THE “NEW WOMAN” AND THE EMERGENCE OF THE MODERN JEWISH MAN
Studies of Victorian Jewish men have for the most part focused on the men’s political and practical achievements as they entered modernity. Scholars have been concerned to describe men’s attempts to gain emancipation in Parliament; to free Syrian and Rumanian Jews from persecution; to respond to the secession of a group of prominent members of the community to establish a reform synagogue; and to form such Anglo-Jewish institutions as Jews’ College, the Jews’ and General Literary and Scientific Institute, and the Board of Deputies of British Jews. While such an approach succeeds in illuminating the activities that preoccupied men in the “public” worlds of the synagogue and the Parliament, it leaves in shadow the effect of modernity on men’s perception of their roles in the “domestic” world. It does not adequately describe men’s perceptions of the changing relations of men and women, or of their changing experiences and definitions of masculinity.
Between 1830 and 1875, in more than thirty-five articles in eleven periodicals, Jewish men repeatedly acknowledged that their behavior toward women was less than ideal and that their approach to their own gender needed revision. While defending themselves against conversionists’—and Jewish women’s—charges that they oppressed Jewish women, they nonetheless began to call for increased female education and greater access for women to communal privileges. At the same time, even men who supported these reforms began to fear that creating a more egalitarian community would mean the loss of male power and privileges. Worse, the merging of the separate spheres threatened to undermine men’s sense of what made them separate and unique—in a word, their masculinity. These fears, along with men’s concern that communal integrity and continuity had to be maintained, prevented them from altering their behavior or opening their educational and synagogal institutions to women to any large degree, even when they acknowledged the necessity for doing so. In a few cases, the fear of change prompted even reformist men to censor the most prominent evidence of women’s educational advancement—their books. If Jewish women were being subjected to a conversionist campaign from the dominant culture, they were also the subject of a rather fearful and confused effort among Jewish men to limit the penetration of egalitarian ideas into the domestic recesses of communal life.
In such a contentious milieu a scholar of Victorian literature might have expected a number of Jewish male fiction writers to have worked through the changing roles of men and women in novels. With only a few exceptions, however, Jewish men did not tend to think through their cultural cruxes in fictional terms. They did not publish many novels or tales or stories, finding such forms trivial or un-Jewish. The exceptions only appeared toward the end of the struggle for emancipation in the late 1850s, when Jewish men began to assert that the novel form was the cultural literary form that, when assimilated, would enable them to be fully accepted into dominant culture. These late fictional efforts—late since women had already been publishing fiction since 1830—definitely addressed the issue of men’s relation to women, as the discussion of Matthias Levy’s The Hasty Marriage; A Sketch of Modern Jewish Life (1857) in this chapter demonstrates.
But if Jewish men were late in adopting fiction from the dominant culture as a legitimate means of Jewish male expression, they did write midrashim—interpretive retellings of biblical and Talmudic stories—which bore the cast of their Victorian acculturation; and many of these midrashim spoke to the issue of women’s roles in the community. Not surprisingly, most of these stories depict the relationship between men and women as a relationship between fathers and daughters. Desirous of assimilating English forms wherever possible, Anglo-Jewish men structured their midrashim similarly to the father/daughter conflict found in the romances of Scott and the conversionists. They could do so without feeling that they had betrayed Jewish tradition, for there was an ancient Jewish custom of referring to all women as “Daughters of Israel” in relation to their fathers, husbands, and the Almighty Father. Drawing both on the English Christian romance, and on Jewish patriarchy, these midrashim disclosed a benevolent paternalism with a barely concealed coercive underside.
SEPARATE SPHERES: TRADITIONALISTS
The Jewish male presses responded to the conversionists’ accusations of Jewish women’s oppression and vulnerability with angry rebuttals. Both traditionalists and reformers resisted the idea that Judaism oppressed women, although the two groups resisted on rather different grounds. In 1846, a long article in Jacob A. Franklin’s traditionalist periodical the Voice of Jacob, entitled “Position of Israel’s Women,” argued that “It has frequently been asserted, that Judaism does not award the same justice to the gentler sex that other religious systems do.” On the contrary, says the editor, the Jewish woman is treated better in Judaism than women were treated by the Greeks and Romans, “which were wont to admire, or perhaps to ridicule, in an over sensitive chivalry.” Judaism was not a romantic tradition—that is, as Franklin understands the term, not a tradition based on a man’s placing a woman on a pedestal for her beauty alone—but rather a tradition in which all things, including love and issues of sexual equality, were based on a communally authorized moral vision that was primarily expressed in the performance of mitzvot, or commandments derived from rabbinical interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. To show how the Jewish tradition is different from romantic chivalry, he points to the biblical examples of Miriam, who had greater powers of prophecy than Moses, and Deborah, who shows that “a woman was not thought incapable of exercising the highest functions (those of Judge), in the then Jewish Commonwealth … [women] are always represented as the equals of men.” Women are not on pedestals for their beauty; their judgment and insight are respected. If most of the prophets and judges were men, this does not undermine the principle that they may be women. To prove this the editor adduces biographies of learned Jewish women, and discusses the characteristics of the good woman to be found in Proverbs 31.1
This sort of double message—women may be learned and prophetic, but need not be—is characteristic of Franklin’s attitude toward women’s roles. Franklin criticizes some halachic sages’ “misunderstanding of female character,” arguing that their sexism was due to the fact that they lived in the East and were influenced by Islamic customs. By denying the conversionist commonplace that English Jews are “orientals,” he is able to deny Anglo-Jewish men’s sexism. At the same time, he justifies the halachic exemptions of women from time-bound positive commandments on the grounds that these exemptions are “founded on some physical disability or impropriety.” The disability is women’s “weakness,” the “natural” excuse for exempting women from heavy labor. The greater number of exemptions are justified by reference to a particular ritual act’s “impropriety,” meaning that the act would conflict with women’s need to fulfill duties in the home. What appears to be inequity can be explained from the Jewish notion of the separation of spheres.2 The Rabbis, he argues, did not exempt women from learning Torah, but only from “the more abstruse points, not of religion, but of the subtleties of theology.” For this traditionalist writer, the difference between religion and theology appears to be the difference between ritual actions, and the theory behind them. Men learn the abstract theory and are responsible for most ritual acts. For women, most rituals would compete with “the discharge of women’s particular duties”—that is, child rearing and running the domestic economy. In terms of education, women are responsible for knowing only their limited number of duties, which are so time-consuming that to take time out to learn the theory behind them would be “improper.” Moreover, women are innately holier than men, and therefore need study less. Besides having greater powers of prophecy than men (i.e., women’s intuition) as Miriam had, women make better martyrs. Franklin claims that “at the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, it was the women … who encouraged their husbands, sons, their parents, and their brothers to prefer exile with its horrors, to the preferred alternative [conversion].” More aligned with Scott than the conversionists, he believes Sephardic women the least vulnerable to conversion.3 But paradoxically, this strength is due to the fact that, just as the conversionists argued, Jewish women are more spiritual than Jewish men. This traditionalist Jewish man agrees with the conversionists that Jewish women are more spiritual; he disagrees with them about how that spirituality ought to be interpreted.
The next year The Voice of Jacob attacked the conversionists’ “chivalry” again, arguing that Jewish women were held in much higher esteem than Christian women were in the days of Christian chivalry, when Christian mothers were “little more than an upper servant.” Chivalry, which for Scott was at the heart of romance, is heartily disliked by a traditionalist magazine, for it turns out that romance is the code word for reform in the Jewish subculture, and all that pertains to reform is anathema.4 Accordingly, Franklin argues that in Judaism, the love between a man and a woman is based on a model that differed from that promoted by romance. Neither degrading nor elevating the role of the woman, the Song of Songs “proves that Judaism, much as it has been assailed, … fostered a very high regard, if not a deep and tender respect, for man’s best friend, his help-mate; and for the home, … the seed-bed of all happiness.” While to a late-twentieth-century feminist, this description of the married woman in her home may make her sound more like a treasured pet than an equal, the writer insists that the Song of Songs shows that “the lover and his loved one are placed on the same high level. They feel, they manifest, reciprocal regard and passion.”5 Both choose in this model of mutuality. Both choose, even though the male is still the “lover”—the active one—the female “his loved one”—the possessed object of his desire. Both choose, but one of these equals clearly does more of the choosing than the other.
When the editor’s idea of reciprocity between men and women is challenged by a regular contributor, Amicus Veri, who points out the inequities of polygamy, levirate marriage, divorce, and adultery laws in Deuteronomy, as well as a host of other passages where women’s inferiority is alleged, the editor replies in a more careful vein: “We did not contend that the Jews as such place the female on the same footing with the male; but we endeavoured to show that the Jewish law does not, as has been said, pronounce woman the mere attendant of man. We argued that the law of Moses regards woman as an independent being, having rights and duties, both religious and social—and moreover that as a human being she is of equal importance with man in the eyes of the Lord: for instance, it is just the same crime to murder a woman as to murder a man.”6 Women’s equality in the eyes of God for purposes of being murdered does not, however, translate into equality of rights and duties because of the separation of spheres. Indeed, the traditionalist men’s idea of reciprocity, such as it was, ultimately did not extend to such areas of Jewish life as education.
Still, traditionalist men’s ideas of the separation of spheres, although echoing Jewish tradition’s exemption of women from learning, had been altered by their confrontation with the modern world—and specifically with the very different Victorian ideology of separate spheres. In the Judaism that existed in autonomous Jewish communities of the Middle Ages, both the man’s and woman’s duties had been equally religious, but had taken place in different locations—the man’s religious duties took place in the yeshiva, the woman’s in the home and in the market. “Secular” duties did not exist. Judaism was a total ideology comprising law, ethics, politics, economics, gastronomy, philosophy.7 But as Judaism confronted the modern world, Anglo-Jewish men modified this notion that men and women tend separate, but equally holy, gardens. Assimilating the non-Jewish Victorian model of separation of spheres, they now asserted that women were the primary religious providers, while men were the primary “secular” providers.8 Now religion was concentrated in three places, in the synagogue, in acts of charity in poor neighborhoods, and in the home—the latter two of these being women’s sphere. The public sphere of business and politics was divested of religiosity, became “secular,” and became man’s. The woman at home was the mainspring of religiosity, “grafting” religion onto her children’s hearts. The Victorian traditionalist separation of spheres, which distinguished men’s and women’s spheres as secular and religious, respectively, is not the same as the traditional separation, which distinguished men’s and women’s spheres as separate but equally religious. Traditionalists assimilated Victorian Christians’ “feminization of religion,” the phrase historians have begun using to describe the evangelical domestication of religion during the period.9 As one traditionalist man succinctly put it, “The chief honour of a female is religion.”10
To B. H. A., a regular traditionalist contributor to M. H. Bresslau’s reformist Hebrew Review and Magazine of Jewish Literature, this ideology of separate and unequal spheres had important consequences for Jewish women’s education: “The ultimate aim of education in all ages has been to render mankind perfect in their spiritual nature,” he writes in 1859. “But as nature has assigned different avocations to the male and female, so has it laid down an especial rule for the guidance of men, and a separate system for the education of women. … Female education should have no other aim … than the development of the feminine qualities with which woman is endowed. Her feelings, wishes, sympathies, should have full scope for action; whilst, on the other hand, the masculine virtues of firmness, seriousness, and self-dependence, must be inculcated upon the mind of man.”11 But this separation of educational ideals does not mean that women should not be educated at all. In fact, quite the opposite, given that “The chief honour of a female is religion.” Since the primary site of religiosity is shifting during the period to the home and to charitable action, and since the home and charities are assigned to women, women must be spiritual providers while their husbands bring home the secular public bread.12 B. H. A. remarks that Jewish women can only “engraft” religion “on the heart of their tender offspring” and on the hearts of the “humble” if they are educated themselves. In other words, as traditionalist Victorian Jews assimilate Anglo-Christian forms of religiosity, women’s religious education becomes increasingly important. B. H. A. goes on to propose a condescending three-fold system of education for women: (a) a “thorough, clear, easy, and abridged history of the creation,” (b) “an equally abridged and instructive history of our religion and nationality,” and (c) “a compact, well-digested, and authentic course of the ethical dogmas and principles of our religion as laid down … by Moses Maimonides.” Like Glanville, the philo-Semite in M. G. Lewis’s Jewish Maiden, this Jewish man would provide Jewish women with nothing too difficult or abstract—just enough to make them the equals in religiosity of their female Christian neighbors.13
But lest one should think from the condescending tone of his proposals that he is not serious, he outlines the grave consequences of neglecting this type of women’s education. He disagrees with the editor of the Voice of Jacob that Jewish women’s constancy is sufficient, for he argues that Christian hegemony is extremely strong: “The Christian youth meets with encouragement by the worldly grandeur of his persuasion; the whole civil constitution is so peculiarly arranged as to interweave with his actions and regulations the ideas of the prevailing religion. How different, however, is it with our youth. Externally restrained by a peculiar position, and tempted by allurements of apostasy,—internally agitated by the difficulty of the tenets of his religion.” If young men will be tempted, young women, whose minds are more malleable, will be more so. Indeed, some women have already been influenced, if not by apostasy, then by the other dangers posed by Christian cultural hegemony—fashion and romance. One man complains of the “excessive love of dress and finery … which characterises so unmistakeably the female portion of our community.” Among the upper classes, this fashion consciousness is a direct result of “the mysteries of ‘Lady Audley’s Secret,’ ‘No Name,’ and ‘Cary’s Confessions,’ … ‘Edith the Captive.’ ” Romance-novel reading is connected to fashion and this is connected to the neglect of duty. “In the meantime the household duties are neglected; the education … is overlooked; … the money that was so hard to earn is swiftly squandered away; and in many cases … bankruptcy, and ruin crown this awful evil.”14 Such are the least of the evils springing from a neglect of women’s proper education.
