Saturday, August 11, 2007

Adeline, or, The Mysteries, Romance, and Realities of Jewish Life

Miriam Burstein describes much of 19th century Anglo Christian literature as "paraliterature" or "subliterature." If these terms are pejorative, and I assume that on some level they are, then Osborn Heighway fits squarely into this genre. His novels, and those of many other evangelical Christians of the 19th century, are sort of like Thomas Kinkade paintings. It's not really art, though at first glance it looks like it.

Not content with the success of Leila Ada, Heighway wrote another conversionary novel about Jews and Christians, this one entitled Adeline, or, The Mysteries, Romance, and Realities of Jewish Life, published in London in 1854.

We are introduced to Isaac Cohen in the first chapter. He is described as a "young man whose personal appearance proclaimed him beyond doubt to be a member of the house of Israel" (p. 9). Yes, we know what that means. It's 19th century code for "he looks like a Jew."

We also meet Solomon Steinberg, a man of about fifty who is a wealthy German Jewish financier who has emigrated to England. Steinberg's daughter Adeline, a young woman of nineteen, also figures prominently in the story (as might be expected by the title of the book). Isaac and Adeline love each other, which makes this a love story of sorts (as are many of the 19th century conversionary novels). Solomon Steinberg is described as talking in a heavy German Jewish accent, so much so that he becomes a caricature of himself and a bit of a cartoon. As with Leila Ada, various Jewish customs, ceremonies, and holidays are described in this book. We even get a female confirmation ceremony depicted in detail.

Adeline is a student of prophecy and waits in expectation for the Messiah, but she considers the "Talmud and all its foolish fripperies... with intense disgust.... But since she had engaged her affections to Isaac Cohen, she invariably accompanied him to his father's house to keep all the feasts and fasts appointed by the Judaic ritual... The only thing that gave her any cause for sorrow was, that all of them [Isaac's family], except Isaac, gave more or less credit to the inanities of the Talmud" (p. 19).

In several other places she denounces the Talmud, e.g.,: "Its impurities always disgusted me; its puerilities , its worse than childish follies, always offended me" (p. 22). Isaac as well has nasty things to say about the Talmud and the ancient rabbis, saying that rabbinical Judaism is branded with "infamy and everlasting contempt" (p. 25). Throughout the book many other criticisms are made of rabbinic Judaism, such as Mr. Cohen (Isaac's father) proclaiming that he never recites the prayer thanking God that he was not born a woman. ("She-lo asani isha" for those in the know).

Isaac's father ("Mr. Cohen") is a widower with several children, including Isaac, David (who is engaged to marry Hermon Baruch); Mary, Jacob, Joseph, and Eulalie. Mr. Cohen, though an observant Jew, is a liberal and generous man, and he does not hate Christians despite the persecutions that are reported against Jews throughout the world (the culprits are usually Catholics). He says: "The character of Jesus is a very lovely one, and his doctrine is very fascinating" (p. 38).

So.... the scene is set. We know who the good guys are. We are soon to meet the bad guys. My prediction: Adeline and Isaac will become Christians, and perhaps also Mr. Cohen. But let's see what happens. I've been known to be wrong before.

Diana, a servant in the Cohen household, is described as superstitious and "a bit of a Cabbalist" (p. 55). "And truly awful were the mysterious things they did, and the experiements they performed" (p. 55-56). She holds a seance which others in the household attend. Scary stories are told that are taken from the Talmud and Midrash. Spooky! I mean, this Diana cat is spoookeeee!

Adeline's father, Solomon Steinberg, is a fairly superstitious man and fascinated by Kabbalah. (All right, I guess this is his "dark side"). He has a friend named Levi Abraham, who makes a strange vow that if God delivers him from an illness, he will write his name down 100 times a day for a thousand days. (Obviously, Mr. Abraham is also interested in Kabbalah).

A rabbi in the community (Ben Uzziel) dies, and he does not go quietly into that dark night (he anguishes over his impending death, which is what every fictional non-Christian apparently does). When Solomon hears of it, it makes him feel quite bad because he knows he does not have peace either in facing death. Nothing he does, not his prayers or his Kabbalah or his "strewing dust upon his head, and beating his forehead upon the ground" could bring him comfort (p. 109). Here Judaism is contrasted with Christiantiy, which of course (but of course!) brings peace and comfort and assurance of "life eternal" in the face of death.

A new Jewish character is introduced, Eva St. Maur, along with her brother, Adolphus St. Maur. Eva's father has died and she is placed in the care of a guardian, Rabbi Eliel Sibbecai (which, as a footnote informs us, is sort of a 19th century version of Shabbetai Zvi, the well known "false Messiah" of the 17th century). Rabbi Sibbecai is a Kabbalist ("he said he had intercourse with spiritual beings; and I have heard him talking to them," p. 150), and thinks he is the Messiah. He tries to get Eva under his spell and he attempts to make her a prophetess.

Adolphus can't stand hearing this, for it makes him even more scornful of religion than he already was. He opines:

"This Rabbinism -- isn't it all just this? -- an ejection of God from his throne -- and making man the sole arbiter of life and death.... All this praying about mercy, and so on, is merely an opiate to keep conscience quiet. If they haven't merit enough to balance demerit, God can't save them, and to perdition they go -- there's the end of Rabbinism" (p. 152).

