlin.

In 2014, I conducted an oral history interview with a Jewish lesbian couple – let’s call them Leah and Amanda – who had been wedded by a rabbi in a ceremony in Melbourne at the start of that year. At their wedding, they told me, they didn’t want to focus on any potential politics of the occasion of a Jewish lesbian wedding. Instead, Leah said:

[We] just wanted to keep it more about love, each other, family, building family, nourishing community, and kind of celebrating what we have because we have so much. And nothing was prevented to us except for the Australian Government title, but we didn’t care about that, personally. I don’t care, we have pretty much similar rights.

“I don’t care either,” Amanda reiterated.

In the current discussions about marriage equality, this is a perspective that seems to be missing: that of those from marginal groups in our society, our community, who prioritise seeing themselves as embraced by their religion, not by the nation-state in which they live. Or, to put it another way, those who seek recognition from their community, not from the Australian state. Indeed, religious folk are oftentimes pushed to the side. The focus rests firmly on the implications the current postal survey has for civil marriage, rather than on the many different forms of weddedness that different peoples deploy, outside the states’ control.

If we open up our histories of marriage and sexuality to examine non-hegemonic groups within our society, we can find some vastly different ways in which relationships are celebrated and consecrated; different incarnations of law; and different understandings of the role that the state might play in legitimising intimate relationships. These stories – when read in a certain way – could even open up the possibility of destabilising and de-normalising the dominant position of the nation-state in our lives. There are numerous examples of this, but if we examine the narrative which Leah and Amanda shared, we can add an important perspective to the histories of Australian relationships and marriage which currently circulate.

For Leah and Amanda, when they were looking for a partner, a shared, normative, Jewish history or knowledge was fundamentally important. When I asked them if it was essential for their partner to be Jewish, they both said yes. As to why, Leah explained the importance of:

family background, awareness of history, awareness of words, yiddishisms, awareness of how things go at Shabbat meals, at Pesach table, at kind of key things and just feeling like there’s this unwritten commonality of this, and just the very cultural identity and friendship circle[.] … [I]t would [otherwise] be very difficult, like there would just be a lot of differences to have to negotiate. And there’s enough differences between two people, let alone having to introduce all these cultural, religious, social, even economic differences that could prevail. So I think that was important to me. And there is something to do with this intangible neshomer [soul] idea.

For Amanda, it was “the values, kind of concepts, like world view, just ideas about what’s normal, what’s not normal, why are your parents so involved in your life, that kind of thing.”

We can note here that there is nothing in either of their comments about attraction or sexual desire. In this way, Amanda and Leah point us to some of the broader biopolitical questions with which historians of sexuality must grapple: creating intimate relationships, families and growing populations is not only about sex and love and desire between individuals. Instead, these decisions are embroiled in a series of discourses and practices of population management which aim to maintain a range of institutional and communal continuities.

Choosing a partner, and confirming that relationship in front of a community, is not simply about random romantic love, although love (romantic and communal) certainly was important to these women. Attraction and desire are historical categories. They are differentiated. The Jewishness that Leah and Amanda invoke is, quite clearly, something different to being non-Jewish. This may seem to be stating the obvious, yet it is worthy of highlighting.

Leah and Amanda are not blind to socialisation or the ways that different histories produce different worldviews or different cultural practices. Nor, if we consider Leah’s invocation of the idea of the Jewish soul, to different understandings of the body. In racial terms, Leah and Amanda are not colourblind. Being wedded, for them, is not simply an idea of two liberal autonomous subjects meeting, bonding and falling in love. It is a thoroughly community based act. Love, we can see, is a many differentiated thing.

Bridesmaids, Jewish wedding at a Synagogue, 1936. Image via State Library of New South Wales.

When people meet and interact, they do so in a generational way. People carry with them not just the contemporary discourses and understandings of the possibilities of relationships, but also a felt and recalled archive of intergenerational feelings of love, loss, partnership, family, religion and community.

The wedding ceremony which Leah and Amanda undertook, in front of their families, friends and Jewish and lesbian communities, was a result of this understanding of what their relationship was. It was at once the binding together of two people, as well as their families and their communities, their histories and their communal memories.

Their wedding ceremony thus can be read as an expression of a desire to undertake a life filled with love in a way that would firmly locate them within their families and communities. They wanted to have their wedding in order to make a statement in front of family and friends and they chose to express their relationship through the rituals offered by Judaism, not by the secular state. For this couple, there is a clearly identified community to which they expressed a connection and within which they recognised their place and which they wanted to performatively enact. Community, and one’s location within it, is continually created.

And thus, if we are to have a full understanding of the complexities of formations of intimacy – and open up new possibilities for how these relationships can be formulated, performed and produced – then the histories of intimacies that any of us narrate need to reckon with those stories which are outside any mainstream framework. As with any hegemonic history, there are numerous marginal stories that normative campaigns elide or misunderstand, whether it be minority religions, ethnicities, racialisations, genders, or sexualities. By looking to these stories, it would seem to me, we can attain a more nuanced understanding of the vastness of practices of intimacy and the ways different publics can recognise, sanction and support such formations.


Screen Shot 2017-01-19 at 5.23.11 pmJordy Silverstein is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Melbourne University, working as part of the ARC Laureate Fellowship Project ‘Child Refugees and Australian Internationalism: 1920 to the Present’. Her research focuses on histories of Australian government policy towards child refugees since the 1970s, as well as histories of Jewish sexuality, identity, and memory. She is the author of Anxious Histories: Narrating the Holocaust in Jewish Communities at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century (2015), and co-editor of In the Shadows of Memory: the Holocaust and the Third Generation (2016).

Follow Jordy on Twitter @jewonthis.

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