Saturday, August 22, 2009

My Servant Caleb: A Jewish Boy, a Gentile Girl, a World at War

In the 19th century, most conversionist novels were published in Great Britain. In the 20th century, most were published in the United States. Today Wandering Jude looks at a 21st century book published in the U.K., which still pales in comparison (in terms of publishing output of stories where Jews convert to Christianity) to its American cousins.

In My Servant Caleb: A Jewish Boy, a Gentile Girl, a World at War, published by Monarch Books in 2004, Kerstin Sheldrake has written the story of a Jewish man (Caleb Levine) and a Christian woman (Lady Celia) who fall in love in England during World War II. In the forward, the author describes the book to be "what [she] believes to be one of the first completely Messianic Jewish novels ever written." According to the blurb on the back cover of this book, Sheldrake is a native of Germany and the wife of a Messianic Rabbi in England.

We are told by the narrator that at some point in the past "Caleb's parents and sisters had converted to Christianity." Caleb remains an observant Jew but bitter toward (though not estranged from) his parents and the Jewish community that ostracized him and his family. Early on in the novel Caleb observes:

"I'm a Jew; I've been brought up in the presence of God; and there has never been any doubt that God exists. Our knowledge of God is hereditary. If it weren't for God's eternal covenant with us and His protection, we would have ceased to exist long ago."

Caleb goes on to say:

"I was the great Rabbi Mendel Levine's favourite grandson, the best loved of nine boys. I could recite the Sh'ma, our holiest declaration of faith, almost before I could say 'Mama' and 'Papa'. I was top of the cheder class and my grasp of Torah was excellent, if I say so myself. Everyone expected me to become a student at a religious school and to prepare for the Rabbinate; that is, to become a Rabbi."

"... the worst crime a Jew can commit is to become a Christian. It means denying our faith, our heritage, our traditions, our people, in fact, our very God... It happened six months before my formal rite of passage to manhood, my Bar Mitzvah. My parents told the family that they had accepted Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah of Israel, that they had converted to Christianity. You can't imagine the explosion it caused." They ended up being excommunicated from not only the rest of the family, but also from the Jewish community in that town, even with a mock funeral."

There is a great deal of British anti-Semitism described in the book, along with German anti-Jewishness that leads to the Holocaust. After many adventures, including marital problems, persecution by British fascists and German Nazis, and fighting in the War of Independence in Palestine, Caleb finally becomes a Christian:

"He asked God to forgive all his sins and shortcomings because of the sacrifical death and blood shed by Yeshua HaMashiach. He acknowledged that he found it unspeakably hard to make this confession, because he had always mocked Yeshua, blasphemed Him, fought Him, referred to Him as his worst personal enemy, and the enemy of all Jews. Then the tears started to stream, endless tears of shame, grief, remorse, and contrition. And his soul crawled to the feet of the One he had once hated and despised.... A lost sheep of the House of Israel had recognized his Shepherd at last."

Wandering Jude speaks: This is not a badly written book, although Caleb's conversion at the end of the story is fairly predictable. It is reminscent in many ways of Bodie Thoene's series of historical fiction, although WJ must admit that there is more emphasis on "remaining a Jew" after conversion than Thoene usually allows. Still, the end of the saga will be disappointing to anyone who wants Caleb to avoid becoming a "Messianic Jew." In this way it is no different than the vast majority of books in this genre.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Leah Wolfe: The Converted Jewess

Wandering Jude returns to the 19th century this month to revisit an author we've encountered already: Elizabeth Wheeler, known by her nom de plume of "E.W." In 1894 she published Leah Wolfe: The Converted Jewess, one of three Jewish conversionist novels by this writer (WJ has already examined the other two in previous postings: The Jewish Converts and The Great Beyond).

The eponymous Leah is the granddaughter of a wealthy German Jewish merchant, Hyam Wolfe, and his wife Sarah. Leah's parents, Rebekah and Benjamin Wolfe, both figure prominently in the novel as well. The basic story is quite simple, really. Benjamin and Rebekah leave Germany for London to open a branch of the family business. While living in London, both Benjamin and Rebekah become Christians (separately), and they are disowned by Hyam Wolfe and kicked out of the family business. This "persecution" for their newfound faith means they must downsize their standard of living and that Benjamin must find a new line of work (which he does, by the good graces of a kindly Christian businessman, a familiar trope in Wheeler's novels).

Daughter Leah (who appears to be in her late teens) also becomes a Christian, and the three Wolfes in London are happy as kosher clams. (They have fortunately found a Bible-believing, Bible-preaching church to attend, with lots of good Christians for fellowship). But old Hyam is having a rough time of it. Not only has his son apostasized, but his daughter in law too, and also his beloved granddaughter. And now he is antsy in retirement, so he foolishly decides to go on a gambling spree (another Wheeler motif) and loses everything (including his estate). Hyam and his wife decide to move to London, where Hyam (at age 70 no less) ekes out a meager living selling jewelry.

By chance one day Hyam and his son Benjamin meet on the road and are reconciled. Three generations of the Wolfe family reunite, and Benjamin, now a successful businessman, provides the means for his parents to live out their days in relative comfort. But Hyam, foolish and stubborn as ever, refuses to accept the Gospel message. He even insists on fasting on Yom Kippur as he lays dying, which of course pushes him into "eternity" that much more quickly. But Benjamin holds out hope that perhaps Hyam might have accepted the Savior in his dying moments.

Benjamin and Rebekah have a son, whose name is George, but they also give him the name "Christian" at the behest of the local Bishop. As time goes by, the grandmother Sarah Wolfe allows her hardened heart to be melted, and she becomes a Christian along with the rest of her family. When she dies a few years later, the author remarks that her burial was a Christian one (not Jewish) and contained no Jewish rituals.

Wandering Jude does not have much to say about this book other than (1) it largely speaks for itself, and (2) it is much like Wheeler's other conversionary novels, which contain large blocks of text devoted to the lyrics of Christian hymns and the theological rants of a Christian evangelist. It's an historical curiosity but not much of a novel if one expects from a novel things like plot and character development. And of course, like most other conversionary stories (especially those written in the 19th century), this one is fairly disrespectful of Jewish tradition, Jewish religion, and Jews in general.