Adolphus is not a believer -- he espouses no religion, but he can't stand the religion of his youth, Judaism. "I hate Judaism, because it offends, insults, crucifies that most sacred of all sacred things -- that most beautiful of all beauties -- a woman's heart!" (p. 154). Isaac answers him: "I condemn Rabbinism as earnestly as you can. But it grieves me when I hear you speak doubtingly of religion. The religion of the rabbis is as opposed to God, the Bible, and to reason, as anything that can be imagined" (p. 154).

So at this point, we know where most of the characters stand. And the rabbis and their religion aren't looking very good. But we knew from the start that rabbinic Judaism wasn't going to come out spotless. It's just that, well, Heighway doesn't pull his punches, does he? Subtlety is not his strong suit. But couldn't he be a little more, um, respectful of other religions?

The two sisters Mary and Eulalie Cohen secretly read the New Testament and become closet Christians. Mary (such a fine Jewish name!) finally confesses her newfound beliefs to Mr. Eder, a Jewish man who had asked for her hand in marriage. When he asks her if she realizes the consequences of her new adherence to Christ, she says: "I know it. And I shall be excluded from the synagogue -- perhaps also from my father's house. My name will be blotted from among my people. I shall have to pass through afflictions, to me strange and terrible. Yet, weak as I am, I feel unmoved" (p. 223).

Mr. Eder replies: "No Jew will speak to you -- sent among strangers -- separated from your family -- not even allowed to be buried with them." [And Mary responds]: "I know all this. But God will save my body by the resurrection of Jesus, as he has my immortal spirit" (p. 223).

Adeline and Isaac want to be married, but it is not to be, at least for now. Adeline is sent to work as a servant in a rich man's house, Lord Vernon, who she marries (ostensibly for financial reasons). Isaac, heartbroken, decides to leave the country. Adeline witnesses the death of Vernon, whose final words are "Lord Jesus Christ!" (p. 232). This affects Adeline deeply. This, combined with her reading the New Testament that Eulalie had sent her, causes her to come to faith in Jesus.

Meanwhile, Mr. Cohen finds out about his daughters' new faith and is rather upset about it, especially about Mary because she had recently been confirmed and is now considered an "apostate" (if and when she confesses to the rabbis). At the same time, Adeline confesses to him about her also becoming a Christian (in her defense of Mary and Eulalie). Mr. Cohen loves his daughter Mary, but he feels that he must follow the laws and ban her from any family meals.

[Can you imagine how this Mr. Cohen must feel? Two daughters both announce to him that they've converted to a different religion, a religion that is the antithesis of what he believes, a religion whose adherents have persecuted his people for 1500 years. Imagine his pain! Anyway, I digress....]

Mr. Cohen feels compelled to tell the rabbis, and so Mary is subjected to ongoing discussions with the elders of the synagogue. Finally, when they realize that they cannot convince her to return to Judaism, they inform the chief rabbi. He (along with his associates) comes to dinner to examine her. The narrator informs us that they treat her with kindness at dinner (p. 241), although what follows (pp. 242ff) is essentially an excommunication of Mary.

Dr. Aben Baruch presides. It starts out with everyone fairly amiable but it ends with Aben Baruch crying out: "Blasphemy! blasphemy! I have not more to say with thee, dog!.... Oh! women and wickedness, always together. Then he invoked upon her, and upon the infidel and idolatrous Goim all the curses of the law, with such loudness of voice and extravagance of gesture...." (p. 247). Later he hits Eulalie when she defends her sister and says to her: ""Little serpent of hell!" hissed the Jew, between his clenched teeth. I could fling thee into the sea and send thee to Gehenna before thou dost more mischief.... Incarnation of the devil!... On God's behalf I smite thee!"" (p. 247).

Later all the rabbis pronounce curses upon Mary, and expel her from her father's house, and forbid her to have any contact at all with any of the Jewish community. But Mr. Cohen, when he hears about the disgusting treatment that his daughters have experienced at the hands of the rabbis, tells them that they (his excommunicated daughters) can stay with him and decides never again to "enter a synagogue, nor have a Jew, excepting his own family, in his house again" (p. 249).

All righty now. A couple of questions for you, Mr. Cohen. First, why did you squeal on your daughters to the rabbis? You must have known that they would be excommunicated and subjected to all sorts of pressure and unpleasant experiences. Come on, you must have known! And second, it's a bit of an overreaction, isn't it, to vow never to have contact with another Jew just because you had a bad experience with a few rabbis? And third, why did you name your Jewish daughter Mary? Did it ever occur to you that naming her Mary might be a precursor to her conversion to Christianity? Was it because all of your other Jewish friends were naming their daughters Mary? Or did you just like the name Mary and you had no clue that it is generally thought of as a Catholic name? And you were out of the room when the edict came down that "Jews don't name their daughters Mary"? What's wrong with Miriam, huh?

Back to the story. Eulalie gets sick and dies. Mr. Cohen, heartbroken, decides to travel on the continent with Mary. There they meet Isaac, who has been having quite an adventure in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire. They all return to England, and Isaac (also lately having become a Christian) marries Adeline. Mary, sadly, dies three months after Eulalie, but the narrator assures the reader that for Christians, death is not the end.

But happily, we now have come to the end of this anti-Jewish, anti-Judaism, anti-rabbinic novel. No, it's not Der Sturmer. But though I try to avoid labeling these conversionist novels as anti-semitic, a term that is probably overused anyway, this one certainly fits the bill.

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