I’ve been addressing Jane Austen’s work and the correlating themes found in Judaic text. The reason for this exercise stems from my desire to find historical fiction or historical romance novels that contain a modicum of Judaica. Of course, Austen’s work isn’t considered historical fiction. Her stories were contemporary; her readers would have recognized their world amongst the backdrop of her settings. But that’s not my point. Sorry!
While I have scoured endless book titles and conducted mind numbing Internet searches in the hopes of finding some hidden gem, I have very little to show for my effort. That was the impetus to take pen in hand, so to speak, and to write my own fanfiction. And why not? Jane Austen’s work continues to inspire and entertain a diverse, world-wide audience. We are presented with modern interpretations of her classics novels, time-travel storylines, and narratives that focus on any number of ethnicities and cultures. Evidently, our thirst for new and tantalizing Austenesque plots and themes is not so easily quenched! And for this particular reader, it seemed only logical that the Jewish community be represented in Austen’s fandom.
That being said, I am not an advocate of racelifting. By that I mean, I have no need to replace a character’s Anglican faith for Judaism. I am satisfied with the introduction of Jewish protagonists and themes that are a true reflection of our community as a whole. For other authors and readers, I understand that it is imperative to see a Jewish character cast in the original role. And that’s okay. That’s the magic of fanfiction. InThe Meyersons of Meryton, I introduce a rabbi and his family to Austen’s fictional town in Hertfordshire. In Celestial Persuasion, I create a friendship in-between Captain Wentworth and the Isaacs siblings that stretches far beyond England’s shores. With Destiny by Design~ Leah’s Journey, I showcase a story that is loosely based on my ancestors’ experiences. Although this novel is not a J.A.F.F. (Jane Austen Fan Fiction), there is a definite nod to the author and her work. These novels, along with my first title, Becoming Malka, are my small contribution to the lesser known genres of Jewish Historical Fiction and Jewish Historical Romance.
As we are now officially in the “holiday season,” there is an opportunity to address diversity and Jewish characters in other forms of entertainment. For example, Hallmark has attempted to incorporate Jewish storylines and characters in their holiday lineup. These shows are a bit cringe-worthy, I’ll admit it, but at least they’re trying. I’d encourage them to try a littleharder. While I do want to see Jewish representation in these soapy movies, I do not want to see Hanukkah downgraded to a Christmas-wanna-be. The whole point of the Maccabean revolt was not to assimilate to the dominating culture. It is a fine line, I understand. Hallmark can do better.
Over at Disney, we were introduced to a Jewish heroine for one episode of Elena of Avalor. The character is supposed to be a Sephardic princess, but she uses Yiddish terminology and speaks of Ashkenazi traditions. And, I’m sorry to say, the princess is not very attractive. Like the folks over at Hallmark, the imagineers could have put forth more effort. This piece needed a little more research into the character’s cultural background and a lot more generosity in developing her aesthetic. Perhaps they could have taken a page from the variety of diverse characters showing up in other animation, comics, and television series and given the Jewish community a proper heroine.
And speaking of television, did you hear the collective “oy!” when fans of Downton Abbey found out that Lady Crawley’s father was Jewish? The writers did not stop there. The series also introduced a Jewish family of the upper echelons of society. Apparently, Lord Sinderby’s family had fled the pogroms and persecution of Imperial Russia some sixty years ago. Sparks fly when his son, Ephraim (he goes by his second name, Atticus) meets and falls in love with Lady Rose…who is not Jewish. This all-too-familiar predicament, as well as other issues of anti-Semitism in Edwardian England, are brought to the forefront. While I was not entirely pleased with the outcome, I was glad that at least our community’s presence was addressed.
With the success of Sanditon and Bridgerton—and the plethora of costume dramas in the world today— it seems clear we are in need of the escapism that these shows provide. We fantasize and yearn for the days of polite society and social graces. How much more pleasing is it to read a novel or watch a show that allows one to identify with a character— someone who stands to represent one’s community, one’s values, and heritage in a positive light? It is time to come out from the shadows of the likes of Heyer, Dickens, and Shakespeare. Their Jewish characters were cliché and demeaning. The Jewish community has played a proud and active role in nearly every culture around the world. We are connected to that history by a chain that spans over five thousand years.
Jane Austen certainly instilled her biblical knowledge and values into her novels. She commented on societal issues with her wit and keen power of observation. Her readers, no doubt, recognized and identified with these truths. If one of my books brings a sense of connection, a sense of community, a sense of pride to a Jewish reader, I would have fulfilled my goal. My books are a link in that ancient chain. They are another opportunity to say: Hineini —I am here. We are here. And we’re not going anywhere.
Hello and Happy new year everyone! I hope you’ve had a chance to read the previous posts featuring authors of Jewish Historical Fiction. Joining us today, I’m pleased to present D.B. Schaefer. The author was born and raised in the American Midwest, but she headed to more exotic locales after university and has flourished there ever since.