But if the consequences of neglecting women’s education are romance reading, fashion consciousness, neglect of duty, and apostasy, another writer, the translator of Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem into English and a Talmudist, argues that there are equally severe consequences for teaching Jewish women too much. “He who crams his daughter’s brain with a prolix exposition of the Mosaic or ceremonial law, teaches her something unsuitable to the calling of a woman” inasmuch as she becomes “an impertinent reasoner, who at last neglects her duties as a housewife.”15 A measure of education is necessary in order to maintain the new separation of spheres in which women are primarily responsible for infusing religion into their children, but too much education will dissolve the separation of spheres altogether, inasmuch as women will become “impertinent reasoners.” A delicate balance must be achieved.
MALE CHAMPIONS: REFORMERS
In seeming contrast to this doctrine of separation of spheres, Jewish men interested in reforms in the community argued that women’s education was a central point to be achieved.16 In his inaugural sermon, David Woolf Marks, the founding rabbi of reform’s home in Burton Street, the West London Synagogue for British Jews, attempts to sketch out “what the house of worship once was, and what it can become in our days.” Among other things, he argues that in biblical days, religious instruction was not “limited to either age or sex. Indeed, there were certain periods, when it was compulsory upon all the women to attend the holy house, to hear the word of God expounded,” he argues, quoting the passage in the book of Nehemiah where Ezra reads before men and women.17 Woman is “in every way [man’s] equal” and is endowed “with wondrous perceptions, that she might participate … in the full discharge of every moral and religious obligation.” Note that he does not say that women might participate in every “legal” obligation; reformers’ demotion of halacha, their promotion of Judaism as a moral or religious ideology, rather than as a total ideology encompassing law as well as ethics, opens the space to promote a nontraditional view of women’s role. His suggestion to ameliorate women’s current lack of knowledge is to have them attend his sermons on the Sabbath, or in lieu of that, to read the published versions of them, so that they may provide “home instruction in matters that appertain to the essentials of the Mosaic faith.”18 Women’s active understanding of the ethics underlying Scripture is one major difference between the goals of reformers and traditionalists. The ethically informed woman will make a good educator of small children.
But while reformist men made several efforts at educating girls and women, these efforts were rather paltry and unenthusiastically undertaken. M. H. Bresslau published a series of meditations on the weekly Torah portion in a book called Sabbath Evenings At Home, primarily directed at educating women. And the Jewish Association for the Diffusion of Religious Knowledge distributed didactic tracts for women’s use. But, as will become apparent in the next chapter, it was primarily Anglo-Jewish women who both polemicized for the expansion of female education efforts in their writings and spearheaded the practical realization of a Jewish Girls’ School and Jewish women’s literature.
More frequently, reformers contented themselves with applauding the efforts made by women. Beginning in 1856, Abraham Benisch, the reform-leaning editor of the Jewish Chronicle, began to recognize the prevalence of women writers dedicated to women’s education. Benisch looked around him for signs of a developing Anglo-Jewish literature and was amazed. In a review of Imrei Lev, Prayers and Meditations for Every Situation and Occasion in Life, Hester Rothschild’s translation and adaptation of tekhinot, or women’s daily prayers, he exclaimed:
It is a remarkable phenomenon on the horizon of Anglo-Jewish literature that it is women, not men, that shine there as the principal stars. The translations of Miss Goldsmid and the original writings of the late Miss Aguilar and Mrs. H. Montefiore, are productions of which the community may well be proud. It is in vain that we seek for an explanation of this phenomenon. We cannot look for it in the nature of our literature, for its abstract character and gravity seem to hold out little attraction to the female mind, nor can we discover it in precedent, emulation, or example set elsewhere, for female authors have been comparatively rare in Jewish literature, nor is this field at all cultivated by continental Jewesses. Teeming as the modern German and French Jewish presses do with literary productions, we are not yet acquainted with one which proceeded from a female mind. This distinctive mark seems to be wholly and entirely reserved for the Anglo-Jewish literature.19
For Benisch, “literature” primarily meant translations of Talmudic and biblical text and commentaries, but here he includes as well the fictional and polemical productions of Grace Aguilar, Anna Maria Goldsmid, and Charlotte Montefiore. Still, Benisch and other reformist men showed signs of anxiety about women’s initiative.20 Benisch’s response to this “remarkable phenomenon” was to found a Jewish men’s literary club and offer prizes for the best essays. As the years passed, and still no Jewish male champion of letters stepped forward, he continued to lament the lack.
Women’s emergence as writers continued to produce praise mixed with anxiety among reformist men over the next three decades. In 1858, and again in 1860, 1867, and 1887, the Chronicle reprinted a list of short biographies of historical “Learned Jewish Women” by Dr. Carmoly.21 The Chronicle’s anonymous “Communal Weekly Gossip” took one occasion of the reprint of the article to make the following observation:
This [list] of learned Jewish women furnished by Dr. Carmoly … is far from being complete. It might be carried on to great advantage … to our own time. Our own England, in our age, takes the lead of them. There is at present not a country which either absolutely or relatively can boast of so many distinguished daughters of Israel as Great Britain. In fact, it is our women who at this moment represent Anglo-Jewish authorship; nor do they unworthily represent Anglo-Jewish learning, piety, and zeal. But for the mental activity displayed by them, but for the ardour of Jewish feeling manifested by them, the history of Anglo-Jewish inner religious life and higher aspirations would present a blank. Jewish men have in our own time performed comparatively little; but Jewish women have excelled.
Perhaps by praising these women and reprinting the article the Chronicle hoped to fend off criticism by conversionists and Jewish women themselves that reform-minded men in the community had for the most part neglected to keep their promise to educate women.
Although ostensibly reforming men were committed to the goal of women’s education, it was difficult to find them taking the issue seriously, even as late as the 1860s. Many reformers were finally no less committed to the separation of spheres than their more traditional contemporaries. Michaelis Silberstein, translator from German of Herder, a life of Mendelssohn, and other “enlightened” texts, argues that “There is nothing that makes women more unpleasant, and consequently more unhappy, than if they overstep the charming contrast of the sexes, in assuming the occupations and the cares of a man, and in usurping his sphere of activity and education.” He goes on to point to the prayer in the Birkhot Hashachar, the morning blessings, thanking God that man is not a woman and exclaims: “what man on earth would not utter such a prayer? who would not thank God most fervently that he has not made him like a woman, but that he has girded him with strength, to go forth as a valiant defender of his fatherland, as a righteous judge.… What prayer would the learned editor utter in time of need and danger, if a beloved wife, a mother, a sister, or any other of the weaker sex, looked up to him for protection?”22 The difference between Silberstein and a traditionalist is that where the traditionalist is disgusted by chivalry as a Christian invention, the reformer here invokes chivalry to support the Jews’ anglicized version of the separation of spheres.
Even those reformers who supported a less severe separation than Silberstein tended to invoke the chivalric paradigm. On November 8, 1861, in an editorial possessively titled “Our Women,” Benisch claimed that “Ungallant men assailed the fair sex” as frivolous, mercenary, extravagant, and conversionist. Women responded with a “brave defense made by the women themselves.” By this “brave defense” he seems to mean the literary production of Aguilar, Charlotte Montefiore, Hester Rothschild, Anna Maria Goldsmid, Maria Polack, and the Moss sisters. The men’s time having been, until 1858, taken up with securing the removal of Jewish disabilities in Parliament, they have not been able to attend to the issue of the conversionist attack on women. But now it is time, he says, for “male champions” to come “into the field.” Like Silberstein, Benisch is not troubled by metaphors derived from chivalry, as his more traditionalist counterparts are, for he is committed to anglicization, to appropriating the forms of English Christian thought, as he sees them, wherever possible. These romance categories of male champions defending members of the fair sex are, in his perception, the English way to think about men and women. Romance is intimately connected with anglicization; anglicization is intimately connected to reform.23
As a male champion, Benisch argues that the charges against Jewish women by their men are false. Still, he finds himself having to admit that women,
in a religious point of view, unfortunately constitute the weakness of our camp.… Whilst in all denominations around us the females frequently form the broad arteries in which the religious life circulates, and always the capillary vessels through which it is carried into the households, … our own women, as a rule, are devoid of religious enthusiasm, and not rarely indifferent, if not absolutely hostile, to all religious aspirations. … Just compare the number of female worshippers attending the synagogues on Sabbath with those crowding the Churches on Sundays. Just compare the amount of Biblical and religious knowledge possessed by our women with that acquired by our neighbours. … Those acquainted with the communal history will have no difficulty in tracing many, if not most, of the losses [i.e., apostasies] sustained by the Jewish body to the pernicious influence exercised by women in their capacities as wives or mothers. This is a phenomenon perceived only in modern time.
According to Benisch, modern Jewish women not only are culpable when members of their family convert, but also are more easily drawn to Christianity than Jewish men because they are “less satisfied with the abstract than with the concrete, loving to individualise their ideal, whilst yet placing it beyond the bounds of the human.” Loving to individualize an ideal is a necessity in adopting Christianity, which has in the person of Jesus individualized the ideal of divinity. To prevent Jewish women from needing such a crutch, he argues, they must be educated in the theory of Judaism just like the men: “We must begin by unrolling before the female mind the glorious principles upon which Judaism is based”—including the unity of God, Israel’s mission, the halacha, and history. “We must fill the female heart with an ideal Israel. … Once convince the intellect … and enthusiasm is sure to come.” At any rate, such an outcome is “much more likely” than if they are expected to follow “mere mechanical injunction.” Benisch’s desire that the Jewish community should stand up to Christian standards of religiosity drives him to argue for expansion of women’s intellect beyond the traditionalists’ inculcation of acts without theory. To aid this education in abstractions, Benisch calls for the creation of “a popular religious literature in the vernacular” (his own translation of the Pentateuch being a prime example), and for the institution of a Bat Mitzvah, arguing that “our females will feel themselves raised to the equals of men, and proud of the distinction of having been received into religious fellowship.”24 The need to produce Jewish women who are just as religious as Christian women, and to secure a separate religious sphere safely in the home, pushes Benisch to argue for what many considered radical reforms. The next several issues of the Chronicle were filled with angry responses to his editorial.
