For those of us who have read Austen’s Persuasion, there can be no doubt. Captain Wentworth’s letter to Miss Anne Elliot is exquisite. It is a pivotal moment which brings tears to our eyes and returns hope to our bruised hearts.
But have you ever given any thought to what might have occurred before the good captain returned to England? The man was distraught! He was possessed by bitterness, regret, and a profound sense of grief. Did he pour out his heart? Did he attempt to contact his one true love and see if he could secure her trust and affections? No. No, he did not. The brave and battle-born sea captain dug in his heals and refused to give quarter! When he finally returns to England, he shows Anne Elliot no mercy and our hearts cry on her behalf. It’s not until the very end of the story that our injured souls truly begin to heal, and that is principally due —in my humble opinion—to Austen’s finest work: Captain Wentworth’s letter.
But what brought on the change in his behavior?
In “Celestial Persuasion,” Miss Abigail Isaacs and Captain Wentworth are thrown into a relationship that would have been considered quite rare during the Regency era. In fact, they become correspondents—pen pals, if you will, thanks to Jonathan Isaacs’ plotting and planning.
Abigail undergoes a series of trials; and as we usually discover in novels such as these, our protagonist finds her way through some dark and troubling times. Along the way, she shares her thoughts and experiences with her new friend. In her final letter, Abigail urges the captain home to England and back to his Anne. It remains to be seen if he was easily persuaded…
As some of you may know, I set out to write Celestial Persuasion when I came across this painting of Mariquita Sanchez de Thompson. This scene depicts the moment when the Argentine national anthem was sung for the very first time.
The image of ladies and gentlemen in Regency attire was far from what I had expected to find in colonial Argentina. To tell the truth, I would have expected full crinoline skirts and impressive peinetas, such as we find in the satirical work of Cesar Hipolito Bacle.
By delving into the aftermath of the May Revolution of 1810, I discovered that the aristocracy of Buenos Aires was more inclined to follow the fashion trends of Paris or even London. The influence coming from across the pond was not to be denied!
I began connecting the dots and weaved a tale that included English noblemen and naval officers, along with the liberator of Spanish America: Jose de San Martin. Establishing a friendship in between Jane Austen’s Captain Wentworth and my own fictional character, Jonathan Isaacs, was the next step in the process.
Next, I began looking to incorporate that bit of yiddishkeit that is so crucial to my work. For example, I wanted to ensure that the Jewish holidays mentioned throughout the novel occurred in accordance to the Hebrew calendar. In the prologue, Abigail Isaacs writes to her brother, describing their father’s passing—just prior to his favorite holiday: Pesach (Passover).
I must assume that you have not received my news from home, and knowing how you are impatient with all but the essentials, allow me to put it to you in words so familiar they could be your own: our dear papa died on March 26th on the eve of Rosh Chodesh—sadly a little more than a week before his favorite holiday. He had been looking forward to leading the Passover seder this year; but then again, he had been unwell for several months and refused to change his habits.
Rosh Chodesh is mentioned several times throughout the novel, as are other holidays, such as the High Holy Days and Chanukah. I suppose I could have picked any date when these events “usually” occur; but it was important to be accurate, particularly when it came to a certain battle that took place on February 3, 1813. Hopefully, the following snippet helps to explain…
“San Martín plans to engage with a Spanish royalist force in one month’s time,” he muttered beneath his breath. “When do you expect to travel to witness your monumental natural event?”
She grimaced at the small sound emitting from her lips. “I must be in residence at the beginning of the month, though I do not believe it is any of your concern.” Rethinking her statement, Abigail’s voice grew with enthusiasm. “Mr. Gabay!” she exclaimed, “has he chosen the exact date?”
“You cannot imagine that I would share that information, Miss Isaacs.”
Vehemently she shook her head. “I care not for your confidences, at least for the reasons you may suspect. I only ask that you heed me, sir. I must be in Rosario for Rosh Chodesh. There will be a new moon on the first of February. The night’s sky will be sufficiently darkened to allow for maximum visibility of galactic activity. Do you understand my meaning?”
The Battle of San Lorenzo was a turning point for the rebels fighting the Spanish crown. If I wanted to showcase the event in my story—and have it coincide with Rosh Chodesh—it had to be… kosher. I knew I had to get it right! First, I researched the status of the moon phase in February 1813. I found that information here and here. Then, I checked to see if the Gregorian calendar aligned with the Hebrew calendar. I found that here and here. It worked out!
