Friday, July 13, 2007

Rosette and Miriam

Amelia Bristow's final conversionary novel, Rosette and Miriam; or The Twin Sisters. A Jewish narrative of the Eighteenth Century, was published in 1837. This book was earlier serialized in the Christian Lady's Friend and Family Repository, which was edited by Amelia Bristow in the early 1830s. (Not to be confused with the The Christian Lady's Magazine, edited by Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, who will most assuredly be dealt with in this space in due time).

"In the early part of the eighteenth century, Rabbi Joseph Ben Eliezer, an eminent and wealthy Polish Jew, arrived at Presburg, accompanied by his twin daughters, Rosette and Miriam, and their faithful nurse and attendant Clara, on their way to Tyrnaw, a small town in Upper Hungary, situated about thirty-four miles from Presburg, the capital of that kingdom." (p. 1). The rabbi, who wanted to travel eventually to England with his family, "was a very devout and zealous Jew, but possessed, nevertheless, an intelligent mind, generous disposition, and a spirit peculiarly benign." (p. 2). He was about 40 with twin daughters about ten years old, and a son (Simeon) 12 years old. The rabbi's wife had died recently, and she had been a "woman of superior mind and character." .... "Sincerely devoted to the Jewish faith, she had not failed to impress its tenets on the hearts of her children; happily, however, she did not add to the Mosaic law the traditional reveries of the Rabbins, nor wish to debase their understandings by imposing on them the observance of those puerile and senseless injunctions from which her own judgment revolted." (p. 3-4).

Bristow describes Jewish worship of the day as generally "heartless levity." (p. 9). Obviously this was her own experience and she's making a generalization. But I would point out that "heartless levity" isn't really as bad as it might first sound. At least they were having fun.

The author decries the blood libel and says it is an "unfounded and cruel allegation." (p. 10). (OK, so she's made some progress over earlier generations, that much I'll give her). A similar event occurs early in this book, where some Jews are accused of stealing a Christian baby during Passover to eat him and drink his blood. These Jews are condemned to die for this supposed crime. Rabbi Joseph decides to give up his daughters to his brother-in-law, Rabbi David, to raise them, since otherwise they would be motherless.

Bristow takes a moment to exhort her audience: "Christian reader! Have you ever sought the throne of grace, on behalf of your elder brethren the Jews, that they may be thus savingly enlightened? Have you in gratitude for the unspeakable blessings you derive from them earnestly desired their salvation? Have you by intercessory prayer for Israel shown your love to the Great Redeemer, -- the true "Israelite, in whom is no guile?" (p. 16). Miriam is described as strong willed, and neither a bigot nor superstitious. [Hint: this sometimes means that the author is telegraphing a future conversion in the story, but we'll see later if that's an accurate prediction]. Miriam is said to think of Christianity as "an awful delusion, [but] she was not intolerant, and felt no hatred to the persons of Nazarenes, but rather compassionated their errors.... In such sentiments Rabbi David, who was a very tolerant Jew, took pleasure in confirming her." (p. 18).

Rosette is described as "a complete contrast to her sister; fair, slender, and extremely delicate.... extremely sweet [and] yielding to a fault" (p.19) [and very dependent on her sister Miriam]. "The religion of Rosette was tinctured with enthusiasm, her acts of devotion were fervent and frequent, and partook so largely of the tenderness of her nature, that she could not endure to hear the invectives of Clara against Christians. "Oh curse them not! dearest Clara... Rather let us pray for the poor things, that Jehovah may have mercy on them!" [and in reference to the blood libel event] "we will pray even for the cruel people of Tyrnaw." [OK, odds are that Rosette will convert, think you not?] Miraim, who was present, added, "At least, Clara, do not curse them. They are in the hands of the God of Israel!" (p. 20).

Rabbi David's wife, Josephine, embrace the two girls into her home. The rabbi and his wife have a daughter, Eliphalette, who has been given a complete Jewish education, even though she lives in her room in solitude most of the time. She is described as having a "deep and unaffected humility."... "her religious views, which, though strictly Jewish, had no resemblance to modern Judaism. She had a clear discernment of the spirituality of the law of God, and the taint original sin had inflicted on the fallen race of Adam. The confidence reposed by her nation on their own good works, aided by the yearly day of atonement, did not appear to her either worthy or capable of propitiating the offended Majesty of heaven." (p. 33). [All right, now Eliphalette has my vote for the "most likely to convert" character in this story -- so far].

Eliphalette has a childhood injury that has caused her to be a cripple and to have a "mis-shapen" and deformed body, although her face is described as beautiful. Somehow her nurse (Leovina, also Jewish) was supposedly responsible for this years before, and because of it, Leovina renounced her upcoming marriage and devoted her life to serving Eliphalette. Various Jewish customs and holidays are described throughout the novel. In addition, various extracts and excerpts from rabbinic writings are included in the book.