As Benisch’s editorial shows, by the 1860s the Woman Question had made it to the national agenda in Victorian England, and had begun to affect the Anglo-Jewish community. Ever alert to the new requirements of anglicization, the men began to alter their paradigms for thinking about women’s roles in the community. Even some nominally orthodox Jewish men began to see that female education and religious reform were necessary to head off the conversionists and maintain the faith in an age in which religious affiliation was voluntary. For all the rhetoric of equality, these reformers showed that they still held onto the Victorian separation of spheres—but this did not preclude them from proposing radical alterations in women’s opportunities. In fact, quite the contrary; the separation is the reason for making radical alterations. An article in the Chronicle “On the Education of Israelitish Girls” on April 18, 1862, sums up this position nicely when it argues that female education is more important than male education since women are the keepers of Jewish spirituality in the home. The writer continues that the rabbis of the Middle Ages reversed the priority because they were persecuted and did not have their minds clear. But Christians know that Jews still maintain this backward system, and so “It is the women … towards whom the efforts of the conversionists are daily directed; these seducers knowing well that this is the best means, sooner or later, to draw over whole families to their side.” In biblical times, women were taught with men, but the “Judaism of the middle ages has … abandoned women.” The writer essentially agrees with the conversionist assertion of Jewish women’s oppression. But whereas the conversionist sees the way out of this problem in conversion, the reformist writer sees women’s oppression as a major justification for religious reform. He asks which of the two traditions regarding women—the more permissive of “ancient Mosaism” or the more restrictive of “the middle ages”—modern Jews are to choose. For him, as for reformers across the continent, this is a nonchoice; or rather, it is the difference between following God’s revelation, “the great law of Sinai,” and the mere musings of biased rabbis, “the human law.” This reformist writer assumes the Talmud is not divine law.25 The answer to his question is therefore obvious: “Fathers and Mothers! instruct your daughters not in the science of superficial formalism, but in the great principles of the religious idea.”26 Talmudism, in this typical reformist view, is a set of formalistic laws. What is needed is a more flexible, more spiritual tradition, that of a Jewish ethical monotheism emphasizing “the great principles of the religious idea.” This reformist philosophy contains the same ambivalence between particularism and universalism involved in Lewis’s or Scott’s invocation of the idea, but as an ethical philosophy independent of halachic tradition, it need not be held back from women. Victorian Jewish male members of the reform movement argued that a just solution to the Woman Question required the redefinition of Judaism away from a halachic framework.27
This male champion of Jewish women’s education was expressing the position that reformist Anglo-Jewish men had reached by the 1860s. Although based on a recognition that Jewish men had treated Jewish women unequally in the past, it remained in seeming accord with traditionalism’s separation of spheres, restricting women primarily to the home and to charitable activities. If reform meant, in part, bringing liberal ideals to bear on Jewish practice, democratizing the synagogue officeholder procedures by introducing elections and dispensing with payments for various honors on the Sabbath, it seemed to mean as well at least paying lip service to bringing equality between the sexes. Jewish emancipation in the external world might mean at least a measure of women’s emancipation in the Jewish world. For men, however, this emancipation did not mean an equal distribution of duties, rights, and privileges.
If reformers like Benisch were theoretically in favor of extending religious education and a certain amount of intellectual equality to girls and women, they did not intend that this “equality” should practically entail any diminution in their own power. The same men who argued for the modernization of women’s roles in the public institutions of the synagogue, the school, and the press often experienced such modernization as a disruption of their own roles. By far the most acute feelings of disruption were inspired by women’s entrance into the world of publishing. The fact that the synagogue and the educational system were fast ceasing to be male preserves in Jewish life was upsetting, but Victorian domestic ideology demanded that men should accept women’s participation in church and school if they wished to be accepted as citizens. The idea that women should break up Jewish men’s monopoly in learnedness and publishing—the achievements that since the Middle Ages had constituted the very definition of Jewish manhood—was on the other hand intolerable. The fact that women’s publications outnumbered and outsold men’s argued that men had somehow become “unmanly.” This feeling was exacerbated by the fact that many men disapproved of the direction in which women writers were pushing the community, but were unable to do anything about it. They seemed unable, that is, to form a literary response that could compete in the marketplace with women’s novels, those specimens of a modern genre that was foreign to Jewish literary history. As one man said of Aguilar’s novel Woman’s Friendship, women’s use of the form seemed to prove that they were becoming “Jewish Protestants,” just as conversionists claimed. Yet men seemed unable to displace the novel form with their more traditional midrashic, philosophical, and aggadic productions.
For these reasons, the men’s desire to allow women more of a part in Anglo-Jewish public life was simultaneously accompanied by a desire to intimidate women out of public life. This charge is borne out vividly in two cases of male relations with Jewish women writers. In both cases, the men were the most well respected scholars and editors of their day—Benisch and Philadelphia’s Isaac Leeser. Both (after repeated suggestions by Grace Aguilar) had published English translations of the Bible. Both edited important periodicals, the Jewish Chronicle and the Occident. Both solicited work by Jewish women. And both exercised a punitive form of authority over these women’s texts.
Isaac Leeser, rabbi of Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, encouraged women’s writing. He solicited women writers, helped find them publishers, and provided a means for communication between Jewish women in England and America when there were no women-run publications that could serve the same purpose. But when it came down to questions of theology and philosophy, perhaps he felt that as a rabbi he had the duty to act as critic and censor. As he declared in a sermon on women’s education, “It is not to be denied that it is almost entirely useless for the female to become learned in the strictest sense of the word; it would unsex her.”28 The most blatant example of his censorship is his edition of Grace Aguilar’s reformist meditation on Judaism’s central prayer, the Shema, in The Spirit of Judaism (1842). Not only did Leeser insert editorial disagreements throughout the text, he appended an editor’s preface in which he set forth the “chief points of difference between Miss Aguilar and myself.”29 The result is that one cannot read Aguilar’s book without simultaneously reading Leeser’s refutation of it.
The reactions to this editorial procedure varied in predictable ways. When Spirit of Judaism was published, the Jewish press was still in its infancy. Aguilar’s book was the first by a woman to be reviewed. On April 1, 1842, Jacob Franklin, editor of the Voice of Jacob, called attention to women’s increased visibility in the public life of the community, and connected this new female activity to the advent of the religious reform and emancipation movements: “This is truly becoming a printing age among our people,” he began. “The spirit of former times is reviving and an imperious sense of duty is impelling many to step forth from the ranks, to enquire, and to inform.” But Franklin did not view the results of this development entirely with excitement. With Aguilar’s work before him, he asked, “Where are our leaders?” implying that because of her gender, Aguilar could not be one of them. He looked with favor on Leeser’s editorial procedure because Leeser had “deeper research, wider experience, and, therefore, sounder judgment,” while Aguilar is “a lady, and that too a young lady” who “by the iron rule of custom” had been “limited to fewer opportunities of acquiring information and experience.” In 1842, Franklin was not prepared to admit that a Jewish woman’s pen could make as important a contribution to Anglo-Jewish self-understanding as a Jewish man’s.
The conversionists, on the other hand, who thought Aguilar’s writing would “lead to the cross of Christ,” felt Leeser’s editorial procedure proved their assertion about the arrogance of Jewish men.30 Aguilar herself seemed chastened by it, acknowledging that she was indeed undereducated.31 Yet, if her knowledge was limited, she might have responded (and often subsequently did) that her limitations were only those that all Anglo-Jewish women experienced. If some of her work bore a Protestant cast, for example, it was because much of her reading on religious subjects was limited to Christian books, since these, and not Jewish books, appeared in English.32 The prospect of a woman setting forth her views on Judaism seemed agreeable to Leeser—as long as those views accorded with his more traditionalist views. A woman could not simply speak from her own experience and expect to be supported for doing so.
The case of Abraham Benisch and Marion Hartog’s Jewish Sabbath Journal is perhaps a more egregious instance of censorship, because while Leeser at least published Aguilar’s book (and assured her a large sphere of influence), Benisch’s censorious act had a measurably negative effect on a generation of women who followed Hartog. In July of 1854, Marion Hartog brought out a prospectus for a new periodical, the Jewish Sabbath Journal; A Penny and Moral Magazine for the Young. Hartog, along with her sister Celia Levetus, was already well known for her historical romances The Romance of Jewish History (1840) and Tales of Jewish History (1843), as well as for her occasional poems that appeared in the Chronicle. In her prospectus, Hartog advertised the Jewish Sabbath Journal in language that fully accorded with Victorian Jewish men’s domestic ideology, which, as we have seen, placed the responsibility for religious instruction of children squarely on the woman’s shoulders. “It is an undeniable fact,” Hartog says, “that the frequent desecration of the Sabbath, more especially among the junior members of our community, is mainly attributable to insufficient religious teaching. Alas! the days are gone when the elders sat in the gate, and expounded the laws to all who sought to drink at the fountains of living waters; and none have arisen to supply their place. … The majority of Jewish children, especially boys, receive their education at Christian public schools, or from private Christian teachers.” She is speaking in Benisch’s language—the language of Jewish female home instruction of children—and he endorses her call for a public subscription, saying that “the cost will be so trifling, and the talents of the editress are so well known, that we consider it a duty to recommend it.”33 Not astounding praise, perhaps, but enough to give the project legitimacy in the eyes of the public.
Without his endorsement, perhaps, the Chronicle might never have received the slew of letters to the editor that followed in support of the Sabbath Journal, and had he not supported it, the Chronicle would probably never have published them. Although Hartog’s justification had been that the journal would serve the purpose of “home instruction,” almost from the beginning, the readers who wrote in (mainly women) understood that the Journal would not only address the young. In fact, ever since Haim Guedalla’s failed effort to edit a Jewish literary periodical called Sabbath Leaves some years before, a literary publication had been a desideratum in the community. “An Expectant Subscriber” (whose gender cannot be determined) imagined that the Jewish Sabbath Journal would be “the upholder of Jewish rights, the standard of Jewish literature, and within the reach of even the poorest!” An emancipationist journal for the young? A “standard of Jewish literature” for the young? The rhetoric of youth education clearly reads as a necessary but by no means sufficient cultural code for what Hartog was attempting. This supporter went on to say that “judging by the poems of Mrs. Hartog in your valuable journal, she is fully capable of undertaking the important office.” “A Mother in Israel” wrote seeking to be on a women’s committee to distribute the Journal free to the poor. “A Subscriber from the Beginning” opined that “a work of the kind is required, the active mind must be fed.” Perhaps the fullest understanding of the role of a women’s periodical in the community was expressed by “R. H. A.,” a woman who was to publish many articles and stories in the Journal once it became a reality:
we do indeed want words that will find their way into the home circle, sentiments that shall mingle amidst the doings of everyday life. … We thirst for the living waters that shall strengthen our faith, soften our feelings, ennoble our nature, and make us worthy of the name we bear. … The subjects must … be popularised and simplified, so as to find a ready acceptance in the humble abode as well as on the table of the wealthy. … It is a significant sign that this goodly work is undertaken by a female hand. More than one victory has been achieved by woman … — to plant the banner of religion where faith sleeps and is dormant, to root out coarseness and ignorance, to make room for intelligence and refinement, to draw closer the social bond, and teach Israel to feel and to know that he is Am Echad (one people). Such are some of the happy results to which this unpretending journal may help lead the way.34
In this view, women not only teach children, but popularize Judaism for adults, both rich and poor, in so doing strengthening the social bonds of a religiously and economically diverse community. The role of the Jewish woman’s periodical mirrors the role of the Jewish woman writer, who was said to be “the moral governess of the Hebrew family.”35
Despite these shows of support, subscriptions for the Journal trickled in slowly. It was customary among English Jews, as Benisch bewailed on a number of occasions, not to support literary pursuits in the community. Despite the slow start, Marion Hartog herself worked hard to win the public to her cause, placing notices of the number of subscriptions received in the Chronicle weekly. She also published “Lines Written on the Death of Grace Aguilar” (November 10, 1854), which in its final lines unabashedly called on the community to support her project:
How long shall Israel’s thoughtless great ones …
(Who to be learning’s patrons should be proud)
Let living genius hopeless pine away,
And waste their empty honours on a shroud.
The rich are being called on to support a community-wide effort: the fantasy is that the journal will provide a space in which the diverse classes of Jews will cohere into a single community. The poem was followed the next week by a letter lamenting Aguilar’s death, and calling on mothers to support Hartog’s efforts: “Another claimant now appeals to us for aid in a good and righteous cause; I trust she will not also have to complain of Israel’s apathy. … Mothers …, will you refrain when … you may be the means of bringing the light of truth to the homes of the ignorant?” This writer has expanded Hartog’s mandate to include not just the young but any uneducated or poor Jew.
