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This article presents the work of Ben-Lévi [pseud. Godchaux Weil, 1806-1878], who published a series of short stories in the Archives Israélites de France, the leading French Jewish newspaper, during the 1840s. One of the first Jews to write fiction in French, Ben-Lévi offers a portrait of a community caught between tradition and progress. Combining the "realist" literary codes of Balzac with the "idealist" codes of Sand, his stories hold up a critical mirror to the assimilating Jewish bourgeoisie of the era and show how a reformed Judaism could help resolve the dilemmas of modernity. Ben-Lévi's forgotten fictions reveal the agency and creativity of nineteenth-century French Jews in the face of momentous social change while also demonstrating the versatility of French literary models. (MS)

Nineteenth-century French Jews experienced modernity in a unique fashion. As the first European Jews to receive full civil rights, they did not need to fight for emancipation.1 Unlike their coreligionists elsewhere in Europe, their legal equality preceded their modernization.2 Whereas at the time of the Revolution of 1789, the vast majority of France's Jews lived in poverty in isolated rural villages in Alsace and Lorraine and did not speak French,3 within one generation the situation had changed dramatically – at least for those Jews who took advantage of the relaxation of residency restrictions to move to large towns or cities.4 Faced with no legal impediments to their upward mobility, certain French Jews achieved unparalleled social integration in the first half of the nineteenth century. Though numbering only 0.2 percent of the French population in 1840,5 Jews had reached high levels not only of banking and business, but also of the French government,6 the army, the liberal professions, the press, and the arts, particularly music and the theater, by mid-century.

If French Jews experienced modernity differently from Jews in other parts of the world because of their privileged status, they also experienced it differently because France – and particularly Paris – was the center of modernity, the "capital of the nineteenth century" in the words of Walter Benjamin, and the magnet that attracted such forward-looking German Jews as Meyerbeer, Offenbach, Heine, and Marx. Indeed, Paris in the 1830s and 40s saw many of the political, social, and cultural transformations we associate with modernity take shape – including rapid urbanization, democratization, the birth of a mass press, and especially the rise of industrial capitalism. Becoming urban in much higher relative numbers than their Christian contemporaries,7 and well represented in the transforming sectors of banking, transportation, the mass press, and popular culture, Jews were at the forefront of these changes.

Although scholars of Jewish modernity have lately begun to correct the myopia resulting from an exclusive focus on Germany, the French case remains relatively under explored.8 This is particularly true in the realm of literary [End Page 287] studies. Scholars have recently begun to illuminate the birth of a new Jewish literature in German, English, and Russian in the nineteenth century, showing how Jewish authors manifested unique responses to the Enlightenment, the quest for political equality, and the problem of assimilation in these countries.9 And while fiction by Jews in French in the twentieth century – from Marcel Proust onward – occupies the attention of an ever growing number of scholars, we know almost nothing about the emergence of French Jewish writing in the nineteenth century.

In what follows, I want to begin to close this gap by investigating a series of short stories published in the leading French Jewish monthly newspaper, the Archives israélites de France, during the 1840s under the pseudonym Ben-Lévi. Among the first examples of fiction written by a Jew in French, these stories shed light on the unique French Jewish experience of modernity and on the literary forms used to represent it. Combining sentimentalism with elements of the new poetics that critics in the 1840s were beginning to label "realist," Ben-Lévi offers a view of modern Jewish life filtered through a specifically French literary lens, just as he puts a Jewish spin on French literary conventions. In his deployment of French literary codes to represent the dilemmas of Jewish modernity – as well as in his often quite humorous evocation of the paradoxes of assimilation – Ben-Lévi foreshadows Proust's masterful representation of French Jewish life three quarters of a century later. And indeed Proust might be said to be not only the literary but also the literal descendant of this mid-nineteenth-century Jewish writer, for the actual Ben-Lévi, the man behind the pseudonym, was Godchaux Baruch Weil, Proust's great-uncle (the half-brother of his grandfather, Nathé Weil).

Godchaux Weil was born in Paris in 1806. His family came from Alsace and settled in Paris around 1800, at a time when there were fewer than 3,000 Jews in the capital. Godchaux's father, Baruch Weil (the great-grandfather of Proust), opened a porcelain factory in 1805 on the Boulevard du Temple, was elected to the Paris Consistory (the central governing body of the capital's Jewish community), and was awarded the Legion of Honor in 1827, shortly before his death (Viey 101-102, 159). Like a handful of other elite Jews in early nineteenth-century Paris, Godchaux received a secular as well as religious education from a private tutor. At the age of fifteen, he published his first work, an impassioned and scholarly response to Tsarphati (pseud. Olry Terquem), France's leading proponent of Jewish religious reform. The young Godchaux's conservatism seems to have been inspired by loyalty to his traditionalist father, for after his father's death in 1828, he would devote himself to promoting the very reforms he had denounced as a teenager.

