Sunday, October 21, 2007

Zonya, daughter of Abraham : the story of her quest for light

Agnes Scott Kent's final novel in her trilogy of conversionist books was Zonya, Daughter of Abraham: The Story of Her Quest for Light, published in Toronto by Evangelical Publishers in 1938.

As usual, the author telegraphs her intentions:

"The purpose of Zonya as regards any Jewish readers into whose hands the story may be led of God is, very frankly, that they may be given a more intelligent appreciation of our Lord Jesus Christ than they perhaps have had.... it is our fervent hope that they may look beyond every false representative and representation of Him, beyond much that has absolutely no claim whatever to Christ and Christianity -- and see Him -- the Lord Jesus Christ Himself -- the altogether Lovely One -- as the only Hope for a sin-cursed, inter-racially convulsed, and sick and weary and war-torn world." (p. 11, from the Author's Foreward).

Our heroine, Zonya Novalensky, is a Russian Jewish girl from the early 20th century. Early in the novel we learn that Zonya doesn't like her rabbi, because during the synagogue service

"he kept reading and reading in Hebrew, which she couldn't understand, from the great Scroll of the Law, until she thought he would never stop.... Another thing she thought was awful. The Kaddish -- the long prayer for everybody's dead relations. All around her the women kept rocking themselves backwards and forwards, and moaning and crying -- while the Rabbi kept saying the prayer in a loud, wailing voice. Zonya hated it. It made her squirm." (p. 19).

Zonya is intuitively suspicious of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is one of the villians (along with Judaism) in this novel. We discover that she is

"afraid of the big hold Cross on the top of the biggest dome [of a Russian Orthodox Church], ... because Grandfather had often told her that the Cross was the sign of Christians, and Christians were the worst people in the whole world! They were cruel and wicked, and always wanted to kill Jews. The Christians ... were the people who broke God's holy Law. The Law said they should have no other gods before Him. But instead of worshipping Him alone, the One and Only True God, the Christians worshipped a Man. And He was the most wicked man that ever lived. He was a Blasphemer, because He treid to make people believe that He was God. His name was Jesus -- Jesus Christ." (p. 19).

Zonya survives a horrible pogrom, but her father, grandfather, and brothers are all killed. She and her grandmother escape, but they cannot seek refuge in just any home because "their features were unmistakably Semitic." (p. 34).

Chapter Five is entitled "The Little Wandering Jewess in Exile."

Zonya emigrates to America and makes a friend, Rose Gitlin. "But alas! within the friendship there lay concealed, all unsuspected, a grave danger to Zonya Novalensky's soul. For Rose Gitlin, Jewess, was a Christian Scientist. And it was not long before she had Zonya deeply ensnared within this insidious cult." (p. 109).

Zonya was already somewhat disillusioned by Judaism, but it gets worse in the United States. Although she had been a regular in her synagogue attendance, gradually it

"dwindled off to an occasional Sabbath and the high Holy Days. The traditional observances, too, became very irksome to her -- very meaningless. She had a strong flair for reality and truth, and much that she saw in Judaism appeared to her as hypocritical. When, for instance, Olga paid tithe of strickly kosher cooking regulations, and at the same time neglected the weightier matters of lovingkindness and sweet temper in the home, it jarred Zonya's sense of consistency. When Levi or Boris scrupled at carrying a hod of coal on the Sabbath, but allowed Matushka or Olga or herself to carry several hods up the five flights of stairs from the coal bin in the basement, on Sunday or Monday morning, Zonya's heart was filled with scorn for Judaism -- and for them. Not only in their own unlovely dwelling, but among their neighbours as well, the letter of the law of Judaism and the spirit of the great Lawgiver, were widely at variance. Quarreling -- as likely as not over some picayune dietary regulation -- loud-voiced wrangling, selfish grasping: all these, to Zonya's view, were far removed from true religion, however pious and frequent the observances within the Synagogue or at home might be. And for true religion Zonya had a deep, heart craving." (p. 111).

"But it was all so terribly confusing. How could she know which was the true religion -- the real path to God? How could one decide which sect to follow?... Her heart cried out for something. She wanted Reality. She wanted to find God. Judaism, she at last decided, was mere husks and sawdust." (p. 112).

"Zonya Novalensky openly declared her allegiance to the Christian Science faith -- into which false faith thousands and tens of thousands of Jews, adrift from Judaism and the Synagogue, are being trapped today by Satan. In New York City alone one hundred thousand Hebrews have entered Christian Science." (p. 113).

But eventually she leaves Christian Science after witnessing a family allow their young son to die because they do not believe in sickness.

Zonya states to a friend:

"I do believe in the Bible -- the Old Testament, fo course; I do not recognize the New Testament. But I believe that the Old Testament -- our Hebrew Taanach -- is an inspired Book given to man, through the prophets, by God." (p. 125).

"Her faith in Judaism -- in Talmudical Orthodoxy -- was dead. ... But she believed in God. And in the Bible as God's Book -- the revelation of Himself to man. And she would hold fast to that belief, she was resolved. In all the awful havoc of her life, the only thing that she had left was God." (p. 133).

