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.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that our sages and their faithful students have been reinterpreting biblical texts in the hopes to discover new insights, to make them more accessible, or even to reveal different conclusions. As I mentioned in the original post of this series, it is in keeping with our traditions to recreate these sacred passages, to personalize the story with our own life experiences or our imaginations. In Judaism, these reworkings are known as midrash.
Jane Austen was the daughter of an Anglican minister. Her upbringing in the church would have given her sufficient exposure to Judaic theology to help me make my point: Austen used her knowledge of sacred text and reimagined the lessons into the workings of her famous novels. Today we’re going to examine Emma for Judaic themes.
TESHUVA ~ Repentance
In most cases, it is the author’s duty—and the reader’s expectation—to allow a story to unfold in such a manner that the protagonist evolves throughout the tribulations of the novel. The transformative journey is, after all, what the audience craves. Setting aside the specifics, it is within this transformation that the reader intimately identifies with the struggle, the lesson, and the resolution.
But it hasn’t always been this way. Interestingly enough, in many ancient cultures, such as within Greek society, it was not an accepted belief that one could change one’s behavior. Rather, it was thought that a person behaved just as his or her destiny foretold. Great Britain’s Rabbi Sacks (baruch dayan ha’emet) spoke of this message in a sermon fittingly prepared for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. He even mentioned Jane Austen’s Emma.
A well-to-do, “handsome” young lady, it could be said that Emma Woodhouse has been spoiled the whole of her life. In addition to that, she is a bit of a snob.
She possess the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.
With little else to do, she goes about the county doing—what she believes to be—good works. In fact, Austen’s heroine is a yenta. She imagines that her matchmaking skills will bring about much happiness and shalom bayit to every hearth and home in Highbury. But Emma’s attempts at pairing her acquaintances are not as successful as she would have hoped. This is not surprising in the least! How can a young lady understand the workings of the heart in others, when she doesn’t understand herown? It is through personal struggles that Emma comes to understand her errors. When she is faced with her own heartache, Emma determines to change her ways.
Every year, as we commemorate the High Holy Days, we repeat the words of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer and consider our missteps, our mistakes, and our failures. But then we hear: “Teshuvah (Repentance), Tefillah (Prayer), and Tzedakah (Charity) avert the evil decree.” During the ten days in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are meant to examine our lives and to reflect on bettering ourselves. In Rabbi Sacks’ sermon, he postulates that Judaism was probably the first religion to ponder Free Will for this very reason. We can decide to do better.
Jane Austen presents us a storyline that highlights a young woman’s emotional growth. Three thousand years after the sacred text of the High Holy Days appear in our liturgy, Austen allows her protagonist to confess her sins, to show remorse, and to show a desire to improve herself.
Emma grows before our very eyes when she decides to learn from her mistakes. She becomes more charitable towards the other members of Highbury’s diverse society. She becomes more charitable towards herself when she opens her eyes, and her heart, to Mr. Knightly.
In my latest novel, Celestial Persuasion, I introduce Miss Abigail Isaacs, a young lady whom most believe to be past her last prayers. While she has had an offer of marriage, Abigail’s dreams have been shattered on more than one occasion. Her friends encourage her to marry, for security at the very least. This she cannot accept. Rather than opening her heart to the possibility of love, Abigail retrenches and strives to build a life of seclusion, safe within the confines of an astronomer’s observatory.
I have begun to believe that I am not meant for love.”
According to those familiar with her upbringing, Abigail’s education and access to the world of academia has had secondary effects. She is quick to judge and often times thought to be haughty. Her snobbish ways are not unlike Emma’s—though she is not a woman of means—and her comments are usually kindly meant. She is bookish and awkward in the company of strangers. In truth, she is an innocent; and more often than not, Abigail misjudges perilous situations and societal obligations. It is when she is entrusted into the care of Lieutenant Raphael Gabay that Abigail meets her greatest challenge. The gentleman has little patience with her improper pride.
Might I suggest you set down your astronomer’s paraphernalia to examine what is before you, here on earth, and not in the night’s sky? You have excused me of shielding my truths with incessant jesting, but it is you, madam, who hides behind instruments and tomes.“
Will the young lady repent and change her ways? Can she forgive, and forget, and give love another chance? Join Abigail on her journey to the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata and find out for yourself. But stay tuned! Next time, I’ll discuss Sense and Sensibility.
As an emerging author in the realm of Jane Austen Fanfiction (J.A.F.F.), I have introduced Jewish characters thus far into the world of Pride and Prejudice, as well as Persuasion. I purposely didn’t alter the beloved characters created by Austen’s imagination. I mean, of course, that Anglicans remain Anglicans. Instead, I present the reader with a different—more inclusive—makeup of the communities where said characters reside.
