Sunday, August 19, 2007

Into the Light; or, the Jewess

In 1868, C.A. Ogden (aka Mrs. C.A.O.) wrote Into the Light; or, the Jewess, an evangelical conversionist novel set in New York. The primary Jewish characters include Reuben Hammet; his wife, Rachel; and their daughter Naomi. We also meet Horace Vincent, a Gentile Christian minister, as well as Dr. Heber, a Jewish Christian. Joseph Fleming, Naomi's cousin, is attracted to Naomi but the narrator tells us that he is a "villain." Naomi sees through his charade and dislikes him intensely. In fact, she finds him creepy. Reuben Hammet wants his nephew to marry his daughter, and that creates conflict in the family (not to mention the potential conflict in the family gene pool). Naomi spends much of the book evading the advances of Fleming.

Early in the novel, Naomi remarks to her father: "Our race, father, do not put on and take off their faith like a garment, as do some Christians. I have heard of their changing what they call denominations more than once in the course of a lifetime" (p. 4). Ah, could this be a harbinger of things to come? Naomi may yet regret her flippant comment....

Horace develops an attraction toward Naomi. But his sister Grace tries to dissuade him, telling him that Jews rarely marry outside their faith. "There are, as you know, occasional converts to Christianity, showing that the Lord manifests himself at times to his chosen people. Still such hopes are not for you, my brother; you belong to the Lord" (p. 24).

Reuben loses almost all of his money playing the stock market (or something similar on "Wall Street"). We know, instinctively, that this can't be good for his future as a Jew. When anyone (fictional or otherwise) loses all of his money, desperation sets in, and that's a common theme of the Jewish convert to Christianity, who often comes to his newfound faith in a moment of hopelessness.

We are introduced to Dr. Heber, a physician (and Jewish convert to Christianity), who is described as follows: "His high, broad forehead, lofty, arched eyebrows, and flowing black beard, with a certain erect carriage of the head, peculiar to the educated Jew, were unmistakable signs of his Hebrew origin" (p. 43).

Dr. Heber comes in his role as a doctor to visit Reuben, who has taken sick. Heber shows a knowledge of the Jewish prayerbook, and Mrs. Hammet says to him:

"Why doctor... I thought, when you renounced Judaism, that all respect for our honored litany had departed." "You mistake me, dear madam. I honor the same God whom you worship, -- the God of our fathers; ... I see clearly, by the eyes of my soul, the God of Jacob manifested to man in Jesus of Nazareth, the Desire of nations! the King of Israel! I have not ceased to be a Jew, but am doubly one now that I see in the Messiah every prophecy fulfilled...." ... "Oh, that the veil might indeed be taken asway from God's chosen people....!" (p. 46).

Dr. Heber engages in debate with the Rabbi, Ben Zara, in the presence of Mr. Hammet (pp. 52-54). Reuben and Naomi both resolve to study the New Testament after hearing this debate, in which Heber clearly gets the upper hand over the rabbi. Later, Reuben is described as becoming a Christian: "Redeemed through Christ! O wife! O daughter! there is salvation in none other. He is our own Messiah. Oh, believe!" (p. 67).

But alas, these are Reuben's final words. After his deathbed conversion, he (naturally) dies. And this leaves the rest of his family in a rather sticky situation. Naomi and Rachel are not yet Christians, but due to Reuben's conversion they are treated as such by their Jewish friends. Abandoned by the Jewish community, Naomi states:

"How singular that our own people should be so very vindictive! ... because my father was converted to the Christian faith, nearly all deserted him in his last moments. The Rabbis say that he was an apostate, and I feel almost persuaded to become one myself, when I remember the wondrous change which took place in all the sentiments and feelings of my dear father. I shall not rest until I have more fully studied the new oracles, and compared them with the law and the prophets" (p. 73).

Shortly thereafter, Naomi gives us a foretaste of where she is headed, religiously speaking: "I can no longer trust blindly [in] the Talmud" (p. 74), she asserts. Almost destitute, Naomi and Rachel go to live in a boarding house with the family of Isaac Nathans. Later, Naomi becomes a governess to a Gentile family.

After hearing a sermon at church given by Horace Vincent, Naomi is so moved that she accepts Jesus as her savior. The narrator gives us a glimpse into Naomi's heart:

"Never had the Saviour seemed to Naomi so real, so near to her soul. She received him as her own with unspeakable tenderness, and could truly say that she had "found Him, of whom Moses and the prophets did write"" (p. 164).

