Who Wouldn't Want to Marry a Jew?

A tone-deaf Atlantic article from 1939 serves as a cautionary tale today.

Members of the Jewish People's Committee protest outside the German Consul General's offices in New York City on June 24, 1938.  (Murray Becker/AP)

A few months ago, for some reason, an old Atlantic story called "I Married a Jew" resurfaced and went viral, prompting much laughter and chagrin (so much so that we had to append an editors’ note calling attention to the year it was published: 1939). So much has changed since this was written that it’s now basically an after-midnight SNL sketch in magazine-article form, from the bizarre headline on down. Why would anyone not want to marry a Jew? (Say I, a half-Jew.) Seventy-five years later, the “nice Jewish boy” is already a stale joke about marriage.

The woman, who is blessedly “Anonymous,” writes that she is an American of German descent who frequently finds herself “trying to see things from the Nazis' point of view,” much to the “confusion of my husband.” Kind of understandable, since he’s Jewish.

Lest we forget, though, this was a time when Jews in America couldn’t join certain fraternities or buy houses in specific zip codes.

What’s astonishing about this piece is how the author manages to be wrong about almost every single thing she mentions. Einstein had his “windy theories”; Picasso is “not great.” The writer, possibly the world’s first-ever Shiksplainer, as Jonathan Chait calls her, is also shockingly prejudiced, her “progressive” life-choice notwithstanding. She calls hers an “interracial marriage” and accuses her husband of “lapsing into his Jewish ways” (??) around his family. Her mother thinks “the Jews are essentially an Oriental race” ... to which a Reddit user quipped “this does explain the stereotype about us loving Chinese food.”

Let’s just say it was a bad year to cast sunny predictions about the future of Jewish-Christian relations. The author tries to convince her husband, Ben, that “a hundred years hence the world will no more call Hitler a swine for expelling the Jews than it does Edward I of England,” but Ben refuses “to take the long view.” The long view would turn out to be much more horrific than either of them imagined.

For all its cringeworthiness, this story accomplishes a lot: It’s a good cautionary tale about sensitivity and judgment calls for modern journalists, a powerful remembrance of how much more hateful our world was just a few generations ago, and yet it still contains a plus ça change element.

It’s striking, for example, the way this section echoes current conversations about European Muslim identity in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy: “The Jews must come off the fence and make up their minds whether they want to be primarily citizens of, say, France or England or primarily citizens of Jewry. They cannot be Jewish in their homes and French or English outside. They cannot pledge their pride and loyalty to Israel and expect Frenchmen and Englishmen to treat them exactly like other Frenchmen and Englishmen.”

Few in the U.S. would bat an eye at the kind of marriage described in this article today, but both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia continue to be strong forces in Europe. It will be interesting if, “a hundred years hence,” we will wonder why France ever debated whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear burqas or why people the world over found photos of Jews and Arabs kissing to be unusual.