From Petticoat Lane to Rotten Row, or, The Child of the Ghetto was written sometime near the turn of the century by the author "E.W." (who is most probably the British writer Elizabeth Wheeler). Was the author influenced (at least in her choice of the subtitle) by the novelist Israel Zangwill and his 1892 work Children of the Ghetto? Probably. But in any case, Zangwill's work differs greatly from the novel we will discuss today, in many respects, not least of which is that E.W. was a conversionist writer and Zangwill was a mainstream Jewish author.
The protagonist of our book is a ten year old boy named Shemuel Krecovitch, an orphan, whose parents have died back in Poland. He is taken in by a Jewish family in London during Passover, Levi and Sarah Josephs, who live on "Petticoat Lane." Levi is a kindly man, a pawnbroker who makes a comfortable living, and he sets Shemuel up with a tailor, Moses Myers, to learn a trade.
One day Levi's nephew comes to visit. Levi's brother, Hyam, had converted to Christianity, and so Levi now considers him to be dead. When Levi discovers that his nephew's name is "Christian," he says to him: "Go home to thy father with my curse. You cannot help your father's sin; may a blessing attend you" (p. 11). Levi considered a "believer in the Nazarene" to be "an idolater."
[Levi's nephew's name is Christian? How funny is that?]
Shemuel meets a Jewish sea captain named Alexander Barnard and gets a job with him. Meanwhile, Esther Josephs, the daughter of Levi and Sarah (who has recently died), meets Christian Josephs on the street. They go together to the Church of the Nazarene, and lo and behold the preacher is preaching on Isaiah 53. As they leave the church, who should they meet but Shemuel Krecovitch, who himself is leaving (another) Christian church! An evening of coincidences!
Next we meet the young daughter of Hyam Josephs, Rachael, who is disturbed by her parents' conversion to Christianity and still goes to synagogue and still recites her Hebrew prayers and still expects the Messiah to come. But one day Rachael decides to attend church with her parents and she hears the gospel. Rachael is convicted of her sin but does not yet believe in Jesus.
It turns out that Shemuel (as we suspected) is secretly considering becoming a Christian. Meanwhile Christian Josephs is hired by Captain Barnard. Shemuel is "brought to the knowledge of the Messiah by this simple Cornish maiden [Mary Williams] -- not by eloquent sermons in a fasionable London church" (p. 38).
Rachael Josephs continues in her unbelief, and in fact has become less devout in Judaism as well. One day she meets a Jew named Benjamin Davis, who has a gambling problem. She and Ben Davis get secretly married, which breaks her father's heart. After a few months Ben starts gambling again and then lapses into addiction. Later he joins the British army and is sent to India, all behind Rachael's back. Rachael becomes ill and dies, but not before she becomes a Christian and utters her final words: "Jesus my Saviour!" (p. 46).
Levi Josephs finds out that his daughter, Esther, has been attending a Christian church and is furious (even though he himself is secretly reading the New Testament). He forbids Esther to ever attend church again. Then she tells him that she believes in the Nazarene, and he gets even more upset and hits her and tells her "Begone, apostate! never let me see your face again!" (p. 56).
Meanwhile, Captain Barnard finds out that Christian and Shemuel have been attending church, and accuses them of being apostates. [One would think that the Captain would have had a clue earlier simply from Christian's name....] They reply that they consider themselves to be good Jews. Captain Barnard fires Christian ("I can have no Christian Jews in my establishment"), so Christian departs and sails for parts unknown. Captain Barnard regrets his decision but it is too late, since Christian has already sailed away. Various incidents occur in the captain's life: he sees a converted Jew preaching in the public square; he talks to Hyam Josephs about the messiah, his housekeeper tries to convert him. Our fine sea captain is definitely thinking about the big questions of life, as he never had before. Then he discovers that his late sister was Shemuel's mother, Hannah. [Another coincidence!] Thus, Alexander Barnard is Shemuel's uncle! The two reunited relatives then travel to Europe on business and meet an old rabbi, who they discuss theological matters with (Captain Barnard is still not a Christian but we know where this is heading, don't we?).
Back to the story of Levi and Esther. Esther has gone, and now Levi regrets it. Apparently Shemuel has now returned from Hamburg and visits Levi. Since Esther has left (for good, apparently), there is no one to cook dinner for them or clean for them. [Men are so helpless, aren't they?] Levi asks his niece, Hannah Davis, but she refuses. Levi realizes how lonely he is without Esther. He attends a church service with Shemuel (who is also still not a Christian, but very open to conversion to Christianity, but alas, his openness is undoubtedly due to his attraction to Mary Williams), and Levi's heart is softened.
There is a shipwreck, and it appears that Christian has died in this accident. But no, he survives and comes back to England. His former boss, Captain Barnard, offers him his job back (actually a share of the business), but Christian responds: "Sir, your offer has placed me under lasting obligation to you; but I am a Christian which means a follower of that Christ who was put to death by a Jewish mob, urged on by your Rabbis. ... To be unequally yoked with an unbeliever would be to disobey a Divine command, and I could expect no blessing" (p. 85). This impresses Captain Barnard greatly. [Why do I think that most Jews would be insulted?]