Throughout the story, we follow Abigail as she celebrates Shabbat and Havdalah. Granted, her family is no longer as pious as when her mother lived. Nevertheless, when Abigail is called to London to meet Lord Fife, she ensures to take her ritual items. And when she and Mrs. Frankel find themselves aboard a frigate sailing across the Atlantic, I made sure to incorporate an every day nautical item into a pivotal scene.
Wrapping up warmly in her darkest cape, Abigail reached for the lantern perched above the dresser. It was the same lantern she and Mrs. Frankel had been instructed to use for the Sabbath, for it came equipped with a sliding shutter to darken the room without extinguishing the candle. Abigail smiled, recalling the cabin boy’s shock at their request to kindle the Shabbos candles whilst aboard the ship. He had gone on for nearly a quarter of an hour outlining the hazards and noting the fire stations that equipped every passageway in the event of a crisis...
Abigail had been correct in her estimation. The men were gallivanting en masse at the forecastle and she could remain in peace to the aft. She allowed herself to be guided by the lantern’s light but closed the shutter when she reached her chosen destination and waited for her eyes to grow accustomed to the darkness. In truth, it was a perfect night for stargazing as they had just entered into the new moon phase. Without the moonlight, the galaxy’s core was visible in all its splendor, and Abigail stood immobile in awe of the spectacle before her.
How many minutes had transpired, she could not say for certain. She felt tears trickle down her cheeks, but she could not be bothered to wipe them away. How she longed to share the moment with Jonathan! Not to scribble down the longitude and latitude of their location. Not to calculate or measure, but simply to stand and observe the immensity of it all and to understand her place in the universe. Her tears had dried where they had fallen, but with the wind picking up, she could once again feel bits of salt water on her cheeks as the waves began to swell. It was not until she heard the men shouting and witnessed the crew running hither and thither that Abigail was obliged to return to her room.
She retraced her footsteps to find the ladder once more. The descent, she hoped, would prove to be easier; but as she stepped down off the last rung, the wind and waves combined and exerted such a force on the ship that Abigail lost her balance. With flailing hands she attempted to seize hold of something that would steady her feet; but the action cost her dearly, for the lantern slipped from her grasp and the candle was extinguished. She crept along the passageway, holding on to the walls, helpless in the dark, until the ship pitched suddenly and she felt herself tumble forward.
As my outline began unfolding, I found that I quite liked the town of Exeter for the Isaacs family. The obvious problem was that I knew next to nothing about Devonshire as it related to Jews. Imagine my delight when I came across the wealth of information located here and here. Actually, there are pages and pages of data relating to the Jewish history in this particular county. I not only discovered the location of Exeter’s synagogue, but its officiant as well. Naturally, I had to showcase Abigail’s relationship with her rabbi and her place of worship.
In addition, this map created by Braun & Hogenberg in 1617 helped me visualize the Isaacs hometown.
Approaching the mile mark, she passed St. Thomas’s chapel and the many farms that dotted Byrd’s Lane. Abigail was flooded with bittersweet memories and recalled walking toward the synagogue, her small hand held by her mother, while Jonathan raced ahead and her father followed behind at a leisurely pace. They would meet friends along the way, and the adults would catch up on the weekly gossip before entering the house of worship. Ezekiel and Kitty Jacobs, her parents’ closest friends, had been amongst the founders of the synagogue, for they applied to St. Mary Arches Church to lease the ground for its erection. Whenever Jonathan would complain of the rabbi’s lengthy sermons, Mr. Jacobs would tell the story of the synagogue’s consecration.
Lastly, I wanted my story to lay the foundation for the establishment of the Jewish Colonization Association. Headed by financier and renown philanthropist, Baron Maurice von Hirsch and his wife, Baroness Clara, this organization was created decades after Argentina’s declared independence. However, had it not been for such forward thinking individuals such Wilhelm Loewenthal, a Romanian doctor conducting research in the area, Rabbi Zadoc Kahn, Chief Rabbi of Paris, or my fictional Lieutenant Gabay with his pipe dreams, who is to say if the seeds of change would have come to fruition.
