Monday, September 24, 2007

Violet Guttenberg

Violet Guttenberg, a gifted (though certainly not prolific) novelist of the early 20th century, is referred to as a "Protestant writer" by Nadia Valman. I'm not sure if Valman means that she was born a Protestant or was a Jew who converted to Protestant Christianity. (Another possibility is that she was married to a Jew and took on his German Jewish surname). It doesn't appear to me that she is an evangelical, but it's quite possible that she was one, notwithstanding the absence of explicit conversionist rhetoric in her books.

In any event, her book, A Modern Exodus: A Novel, published in 1904, tells the contemporary story of Jews being banished from England. Many go to Palestine and try to make a life for themselves there. Some have referred to this book as fantasy or science fiction, although that might be stretching the boundaries of the genre somewhat. Jews do not convert to Christianity in this book, although one character marries a Jew and converts to Judaism, but then later converts back to Christianity.

Wandering Jude is much more interested in her earlier book, Neither Jew Nor Greek: A Story of Jewish Social Life, published in London in 1902. Yes, a conversion to Christianity does take place in this novel, but it's certainly not typical of of the genre that we've been discussing in these postings thus far.

The novel begins with a Jewish "marriage of convenience." Young Adeline Friedberg is getting married to Michael Rosen, a wealthy Polish Jew. The ceremony is presided by "the minister of the synagogue," Rev. Isaac Abrahams, who (the narrator points out) is "pocket[ing] an ample commission" for his efforts.

The story soon moves on to other characters, and we realize that Adeline and Michael are simply a prelude to another, more important narrative. We meet Herbert Karne, a liberal-minded English Jew and an artist by profession. The heroine of the novel is Herbert's half sister, Celia Franks, who has the singing voice of an angel. Celia has a flirtation with a young Christian doctor, Geoffrey Milnes, but this is quashed by Herbert who sends Celia off to live with a somewhat more observant Jewish family, the Friedbergs.

Celia soon meets a young Jewish man by the name of David Salmon. David, dashing and handsome, is taken with Celia's beauty and musical abilities. He soon proposes marriage to her, and although she does not hold the same feelings for him, she accepts the proposal. Celia makes one condition for the engagement, and that is that it will be a long one.

So Celia spends her engagement (three years!) studying music and spending as little time with David Salmon as possible. She feels stuck in the relationship, but she doesn't know how to get out of it. And on some level she believes that her feelings for David will some day come into bloom. Or at least, this is her hope.

Celia and David finally decide to set the date for their wedding in December. Celia is invited to spend the month of August with some Christian friends of hers, the Wiltons. She enjoys her time with them but is somewhat anxious about attending church services on the first Sunday of her visit. However, the beauty of the music and the liturgy dispels her fears. Throughout the book Celia has contemplated the spiritual emptiness of Judaism, and during this church service, the first Christian service that Celia has ever attended, she gradually realizes that the Christian religion is the one for her. She resonates with its principles of love, peace, and self-sacrifice, and she is doubly impressed by the practical outworking of the Wilton's faith. (This is contrasted throughout the book with Jewish characters who are social-climbers, hypocrites, spiritual dimwits, criminals, or simply ethically challenged).

But Celia isn't quite ready yet to take the plunge. She says to her friend Enid Wilton, "I wish I possessed your faith.... If I could be convinced of Christ's divinity, I think I should become a Christian. I feel the need of a pure spiritual faith; and Judaism does not satisfy me" (p. 177-178).

After spending the rest of the month studying the Scriptures and discussing theology with the Wiltons, Celia finally is ready to convert. But she is not quite prepared for the reaction of the Jewish community, including her father (who disowns her posthumously), her fiance (who breaks off their engagement), and the bulk of the community who reject her and label her a "m'shumad" (apostate).

In the end, things turn out well for Celia. She falls in love with Geoffrey Milnes, and through a series of circumstances she is halfway forgiven by the Jewish community that had earlier condemned her. The only other Jewish character in the book who turns out to be a decent human being is Celia's half brother, Herbert Karne. Herbert marries a Christian woman but retains his Jewish identity. Celia, however, for all her love of her Jewish heritage, is decidedly Christian in her faith and in her religious practice. At the close of the novel, by her own admission she is (alluding to a quote from St. Paul's letter to the Galatians) "neither Jew nor Greek."

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