She has worked as a journalist, newspaper editor, and a technical communicator at various stages of her life. Schaefer also wrote many novels in her dreams before completing Me & Georgette, her quirky time-travel homage to famed Regency historical author Georgette Heyer.
This book was an absolute must read for me. The creative narrative brought Regency and Yiddishkeit successfully into a shidduch and married the two worlds beautifully. I couldn’t wait to read the end, not because I was eager to set down the book; but rather, I was dying of curiosity to see how the time-travel issue was dealt with…Jewishly.
Host: Let’s get right to it, shall we? Tell us how this bookcame about.
Guest: I was first introduced to the Regency romance genre decades ago. I read several Georgette Heyer novels at the time, but it wasn’t what one would call an obsession. Fast forward several years, and I was married and living in Israel. One day while browsing in a used bookshop in downtown Jerusalem, I came across a bin of old books marked a shekel a piece (about 50 cents at the time) and found several Heyers. I purchased them all. They were perfect reading for the time: clean (because I was a nice religious lady by then), fun, and literate. I became an instant Heyer addict, and the search for more Heyer novels was on. I actually found a different used bookstore whose owner traveled to England several times a year to purchase used books. He had a following of Heyer fans and would hide her novels under the counter. “Do you have any books by Georgette Heyer?” I’d ask, and Dani would surreptitiously pull one or two out for me. Soon I also had friends in American searching for Georgette Heyers to complete my collection. One friend sent me a box full of Heyers that included A Civil Contract, which is one of Heyer’s more mature and serious novels.
After I read it, it occurred to me that there were many similarities (aside from Almack’s) betweenmatch-making and marriage in Heyer’s novels and in the orthodox Jewish community. My imagination was fired, and I soon came up with the idea of a nice Jewish girl from Boro Park who is “on the shelf” and “past her last prayers,” but whose best friend still hasn’t given up hope of finding her a shidduch. When the friend invites her to the Purim meal to check out a possible match, she falls off a chair, bangs her head and is knocked unconscious, and wakes up in Regency England. Me & Georgette was born.
Host: There seems to be a wide variety of genres these days, what with the advent of fan fiction and indie books. Why do you think Jewish Historical Fiction is an important, stand-alone, subject?
Guest: History is usually written by the side of the victor or the politically correct. Jewish historical fiction gives a real voice to our history, which has been generally ignored, suppressed, or rewritten by non-Jewish historians and Jewish historians with an agenda. Jewish historical fiction is especially important in light of the younger generation, many of whom do not know where we originate and where our wanderings have taken us over the millennia. Due to their lack of education and anything to Jewish to latch on to, they are in danger of losing their Jewish identity. Historical novels provide an easy entry point into researching more about our history.
Host: Well said! To that point, I think it must be mentioned, at least as a brief aside, Georgette Heyer has been deemed an anti-Semite. In her book, The Grand Sophy, she fashioned a Jewish character to resemble every stereotype imaginable. He was a moneylender, “a thin, swarthy individual, with long greasy curls, a semitic nose, and an ingratiating leer.” The man even sported full, long peyot when, in reality, most Jews of the Regency era did not observe this commandment. Heyer published her book after the atrocities of the Holocaust were well known throughout the world. She deliberately exaggerated caricatures to enforce the idea of Jewish “otherness,” in a time when Regency Jews were striving to acclimate and fit in with their Anglican counterparts. I learned of Heyer’s predilections after reading your novel. I must admit, I felt some satisfaction in thinking that positive, well-rounded Jewish characters had made their way into a Heyer fan fiction. It would be equally satisfying to know her thoughts on the subject!
But, back to your comment regarding our history, do you remember your first Jewish fiction that was non-Holocaust related?
Guest: Two novels stand out for me, both taken from my father’s library. I think one was called A Dangerous Madness or A Type of Madness, although I am not sure of the name and I’ve never been able to track it down. Even many of the details of the plot elude me. But it was about a Jewish sailor who traveled to Elizabethan England to track down the man who betrayed his wife to the Inquisition. The second was a stunning, sweeping historical novel by Brenda Lesley Segal, The Tenth Measure, which is set during the Jewish-Roman war in the Second Temple period.
Host: Even though I grew up a “Pan Am brat,” my father’s airline benefits only afforded us trips back and forth from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires. As an anglophile, one day soon, I hope to make it to England and the Jane Austen circuit. Have you had the opportunity to visit any of the locations you have written about?
Guest: I’m a Kansas girl. I’ve never even been to Boro Park! I have been to London, but not to Gloucestershire, where Me & Georgette takes place.
Host: Curiosity begs me to ask: are you a panster or a plotter? Do you outline your story and know how it will end, or do you go with the flow and allow your characters to lead the way?
Guest: With Me & Georgette, I started as a “panster,” although I knew how the story was going to end (and even what the climax, which is one of my favorite scenes, would be). At some point I realized I needed to develop the plot that would get me to that end point. Somewhere along the line that plot took on a life of its own, and it was great fun getting from A to Z.