Still, despite such appeals, the pace of subscription continued to be slow.36 Hartog, who had placed herself more in the public light than almost any woman of her time, began to feel the strain, and wrote in saying “I am obliged to confess, that I fear [the publisher] Mr. Valentine’s prognostic of failure will be borne out by the event, and that there is no support for Jewish periodical literature.”37 She promised to return all subscriptions if she had not received enough by the end of November. She was entreated by a group of thirty-four women in Liverpool not to give up the project (November 24, 1854). She continued publishing poems in the Chronicle that contained veiled hints about the Sabbath Journal.38 At last, however, on December 8, 1854, Hartog wrote in that the project was under way, showing, too, how much of a strain being constantly before the public had been for her: “Sir,—A few weeks since, when I wrote to you respecting the ‘Jewish Sabbath Journal,’ it was in a spirit of despondency which nearly led to the abandonment of a project, the realisation of which has been the dream of more than half my life. Since that time I have received many letters on the subject, which have revived my courage.” She had certainly been planning this project for a long time. But why did such a task require courage? It required courage because it was the first of its kind anywhere in the world—the first Jewish women’s periodical in modern history.39 Without models to work from, Marion Hartog was able to muster the courage and the funds to underwrite the project. On January 5, 1855, the Chronicle carried the announcement of the Jewish Sabbath Journal’s first appearance on February 22.
But then—weeks passed. As the first three issues of the Journal appeared, the Chronicle became silent and did not give the Journal any notice. Hartog grew anxious, hurt, and finally angry. In an editorial in the Journal, she complained:
We have received letters from numerous correspondents, inquiring why our little serial has not been reviewed in the “Hebrew Observer” [the forerunner of the Chronicle]; and one Christian friend asks if we have neglected to send it to the Editor. We can but answer that we have been duly attentive to the courtesies usually bestowed on the press, and that we constantly advertize in that journal, but the Editor, for some reason unknown to us, has not even shown the common civility of acknowledging the receipt of the “Sabbath Journal.” Is it forgetfulness on his part, or is it wilful? We know not, and we care not to inquire.40
The publication of these fatal words is a crucial moment for the understanding of gender relations between Jews in the Victorian period. Hartog, as an editor of her own journal, feels sufficiently at home inside her pages to be able to criticize one of the most powerful men in the community. The journal, she believes, provides her a zone of security—she speaks almost as if she were sharing an intimate conversation with a few friends. And indeed, by this point, with five numbers issued, the Journal had become a women’s alternative to the other Jewish periodicals. The readership, the authorship, the editorship—all of these were almost solely the domain of women. Women who had never previously published stories began to submit. They wrote stories about women who become successful independent artists, free of their families. Women wrote sermons—among English Jews, heretofore exclusively a male genre. They wrote meditations on the mother/child and mother/daughter relationships, relationships that were unexplored in mainstream Jewish periodicals, which tended to concentrate on the father/daughter and father/son relationships. They wrote exposés of Hebrew-Christian Free Schools that drew in poor Jewish girls.41 And the submitters received gentle criticism and encouragement from “the Editress.”42 In other words, what started off as an ideologically correct enterprise—a woman becoming a moral governess educating the communal children—quickly became something else. It quickly became a security zone, a women-only space, a place of female independence. Or at least it became the illusion of such a space, the articulation of the desire for such a space.
How little security and relative power Hartog had, however, became almost immediately apparent. On March 23, 1855, Benisch published his long-awaited review in the Chronicle. In it, he destroyed the Journal:
The Editress of the above Journal in blaming us for not having noticed her publication, insinuates that our silence is the effect of unworthy motives. Now we must protest against the assumption that an Editor is obliged to take notice of every publication forwarded to him. It is obvious that he must exercise great discretion in the selection of subjects for notice, and that he is not at all obliged to state publicly the reasons which guide him in that selection. We should, therefore, have paid no attention whatever to the insinuations made, were it not attempted to make use of our silence as political capital, and to represent us as a wrong-doer. We will, therefore, depart from our rule, and state the reasons of our silence. We have left the production unnoticed, not because in the abstract we do not wish for such a publication. … We have left the “Sabbath Journal” unnoticed because we could not conscientiously recommend to the community the two numbers sent to us, since some of their contents appeared to us calculated to promote superstition, to pass off accounts drawn from profane sources as the word of God, and to lay down doctrines which we consider un-Jewish, and adopt views which, in their ultimate consequences, may lead away from Judaism. … [A] publication conducted by parties so little conversant with the principles of the religion which it is designed to inculcate, cannot be safely and conscientiously recommended to the community.
This was a remarkable review coming from a man who had encouraged Hartog, published supportive reviews of her earlier work, printed her occasional poems for years, and referred to her just months before as “talented.” It was all the more remarkable because the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire himself had given his personal approval to the project.43 Benisch’s commitment to female “equality” seems to have had a short tether. In this crucial test of this powerful reformer’s commitment to female emancipation, he censored a woman with little power when she misbehaved. He silenced her when she criticized. He did so by wielding charges to which women were vulnerable in the community and to which they could not respond: he called her uneducated, profane, superstitious, un-Jewish. In fact, he employed the same epithets typically directed at Jewish women by conversionists.
The result: Hartog’s subscriptions fell off. She was no longer able to publish notices in the Chronicle. Despite the fact that many women expressed their support, Hartog resolved to close the Journal. The last number of the Journal ended with a poem “On the Death of My Beloved Child.” Hartog lived for another fifty years, maintaining a boarding school with her husband and her sister. But except for a few occasional poems, she seldom published again. Her literary career was over.44
Women who published in the years following her debacle were timid. They were submissive to the point of obsequiousness. For example, when Miriam Mendes Belisario announced her intent to bring out a book on “Sabbath Evenings at Home”—a project similar in aim to Hartog’s Sabbath Journal—she “begs to state, that she has submitted her humble efforts to the religious supervision of the Rev. D. A. de Sola, not feeling herself justified in proffering instruction of such vital importance to her young co-religionists, on her own unsanctioned authority.”45 “Little Miriam,” the self-denigrating pen name of a woman who published a series of stories for youth based on biblical incidents, allowed her work to be published and edited under the auspices of the Jewish Association for the Diffusion of Religious Knowledge. Perhaps because she ceded authority for her texts to men, she became “quite an Anglo-Jewish institution of our day.”46
Censorship and direct warnings were more visible during the 1860s and 1870s when the Woman Question was on the national agenda. An 1864 poem in the Chronicle called “Rights of Woman” set out to explain to women their roles:
The rights of woman, what are they?
The right to labour, love, and pray;
The right to weep with those that weep,
The right to wake when others sleep.
The right to dry the falling tear;
The right to quell the rising fear;
The right to smooth the brow of care,
And whisper comfort in despair.
The right to watch the parting breath,
To soothe and cheer the bed of death:
The right, when earthly hopes all fail,
To point to that within the veil.
The right the wanderer to reclaim,
And win the lost from paths of shame;
The right to comfort and to bless
The widow and the fatherless.
The right the intellect to train,
And guide the soul to noble aim;
Teach it to rise above earth’s toys,
And wing its flight for heavenly joys.
The right to live for those we love;
The right to die that love to prove;
The right to brighten earthly homes
With pleasant smiles and gentle tones.
Are these thy rights? Then murmur not
That women’s mission is thy lot;
Improve the talents God has given;
Life’s duty done, thy rest is heaven.47
Here, the notion of “rights” is transposed from the legal realm to the realms of the domestic, the spiritual, and the social. The woman is imagined to be middle or upper class, tending to the needs of the poor and dispossessed. She is described as being responsible for children’s education, but her “intellect” is not meant to be used critically. Here, the English doctrine of separate spheres particularly influenced Jewish men to demand that their Jewish sisters, daughters, and wives “murmur not.”
The Chronicle’s lead article of 1875, “Faith and Its Influence on Women,” revealed the ways in which suppression of women’s opinions could be sought in less direct fashion. In the guise of an article on female faith, it quickly becomes a critique of the fledgling woman’s movement. According to the editor, “possibly there is no feature of the age more dangerous or more distressing than the growing irreligion of women. It was formerly a fact, and it is at present a fancy, that women are more religious, more disposed to belief, than men. … That simple unquestioning trust in Revelation, which was one of the greatest charms and graces of womanhood, seems to be giving place to a hard philosophy.” This “hard philosophy,” which is complex and questioning, consists in the ideology of the New Woman: “The ‘home’ has ceased to be the sole stage on which they shine. They now seek to gain the glitter of the ‘world.’ The movements for the employment of women, and the education of women in spheres hitherto believed to belong exclusively to men, may have refined their minds, but have they preserved their hearts?… Are we training girls … in the paths in which our mothers were trained in those halcyon days when the examinations of Oxford and Cambridge were not held of so high account as the examinations of the Conscience?”48 The nostalgia for the “halcyon days” before women were too secularly educated is accompanied by an increased call for “the religious education of the womanhood of the future.” Religious education is perceived as synonymous with domesticity, while secular education is aligned with the New Woman. The article’s very tone—not addressed to women, but to male readers who could share the feeling of loss over the end of male-only privilege—excludes women from its audience. Censorship could take the form of rhetorical exclusion as well as outright denial of “rights.”
It could also take the form of positive reinforcement, as in the review of Mrs. Atrutel’s Book of Jewish Cookery, in which the reviewer hopes “that the day has not gone by for Jewish ladies to superintend … the most agreeable and womanly duty of domestic management. … We trust that in the struggle for Woman’s Rights and the anxiety which women manifest to attain and assume positions from which Nature herself … seems to bar them ladies will not recklessly abandon the humble household duties. … Cooking is surely more practically useful than Chemistry, and a girl should know as much about the production of a pudding as about the parentage of a Plantagenet.”49
Besides using positive reinforcement to criticize the women’s movement, the strategy of using a male editorial hand to control the public interpretation of a woman’s text remained useful into the 1870s, as in the review of The Hebrew Woman by Constance de Rothschild, whose aristocratic family connections nevertheless could not entirely protect her from criticism. The editor at the Jewish Chronicle praises de Rothschild’s portrait when she says that Jewish women should “minister to the happiness of the domestic hearth,” but disagrees with her at any point in which she suggests that Jewish men have limited women’s freedom. For example, when she suggests that rabbis in the Middle Ages deliberately placed women in a secondary and degraded position, he counters that they were just “naturally sharing the dominant prejudices.”50 Women could identify limitations on women, but this type of editorial control ensured that they could not seek to place the blame for these limitations on the men who controlled the institutions that controlled their lives. Women could speak out, but they faced chastisement for speaking out too critically, and men had a variety of means to limit, trivialize, or undermine their statements in the public sphere. These included using the editor’s prerogative to criticize their work, using the reviewer’s prerogative to undermine their attempts to establish women-only institutions, addressing only men in their writings, directly refusing women legal rights, and moralizing on women’s proper spheres.
ROMANCING THE JEWISH MAN: THE CASE OF THE DISRAELIS
In order to assimilate the Victorian separation of spheres, Jewish men began to see a need for women to be active, intellectual, educated—if only to ensure that they would fulfill the standards of good motherhood that Victorian domestic ideology demanded. But the prospect of a community in which women were educated, published, dispensing opinions, and influential frightened these men with visions of usurpation of their masculinity and brought out the punitive underside of their benevolent paternalism. One might think that this ambivalence in all its complexity could be detected in the men’s fictions, but in the early and mid-Victorian period, Jewish men did not usually engage in explicitly fictional production because they did not conceive of fiction as a valid Jewish form. In fact, men who did write explicitly fictional productions were deemed outsiders.
