The scholars are divided on the question of whether or not some of the "quasi-autobiographical" (or in some cases, quasi-biographical) conversionist novels of the 19th century were mostly true (with the names changed) or completely made up. Or something in between, perhaps. Some critics don't think the Jewish traditions that are described are accurately depicted; others think that the Jewish characters are too stereotyped to be based on real people.
My own thinking is that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I suspect that Amelia Bristow, despite her negative portrayal of Jewish life, was mostly telling the truth when she said that her fiction was based on real people and real events. Just my gut feeling. But Osborn Trenery Heighway, on the other hand, may very well have been a charlatan, according to the Little Professor.
Osborn Trenery W. Heighway wrote Leila Ada, the Jewish Convert: An Authentic Memoir in 1852. It was first published in London and the next year reprinted by our old friends the Presbyterian Board of Publication in Philadelphia (remember Maria the "converted Jewess"?). And by the way, we haven't see the last of those Presbyterians.
In the Introduction, the editor Heighway claims that this memoir is based on a true story, and that the words of "Leila Ada" (as portrayed in letters, diary entries, etc.) are unchanged from the original. (Indeed, Heighway makes "sic" notes in the text so as not to change anything at all).
Heighway writes, "Although her language is at some places diffuse and inartificial, we could not feel at liberty to alter it" (p. 9). So is it fiction? That's how libraries have classified it. The fact that the "editor" Heighway later wrote another conversion novel ("Adeline") makes one think that Leila Ada is the same genre of "fictional autobiography" (as opposed to a memoir). Both Nadia Valman and Michael Ragussis comment on Leila Ada, and neither thinks much of its authenticity.
For those who are interested in these things, the story of Leila Ada is also included in the book Narrative of the Conversion and Suffering of Sarah Doherty and the Wonderful Conversions of Two Jewish Maidens.
One possible mark of inauthenticity is that it is extremely doubtful that an educated Jewish girl would use the term "Jehovah" for God (Leila's father also uses it too, more than once). (See the Jewish Encyclopedia at http//www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=206&letter=J for the article on Jehovah).
Heighway doesn't think much of the rabbis and their commentaries and interpretations. He writes that "The Mishna is said to be an oral law, received from the lips of God, and intended as an exponent of his written law. But we should transgress the purity which religion demands, were we to quote from some of its puerile and absurd follies" (p. 18).
And he goes on to criticize and mock the Talmud. Leila Ada also has nothing but contempt for the rabbinical writings, calling them "inane, absurd, debasing.... [and] impure, stupid fabrication, composed by fallen and sinful man" (p. 19). [Dearest Leila, why don't you tell us how you really feel?]
Apparently Leila's father was a bit inconsistent in his views of Judaism:
"Her father, although strictly a Jew in belief and profession, gave himself little trouble about their requirements and observances, and , therefore, was very far from pressing them upon his daughter. But a mind constituted like that of Leila, eagerly thirsting after truth, could not be always content without strictly examining the Old Testament Scriptures; those Scriptures which all her nation believe in, as the pure word of God" (p. 19).
Leila Ada is raised by her father since her mother had died earlier. She is a teenager in this book, but a mature one. (She is about 20 when the book ends). She is a pious and righteous Jew, but Heighway is careful to note that she has a pure heart and is not hypocritical. [And we know what that means, don't we? In conversionist fiction, good Jews almost always end up to be good Christians].
Leila Ada talks a great deal about her sinfulness, even before she becomes a Christian; it almost seems that she is a Calvinist in her theological musings. Heighway telegraphs his intentions when he has Leila Ada say:
"I have also determined to read the book which the Christians call the New Testament. They profess that prophecies in the Old Testament are clearly fulfilled in the New. I intend to see what ground they take. It is true I have heard much, and read much, of the awful character of that book, and am told that a fearful curse rests upon the reading of it. I cannot think this to be true.... Besides, shall I not be a better Jew for reading it? Will it not assist to imbue my mind with the proofs of the dreadful mistake which the Christians commit? I cannot doubt that I am right" (p. 26).
Heighway is so subtle. In this next excerpt he tells us what is about to happen to Leila Ada. Come on, Osborn! Let us enjoy a little suspense for once! Whatever happened to the dramatic climax, the cliffhanging end of the chapter, the thrill of the unknown? Perhaps Heighway thought that proper ladies would swoon if they weren't warned in advance of Leila Ada's every step....
"We are now brought to the most interesting portion of Leila's life -- her conversion to Christianity. It has already appeared that her belief in the tenets of Judaism had received an irremediable shock; the absurd fables of the Talmud were cast aside as unworthy of a thought, and the trammels of rabbinical authority completely burst asunder. On her return to England she was only waiting for more instruction in the articles of the Chrsitian belief, to dispose her to embrace it with all her heart. One of her first objects, therefore, was, she says, "to find a company of simple, earnest Chrsitians" (p. 82).
