Monday, November 12, 2007

Ivan and Esther: A Tale of Jewish Life in Russia

Wandering Jude would like to return, for a moment, to the conversionist novels of the late 19th century. Ivan and Esther: A Tale of Jewish Life in Russia tells the story of (you guessed it) Ivan Kaufmann and Esther Blitz, a Russian (Christian) young man and Jewish (Christian) woman (living in Russia but of German Jewish extraction) who live a life of hardship in Czarist Russia. (The novel was written in the late 19th century but its setting is in the early 19th century).

Our heroine Esther has, by the time the novel begins, already converted to Christianity. And not just any Christianity, but an evangelical form of the religion that sees Russian Orthodox Christianity and traditional Judaism as equally misguided. We have described for us several incidents of anti-Semitism, including the burning of a Jewish-owned factory and the roughing up of some Jewish men. Meanwhile, Esther deplores her situation: the Jews despise her for being a Christian and the Christians despise her for being a Jew.

Raphael Blitz is Esther's father, a kindly person but a man of business, and not one to feel sentimental about religious matters. But he knows he is a Jew, and he's proud of it. He can't understand his daughter's religious convictions, but nevertheless, she is his daughter and he remains loyal to her.

There is quite a bit of turmoil afoot in Russia; pogroms go hand in hand with talk of revolution against the Czar. The upheaval reaches Ivan and his girlfriend Esther, and they and their families become homeless, with no source of income (due to the destruction of Raphael's factory). Ivan is conscripted into the Russian army (which was often a death sentence in those days), and Esther and her father feel that there is no choice for them but to flee to Palestine.

After a few years in Palestine, we discover that Raphael has become a Christian through the constant badgering of his daughter. Did Wandering Jude say "badgering?" He meant to say "witness." At any rate, whether Raphael's conversion was through sincere conviction or because he simply wanted to please his daughter after so many years of pressure from her and persecution for both of them, one cannot say for sure. There continues to be a small allotment of anti-Semitism in Palestine, doled out at the hands of the Turkish Mohammedans. But this is nothing in comparison to the anti-Christian behavior of the Jewish authorities, who assault the ears of Raphael and Esther regularly with polemical diatribes.

Raphael Blitz is no longer a businessman. He is a missionary to his former co-religionists, though it's not clear how he makes any income out of this. No matter. The Blitz family lives modestly, and in any event the final third of the book is taken up with their conversion efforts toward Jacob Cohen, Raphael's former business partner and now an old, poor blind Jewish man living in Jerusalem. Esther visits Jacob at the house of "Rabbi Joseph," who chastises Esther for her "outreach" to Jacob:

"He leaves your house because you take advantage of his weakness, and would fain make an old man turn from the true belief of a long life, and in the end dishonour God."

Touche! What can the missionary say to this?

But Esther responds with with her strongly worded testimony of faith in Christ, and the two combatants engage in a bit of theological repartee. After a couple of pages of this, Esther leaves but not before Rabbi Joseph expresses his desire to burn all Christian books (and the Christians who read them).

Eventually Jacob Cohen does succumb to the pressures of his Jewish Christians friends and becomes a believer in Jesus. This enrages Rabbi Joseph and his minions (or should we say, minyans?), and they proceed to excommunicate Jacob and burn all the books and pamphlets belonging to Raphael and Esther that they can get their hands on.

But Jacob does not yet learn his lesson. Intent on leading his Jewish acquaintances to Christ, he goes to the synagogue one day and begins to preach the gospel. This does not go over well with the Jews of Jerusalem. They call Jacob all sorts of filthy names ("Christian dog!") and push him out of the synagogue. Being blind, he falls down the marble steps, bangs his head sharply, and before we know it, he's dead. A martyr for the cause.

So Jacob has died in the service of his Lord, but Esther and Raphael remain to carry on the work of missionizing the Jews. They are sad that their old friend is gone but they know he is in a better place. And who should now return upon the scene but Ivan, who was having a hard time in the army (sent to Siberia at one point because he wouldn't stop talking about Jesus), but is miraculously released and reunites with his gal Esther in Palestine. Ivan talks of returning to Russia with Esther to be a missionary, but how can he afford to do that? Raphael steps in, provides a large amount of money (that he had secretly saved up) to support the young couple, and the two of them head back to the "land of exile" to perform the work of Christ.

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