Jewish men defined literature as ancient biblical and medieval rabbinic literature. More modern forms such as novels were understood by them to be distinctly foreign literary genres—and if one agrees with Michael McKeon’s argument in The Origins of the English Novel, they were right: the novel grew out of medieval Christian chivalric romances.51 In fact, the earliest Jewish male periodicals rarely explicitly discussed modern Jewish life at all. Morris Raphall’s Hebrew Review and Magazine of Rabbinical Literature (1834–36) contained articles on the transmission of the oral law, on Maimonides, on the Shulkhan Aruch, and other concerns traditional to the genre of the moral weekly. When Raphall did break with tradition to discuss a modern Jewish thinker, he did so in order to provide a picture of an ideal path for modern Jewish men, and this ideal path did not include writing fiction. His obituary for Arthur Lumley Davids, a leading Anglo-Jewish male thinker who died young, praises him for having written a work of Jewish philosophy and a work of philology, as well as for delivering vernacular sermons and for his emancipation appeals in the Times.52 Other biographies of contemporary Jewish male heroes, such as Isaac Lyon Goldsmid and Francis Henry Goldsmid (father and brother of translator Anna Maria Goldsmid), emphasized their practical efforts on behalf of Jewish emancipation and their essays in that cause.53 Generally speaking, until emancipation was achieved, most of Jewish men’s energies were geared to the practical attainment of that goal. Writing fiction, they felt, was not only impractical and therefore trivial, but would feminize them in the eyes of a host culture that directed its novels to young women. When, in 1844, several reformers did desire to found a Jewish literary institution, they established the Jews and General Literary and Scientific Institute (JGLSI). Besides holding meetings on Moses Mendelssohn and Bishop Lowth, these men were interested in such nonfictional topics as whether man is a carnivore, the effect of Henry VIII’s destruction of the monastic establishment on England, and the politics of Pitt.54 When Abraham Benisch established the Anglo-Jewish library in 1855, he set out to collect works of history, biography, ethics, sermons, and ancient Judaism, but no fiction.55
Moreover, even these nonfictional “literary” projects met with little support from the community. M. H. Bresslau, in an article entitled “Have the Jews any Literature?” complained that “the smallest Jewish book in England meets with every difficulty in selling it among his bretheren, unless he offers it from house to house and turns literary beggar!”56 Literary men in the community regularly attempted to establish journals and institutions that just as regularly foundered for lack of communal financial support. Such was the fate of Haim Guedalla’s Sabbath Leaves, the JGLSI, the Literary and Translation Society, and the Anglo-Jewish library. If men were not willing to support such traditional Jewish genres as translation of ancient texts or such newly popular reformist genres as the sermon, they certainly were not ready to participate in writing fiction.
Perhaps the limits on Anglo-Jewish male writers can best be perceived in relation to the fiction of two who had gone beyond its boundaries. The community’s most famous convert, Benjamin Disraeli, may have claimed a racial connection with Jews past and future, but his novels demonstrate that his concerns and genres were quite distant from those of men living within the social and political constraints of the Anglo-Jewish community of his day.57 His father, Isaac D’Israeli, had long before begun to put distance between himself and the Sephardic community. The story of the father’s rebellion against the Sephardic regulations, or Ascamot, is well known (he refused to pay a monetary penalty the elders required of him), as is his subsequent conversion of Benjamin and his sister when Benjamin was thirteen, the age of Bar Mitzvah.58 What is less well known is the distance Isaac D’Israeli had begun to place between himself and his Jewish forebears before converting his children, not in the area of communal affairs, but in the area of literature.
English Jewry’s first “man of letters,” Isaac D’Israeli was known in the London of the 1820s and 1830s for his dilettantish anecdotes and essays in his Curiosities of Literature. Most of these “curiosities” have little to do with his Jewishness, but rather are concerned with the criticism and creation of an English “national literature,” in which he hopes to play a prominent part. In “Drinking-Customs in England,” for example, he traces “a new era in this history of our drinking-parties [which] occurred about the time of the Restoration.”59 This reference to the Restoration as part of “our” history is intriguing because the D’Israeli family did not arrive in England from Italy until 1748. In order to claim belonging to English national history he feels he must erase or distort his relation to Jewish familial and communal history.
Of all Isaac D’Israeli’s writings (which fill seven volumes), one volume squarely centers on Jewishness, The Genius of Judaism, published in 1833.60 In this sustained attack on “rabbinism” and the Talmud, D’Israeli bids to become an English version of the German-Jewish Gebildeters, or reformers. As continental reformers often did, D’Israeli aligns himself with members of an important ancient offshoot of Judaism, the karaites, as well as with Protestants who read the Bible according to their inner lights rather than in reference to established authority. As he says, “Jewish Reformers or Protestants, as the Caraites may be distinguished, often arose to relieve themselves from the degrading servitudes, and the bewitching superstitions of rabbinical Judaism” (10). But this karaite or “Jewish Protestant” not only throws off superstitions, he attempts to throw off Jewish literary traditions and develop a new literary language. The language he wants to develop is the language of romance, as his tale of a “Jewish gentleman well known to the scientific world” indicates:
A Jewish gentleman, well known to the scientific world, and moreover a lover of ancient romances, had often luxuriated in the descriptions of the splendid banquet of the “Peacock,” so famed in the Romances of Chivalry. In an hour of fancy he had a peacock killed; the skin was carefully taken whole from the body, and when the bird was roasted and richly farced with aromatic spices, the skin was nicely replaced, and it was served up with its gorgeous plumage. A religious scruple suddenly haunted his mind that the demon Trefo sat on the peacock, and that its flesh was forbidden aliment. The Israelite despatched the brilliant fowl to the house of a neighbour, the Chief Rabbin, for his inspection. He told his tale, the Rabbin alternately looking on the gentleman and on the peacock:—at length the oracle! First he solemnly observed that there were some things of a doubtful nature, among which was the eating of peacocks. He opined that this bird was among the forbidden meats. “Be it so!” exclaimed the romantic Ritualist; “it was the fancy of a moment, and I have only lost a splendid bird; I have not transgressed. Since it is killed, I will send it as a curious dish to my neighbour, who, being a Christian, is not perplexed by so difficult a ritual as our own. He may partake of the feast of the peacock.”
“I would thank you for it myself,” said the Rabbin.
“For what purpose?” interrogated the Ritualist.
“To eat it!” rejoined the master of sentences.
“How! If forbidden meat for me!—You understand the consequence?”
The Rabbin fixing his eyes on the Ritualist, and holding his finger up, as we mark our interjections in writing, to prepare the reader, (here the hearer,) for the notable wisdom forthcoming, and with an emphatic distinguo! thus opined the Opinionist. “Eating the peacock is, as I told you, among the doubtful things. One Rabbin is of one opinion, and another of another. You have required my opinion as your Rabbin; you are bound to abide by it. I opine that it is unlawful to be eaten. My father was of a different opinion, and therefore it may be eaten by me, because I act on my father’s opinion. I accept the peacock, but I must not ask you to participate in it.” (170–73)
The Ritualist wants to eat the peacock because of his “fancy,” that is, because of an individual desire sparked by Christian chivalric romance. The mere existence of such an individual desire not immediately referred to communal authority indicates that he is measuring himself in relation to the Christian world, living somewhat outside the bounds of a halachic community. Yet this Ritualist is willing to let a reasonable and even-handed Jewish law override his fancy for romance. The seeming arbitrariness of the Rabbin’s decision, however, seems to show that Talmudic formalism is full of injustice and superstition. And this is only one indication among many that Judaism in its rabbinic formulation has not respected the needs or the desires of the individual.
It has certainly not respected the needs or desires of women. “The Rabbins … have treated Wives with an utter recklessness of domestic feeling; and in their morning thanksgivings there is one to God, for not having been made a woman. … [T]he Rabbins [drew from Deut. 24:1–2] the monstrous inference, that a man may put away his wife if he think another to be handsomer than her; and it is even maintained, for they build their follies as children build houses of cards, that a divorce may be allowed, even when a poor creature has suffered her husband’s soup to be burnt” (169). As a reformer, then, D’Israeli combines the twin aims of liberating women from unreasonable rabbinic reasoning and claiming for himself the genre of romance. Both aims spring from this “scientific gentleman’s” desire to apply reason to Jewish law and to increase the autonomy of the reasonable individual in the face of seemingly irrational communal dictates. But while liberating women and identifying with romantic chivalry were deemed within the reformist men’s purview, the writing of romances was not. When later in the century Philip Abraham named his collection of miscellaneous items of Jewish interest Curiosities of Judaism, he was implicitly suggesting that D’Israeli’s “curiosities of literature” were lacking a crucial Jewish element.61 D’Israeli’s earlier forays into romance suggest, then, that his final act of rebellion against the Sephardic Ascamot was the culmination of many years of slow movement outside the acceptable realms of Jewish manhood.
In this context in which the writing of romance seems beyond the bounds even of reformers, Benjamin Disraeli’s early historical romances such as Alroy (and later Coningsby and Tancred) seem to place him outside the norms of Jewish communal life.62 But Disraeli employs this genre without appearing to feel either trivialized or feminized by it, suggesting that as a convert he had his literary tastes shaped by opinions other than those expressed in the Anglo-Jewish subculture. In fact, the young Disraeli seems to have developed his taste for romance by attempting to imitate Byron.63 His twelfth-century Jewish “Prince of the Captivity,” David Alroy, bears a great deal of resemblance to the Giaour or Cain, Byron’s brooding dark heroes. Having no vocation, Alroy resolves to rescue Jerusalem from the Christian crusaders. With cabalist Jabaster’s and prophetess Esther’s help, he succeeds in building a Jewish army, infusing it with messianic fervor, regaining the scepter of Solomon, and reconquering the East for the Jews. He is the messianic but practical leader Daniel Deronda is supposed to be after the end of Eliot’s novel. But then, just when he is about to rebuild the Temple, Alroy is influenced by Jabaster’s worldly brother Honain to attempt to conquer Baghdad—and he loses the scepter and the kingdom. A fantasy of Jewish power gone wrong, Alroy already relies on a racist belief in the superiority of Jewish blood, a belief that only becomes more explicit in his later “Young England” novels as Sidonia praises the superiority of those with “semitic” blood. These romantic, nationalist, and racist fantasies were a way in which Disraeli could claim his connection to his Jewish heritage, counter his anti-Semitic critics, and at the same time maintain a distance from actual Jewish cultural life. They served complex purposes for him. But, from a historical vantage point, they exemplify the ways in which his interest in historical romance was more synchronized with that of women living within the Jewish community than with men. Ironically, as he rose to power as prime minister, Jewish men increasingly tried to claim his kinship: “Benjamin Disraeli belongs to the Jewish people, despite his baptismal certificate,” wrote one in 1876. “His talents, his virtues and shortcomings alike, are purely of the Jewish cast.”64
While Jewish men mostly refrained from writing fiction, they did reprint and expand on biblical stories that spoke to them in a traditional Jewish men’s literary form—midrash Aggadah. This genre consisted of interpretations of biblical and Talmudic narratives, retold so as to speak to contemporary conditions.65 While recognized as a creative form in which the writer could leave the strict letter of the text behind, such midrash had been able nevertheless to attain the force of law in traditional communities. The Anglo-Jewish men scanned the Bible and the Talmud looking for ways to understand the remarkable leadership taken by Jewish women in their day, and looking for narratives that reflected their sense of the proper separation of spheres. This scanning procedure was one that women writers could not engage in, for they had no access to the languages or the texts from which most of these midrashim were derived. With midrash, men sought to maintain Jewish patriarchy in the midst of modern upheaval. And with midrash, they sought to maintain a link with past Jewish literary tradition in the land of the novel.
What their search revealed was a series of narratives casting men’s and women’s roles as a relation between a benevolent father and a submissive daughter. Such father/daughter plots rationalized Jewish women’s continuing secondary status from a variety of angles—traditionalist, scientific, reformist, antifeminist. In these midrashic narratives, men tacitly assimilated the conversionist father/daughter plot and altered it for their own interests. Principally they altered it by displacing the sympathy for the daughter back onto the father. This choice represented a terse but deliberate attempt to respond to conversionist narratives in kind but in a comfortably Jewish genre.
It was a common practice of Morris Raphall’s traditionalist Hebrew Review and Magazine of Rabbinical Literature (1834–36), the first Jewish periodical to appear in English, to take “Talmudic Allegories” or midrashic tales out of their context, translate them into English, and publish them as separate pieces. In a periodical that shunned “fiction” as un-Jewish or trivial, these legends were among the first published Anglo-Jewish stories. For many English Jews (particularly women and uneducated men), these translations were the sole means by which they could gain any knowledge of the Talmud and of the meaning of traditional Judaism. But because so few of these midrashim were ever published, the very choice of legends could influence Victorian Jews’ understanding of their classical heritage disproportionately, with only a little embellishment by Raphall. For instance, “The Sun and the Moon,” which appeared in 1835, tells the story of how the male Sun became predominant over the female Moon. The Moon, envious of the Sun’s greater light (“Why do two monarchs occupy one throne? Why must I be the second, and not the first?”), has her power stripped away by the Almighty Father for daring to ask such a question, and when she repents and accepts her secondary place, “weeping over her fault,” she is given back a few silvery rays of light. The moral of the story Raphall has added drives the point home: “Daughters of beauty, beware of envy. Envy has driven angels from heaven”—or, perhaps Raphall’s fear is, from the house.66 The fear that “daughters” might begin to question their heavenly “father” if given half a chance was one major reason why Anglo-Jewish men did so little to bring about Anglo-Jewish women’s education. This midrash is an ethe-realized father/daughter plot.
