Greetings and welcome to my debut post. I am delighted to make your acquaintance, if only through this medium. Shall I begin by properly introducing myself? Unlike Miss Jane Austen, I was not born in a scenic village in rural England. My family were neither descendant of landed gentry, nor were they Anglican. Far from it! Just prior to the revolution, my grandparents escaped the pogroms and persecution of Imperial Russia, and immigrated to Argentina. This was largely due to the auspices of a philanthropic organization created by Baron Maurice Hirsch, which rescued Jews trapped in the Pale of Settlement. I was born in Buenos Aires; but, by the end of 1962—the year of my birth—my parents immigrated to the United States of America.
From an early age, I was mesmerized by stories of young ladies from days of yore. My exigency for Historical Fiction continued as I grew older, but when I discovered Jane Austen, I was besotted. The truth of the matter was that the history, combined with the foreign settings, fashion, and mannerisms captured my heart and my attention. I began writing late in life, mainly when I transitioned into being an empty-nester. I wrote a coming-of-age memoir and two historical fiction novels, loosely based on my family’s immigration stories. But when I began delving into the history of British Jews, the trappings for a new project began formulating; one where I could pay homage to Miss Austen, while acknowledging my culture and flavoring it with a bit of Yiddishkeit (Jewish qualities or essence). Having never written a fan fiction, I readily admit the venture was a bit daunting. Jane’s own words were sufficient impetus to forge ahead. In a letter to librarian, James Stanier Clarke, she wrote the following:
“I could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any other motive than to save my life, & if it were indispensable for me to keep it up & never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No – I must keep my own style & go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.”
Needless to say, I took Miss Austen’s advice and wrote a J.A.F.F. —that’s Jewish Austen Fan Fiction—in a style all my own. In doing research for “The Meyersons of Meryton,” I found that there were many eminent Jewish families in my focus Regency-period, such as the Montefiores and the Rothschilds, whose role in society cannot be denied and should not be forgotten. I will share a few tidbits to (hopefully) whet your appetite. Moses Montefiore and Judith Barent Cohen were married in 1812. They honeymooned in Ramsgate; and were so enchanted with the sea side resort, they purchased an estate there and commissioned a synagogue to be built for the local Jewish community. Through their philanthropic work, they went on to become one of the most influential Jewish couples throughout the Georgian and Victorian era.
Lady Judith assisted her husband in his communal affairs and public activities. She was an authoress, writing of their experiences visiting Damascus, Rome, St. Petersburg and the Holy Land. More than travel logs, these works were hailed as spiritually inspiring and educational. She wrote a “how-to” manual for ladies who mixed and mingled with a diverse society. She adapted recipes to conform to Jewish dietary laws, replacing ingredients such as lard, so much used in English kitchens, and eliminating shellfish and forbidden meats. It was said that, many of her non-Jewish guests, began insisting on a kosher-style cuisine in their own homes, as their gout and dyspeptic maladies lessened. Lady Judith recommended simplicity in dress, considered delicate hands a mark of elegance and refinement, and carefully assessed the effect of diet on the complexion. The imagery of this famous couple, socializing and hobnobbing with the upper echelons of London society, was enough to seduce my imagination! It certainly was more alluring than the stereotypical characterizations of greedy money lenders and lowly rag merchants heralded in classics written by Shakespeare, Chaucer and Dickens.
Creative license allowed me to use Miss Bingley, Mrs. Phillips, and Mrs. Bennet as vehicles for ignorance and ill-manners in my novel. Here is a snippet from a scene where the Bennets and the Meyersons are becoming acquainted:
Mrs. Bennet fidgeted in her chair, uncomfortable with the topic and uncertain if was proper to speak of such a delicate matter in one’s dining room. Attempting to direct the conversation to something to which she could contribute, she grasped at the flittering thoughts that crossed her mind.
“Pray tell me, sir, how are you acquainted with my brother?”
“It is rather a complicated story, ma’am, and it all began thanks to the machinations of two enterprising ladies.”
Mr. Bennet snorted and muttered something mercifully imperceptible. However, its meaning did not escape his wife, whose disapproving mien conveyed her thoughts.