Some people may question why I chose this path, rather than the racebending or race-lifting phenomenon we are seeing today in fandom. Transforming the Bennets or Mr. Darcy as Jewish role models would not have satisfied my creativity. Instead, I wanted to personalize the canon with my heritage, so that our collective experiences in that period—known as The Regency—would not go unacknowledged. Some may question why I would want to meddle with works of art in the first place. They are classic novels, loved the world over. The answer is simple: It goes back to the practice of creating a midrash.
I’ve read several editorials and essays that pose an intriguing hypothesis. The authors stipulate that the concept of fanfiction is an accepted and familiar practice in Judaism. And I wholeheartedly agree. It is a truth universally acknowledged that our sages and their faithful students have been reinterpreting biblical texts in the hopes to discover new insights, to make them more accessible, or even to reveal different conclusions. It is in keeping with our traditions to reimagine these sacred passages, to personalize the story with our own life experiences or even to postulate the unknown—the “what-ifs.” These new interpretations or reworkings are known as midrash.
According to penlighten.com, “Fanfiction is basically fiction written by fans or, to put it in a better way, admirers of the original work. Fanfiction writers include much of the same characters and also sometimes choose to add new ones. Fanfiction stories often reflect the writer’s view (in this case, the view of the reader of the original work) as to what should have happened in that particular story.”
The great Ibn Ezra’s opinion on Midrash Aggadah was pretty clear. There are words, and there are meanings. As long as the reader gets the meaning of the text, it doesn’t matter how the message is communicated. Therefore (Finally! I’m getting to my point!) in my next series of blog posts, I mean to provide a ‘drash on Judaic themes in Regency literature by expressing how we can find Judaism in Austen’s work. Hopefully, this will encourage other authors, and readers, to open their minds to this particular genre. And that might have the happy chance of prompting even more discussion!
While Austen was the daughter of an Anglican minister, she didn’t follow the admonishments of clergymen such as James Fordyce, a Presbyterian minister infamous for his Sermons for Young Women. However, her work—or her “pestiferous” novels, as labeled by Fordyce—were characterized by morality. This could be recognized by her characters manners, their sense of duty to society, and their religious affinity. Furthermore, no self-important or indolent clergyman was safe from Austen’s eagle eye and sharp wit.
Without a doubt, she had strong opinions of correct and proper behavior, but Heaven help the poor soul that was caught in her crosshairs! She examined and cross-examined everyday life. Everyone was fair game. Everything was questioned and brought to light.
That is the epitome of Jewish study, is it not?
Throughout Austen fandom it has been said that Jane very likely never met a Jewish person; but her upbringing in the Anglican church would have given her sufficient exposure to Judaic theology and that is enough for me to proceed. Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, today’s post will deal specifically with Pride and Prejudice.
EISHET CHAYIL~ A Woman of Valor
In Chapter Eight, we find Mr. Darcy, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, Miss Caroline Bingley, Mr. Bingley and Mr. and Mrs. Hurst in the drawing room. Miss Bennet is holding her own against Miss Bingley’s abuse. She is being chided for wishing to read, instead of joining the party at cards. The point of the conversation is to draw Mr. Darcy’s attention to Miss Bennet’s lack of social graces and accomplishments. But Miss Bingley miscalculates in offering her definition of a lady of Quality and Mr. Darcy, indubitably, puts her in her place.
All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”
Elizabeth Bennet expresses her amazement at Mr. Darcy’s description of an accomplished woman. To my ears, it all sounded vaguely familiar.
I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.”
Where do we find similar commentary within our liturgy?
Take a look at Proverbs, and in particular, Eishet Chayil, A Woman of Valor Who Can Find? Austen’s use and understanding of biblical language seems to be jumping off the page! Without a doubt, Jane Austen was familiar with these words. Her own dear brother made certain to memorialize her using a quote from the same Proverb 31.
She opens her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness”
In today’s society, a woman is expected to be a superhero. She must be a good daughter, wife and mother. She must be teacher, nurse, caregiver, friend, homemaker, and provider. As Jewish families gather around the Shabbos table, husbands sing King Solomon’s praise of their Eishet Chayil. I would guess many women, exhausted and possibly overwhelmed, may secretly wonder if they are worthy of such a tribute. Can anyone truly live up to such perfection? I believe that is Elizabeth Bennet’s question. She challenges Mr. Darcy’s remark with great bewilderment.
I never saw such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as you describe united.”
But according to a midrash, King Solomon was not actually describing one perfect woman. He was describing the combine attributes of our matriarchs and biblical heroines. They each brought their own treasured qualities and values. King Solomon did not expect one woman to do it all. Rather, the idea was that each woman should be held in high regard for her own precious and unique gifts.
