Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Rebecca the Jewess

Aunt Hattie is at it again. Apparently unaware that the title was already taken (Sir Walter Scott wrote a children's version of Ivanhoe with this title), Madeline Leslie published another conversionist novel in 1879 entitled Rebecca the Jewess.

In the preface, Aunt Hattie writes:

"The author sends forth this small volume, with the earnest hope that its incidents, many of which are strictly true, they meet the eye of some beloved child of Israel who is groping in the dark among types and symbols, in vain expectation that Shiloh will come."

Rebecca Stickney is a young Jewish woman who begins the book in a bad mood. She calls Christianity "the worship of the blasphemer" (p. 12). Her Jewish servant, Abigail, talks about Rebecca's cousin (Esther) in negative terms: "Esther has forsaken the God of her fathers, Abram, Isaac, and Jacob. The curse our holy prophets pronounced against idolaters will crush her some day" (p. 14). Rebecca in the next scene is very distraught, crying out to God that he never answers her prayers. "Will Messiah never come? Alas, our altar fires are extinguished!" (p. 15) she cries.

"The least reference to Jesus as the long-expected Messiah agitated her; now the conflict in her heart was terrible" (p. 17). This is the narrator's perspective, but now we get to see inside the mind and heart of our heroine, Rebecca. She thinks:

"Esther believes Him to be the One promised. She worships Him as the Song of God. Is this idolatry? Oh, that I knew! Oh, that my eyes could be opened to the truth!" Esther trusts Him, and is at peace. She says the prophecies are all fulfilled in Him. Dare I believe on One whom our learned Rabbies condemn? on Him, if not the 'Lamb of God,' is the vilest blasphemer that ever walked the earth, calling Jehovah his father, and making himself equal with God" (p. 18).

Note the archaic spelling of "Rabbies" (Rabbis).

Rebecca has a Jewish friend, a young man named Joseph Prince, who does not claim to be a Christian but who often goes to church, who considers Jesus to be a "most lovely and loveable character," and complains of being "weary of our long, heartless prayers," and who asks Rebecca if she "never felt a void in our synagogue services?" (p. 23).

Esther has "embraced the Christian faith" but she also strongly asserts "her rights and privileges as a Jewess" (p. 23). Whatever that means.

Rebecca's father, Aaron Stickney, was a distinguished rabbi. He is described as self-righteous, wealthy, and stingy in terms of giving to the poor. [So, I ask you, what makes him so distinguished?] Rebecca was his only child, and she was orphaned at fourteen. She was taught from an early age to "hate the doctrines of the Christians.... [and to] exhibit contempt when the name of Jesus, the blasphemer, was mentioned" (p. 26).

Rebecca was placed under the guardianship of her uncle, Asael Stickney, a wealthy businessman with several children. Rebecca's cousin Esther Steinforth was from the other side of the family. Esther's mother was Rebecca's mother's twin sister, and the two girls were very close. (It turns out that Esther's mother has also become a Christian).

Esther preaches to Rebecca from the Scriptures. Rebecca wants to defend her religion, so she studies the liturgy in the prayer book but becomes "disgusted with their coldness and want of vitality" (p. 31), so she seeks the advice of rabbis. One rabbi, Ben Ezra, laughs at her questions and again calls Jesus a "vile blasphemer" (p. 32).

Rebecca's Gentile servant, Sarah, encourages her to read the New Testament. Rebecca does so, and she is more confused, saying at one point: "Jesus, if thou art indeed He who shall redeem Israel, hear my prayer, loose me from my bondage" (p. 51).

Rebecca meets her Uncle Isaac (really a cousin whose name is Isaac Sterritz), who has become a Christian. [There's a lot of apostasy going down in this family, wouldn't you say?] He says that all his doubts vanished "the very minute that I opened my heart to receive Jesus Christ as the Messiah promised us, a flood of peace filled my soul" (p. 63).

Rebecca reads a book called The Converted Jew about a man named Levi Cohen who falls in love with a Presbyterian, marries her, and then, after many trials and tribulations in his life, becomes a Christian. The Converted Jew is a "book within a book" in that it takes up several chapters. It ends with the protagonist on his deathbed, "spending all his strength in urging his old friends among the Jews, to renounce a religion which was dead, which could give them no comfort in life, or peace in the thought of meeting God in judgment. He died without a struggle or a groan; his last words being, "Jesus, Messiah, save me" (p. 97).