The Battle of San Lorenzo took place in 1813 in the province of Santa Fe. A little over 70 years later, a group of Jews escaping pogroms and persecution in Imperial Russia settled in a town about three hours away from that battlefield. They named their new home Kiryat Moshe, or Town of Moses, to honor Maurice Hirsch. The land agent, who may or may not have been of French origin, registered the name to his own liking and the town became known as Moisés Ville. The inhabitants, these so-called Jewish gauchos, were the first to create a Jewish agricultural colony in Argentina. Of course, my characters had no notion of what was to come, but they had hope.
Captain Wentworth, my last piece of news may be the greatest surprise of all. Mr. Gabay and I shall not reside in Buenos Aires for long. When the fight for independence has been won, my Mr. Gabay—who never intended to make the military his career—will resign his commission. We shall repair to my father’s property in Rosario, where I will be at liberty to continue my research and Mr. Gabay will begin his work in helping the Jewish communities of the Russian Empire. Santa Fe is a wide and open land. Refugees of all faiths and backgrounds may surely make this place their new homeland and dwell in peace without persecution. Praise God, everything does indeed happen for a reason.
Thanks for stopping by. I hope you enjoyed the post!
The Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) has launched a new podcast entitled, “Nice Jewish Books.” A leading authority on Judaica librarianship, this AJL series focuses on adult Jewish fiction.
Host, Sheryl Stahl is the director of the Frances-Henry Library on the Jack H. Skirball campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She is an avid reader herself; and after serving the AJL in various capacities, she has now taken on the role of Podcaster. Stahl’s background comes into play as she interacts with authors and provides a platform to discuss their work. The premise for the show is to talk about Jewish literature, although her preference is not to include books based on war, political thrillers or Holocaust-related works. That, of course, was what drew my attention! Here— at long last— was a place to discuss my passion for Jewish historical fiction.
Do me a favor, won’t you?
Make yourself a nice cup of tea and tune in!
I am honored and delighted to announce that I was a guest author on the program. Please follow the link and listen in. Leave a comment on the website for Sheryl and the AJL community of readers and bibliophiles. I’d be so proud to know you stopped by. Happy reading (and listening)!
Throughout this series, I have been looking at Jewish themes that can be found in Jane Austen’s work. That’s not to say that the renown author intentionally incorporated Judaic messages in her writing; however, as I’ve pointed out in my previous posts, Austen was raised in an observant environment and would have been quite at home quoting from the Good Book or referencing various biblical storylines. I am enjoying finding the similarities. I hope you are too!
SELICHAH, MECHILAH, and KAPPARAH ~ The different forms of Forgiveness.
I previously touched upon the subject of repentance, but the matter requires further discussion. The theme of granting forgiveness can be found in nearly every book that Jane Austen penned. Just think for a moment. Elizabeth forgives Darcy, Elinor forgives Edward, Fanny forgives Edmund, and everyone is only too willing to forgive Emma!
In Persuasion, we are introduced to a couple long separated by distance and pride. Captain Frederick Wentworth has spent years holding a grudge, nursing his bruised ego and feeling the victim. For those who don’t know the story: Miss Anne Elliot had entered into an understanding with the gentleman, but —for better or for worse—was persuaded to end the budding relationship. Years pass before the two are brought back together again. Captain Wentworth tells his new friends that he finds Miss Anne, “altered beyond his knowledge.” Ruthless, heartless man! The gentleman is still licking his wounds…
He had not forgiven Anne Elliot. She had used him ill, deserted and disappointed him; and worse, she had shewn a feebleness of character in doing so, which his own decided, confident temper could not endure.”
It has been eight years and he still didn’t understand her! Had he used the time to reflect and to try to comprehend Anne’s actions, it would have been emotionally and mentally healthier for all concerned. Of course, that would have changed the arc of the story and no one understood that better than Austen.
In Northanger Abbey, we are introduced to a young lady just coming out into society. She has very little to say in her favor; and in fact, our heroine spends her days daydreaming and imagining herself the helpless victim of some gothic novel.
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine.”
Catherine is invited to stay with family friends in Bath, and finds herself, quite suddenly, in over her head. With no real experience of socializing with others who have more—shall we say—life experiences, her naivete and imagination run wild. She wrongly suspects General Tilney (the father of the young man she comes to admire) of a crime he did not commit. In the end, she is somewhat exonerated, but the acknowledgment doesn’t come without some distress.