Bristow continues her occasional commentaries and exhortations to the reader: "... how deep is the darkness which envelopes Israel, and veils from his eyes the Sun of Righteousness, by whose vivifying beams alone he can be enlightened, healed, and saved... Gentile Christains! ... pity your exiled, dispersed, and despised elder brethen!" (p. 76). "Christians lament the blindness of Israel!-- his tenacious adherence to the letter which killeth -- his stern hatred of the spirit which maketh alive. And Christians pray for the time when the eyes of their elder brother shall be opened to see the day-spring from on high." (p. 84-85). [Note that tons of these little sermons and admonitions are given throughout the book by the author].

The family has guests one day, individuals who are stranded and injured (slightly) in a carriage accident. Isabella and Mariana Decosta are the names of the two sisters who are stranded there, and it is thought at first that they are Christians, but it turns out that they are really secret Jews, escaping from the Spanish Inquisition, and on their way to England where they may worship in freedom as Jews. The story of the Decosta family, for many generations secret or "concealed" Jews [Conversos] in Spain, is told in detail as a sidebar to the main story. In this sidebar Catholicism is criticized [so what else is new?] and described as "puerile mummery and idolatrous bigotry" (p. 140).

The rabbi and his wife also have two sons, Elnathan and Josiah. Elnathan befriends a young Christian man by the name of Henry Williams (a somewhat sickly chap), who hopes someday to witness to Elnathan of Christ. Upon seeing a Roman Catholic sacrament, Elnathan is critical of it, and Henry responds "you must not judge pure Christianity by this mistaken species of worship. There are many thousands among the followers of Jesus, who bow not the knee to this Baal." (p. 121). Elnathan says to Henry "I love you, dear Henry.... irrespective of your religious opinions, though indeed I know not exactly their nature. You have proved that there exists at least one Gentile who can greet me as a fellowman, though a descendant of a proscribed race...." (p. 122). Elnathan admits that all he knows of Jesus is what he has read in a book called "The generations of Jesus" [Toldoth Yeshu, a Talmud-era account which describes Jesus as a magician]. Henry replies that Elnathan should read "the record of Jesus" (by which he means the New Testament).

Eliphalette's tutor (a rabbi) is called "well meaning but bigoted" (p. 133) when he says that they shouldn't read the New Testament. It becomes known to the president of the Jewish college where Elnathan is studying that he is reading the New Testament and corresponding with a Christian friend. The president arranges to have these letters intercepted (both to and from Henry), and he also gives a major speech to the college where he details the various accounts of "Christian" persecution of Jews through the centuries. But Elnathan decides that these persecutors must not have been "true Christians." [A common theme among Christian apologists].

An orphan named Lewis Levine becomes romantically attracted to Eliphalette, though he is discouraged from this. Meanwhile, Elnathan finally decides to become a Christian, based on arguments made to him by Henry and by his own reading of the New Testament. But he knows that the consequences will be severe. He first tells his brother Josiah in a private conference, and begins by kneeling and praying (which of course Josiah is surprised by, given that Jews do not kneel when praying). After hearing Elnathan's story, and then after reading the NT for a week, Josiah also becomes a Christian. When they tell their father, he is at first upset, but he thinks to himself that at least they are not yet "open apostates" and have not yet been baptized, so there is hope for him that they will revert back to Judaism. The mother also is hopeful that they will come back to the true faith of Israel. But Leovina, Eliphalette's nurse, is less sanguine and calls them "apostate boys." (p. 252).

The family decides to isolate the boys and to separate them from each other, and the father warns that continued apostasy will result in excommunication. "All that could be done by an intelligent and affectionate mother, zealous in the cause of a religion she considered holy and inviolable, and by a devout and learned Rabbi, who confined the possibility of salvation exclusively to that religion, was done to ensnare and perplex Elnathan. All the powers of argument and of ridicule -- the authority of the synagogue --the collected wisdom of ages, -- and the almost irresistable pleading of the most indulgent of mothers were daily essayed, in order to shake the mind of this young and inexperienced convert, and lead him back to what these well-meaning persecutors called the path of duty." (p. 262-263). Elnathan resists these efforts, but Josiah gives in and recants his conversion to Christianity. Finally, after much discussion and argumentation and pleading, Elnathan is excommunicated from the synagogue and excised from his family. Everyone tears their clothes and goes into mourning for him, which the author describes as an "awful scene of Jewish bigotry and intolerance." (p. 305) During the mourning week, Eliphalette dies and it is discovered (among her belongings) afterwards that she had become a Christian shortly before her death. On learning this, Leovina goes mad and commits suicide. Elnathan leaves the family (actually escaping through a window to avoid his public excommunication) and goes to live with Henry's family. There he is baptized and partakes of the Lord's supper. Henry dies, and his family adopts Elnathan as if he were their own son. About 5 years later Elnathan dies. His final act is to write a letter to his family, "full of Christian arguments and persuasions, and concluded in elevated strains of filial love and duty." (p. 335).

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