Much of the book is spent with various Christians (Esther, Pastor Livermore, etc.) recounting "messianic prophecies" from the Hebrew Bible and demonstrating how they are supposedly fulfilled in Christ. Or arguments back and forth about how "dead" Judaism allegedly is and why Jesus is or isn't the Messiah.

Rebecca finally comes to believe in Jesus (big surprise there!) and to "love Him as the Saviour of my soul" (p. 159). Later she mourns the death of her parents and their lack of faith in Jesus by saying: "Oh, my father, my mother, my blind, deluded parents! What sin-offering atoned for you?" (p. 169).

[It must be difficult for any evangelical Christian to think about the fate of their unbelieving parents' souls. This conflict is not presented very often in conversionist fiction. Deathbed conversions often help protagonists to avoid this problem].

The rabbi, Ben Ezra, turns out to have quite a bad temper. He is described as verbally attacking a Gentile in an argument over whether or not Jesus was the Messiah, becoming enraged and cursing in "an outrageous manner" (p. 188).

Rebecca tells her Aunt (on the Stickney side) that "I am more thoroughly a Jew than ever. Not for the world would I give up the right to be called one of God's chosen Israel. Jesus Christ the Saviour I have chosen, was a Jew in the direct line of Abraham and David. If you will let me read you the prophecies, I could show you their exact fulfillment in him" (p. 188).

Now that she is a Christian, Rebecca decides to become a missionary. Mr. Livermore suggests that she "can extend your labors among the Jewish children in our own city" (p. 197). So she aspires to be the 19th century equivalent of a "Jews for Jesus" missionary.

Throughout the book, various characters pray earnestly for the salvation of others. Rebecca even prays for the salvation of Rabbi Ben Ezra. Given Ben Ezra's negative attitude and grumpy disposition, this is quite a feat.

Rebecca has a serious illness, an infection in her lungs, and comes close to death. Meanwhile, she and Mr. Livermore (the clergyman) grow very close, and fall in love with each other. They get married in a small private ceremony, although one of Mr. Livermore's Jewish Hebrew teachers comes and gives them a traditional Hebrew blessing. They go to live in Jamaica for about 6 months so that Rebecca can recover in a better climate. There are meet "several families of Jews highly cultivated and refined, liberal toward Chritians but without any saving knowledge of Christ" (p. 281). Rebecca of course wants to convert them, and actually does spend many hours with them in studying messianic prophecies.

Rebecca and Mr. Livermore return to England, because Rebecca is dying and wants to share the gospel with her aunt and uncle one last time. The Stickneys are open to this and agree to study the Scriptures more carefully. In fact, it appears that Rebecca's aunt has lately been studying the New Testament, and she indeed does become a Christian. Rebecca dies at their house in a dramatic scene, and her last words are: "Jesus -- all glorious Messiah! I come! I come!" (p. 239). [I'll avoid commenting on the unintentional double entrendre].

Some interesting factoids:

(1) Note how the "book within a book" (The Converted Jew) closely resembles the plot of Rebecca the Jewess. Not very imaginative there, Aunt Hattie.

(2) Again with the grumpy and violently angry rabbi. And why are so many rabbis in conversionist fiction named "Ben Something." And is it "Ben" as in "short for Benjamin," or is it "Ben" as in "son of"? I sure don't know. I'm not sure if the authors know either.

(3) Funny how the Jewish governess is always named "Abigail" in Aunt Hattie's stories.

(4) Twins again!

(5) Notice how the heroine of this book is so proud to be a Jew, and doesn't want to give up her identity. That doesn't always happen in evangelical conversionist fiction, but it happens more often as we get closer to the end of the 19th century. There must have been a reawakening among Jewish Christians in terms of rediscovering their Jewish identities, and this is reflected in Christian novels of the day. Rebecca even has a Hebrew blessing said at her wedding. Still, there is an antipathy to the Jewish prayerbook throughout this and most other novels of this genre in the 19th century. We haven't yet reached the point of the blossoming of "Messianic Judaism" where the traditional prayers and forms of Judaism are used with Christian undertones. That will have to wait until the late 20th century. I'll get there eventually.

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