Your imagination may be overactive, but your instinct was true. Our mother did suffer grievously and at the hands of our father…No vampires, no blood. But worse crimes, crimes of the heart.”
Like any biblical story that focuses on Teshuva, Catherine experiences growth through pain. She recognizes her failings, repents, and determines to improve her behavior. The arc of her story is in keeping with Austen’s philosophy. The mean-spirted and conniving Thorpe siblings, however, do not see the error of their ways and they suffer for it. Austen uses their storyline to illustrate her point once again. Those who merit a HEA (happily ever after) will be rewarded in the end.
My characters shall have, after a little trouble, all that they desire.”
I can’t help but think of the period leading up to the holiest of days in the Jewish calendar: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. We begin by commemorating the holiday of Selichot and use the time before “the gates begin to close” to think of those we have wronged.
Asking for forgiveness, for selichah, is the first step we must take. This is where we realize our error, we apologize to the injured party, and we show remorse.
When our poor behavior has caused much pain, we speak of mechilah. We ask that our transgressions be wiped away. We want things to be as they were; or better yet, to go on stronger than before. This can prove to be difficult for the injured party; for though many of us can forgive, it is very difficult to completely forget.
If the wrongdoing is of biblical proportions, a person may feel they are not worthy of forgiveness. They believe that there can’t be a positive outcome, no matter the excuse, no matter how many promises are made. Most people are not capable of forgiving an act of this magnitude. In fact, the forgiveness we seek, the kapparah, is beyond human capacity. The atonement, in fact, comes from a higher source, such as on Yom Kippur. This is when G-d looks into your heart, sees your repentance and says, “Be comforted.”
In Persuasion, Jane Austen presents us with a scenario that is just as relevant today as it was three hundred years ago. Secure in his righteousness, Captain Wentworth needlessly wallows in Anne’s perceived betrayal. Obstinately holding on to his resentment only succeeds in polluting his view of the truth! Their meeting again gives them both a second chance to speak their heart. It’s a story full of angst and it is sometimes intolerable to witness their pain. When the captain overhears Anne speaking of love and loss to another gentleman, he finally comes clean. Captain Wentworth writes to Anne and bares his soul—as he should have done years ago.
You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant.”
In the ensuing paragraphs, Austen satisfies our need for the couple’s reconciliation. Anne and Frederick speak honestly to one another, exposing their vulnerabilities and the various misunderstandings that led to such despair. They forgive one another (selichah), their love is stronger for it (mechilah); and because they merit a HEA, they are comforted (kapparah). Quintessential Austen. Brilliant. Just brilliant!
In my latest novel, Celestial Persuasion, it is clear that Miss Abigail Isaacs shares similar characteristics with her newfound friend, Captain Wentworth. Fear and resentment have colored her view, not only of her ever-changing circumstances, but of a certain gentleman. As Mr. Bennet— of Pride and Prejudice fame— urges: read on, friend, read on…
A soft scratch upon the door shook her out of her musings, miserable and disheartening as they were. Abigail bade the interloper to enter, as she wiped away her tears.
“I have brought you some broth, my dear,” said Mrs. Frankel. “I thought you might be hungry, as we had not had to opportunity to dine. Do you think you might take a little?”
“I am much too shaken to eat, though I thank you for your concern. Will you not have it in my stead?”
“I have had some sent to my room, Avileh. I will leave you to rest then—oh, but I nearly forgot!” Mrs. Frankel exclaimed. “I have a letter for you, my dear. It is from Mr. Gabay.”
“Mr. Gabay! Whatever could he want? He barely spoke two words together in my presence. I fear his affections have been won over by Miss Kendall, Frankie dearest. They must have quarreled, for he was scowling all evening. Did you not notice?”
“No, indeed. However did you come to such a conclusion? Truly, my dear, you can see clear into the heavens but you cannot see what stands right before you.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“Never you mind. Have a bit of your soup and read your letter,” she insisted, placing the envelope upon the bed. “Good-night, my dear.”
Abigail watched as Mrs. Frankel closed the door behind her. She eyed the broth with little interest and settled her gaze upon the letter instead. What could he have to say? Another jest? Another commentary on the state of the new union? Upon closer inspection, she noted that he had hastily folded the missive, it had not been sealed and it had not been addressed. Though she had had her fill of surprises to last a lifetime, her curiosity would not be neglected. She would read his letter and be done with it. For what could he possibly have to say that would lighten her heart?