Godchaux went into the porcelain business, was one of several Jews to join the prestigious Cercle de Commerce in the 1830s, and later became France's first Jewish huissier de justice. From a very early age, he also played a leadership [End Page 288] role in the Paris Jewish community, serving on a number of important charitable committees for the Paris Consistory.10 In addition to writing twelve short stories, along with forty witty social commentaries, for the pro-reform Archives israélites during the 1840s, Weil also published a moralistic text for Jewish schoolchildren, Les Matinées du samedi, which was widely used in Jewish schools in the francophone world and was translated into English. His retirement from literary life in 1850 coincides with his failure to be elected to the Paris Consistory. He died in 1878, seven years after the birth of his famous great-nephew.11

The journal in which Ben-Lévi's writing appeared, the Archives israélites de France, was founded in 1840 by Samuel Cahen, a teacher and translator of the Hebrew Bible into French, and would continue to appear until WWII. Its readership consisted mostly of elite Parisian Jews.12 Like similar publications begun at around the same time in Germany, Austria, England, Italy, and the United States, the Archives dedicated itself to Jewish modernization. For the writers and the editors of the Archives, this meant replacing the tradition-bound "Juif," an object of scorn for non-Jews, with the "Israélite," a modern French citizen, free of stigmatizing signs of Jewish particularity and of the complexes resulting from centuries of persecution.13 It also meant promoting the kind of religious reforms that had splintered the Jewish community in Germany – such as the introduction of the vernacular and the organ into synagogue services – but that met with the official resistance of the all-powerful Consistory in France, which tightly controlled Jewish religious practice.14 Reform was also actively resisted by a rival journal, L'Univers israélite, founded in 1844.

Even while resisting the assimilation of France's Jews by promoting autonomous Jewish institutions,15 the Archives advocated their social integration by criticizing the traditional manners and customs that had marked the Jews as a people apart under the Old Regime. The Archives would be written entirely in French (featuring only occasional traces of Hebrew or Judeo-German). With articles devoted to Jewish history and culture modeled on the new German Science of Judaism (Wissenschaft des Judentums), the Archives cultivated an intellectualized, scholarly approach to the religion. At once eager to demonstrate the loyalty of Jews to France, and keen to promote French Jewish communal identity, the Archives would constantly vaunt the successes of Jews in French national life.16 At the same time, monthly articles called attention to the plight of less fortunate Jews still struggling for civil rights in other parts of the world, including in England and Germany.17 Ben-Lévi's writing – both his short stories and his non-fiction pieces – stand out from the articles surrounding them in their consistent drive to hold up a critical mirror to the assimilating French Jewish bourgeoisie. Whereas most articles in the Archives flatter the ethnic and national pride of the elite readership, Ben-Lévi challenges his readers to consider what they left behind in their social ascent. [End Page 289]

The tension between tradition and progress in the French Jewish community is one of the principal motors driving Ben-Lévi's fiction. In one story from 1841 called, in a nod to Balzac, "Grandeur et décadence d'un taleth polonais," he traces the history of a prayer shawl as it gets passed down through three generations of a Parisian Jewish family.18 The story opens in the 1780s as the very orthodox père Jacob, proprietor of a used clothes and old ironwork shop, imports a prayer shawl from Poland for his wedding. Upon his death, Jacob leaves the taleth to his son Jacobi, who italianizes his name "autant pour lui donner un air corse que pour en effacer la trace par trop biblique" (753).19 A veteran of Napoleon's army (hence the desire to appear Corsican), Jacobi makes a fortune as a military supplier during the Empire. "Bien moins religieux que son père," he nevertheless retains a distinct Jewish identity: he attends services on the high holidays, and gives generously to Jewish charities. He also venerates the old prayer shawl, which he carries with him even into battle.

His son continues the process of assimilation the father has begun: "Aujourd'hui Jacobi est mort, et son fils, beau jeune homme de vingt ans, a hérité de sa fortune et de son taleth. Ce fils se fait appeler Jacoubé, afin de dissimuler entièrement son origine israélite." Jacoubé works as a stockbroker and, like many of Balzac's nouveau riche characters, lives in the fashionable Chaussée-d'Antin. "Il [. . .] porte des bottes vernies, de longs cheveux, un collier taillé comme les allées de Trianon, un lorgnon qui se tient seul entre le sourcil et l'oeil" (754). Jacoubé is of an entirely new species from his father and grandfather. Indeed, he is not a Jew at all, but a lion: "Pas besoin de dire que Jacoubé n'est juif que de naissance; qu'il ne connaît rien du culte israélite, et qu'il rougirait d'être vu à la synagogue. Si on lui parle du père Jacob, il répond au bout des lèvres, 'Qu'est-ce que c'est que ça?'" And what has become of the old prayer shawl in the hands of this fashion plate? The narrator reports having seen just yesterday, at a costume ball at the Opera, a grisette disguised as a stevedore, wearing an exotic piece of old wool adorned with blue stripes.

