Sunday, August 5, 2007

Aaron's Rod; or the Young Jewess: A Tale

Mary Elizabeth Lee was a poet who was born and lived (and died) in Charleston, South Carolina, 1813-1849. In 1846, the Southern Literary Messenger serialized her short story, "Aaron's Rod; or the Young Jewess: A Tale," in two parts. We learn from the byline that the story was translated from the German, so it's not clear if Lee was the author or the translator. It seems more likely that she was the translator.

The characters in "Aaron's Rod," set in 19th century Germany, are as follows: Augustus Halm, a young Christian man who falls in love with a young Jewish woman, Esther Aaron; Mr. and Mrs. Aaron, Esther's parents; and the Aaron's other daughter, Abigail.

Augustus' father had died, so he and his widowed mother decide to rent a house from a Jewish family, the Aarons. The Aaron's daughter Abigail falls sick and dies, and soon after Mrs. Aaron, consumed by grief, also expires. Mr. Aaron and his remaining daughter, Esther, are forced because of war to move into their country home where the Halms are living. The two young people fall in love, and Esther becomes a Christian (due to the influence of Mrs. Halm as well as some events that occurred when Esther was a child). But she is afraid to tell her father because it would break his heart.

Esther recalls a childhood event when a Christian friend of hers, Mary Lessing, brought her to a church during Easter, where a Passion play was being presented. Esther is stung by the accusation that her nation killed Christ, and that "whoever denies the Saviour, or insists that his teachings are not from God, drives the spear into his sacred side, and helps to nail him to the cruel cross." She is also hurt by Mary's assertion that Esther's mother would still be alive if she had become a Christian. This seems a strange way to be seduced by a new religion, but that is how Esther's transformation from Jew to Christian is portrayed.

We learn that as a girl of ten years old, Esther had become a secret Christian. Later, at age 19, when her father tries to marry her off to men in the Jewish community, she refuses, and he suspects that her faith attachments to Judaism may have changed. Mr. Aaron tries to pay Augustus to advise Esther to marry one of these men, but when he refuses Mr. Aaron realizes that he is in love with his daughter. So the Aarons move away and Augustus is heartbroken.

Augustus' mother dies, and a few years later he goes looking for Esther. A Jewish man (who was upset about Esther's apostasy) who had purchased Mr. Aaron's old house deceives Augustus into thinking that Esther had married a member of the Jewish community. But then Augustus discovers that Esther is actually unmarried and living in that very town, and that she is (wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles!) about to be baptized.

Augustus meets her at the church and discovers that before his death Mr. Aaron had given his blessing to Esther to live out freely her newfound faith. Thus Augustus and Esther (whose baptized name is Mary, ironically) are married and have children "in whose faces are softly blended the traits of the Christian and Jewish races."

This story contains many of the themes of 19th century conversionary fiction. We have the influence of a Christian friend, the childhood conversion, the secretive nature of the conversion for fear of reprisal, the deceptive Jewish characters, the untimely deaths of family members, the reversal of fortune, and the romance between Jew and Christian. Many of these themes repeat themselves in the revival of the conversionist genre in the late 20th century, as we shall see the coming months.

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