Inventing the Israelite: Jewish Fiction in Nineteenth-Century France

Inventing the Israelite: Jewish Fiction in Nineteenth-Century France

by Maurice Samuels

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Inventing the Israelite: Jewish Fiction in Nineteenth-Century France by Maurice Samuels

In this book, Maurice Samuels brings to light little known works of literature produced from 1830 to 1870 by the first generation of Jews born as French citizens. These writers, Samuels asserts, used fiction as a laboratory to experiment with new forms of Jewish identity relevant to the modern world. In their stories and novels, they responded to the stereotypical depictions of Jews in French culture while creatively adapting the forms and genres of the French literary tradition. They also offered innovative solutions to the central dilemmas of Jewish modernity in the French context—including how to reconcile their identities as Jews with the universalizing demands of the French revolutionary tradition. While their solutions ranged from complete assimilation to a modern brand of orthodoxy, these writers collectively illustrate the creativity of a community in the face of unprecedented upheaval.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804773423
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 12/07/2009
Series: Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Maurice Samuels is Professor of French at Yale University. He is the author of The Spectacular Past: Popular History and the Novel in Nineteenth-Century France (2004).

Read an Excerpt

Inventing the Israelite

Jewish Fiction in Nineteenth-Century France
By Maurice Samuels


Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-6384-4

Chapter One

Romantic Exoticism: Eugénie Foa and the Dilemmas of Assimilation

Jewish fiction in French emerged in 1830, shortly after Jews began to surface as common subjects in fiction by non-Jewish writers. The first French Jewish writers entered the literary field by writing back to their Romantic contemporaries. They countered negative portrayals of Jews and offered a more positive vision of Jewish life in response to hostile attacks. At the same time, Jewish writers were not above trading in exotic stereotypes and indulging in vaguely held notions of racial difference. But even though they exploited Jewish subject matter to intrigue a public fascinated by the foreign, Jewish writers tended to provide a vision of Jewish life from within. Their representations drew on Romantic oriental stereotypes and appropriated the forms and features of literary convention, but they did so to frame issues of relevance to the nineteenth-century French Jewish community.

Perhaps more than any other work of literature or art, Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1819) shaped the way the nineteenth century imagined the Jew. Scott's historical novel, which became a best seller in France, describes the trials and tribulations of the beautiful Jewish woman Rebecca and her father, the moneylender Isaac of York, in twelfth-century England. Scott's novel recast ancient prejudices in liberal garb, foregrounding the Jew's negative traits but encouraging readers to see them as the product of prejudice. It also helped imprint on the Romantic imagination a Jewish gender dichotomy: The male Jew hoards and schemes, whereas the female Jew seduces all who see her with exotic allure. The belle juive, or "beautiful Jewess," along with her usurious male counterpart would provide Romantic novelists-and historians, artists, and composers-with a way of registering a fundamental ambivalence toward Jews just as they were beginning to enter the social and economic mainstream in the early decades of the nineteenth century.

Scott's novel provided a framework for thinking through political and cultural dilemmas in racial terms. Although he excuses the Jew's faults, Scott asks the reader to see the Jew as irreconcilably different. Indeed, in Ivanhoe the persecution of Jews serves as the premise on which the early modern English state is founded. The only thing linking the rival Normans and Saxons in Scott's novel is their antipathy for the Jew-an antipathy that, in the case of Rebecca, is no less violent for its lustful overtones. Published in the aftermath of Waterloo, Scott's Romantic historical novel looked to the past as a means of forecasting the future. Its reflection on national identity, and particularly on the place of Jews within the European state, resonated across a continent in which nationalisms were gaining force and Jewish emancipation was being debated.

In this chapter I explore what happens when a Jewish woman writes fiction in the Romantic period. How does she depict the relation of the Jew to emerging forms of national identity? How does she imagine the racial identity of the Jew? And what becomes of the long-suffering belle juive in her hands? My discussion focuses on Eugénie Foa, the author of a series of fictional works about Jews published in the 1830s and 1840s, many of which explicitly engage with Scott's model. To my knowledge, Foa was the first Jew of either sex to write fiction in French. In what follows I argue that she was not only a pioneering author but also a pioneering theorist of Jewish identity in the post-emancipation period.