Like many of Ben-Lévi's fictions, the taleth story functions as a kind of modern parable. Short fictitious narratives carrying a moral message, parables occur occasionally in the Old Testament, but with much more frequency both in the New Testament and in post-Biblical Hebrew literature. Parables function through allegory: earthly situations, often reflecting contemporary historical conditions, usually signify religious precepts. In the famous New Testament parable of the prodigal son, a magnanimous father welcomes home his spendthrift heir who has spent his portion on high living, just as God accepts all repentent sinners. In Ben-Lévi's story, the taleth does not have a supernatural significance, but rather stands for the fate of the Jewish religious tradition in modern France. Jewish identity is able to survive acculturation (the stage represented by the generation of Jacobi), but not assimilation (the stage of Jacoubé). [End Page 290] Ben-Lévi's parable also has a more pessimistic thrust than its Biblical antecedents: his prodigal son does not repent and serves to warn of the danger of assimilation through a negative example.

Along with its roots in the tradition of religious narrative, the story of the taleth displays many of the characteristics that link Ben-Lévi's writing with the new kind of fiction that his contemporary Balzac had begun writing in the 1830s. Like Balzac, Ben-Lévi calls himself a "physiologist" and favors minute visual description.20 He observes his characters, their dress and their language, with an eye for the telling detail, like the lorgnon fixed nonchalantly in Jacoubé's jaded eye or the dismissive manner with which he disavows his ancestor. Ben-Lévi's narrators, like Balzac's, are omniscient, able to see everything and to read the minds of characters. And these narrators are not necessarily Jewish: straight out of Balzac's fictional universe, they are worldly habitués of the Opera ball, or identified as flâneurs who know the Parisian streets like the palms of their hand, or as hermits, bored with pleasure, who have withdrawn from social life after draining it to the dregs. Deeply imbued with French (rather than specifically Jewish) culture, Ben-Lévi's narrators more often quote Pascal and Racine than the Talmud. Ben-Lévi, moreover, follows Balzac in his heavy use of irony as a tool for social criticism, both in his short stories and in his nonfiction articles satirizing the manners of the French Jewish bourgeoisie.

Ben-Lévi not only borrowed Balzac's techniques for describing modern life, he also shared with Balzac a sense of what modern life entailed. Ben-Lévi's characters are all urban, and many are implicated in modern forms of capitalist economic activity. Although some are doctors or soliders, others, like Jacoubé, a stockbroker, resemble Balzac's financiers – many of whom, including the master banker Nucingen, are also described as Jews – in their predilection for the more abstract realms of monetary manipulation. Like Balzac, and unlike more traditional Jewish tales, Ben-Lévi describes a "disenchanted" world, a post-sacred era in which faith and superstition have been evacuated – or rather, like the Polish prayer shawl that winds up on the shoulders of the grisette, recuperated for distinctly non-sacred ends.21 Uprooted from their villages, cut adrift from religious tradition and from an organic connection with the past, Ben-Lévi's Jewish characters often exemplify, along with a cynical materialism, a selfish individualism. Imitating those eminent Balzacian protagonists, Eugène de Rastignac and Lucien de Rubempré, fashionable gentlemen who extort money from poor relatives to finance their social trajectories, Jacoubé is willing to sacrifice familial bonds for worldly success in the modern metropolis.

If Ben-Lévi adopted the new literary codes of Balzac to describe the dilemmas of a rapidly acculturating Jewish bourgeoisie, he did not, however, limit himself to the realist mode. In Ben-Lévi's fiction, we find a blending of realism with the idealism of the sentimental social novel, which as Naomi Schor and Margaret Cohen have shown, vied with realism for the allegiance of the [End Page 291] reading public in the 1840s. Ben-Lévi employs realist codes to describe a nineteenth-century world in which spirituality has waned and communal ties have been replaced by capitalist greed, but the Jewish writer also employs idealist codes to show how these processes can be reversed.

In a story from 1846 entitled "Les poissons et les miettes de pain," a worldly narrator recounts a fishing trip down the Seine with his friend Gustave. Gustave is a modern Parisian gentleman, a typical realist protagonist: "il s'habille chez Renard, il dîne au café anglais [. . .] enfin, il a fait son droit, et tout cela lui donne celui de ne rien faire" (631). An assimilated skeptic, Gustave has freed himself from all Jewish particularity: "il est né de parents israélites, ne lui en demandez d'avantage; quant à notre culte et à notre histoire, ne le questionnez pas là-dessus" (631). It is not the implied Jewish reader ("notre culte" and "notre histoire") who does the questioning, howevever, but rather Gustave. As their boat passes in front of the Hôtel de Ville, he asks the narrator why a crowd of people on the shore are throwing bits of bread from their pockets into the water. The narrator explains to Gustave that these people are fellow Jews practicing the traditional custom of tachlich, symbolically emptying their hearts of sin before Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. Gustave, the "ennemi déclaré du ridicule" (632), rails against the custom as an absurd superstition. The narrator (whom, we might remark, is hardly a traditionalist himself or he would also be emptying his pockets on shore rather than cruising down the river on a Jewish holiday) doesn't disagree with Gustave about the need for religious reform, but argues that certain traditions are worth keeping.

