- The Jew's Daughter: A Cultural History of a Conversion Narrative by Efraim Sicher
The Jew's Daughter: A Cultural History of a Conversion Narrative
Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017. 322 pp.
In Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, after the fair Jewish daughter Jessica ("Most beautiful pagan! Most sweet Jew!") converts to Christianity and elopes with the handsome Lorenzo, we hear how her father, Shylock, the "dog Jew," wails in despair at being robbed of both his money and his masculinity: "My daughter! O my ducats! . . . two rich and precious stones, / Stolen by my daughter!" This iconic image of the beautiful Jewess and her ugly, emasculated father is one of scores of such depictions that together constitute the subject of Efraim Sicher's rich and ambitious study, which spans a millennium of cultural production, including literature, theater, art and film. This is neither a general history of anti-Semitism nor an analysis of one isolated anti-Jewish stereotype. Rather, The Jew's Daughter traces the perennial image of "the Jew and his daughter as a gendered pair in a binary relation" (p. 10), considering it in both its negative and its positive manifestations. The text aims to establish "how the narrative of the Jew and his daughter informs discourses about gender, sexuality, race, and nationhood in European societies from the eleventh to the twenty-first centuries" (p. 2).
To present a full description of the book's contents would be challenging, because it takes in so many examples across so many periods. Nevertheless, its roughly chronological structure allows for a comprehensive birds-eye view. The Introduction justifies both the particular focus on the father-daughter pair and the extensive period over which this pair is chronicled. Although Sicher refrains from discussing religious polemics in great detail, he is right to start with the "dual image" of Judaism in Christian thought, both reviled and fetishized. Reminding us of the ambivalent image of Synagoga, so ubiquitous in medieval iconography, as young and fair but also blindfolded and defeated, Sicher reads this image as a theological expression of the Roman theme of the captured daughter of Zion, Judea Capta, commemorated on Roman coins issued under Titus.
Chapter One, "Genesis," then treats the medieval origins of the image of the Jew's daughter, focusing on the medieval ballad "Sir Hugh, or the Jew's Daughter," associated [End Page 230] with the blood libel of Hugh of Lincoln (1255) (p. 25). The predatory evil of the Jew's daughter in helping to murder the innocent little Christian boy, Hugh, becomes in subsequent legends also a betrayal of the father himself after she is seduced by a Christian suitor. Sicher alludes briefly to the persistent gendering of anti-Jewish polemical discourse in medieval Europe, in which ugly Jewish males—deformed, effeminate, diseased and obstinately resisting conversion—were the counterpoint to beautiful young Jewish daughters whose willingness to convert symbolized the salvation of Israel itself in its new Christian form.
Chapter Two, "The Book of Esther," looks at another medieval legend, that of Rachel, "the Jewess of Toledo," in which the Jew's daughter becomes the mistress of the Christian king. As a reworking of the book of Esther, this legend emphasizes the Jew's daughter as a dangerous point of contact between cultures. In this scenario, "the Jew-father is usually lurking somewhere behind the Beautiful Jewess, representing the power of some Jewish conspiracy or lobby undermining the state" (p. 15).
Chapter Three, "Daughteronomy," looks at England in the sixteenth century, in which the most iconic representations of the Jew's daughter appear in Marlowe's Jew of Malta (1592) and Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice (1594–1596). Sicher here presents "the daughter of the Jew as a vehicle for amplifying uncertainties about nation and religious identities and the uncertainties of conversion in general" (p. 91). Among those anxieties are the economic concerns that emerged as England began to expand rapidly as a maritime power and trading empire (p. 106).
Chapter Four, "Exodus," turns to the image of the beautiful Jew's daughter in German texts from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, taking up both the real-life...