Host: That’s the best part, isn’t it—when the plot takes on a life of its own? The characters practically tell you what they want to do or say. Do you have anything in the works now? I enjoyed your book very much and hope there are more to come!
Guest: I have a Regency sequel to Me & Georgette I’ve been writing on and off for the past several years. Because I am employed full time in another profession and have a complicated home life, I don’t have much time or head space to devote to this newer novel. The sequel, which takes place at Ravenscourt (the central location of Me & Georgette), isn’t a Jewish novel, although there are still some Jewish elements to it. But I hope eventually to weave the Jewish characters in and out of the series, possibly through more time-travel in either direction.
Host: Sounds intriguing! I look forward to reading it. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Guest: Thank you for hosting the interview, Mirta. I wrote Me & Georgette during a difficult year when I needed FUN. And writing it was indeed fun. This year, too, was difficult–perhaps the most difficult in my life. Baruch Hashem (thank G-d) I had my job, my health, my family, and a roof over my head. That is more than many people can say. But for personal reasons I don’t want to go into, it was unbelievably difficult. And so I found myself reading mostly escape literature. Once again, I needed fun. Friends I spoke to told me the same thing. They were unable to read anything heavy and reverted to their comfort reads.
Just like there is a real place for Jewish literature, escapist literature also plays an important role in our lives. We don’t always need to be pompous or heavy, philosophical, or political. We authors who write light literature also have something important contribute: a welcome release in a cataclysmic world. In this new secular year, may we all share in the fruits of the efforts to control, heal, and stop this horrible virus. The vaccines are rolling out, but many additional advances have been made in medicine and science as a result of the pandemic. May we all merit many more years of the opportunity to read Jewish historical literature.
I’ll just leave your audience now with a short excerpt to whet their appetite.
Devorah returned slowly to consciousness. She became aware first of smells: the odor of fresh sweat, followed by the more subtle scents of earth and grass and wildflowers and, perhaps, weeds. Next came a feeling of extreme warmth, as if a ray of heat were pounding down, enveloping her. She was so hot, so very, very hot and thirsty. Then came the excruciating throbbing at the back of her head, as if she had been viciously battered by a sledgehammer. She moaned and tried to open her eyes, only to be blinded by a blaze of sunlight. She shut them again and tried to rest, to ignore the brutal pain in her head and the parchedness of her throat.
“Look, Adam, she’s coming to,” said a disembodied voice with a precise British accent.
“She appears to be slightly disoriented, as if she has a concussion. She must have sustained a blow to the head, though how the deuce—?” an older, more arrogant voice answered in the same, elegant Queen’s English. “Brandy is what’s needed. Do you have any on you?”
“No, but Mother, you know, always keeps a flask in the carriage for just such emergencies as may arise. I see the team rounding the bend now. Shall I signal John Coachman to spring ’em?”
“No need. Just go wait for them and explain what has happened. The lady—if I may call her that—appears to have gone off again. I’ll see whether I can rouse her.”
Devorah made a supreme effort to open her eyes and focus on the figure crouched before her. Dark, piercing eyes set in a harsh, unfamiliar face stared back at her. She took in the strange cut of their owner’s black hair, then her gaze traveled wonderingly down to the white cloth tied at the stranger’s neck, the uptilted points of his exaggerated shirt collar and the antiquated cut of his blue jacket. Involuntarily, her gaze traveled still further down, and she saw with some embarrassment that he was wearing tightly fitted buff breeches fastened with buttons.
“Oh!” she exclaimed, startled, as her eyes flew up quickly to meet the stranger’s own.
“Come, that is better now,” he said in a slightly amused voice. A smile flickered at the corners of his mouth.
Devorah struggled to raise herself, and he reached out to help pull her into a sitting position. “Much better,” he said coaxingly. “How is your head?”
Devorah, still trying to assimilate the stranger’s unusual costume, felt the back of her head at the exact spot where the sledgehammer was battering her and realized with some shock that a lump had sprouted there. “Better, I guess,” she said. But where was she? Who was this man? If only she didn’t feel so confused.
A coach and four came rushing into view and, obeying signals from the younger man, slowed to a halt. This latter person, too, was clothed in knee breeches and boots and an antiquated coat, and when he turned toward his companion, Devorah saw that he sported a similar neck cloth and shirt points. Where had she seen that dress style before? It was strange, but—at the same time—familiar. It looked like something out of Regency England, she realized, the thought coming to her out of nowhere.
“Oh, no!” she cried out, falling backward. She knew, then, what had come of reading too many Georgette Heyer novels.
A few weeks ago, as you know, I decided to launch this blog. As an indie author it is imperative to market and promote your work and to remain in the public eye. But maintaining a blog is time-consuming and takes a toll on the limited brain cells (and creative juices) I have left remaining after a 10-hour workday. Just writing about my books wasn’t going to cut it; and to be honest, the blog would certainly not keep anyone’s attention for long. By inviting other authors to share their work, I hope to shed light on this genre of Jewish Historical Fiction. Its diversity and educational significance, as well as its entertainment value is sure to please. Having said that, I couldn’t be happier to present today’s guest.