Naomi becomes a pious Christian but continues to abstain from eating pork. There also develops a love story between Naomi and Horace. But Joseph Fleming becomes jealous, and begins "disseminating a prejudice against the new minister," (p. 209), accusing him of plagiarism and of being pretentious. (One wonders about Mr. Fleming's imagination. Couldn't he have come up with anything worse? Some kind of sordid immorality, perhaps? Did he really think that these rumors and innuendos were going to bring Rev. Horace down into the mud?)

Fleming also comes into Naomi's room at night and kisses her against her will. (Perhaps hoping to deflower her and thus horrify Horace who undoubtedly wants a virgin bride). But despite all of Fleming's evil machinations, Naomi and Horace soon announce their engagement. Still, Fleming continues to try to break them up and succeeds at getting Mrs. Armstrong to fire Naomi by spreading vicious rumors about her. He wishes to "rule his Jewish princess with a rod of iron" (p. 231).

When Dr. Heber learns of Naomi's conversion, he exclaims: "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel! who is daily revealing himself to his chosen people, through his beloved Son" (p. 234).

But Naomi's mother, Rachel Hammet, still does not believe in Jesus. She gives us a rather dispassionate and rather reasonable view of the situation:

"The fact that my husband died a Christian is quite sufficient to close their homes and hearts against those they pretend to call the apostate daughters of Israel. There are times when my heart yearns over our nation, when I admit the thought, for one moment, of the possibility that they are altogether mistaken, that they are walking in darkness aliens from the land of their heritage, through unbelief. There was a time when I , too, felt a peculiar bitterness towards those who renounced the Hebrew faith; but now, although I cannot see and believe as my daughter does, yet I respect the doctrine which imparts so much peace in the hour of death" (p. 236).

The two women, Naomi and Rachel, move into Dr. Heber's house until the wedding so that Fleming, the "sly fox," cannot "molest" Naomi anymore. But Rachel still cannot "receive the wondrous doctrine of the triune Jehovah" (p. 238). (The tension mounts!)

Naomi says to Dr. Heber: "I confidently look forward to the restoration of our Hebrew brethren to a place among the nations of the earth, and believe, too, that the time is not very far distant." [Horace responds]: "How rich are the promises to that once honored but now fallen race!... I rejoice greatly that I am to be so nearly allied to one who came of so lofty a lineage; for was not the King of Zion a Jew? And from converted Jews alone came the words of holy writ that make wise unto salvation." "And I am glad, too, Naomi," said the doctor, "that your love for the Hebrew race has not decreased since the eyes of your soul were opened to behold the wondrous things of the true Jewish law." "I do dearly love the children of Israel; let them be ever so poor and degraded...." (p. 250).

Some of Naomi's acquaintances hope that she will teach a Bible class to show them how Jewish symbols apply to Christianity. Later, Naomi and Horace are married in a Christian ceremony that follows many Jewish customs. And poor Fleming ends up marrying a Gentile named Victoria.

Fleming becomes ill and is visited by Rabbi Ben Zara, who brings with him "a huge volume of the Jewish law, in order to read those passages that he thought were appropriate and comforting to the sick man, who strove in vain to derive strength from that which contained for him no spiritual nutriment" (p.287). Fleming ends up being ruined because his house and other buildings he owns are burned down and he (or rather, his wife) had neglected to renew the insurance. Fleming opens a pawnbroker's shop which "proved a suitable field for the exercise of his peculiar talents" (p. 291). (Oh, the joys of dramatic justice!)

Naomi feels "a tenderness, mingled with compassion, for those of my own nation (sons and daughters of Israel) who are shut out from the light and blessing of that faith which I now consider the crowning glory of my life." ... [Horace responds]: "when we bow before Messiah's throne , let us remember his chosen people, and plead for their speedy restoration to the land of their heritage, through faith in the Holy One of Jacob. One prophecy after another is rapidly being fulfilled, and the time is doubtless very near when their blindness shall be taken away, and thy people shall once more take a high position among the nations of the earth" (p. 300).

Some final thoughts on this novel:

(1) One unintended irony of the novel is that Women of Israel by Grace Aguilar is mentioned approvingly as provoking an interest about Jews among some Christians, but as I've mentioned before, Aguilar criticized this genre of conversionary novels.

(2) It's interesting that Rachel's conversion remains unresolved, although it's clear that she's open to the prospect. (And surely Naomi and Horace will put constant pressure on her to consider their arguments in favor of conversion).

(3) Money plays a major role in the lives of our Jewish protagonists and antagonists in this book. Whether intended or not, this feeds the stereotype of the Jew as money-grubbing and the Christian as "above the fray" when it comes to finance.

(4) Ben Zara is the typical rabbi found in conversionist stories: sly, deceptive, rigid, uncaring, spiritually dry and barren. Occasionally one finds exceptions to this rule in the conversionary fiction, but not very often.

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