Zonya takes a class in Marxism and becomes a Communist and an atheist. But after a time, she starts to search for God again. But then she gets caught up in Spiritism and necromancy and finds it difficult to escape from it. What a long, strange trip this has been for Zonya!

Alex, Zonya's girlhood friend from Russia who is now a rabbi, thought that Zonya was dead because her stepfather had considered her dead after she had renounced Judaism. (p. 178).

Alex thinks to himself:

"Could he conquer sin in her unless he were absolutely sinless himself? No, presumably he could not. And was he sinless? Ah, no! He was obliged to confess with shame, there was not a day of his life that three score at least, of the six hundred and thirteen commandments within the Talmud were not broken. ... But before the stern demands of the Law he knew he was a sinner too, as well as she. In the eyes of a righteous Jehovah both of them stood condemned." (p. 195).

Yom Kippur is described at "the aristocratic Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue [where Alex Ivanov is the new assistant rabbi]. It was a delicate question, therefore, whether the majority of the unprecendented throng that flocked into the pretentious sacred edifice were there more by reason of concern for their sins, or because of curiosity to see and hear the popular new minister." (p. 204).

"On the stroke of ten the great golden organ burst forth." (p. 205).
[Wandering Jude thinks that this organ music seems unlikely for an orthodox synagogue].

"Nowhere in all New York was there such a choir as Shaar Hashomayim's, and never was it in finer form than now on this day of Atonement. In clarion purity of tone the multitude of voices blended in one harmonious ensemble." (p. 206).

The Torah service is described.

"But all the while that he had been performing this most sacred ceremony of the Scroll -- thus magnifying before the congregation of the children of Israel the LAW -- the heart of Alexander Ivanov had been overwhelmed. A sense of utter helplessness and hopelessness convulsed him. For well he knew, as a son of Moses, that whosoever might keep the whole Law, and yet offend in one point, he was guilty of all. And who among all the sons of Israel ever yet had perfectly fulfilled the Law? And though there was this annual Atonement, how futile it all was! The people were standing before him even now, he reflected, believing themselves forgiven and reconciled anew to God. But scarcely would their feet be over the threshold of the Synagogue before they would turn again, he well knew, into the same old paths of sin for yet another year." (p. 210).

"Many from among the throng of penitential worshippers poured out feeling, jovially, quite free from further burden of sin. But the majority remained within the Synagogue, still to pray and weep and fast, thinking thereby to make yet more secure, forgiveness of all their iniquities, and atonement for another year." (p. 212).

After the morning service the rabbi goes to his study, greatly depressed by his own sin and the sins of his people. But he is acosted by a Russian gentile woman who claims to have been of Russian nobility before the Revolution. She says that God sent her to give the rabbi a message, that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel. She tells the rabbi that she grieves over the sorrows of the Jewish people, but that the ultimate cause of these sorrows is the Jewish rejection of Jesus.

[Jewish suffering] "is but the fulfillment of their self-pronounced curse: 'His blood be on us, and on our children!' And not until Israel repents of this most awful sin, not until she turns to Him, the Lord Christ Jesus as the Son of God and as her own true Messiah, will her sufferings be ended.... So that is the explanation, Rabbi Ivanov, of my sorrow in your Synagogue this morning throughout your otherwise most beautiful Atonement service; and the reason for my continual sorrow: Israel's lamentable blindness still -- her perpetual futile searching for atonement while still rejecting Him, the Lord Jesus Christ, the son of God, in Whom alone full and complete Atonement, once for all, has been forever made." (p. 218).

The woman also gives the rabbi a New Testament, which he later reads voraciously until key passages related to sin and atonement are firmly impressed on his mind and heart.

Rabbi Ivanov comes to "love Jesus Christ," but he cannot bring himself to believe in the divinity of Jesus. He dialogues with a Christian minister about this and other doctrinal matters. The rabbi visits the minister at his home in Canada, where he attends church with him, goes fishing with him, and continues the theological discussion.

Finally, in a dramatic conclusion, Rabbi Ivanov comes to faith in Christ through the prayers of Christians and through a savage storm that shakes the foundation of his soul.

"And in that instant the veil upon the heart of Alexander Ivanov was done away in Christ. With open face he beheld as in a glass the glory of the Lord. ... "My Saviour -- my Messiah -- my Lord Jesus Christ -- my glorious Redeemer -- I come, I come to thee." The heart of the newborn babe in Christ ... was fully ... calm.... He experienced within his deepest being, with unutterable joy, the peace that passeth all understanding. The peace of sins forgiven. The peace with God through Jesus Christ his Lord. He was accepted in the Beloved." (p. 290).

The rabbi's good friend, Mark Rosenbaum, a secret service agent, tells him about Catherine Korolenko, the woman who had spoken to the rabbi on the Day of Atonement: "Miss Korolenko is a Christian with a very ardent interest in our Jewish people -- particularly in respect to our Messiah, Who, she has always claimed is Jesus." ... "I may say, parenthetically, she has been successful in convincing me . I'm not ashamed to own it, Ivanov, -- through her testimony I too believe in Jesus Christ. Even though I know it is going to cost me nearly everything on earth I hold dear, I have accepted Him as my personal Messiah and Redeemer." (pp. 296-297).