Leila Ada begins to attend church services. She says in her diary:
"I want to take the word of God just as it is. This is the faith of the New Testament: this is the faith God requires, and will have, in order to my salvation. Lord, save me! increase my faith; increase it largely -- mightily; confirm my hope, and fan my love for thee into a mighty flame!" She was an earnest and humble seeker of the truth as it is in Jesus. Her heart had now become intent upon one great business -- the salvation of her soul...." ... "O, my Father, I thank thee; I adore and praise thy holy name, that thou hast removed from my heart that dark, impervious veil...." (p. 84).
And more from the alleged diary:
"Christ Jesus is mine, full and perfect salvation ... Lord, I do believe; help thou my unbelief. Blessed Jesus, my hope is in thee! take up thy abode in my heart; there reign, and direct my every thought and act. Father, forgive my manifold sins and offences against thee! my rest is on thy mercy, through the atonement of my Lord Jesus Christ..." And in a very little time after this she was enabled to rejoice in the God of her salvation; her heart was filled with joy and gladness, and her mouth with praise. This delightful change took place while receiving the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, after having been dedicated to God in baptism" (p. 85-86).
Leila later remarks in her "diary":
"I have this night laid a letter on my father's dressing-table; in it I have detailed the change which has taken place in my soul; in it I have avowed my belief in Jesus of Nazareth, and the joy and peace which I experience in believing. O, that it may do him the good I ardently pray for -- that it may lead him to embrace the gospel of Christ.... This whole night do I intend to devote to special wrestling with thee, for the salvation of my dear father" (p. 89).
In her letter, which is included in whole, she tells her father about her newfound faith, that "all [her] sins are forgiven through Chrsit Jesus," (p. 93), how she came to this faith, her acknowledgement of her own sin, the inferiority of Judaism, the absurdities of the Talmud, etc. She goes on for pages detailing why her father should also believe. She ends the letter by begging him "O do, do begin to serve Jesus. I cannot write any more; my paper is moistened with tears they are tears of mingled prayer and praise" (p. 120).
Her father's response?
"What have you done, Leila? How can you expect me to kiss you? Can you imagine the night I have spent? Is it for this I have had you instructed in the law of the God of Israel, that you should mock at it, and cast it behind your back? Is it for this that I have withheld no means of knowledge from you, that your learning should become a snare to you? ... Now... tell me who it is that has poisoned you; let me know who it was made you a proselyte from the faith of your father Abraham. To think that one of my kindred should have become an apostate -- a Christian -- ... tell me how your ... innocent heart has been misled. The arms of our religion are as wide open to you as ever, if you will return now; and I need not tell you that I shall love you better than before" (p. 122).
And Leila gives her rejoinder:
"O, my dear father,... no one has abused my judgment; indeed, it is God has of his mercy opened my eyes" (p. 122).
They argue for a while and then, when it is apparent to the father that she will not recant, he sends her away to her uncle, who is very strict in his observance of Judaism. [That will teach Leila a lesson!] Leila and her uncle get into a disputation about Jesus, and Leila says to him "from experence I know that neither you, or any of our nation, have any solid joy, or hope, or peace, or even comfort, in your religion. You reject Christ Jesus, the saviour; what will you do for an atonement? You have none" (p. 135).
Her uncle forbids her to speak of her new faith, and at first Leila obeys, but it starts to bother her that she has to "hide her light under a bushel" (p. 140). Although at first they had all been kind to Leila, her uncle's family and servants begin to treat her cruelly, to mock her, to scorn her. All except for one of her cousins (Isaac), who talks with her a great deal about the Bible and the Messiah and who eventually also comes to faith in Jesus. This enrages her uncle and aunt even more.
Eventually Leila is confronted at dinner by two rabbis, several elders, and other members of the Jewish community. Their meeting with Leila lasts for 7 hours, and ends with the rabbis and elders raging against her, calling her a "blaspheming apostate," spitting in her face, pronouncing a curse on her (actually many curses), and excommunicating her. "Then," said the rabbi, "I pronounce that your name is cut off from your nation; that it is blotted from under heaven.... I pronounce thee excommunicated" (p. 156).
She returns home to her father, who welcomes her with kindness and with outrage at the way that she was treated by her uncle and by the rabbis and elders. But soon Leila gets quite sick. She continues to preach to her father, even while her illness makes her weaker and weaker. In the end, her father becomes a Christian, and Leila dies from her illness. As we have discovered, this is a common ending for fictionalized Jewish converts to Christianity. As a Christian martyr, Leila Ada died for a good cause. Though she only lived to be 20 years old, her short life brought two other Jewish converts to Christianity: her cousin Isaac, and her father. Sleep well, Leila Ada. (Leila tov, Leila Ada).