Originally published by Jewish Ideas Daily in May 2010. Revised and expanded.
When was American Jewish fiction born? The credit usually goes to Nathan Mayer’s Civil War novel Differences, published by Bloch in 1867. But a more likely date is 1892, when the Christian-owned house of A. C. McClurg released the first American novel written by a Jew, on a Jewish subject, but aimed at a general audience. Other Things Being Equal is a romance of intermarriage. Its author, Emma Wolf, 27 at the time of publication, was a wheelchair-bound San Franciscan and the spinster daughter of a well-to-do tobacco merchant from Alsace.
While Differences made small impact and is nearly impossible to find today, Other Things Being Equal was so popular that it remained in print for more than two decades. The first edition went through six printings between 1892 and 1901; in 1916, Wolf revised the text and McClurg republished it. Hundreds of readers wrote to thank her for having “untangled a knotty problem.” She would later say she had no idea how many marriages her novel was responsible for.
Wolf’s theme is announced in the novel’s opening pages. A family cousin asks the main character why her parents “mix so much with Christians.” The reply: “Fellow-feeling, I suppose. We all dance and talk alike; and as we do not hold [religious] services at receptions, wherein lies the difference?” The Jews and Christians of her class—San Francisco’s fashionable, gilded class—“have had the same schooling, speak the same language, read the same books, are surrounded by the same elements of home refinement.” And since class is stronger than religion in America, wherein indeed lies the difference?
Other Things Being Equal contests the notion that there is any. Ruth Levice, a tall girl with a “pure Madonna face” and something “almost Oriental” about her, is the 22-year-old daughter of a rich San Francisco merchant. As the novel opens, her mother has exhausted herself through arduous social obligations, and the worried family has summoned Dr. Herbert Kemp, a 35-year-old specialist in nervous diseases with the “highest reputation for skill.”
On his visits to oversee her mother’s “food and rest cure,” Kemp chats with Ruth about this and that. One time the talk turns to the Jews. Kemp expresses admiration for the “race.” Ruth thanks him: “I am proud of many Jewish traits,” she says. But Kemp is confused. He has noticed that, while Jews “hold the balance of power in the musical and histrionic worlds,” they “do not seem to have made much headway in the other branches of art.” She replies with a parable about a Rose of Sharon, which faded when removed from the Holy Land. When the pious watered it with tears of ecstasy, however, the “petals sprang up, flushed into life.” Ruth repeats the moral she has learned from her rabbi: “In the light of toleration and love, we too have revived, we too are looking up.”
Kemp is touched. And so the “peculiar, inexplicable feeling of mutual understanding” grows between him and Ruth, which gradually deepens into love. (Wolf’s chief narrative problem is filling the time while it does so.) Finally, at a summer resort in the mountains, he asks her to marry him. “If you really want me,” she says without hesitation.
But her father is not so eager. “Child, you are a Jewess,” he says, and “Dr. Kemp is a Christian.” (A Unitarian, to be exact.) “What difference can that make,” she asks, “since we love each other?” She has never considered the religious gulf as anything more than a “mere passing shadow.” Asking her to think about that gulf now, her father urges to ponder “every sacrifice, social and religious, it enforces.” But, she counters, has not he himself taught her “to look upon my Christian friends as upon my Jewish”? And does he not admit Dr. Kemp to be “irreproachable from every standpoint?”
Mr. Levice is not an Orthodox Jew. He is a Reform Jew, but not merely an adherent; he is a propagandist for Reform. It is far too late in the day to summon the force of religious law. And as for mere outward “forms,” Ruth observes, “you, Father, have bred in me contempt for all but a few.” Still, she assures him that she is not going to renounce her native religion, even as her husband-to-be has no intention of renouncing his. Mutual respect will be the rule. As the “irreproachable” Dr. Kemp himself tells her father, “[I]f my wife would permit me to go with her upon her holidays to your beautiful Temple, no one would listen more reverently than I.”
The compromise they propose would become familiar in later decades as the Jewish rate of intermarriage soared: a little bit of Judaism, a little bit of Christianity, and everybody is happy—or, at least, nobody is offended or expected to do very much. In 1892, however, the idea was unthinkable to organized Judaism. Even the Reform movement continued to oppose intermarriage, although upon what grounds was unclear.
On his deathbed, Mr. Levice comes around and blesses the union, reciting birkat habanim on the head of his future son-in-law. It is the one and only time in the novel that Wolf drops into a Jewish idiom.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the novel is that it is addressed simultaneously to two audiences: those Christians for whom a certain lack of cultural refinement is “the inevitable mark of the [Jewish] race” and those Jews for whom objections to intermarriage are one of the “minor forms” of Jewish life that “are slowly dying out and will soon be remembered only historically.” On the latter point, Wolf makes no pretense of neutrality.
For Jewish readers, the vilification of traditional Jewish attitudes toward intermarriage will be most striking. The contemporary reviewer for American Jewess, a magazine which described itself as the only one in the world “devoted to the interests of Jewish women,” clearly understood this as the novel’s claim to originality:
Ever since feminist scholars rediscovered Other Things Being Equal, it has been treated as a proto-feminist novel about a woman who risks social ostracism to seek her freedom from the bondage of custom. It is hardly that. As a work of fiction, it owes more to literary convention than to political courage. As a novel of ideas, its value is as a testament to just how deeply the ideology of romance, of love as sufficient reason for tossing aside other responsibilities, had penetrated the consciousness of some significant number of American Jews well over a century ago.