Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Jewish Converts

Elizabeth Wheeler ("E.W.") wrote another fin de siecle conversionist novel called The Jewish Converts. The main character in this book is Mark Barnard, the only son of a "rich Jewish merchant, Isaac Barnard" and his wife, Sarah. Reginald Stevenson, a Christian, is hired as the boy's tutor. Reginald tells Mark about his faith in Jesus, and tells him about the Old Testament prophecies that allegedly point toward Christ. Mark, after much thought and prayer, decides to become a Christian. [Rather quick conversion, I'd say, but we must move the plot along!]

The next day Mark says to his parents: "I cannot join in the coming feast [Passover], for I believe that Jesus of Nazareth is our true Messiah" (p. 21). Isaac (Mark's father) is outraged and fires Reginald, and soon after hires another tutor, Benjamin Alexander, a Jew. They travel to France to study, but unbeknownst to everyone else, Benjamin has providentially picked up a New Testament out of curiosity and carried it with him. In France they stay with a friend of Isaac's, whose name is David D'Israeli.

One day Mark notices Benjamin's New Testament and asks him about it. Benjamin has been reading it but is not yet a believer. Mark takes this opportunity to witness to Benjamin about the joys of believing in Jesus and about various messianic prophecies in the Bible. Benjamin thus becomes a convert to Christianity. Benjamin gets scarlet fever and soon dies, but not before preaching to the wife of David D'Israeli, who soon becomes a secret believer. Mark gets kicked out of D'Israeli's home and goes back to his parents' house in England, but he is disowned by his father and told to leave at once.

Throughout the book there are occasional sidebars where the narrator moralizes about this or that. For example: "Let us go and tell Jesus, not spend our breath in complaints to creatures who cannot help. Go to Jesus for His sympathy, and then you can go and comfort others and tell them, who have been hitherto strangers to it, of Jesus and his love" (p. 50). There are also many quotes from hymns interspersed throughout the text, as is the custom in Wheeler's other books. (I might add that this rather annoying custom is also found in a number of other conversionist authors).

Reginald (the original tutor, remember him?) and Mark meet up again in London and find a place to live with Hyam Isaacs and his wife, Rebekah, older Jewish Christians. After a few weeks living there, Mark finds employment in France and leaves to go there with the Isaacs' eldest daughter, Hannah, also a believer in Jesus. Hannah and Mark get married and have a daughter, Rachel, but Mark dies after a few years.

And then we learn of the fate of Mark's parents:

"Bitterly had Isaac felt the separation from his son, and soon after he had cast him off Sarah passed away, and she cursed her son on her dying bed. Such, my reader, is the mistaken zeal of some of the Jewish race. But ere she died, a peaceful expression stole over her face.... Perhaps truths she possibly might have read in her son's Testament spoke peace to her soul, when making her exit into the eternal world" (p. 63).

Isaac, bereaved by the loss of both his son and wife, finds solace in the New Testament that he finds in his house. He becomes a Christian and finds out that his son has died and that his daughter in law is about to die. Isaac travels to France to see her but Hannah dies just before he arrives. He is very sad about Hannah's passing (though he had never met her) but is delighted to learn that he has an 8 year old granddaughter. Isaac and Rachel leave soon after the funeral to return to England.

Isaac hires a governess (named Caroline Barton) to take care of Rachel. Along with Rachel's nanny, Martha, they all travel to Jerusalem (with many stops throughout Europe along with way). The author treats this trip as sort of a travelogue with comments about the various places they visit (she uses a similar plot device in her other books). They finally arrive in Palestine, and Rachel is now about 12 years old.

In Jerusalem, "they all went to the Jews' wailing place -- a spot where Jews from every clime are allowed by the Turkish government to go once a week. It is a place where part of the ancient wall now stands. Many names are engraven there of those who are not in the land of silence. Hebrews flock there from every clime to mourn over the sins of their father, forgetful, or rather not cognisant, of the fact that it is their own sin in rejecting their Messiah that scatters them among the nations of the earth. But the throne of David will be built again there, and the rightful heir will take His place" (p. 114-115).

The group returns to England, but after several years Isaac's business goes bankrupt (due to stock market fluctuations), and they must leave their home and move to much more modest lodgings. It is here that Isaac has a stroke and dies. Rachel places her faith in Christ and becomes a governess to a gentile family. The mother of this family "allowed her children to read low-class novels, instead of training them morally and mentally...." (p. 139).

The family is also anti-semitic: "Do you not pity the poor Jew? You see they have not the scriptures as we have them." [the mother says to no one in particular]. Rachel answered, "If it were not for the poor Jew you would not have the scriptures as you have them." "Mrs. W. said, "Oh! I was not aware that we are indebted to the Jew for the scriptures" (p. 162). ... "Mrs. W said they must have been a very wicked people to have crucified our Lord. Like many another, she thought that the Jews' hearts were different from her own" (p. 165). ... "Rachel, with great feeling surprising all, said: "The Jews have been (though not now) and will be the aristocracy of the earth. The land of their fathers will be restored to them..." (p. 166).
Rachel moves on to other jobs and at one of them meets another Jewish Christian, a Frenchman, Henri Le Bret. " ... her quick eye detected the traces of her race in the manly countenance. True it is, that the Hebrew race bear the marks of their ancestry; they are known everywhere -- in every clime." (p. 206).

Rachel and Henri fall in love and get married, and eventually have a son, and live happily ever after.

Some Final Remarks:

(1) The Jewish Converts contains yet another example of a Christian tutor evangelizing a Jewish youth. One would think that Jewish families of the 19th century would have hired Jewish tutors instead of evangelical Christians, or if they did hire Christian tutors that they would forbid proselytizing, but I suppose that this is an example of fiction being stranger than truth. In any case, the novel provides a nice touch of irony when Rachel, the daughter of the young man who was proselytized by his tutor, later becomes a governess and gets to lecture her gentile family about true Christianity and the sin of anti-semitism.

(2) Finally we get to experience a Jewish convert to Christianity whose business fails after he converts.

(3) In this novel, France seems to be a dangerous place to live. I would have thought that Rachel would have avoided France after losing both of her parents there, but this is not the case. Love conquers all, I suppose.

(4) Like many other newly converted Jewish Christians in the conversionist genre, our protagonist in this novel refuses to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Passover. As we shall see in the months to come, this practice (or more accurately, this lack of practice) will change as we progress through the conversionary fiction of the 20th century.

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