Meanwhile, Shemuel is conflicted about Jesus. He wants to marry Mary Williams but isn't sure about Christ yet. He goes back and forth and finally comes to a decision and professes his belief in Jesus: "Shemuel Krecovitch bowed in adoration before the Christ of God" (p. 94). Then he gets married to Mary Williams, and anounces his new faith to Levi Josephs, who is disappointed but not furious.
Alexander Barnard visits with the Williams' family during the wedding of Shemuel and Mary, and the good captain stays on for several days. He has many theological discussions with Mr. Williams and thinks more about faith in Christ.
Meanwhile, Ben Davis returns from India a broken man. He meets Christian who preaches to him, and eventually (before he dies) Ben accepts Jesus into his heart. The irony is that Ben Davis is the brother in law of Christian Josephs, and Ben's abandonment of his wife had caused (indirectly) the death of Christian's sister. (But Christian did not know any of this, and if he had, it would not have made any difference, righteous man that he was).
Christian marries a nice Christian girl named Lucy Tregale, and they set off for Palestine on their honeymoon. (We are given a short travelogue of the holy land, similar to what happens on a much larger scale in Judah's Lion). Christian meets a rabbi (Rabbi Israel) and has a long discussion with him about messianic prophecies as they stroll through Jerusalem. They continue their discussion the next day, having become friends. But incredibly, Christian still has not revealed to the rabbi his belief in Jesus (although one would think that his name would be a dead giveaway!). Another man joins their long discussion, a Christian named Norman Lloyd, who witnesses to the rabbi of his faith in "the God of Israel." The end result is that the rabbi buys a New Testament.
Christian returns to England and discovers that his cousin, Esther Josephs (who is living with the Hyam Josephs family), has become a Christian. Alexander Barnard comes to visit and, after many discussions with Hyam and a stirring sermon at the local church, is convinced to become a believer in Jesus. He and Esther fall in love and get married. Soon it is Passover (and Easter), and Alexander brings Esther to Levi's shop to try to get him to bless their union. It is then that they find out that Levi has also become a Christian, and they rejoice over Easter dinner (since none of them think it appropriate to celebrate Passover).
Years have passed and now Christian's daughter, Amy, has grown up and has decided to become a missionary to the Jews. She learns Yiddish and Hebrew for the purpose of preaching the gospel to her people. She travels to Jerusalem where she meets another young woman, Abigail Abrahams, who is an orphan and was raised by her uncle, Benoni Abrahams. Amy evangelizes Abigail, who soon becomes a Christian, but then she discovers that her uncle has died. Abigail travels back to her home in Damascus, and there meets her cousin Nehemiah Silverton, who is now her guardian, and they move to London where Silverton lives. Nehemiah and his wife, Sarah, are greedy and although they take care of Abigail's needs, they don't give her any independence. Abigail discovers that that she is an heiress to a fortune, but the Silvertons have control of the money.
Abigail decides to tell the Silvertons that she is a Christian: ""I think it requisite to inform you," said she, "that I have adopted the Christian faith, or, rather, that I believe Jesus Christ is our Messiah, the Saviour of the world." They all looked at Abigail as if she were demented. Her words seemed strange to their ears; but their words of blasphemy had best be left out here" (p. 169). The Silvertons plot to steal Abigail's money, but with the help of Christian Josephs and a good lawyer, she gets all the money for herself. The Silverton's son, Bernard, is a cad, and makes a move on Abigail, but she rebuffs him. He ends up secretly marrying a Gentile girl and sailing to America, where he becomes a gambler and dies destitiute, but not before confessing his faith in Christ, having been influenced by the witness of Abigail. Before he dies he sires a son, who eventually became a Christian along with his mother, the Gentile girl Annie.
So Abigail becomes good friends with the Josephs family, and she eventually marries the eldest son, Morley. One day 15 years later Abigail meets Nehemiah Silverton, who has become a poor old peddler. She invites him to dinner and there he meets the entire extended family of Christian Josephs, as well as Annie Silverton, his daughter in law, and Bernard Silverton, his grandson. (Bernard has the same name as his father had). Nehemiah, by now almost ready to die, is subjected to conversion tactics by many including his grandson, but all for naught. He rejects Christianity (though he is grateful for the new friendships of these Jewish Christians), and he continues to recite the Sh'ma even to his last breath, which he takes on Yom Kippur. Nehemiah insists on fasting on the Day of Atonement because " he had been taught to believe that the sins of the past year would be forgiven on that day, and that he would go out of this world free" (p. 207). He dies a Jew, repentant but unconverted.
Points to ponder:
(1) The word "blindness" is used throughout the book to describe the unbelieving Jew's condition. Not an uncommon metaphor in conversionist fiction.
(2) Most Jews who convert to Christianity in these types of novels end up naming their children Jewish (or at least, biblical) names. Christian Josephs is an exception to this rule. I still can't get over this one.
(3) We've seen other sea captains figure prominently in 19th century conversionist fiction, but Captain Barnard is the first Jewish sea captain in our travels.
(4) The author continually disparages Judaism and the Jewish attempt at religiosity and spirituality. "There are thousands who observe the precepts of the Great Law Giver, in outward form at least; but how far they come short! He who fails in one point is guilty of all" (p. 168).