After some quiet reflection, Gustave then tells a strange story. He recounts that he has just been privy to a conversation among the fish in the bottom of their boat: he describes witnessing a sole make lewd propostions to a pike, while a crayfish complained that the boat wasn't moving fast enough, and an eel chastized the other fish for being loud and vulgar. Apparently, by eating the pieces of bread thrown to them by the Jews, these (mostly non-Kosher) fish have ingested their sins, and become coquettish, peevish, and snobbish. Although Gustave recounts his vision with a straight face, we suspect that he means to mock the custom of tachlich by literalizing it. The narrator responds with a (typical for Ben-Lévi) reference to classical French literature, signalling his own ironic distance from the fantastic episode: "Bon, nous voilà revenus au siècle de La Fontaine, au temps où les bêtes parlaient" (635).

Once Gustave finishes his fantastic narrative, the fishermen witness a touching scene on the far bank, as a beautiful woman, dressed as a widow, helps her young son toss a handful of bread into the water. There follows a silence in the boat, after which a chastened Gustave shakes the narrator's hand and declares with a new note of sincerity, "Oui, il y a au fond de chaque usage religieux, quelque chose de saint qui ne touche le coeur que lorsqu'on a pu le comprendre" (638). In this story, a disenchanted world is re-enchanted by [End Page 292] a reformed cynic, who comes to recognize ritual's capacity to express human desire for a realm of perfectability beyond the material world. What we might call Gustave's religious awakening, his recognition of the power of Jewish religious custom to comfort human misery, contains elements of the classic realist Bildungsroman, as the protagonist gains knowledge through experience. But whereas for Balzac the path to insight is characteristically accompanied by a loss of faith in the ideal, Ben-Lévi's character moves in the opposite direction, from worldliness to faith: "Les Poissons et les miettes de pain," like many of Ben-Lévi's stories, could be titled Illusions trouvées.

Many of Ben-Lévi's fictions begin with the elements of a Balzacian narrative, but end by leaving realism behind. "L'Ami du préfet," from 1847, opens, like many of Balzac's short fictions, with a frame narrative, in which a Jewish narrator, at a house party in the country, tells a story to distract his companions from a religious debate over the nature of the messiah, led by a local priest, which was threatening to get overly heated. The recounted story begins in Paris during the Reign of Terror, as two women, one an aristocrat, the other a poor Jew, give birth to sons. As the Jewish woman dies in childbirth (before circumcizing her son) and the marquise goes into exile because of the Terror, both boys are sent to wet nurses in the country. En route, the drunk driver gets into an accident: though the babies are not harmed, they lose their identifying tags. Unable to tell which child is which, the driver randomly decides one will be an aristocrat and the other a Jew.

Eighteen years later, Paul de Vieuxmenil is a handsome soldier, living a life of debauch, while the other child, Jacob Samuel, has become a poor peddler. Paul happens to be stationed in the town where the old driver lies dying. Wracked with guilt, the driver tells the young marquis the truth about the accident. Paul is then driven by uncertainty over his identity to give up the soldier's life, and to go on a fruitless search to find Jacob, who may in fact be the real marquis. Unable to locate the peddler, however, Paul eventually becomes a diligent government bureaucrat, a préfet. Twenty years later, Jacob Samuel comes before him with a petition. In an effort at reparation, but without revealing the reason for his generosity, Paul sets about using his influence to make Jacob's fortune and provide a dowry for his beautiful daughter. Jacob is suspicious at first that Paul may have designs on his daughter, but finally accepts his help once he realizes that Paul's motives are pure. The recounted narrative ends with the daughter's marriage to a young Jewish man. Back in the present of the outer frame story, the narrator resolves the debate over the messiah by showing that, in the face of eschatological uncertainty, Jews and Christians should act as brothers, just as Paul acts toward Jacob.

This stated moral, however, does not exhaust the story's significance. The setting of this story is the same modern world – a provincial prefect's office–that houses Balzac's bureaucrats, but the Jewish writer replaces the cynicism [End Page 293] that surrounds these realist characters with a religious ethics.22 Motivated by guilt over his possibly usurped aristocratic privileges, Paul acts according to the Hebrew Bible's basic moral injunction to treat his brother as he would treat himself. This precept is also, of course, the moral basis of Christianity, and it is significant that the distinctions between religions that serve to separate Paul and Jacob in the social world of nineteenth-century France evaporate in the sentimental realm of the story's conclusion, which points to the universal moral ground underpinning both religions. In becoming a Jew in action if not in name, Paul ironically also becomes a good Christian, and truly noble.

