Our current literary missionary, Agnes Scott Kent, wrote another conversionist novel in the 1930s, this one with a female protagonist. Published in Canada like her first book, Rachel (like Kent's earlier novel David) follows the travails of a young Jew who is brought into the fold of Christianity by an earnest missionary.
In her preface, the author gives us a glimpse into the models used for her work of fiction: "[Rachel Mendelssohn Kalinsky] is a fictitious composite of three actual Jewish girls, personally known and beloved by the author.... Max Kalinsky has his prototype in a young Jewish husband who lives not far from us. He represents the Hebrew secret-believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, of whom doubtless there are thousands.... Deborah Kalinskys are numbered by the score; while the gentle Esthers, the sweet old Grandmother Kalinskys, the caustic Sarahs and Jacobs, and the captivating Little Abies are legion among the Jewish people."
A Jewish wedding is described in chapter one. The six bridesmaids are presented as "rich-skinned and dark-eyed" (p. 12). Max's mother, Deborah Kalinsky, is described as overbearing and domineering. At the wedding supper, the rabbi (Rabbi Mordecai Moses) warns the newlyweds:
"to adhere strictly to all the tenets and observances of orthodox Judaism; they were to worship always and only the one true God. And, above everything, they were to be vigilant against all Christians -- especially against those pernicious Christian missionaries who would seek to lead them astray into paths of idolatry and blasphemy -- enjoining upon them the worship of three gods instead of one" (p. 19).
At the wedding supper, Deborah Kalinsky "was the focus of attention. Conspicuously and deliberately she made herself the center of magnetic attraction on this proud occasion of the marriage of her youngest son. The son himself and his beautiful bride were mere adjuncts to her glory. Above the purple velvet her swarthy, heavy-featured face beamed with complete self-satisfaction. The contrast between her stolid pridefulness and the gentle grace and sweetness of her new daughter-in-law was striking in the extreme" (p. 20).
[Wandering Jude notes that it is unlikely that organ music or Lohengrin's wedding march would be played at an Orthodox wedding in New York in the 1920s, as is described in this chapter.]
Mrs. Kalinsky's accent is written as follows: "Vot! No more tea! Vot iss the matter mit all of yous? Sure you vill haf tea.... Und see, here it iss a leetle vedding cake yet. Eat it! It vill gif you luck!" (p. 23). Along with her Yiddish accent, Mrs. Kalinsky is described several times as "shrewd."
Our protagonist Rachel is described at the market as "haggling over the bargain as all Jewish housewives do" (p. 38).
Rachel meets a Gentile Christian missionary (Violet Hamilton) and an elderly Jewish couple, the Saramoffs. Violet says to Rachel:
"Mrs. Kalinksy... would you not like to join us in our reading [of the New Testament]? We were just enjoying together such a wonderful story about a Jewish young man and his two sisters in the little town of Bethany" ... Rachel was overwhelmed with confusion. She could not show discourtesy to so charming a young woman nor to her host and hostess in their home. But on the other hand her rigid orthodox Jewish convictions had been rudely assailed. She faltered lamely, "But Miss Hamilton, that is the New Testament, is it not? The Christian Bible? I am a Jewess!" ... "A Jewess!" she exclaimed. "Oh how wonderful, Mrs. Kalinsky, it must be to be a Jewess! A daughter of Abraham! One of God's own Chosen People -- a jewel for His diadem! Dear Mrs. Kalinsky, if you only knew how I envy you that honor!" Rachel gasped in amazement. Never before in her life had she heard a Gentile say such a thing as that. She had always believed firmly that the Gentile attitude toward the Jew was one of condescension if not of actual aversion.... "Since you are a Jewess then, Mrs. Kalinsky," she urged, "the New Testament is the very Book that you would most appreciate." "Why?" interposed Rachel in frank astonishment. "Because," Miss Hamilton continued, "this is the Book that tells the story of the most wonderful Jew that ever lived" (p. 68-69).