The midrash is all the more interesting when compared to its traditional sources. A slightly different version of the same legend was published in Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews. The legend contains the gendered sun and moon, the moon’s attempt to gain greater light than the sun, her punishment and remorse, her reinstatement, a second attempt to gain greater light than the sun, and a renewed punishment. Even more interesting than the legend, however, is Ginzberg’s note that the moon “became a symbol of Israel and the pious, whereas the sun represents Esau and the ungodly.”67 In the traditional midrash, that is, God has sympathy for the moon. He reacts too harshly to Israel’s sins, and allows her enemies to dominate her. God even seeks to atone for his mistake by making a sacrifice of atonement on the new moon. By leaving out this context, Raphall has managed to divest the moon of all sympathy. Rather than representing all of Israel—that is, men as well as women—the moon simply represents the sinning daughters to be chastised by their fathers.
The father/daughter plot appears again in what is by far the most bizarre midrash on biblical narrative on women, “The Origin of Woman,” which appears some twenty-five years later in the Jewish Chronicle’s series on the “Creation.”68 The series was an attempt to dispute Bishop Colenso’s controversial claim, in light of geological discoveries about the nature of time, that the Bible could not be depicting the literal truth, especially as regarded the creation story. The writer attempts to make the creation story measure up to the standards of Victorian science, and nowhere more so than in the section on the creation of Eve from Adam’s side, which he sees as “the most singular and interesting part” of the Pentateuch. He disputes the common idea that God took one of Adam’s ribs surgically out of his body and proposes in its stead “a natural process” that is “known to physiologists”—“parthenogenesis.” Specifically, he proposes that Eve grew from Adam’s side by a process known “among some of the lower animals” in which “the offspring grow by gemmation, or budding from the parent stock, and when arrived at a certain stage of maturity, they become separated by a natural process, and assume an independent existence.” The idea is worked out in quite remarkable detail:
The gemmation commenced by there being formed below the rib a minute eyst, or sack, enclosing the germ of the new organism about to be developed. We may imagine, that, after attaining a certain stage of maturity, this vessicle was, with its contents, while yet very minute, extruded from the centre of the left breast, to which it remained attached by an umbiblical [sic] vascular attachment, similar to that by which the human fetus is attached under ordinary circumstances. We may farther suppose, that the enclosed embryon drew all its nourishment from the body of the man, through this vascular attachment, in the same manner as the fetus draws nourishment from the mother. The only difference would be in the situation of the germinal sack, which, in this particular case, would appear to have grown and become developed outwardly, instead of inwardly, as in the ordinary case.
According to this view, it is probable that the process of development occupied the usual period of nine months, during the whole of which Adam’s state of unconsciousness was prolonged. … The subsequent nourishment of the infant would probably be accomplished in the ordinary way by lactation, the only difference being the substitution of the breasts of the male for those of the female, as the source of supply. That such a substitution is not altogether out of the course of nature, where it is required, by the necessity of the case, is fully proved by more than one authenticated case of an infant, who had lost its mother, having been nourished with milk from the breasts of its father … The necessity of providing for the early nutrition of the first female, destined to be developed out of the first male, may thus be held as accounting for the existence of these organs of nutrition in the male.
This learned speculation—a not at all disguised fantasy of male conquest of the birthing power—“involves the smallest amount of departure from the ordinary laws of organic development.” Indeed, this reasoned argument becomes the basis for supposing that all female “viviparous animals whatever” were gemmated from male creatures. That is, in all the “higher” organisms, women were only created secondarily. Like “The Sun and the Moon,” this scientific midrash sets out in a general way to theorize women’s inferiority to men. And like “The Sun and the Moon,” the woman turns out to be a daughter. Adam is Eve’s father, giving birth to her without a mother, and nursing her. As in the father/daughter plots of conversionists, the mother is once again written out of the narrative. But this time the father is not a tyrant, as he is in the conversionist plots, but a benign (“unconscious”) life-giving maternal presence. One thing is certain: such a painless pregnancy and labor could only have taken place before the expulsion from the garden.
In some ways, the scientist and the traditionalist proceed very differently. The earlier writer, Raphall, addresses only other Jews, while his successor looks outward to justify Jewish belief to the host community—an indication of men’s increasing acculturation. Raphall bases his vision of female submission on a traditional midrash, while the learned scientist stretches the midrash form to contain the modern discourse of reason. Raphall is homiletic and particularist, while the other is expository and universalist. Yet, while they differ on many points, both the modernizer and the traditionalist use their midrashim of fathers and daughters to theorize women’s inferiority. On that, if on nothing else, they can agree with one another. One of the functions this midrashic father/daughter plot serves, then, is to unite an increasingly diverse male community at women’s expense.
By far the most often revived biblical story of the day was the story of Jeptha’s daughter, relatively obscure to most Jews today (except for feminists), but repeated incessantly by Victorians, Jews and non-Jews alike.69 What Victorians found in this tale was an explanation for most of the emotional currents of the father/daughter relationship that concerned them so much. In the Jewish community, this tale particularly spoke to religious reformers of both genders, who saw in it a critique of a Jewish father who, with his reliance on the rigid Talmudic legal system of halacha, breaks faith with his daughter—and although she must pay for his mistake, he must live with the guilt.
Jeptha is a judge (Judges 11) who, in this Victorian version is not the child of a harlot as he is in the Bible, but rather the “child of a favourite handmaid” of his father’s. This respectable judge makes a vow to offer up the first thing he sees to the Lord, if only the Lord will make him victorious in an upcoming battle. Upon returning to Gilead victorious, the first thing he sees is his daughter. Since human sacrifice is against the law, the elders order her exiled to Shiloh, “where, in perpetual virgin seclusion, her days must pass in the service of a tabernacle.” This perpetual seclusion is quite a departure from the biblical text, in which she is indeed sacrificed—Victorian “respectability” would not allow for such barbarism. Although not a word of reproach escapes her obedient lip, “To her, this destiny was worse than death … thus to lose home, and all held dear. To see none else but strangers near her, brought to her young bosom a chill as if from the tomb.” Still, she keeps her chin up, and having cheered her despondent father (“Remember, thou hast many honours, father! Thou art a Judge of Israel! … thou hast much to render life dear to thee”), she takes her female companions on a pilgrimage around the city’s environs to say farewell. After she has gone, the daughters commemorate her loss every year by walking the same paths around the city that she had walked on her last day, singing a lament.70
Like the conversionists, the Anglo-Jewish male reformer who updated Jeptha’s story also adopts a father/daughter plot to envision the contemporary Jewish community. But while the conversionists see the father as materialistic, this Jewish reformer sees the father as stuck in an inflexible Jewish legal system—he sees the father as too traditionalist. Jeptha as good as kills his daughter with the law, for the traditionalist elders feel that they can bend the law only as far as to allow her a deathlike lifetime seclusion. Still, if the reformer’s critique of halachic restrictions on women is evident, the separation of spheres is likewise evident. Jeptha’s daughter, named only in relation to her father, is a woman who knows her place in the world. Cognizant that she still owes obeisance to her guilty father, she is able to meet the crisis without a word of complaint—indeed, like the ideal Victorian Jewish daughter, she represses all of her own feelings to help her father overcome his conscience. While conversionists understand their heroines’ inherent spirituality as a form of latent Protestantism, this reformer understands the daughter’s spirituality as a form of reformism. He depicts her commemorating her oppression and her transition by creating a new ritual and a song, just as reformers marked girls’ transition to Jewish womanhood by creating the new ritual of Bat Mitzvah. And like Bat Mitzvah, this new ritual is generalized so that all Jewish women may participate in it, year after year. The wrong done Jeptha’s daughter by her father is generalized as the oppression all Jewish women suffer under the law. It becomes the occasion for the creation of community among Jewish women. Perhaps this male reformer understood the song of Jeptha’s daughter as an emblem of the new writing being produced by Anglo-Jewish women in his own day.
Only a few years later, Jewish men were using biblical stories to respond to the challenge of the New Woman, still concentrating on the father/daughter relationship. One of these midrashim concerns the daughters of Zelophehad (Num. 27:1–11), who, upon their father’s death, ask Moses whether they may inherit their father’s property, since their father has borne no sons. The Lord rules that the daughters do inherit. When this tale appeared in 1868, women’s ownership of property was one of the central legal questions of the day. Jewish fathers were able to support a daughter’s inheritance of property as long as there was no brother to inherit it. Although this writer is able to support reforms for women, the relationship of father to daughter still suggests that women are not understood as full and equal citizens.
Three years later, the Woman Question was playing in earnest throughout the Anglo-Jewish community, as it was throughout the dominant culture. Tract No. 105 of the Jewish Association for the Diffusion of Religious Knowledge, a highly touted male-organized association concerned with educating the Jewish poor, was called “Esther and the Mission of Woman.” It purported to elucidate “woman’s rights and woman’s mission, woman’s culture and woman’s work” using the biblical story. The moral of this tract was this: “Do not try to arrogate to yourself the rights of man; exercise worthily the true rights of woman—rights which are no less arduous, though they are more blissful in results than those of man.”71 Here, interestingly, is the first time a midrash on women has not invoked the father/daughter plot. Nonetheless, women’s agitation for rights produces an unambiguously negative response.
From traditionalist to scientist, from reformer to antifeminist, Jewish men wrote midrash when other forms of narrative were unacceptable to place themselves within a range of Victorian Jewish male opinions on the question of women’s roles. These midrashim appeared in the most visible Jewish journals in the young Victorian Jewish public sphere. Sometimes the midrash was direct, moralistic, and punitive, as in “The Sun and the Moon” and “Esther and the Mission of Woman”; at other times, as in “The Origin of Woman,” the woman’s secondary status was structurally assumed rather than being insisted on. These midrashim shared in common the assumption that women’s secondary status was not to be challenged. Other midrashim, such as “Jephtha’s Daughter” and “Zelophehad’s Daughters,” were written by reformers with a more critical voice, a voice that was perhaps unable to free itself from its traditionally patriarchal assumptions of women’s subordination, but that was increasingly aware of the costs of those assumptions to women, and in a different way also to men. Perhaps the progress of these men toward a profeminist stance was arrested by the very metaphor they chose to help them think through the problem of men and women, the same metaphor that their more traditionalist male coreligionists chose, the metaphor imposed by both dominant culture and a long history of Jewish patriarchy—that of the father in relationship with his daughter.
Ironically, by continuing to reject the novel form for the midrash, men left the field of the novel open to women, who embraced it. Thus the very existence of these midrashim reveals that the pace and the genres of modernization were different for women than they were for men. Men were still emerging from a traditional system of education with a focus on classical Jewish literary genres, while women, having received little or no formal education, had little connection to traditional forms or resistance to modern forms. In England, even reformist men saw themselves in some measure as preservers of continuity with the past.
MATTHIAS LEVY’S THE HASTY MARRIAGE
Of the several exceptions to the rule that men did not write fiction, the most telling is Matthias Levy’s The Hasty Marriage; a Sketch of Modern Jewish Life. This “sketch” appeared in 1857, just as the struggle for emancipation was coming to a close and Jewish men could afford to turn their attention inward. Levy was an officer in the Great Synagogue and was well known as the historian of several orthodox synagogues in London; he was not the type of Jewish man one would expect to descend into the female realm of fiction, much less the genre of romance. Perhaps because he felt uncomfortable with crossing the genre-gender line, he adopted the pseudonym Nathan Meritor. On the other hand, perhaps he was merely protecting his reputation, for like the hero of his novel, traditionalist Edgar Lavite, he believes that “there are occasions in life when it becomes necessary, for our own security, to conceal our names, partly because by revealing them we do not assist the cause in which we may be engaged.”72 Levy’s cause is “to save families from disgrace and children from ruin”—particularly female children whom he believes are in grave danger of giving in to the temptation to convert. He hopes to “bring clearly before the eyes of our authorities, as well as the authorities of other religions … the temptations which are held out to [Jewish girls] by the church, and the brilliant prospects, painted in gaudy colors, which are set before their eyes, and which induce them, more or less, to enter into the marriage state, contrary to, and in defiance of, divine law” (iii). Levy entered the realm of fiction in order to engage with the Christian romances that depicted Jewish women leaving their tyrannical and materialistic Jewish fathers to elope with a charismatic Christian suitor. Levy agreed with conversionists that Jewish women were more likely to convert than Jewish men, but he attributed these conversions to a different cause than the persuasiveness of missionary Christian rhetoric. Levy found the cause in the advent of religious reform among Jews, and specifically in what he saw as reformers’ alliance with the literary genre, the romance. By writing a romance in which all of the conventional expectations are turned on their head, Levy attempted to confront reformers with their own hypocrisy. Yet, although he was able to satirize novel writing and the romance form, he was not able to ignore the form completely. In order to reach his target audience—anglicized Jews who increasingly read novels—he had to write in their language. A traditional Jew would not have rendered himself impure by engaging in an un-Jewish form. But traditionalists like Levy were not traditional Jews—they had been affected by modernity as much as reformers. If they wanted to be heard, traditionalists like Levy eventually realized they would have to write fiction.