In all his stories, Ben-Lévi depicts a modern world that undermines traditional forms of Jewish identity. In the story of the prayer shawl, Jacoubé is only Jewish "by birth," just as Gustave in the fish story is merely "born of Israelite parents." Such distinctions were new in nineteenth-century France: prior to the Revolution, Jews had no choice but to accept the identity that accidents of birth foised upon them. With emancipation came the freedom to assimilate, to abandon the distinctive signs of dress and language that had marked Jews under the Old Regime. The prefect tale allegorizes this Jewish identity crisis. It is literally the founding event of modernity, the French Revolution, that causes the confusion over which child is a Jew. Ben-Lévi refuses to resolve the mystery. Rather, he offers the basis for a new kind of Jewish identity based not on birth, but on moral action and voluntary identification. Prior to the elaborate racial theorizing that would characterize the second half of the nineteenth century, Ben-Lévi's characters have the freedom to leave Judaism behind (although he would still claim such lapsed Jews as Jacoubé and Gustave as subjects of his fiction). And yet it is Paul de Vieuxmenil, though he possesses no outward marks of Jewish identity, who becomes a true Jew in this story, both by acting morally and by seeking to help a fellow Jew in need.

In the prefect story, modernity threatens traditional Judaism, but a modernized Judaism – purged of tradition, reduced to primary ethical impulses and communal solidarity – manages to remake the world in its image. This vision exemplifies the reform ideology of the Archives, which finds its ideal representative in Paul de Vieuxmenil, the aristocratic government bureaucrat, rather than Jacob Samuel, the poor peddlar, who remains too traditional to serve as a model for Jewish modernity. Hope for the future in this story, however, ultimately rests on the shoulders of Jacob's daughter who, though perhaps the descendent of Christian aristocrats, will raise a family of modern Jews thanks to the dowry provided by Paul. In its mixing of styles, its combination of a realist setting with the moralistic features characteristic of the sentimental social novel, the prefect story subverts the Balzacian narrative model; it acknowledges the realist vision of modernity but replaces it with a utopian wish.23

Like many of Ben-Lévi's stories, the prefect tale begins realistically and ends idealistically. Ben-Lévi may thus be closer to George Sand than to Balzac.24 In [End Page 294] George Sand and Idealism, Naomi Schor describes nineteenth-century French idealism as realism's rival – as an aesthetic affiliation, associated with an avoidance of realist description, but also as a political philosophy, opposed to materialism, which conveyed the utopian longings of social progressives during the 1830s and 40s, before the disillusionment of the Revolution of 1848.25 By representing morally superior characters, idealist authors like Sand expressed their hope for a better world. According to Schor, Sand's opposition of idealism to Balzacian realism, her refusal of mimesis, serves as "a strategy for bodying forth her difference" (47), and signifies her opposition to a political and representational order that objectifies the disenfranchised.26

Ben-Lévi uses idealist literary codes for similar ends. In a story from 1841 entitled "Le Médecin des aliénés," a Jewish doctor in a German town renders a service to an aristocratic woman who then invites him to a ball only to humiliate him in front of her friends. The doctor responds with a dignity that teaches the aristocrat the true meaning of nobility. She apologizes by making a large donation to the doctor's clinic. In this story, Ben-Lévi's highly idealized representation of the Jewish doctor – who exemplifies a saintly humility, intelligence, and compassion – makes for a protest against a society that would exclude Jews or seek to degrade them. Like Sand, then, Ben-Lévi uses idealism as a strategy both to protest against injustice in this world and to sketch the contours of a better one. Unlike Sand, however, Ben-Lévi rarely voices criticism against France or French society. In the doctor story, the land of injustice lies across the Rhine, in a Germany that still in the 1840s denied Jews basic civil rights.

Along with Balzac and Sand, Ben-Lévi sought to critique modernity, to warn of its dangers. But whereas the monarchist and Catholic Balzac professed reactionary impulses, Ben-Lévi followed Sand in looking for the ideal in the future rather than the past. As Ben-Lévi's stories recognize, if pre-modern Jews faced fewer temptations, they also had fewer opportunities and confronted greater difficulties. In an 1841 story entitled "Mémoires d'un colporteur juif, écrits par lui-même," the narrator is a hundred-year-old man who describes his life before the Revolution. He recounts how he was forced to roam the Lorraine countryside selling his goods to peasants, and to eke out a meagre living while facing numerous humiliations: "le juif colporteur était en butte à d'incessantes tracasseries, à de perpétuelles persécutions" (687). In opposition to the highly idealized Jewish "village tales" of his contemporary Alexandre Weill, Ben-Lévi's stories do not long nostalgically for the "simple," rustic world of the pre-Revolutionary past.27 Ben-Lévi is too conscious of history, and too pragmatic, to gloss over what was genuinely bad about the good old days. But in the peddler's memoirs, Ben-Lévi does point to certain pleasures that the traditional mode of Jewish life allowed, pleasures that have been lost in modernity: [End Page 295]