After hearing the New Testament accounts of Jesus' life, Rachel exclaims:
"Oh, Miss Hamilton, how marvelous a story! Jesus was, yes, He surely was, a wonderful, wonderful man!" Miss Hamilton seized the opportunity with challenge. "A man, dear! Did you say a man? Oh, Mrs. Kalinsky, can you not see, on the evidence of that miracle alone -- that He is infinitely more than man? What man could raise the dead to life? No, dear Mrs. Kalinsky, Jesus Christ is God -- the Son from Heaven -- the true Messiah!" [Mrs. Saramoff said]: "Yes, dear, Jesus is the Son of God." "And our Messiah!" joyfully added Mr. Saramoff -- "the Messiah of our people Israel!" Rachel attempted weakly one last defensive. "But you are Hebrews!" she exclaimed. "He is the Messiah of the Christians!" "He is the Messiah of us all -- of all who will accept Him," Mrs. Saramoff replied. "And we ... are Christians -- Hebrew-Christians!" (p. 70-71).
Rachel begins to study the New Testament. "Hour after hour she would study it with deepening absorption, comparing the New Testament Scriptures with the Old with gradual growing and irresistible conviction" (p. 74). Wandering Jude thinks he knows what's coming. Careful study in conversionary novels only leads to one result: conversion. But we get ahead of the story, because first there is great drama to unfold.
One day Rachel is studying the Bible with Miss Hamilton, and her mother in law comes in and hears them talking. And that's when the dreck hits the fan!
"How did you dare to? Vot iss it you vus doing? You cannot fool me nothings. I know it vot it iss -- that Book which you vus reading yet. It iss a Noy Testament! Beliefe me I am telling you, I know it is a Noy Testament ven I see vun! Vot for you dare to haf it in mein sohn's house? A book which it vus a Christian's book -- a Jesus book? Und you a Jewvish wife! You vill answer me -- vot youd are to mean by all such things?" In a fury she seized the Testament from Rachel's hands and flung it into the stove. Then she turned in violent rage upon Miss Hamilton. ... "Vot you trying to do mit her -- to change her from Jewvish into English?.... I know you vot you vus -- ein mees-ion-aire! -- ein vicked mees-ion-aire! I am telling you, you shall nefer learn mein dear daughter about Jesus He iss so vicked a mans which it couldn't be so vicked -- You go avay!" (p. 77).
But our gentle mother in law, who would have been a match for Kaye Ballard in her heyday, is not through yet:
"Vot for you bring a Noy Testament into a Jewvish house? Don't you know ve Jews nefer touch mit our leetle fingers such a book? It iss poison! Ve should spit at it! .... Vot you say? Jesus! Jesus He is the Mescheach? How dare you go for to talk such vickedness? Jesus He iss not Mescheach! Mescheach He iss not came yet.... Haf God got a sohn? How could God haf a sohn ... Beliefe me, I am telling you, you are talking vicked, vicked foolishness! ... Jesus He iss Himself God? Vot! God iss Father, Sohn und Holy Speerit? Three Gods iss vun God? Are you crazy? Iss three vun und vun iss three?" (p. 78).
But then an interesting event occurs that brings a bittersweet death into the plot. Grandmother Kalinsky, the sweet little old Yiddishe bubbie, "received the good tidings [of Jesus as the Messiah] with great joy" (p. 96). And when she died, "she would behold her own Messiah face to face" (p. 97).
"In the orthodox Jewish home there followed the traditional eight days of mourning. They were terrible days for Rachel. All the shades were closely drawn and the house was hushed and weird. No member of the family went out of doors. Friends and neighbors all came in to mourn with them, sitting around the dreary parlors on boxes, or on the floor as they wailingly intoned the Kaddish -- the Jewish prayer for the dead -- while the long wax candles burned heavily. Amid all the perfunctory and professional evidences of sorrow, one heart there was that grieved sincerely -- Rachel's" (p. 97).
Rachel is now at a crossroads in her life. Will she stay or will she go?
"Was Jesus Christ truly the Son of God and Israel's Messiah, or was He not? Were His claims authentic or were they blasphemous and false? ... It was not many days ... before she had arrived at a definite intellectual conviction that the claims of Jesus Christ were true.... Her intellectual assent to Christ's Messiahship was now qualified and clear" (p. 99).
"For in that moment, ... as she opened wide the door to Jesus Christ, receiving Him by faith as her Messiah -- her Saviour and her Lord and King -- in that moment the darkness of Judaism fled before the Dawn -- the Light streamed in -- and Rachel Kalinsky passed from death to Life" (p. 101).