What do you think? Will Mr. Gabay’s words cause more harm than good? Will Abigail be able to forgive past transgressions, even if that means forgiving herself? I invite you to read the story and come to your own conclusions. Until next time, thank you for stopping by!
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.
It was May 30, 1812, when fourteen women of Buenos Aires’ elite society gathered for a fund raising event. A collection was taken in support of the ragtag criollo army fighting against the Spanish crown. Each women —listed below—financed one pistol each. Obviously, it was not nearly enough to battle the Spaniards; but they inspired other women to do their part by crafting uniforms and eventually, as the story goes, stitching together the first Argentine flag.
My new novel, Celestial Persuasion, unfolds in the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata at the cusp of Argentina’s independence. After a series of astonishing events, the protagonist, Abigail Isaacs, finds herself in Buenos Aires. Here she writes to Captain Wentworth…
I received a missive this morning, presented by a liveried servant. It was an invitation from a Mr. and Mrs. Martin Thompson for Tuesday next. You can well imagine my astonishment, Captain Wentworth, as we are so newly arrived that I have not yet regained the use of my land legs. I have not a clue who these good people might be, or how they came to know of my arrival in the city. It was Mrs. Tavares who supplied the necessary information and assured me that I might respond to the invitation without compunction. It was all due to Lord Fife and his connections with society. I imagined the Thompsons were fellow compatriots, perhaps an elderly couple from Sussex or Bath. Imagine my astonishment when Mrs. Tavares explained the truth of the matter. Mrs. Thompson, in fact, is María Josepha Petrona de Todos los Santos Sánchez de Velasco y Trillo. The articulation of the lady’s name alone was quite an undertaking! It practically encompassed my daily Spanish lesson in its entirety. Mrs. Tavares was only too happy to impart her knowledge. To begin with, much to my relief, the lady is simply known as Mariquita Sanchez de Thompson. She is the daughter of a distinguished family of Río de la Plata, with an impressive lineage tracing back to Spain and Portugal. She married Martin Jacobo Thompson and the pair have become the toast of the town.
Mrs. Tavares’s countenance upon seeing the invitation was quite telling. I have never witnessed such excitement. It would seem that an invitation to Mrs. Thompson’s salon is paramount to taking tea with one of the patronesses of Almacks! One must understand, these social gatherings include some of the most renowned citizens of the Viceroyalty. I am to expect an introduction to compatriots and locals, aristocrats and artisans. If I am to trust in my housekeeper’s accounting, Mrs. Thompson is an extraordinary example of female ingenuity. She is known as a great advocate for the new republic. Mrs. Tavares assures me that a more fervent patriot cannot be found among those who support the cause. Not only did the lady donate three ounces of gold to the coffers, she lends her domestic skills for the sewing of uniforms.
In short, Captain Wentworth, I am undone at the thought of attending Mrs. Thompson’s salon. I fear I lack the talent of conversing easily with strangers; although you may believe that an odd statement after I have, after all, rambled on for two pages complete. Your close ties with Jonathan, and your own insistence, have made you less a stranger and more a relative.
I hope you enjoyed the excerpt! You can find Celestial Persuasion on Amazon in both digital and paperback formats. Happy reading!
As you have read in my previous posts, I began piecing together a story that involved Captain Wentworth and his good friend—and ship’s physician—Jonathan Isaacs. Naturally, this sliver of an idea resulted in hours and hours of research. I knew nothing about the Navy, nothing about officers, and nothing about the Jewish factor that I wanted to thread into this particular tapestry of a story. Now, before I write another word: Tell me you don’t see the similarities between the naval officers of Argentina’s Regency era and those of Austen fame.
Need I say more?
Apparently, I do! My story unfolds in Exeter, where the Isaac family lived in close proximity to Barton Cottage. That, of course, is a fictional location; nonetheless, one well known to fans of Sense and Sensibility. In any event, the head of the Isaacs family was a country doctor, but I wanted Jonathan to be a physician in service to the Crown. This is where the questions began. Were there Jews in Exeter during the Regency era? Were they allowed to serve in the Navy? Did they have any connection to that world at all? It was then that I discovered a veritable treasure trove!
