Jewish Historical Fiction

From Social Calls to Matzah Balls, a look at Jewish Austen Fan Fiction

The hosting, and attending, of morning calls, house parties, routs, balls and assemblies was imperative for those entering the upper echelons of society—think of Mr. Bingley and his sisters, who had so recently borne the “stench of trade.” How much more so for foreigners

During the nineteenth century, Jews were experiencing unprecedented mobility in English society; and while this certainly was a blessing, the process of acceptance in the Anglican world threatened to erode their level of religious observance. The simple act of sharing a meal among friends presented certain complications. Cookbooks of the era did not take into consideration the ingredients or combinations that were prohibited in a kosher kitchen, such as the mixing of meat and dairy, or the partaking of shellfish or pork. Lady Montefiore (née Judith Barent Cohen 1784-1862) was the first to affirm, in so public a fashion, the existence of a distinctive Jewish cuisine and to draw from both Sephardic and Ashkenazi traditions (in general terms, Sephardic Jews hail from the Iberian Peninsula, but also such places as Italy, Greece, and Northern Africa. Ashkenazi Jews encompass Eastern Europe).

Lady Judith Montefiore

Much like Jane Austen, Lady Judith was a keen observer of human nature. Her book, The Jewish Manual; or, Practical Information in Jewish & Modern Cookery, with a Collection of Valuable Recipes & Hints Relating to the Toilette, therefore, was much more than a guide to cooking within the Jewish dietary laws known as kashrut. She meant “to guide the young Jewish housekeeper in the luxury and economy of the table, on which so much of the pleasure of social intercourse depends.” She encouraged homemakers to present elegant dinners, and to not draw any undesirable attention to the kosherness of the preparations. The end result would produce “haute cuisine that was invisibly Jewish and gastronomically exceptional.”

Montefiore was a great proponent of female education; and in keeping with Austen, she had a profound understanding of a woman’s lot in Regency England. The author pointedly wrote about the importance of cultivating the mind, and stated that womanhood should encompass “individuality, self-control, reason, intellect and fine feeling.”  Miss Elizabeth Bennet is the personification of that description, don’t you think? In her final chapter entitled “Influence of the Mind as regards Beauty,” Lady Judith professes that “all the milk of roses and essence of lavender in the world could not make a woman beautiful whose inner life was not up to standard.” It seems that Lady Judith and Miss Austen were of the same mind. Recall Mr. Darcy’s rejoinder when he said: “And to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”

“Let those females, therefore, who are the most solicitous about their beauty, and the most eager to produce a favorable impression, cultivate the moral, religious and intellectual attributes, and in this advice consists the recipe of the finest cosmetic in the world.”

Judith Barent Cohen was a child of an immigrant linen merchant; and while her father was successful, Judith identified with the “middling” class. Although they practiced strict religious observance at home, her father was a devotee of Moses Mendelssohn, a leader in the Jewish Enlightenment movement. Because of this alignment to a philosophy that encouraged secular studies and modernization, Judith was highly educated and spoke several languages. After her marriage in 1812, she held a place of some importance within England’s upper class. Her book offered suggestions “so that a lady’s physical appearance, accomplishments, inner qualities, and even her table could be an extension of herself—not as a Jew, but as a civilized person.”

Here is a snippet from The Meyersons of Meryton, where Mrs. Bennet—of all people—teaches us a lesson in civility:

“Do tell us about your good works, Mrs. Meyerson. Your husband mentioned such provocative activities. I would hear it from your own lips.”

“Mr. Meyerson tends to flatter when, in truth, I am the fortunate one. Charitable works are a blessing for the giver as well as the receiver.”

Mary nodded her agreement and quoted a favorite verse, “One who is gracious to a poor man lends to the Lord, and He will repay him for his good works.”

“Truly, the repayment, if it may be considered as such, is the great privilege to work alongside generous, intelligent women such as Judith Montefiore. Currently we are working on establishing a school for underprivileged Jewish girls. They will learn a trade and be able to find work in Jewish houses which, you must understand, are always looking for employees who are familiar with our ways.”

“Pray, enlighten us,” Lady Lucas said. “While it is true that good help is hard to come by, why should standards be any different in a Hebrew household?”

“The girls are taught to work in kosher kitchens for the elite in our society who keep our dietary regulations,” Mrs. Meyerson replied.

“If your people wish to socialize with The Upper Ten, they must needs learn to adapt to British fare and give up their dietary regulations altogether!” Lady Lucas retorted rather emphatically.

“Many families, sadly, have done just that, and others, such as in my household, attempt to find a solution that is appropriate for their circumstance. My husband and I, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Montefiore, do not concern ourselves overly much with kashrut when we are away from home. In truth, I tend to make do with what is put before me, but Judith is quite formidable! She is ever experimenting and creating new recipes, refusing to lower her standards, for she is adamant we need not suffer by keeping faith with our laws.”

“I dare say, if these Montefiores are truly in society, they would not venture to impose their peculiar ways upon the ton.”

“You would be mistaken, Lady Lucas, for my cousins entertain many prominent families of the highest social circles and, even more astonishing, their Christian acquaintances are demanding their own chefs learn to prepare a kosher cuisine. It appears The Upper Ten find it not only satisfying, but a delight to their fastidious digestion.”

Mrs. Bennet smiled at one lady and then the other. While Lady Lucas was a person of some import in Meryton, it was clear the Meyersons had notable connections in Town. Who was to say that their acquaintance would not prove to be advantageous for her girls? It was necessary to speak a little; it would be odd to be entirely silent on the subject. Therefore, Mrs. Bennet, in her effort to appease both parties, believed she had found some common ground. “Perhaps,” she suggested, “these recipes would not only benefit ladies of the Hebrew persuasion. Pray recall, Lady Lucas, we ourselves are charged to make dishes without meat or dairy many times throughout the year such as during the Lenten or fasting holy days. Perhaps it is not so peculiar as it appears to be at first glance.”

Elizabeth overheard this exchange and was astonished. Why, her mother’s words were practically revolutionary!

Originally posted on Austen Authors.net on October 30, 2020

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