Caroline Warfield is an award-winning author of family-centered romance set in the Regency and Victorian eras. She has been many things, but above all she is a romantic. She began life as an army brat who developed a wide view of life and a love for travel. Now settled in the urban wilds of eastern Pennsylvania, she reckons she is on at least her third act.
When she isn’t off seeking adventures with her Beloved or her grandson down the block, Caroline works happily in an office surrounded by windows where she lets her characters lead her to even more adventures in England and the far-flung corners of the British Empire. She nudges them to explore the riskiest territory of all, the human heart, because love is worth the risk.
Host: Caroline, you will forgive me, but I’m a little star struck. I’ve read your work and appreciate your standing in the Regency world. It goes without saying, I pretty much loved everything about your book, An Open Heart. There was a certain lightness to it, similar to any other Regency romance, but there was no denying the substantive material in the narrative. I was bursting with pride when the storyline touched upon the contributions and achievements of Anglo-Jews, but I believe my favorite scene had to be the impromptu Shabbat service held in the Duchess of Haverford’s drawing room. What motivated you to write this book?
Guest: I belong to The Bluestocking Belles, an authors’ support group and marketing co-op. We do an anthology or a “boxed set” every year, often with loosely connected stories. The year I wrote this we had a house party theme. The Duchess of Haverford invited young women who worked with her on charity projects to sponsor a holiday ball for charity. We all added characters to her committee. Jewish characters popped into my head that year; stories sometimes happen that way. Esther, a wealthy, but not aristocratic, young lady was part of the planning committee from the beginning. An Open Heart is a standalone book, but there are minor characters who appear in the other stories, and Esther and Adam appear in some of the others. The collection as a whole was called Holly and Hopeful Hearts.
As an aside, we’re a multi-faith family. While Beloved and I are Catholic, we often celebrate with our daughter and her family who are Jewish. Our grandson celebrated his bar mitzvah last year.
Host: Mazal tov to the Bar Mitzvah and to the whole meshpucha! I love the name, “Bluestocking Belles.” Sounds like my kind of group. But my goodness! A boxed set every year? Tell us, why do you think we are so fascinated with this particular time period?
Guest: The Regency era is a mythical Romantic era. I say that because of the sheer volume of stories classified as “regency.” They don’t always necessarily reflect history. I like to hope mine do.
Host: I, for one, can attest to the historical content of your work. In fact, I am striving to achieve that educational and enlightening component myself! Jewish Historical Fiction is an important, stand-alone, genre in my view. What are your thoughts?
Guest: Good question! I’m not entirely sure I’m qualified to answer that. Insofar as it contributes to the body of truth about history—emphatically yes. My own concern is that the historical romance genre in general realistically portray the diversity of previous eras. Realism matters, and, frankly, all that white bread story telling gets boring.
Host: Since we are speaking of weaving accurate historical events into our storylines, tell us about your research. Were you surprised by your findings?
Guest: I was struck by the efforts of the Jewish community of London to make certain their sons had access to high quality education. They were less concerned about educating their daughters, a blind spot they shared with the rest of England, one my heroine complains about vociferously. Women’s education has always been a passion with me. Several of my books touch on it.
Host: Ah—I think I may know the answer to my next question. Which of your characters resonate with you most?
Guest: Actually, Adam does. His struggle to maintain his identity, his faith, and his attachment to tradition while working in the larger culture was something I relate to strongly. My daughter once told her rabbi that her mother can’t have too much tradition, and she was right. We best appreciate the traditions of others when we cherish our own. The richness of sharing is dear to me.
Host: I would have thought you’d choose Esther; but having read your response, I can clearly see why you went with Adam. To be honest, either character would have been a great pick! Here’s another question along those same lines. Do you have a favorite scene in the book?
Guest: I love the scene in which Adam arrives at the home of his former teacher, Rebbe Benyamin Nahmany, “the finest Talmudic scholar in Europe,” who lives in a house nestled on the French side of the Pyrenees with his large family. Adam and an English officer are on a mission to bring funds to Wellington and the family is helping them. He realizes with surprise that he has forgotten Chanukah (which after all was a minor feast) when he sees the mother lighting five candles. He enjoys the warmth of the family’s celebration, and I love that he gets his comeuppance by the scholarly learning of one of the daughters. Afterward he is forced to rethink many of his assumptions.
Host: Yes! That was a great turning point in the story and your research served you well. Tell us, are you working on something now?
Guest: I’ve reached the point of projects accumulating in my mind faster than I can write them. I’m working on two new series at the same time. One is set in a small village in England and centers on two interrelated families. It has less of that diversity I value, but a lot of strong family ties, which are also important to me. The first book The Wayward Son will be launched in July.
