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Jane Austen & Jewish Themes Part V~ Delving into Diversity

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. In The 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 little harder. 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.

Chag Chanukah Sameach!