Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Tales of a Jewess: Illustrating the Domestic Manners and Customs of the Jews

Madame Brendlah wrote Tales of a Jewess Illustrating the Domestic Manners and Customs of the Jews. Interspersed with Original Anecdotes of Napoleon in 1838. Brendlah, according to Linda Gertner Zatlin in The Nineteenth-Century Anglo-Jewish Novel (1981), was a "Jewish apostate", "scornful of [her] former religion," whose book was "vituperative in its conversionist stance. Appended notes purport to explain Jewish rituals and customs but actually denigrate Jews and Judaism as foolish and superstitious" (p. 56).

Nadia Valman, writing in "Speculating Upon Human Feeling: Evangelical Writing and Anglo-Jewish Women's Autobiography," a chapter in the book The Uses of Autobiography (1995), goes even further when she states that this novel (along with others by Bristow and Heighway), claims "to be based on authentic autobiography but also claims to be fictionalized for a variety of reasons, [but is] in fact a "fake." Valman believes the "information about Jewish customs ... is garbled and seems second-hand. There are also more general mistakes.... [The narratives are] formulaic, showing the awakening of a woman to Christianity through reading the New Testament, her persecution by her family, her inquisition by rabbis and finally her escape or death."

But the critics notwithstanding, let's take a look at what Brendlah has to offer us. In the Introduction the author writes:

"Let not the reader expect to find in the following pages, feigned stories, nor tales from the visions of fancy. What is related is mostly founded on facts.... The Authoress was born a Jewess, and brought up to revere and observe the rites and ceremonies of the Jews...." (p. v). Brendlah goes on to say that she became a believer in Jesus and married a Christian, and thus incurred the wrath of the Jewish community.

The author claims that she hopes to spread goodwill among both Jews and Christians through this book, and to educate Christians about the customs of Jews. Although Brendlah doesn't explicitly say it, the book appears to be semi-autobiographical. There are many pages of notes at the end of the book that explain Jewish terms and customs. These notes often appear as footnotes at the bottom of each page as well. The transliterated Hebrew and Yiddish system seems strange to the modern eye. For example, kosher is rendered "chocher." Shul is "Shuel." Gelt is "Gald," etc.

The main character of the book is Judith, a 17 year old Jewish girl who at the beginning of the book complains to her mother (Caroline) about an arranged marriage that she does not wish to be a part of. She has been at a Christian boarding school (what the....?) for seven years and does not wish "to be married to a Jew, and a stranger!" (p. 5). The story is set in England, though Judith's parents are emigrants from France.

Judith's friend Ellen Cohen asks her early on in the novel, "Tell me, dear Judith, do you intend to forsake the faith of your fathers; and does not our holy religion weigh truly in your bosom? What are these rumours that you have a Christian lover? Is it so? ... Tell me, I beg, why is it that lately you have neither been to Shuel, nor been so attentive to Rabbi Isaac as you ought? He complains bitterly, that, although you pretend, or strive, to learn Hebrew, your heart is far from the book of Moses" (p. 12).

[Actually Judith's attitude toward studying Hebrew and/or religion is somewhat reminiscent of most Jewish kids in Hebrew school today or in generations past.... and probably many Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu kids, etc. Kids just want to have fun.]

Judith has two brothers, Adolphus and Emanuel. Adolphus wants to marry Bertha Hamilton, a gentile, so she converts to Judaism and is henceforth known as Sarah. Emanuel, quite the prankster, likes to play all sorts of jokes on the rabbis, such as making one rabbi think that he has just eaten pork. Real mature guy. Ha ha ha ha. Very funny, Emmanuel. Sheesh, what a pill!

Judith's parents (Caroline and Louis) and the rabbi speak in a strong Yiddish accent "Och no, mine goot lady, it vas de shicksa -- a mecha me shena on her!" (p. 26).

