JOSHUA LOUIS MOSS, WHY HARRY MET SALLY: SUBVERSIVE JEWISHNESS, ANGLO-CHRISTIAN POWER, AND THE RHETORIC OF MODERN LOVE.
AUSTIN: UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS PRESS, 2017
ISBN: 978-1-4773-1283-4, 360 pages, $90
"Why Harry met Sally" is actually a great question, and Joshua Louis Moss has tapped into a deep well of material in asking it. Why Harry Met Sally is a complicated and intertextual look at "subversive Jewishness, Anglo-Christian power, and the rhetoric of modern love." The books greatest strength will probably come as a teaching aid. The book covers such a wealth of topics that instructors in religious studies, Jewish studies, gender studies, film and media studies, and others will find chapters useful for classroom adoption. Moss's writing style is crisp and clear and will be appreciated by undergraduates, while the theoretical underpinnings of his work make it an excellent choice for graduate classes as well. Additionally, Moss's infusion of "coupling theory" into the way interfaith relationships are both presented in popular media and read by audiences is nothing short of brilliant, and should be a methodological tool that all scholars in these fields immediately take up.
The volume looks at case studies of Jewish-Christian relationships covering roughly a hundred years, from the early twentieth to the early twenty-first century. Both the tide and cover art are slight red herrings, as the book is not solely focused on media representations of these relationships. Moss begins with the case of Benjamin Disraeli, whose Jewishness was of course complicated by his having been baptized and raised Christian, but Moss makes a compelling case for the way Disraeli leveraged his marriage to Mary Ann Lewis, a well-connected widow, and used it to bolster his claims of Christian normativity. Moss pairs that story, however, with a meditation on the Dreyfus affair and asks the reader whether "the trial would have been received differently if Dreyfus, like Disraeli, had chosen a Christian wife" (40). This line of thinking threatens to undermine his project, as there are myriad ways in which Dreyfus as a Jew is different dramatically from Disraeli as a not-Jew. Furthermore, a thought experiment based on fantasies in which Dreyfus married a Christian woman instead of the Jewish woman he actually married seems almost insulting to Lucie Dreyfus, who stood by her husband, petitioned tirelessly for a new trial, and spent her life protesting his innocence.
When Moss moves away from history and into literature and media his expertise is clear. His exploration of the "ghetto Jewess" trope in chapter 3 is particularly incisive, and although Abie's Irish Rose is the go-to starting place for discussions of American interfaith relationships, Moss's analysis has depth and nuance that bring new life to the topic. Throughout the middle portion of the book, however, excellent analyses of cultural moments war with digressions that move the reader away from Moss's larger point. His inclusion of The Goldbergs, for example, seems to imply that what Moss wants the reader to see is more the struggles of public Jewish identities existing in a Christian world than the persistence of Jewish-Christian romantic pairings. The focus returns much more sharply to this original thesis in the third section, in which Moss looks at media from the 1980s to the early 2000s. One of the most exciting elements of Moss's project is the way in which he ties Maus in to this section. Graphic novels are far too often overlooked in other analyses of popular culture, and the sequence in the second volume of Maus in which Art Spiegelman struggles with what animal to use to represent his (French, Jew by choice) wife is one of the most fascinating moments in the novel.
One thing Moss's book seems to cry out for is a more thickly constructed gender analysis. Nearly all of the examples are of Jewish men marrying or pairing up with non-Jewish, frequently "WASPy" women. He acknowledges this pattern, but ultimately does not push against it in a satisfying way. Dirty Dancing is one of the counter-examples, but Moss brings up in passing that while the movie takes place in the Catskills, and while Baby is clearly coded as a Jewish character, the words "Jew" or "Jewish" never appear in the film. The primary gender-swap throughout this study is Barbara Streisand's filmography, and there again her characters were often coded as Jewish but not explicitly labeled as such. Even when she does play an "openly Jewish" character such as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, the coupling doesn't match most of Moss's male Jew-female non-Jew examples. Early in the book Moss defines "Christianness" as being based on "physicality and star persona" (14). Although Omar Sharif was a Coptic Christian, that is not how he was read by American audiences. His Syrian and Egyptian background was read as foreign and exotic, and his "star persona" was hardly an analog to the trope of the "shiksa." This would have been an interesting avenue to pursue--to look more closely at why the gender balance tips the way it does, and why the few depictions of Jewish women with non-Jewish men exhibit such different qualities than the more common inverse pairings.
Ultimately this is a volume with value to scholars in a variety of fields, but one that may be slightly frustrating to those outside of media studies, who may want Moss to spend more time chasing down the leads he so tantalizingly introduces. It is fair that he does not, as religious studies and gender studies are not his areas of concentration, and scholars across the disciplines can still find elements of this book useful in both teaching and research. What it loses in internal cohesion it gains in broad appeal and excerptibility. And "coupling theory" should make a real, lasting impact on several different fields, which makes Moss's book a must-read for many scholars.
JENNIFER CAPLAN TOWSON UNIVERSITY
JENNIFER CAPLAN is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Towson University. Her research is on American Jewish culture, including humor, comics and graphic novels, film, and television.
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|Publication:||Studies in American Jewish Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
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