Forcé d'être toujours en route, et de courir à pied d'un village à l'autre, je n'avais qu'une consolation; c'était de passer le samedi auprès de mon excellente femme et de mes chers enfants. Aujourd'hui, les Israélites modernes, se disant éclairés, parlent avec un superbe dédain du repos sabbatique, et le samedi peut être considéré comme un des morts de la révolution de juillet; mais pour celui qui vit sans trève ni repos, et qui n'a qu'un jour pour se remettre des fatigues de la semaine; pour celui surtout qui, sans cesse en route, revient passer le samedi au sein de son ménage, quels délices ne trouve-t-il pas dans cette observance religieuse!


For the Jewish peddler of Old Regime France, who made his way on foot from one village to another throughout the week, observance of the Saturday Sabbath represented both rest and reward. To be sure, Ben-Lévi describes the Sabbath ritual as a "consolation" for suffering, rather than a positive boon, but it nevertheless offered the kind of genuine pleasure ("délices") that today's Jews ("les Israélites modernes"), who no longer know suffering, cannot appreciate.

For Ben-Lévi, the progress of modernity was double-edged: it brought great benefits, but also entailed losses. The Jewish peddler serves as a metaphor for this paradox. Reformers who sought to cleanse French Jews of the complexes that were the product of centuries of suffering and persecution saw in the peddler all that was most negative and in need of "regeneration."28 As Ben-Lévi's peddler puts it, "Aujourd'hui, quand on dit d'un homme: 'c'est un colporteur,' on croit avoir épuisé tout ce qu'on peut déverser sur lui de mépris et de dédain." Ben-Lévi's peddler-narrator goes on to point out, however, that the peddler served an important economic function in pre-Revolutionary France by linking isolated villages together: "il était le pivot sur lequel tournaient toutes les transactions importantes" (687). Outdated by modern innovations such as the railroad – which Jews such as the Rothschilds and the Péreires had recently introduced first in France and then elsewhere in Europe – the peddler was destined to obsolescence in the nineteenth century. Martyr and victim, object of scorn both for "ignorant" peasants and for "enlightened" Jews, the peddler represented all that modernity would attempt to repress in the name of progress. But as Ben-Lévi realizes, along with him vanish the rituals and observances that he alone could appreciate fully.

In the second installment of the peddler's memoirs, published in 1842, the old man recounts his exploits during the Revolution of 1789. Anticipating modernizing trends by renouncing his itinerant ways and setting up shop in Paris, the former peddler receives the patronage of Marie-Antoinette, and later contrives to comfort the queen when she is imprisoned at the Conciergerie during the Revolution. Arrested for his counter-revolutionary action, he is saved from the scaffold by his jailer, a member of the Comittee of Public Safety named Pereyra, who turns out to be an "Israélite du Midi." A Sephardic Jew, Peyreyra's sense of solidarity to a coreligionist, even a poor peddler from Lorraine, [End Page 296] trumps his revolutionary zeal: "dans cette âme ardente et dans cet esprit consumé par la fièvre révolutionnaire, les premiers sentiments de la religion ne s'éteignirent jamais" (466).29 The story's dénouement hinges on the unlikely chance of the old peddler falling into the hands of a fellow Jew in the midst of the Terror, but also on the idealist notion that a sense of Jewish solidarity and human compassion would awaken even in the heart of a revolutionary extremist.

Ben-Lévi ends the peddler's memoirs in the midst of the Revolution, the very event that would free Jews to become citizens of France, that would set them on the path to modernity. As in his other stories, he expresses the hope that "the first sentiments of religion" will survive the turmoil of modernity and persist, improbably, into the new century – like the hundred-year-old peddler himself. But what are these religious "sentiments"? They are not the virtues of obeying laws and strictures. They are not even the pleasures of enjoying the Sabbath. These elements of traditional Judaism Ben-Lévi seems to view as a lost cause – regrettable, perhaps, but not suitable to the modern world. What Ben-Lévi shows to be capable of persisting, both in this story and in others, is a reformed Judaism, based on universal ethical principles and communal solidarity: Paul helping Jacob, Pereyra helping the peddler. These sentiments are no less threatened by modernity – they would have no meaning for a Jacoubé or a Gustave, before his boat trip down the Seine. But these sentiments at least have a chance for survival: they remain, in a dormant state, after a Jew becomes a lion, a cynic, a soldier, an aristocrat, or a revolutionary. It is the task set by Ben-Lévi's fiction, and the journal in which they appeared, to revive these sentiments and to actualize them in the modern world. Ben-Lévi is a realist in his analysis of the way modernity threatens traditional structures of Jewish identity. He is an idealist in his belief that a reformed Judaism can also reform modernity.