Mr. Darcy, through the wisdom and creativity of Austen, was able to comprehend “a great deal.” He observed Miss Bennet’s skirts covered “six inches deep in mud…her hair, so untidy, so blowsy!” Instead of censuring her lack of grace, he saw a woman who cared not for her appearance. Her mission that day was to attend her sister, Jane, who was ill and needed nursing. He saw a woman who could not be swayed by the pressure of the group and stood her ground to read a book, rather than to play at cards. We know that Mr. Darcy despises cunning and deception; and in my view, Austen portrayed Elizabeth Bennet —at least in this chapter—as an Eishet Chayil. Her true character is showcased by her good actions and generous spirit.
LASHON HARA~ Gossip
We are introduced to George Wickham, that evil cur, in Chapter Fifteen when he arrives in Meryton to join the militia. He is handsome and amiable. Miss Elizabeth Bennet quickly falls for his charms. Although she prides herself for being astute and a good judge of character, Elizabeth is easy prey for Wickham’s mean-spirted insinuations and outright lies.
Mr. Wickham was therefore at leisure to talk to Elizabeth, and she was very willing to hear him, though what she chiefly wished to hear she could not hope to be told—the history of his acquaintance with Mr. Darcy.
It is not until Chapter Thirty-six, when Elizabeth is presented with a letter from Mr. Darcy, that she comes to terms with her error in judgement. Had she behaved according to the precepts of her faith, her upbringing, and her own good sense, Elizabeth would have refrained from participating in such idle gossip.
She grew absolutely ashamed of herself. Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think without feeling she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.
In allowing herself to listen to Wickham’s diatribe against Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth all-too eagerly solidified her poor impression of an innocent man. And in doing so, Elizabeth causes needless distress to herself, Mr. Darcy, to her family, and to Meryton at large. Shortly after, George Wickham’s evil nature is exposed for all to see when he steals away with Lydia Bennet, the youngest sister. Elizabeth suffers cruelly for the part she played in her family’s undoing, not to mention her own broken heart. Again, I say, this speaks to how much Austen’s Judeo-Christian upbringing influenced her work.
In our tradition, we are commanded to remember how siblings, Miriam and Aaron, listened to gossip about Moses’ private affairs with his wife… “And God heard.” Miriam was considered the instigator of the incident and was severely punished with Zora’at—leprosy. When you take into consideration that brother and sister spoke to Moses privately and apparently with his best interests at heart, it is clear that the sin of lashon hara is grave, indeed. Mr. Wickham and Elizabeth spoke behind Mr. Darcy’s back. A worse affront, to be sure. Elizabeth’s penalty was not of biblical proportions; nevertheless, Austen’s message comes through all the same.
ZELOPHEHAD and his FIVE DAUGHTERS
Several years ago, a clever man suggested that the film, Fiddler on the Roof, shares common themes with Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In his blog, Robert Lockard brings up the similarities in between the Mother/Father relationship, rejecting a marriage proposal, forbidden love, soul mates, and losing one’s home. Needless to say, the author also mentions that the Bennets have five daughters, as do Tevye and his wife. I’m willing to take it one step further. Could Austen have been thinking of Zelophehad and his five daughters when she plotted out her storyline?
In Numbers 27, we are introduced to a family of five sisters: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. As their father, Zelophehad, has died, the women are dependent on marriage to secure their future. Just as we see in the Bennet household with regard to the entail of Longbourn, these sisters may not inherit their father’s land. But here is where the two stories differ. Unlike the Bennets, these sisters speak up! They take their claim to Moses, who refers the question to God. And He says:
The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them
Of course, if Austen followed the suggestion found in her bible, her plot would have lost its arc. Mr. Darcy— and his ten thousand a year— would have been superfluous! Perish the thought! I still hold fast to my hypothesis and will continue with my examination of Judaic themes in Austen’s novels; only now, I will offer up my own work as an example.
LECH LECHA~ Go forth or Go towards yourself
In my book Celestial Persuasion, Abigail Isaacs finds herself at a crossroads. With few alternatives before her, Abigail chooses to heed her brother’s wishes and leaves home and hearth to make her way to a strange and distant land. I can’t help but connect this with the message that was given to Abram.
Go from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you.”
In researching this parsha (this section), I was drawn to a Kabbalistic interpretation of these famous words. Go from your land, becomes Go from your will—set aside your plans, your limited views of what you can become. From your birthplace, is understood to mean, walk away from your emotional self—which, as often is the case, is the product of one’s environment. From your father’s house, refers to the intellect or that which has the authority over one’s feelings and behavior. This interpretation fits my protagonist to a T.
Abigail Isaacs is a woman torn. She had set her eyes on a certain path and dedicated herself to fulfilling that one goal. In the process, Abigail closed the door on love, on the possibility of being hurt, of making mistakes. Tucked away in her observatory, she was safe. She set hard boundaries and felt secure. When her brother seemingly speaks to her from beyond the celestial veil, Abigail—much like Abram—is challenged to go forth and to become what she was always meant to be. I only can add that I hope you pick up a copy of the book and see how the story unfolds.
That’s all for today, my friends, but stay tuned. Next time, we’ll take a look at Emma.
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