The rabbi is delighted to hear this, since he himself was recently converted. "How have we been blind to Him so long?" [says the rabbi]. "I do not know, Ivanov. I marvel at my own blindness and hardness of heart. And I deplore the blindness of our Nation in its rejection of our glorious King! From now on, it is my solemn purpose to be used of Him in any way I can be, to make Him known among Israel." (p. 297).

Finally, at the end of the book, Zonya declares to Alex (her soon to be husband) that she is now a believer in Jesus too.

"Oh, I do, I do! I do let the Saviour in. Yes, I take Thee, dear Lord Jesus, as my own Messiah! Forgive me! O forgive me all my sin! (p. 304). ... "The transformation was instantaneous, complete... She stood before him triumphant, radiant -- a new creation in Christ Jesus. "O Alex! O Alex!" she exulted. "I see Him! I see my Lord, my Saviour Jesus Christ! And I am free -- Oh, gloriously free! My sins are all forgiven! I am free in Him, Beloved free!"" (p. 305).

The rabbi is compelled to leave his synagogue-owned apartment.

"For that luxurious abode was designated particularly for Rabbi Ivanov of Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue. And Alex was no longer Rabbi Ivanov. For he was a chosen vessel unto Jesus Christ.... [and] as a new man in Christ Jesus he must be forever free from Judaism." (p. 305).

"Loud was the lamentation throughout the Synagogue when it became knwon that he -- their idol almost -- was a "Meshumed." The Hebrew mothers and daughters wept; the Hebrew fathers employed, some of them, strong argument; others -- malediction.... But Dr. Abrahamson, more than any one else, expressed a grief that knew no bounds -- that one of such brilliant promise should have been thus easily seduced into "the heretical faith of Christianity." But he loved Alexander as his own son. Therefore there was no word of reproach -- only tears of bitter, bitter sorrow." (p. 306).

Dr. Arnold (the Canadian minister) says to the others: "For in these days of Jewish extremity and anguish, by reason of the rising tide of anti-Semitism throughout the world, as the Day of Jacob's Trouble rapidly approaches -- no ministry ... will be of greater value to the Kingdom, or will bear more fruit until salvation and unto His eternal praise, than the loving, sympathetic, wide open hospitality of Christian homes and Christian churches -- to the Jews." (p. 308).

Zonya and Alex are married by Dr. Arnold in an Anglican ceremony. "As the bride and bridegroom then knelt before Him, the Rector raised his hands above them in fatherly blessing. They remained kneeling. The organ played softly. And then, with swelling harmony, the vested choir sang their wedding anthem: an arrangement of carefully selected verse from Myers' beautiful St. Paul." (p. 309).

Some Final Thoughts:

Wandering Jude points out that the story of Zonya, like the other novels by Agnes Kent, is a Bildungsroman, a novel of moral development where a young person faces challenges and hardships but overcomes them all to emerge a stronger person. WJ isn't saying that this makes it a good book, but he is simply pointing out the genre.

As the perceptive reader will have already noticed (but Wandering Jude will point it out anyway), Zonya is a novel filled with florid prose and a blatantly religious agenda. It stereotypes Jews and other religious minorities, and it is highly problematic in its theological conclusions. But other than that, it's an OK read (if one has nothing else to do).

The author's reference to "growing anti-Semitism" in the world was a clear reference (in 1938) to Germany and the war against the Jews. One of her characters predicts that the world will soon be in the midst of "the time of Jacob's trouble," which is an evangelical term for the Great Tribulation, the last days when Jews will suffer immensely and the antichrist will reign supreme for 7 years. The Rapture didn't occur back then, of course, but nonetheless the Holocaust can surely be termed (in retrospect) as the time of Jacob's trouble, without all the theologial baggage that Dispensationalists have given it.

It is troubling and offensive to know that many evangelical Christians of the 1930s and 1940s believed that the suffering of the Jews stemmed from their rejection of Jesus. Does that same theology hold sway today among conservative Christians? Wandering Jude believes so, although to a much lesser degree. Part of this change has to do with a much greater level of religious pluralism in the United States; it's more difficult to demonize those of a different religious persuasion if you live next door to them, participate in civic activities with them, work with them, etc. But another part of it stems from a more "muscular" form of Judaism that is lived and practiced today. The most obvious example of this is the state of Israel, but other examples include the Anti-Defamation League and (oy vey) the Jewish Defense League. Jews may still suffer persecution today, but to a much greater degree than before the Holocaust there are attempts to fight back and to rescue the persecuted. Evangelical Christians still bemoan the Jewish rejection of Jesus, but it is no longer commonly thought to be at the root of Jewish suffering, because anti-Semitism is no longer the problem that it once was, at least in the Western world. Jews in the state of Israel are besieged by Muslim anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, but Israel can (and does) defend itself. Still, a minority of Christians today see a connection between anti-Semitism and Jewish "unbelief" in Christianity. It's the old "blame the victim" mentality.

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