The case for marrying Abraham? Phoebe Maltz Bovy on the new wave of post-feminist personal essays

The clickbaiters are begging to differ with this millennial writer.

Rabbi Tzvi Kushlevsky, 88, of Jerusalem, recently had his first baby. I say “had” but it certainly wasn’t Kushlevsky doing the childbearing itself. (No post-natal spin class at the JCC for him!)

Rather, it was his wife, whom the Jerusalem Post estimates at “approximately 56 years old.” A slip of a thing. It’s all relative.

Well, it turns out age-gap relationships are having a similar moment in the secular world:

Given that mainstream feminist or feminism-sympathetic media has for nearly a decade been encouraging women to ponder whether there might be the teensiest of power imbalances in their romantic relationships with men, and to do what they could to squash those (or better yet, transcend the need for a boyfriend entirely), this was… well, it was something different.

Christie rejects the idea of a marriage of “partners” in favour of something more… Professor Henry Higgins: “My husband isn’t my partner. He’s my mentor, my lover, and, only in certain contexts, my friend. I’ll never forget it, how he showed me around our first place like he was introducing me to myself: This is the wine you’ll drink, where you’ll keep your clothes, we vacation here, this is the other language we’ll speak, you’ll learn it, and I did.”

It’s good to be happy with your own life choices. It’s something else to think they ought to be held up as a model for others. As in, I could write an essay about why it is objectively correct to marry a man just under a week older than you are. But I don’t see this as a generally applicable fact. It just… is.

That Christie’s husband is a mere ten years her senior is, yes, a funny detail. Is it really that dramatic to be 23 and marrying a 33-year-old, particularly if the wife, at least, is from a conservative Catholic household? (No, Christie, whose last name is Christie, is not Jewish.)

Christie describes being an undergrad prowling for grad students, as if this is the most subversive thing in the world, when university students date one another all the time. The realm of Anna Nicole Smith this is not. She holds forth at length about her own youthful allure: “I had high breasts, most of my eggs, plausible deniability when it came to purity, a flush ponytail, a pep in my step that had yet to run out.” I see why this would hold her back if auditioning for a Golden Girls reboot but what did this do for her in her own life? Her competition in the dating market she’d plopped herself into was, what, 25-year-old female grad students? (Christie herself is now 27.) What she was observing wasn’t the scandalous tendency of older men to like younger women, but the student scene at a university, where everybody’s young and winding up at some of the same parties.

(Do the youths still have parties? We did. Good fun.)

The mystery is why The Cut would run this article, why now. On one level it’s simple: people read this sort of thing. The distaff website of New York magazine has recently been focusing on viral-bait personal essays—most notably, a divorce contemplation by American Jewish writer Emily Gould, wife of Keith Gessen (yes, Masha’s brother)—and goodness knows “The Case for Marrying an Older Man” fits the bill.

But something about the essay is confusing on a political level. It reads not as pop-feminist website content—the sort that dominated sites like The Cut in recent years—but like… something else. A kind of neo-traditionalist post-hipster rejection of progressive pieties. It evokes such things as the Red Scare podcast (which I haven’t listened to) and Dimes Square (which I’m sure I’ve been in, physically, but a scene that emerged after I left New York). The sort of young people into smoking-not-vaping, who don’t wring their hands about racism, sexism, fatphobia, and so forth. The young women who’ve chucked even the pretense of body positivity in favour of panicking that they look old. The “vibe shift,” in other words.

Do we have a vibe shift yet, in Canada? I want to say yes, and that for all I know it started here, given that Canada is no slouch in the progressive pieties department, which in turn brings the people who are of that world but roll their eyes at it.

The only way “The Case for Marrying an Older Man” would make sense in the feminist personal essay model is if you read it as an offshoot of articles about how sex work is valid. After all, it’s not unheard-of for writers to frame it as feminist that some young women exchange their sexual allure for material comforts. She is the passive one, but it is, she insists, intentional. It’s submissiveness, and not (from how she describes it) in an erotic sense, but not being a doormat. Which, if that’s how she sees it, fair enough—the general public, with whom she is sharing her confession-slash-life-advice, can come to its own conclusions.

But is this even presenting itself as a feminist personal essay to begin with?

To be clear, I’m not saying an essay on The Cut should or shouldn’t claim feminism on my account, but am trying to make sense of where the culture is at in this point in time. And if The Cut is now running tradwife content, that is a shift. As recently as February, it ran an earnest piece by Canada’s own Kathryn Jezer-Morton about the challenges of preventing one’s sons from growing up to be right-wingers.

Back to Grazie Sophia Christie, she certainly foregrounds her own agency in her life decisions. She went out and looked for an older man. She did so while an undergrad at Harvard, which is crucial information because it explains why the media is covering this, but also because it tells you that this is a woman who had options other than being kept. (That said: the people online moaning that this woman is clearly someone with a trust fund have fully missed the memo. She’s upscale, I’m sure, but if you are independently wealthy you are not finding a husband to rescue you from office work, which is how she presents what she’s up to.)

And what she describes is more than an incidental power imbalance that can result from an income disparity in a relationship: “I live in an apartment whose rent he pays and that shapes the freedom with which I can ever be angry with him.” An interesting line in an essay, but a nauseating one in an essay presenting itself as an and you can, too! Thanks but no thanks.

Mainly the whole thing seems like the pleading of someone not convinced she’s making all the right decisions, who sort of has to present other life choices (specifically the one to marry a same-age husband) as disastrous in ways that don’t even make sense.

Case in point: “When I have a child, I will expect more help from him than I would if he were younger, for what does professional tenure earn you if not the right to set more limits on work demands—or, if not, to secure some child care, at the very least?”

The idea that childcare is “help” a husband offers a wife and not something a household engages is… I guess of a piece with a married couple whose approach to finances is such that she views his paying for more of their living expenses because he earns more as him wooing her with gifts.

The elephant in the room is, as the writer B.D. McClay points out in her response, that even Christie isn’t 20 anymore. If you centre your sense of self-worth on traits that, as Christie herself points out, are “cruelly fleeting,” where are you left when those traits are gone?

For more original Jewish culture commentary from Phoebe Maltz Bovy subscribe to the free Bonjour Chai newsletter on Substack.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected], not to mention @phoebebovy on Bluesky, and @bovymaltz on X. She is also on The CJN’s weekly podcast Bonjour Chai.