How many of you have seen the film, My Big Fat Greek Wedding? Swap out “Greek” and insert “Argentine” and you would have a clear picture of my family. Every character reminded me of a relative; every embarrassing scenario was relatable and every corny saying sounded familiar. The movie had my family in stitches. We laughed, we cried, and we pointed fingers at each other, saying: That is so you! This movie, in fact, was one of three impactful works that played a part in my writing (the other two were I Remember Mama and Fiddler on the Roof). I aspired to accomplish something in that same vein and wrote my first book, With Love, The Argentina Family~ Memories of Tango and Kugel, Mate with Knishes.
Interestingly enough, I came across a blog post that spoke of the similarities in between Pride andPrejudice and Fiddler on the Roof. Both stories feature five daughters, three of which are married by the end of the piece.
Both showcase awkward scenes of rejected marriage proposals. The mother and father relationship in Fiddler shares similar characteristics with those in P & P. Both stories have forbidden love and worries of losing one’s home. In short, this author spoke to my love of meshing the world of Period Dramas and Jewish Historical Fiction.
Last week, I binged on the third season of Shtisel. Have you heard about it? It is a hit show on Netflix. I devoured the entire season in two days. No doubt, you’re wondering why I’m writing about a modern-day series that evolves around a Haredi family living in Israel. You’re rolling your eyes at this point thinking: I signed up for a historical fiction blog—why is she writing about Shtisel-mania? Good question; but before I answer, I have a question for you…
How many Jane Austen variations are there in the Fan Fiction world? I couldn’t even begin to tell you, but I know this: Keep her storyline and exchange the Anglican family with a Hindu family, a Black family, a Jewish family; or even a family of Zombies, you still get an Austenesque novel. Austen’s work centered around her commentary about the human condition. She used humor and irony to make her point. She wrote about heartaches, financial concerns, and dysfunctional families. Her stories are still relevant to millions of people around the world who are not necessarily English, Anglican, or actually living in the Regency era. 😉
Shtisel has taken the world by storm and it has many people scratching their heads in wonder. How is it possible that in today’s society, where everything goes and everything is permissible, a story about an ultra-orthodox Jewish family is a Number One hit? They dress modestly. They have strict dietary restrictions. The roles for women and men are clearly defined. But, take away all the trappings, the clothes, the language, the seemingly archaic rules, and exchange them with any other culture or religion and you still get the very essence of the show. The humanity remains. The power of the emotions expressed and experienced by these characters are universal.
Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on. Those three or four families are the mind we knew intimately – the landed gentry, the upper classes, the lower classes, not only the industrial masses, but also the agricultural laborers.”
Jane Austen- in a letter to her niece
Jane Austen’s trademark was her knack for realism. She didn’t write about the Napoleonic Wars or earth-shattering catastrophes. She wrote about the world around her, knowing that life’s every-day “little dramas” were sufficient fodder to get her point across. Her work has been inspirational and Shtisel is working the same magic. Its triumph is in sharing a common story, focusing on Universal Truths to which we all can relate. How could I not aspire to do the same?
What’s a nice, Jewish girl to do when the vast majority of the world is snuggling by a roaring fire with Hallmark movies and Dickens classics? Well, I’ll tell you. If she has written a Jewish Austen Fan Fiction, she shares a snippet that illustrates the true meaning of the season. Let me set the stage, before you go on to read the final chapter:
Due to a variety of unforeseen circumstances Mrs. Meyerson, the rabbi’s wife, and Mrs. Bennet find themselves much in one another’s company. At this point of my story, Miss Catherine Bennet (Kitty) has endeared herself to the lady and her young daughter, Rachel. In a rather poignant moment, Kitty makes an emotive declaration and Mrs. Meyerson is most profoundly moved.
“My dear, you have stirred my soul! While I have striven for emunah, I have lacked bitachon,” she whispered. “Kitty, you have reminded me of an important lesson. Faith and trust are two different things.”
Mrs. Meyersons goes on to explain these foreign words; and by relaying the story of Chanukah to her Anglican friends, she emphasizes their significance throughout the joyous celebration. Mrs. Bennet was astonished to find that, while Chanukah was commemorated during the wintry months, it had nothing to do with her own holiday. The next phrase, uttered by the rabbi’s wife, is what I’d like us to focus on today.
“Not at all, Mrs. Bennet, for each has its merits and, closely scrutinized, each holiday speaks of bringing Light into a dark world. Kitty has reminded me: We must keep our faith in front of us and we shall reap the rewards.”
When the happy couples at length were seen off and the last of the party had departed Longbourn, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet were found in the dining room quite alone, sharing the last bit of port between them.
“What shall we do now, Mrs. Bennet, with three daughters married?”
Surprised at being asked her opinion, Mrs. Bennet gave the question some thought before replying. “I suppose we have earned a respite, husband. Let us see what Life has in store for us.”
“No rest for the weary, my dear, for soon Mary will leave us and then Kitty. We shall have to make arrangements for the inevitable. Perhaps you can live with one of the girls when I am gone and Mr. Collins inherits the place.”
“Mr. Bennet,” she giggled, “you should have more bitachon.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Perhaps it was the port, or perhaps it was pure exhaustion, but Mrs. Bennet found she had no scruple in sharing the entire tale of Chanukah with her most astonished husband.
“Pray Mr. Bennet,” she concluded, “what was the true miracle of this holiday?”
“The logical answer,” he replied dryly, “would point to the miracle of such a small group of men overcoming a fierce and mighty army.”
“No, that is not it.” She giggled, as a hiccup escaped her lips.
“Well then,” he sighed, “the esoteric answer would point to the miracle of the oil lasting eight nights.”
“No, Mr. Bennet. Again, you are incorrect.”
“Pray, tell me, wife, what then was the miracle, for I can see that you may burst with anticipation for the sharing of it!”
“The miracle, sir, was that they had bitachon. Oh, I do hope I am pronouncing correctly. At any rate, it means trust. They knew they only had one vial of sacred oil and had no means to create more. They lit the candle and left the rest up to the Almighty. And that is exactly what we should do.”
“My dear, it is a lovely tale and I am certain that it has inspired many generations before us and will inspire many generations after we are long gone, but it does not change the fact that Mr. Collins is to inherit Longbourn…”
“Longbourn is entailed to Mr. Collins if we do not produce a son.”
“Yes, and well you know that we have produced five daughters, although you are as handsome as any of them, Mrs. Bennet. A stranger might believe I am the father of six!” he said with sincere admiration.
“You flatter me, Mr. Bennet. I certainly have had my share of beauty, but I wish to say…”
“You were but a child when we wed,” he waved her silent, “not much more than Lydia’s age, if I recall. But, my dear, that is neither here or there, for in all this time a son has not been produced and there’s nary a thing to do for it!”
“Mr. Bennet, there is something I have been meaning to tell you,” she said, suddenly quite subdued. “If you could only spare a moment of your time, or does your library call you away?”
His wife’s anxious smile made him feel quite the blackguard. Had he not made a promise in Brighton? Did he not vow he would change his ways? Mr. Bennet decided it was high time he put the good rabbi’s advice into practice. Bowing low, he replied, “Madam, I am your humble servant.”
Happier words had never been spoken.
Chag Chanukah Sameach~ Happy Chanukah~ Feliz Januka~ חג חנוכה שמח
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).
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
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