Ben-Lévi's stories emerge from the archive of the nineteenth century to provide a new perspective on the history of both French and Jewish culture–and on their intersection – in this period. Long seen as paragons of assimilation, French Jews in the period leading up to the Dreyfus Affair are frequently depicted as having gladly surrendered their traditional or particular identity for an entrance ticket to France's universal culture.30 Ben-Lévi's stories indicate, however, that even as early as the 1840s, French Jews were able to temper their enthusiasm for emancipation, recognizing the perils of their new situation while welcoming its possibilities. His fiction reveals that other fates besides homogenization and assimilation were imagined for French Jews, and signals the existence of Jewish agency and creativity in the face of momentous social change.31

Ben-Lévi's stories also provide a new perspective on literary history. They are not only among the first examples of fiction written by, about, and for [End Page 297] Jews in French, but they are also among the earliest examples in French of what might be called "the fiction of ethnic difference." Though French writers from Montaigne to Montesquieu had used characters from "other" cultures as a lens for critiquing French society, Ben-Lévi is one of the first writers from a minority ethnic group to describe that group's struggle to define its identity in a modern pluralistic society. As such, his stories foreshadow the preoccupations of much post-colonial francophone fiction.

These stories innovate, finally, in their deployment of French literary conventions to confront specifically Jewish dilemmas. Ben-Lévi fused realism and idealism with the aim of transforming Judaism and of reconfiguring modernity itself. His stories thus show scholars of French culture that certain literary codes were more widely used and more versatile than we might previously have imagined. His stories also show scholars of Jewish culture, who often overlook France, that French Jews in the mid-ninteenth century may in fact hold the key to understanding the genealogy of Jewish modernity. For it was in Paris, the "capital of the nineteenth century," that the modern age first took shape, and it was French Jews who, as the first Jews in Europe to enjoy full civil rights, were on modernity's front lines.

Maurice Samuels
Department of Romance Languages
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia PA 19104-6305


1. France’s Sephardic Jews gained civil rights in 1790 and Ashkenazic Jews in 1791. On the emancipation process during the French Revolution, see Hyman (1998, 17-35). On debates over Jewish emancipation in this period, see Schechter (150-155) and Schwarzfuchs (1979, 9-12). Although French Jews became citizens during the French Revolution, the last legal barrier to their equality – the special oath, or more judaico, they were required to take in court – was not abolished until 1846.

2. Berkovitz (2004) notes that while "modernization clearly preceded the emancipation of central European Jewry [...] the situation was far different in France" (107).

3. There were also small communities of Sephardic Jews in and around Bordeaux, as [End Page 298] well as in Avignon and Paris. Although more acculturated than the far more numerous Ashkenazic communities in France’s Eastern provinces, Schechter argues that their economic condition was equally precarious (27-31).

4. Hyman (1991) notes that the process of modernization for France’s Jews was "un-even": while great changes had taken place in the Parisian community by 1830, the shift to modernity occurred much more slowly for the mass of Alsatian Jews (4).

5. According to Albert, there were 70-80,000 Jews out of a total French population of 33 million (24).

6. Three Jews were elected to the Chamber of Deputies in the 1840s.

7. According to Albert, by 1851, 45.1 percent of French Jews lived in large towns or cities, versus only 17.9 percent for the total French population (22-23).

8. Recent comparative studies of Jewish emancipation include edited volumes by Birnbaum and Katznelson and by Frankel and Zipperstein.

9. For a series of articles on both images of Jews and Jewish self-imaging in European literature in the "long nineteenth century," see Cheyette and Valman. Significantly, the only essay on Franco-Jewish writing focuses on Proust. For a description of recent scholarship on nineteenth-century Anglo-Jewish writing in particular, see Valman.

10. On Godchaux Weil’s charitable activities, see Piette (40, 64, 166, 186-187).

11. Bloch-Dano briefly discusses Godchaux Weil’s literary activities as Ben-Lévi in her new biography of Proust’s mother, but mistakenly refers to Weil as the editor-in-chief of the Archives israélites (58).

12. At its beginning in 1840, the Archives counted 450 subscribers. By 1843, this number had risen to about 1000. Parisian Jewish subscribers came mostly from the upper bourgeoisie and the liberal professions. Many of the prominent Jews of the time subscribed, including the Rothschilds, the Péreires, the Foulds, the Halévys, Olinde Rodrigues, and Adolphe Crémieux. Subscribers also included some Jews in the provinces (mostly merchants) as well as a small number of foreigners. The small number of non-Jews on the published subsciption list includes Delphine de Girardin and, after, 1843, King Louis-Philippe and his family. Philippe (VI-VII).