The Kalinsky family celebrates the Passover seder together. During this time Sarah (Rachel's sister in law) finds Rachel's Bible (including the New Testament). Again the sparks fly (literally).
"Mrs. Kalinsky snatched the sacred Book from Rabbi Moses' hands and flung it violently into the fire burning on the hearth. [Just as she had done, Wandering Jude points out, with the New Testament that Rachel had been given by Violet Hamilton]. Rachel uttered a sharp, quick cry of grief and protest. Instantly a buzz of shrill, angry voices burst upon her as all the witnesses of the strange scene crowded menacingly around her chair. She grew dizzy before them. She tried to speak. She must confess her Lord. This was the time, yes, right now, she was sure. "O Christ, give strength, give strength," she breathed in fervent prayer. But the words of confession choked in her throat" (p. 117).
Rachel thinks she is dying, and she finally gains the strength to stand up for her beliefs. "Before I die I want to tell you all ... I am a Christian! I believe in Jesus Christ! I confess Him now before you all as Israel's Messiah and my own Saviour. I love and worship Him with all my heart. I am going to Him now my Lord my King" (p. 120).
Rachel speaks to her newborn son: "And soon, Little Abie, you will be a big, big laddie and ... go to Church and Sunday School and learn the most wonderful things of all -- all the lovely stories about the dear Lord Jesus.... He died upon the Cross for you and me and for our dear, dear Daddy. And that is why we must all love Him so -- because He is our Saviour, our own Messiah, and our King. Yes, Little Abie, the Lord Jesus Christ is the true Messiah of the Jews. Only the awful thing, Baby, is that so many of our dear, dear people do not believe in Him. It was the Jews, darling, who crucified Him. ... But some day, Little Abie, they will believe because you are going to tell them.... You are going to tell our own dear Hebrew people about their true Messiah, the Lord Christ Jesus. Yes, my Son, you are going to be a Missionary -- a Hebrew-Christian Missionary to the Hebrews" (p. 126).
Now Rachel starts working on her husband:
"You know, Max ... that I am a Christian, and I want my child ... to have a Christian training -- never, Max, a Jewish one." [Max replies sharply]: "You are not a Christian. And my son shall never be a Christian -- never on your life!" ... [Rachel responds]: I am a Christian. I love the Lord Christ Jesus with all my heart, for I know, dear Max, that He is our true Messiah." ... [Max responds]: "Of course He's the Messiah! I know it, Ray, as well as you. No one can help knowing it if he reads the New Testament at all intelligently, as I have done, out of curiosity, a dozen times. Jews everywhere are reading it today.... Certainly He is the Messiah. Without a doubt He is. Thousands of Jews believe it. Jewish rabbis believe it, lots of them. Why, I'd be willing to wager this very moment anything I've got that Rabbi Moses himself is a secret believer in Jesus Christ. But does he confess Him? Not on your life he doesn't! It would mean his bread and butter. You can't hold down a job as Chief Rabbi of a synagogue and say that you believe in Jesus Christ" (p. 130).
And soon Rachel experiences the requisite persecution that is always found in conversionist novels:
"Jacob was choking with rage. His ugly face was purple. The veins stood out upon his neck and forehead.... With a savage growl he suddenly rushed forward and struck the children brutally, ordering them off upstairs instantly. They fled from the room screaming. Then Jacob seized Rachel viciously by the shoulders and shook her until her teeth chattered. "You Meshumed," he hissed. "You dare to! You dare to talk to my children ever again about that blasphemous Jesus Christ and I'll wring your head from your neck like a hen's"" (p. 136).
And speaking of wringing a chicken's neck....
"It was on Yom Kippur -- the great Day of Atonement -- the day of humiliation and abasement. Throughout the Ghetto of New York, and throughout the world, Jews everywhere were gathered in their respective synagogues, from early morning until sunset, with weeping and fasting and penitential prayer -- as they confessed their sins" (p. 136).
Rachel refuses to go to synagogue on Yom Kippur. She sees a conflict between her newfound Christian faith and the traditions of Judaism.