Judith is in love (sort of) with William Hartford, who loves her as well. Judith's parents are dismayed at this. Judith's father consults with Rabbi Isaac. "The Rabbi was always a secret foe to Judith, for he well knew in what contempt she held him, and indeed all of his persuasion; and he contrived to place a letter in her way, written by a female of light character, and directed to her lover, in which her name was held up to scorn because she was a Jewess" (p. 43). Later the rabbi is described by William as "sly" and "deceitful" (p. 51).

Ellen is envious of Judith's romance with William, so she plots to undermine them. The plot thickens.

Judith receives a New Testament in the mail from her "beloved Hartford," (along with some love letters) and is ambivalent about reading it. Listen in on her thoughts:

"Dare I open it? Dare I read it? Oh, no! It cannot be a good book; otherwise my mother would not so strictly forbid my reading it. You have done wrong, Hartford," thoughtfully sighed Judith, "to tempt me thus to disobey the laws of my religion" (p. 80).

Judith seems like she has a good head on her shoulders. Maybe Hartford isn't such a good goy after all. Maybe Ellen Cohen's jealousy is misplaced. Maybe....

But she reads the New Testament despite her qualms, and feels somewhat guilty but also interested when she comes across some stimulating passages (such as "Believe on Me, and Live."). Her mother catches her reading it and naturally is quite upset. Then the rabbi fortuitously enters the room and joins the fray. He recommends that they burn the book.

The servants are told not to give any letter from Hartford to Judith, and not to let him in the house, but Joseph, a black servant, is a Christian and "would have gone through fire to see her a disciple of his creed.... His wishes were pure and sincere" (p. 86). [Though the alert reader will note that Joseph does deceive his employer and disobey his wishes]. He gives her another Testament and she continues to read, and eventually she is converted. Judith wonders:

"How could so many of my nation have indeed become converts? Yes, bless Saviour! Thou, indeed, art the Son of God, and in Thee will I put my trust. Let me never be forsaken!" (p. 86).

Then we are given this little theological tidbit: "The nurse who was to attend her was a Calvinist." OK. Too much information? Um, why did we need to know that?

But back to the conversion narrative. The narrator informs us that "Judith, after three months of suffering, became indeed "a new creature"" (p. 87).

Judith's family tries to get her to marry another Jew ("Mr. Davis"), even though she is in love with Hartford and is completely against marrying a Jew. They bring him to the house and he and Judith (under duress) sign the engagement papers. Judith is heartbroken.

After about 90 pages of Napoleonic stories (blah blah blah), we return to the main plot. (I don't really understand why these anecdotes are placed here at this juncture, but oh, maybe that's just me).

So Judith hears her mother calling her to prayers, and she thinks "Jews pray, but do not think. ... Christians pray, and feel that they call on their Maker -- and that is the language of prayer" (p. 176). Ah, that Judith! She's so spiritually sensitive, that gal!

Her father has asked Hartford to return all the letters that Judith had written to him, and Judith is nervous that they will discover her secret thoughts about Christianity. She then goes back to her room (after breakfast) and prays on her knees (even though she knows that Jews don't do this). Later she meets Hartford and he encourages her in her newfound faith and assures her of his friendship. They realize that they are in love with each other and embrace.

The rabbi sees Judith going to church and tells her mother. Around the same time, Judith expresses her misgivings about circumcision, since Adolphus and his wife have just had a baby boy. Then Judith tells her father (while they are riding horses) that she believes that "Jesus is the Christ" (p. 189) and that she wants to marry Hartford, not Davis. Her father curses her so harshly (and who could blame him?) that she faints and falls off the horse. Later, Judith becomes extremely upset about her father's curse on her, but she is comforted by her own prayers and by the words and prayers of Joseph, the Negro servant.

Judith's family tries to convince her of the error of her ways, but to no avail. Eventually she faints again and is laid up in bed for 2 weeks. She recovers but then is horrified to think that her wedding is only about a week away. A few days before the wedding she sneaks out in the middle of the night and elopes with Hartford. Poor Davis, the poor schlub, he had no idea.

"Judith silently left the parental roof; and, with it, abandoned all Judaism" (p. 205). The author promises to tell more of the life of Judith in a future book, but apparently this never happened. (The best laid plans and all that jazz ....)

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