At the same time, I’ve been working on a new series that continues my Children of Empire series. The hero is an English archaeologist working in Egypt and Nubia. The heroine is a French woman who is also a hakima, a medical professional trained to treat women, more of a nurse practitioner than a midwife. It is heavy on history and has a very diverse cast of characters, including Muslim colleagues of the main characters. That will be published by a different publisher, also in July. It is called The Price of Glory.
Host: I’m in awe, Caroline. I can’t imagine undertaking two projects at once. I currently have a Work-in-Progress that started off with a bang, but now is competing with everyday life and a million other distractions and commitments. Which brings me to my closing point. I appreciate your time and thank you once again for your participation today. I’m delighted you’re sharing an excerpt and your social media links with the audience.
Guest: Thank you for inviting me, Mirta. A last note: I will happily send an eBook copy of An Open Heart to one person (randomly selected) who comments.
An excerpt from An Open Heart:
“—I don’t understand how your father could send you to that school. Your parents are entirely too secular in their outlook. The Talmud suggests—”
“I wouldn’t know what your precious books suggest. I’m excluded from that kind of learning.” There. She had given voice to her greatest resentment. Let him make what he would out of that.
“Leave my mother out of this. My mother taught me what I need to know about Shabbat and the holy days. And who are you to criticize?”
Adam colored, red blotches staining his cheeks. “Of course, I have no right. I had hoped before I left—”
Esther felt light-headed for a moment. Had he spoken to Papa? Breath rushed back into her lungs, but she raised her chin. “What is it you hoped, Mr. Halevy?”
Adam’s eyes softened, and Ether found herself leaning slightly toward him. A moment later, he stiffened and took a step back.
“My wife will respect our traditions and keep a traditional home,” he announced.
“I wish you luck finding such a paragon, Mr. Halevy,” Esther responded, pulling herself up as tall as she could. “My home will respect tradition and the people we meet.” When he simply glared at her outburst, she went on, “And my daughters will know as much about our faith as you do!”
“Good luck to you in that endeavor, Miss Bauman,” he said with a jerky nod. He tapped his hat on his head with more force than needed.
When he stepped out the door, Esther couldn’t control the urge to dart out after him. “Adam—Mr. Halevy—wait!”
His frown looked more puzzled than angry when he turned to her.
“Where you’re going—it will be dangerous.” Her lack of breath made the words sound uneven.
“I—” The expression on his face stopped her before she could continue. “I’ll pray for you,” she finished at last, “and the success of your journey, of course.”
A sad smile transformed his face. “I would be grateful for your prayers, Miss Baumann.”
I’m delighted to welcome today’s guest. Libi Astaire is the author of the award-winning Jewish Regency Mystery series; Terra Incognita, a novel about modern-day descendants of Spain’s secret Jews; and The Banished Heart, a novel about Shakespeare, secret Jews, and 1930s Berlin. She lives in Jerusalem, Israel.
As an avid fan of all things Austen and being hot-wired for Jewish historical fiction, I was thrilled to discover Libi’s collection of Jewish mystery novels. The Banished Heart most certainly does not take place in London’s Regency period; my heart was not all aflutter for a Mr. Darcy or a Captain Wentworth, but there is a certain Austenesque quality to Astaire’s story about Herr Hoffmann that set my heart pounding. Austen was known for her shrewd observances of communal mores. The biting social commentary within Astaire’s The Banished Heart cannot be denied. Without further ado, let’s get on with today’s author’s interview.
Host: Libi, I’m excited to hear about your new release. Please tell us all about it.
Guest: The Wreck of Two Brothers, the sixth novel in my Jewish Regency Mystery series, is about two young men who share the same name, Judah Herzveld, but different fates. One is a member of London’s Jewish community, the other is a visiting non-Jewish Dutch diplomat. When the diplomat is found murdered in London’s Great Synagogue, suspicion naturally falls upon his English namesake. But is there really some long-buried connection between the two men that has led to the fatal encounter? Or is the shared name just an unfortunate coincidence that threatens to destroy the life and happiness of an innocent man? As usual, my detective, Mr. Ezra Melamed, has only a few clues to help him unravel the tangle of lies and deceptions behind the mystery of who killed the young diplomat.
Host: Number Six? Kol Hakavod! I’ve enjoyed following Mr. Melamed throughout your previous novels. What draws you to this particular time period?
Guest: When people think of the Regency, which lasted from about 1790 until 1820, they usually think of the novels of Jane Austen. Even though Austen’s novels are wonderful, there was much more going on than young people getting married! For instance, the Industrial Revolution was beginning to make changes in everyday life, including the creation of an increasingly prosperous middle class, while the Napoleonic Wars were very much on people’s minds. So, the Regency was a time of change and social instability, in many ways, which creates lots of possibilities for mystery and intrigue.
I was also intrigued by the Ashkenazic community living in England at this time. While many people are aware there was a Sephardic community, most don’t know there was a sizeable Ashkenazic community too. So, I’ve really enjoyed researching this community and sharing this information with my readers.
