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  • “It Is Not the Number of Adherents”:Jewish Authenticity and Intermarriage Anxiety in Nineteenth-Century France
  • Phoebe Maltz Bovy (bio)

The willingness of a particular Jewish population—or a particular Jew—to marry out is often used as a measure of Jewish authenticity. This can seem an eternal fact of Jewish life, so it is important to remember that until the French Revolution, Jewish intermarriage as spoken about today—the stuff of romantic comedy plotlines and earnest articles in Jewish communal newspapers1—did not exist. The era of Jewish emancipation began in 1791, when the Jews of France—40,000, or a fraction of one percent of the total population—became, according to the law, French citizens of the Jewish faith.2 France’s Jews and those seeking to shape their fate had no precedent for what religion-only Judaism would involve. What would “Jewish” consist of, stripped of whichever qualities were deemed incompatible with French citizenship? Could a new Jewish authenticity emerge that would allow for or even support also being French?3

Prior to the introduction of civil marriage in 1792, then, no arena existed in which Jewish-Christian marriages might take place.4 Above and beyond their logistical impossibility, in France and elsewhere in Europe, such unions were legally forbidden.5 Yet exceedingly few such couples formed in the first place. Marriage remained, in late-eighteenth-century France, a matter of family and community, for Jews as well as Christians. And France’s Jews, while not hermetically sealed off from the rest of society, were not integrated at a level that would make such unions plausible. In the years leading up to the Revolution, even France’s relatively more integrated and prosperous Sephardic Jews were by and large both poor and isolated, and faced discrimination from their non-Jewish neighbors.6

The Revolution introduced intermarriage, then, not in response to inter-faith couples seeking to make their unions official but because the barriers to such marriages ran counter to Revolutionary principles as well as new legislation. With France’s Jews undifferentiated French citizens, and French marriages secular occasions, nothing prevented a Jew and a Catholic or Protestant from starting a publicly sanctioned family, even without the Jewish spouse getting baptized. With this new freedom, some Jews began to marry Christians, or secular Gentiles of Catholic or Protestant origin.7 While the overall [End Page 5] number of such weddings was probably low by today’s standards, that there were any at all was unprecedented. France thus became the birthplace of both modern Jewish intermarriage and modern Jewish intermarriage anxieties. These anxieties, however, did not emerge as the intermarriage panic so common in recent decades in the United States and elsewhere. Rather, that familiar sort of worry emerged among French Jews near the end of the nineteenth century.

What is not known is how—or whether—fears about intermarriage corresponded to the actual intermarriage rate at any given time. Historians agree that few nineteenth-century French Jews married out.8 Few by contemporary standards, that is, if rates were higher than they had been, they may have seemed high at the time. But because French civil marriage records lack information about religion, it is impossible to subject the appropriate data source to quantitative analysis. Thus it is unclear whether more Jewish men or women married out; when the rate was highest; or which regional and socioeconomic groups married out the most. Existing studies of specific French Jewish populations over narrow periods provide a glimpse,9 but the rest must be inferred from trends elsewhere in Europe or, with greater caution, from impressions at the time. That said, sources on how Jews and non-Jews discussed intermarriage are as abundant as sources on rates are sparse.

The Revolution did not simply make Jewish intermarriage possible, but intermarriage came to embody Revolutionary ideals. As Ronald Schechter demonstrated in Obstinate Hebrews, Jews were the favorite Other in Enlightenment France. Jews’ ability—or lack thereof—to change became a stand-in for malleability more generally.10 During the same years, the family was the preferred metaphor for France. According to historian Suzanne Desan, marriage “came to be imagined as the social...