"Dear Max," urged Rachel, "we have received full atonement forever through our Lord Christ Jesus. We need no yearly sacrifice. He offered up sacrifice for all when He offered up Himself. ... Our sins and iniquities He remembers no more forever against us."" ... "It would be compromise... I am a Christian. I am free from all the Jewish law: free from the ceremonial and the Talmud and the synagogue. If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature.... Never again, Max, shall I be entangled in the yoke of Jewish bondage. I am free in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made me free."
Max groaned aloud. "But Rachel," he argued, "if you persist in being a Christian, at least you need not be a narrow one. I know Hebrew-Christians who keep up their Judaism just the same. Look at Otto Goldberg. He's been a Christian thirty years -- but Otto will be at the synagogue all right tomorrow."
"Yes, I know he will. But I won't be. For all Otto claims to be a Christian -- and I believe he is sincere -- he is nevertheless entangled in the bondage of tradition. I have come farther out of Judaism in six months than he has in his entire thirty years."
Max provides his rejoinder:
"No, it's not that at all. Otto Goldberg has consideration for the feelings of his family. He knows the grief it would cause them if he were to separate himself from their orthodox observances. It is the offense of that, more than anything else, Rachel, that breaks up Jewish families when a Jew becomes a Christian."
And Rachel (Ray) gives her surrejoinder:
"Ah no, dear Max! That is not the offense. The offense is the Cross of Jesus Christ! And I have taken up that Cross.. If in consequence I, too, must meet offense -- amen, dear Lord, so be it!" Deeply moved she bowed her head in reverent prayer" (p. 138-139).
On the Day of Atonement, Rachel decides to not go to synagogue. On the principle of the matter she also decides to eat breakfast.
"Purposely she left the dishes and the food on the table that the family ... might see and understand. Then she spent the morning alone with her God and with her child. ... [When Mrs. Kalinsky returned, she was furious]. "Food on Yom Kippur! And breaking kosher too! Eating meat and milk together! And using the same knife to cut both meat and butter! Horrible! Horrible! And daring not to go to synagogue! Refusing to confess her sins before her God! Well, He would surely damn her now! She was no longer a Kalinsky! Forever she would be Meshumed!" (p. 141).
In a scene worthy of the stage or screen, Rabbi Moses says to Rachel:
"You have forsaken your God. You have gone over to the blasphemous apostates. You have confessed the name of Jesus Christ within this house. You have transgressed our most holy Law. You have broken fast on Yom Kippur. You have broken kosher. You have defied the worship and commandments of the synagogue. You have embraced an alien faith. You have proven traitor to all the holy traditions of your people. You have proven false to your husband, to his family, to your friends. You have renounced the one true God. In His Holy Name I pronounce you now Meshumed -- accursed of God and man." ... "What shall this righteous Israelite do with this apostate woman?" The Rabbi appealed the question to the court. A chorus of frenzied cries responded instantly: "Dee-worce her! Dee-worce her! She is Meshumed! Dee-worce her, Max, dee-worce her!" ... To Rachel's anguished heart the scene recalled another court -- another angry crowd -- another infuriated cry: "Crucify Him! Crucify Him! Crucify Him!" She experienced a thrill of holy joy above the anguish. She was being crucified with Him. She was one with Him in the mysterious fellowship of suffering." ... "Rachel Mendelssohn, you are accursed! Your child is accursed! You are divorced forever from this family. You are cut off from Israel. You are cut off from God. Go - both of you -- to your damnation!" Fiercely Rabbi Moses pointed to the open door" (p. 144-145).
Rachel tries to find food and shelter, but all of the Jews of the neighborhood will have nothing to do with her. Likewise, because of anti-Semitism, most of the Christians will also not help her, even at a Church (a "modernist" church). Finally she finds help and solace in the Christian Mission to the Jews. She enrolls in the local Bible college and lives in the dormitory.
But the Jewish community is not yet finished with Rachel. First she is offered $5000 to renounce her new Christian faith. When she refuses, she is tied up by the rabbi and her 3 brothers in law and her child is kidnapped. One of them says to her as he leaves with the little boy, "All right, my girl, stay a Meshumed. Stay an accursed Christian if you want to be one. But your child is a Kalinsky and a Jew" (p. 185). [Wait. Wandering Jew remembers that the rabbi had said that the child was cursed and cut off from Israel. Now they want him back?]