Host: I appreciate authors who weave accurate history throughout the storyline. While doing your research, did anything affect or move you? Did anything come as a surprise?
Guest: I used to write about Jewish history for several publications, and I was often asked to write about the Holocaust, which is of course very sad and moving; but it’s hard to stay in that dark place for long stretches of time. I therefore looked upon my mystery series as a kind of escape. Yes, it’s Jewish history. But it’s fun! Of course, there was plenty of poverty—the vast majority of the Ashkenazic community in London was extremely poor. And there was anti-Semitism, as well as discriminatory legislation. All that is in my series. But I’ve also tried to capture the positive energy and optimism of an immigrant community on the move—hopefully upward, although some of my characters do stumble. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a mystery for my detective to solve.
Host: That is exactly what attracts me to your work and storylines. Your characters are nuanced and diverse. Do you have a favorite among them?
Guest: I started writing the series a decade ago, and there are about a dozen characters who have recurring roles in the stories—sometimes playing a major role and sometimes appearing in just a scene or two. It’s a little community, and I love spending time with all of them. Having said that, I do have a special place in my heart for my two narrators, who take turns narrating the stories—Miss Rebecca Lyon, a Regency miss who aspires to being an author, and General Well’ngone, a young Jewish pickpocket who aspires to eating a good meal by a warm fire.
Host: Have you visited any of the locations you have written about?
Guest: I’m a big believer in visiting locations you write about, and I’ve been to England several times, including a year I spent studying theatre in London. Unfortunately, many of the Jewish locations I write about no longer exist or they look very different today. For instance, the Great Synagogue was destroyed during the Blitz of World War II. Fortunately, there is an abundance of visual history from the period—maps, aquatint prints, etc.—and so I’ve been able to reconstruct some of my locations from these images.
Host: As I’m relatively new to the craft of writing novels, I am curious to know your process for putting “pen to paper.” Are you a panster or a plotter? Do you begin with an outline and know how the story ends from the get-go; or do you go with the flow, and allow your characters to lead the way?
Guest: I’m definitely a “pantser.” I do write a brief synopsis before I begin writing—and have a good laugh when I read it over after the book is finished. The kernel of the story is there, but the personality of the new characters is usually different from what I originally imagined. And then there are the characters who appear out of nowhere and end up playing an important role. I think if I knew “whodunnit” from the get-go, I’d never write the book. Part of the fun of writing the series is that I’m often surprised by what happens.
Host: Are you working on something now? What was your motivation for this new project?
Guest: I’m about to begin work on two holiday-themed novellas for a new collection of short mystery stories. I like the challenge of the novella—writing a satisfying story in less than 40,000 words—and I like the challenge of including information about the Jewish holidays without sounding too preachy. I hope to have the collection on sale around Purim.
Host: I wish you the best of luck with your projects and applaud your dedication and creativity. I’m excited to read the excerpt you’re sharing today! Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Guest: Thanks so much for inviting me, Mirta! Please see the links below:
You can get introduced to the Jewish Regency Mystery series for free with the first volume in the series, Tempest in the Tea Room
Excerpt from Chapter Four of The Wreck of Two Brothers:
“I AM NOT AGAINST PROGRESS,” said Mrs. Lyon, “but I do think some young women today are much too forward. I should hope none of my daughters would rush to view a dead person’s body.”
Mrs. Lyon cast a stern glance in the direction of her daughter Rebecca, who had been gazing intently at the sketch of the Dutchman’s face. It was not because Rebecca thought she knew him, but because, being something of an artist herself — as the collection of painted dishes in the breakfront in her family’s drawing room testified — she wondered how the Bow Street Runner had achieved so much with so few strokes.
Mr. Melamed had returned to his home on Bury Street, bringing with him a copy of the sketch the Bow Street Runner had made earlier. This sketch he was now showing to those still gathered in his drawing room: Mr. and Mrs. Lyon and their daughter Rebecca, Mr. and Mrs. Baer, and Daniel and Mordechai Deerfield. Esther Deerfield was upstairs in the nursery, where her son and the younger Lyon children were having a light supper.
While the servants had cleared away most of the remains from the party, the drawing room, which was usually kept in immaculate order, was still in a state of casual disarray. Those who had remained were also making themselves more at ease than a visit in that drawing room usually permitted. For while their degree of intimacy with Mr. Melamed differed, the tragedy had created a connection between them more quickly than a purely social engagement could have done. Thus, a stranger looking upon the scene could have been forgiven for thinking he was observing an extended family at rest on a long Sunday afternoon at home instead of a gathering discussing a murder.
“If you had been blessed with more sons, Mrs. Lyon, you might be more charitable,” said Daniel Deerfield, politely coming to the defense of his absent sibling. “If Eva seems unusually bold for her sex, I am afraid it is because Mordechai and I treated her more like another brother than a sister.”
