Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Grace Aguilar

The English writer (and Sephardic Jew) Grace Aguilar did not take kindly to the conversionary novels of her fellow countrywomen. In Women of Israel (1845), she writes that the works of Amelia Bristow and other

"narrations which portray some members of a Jewish family in a favorable light, that they may conclude by making them Christians, and the other members as so stern, harsh, and oppressive, that they bear no resemblance whatever to any Israelite, except the Israelite of a Gentile's imagination.... [These works] never fail to impress the minds of Christian readers with the unalterable conviction, that whenever spirituality, amiability and gentleness, kindliness and love, are inmates of a Hebrew heart, it is an unanswerable proof that that heart is verging on Christianity, and will very speedily embrace that faith" (p. 309).

Aguilar touches on a common theme among the 19th century conversionist novelists (and their 20th century descendants), that of the good-hearted, amiable, noble Jew who often (in these works of fiction) converts to Christianity. It is rare that a grouchy, ugly, deceitful Jew will ever convert in these books. Too bad, because that misses the whole point of the Christian message: that God's grace can change even the worst criminal and turn him or her into a kind and upstanding citizen. It shouldn't matter to the conversionist novelists whether the (pre-Christian) Jewish characters are kind-hearted or mean. But it does. And that destroys their credibility as much as anything else.

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