Later, when the police investigate, the family has moved to California and the rabbi denies involvement.
The Kalinsky family tries a ruse to get Rachel to California. But Dr. Nathan (the head of the mission) sees through this ruse. "But well he understood the duplicity of the unregenerate Jacobs of his race" (p. 194). Still, Rachel falls for it. Later the narrator talks about "the tragedy of Satan's fury against a Jew who had become a Christian." (p. 198).
Rachel is held captive "in a small basement room, securely imprisoned behind barred windows and a bolted door. Here she would remain, she was angrily informed, on bread and water fare and all alone, until she recanted her belief in the despised and hated Jesus..... Morning and evening her tormentors came to her with their sinister question: "Rachel Mendelssohn, do you renounce your faith in that blasphemer, Jesus Christ?" ... Day after day they grieved her gentle heart with cruel mockings." "Her enemies, infuriated by her strength of purpose, at last had resorted to the Inquisition. And their torture was excruciating to the last degree. For the rack they chose to use was Little Abie." (p. 198-199).
Eventually the Kalinskys have Rachel sent to a mental hospital (although after one night there Violet Hamilton rescues her).
Rachel had become "an easy prey to Satan's wiles, always directed with malignant fury against any Jew who dares to become a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ" (p. 203).
"Each day at the noon hour she would gather around her a group of Jewish girls -- girls whom first she had won to herself by little acts of kindness -- and these she would tactfully and lovingly instruct out of the New Testament Scriptures, in those things concerning their Messiah.... Seldom was there a Sunday when one Jew at least did not find, through Rachel's radiant testimony, his true Messiah." (p. 207).
But not every Jewish child was Rachel's friend. Some children would throw stones at her "with jeers and curses. More than once a Jewish boy -- instigated by his parents -- spat in her face and hissed "Meshumed" (p. 210).
Mrs. Kalinsky (Rachel's evil mother in law) dies in a horrible car crash. Rachel wonders if the death was "swift and fearful retribution" for Mrs. Kalinsky's crimes against her (p. 214). But then she realizes that Deborah Kalinsky was not all bad, and that she may even have had a conversion experience in the hospital before she died.
At Rosh Hashanah, after Tashlich, the narrator says that the Jews of New York "wended their way westward and homeward, complacently self-satisfied that they now were wholly righteous" (p. 217).
Max returns and repents, "sobbing in heartbroken shame and sorrow, with utter self-abasement he made confession of his sins -- of all his contemptible cowardice and selfishness and greed; of his awful cruelty to Rachel and their little son; and of his base disloyalty to Christ -- in Whom as a child he had believed, but Whom he had never manfully acknowledged as his own Messiah.... and back of them all had been his lust for gold. For filthy lucre he had almost lost his soul" (p. 222).
Some final thoughts:
Mrs. Kalinsky appears to not only fulfill the stereotypical image of the overbearing Jewish mother, but she's a serial book burner as well. It's no surprise that she never converts to the Christian faith. Unappealing characters seldom do in conversionist literature.
Early in the book the narrator contrasts the difference between "the darkness of Judaism and the Light of Life" (p. 72). Sadly, this metaphor continues to be used among the conversionists of today.
The kidnapping of Rachel reminds us of Muppim's predicament in The Jewish Twins, as well as the real life claims of Ken Levitt in Kidnapped for My Faith.
Max's claim that there are thousands of secret Jewish believers in Jesus strains credulity. (It's also an ironic twist on slightly more reliable legends of the Converso who outwardly practiced Roman Catholicism but secretly remained a Jew). But the idea of closet "Hebrew-Christians" is a popular rumor that continues into modern times, both in fiction and in "real life." While it is possible that a 1920s era Jew might be economically damaged by conversion to Christianity, it is inconceivable that the same threat holds in the 21st century (except, possibly, in insular communities like the Hasidim). Still, the idea of thousands of secret converts, including rabbis, would mean (if it were true) that these individuals lived a life of extreme cognitive dissonance. In any event, here is one story of a secret believer (a rabbi, no less) that very well may be true. But one true story does not make thousands of true stories. Wandering Jude thinks that the "closet believer" motif is the exception, not the rule. But as always, Wandering Jude may be wrong.