Jewish Communities and Records- The Jews of South-West England (Jewishgen.org) provides this information and more! It soon became clear to me that there was Jewish life in Exeter, Plymouth, Falmouth and Penzance, as well as several other towns throughout Devon in the years dating from 1750 to 1900. There is evidence from earlier still, but the records I focused on were those of the Regency and Victorian eras (where the details were irrefutable). And in stark contrast to what Dickens and Heyer portray in their works, the Jewish community of South-West England was comprised of a small, yet respectable, upper middle class.
7 families kept one servant indicating that they may have been in the £150 – £300 per annum income bracket; two families each with two servants may have earned about £500 per annum; and the one family with three servants was possibly in the £750 per annum income group.
By 1796, five Jews had shops in the fashionable shopping area of Exeter sufficiently well established as to warrant inclusion in the Exeter Pocket Journal, a local newspaper. There were two silversmiths, an engraver who sold a variety of goods, a pawnbroker, and a stationer. And in addition to these and other trades, there were naval agents.
To say that conditions were harsh in the Royal Navy throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries would be an understatement, but the ever-present hope of prize money made the cruel life somewhat bearable. Think of how Captain Wentworth’s life changed course when he was awarded his prize money! Officers had bankers to look after their interests. The seamen, however, turned to local tradesmen of naval towns for assistance. They were the link to the naval authorities in London. This system, at first, was unofficial and based on mutual trust. I present Abraham Joseph, an Exeter tradesmen, as a fine example. He earned such trust, as his obituary in the Flying Post (1794) indicates:
As an agent for seamen, his practice was well worthy of the imitation of every person in that business, as several orphans and indigent widows can testify.
At some point in 1809, legislation was enacted which required all seamen to register with a licensed navy agent. In order to obtain a license, the tradesman had to post a bond with two sureties, under penalty of £200. Sometimes, a would-be navy agent was a man of high social standing; nevertheless, everyone had to swear that they were worth more than £5,000 in order to qualify. The first list of 174 licensed navy agents included 66 Jews. It was said that Jewish tradesmen were held in high esteem and the proof was in their rapid growth in that particular community. Between 1807 and 1814, navy agents as a whole increased sevenfold throughout England. The number of Jewish agents increased thirtyfold!
The British fleet was manned by nearly 35,000 seamen by this time. Jewish shopkeepers throughout the port towns specialized in doing trade with the ships. They were allowed to go on board with goods that appealed to the “simple seamen,” such as “old watches and seals, watch chains, rings, fancy shoes, scarlet and blue silk handkerchiefs, clay pipes, and fresh food of every description.” Honest traders with good references were most welcome. In 1813, Joseph Joseph presented the following royal command which granted him access to the crewmen at port:
I do hereby certify that Joseph Joseph of Plymouth has at different times supplied the Crews of His Majesty’s Ships when under my Command with Clothing to my entire satisfaction, and I do hereby recommend him to the Admirals, Captains, and Officers of His Majesty’s Navy, to be permitted to transact any Business that may be done on board the respective Ships under their Command.
St. James’s Palace ~ December 2, 1812
How do I top a letter of recommendation from St James’s Palace? With this:
Members of both congregations at Exeter and Plymouth would, on occasion, travel up to Dartmoor prison to practice acts of chesed, or lovingkindness. By the end of 1814, there were 2,340 American prisoners of war being held at Dartmoor, and a number of them were Jewish soldiers and sailors. Commodore Uriah P. Levy, was among them. Notably, this officer created the law which abolished the act of flogging in the United States Navy. Captain Levi Charles Harby was another Jewish sailor being held captive. During his imprisonment, a Jewish baker from Plymouth would make the daily trip to sell his baked goods. One day, he offered a loaf of bread to Captain Harby. The officer refused it. The baker, however, insisted. Inside the loaf, he had hidden a newspaper clipping that told of an important battle at New Orleans. This encouraged the captain to escape, apparently with the help of the baker! The story went on to report that Captain Harby was able to find his way back to his men. He continued to serve his country with great success and it was in no small part, thanks to the baker mench from South-West England.
Seeing that we— here in the U.S. —are celebrating our freedom today, I’d say that little tidbit is quite fitting! Happy Independence Day!