Levy did everything he could to deny that he was writing fiction. Denigrating “the laws of novel-writing” (iv), he says he has used methods “which may, or may not, be allowable by the rules of novel writing” (iv)—including interspersing his own opinions and ideas and criticizing Christian conversionism. He takes pride in claiming that the plot of his novel “is greatly deficient” and that it was written “in a few leisure hours” (v) and then not altered, to render it devoid of artifice. Indeed, from the first chapter, he denies any affiliation between his work and the gothic, provincial, and historical varieties of the romance novel. “It is not to a shady nook or quiet retreat, that I am about to introduce the reader. … [I]t is not on a dusty road, bounded on either side by the hawthorn and sweet briar, where may be seen two horsemen, riding gallantly forward; it is not in an ancient gothic mansion, situated in ————, in the county of ———— shire, several hundred miles from the metropolis. … And finally, it is not either to a prison or a dark alley, or any other spot which partakes of a gloomy appearance. … This work will have nothing of the romantic” (1–2). Moreover, the London house in which the story takes place “is not in a fashionable street. … Altogether, it was a street about which there was nothing that partook of mystery, people were not afraid to walk there; there were no old stories attached to it; nothing monstrous or absurd connected with it. It was … an ordinary street” (2–3). And, if we have not yet understood his rejection of romance for realism, the narrator introduces us to “an every-day matter-of-fact sort of place, with an every-day matter-of-fact sort of gentleman for its owner” (4). Like Maria Polack, the traditionalist woman who some thirty years earlier had published the first Anglo-Jewish novel, Fiction Without Romance, Levy is concerned to deny any hint that he is invoking the traditions that in traditionalists’ eyes are traced to Christian origins. Indeed, the project of debunking the romance form as a Protestant—or, what amounted to the same thing, reformist—invention was one that seems to have transcended gender lines among traditionalists.73
Although his orthodoxy may explain why Levy takes a stand against romance, it does not fully explain why Levy is so insistent that this is not a work of fiction, when he is in fact telling a story with characters, a plot, and a narrative voice that sound remarkably like those of conventional novels. Why does he end scenes just before the climactic moment, skip over years, introduce new characters late in the narrative, and in general do everything he can to undermine his own project? There are many reasons. First, Levy was suspicious of art that depicted profane events. His attempt to write, not a novel, but a “sketch,” is in line with what Steven S. Schwarzschild has called “the theology of the slashed nose.” Schwarzschild refers to the practice of Jewish artists, mindful of the Second Commandment prohibiting idolatry, of deliberately introducing an imperfection into their art so that no one could mistake it for a spiritual representation.74 According to Levy, then, the lack of artistry is proof that he is no idolater; specifically, he “slashes” his text to prove that he does not worship modern life—which the romance, the very form he satirizes, represents.
He had nothing but disgust for those Jews who wore fashionable clothes, taught their daughters popular piano music, or in other ways assimilated cultural codes from dominant Victorian life. These fashionable people he called reformers. The Hasty Marriage is written to prove that such reformist behavior will “bring misery on” such families and subject them to “the invasion of the enemy” (11). Fashion equals reform, and both are forms of romance that destroy the Jewish family.
Then, too, by writing fiction, Levy was entering into a female realm, what Celia and Marion Moss called “the flowery paths of romance.”75 In order to prevent himself from being feminized, he needed to deny his investment in the romance form, while at the same time introducing a traditionalist male character whose manhood was apparent in the remarkable virility of his argumentative abilities.
In response to these inducements to write against romance, Matthias Levy produced one of the most ambivalent and unusual texts in the Victorian Jewish canon. Good-hearted but neglectful middle-class parents, Henry and Rachel Montague, have two daughters. Leonara, nineteen, is “a sensible girl” (6), irresistibly attractive, open, honest, gentle, obedient to her parents, and above all unromantic. She is “more the angel than the woman” (6), never talking about love, never reading novels. Her younger sister Caroline, on the other hand, is jocular but with “a dark gloomy interior, where intrigue, passion, and disobedience were the reigning monarchs” (7). The family is proud to be Jewish, but because they are reformers, “what they do is most inconsistent with common sense, and totally at variance with the prescribed orthodox faith” (8). What they do is pay lip service to the rituals of their religion, while at the same time attempting to adopt a life resembling that of their Christian neighbors. Specifically, after some resistance, Rachel agrees to Caroline’s desire to learn to play the piano. Levy depicts this act of yielding to the hegemony of the drawing room as a tragic error bringing on the destruction of the family, and ultimately of the Jewish community. Caroline’s desire to play the piano is characterized as romantic and proves that “for her religion she cared nothing; and when that is the case (more particularly in the fair sex), honor, affection, obedience, love—all, all are gone” (25).
The agent of the family’s destruction is Caroline’s Christian music master, either “Signor Pacheco Graber, or Herr Pacheco Graber—for he would answer to either of the two prefixes” (13). Graber’s indeterminate Italian or German nationality marks him as all the more foreign and untrustworthy. True to his insincere appearance, Graber whisks Caroline away with promises of wealth he does not have, marries her in a provincial church that does not so much as ask whether Caroline believes in the Bible from which the minister is reading, and impoverishes her to the point at which she is forced to make a living as the actress Signora Graberini. The narrator has contempt for the church that allows such a farcical marriage to take place within its confines: how can a self-respecting religious establishment permit a union that is so clearly based on the young woman’s naïveté? What calls out the narrator’s greatest contempt, however, is that when Caroline’s father discovers that she has left with Graber he begins to cry. In response, the narrator calls the daughter and the music teacher “worthless carcases” (69). Graber’s acts of persuasion and Caroline’s ungrateful abandonment of her father combine to feminize the patriarch. Whereas in conversionist novels the father’s humiliation and the daughter’s conversion are the goals of the narrative, in this Jewish man’s revision these results are tragedies. And such tragedies may be avoided, the narrative suggests, by avoiding their source—romance.
Graber is the antitype to which Edgar Lavite is the type. Edgar is “strictly orthodox” even though “people sneered at him, fools joked at him; ignorant ones ridiculed the ceremonial part of his religion” (27–28). Edgar cares nothing for this disapprobation, for “wisdom came to his aid; reason lent her support; and with these two weapons he went fearlessly into the thick of the fight” (28). The female reason is secondary to the male wisdom because Edgar has not succumbed to what are in his mind “the flimsy ideas that Reform imparts to the mind, and the unsound and unstable doctrines which it inculcates” (28). Among these ideas is the notion that reason is the highest mental faculty with which Jewish men can interpret tradition. By maintaining an orthodox approach, Edgar has avoided being feminized by the Victorian culture of reason and progress. He can avoid reason with a clear conscience because he is confident that other, better minds have already done the work of thinking through tradition for him. As Edgar tells Caroline’s father, “what would be the result, if every man were allowed to put his own construction on an ambiguous sentence. … We who spend our lives in a shop or a profession, how are we to be able to express an opinion contrary to that of men whose careers have been spent in theological studies?” (30).
Because his is not a merely traditional practice, but a traditionalist practice—that is to say, a stand against modernity—Edgar’s anti-reformist position translates into a position against the forms of modern life, particularly fashion, romance, and individualism. Unlike Graber who dresses above his station like a gentleman, Lavite is an “ordinary young man” (29) who dresses plainly. Moreover, he ignores the offer of matrimony by the father of an upper-middle-class Jewish woman because they are a showy family who have changed their name to Johnson and keep Sunday as the Sabbath, and because their daughter is a votary of fashion who uses rouge. Instead of marrying her, Edgar proposes to Leonara Montague, Caroline’s sister, because she shows no signs of romance, but rather speaks abstractly of love’s ability to “elevate the soul, refine the mind, and prepare us for a future and a better world” (114). Leonara’s and Edgar’s ideal woman is “elevated to become an angel” (115) rather than succumbing to the temptations of modern life as Leonara’s sister has, with tragic consequences.
Why does Caroline follow in the Shakespearean tradition of Jessica rather than in the tradition of Scott’s Rebecca in Ivanhoe? Why, like the Jewish heroine of a conversionist novel, does this daughter betray her father and leave him for a foreigner? Levy might have maintained that Jewish women were converting and yet attributed the situation to a different cause. For instance, Jewish women writers agreed that their heroines were being subjected to pressure by conversionists, and they agreed that some women were accepting the conversionists’ explanations and offers. But they attributed these conversions to a particular cause—the lack of Jewish girls’ education. And they argued that increased female education was clearly the solution. Even Maria Polack and Judith Montefiore, the orthodox women writers of the group, took stands in favor of female education. “Perhaps I may be rather singular in my ideas of female education,” says Polack’s protagonist Mr. Desbro, in explaining his refusal to marry an uneducated woman,
but I am not so foolish as to be frightened at what the vulgar term “a learned woman.” Be assured, Sir, the female mind is equally strong and capacious with our own; and when a woman is ignorant, it is the fault of a man that she is so. It is a sort of vanity, or conscious superiority in our sex, that disdain to acknowledge an equal in the other. Many a brilliant imagination is cramped, and its finest ideas destroyed, for want of encouragement from those beings whom they are taught to love and look up to. And I firmly believe, that the frivolity, so often depreciated in women, would cease to exist, if they were properly encouraged in the pursuit of more rational amusements.76
Although many of Polack’s positions are strictly within the realm of male traditionalism, her position on female education seems strikingly different from the male traditionalist. Indeed, just as emancipationists spoke of the “cramping” effects of Jews’ legal and economic disabilities, she speaks of women’s minds being “cramped” by neglect.77 To argue her cause, she goes so far as to place her argument in the mouth of a man, who justifies female education with reference to the benefits it would have for men. Gender is where the orthodox Polack and the orthodox Levy part company. For Levy refuses to consider that Caroline’s flight is the fault of her education, for she “had the benefits of a good, sound, moral education. But alas! she had made but sorry use of it” (59). Trained to be submissive and accept her separate sphere, it is Caroline’s fault that she rejects her training and is lost to the “kind, good-natured, honourable family—whose members had always sustained a most irreproachable name” (62). Levy blames Caroline’s restlessness, not on her education, but on her own romantic fancies, and on her mother’s overweening desire to fulfill them. It is her mother’s laxity in exposing her to modern life that leads to her flight and the dissolution of the family.
Actually, Levy invokes both mother and father when he says, “Parents! when will ye be taught that you bring misery on yourselves, and disgrace on your families, by pandering to every wish of your children” (11). But Rachel and Henry are faulted differently. If Rachel is faulted for giving in to her daughter, Henry is held responsible for the fashionable and romantic failings of both wife and daughter: he is faulted for not being dominant enough in his household. According to Levy, his laxity is not merely an accident of his character, but is endemic to his religious practice, is indeed endemic to the project of reform itself. For Montague is lax in exercising his domestic authority because his fashionable reformist religion is lax in respecting rabbinic authority—it tolerates diversity of opinion. Edgar dislikes reformers because “their religion … sowed dissension, created discord … took some from the orthodox faith; it left a vague and uncertain impression on their minds; and, from its own insecurity, did the same amount of injury as it expected to do good” (78). Reformers’ tendency to “make Religion subject to their own convenience” (78), to erode the strictures of obedience in the name of reason, ultimately has the effect of weakening the patriarchal family structure. Romance and reform feminize the Jewish man, and are in that sense equally as dangerous to the community as conversionists. This is why Montague is to blame for his daughter’s flight, why, in Polack’s words, her frivolity is “the fault of a man.” Edgar Lavite resists the “orgies” (77) of reformist tempters, feels secure in “the wisdom” of tradition, and has no interest in learned women. He maintains his manhood. One can be sure that, for as long as Leonara remains married to him, she will remain an Angel in the House and a “daughter of Israel.”
