Falling for a younger man who wants an arranged marriage. Plus: An audio interview with the author.
There’s envy in Amir’s eyes as we say good-bye, and I wonder if he’s thinking about selecting his virgin bride when it’s his turn to go. Shirin hugs me tightly, but Amir only shakes my hand, and I feel a flash of disappointment. Perhaps I am falling for his savage Afghan act. There’s some artifice to it, but I still find him charming. It’s too bad he’s so much younger than I am.
It’s the age difference more than his belief in arranged marriage that makes me reject out of hand the idea of dating Amir. It’s not clear to me that arranged marriages work out worse than the contemporary kind, especially when people marry young. I’m not sure most seventeen-year-olds would make a better choice than their parents would make for them, and in much of the world people still marry young, women often as teenagers.
Arranged marriages were the rule in my own family within living memory. My mother’s father and mother were introduced by a matchmaker, though this might have been because both bride and groom were aged for the time, forty and thirty. My mother’s mother’s mother, Pesha Gitel, born around 1860, had her husband, Baruch, picked for her. And Baruch’s grandparents, born at the beginning of the nineteenth century, were brought together by their families when they were barely thirteen. Of course, those couples, like Afghan couples today, lived with their extended families, and that was part of the glue that made the marriages work.
I’ve always thought of my own parents’ marriage as arranged, though not successfully. They met on a blind date and married a year later, but they never seemed a couple. On some level I must have registered this. When I was very small, I asked my mother if I would have to marry a man named Andy because my parents were named Bernard and Bernice. I was so young I didn’t know the difference between first and last names or that married couples had the same name after they got married, but not before. Or maybe I saw that my parents’ names were one of their few obvious similarities.
My mother and father had few interests in common, never hugged or kissed in front of me, and didn’t seem to have a link to each other besides their respect for each other’s intelligence and their role as parents. One time when I described the way they lived in the same house without seeming to be together, my friend Samuel cut to the chase: You mean they lacked a sense of complicity. That was right. I never thought of them as having an intimate life of their own behind their bedroom door. When I read Freud in my early twenties, the passionate oedipal jealousies he described didn’t register with me. I’d never envied my parents’ private life. It wasn’t clear they had one. Possibly this has something to do with why I haven’t married.
Another reason might be that I haven’t found a man who feels like family to me. I understand Amir’s desire to marry within his tribe (in his case, literally the same Pashtun subtribe), because I felt the same way until my late thirties. “I’d have more in common with a Jew,” I told friends when I was in my twenties and thirties, but I didn’t really understand what it was that lovers ought to have in common. I thought of intimacy as based on shared traits and interests, rather than on an emotional connection.
It felt right to me when I just turned nineteen that my first boyfriend, Scott, was Jewish, but at the same time I thought he was too Jewish. I didn’t like it that he owned several different yarmulkes, or that he lit Hanukkah candles even in his dorm room. From the start I found his Jewishness not a positive characteristic so much as the absence of a negative, Christianity. Dating a Christian would have raised questions with my family. Although my parents never explicitly told me to marry a Jew, it was understood that I would, just as it was understood that I’d go to an Ivy League college.
Scott and I were together seven years, from the time I was nineteen to twenty-six, but I never saw myself marrying him. Part of the problem, I would have said at the time, was that Scott was too involved with his family. They struck me as stiflingly close; the three adult children still ate Friday night dinner with their parents most weeks. I’d just escaped an unhappy home and didn’t wish to immerse myself in someone else’s family life, however warm.
And on some sort of primitive chemical level, Scott and his family weren’t right for me. I never liked their looks. Scott likely felt something similar. Once he said that I was awfully dark, and his tone made me wonder why he was my boyfriend. Not that he wasn’t attracted to me—we made love nearly every night we spent together, right till the end—but maybe he didn’t want to be. It might have mattered to him that my black hair and eyes and olive skin spoke clearly of Middle Eastern or southern Mediterranean stock. His pale skin and brown hair could have been anything. I thought but never said, Who knows if they are even really Jewish? They could only trace their ancestry a few generations back; my mother’s father’s family was an old rabbinic line, descended from King David. Of course we were awfully dark. I didn’t identify as Jewish from a religious standpoint, but I was proud of my blood.
Being a member of the tribe, I learned from my years with Scott, didn’t make a man feel like family. I wanted someone who looked Jewish but wasn’t, and Scott wanted someone who didn’t look Jewish but was. He got his wish. He married, a pale redhead who converted to Judaism, though I stubbornly refused to think of her as really Jewish. Decades later she finally did something that made me change my mind: She became a rabbi.
Still, for years after Scott, I told people I wanted to marry a Jew. I said so even when I was dating a Catholic or a Protestant. I said so after deciding that I got along better with Christian men than with Jews. I said it after going to Israel and hating it. And my assertion was not so simple as bad faith. Part of me felt that Jews were in some sense better than other people, and Judaism a more reasonable religion—not that I had chosen it. (Shirin thought Amir felt this way about Afghans, and Pashtuns in particular.) Part of me thought it would be easier to marry someone who shared this prejudice. But I knew it was strange for someone who had no religious convictions to care about marrying within the faith. I probably wanted to make a faltering desire true by saying it aloud.
It just so happened that I had trouble getting along with my Jewish boyfriends after Scott. They were defensive and prickly, quarrelsome, critical of me in ways that reminded me of my dad. They were also fussy and wimpy in ways that didn’t remind me of my dad, who (whatever his other faults) was physically brave, athletic, and, until he got Parkinson’s disease, rugged. I was drawn to Jewish men’s dark looks and to something in their presence that reminded me of family, but personality differences always pulled us apart.
I’d wanted to marry a Jew, it now seems to me, because it was a shortcut to the intimacy I had heard belonged to the married state, the intimacy that was missing from my parents’ marriage. Amir, oddly enough—or maybe not, since the Pashtuns claim to be descended from King Saul—looked like my family. If I squint, it’s Amir who looks back at me from a photo of my mother’s father Abe, from his stocky frame to his thick black hair and hooked nose. Amir looks like a Jew but isn’t.
Tempestuous, cold, and intensely private, Elsa Morante considered herself a genius. Are others finally starting to agree?