“Let me see if I can unravel this web of familial connections and Divine Providence,” he said, rubbing his hands together as if preparing for a great feast. “As I believe we mentioned, my wife is related to Moses Montefiore, a Sephardic Jew. They are cousins through mutual relations with the Mocatta family—who, if you are interested, Miss Mary, settled in this country in the 1670s! In any event, Montefiore took to wife a lovely young lady from a prominent Ashkenazi family by the name of Judith Barent Cohen.”
“Jacob, perhaps you should get to the point,” Mrs. Meyerson encouraged.
“Quite right, dearest. You see, Miss Judith, nay, Mrs. Montefiore, is a patron of the Jewish Ladies’ Loan and Visiting Society and an officer of the Jews’ Orphan Asylum, as is my Sofia! Both ladies participate in a veritable host of philanthropic organizations. While they are from different communities, they soon became friends without knowing they were related—distant cousins, of course but, nonetheless, related.”
“I believe Mr. Montefiore is connected to Nathan Mayer Rothschild, a man of some importance in London’s financial world,” Mr. Bingley added.
“Indeed! The men are connected by marriage. Mrs. Montefiore’s sister, Hannah, is married to Mr. Rothschild, but it does not end there. Moses Montefiore’s brother is married to Rothschild’s sister.”
“I say!” Sir William exclaimed.
“It is exceedingly diverting, striving to follow the branches of this family tree, and most particularly because marriages between Sephardim and Ashkenazim have been frowned upon…until recently, that is. My own union was much criticized,” he said with a wink towards his disapproving wife. “Yes…well—I digress. Because the two ladies were much thrown together organizing charitable balls and philanthropic events, Mr. Montefiore and his wife have been frequent visitors in our rather unfashionable neighborhood of Cheapside.”
“Ah,” Mrs. Bennet said, waving a delicate fan about her heated face imagining the illustrious society of said ‘charitable balls’ and ‘philanthropic events.’ “And now I see. You met my brother there.”
“Precisely, but not for the reason you might think. Mrs. Meyerson’s brother, Aaron, owns a factory near Gracechurch Street. He was recently blessed with a generous military contract and will have need of employing many people who would otherwise be destitute.”
“Unfortunately,” Mr. Darcy said dryly, “war is good for business.”
“The military requires a host of goods and in massive quantities, to be sure. Everything from tents, knapsacks, and uniforms, to muskets, gunpowder…”
“Jacob—” A gentle prodding was whispered.
“I believe you take my meaning,” said Mr. Meyerson with a sheepish grin. “In any event, it was Montefiore and a few of his colleagues who came to Cheapside and introduced my brother-in-law and many other merchants of the East End to Mr. Gardiner and his business partners. Your brother, Mrs. Bennet, and my brother-in-law have put their heads together for a grand business venture! Aaron will produce the merchandise and Mr. Gardiner will use his warehouses to store and distribute accordingly.”
“I would not have expected such maneuverings and assignations,” exclaimed Mrs. Bennet, “but of course, I wish them much success—anything to bring Little Boney to his knees!”
I cannot confirm or deny that Miss Austen would have interacted with anyone from the Jewish community; nonetheless, this daughter of a clergyman did take a stand against anti-Semitism. When Mr. Thorpe, of “Northanger Abbey” fame, spews out that Mr. Allen is “as rich as a Jew,” our dear Miss Moreland is speechless. Thorpe truly is an ill-mannered, insufferable—ignorant—young man! Jane Austen understood human nature and took pleasure in bringing unseemly realities to light. I feel her portrayal of Mr. Thorpe’s nasty character speaks volumes. In writing a “Pride and Prejudice” vagary, I aspired to take a page from Austen’s repertoire and emulate her social commentary. The Montefiores and the Rothschilds are prime examples of non-Anglicans thriving in England’s Regency society. It was my hope that “The Meyersons of Meryton” would exemplify how people of different faiths can focus on their commonalties and help one another in difficult times. In today’s world, as in Austen’s day, that quintessential Universal Truth still rings true.
Originally posted on Austen Authors.net on October 2, 2020