13. The writers for the Archives treat any use of the term "Juif," rather than "Israélite," as an insult because it carried negative connotations. In his 1842 "Cinquième lettre d’un humoriste," subtitled "Les complices d’un adjectif," Ben-Lévi describes how the dictionary of the Académie Française defines "le Juif" as "un homme qui prête à usure" (147). Significantly, Schwarzfuchs titles his study of nineteenth-century French Jewry, Du Juif à l’israélite: Histoire d’une mutation (1770-1870).

14. On the reform movement in France, see Meyer (164-171) and Berkovitz (2004, 152-156, 191-212).

15. For example, writers for the Archives, including Ben-Lévi, supported separate Jewish charities and hospitals.

16. Famous Jews such as the actress Rachel Félix, the composer Fromental Halévy, and the jurist and politician Adolphe Crémieux received constant mention, but the Archives also [End Page 299] singled out Jews who attained a high grade in the army, won prizes, or graduated from prestigious schools.

17. English Jews faced certain legal restrictions until 1858. Although Napoleon legislated Jewish emancipation in the countries he conquered, many countries revoked it following the collapse of the French Empire in 1814. Most Jews in German-speaking lands did not gain full legal and political equality until German unification in 1871.

18. Balzac published Grandeur et décadence de César Birotteau, marchand parfumeur in 1837.

19. Throughout this article, I give page references to Ben-Lévi’s fiction referring to the volume (year) of the Archives israélites in which the story was published. If two consecutive citations come from the same page, I provide the number after the first citation.

20. In his "Deuxième lettre d’un humoriste," Ben-Lévi offers a "physiologie" of three types – rabbis, rabbi-lovers, and rabbi-haters – to be found in the Paris Jewish community (19). Balzac published his Physiologie du mariage in 1829.

21. In his lecture, "Science As a Vocation" (1919), Max Weber describes the "disenchantment of the world" in modern times and the replacement of the sacred by technology and calculation (13).

22. Balzac published Les Employés (originally titled La Femme supérieure) in 1838.

23. Balzac himself, of course, often departs from what I am calling the "Balzacian narrative model." As Brooks shows, his plots are often highly melodramatic. And as Cohen underscores, Balzac borrowed heavily from the sentimental novel (associated with fiction by women) that preceded him. I would note that a few of Balzac’s novels, such as Le Médecin de campagne and L’Envers de l’histoire contemporaine, also contain utopian or idealist elements.

24. Sand’s Indiana (1832) begins in a realist mode by depicting the manners–and material surroundings–of a bourgeois French family, but ends on an island in the Indian ocean, where the female protagonist and her male companion establish a kind of utopian community dedicated to freeing slaves. As Cohen notes, the detached realist narrator of the beginning of the novel disappears in the novel’s conclusion, which focuses on sentiment rather than material description (152-53).

25. In one of Ben-Lévi’s last stories, "L’Armoire d’ébène," published in October of 1848, a young Jew supports the Revolution of 1848 in its early phase as part of a revolt against his stern, traditionalist father. After he reconciles with his father, he dies on the barricades in June, fighting for the forces of Order. The uncharacteristically pessimistic, and conservative, ending reflects the author’s disillusionment with utopian ideals.

26. "Idealism for Sand is finally the only alternative representational mode available to those who do not enjoy the privileges of subjecthood in the real" (Schor 54).

27. Alexandre Weill began publishing his Histoires de village first in German, and later in the French newspaper, Le Corsaire-Satan, in the 1840s. On Weill, see Friedmann.

28. Berkovitz (1989) describes how the movement for Jewish regeneration paradoxically defined progress as a "return to an idealized past," (140). Also see his discussion of [End Page 300] regeneration in Rites and Passages (105-107).

29. In one episode of the Matinées du samedi, entitled "Le Cosaque et le Parisien," Ben-Lévi tells a similar story. A Jewish soldier in Napoleon’s army is wounded during the Russian campaign. A Cossack soldier approaches and is about to kill him when the French Jew recites the "Schema" prayer. The Cossack reveals himself to be a Polish Jew and spares his life. A lithograph depicting this episode faces the title page in the 1842 edition of the book.

30. For a description of the assimilating drive of nineteenth-century French Jews, see Marrus.

31. As Rodrigue notes in his history of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, Ben-Lévi would be one of the first to call for the founding of an international Jewish aid society in a non-fiction article published in the Archives israélites in 1844 (20). His "outsider" status – typified by his failure to be elected to the Paris Consistory in 1850 – confirms Graetz’s theory that it was "peripheral" Jews who represented the most dynamic and forward-looking segment of the French Jewish community in the mid-nineteenth century.

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