Mordechai Deerfield, who had already consumed several small fish sandwiches and had now drifted back to the buffet table to see what else there was to eat, commented, “Yes, the fault, if any, is entirely ours. But in one respect I do agree, ma’am, her behavior today was odd. Eva never struck me as the fainting kind.”
“I doubt she has had a wide experience with viewing human corpses,” said Daniel.
“And I hope she does not intend to remedy her lack of experience,” said Mrs. Baer, who had assumed the duties of hostess and was busy with pouring out more tea. “I cannot think why she insisted on going to the synagogue before going home.”
“She said she had misplaced some notes she had written during the previous committee meeting, which she needed to help her prepare for the meeting tomorrow,” said Mr. Melamed, who was looking fatigued from the long day. “She thought someone might have found them and placed them in the cupboard in the upstairs room.”
“Were they there?” asked Mr. Baer.
Mr. Asher Baer and his wife were the owners of a kosher coffee house on Sweeting’s Alley. Like his wife, he possessed an abundant supply of plain common sense. That, along with his ability to think through a knotty problem with clarity, had made him a welcome confident when Mr. Melamed was confronted with some puzzling crime affecting the Jewish community.
“No, they were not,” replied Mr. Melamed. “Thankfully, the Runner accepted her explanation and allowed the Deerfields to go home.”
“I am sure that is all very well,” Mrs. Baer commented. Then, turning to Daniel and Mordechai Deerfield, she said, “But you, gentlemen, are her brothers, and you might drop a word in Miss Deerfield’s ear that now she is engaged she should be more worried about finding ways to please her fiancé than finding committee meeting notes.”
“Herzveld surely knows what he is in for,” said Daniel Deerfield. “He practically grew up in our home. By the way, sir,” he said to Mr. Melamed, “you did not mention the murdered man’s name. Is the information being kept secret, or have they not yet identified the body?”
Mr. Melamed had been expecting the question. In fact, he was mildly surprised no one had asked it earlier, while they were passing around the sketch of the Dutchman’s face. It could be explained, he supposed, because the murdered man was not a member of their community, and so no one in the room expected to know him. Therefore, the man’s name was just one detail among many — and not one of the more interesting ones. As for why he had not mentioned it, on that point Mr. Melamed was clearer. First, he wanted to know if anyone had seen the young Dutchman — where, at what time, and with whom — and for that the sketch was enough. Mention of the name would only lead to useless speculations, after a suitable period of stunned silence.
But because his son-in-law had voiced the question, Mr. Melamed replied, “It is no secret. He carried a card-case. And he was identified by an acquaintance, a Mr. Hendriks, who is a member of the delegation from Holland. His name was Judah Herzveld, and he was also part of the Dutch delegation.”
As he expected, his announcement was greeted with astonishment — looks which ranged from slightly puzzled to outright, open-eyed amazement.
“There are probably dozens of Judah Herzvelds in Holland,” said Mr. Lyon, the first to recover and break the uncomfortable silence.
“Still, it is a strange coincidence,” said Daniel Deerfield.
“It is positively ghoulish,” said his younger brother. “Almost like a ghost rising from his grave to—”
Miss Lyon gave a little gasp. For an admirer of the Gothic novel, which she was, this surprising turn of events was thrilling — almost like one of Mrs. Ann Radcliffe’s stories come to life! She could almost hear the iron chains, which had surely been wrapped around the poor ghost’s legs, clanging in the hallway when —
“Stuff and nonsense,” said Mrs. Baer. “If it had been a ghost, it would not have allowed itself to be killed.”
“I stand corrected, ma’am,” said Mordechai Deerfield, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “What would a ghost have done?”
Being an avid novel reader and great fan of period dramas, I decided to take a closer look at George Eliot’s, Daniel Deronda. Why this particular work? The answer is simple. My own book, Destiny by Design~ Leah’s Journey is also set at the cusp of the Zionist movement, just as Eastern European Jews begin to seek refuge in the United States of America, Argentina, and the Holy Land. I am not by any means equating myself with George Eliot; however, the thought of working in the same vein as this well-known and respected author is intriguing and must be further explored.
As a young educated woman, George Eliot (born Mary Ann Evans) associated herself with freethinkers in political and religious matters. She felt that Jews were ostracized in Britain and that they suffered from prejudice which was, at best, thinly disguised. It was some time in 1860 that Eliot met the Jewish scholar, Emanuel Deutsch. It seems that the author was so taken with the subject of Anglo Jews; she would later pen a novel and base the character of Mordecai on her close friend and early Zionist. That novel was Daniel Deronda, a classic work that speaks to Universal Truths. It is about a group of people dealing with romance and heartache, scandals, treachery and agonizing soul searching. First published in 1876, this was Eliot’s only contemporary novel; and because of its sympathetic representation of Jewish characters, her final statement on Victorian society was quite controversial.
