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.

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