FROM WITHIN AND WITHOUT
For the first third of the nineteenth century conversionists like M. G. Lewis and “tolerant” romance novelists like Scott depicted Jewish daughters as the spiritual half of the Jewish community, in contrast to their materialistic Jewish fathers—a spirit/matter binary that was itself a secularized version of a fundamental Christian dichotomy. Conversionists felt it imperative that the spiritual half marry out of this binary, which was tainting, limiting, and obscuring it, in a romance of a Christian man and a Jewish woman. Within this romance, individual fancy and Christian cultural hegemony would be respected over the dictates of paternal Jewish communal authority. According to conversionists, these romantic Jewish women were undereducated and oppressed within the Jewish community, and were therefore more easily brought into “the truth as it is in Jesus” than their oppressors.
In response, Jewish men, both for their own reputations among Englishmen as well as for the sake of Judaism, defended the role of women within Judaism. Yet, although they proclaimed women the spiritual equals of men, and the superiors of men in terms of prophecy and charity, although they assiduously wrote biographies showing women capable of learning within the Jewish tradition, they could not put the conversionists’ accusations fully to rest. Traditionalists invoked a separation of spheres, even though the separation they argued for—between public secularity and private religiosity—was assimilated from Victorian Christian domestic ideology, and differed from the traditional Jewish separation between distinct but equally religious spheres. Many of these men accused Jewish women of being filled with romance, of being fashion-conscious, reform-minded, and in general weak soldiers in the Jewish camp. Under pressure to rethink their sexual politics, reformist Jewish men began to admit that Jewish women were undereducated, and that women had been exempted from the realm of the abstract, even as they condescended to, and in some cases, clamped down on women’s efforts at self-education.
Neither traditionalist nor reformist men would probably have worried so much about what the conversionists were saying had they not had such a driving desire to become modern. To the extent that becoming modern meant anglicizing, it meant adopting as much as they could of Victorian Christian culture. One custom they did adopt was to restrict their recognizably Jewish activities to the domestic realm of the home and synagogue. Because they highlighted the home as the space of religiosity and cultural transmission, they ensured that Jewish women’s roles as religious educators became increasingly important. Yet because these educators were themselves undereducated, children were not being taught Judaism, family life was suffering. The religious health of the Anglo-Jewish community was in danger.
It was into this context of condescension and persuasion from without, and condescension, circumscription, and censorship from within, that Anglo-Jewish women began to break through their exemption from intellectual life and publish books. In fictional terms, they had to respond to conversionists’ and Jewish men’s rewriting of Shakespeare and Scott so as to depict the modern Jewish community’s crisis as a father/daughter plot. The next chapter argues that these women were particularly well suited by their heritage to respond in kind. And when they published, the genre of primary concern to them was romance.
. Proverbs 31 was a standard passage for such defenses of Judaism’s attitude toward women at the time. See Charlotte Montefiore’s exposition of the same passage in A Few Words to the Jews. By One of Themselves (London: John Chapman, 1855), chap. 7, 161–68; also Grace Aguilar’s tombstone bears the epithet from Proverbs 31, “Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her own works praise her in the gates,” according to Rachel Beth Zion Lask Abrahams, “Grace Aguilar: A Centenary Tribute,” Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England 16 (1952): 137–48.
. The Jewish notion is both similar to and different from the Victorian Christian separation of spheres. See Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 18. Differences will be described in text.
. Jacob A. Franklin, “Position of Israel’s Women,” VoJ, Sept. 25, 1846. In a review of Spirit of Judaism, by Grace Aguilar, VoJ, Apr. 1, 1842, the editor had argued that she had “occasionally exaggerated apprehensions of the success of those who would apostasize us.” Perhaps his view of Sephardic women’s constancy in the Inquisition informs this position—but it seems to me Aguilar could respond that he was not on the brunt end of much of the conversionists’ efforts.
. Jacob A. Franklin, “Women and Judaism,” VoJ, Apr. 9, 1847. In contrast to the editor’s view, the Jewish feminist translator Marcia Falk, in the preface to The Song of Songs: A New Translation and Interpretation (San Francisco: Harper, 1990), xiv, argues that the Song is really a collection of love poems in many distinct voices, that it does not narrate a single passionate affair between two lovers.
. See Rachel Biale, Women and Jewish Law (New York: Schocken Books, 1984): “The life of any traditional Jew, whether a man or a woman, is guided, even dictated, by the mitzvot (the commandments). The mitzvot encompass almost all conceivable spheres of human activity, and through prohibitions and prescriptions fashion private and public Jewish life, often down to the most minute details” (11).
. Charlotte Baum, Paula Hyman, and Sonya Michel trace a similar motivation for the American reform movement’s outreach to women in The Jewish Woman in America (New York: Dial Press, 1976), 17–34. The locus classicus of the mainstream Victorian separation of spheres is John Ruskin, “Of Queens’ Gardens,” in The Literary Criticism of John Ruskin, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Da Capo Press, 1965), 182–213.
. Billie Melman speaks of the effects of Evangelicalism on the gender coding of religion in “Evangelical Travel and the Evangelical Construction of Gender,” in Women’s Orients: English Women and the Middle East, 1718–1918 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992), 166.
.A new selective reading of Proverbs 31 is developed by the Victorians, still pointing to her role in the home, but now deemphasizing her role in the marketplace and bringing into relief her special charitable role among the poor: “she stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.” Proverbs 31 turns out to be a flexible document.
.JC, May 5, 1865. For a more thorough discussion of the traditionalist position, see my reading of Nathan Meritor’s scathing critique of Jewish women’s education in The Hasty Marriage; A Sketch of Modern Jewish Life (London: Mann Nephews, 1857), to follow.
.Nehemiah 8:2–3: “And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding. … And he read therein … before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law.”
.Papers Read at the Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition, Royal Albert Hall (London: Jewish Chronicle, 1888), proving that Arthur is based on King David and that Merlin is based on the Talmudic tale of Solomon and Ashmedai. “This new epical literature soon conquered Europe, and brought about a great change in social life, through the spirit of refined chivalry it breathed. … Fairies, and all that is akin to them, appeared for the first time; the exaggerated fantastic worship of women; in one word, romantic fiction came into the world.” Perhaps the great change in social life is the change in Jewish men, who at first disclaimed chivalry absolutely and here claim to have invented it.
.Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1990), asks: “are there feminist reasons why law … should or should not be a central religious category in a feminist Judaism? What considerations are relevant to the question of whether, when ‘women add our voices to tradition, halakhah will be our medium of expression and repair?’ ” (61).
.The Spirit of Judaism, ed. Isaac Leeser, 3d ed. (Philadelphia, 1864), 6. For a biography of Leeser, see Maxwell Whiteman, “Isaac Leeser and the Jews of Philadelphia: A Study in National Jewish Influence,” in Abraham J. Karp, ed., The Jewish Experience in America III: The Emerging Community (New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1969), 27–62.
.Spirit of Judaism was “a collaboration,” though it is difficult to see how both benefited from the exchange. Weinberger argues that Aguilar’s thought changed because of Leeser’s editorial criticisms on her views of Moses, the Oral Law, need of an English Bible, free vs. fixed prayer, Judaism’s attitude toward Christianity, and other issues. This would seem to me to argue both that Aguilar learned something and that the censorship was effective. A certain range of experience—that of a middle-class reformist Jewish woman who was an avid reader—was systematically altered to fit a traditionalist line.
.JC, May 28, 1869: “Jewish literature has been too long and too needlessly neglected in England. The generation which has at this epoch attained maturity has … shown too little regard for the monumental intellect of its ancestry.”
.Woman’s Cause: The Jewish Woman’s Movement in England and the United States, 1881–1933 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press), 1990, has argued that Rosa Sonneschein’s American Jewess, which first appeared in 1895, was the first Jewish women’s periodical. Presumably, the Jewish Sabbath Journal was unfamiliar to her.
.JSJ, Apr. 4, 1855: “Stella—Your tale has some pretty incidents, but is too disjointed. Do not be discouraged; try again, and most likely you will succeed better.” She uses the correspondence section to communicate directly with submitters and readers.
.JC, Aug. 23, 1895, gave somewhat different reasons for the end of her career: “She … tried to combine her literary and scholastic pursuits by editing the Jewish Sabbath Journal, but cares of her school and her young and growing family absorbed all her time. She was ambitious to train up a set of high-minded girls and boys who should be ornaments to the nation from which they sprang, and who, by their culture, refinement, and enthusiastic love of the good and the beautiful, would be known as ‘Madame Hartog’s pupils’ wherever they were to be met. To this aim she devoted her life. It was a choice between her literary ambition and the still nobler one, and she chose the latter, and so we find her soon giving up the Sabbath Journal and devoting herself to her pupils and children.” The biographer omits the debacle with Benisch and places Hartog’s motivations back in the realm of the ideologically dominant—the realm of the moral governess choosing her proper sphere over the male sphere of “literary ambition.”
.JC, Mar. 12, 1875. Grace Aguilar responded directly to the question of whether women’s participation in the public sphere (the mind) was consistent with refinement of the heart in “The Authoress,” Home Scenes and Heart Studies (London: G. Routledge and Sons, 1894), 243: her heroine, Clara Stanley, proves “to the full how very possible it is for woman to unite” literary pursuits in the public sphere with domesticity in the private sphere.
.Memoir of Sir Francis Henry Goldsmid, ed. Louisa Goldsmid, 2d ed. (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, 1882). Isaac founded the Association for Removing Civil Disabilities. Francis wrote several emancipationist pamphlets, became the first Jew called to the Bar, and founded the first Reform synagogue in England.
.JC, lead article, Mar. 8, 1850. Also see Hertz Ben Pinchas, “Encouragement of Literature among the Jews,” JC, Mar. 27, 1850; lead article, “Jewish Literary Society,” JC, May 31, 1850; lead article, “Progress of Literature Among the Jews,” JC, Oct. 18, 1850. Only the last mentioned article includes women writers among its concerns.
.JC, Aug. 18, 1876. Five years earlier, an article acknowledged that earlier generations of English Jews had criticized Disraeli, but championed him for having “honoured the race from which he sprung. … He did for us Jews what we Jews had not the courage or intelligence or perhaps the opportunity to do for ourselves—he lifted the veil which concealed our glorious past from our worldly present” (JC, Aug. 11, 1871). While claiming a connection, this still asserts a distance. The recuperation took some time.
.Legends of the Jews 7 vols. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1928–66), 5:34, 36; 1:23–24. See also Grace Aguilar’s use and revision of this legend, “The Spirit of Night,” in Home Scenes, 369–74.
., Jephthah and His Daughter: A Study in Comparative Literature (Newark: University of Delaware, 1948), which covers virtually every reference to the story from antiquity to the 1950s, anywhere in the world. It shows that there was an explosion of references in England in the nineteenth century.
.JC, July 29, 1864. Also, the tale appeared five years later in a poetic rendition as “Jephtha’s Daughter,” JC, Jan. 1, 1869. For other contemporary versions of the story, see Lord Byron, “Jephtha’s Daughter,” in Hebrew Melodies (London: J. Murray, 1815), 13–14, a remarkable poem, written in the daughter’s voice. See Celia and Marion Moss, “The Slave,” Romance of Jewish History, 3 vols. (London: A. K. Newman, 1843), 135, in which the floor of the queen’s chamber is decorated by a “carpet, worked in various colours, with the spectacle of Jeptha sacrificing his daughter.” Later, a murder is very nearly committed on the carpet.
.Fiction without Romance; or, the Locket-Watch, 2 vols. (London, 1830): her heroine Eliza Desbro receives a proposal from a man she does not love, but “she was not so romantic, as to suppose there could be no happiness for her, independent of him” (2:85)—especially since by marrying him she can please her uncle. The antiromance replaces individualistic attachments with duty to family and community. Also see Judith Montefiore, The Jewish Manual or Practical Information in Jewish and Modern Cookery, intro. Chaim Raphael (New York: NightinGale Books, 1983), iii.
.The Times, May 6, 1831: “he earnestly looked for the emancipation of the Jews, as the means of developing the cramped energies of that people.” Bernard Van Oven, “Ought Baron de Rothschild to Sit in Parliament? An Imaginary Conversation between Judaeus and Amicus Nobilis” (London: Effingham Wilson, 1847), likewise uses the term “cramping” to describe the effects of persecution on Jews’ industriousness and argues that “Jews should be allowed to develop their energies for their own and the public good” (14).