Elliot’s provocative narrative interlaced two seemingly distinct storylines, allowing the audience—possibly for the first time—to peek into the world of Anglo-Jews; and in this attempt, she created complex characters very different from stereotypical roles. The author’s life partner, George Henry Lewes, apparently opposed Eliot’s objectives. Upon the novel’s publication he stated: “The Jewish element seems to me likely to satisfy nobody.” George Eliot’s friend, John Blackwood, also shared his poor estimation when he said, “The Jews should be the most interesting people in the world, but even her magic pen cannot at once make them a popular element in a novel.”
That magic pen tackled a few sensitive subjects such as anti-Semitism in 19th century England, Zionism, and Feminism. I also found that Eliot addressed three poignant and thought-provoking themes. Let’s explore, shall we?
SEARCHING FOR LOVE
While we tend to romanticize period dramas and their love stories, marriage was a serious matter. The idea of marrying for love—of finding that one perfect person—was the stuff of fantasy. In Daniel Deronda, we see that women could only assert their place in society by seeking an advantageous match.
We watch as Gwendolen Harleth marries Henleigh Grandcourt to save her family from financial ruin, but she is helpless against his abuse and is trapped by societal expectations.
We watch Daniel struggle with his feelings for Gwendolen, a magnificent beauty who is in dire need of salvation and Mirah Lapidoth; a delicate, sensitive creature who lives—and nearly dies—in quiet desperation.
“You have a passion for people who are pelted,” Daniel’s guardian often reproached his lovesick ward. One could only wonder: which woman would come to Daniel’s rescue?
SEARCHING FOR IDENTITY
Daniel Deronda is a young man plagued with uncertainty. Although he has been raised by a devoted guardian, Sir Hugo Mallinger, Daniel’s inner turmoil derives from not knowing his roots. Where does he come from? Who are his people? When circumstances reveal the verities of his history, Daniel represses his self-identity to suit his position as a true Englishman. After all, in 19th century England, Jews were mysterious foreigners. What did he know of those people?
When we are first introduced to the would-be heroine of the novel, we find Gwendolen Harleth to be a somewhat petulant beauty, yet one who dazzles friends and family with her charms and accomplishments. She is spoiled and prone to hysterics, but Gwendolen is tested—as we all are in real life. She struggles to surmount the endless bombardment of obstacles and misfortunes that shape her life. Finally, in a testament to her true mettle, she determines to prove herself worthy—for her own sake—and reinvents a better self.
Mirah Lapidoth’s first appearance in the novel is one of despair and despondency; however, her childlike mannerisms and endearing characteristics are deceptive, for she has survived much. Torn away from a traditional Jewish home, she lost her family and was subjected to ridicule and rejection by her own father’s cruel actions. Mirah quickly became aware of her insignificance in the world, but when Daniel saves her from the river’s edge, she slowly rebels against her circumstances. Longing to reunite with her true essence, Mirah aligns herself to her people—her passion—and rallies once more.
SEARCHING FOR DESTINY
Sir Moses Montefiore and Lady Judith—arguably the most influential Anglo-Jewish couple of the Georgian and Victorian eras—visited the Holy Land in 1827. They returned on several occasions, donating generously to promote industry, education and health in that beleaguered region. By the end of the 19th century, a movement for the re-establishment of a Jewish nation was led by Theodor Herzl. Eastern European Jews, fleeing tyranny, segregation, and famine, made their way to the Holy Land and other countries willing to receive the massive wave of immigration. Meanwhile in Paris, another organization was coming to light under the direction of Baron Maurice Hirsch. “The Moses of South America,” Baron Hirsch established the Jewish Colonization Association to help the persecuted Jews find their freedom and their destiny in the fledgling nation of Argentina.
While Eliot’s protagonist was certainly not in dire straits—neither fleeing for his life nor foraging for his dinner—Deronda would not inherit Sir Hugo’s title and land, as he was not Mallinger’s legal heir. Daniel was presented with another definition of destiny. His guardian suggests a talented and passionate individual should carve his own path in life and, at length, we find that Daniel does indeed discover that he can be the master of his own fate.
Unassuming and gentle Mirah finds the wherewithal not only to survive, but to thrive in her new found path—and happily, so does Gwendolyn. Although she loves Daniel, Gwendolyn relinquishes him to what she knows to be his rightful path; and in doing so, she proves to herself that she is good. I see both Gwendolyn and Mirah in my own young protagonist, Leah Abramovitz of Destiny by Design~ Leah’s Journey. Leah has much to learn, and much to achieve, as she makes her way from the Pearl of the Black Sea to the Argentine pampas.
Those of us who are ardent lovers of period drama, appreciate a story that takes us to another place and time. That is what I have attempted to do with my books. We admire stories that are rich with longing, struggle and redemption because—whether we share the same ethnicity, culture or religion—we can relate to the various Universal themes.
Perhaps George Eliot’s true controversy was to show that growth and peace of mind comes from self-knowledge and not from societal status, a difficult concept to grasp—whether in the Victorian era or in the present day. Once we peel away the labels, whether self-inflicted or imposed by others, we can see ourselves in the narrative and find the way to fulfill our own destiny.
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