In both her historical fiction and her stories set in the present day, Foa tackles problems faced by Jews in nineteenth-century France, such as the clash between the authority of Jewish law and the modern forces of materialism and individualism. Like Scott, Foa uses the past to reflect on the future, but the solutions she devises to the problems of Jewish modernity differ from the Scottian model. They also differ from the solutions of the Jewish writers who followed her. Whereas both Scott and the other Jewish writers I discuss in this book privilege the integrity of Judaism and refuse calls for its dissolution, Foa eventually goes so far as to suggest that Jews may be better off by ceasing to be Jews. Foa oscillates between extreme end points on the French Jewish ideological spectrum in the nineteenth century-a trajectory conditioned, I argue, by her unique position in the social and literary fields.

In her fiction Foa moves from fidelity to Jewish law and tradition to an acceptance of conversion as a solution to the problems of Jewish modernity. And yet, even while calling for the transcendence of Jewish particularity, Foa did more than any other writer to invent a new way of writing about Jews and to forge a path for the Jewish writer in nineteenth-century France. It will be my task to unravel these and other paradoxes in Foa's fiction in order to shed light on both the complex itinerary of Jews in modern France and literature's role in making sense of this history.

A Jewish Writer?

Born Esther Rebecca Eugénie Rodrigues Henriques in 1796, Foa (Figure 1) descended from two of the most illustrious Sephardic families in Bordeaux. According to Arthur Hertzberg, Foa's maternal ancestors, members of the Gradis family, sat at the apex of international Jewish society in the eighteenth century. Eugénie's maternal great-great-great grandfather, Diego Gradis, established himself as a cloth merchant in Bordeaux around 1685. His son, David Gradis (1665-1751), moved into overseas shipping, founding the Gradis firm, which came to dominate France's maritime commerce with its colonies in the Caribbean and Canada. David's son Abraham (1699-1780), Eugénie's uncle, founded the Société du Canada in 1748 and greatly expanded the family's wealth and influence. Family legend maintained that when Louis XVI offered the Gradis family a noble title, they refused to accept it on the grounds that they could not swear on a Catholic bible. The Gradis family did, however, accept special permission to own land in France's Caribbean colonies at a time when Jews were explicitly forbidden from doing so. Slave rebellions in Martinique and Saint-Domingue during the French Revolution devastated the family's West Indian estates and nearly brought about the collapse of the firm.

The family's fortunes had declined by the time of Eugénie's birth, but individual family members continued to enjoy prestige and exert influence, in both the Bordeaux Jewish community and French society at large. During the Revolution of 1789, a maternal relative, David Gradis (1742-1811), was chosen as one of the ninety electors of the Third Estate in Bordeaux, along with a fellow Jew, Abraham Furtado. Gradis missed election to the Estates General by a few votes but became one of Bordeaux's municipal governors. Eugénie's father, Isaac Rodrigues Henriques (1765-1834), who was from a prominent Bordeaux banking family, represented the Jews of Bordeaux at the Assembly of Notables convened by Napoleon in advance of the Grand Sanhedrin, which set the limits of Jewish religious law and helped pave the way for Jewish assimilation in France.

Eugénie moved to Paris with her family, probably in the late 1820s. In the 1830s, Eugénie's widowed mother, nee Esther Gradis (1780-1859), and unmarried siblings would live in the same building on the rue Montholon where their cousins, Olinde and Édouard Rodrigues, who played a leading role in the Saint-Simonian movement, resided. A center of the elite Parisian Jewish social world in the first decades of the century, this building also housed the Halévy family of renowned musicians and writers. Although of Alsatian and hence Ashkenazic origin, Fromental Halévy (1799-1862), the composer of the popular opera La juive [The Jewess] (1835), married in 1842 Eugénie's younger sister, Hanna Leonie (1820-1884), who later became a noted sculptor. The couple entertained the leading artistic and political figures of the day. Their daughter, Genevieve Halévy Bizet Straus (1849-1926), ran one of the most famous salons of fin de siècle Paris.

Eugénie came from an extraordinarily talented family. Her younger brother, (Jacob) Hippolyte Rodrigues (1812- 1898), retired in 1855 from a successful career as a stockbroker to pursue scholarship and the arts. A founding member of the Société Litteraire-Scientifique Israelite (Israelite Literary-Scientific Society), he wrote a number of religious treatises as well as fiction, plays, humor pieces, and poetry, much of it on Jewish themes. He also composed music for the four-act opera David Rizzio in 1873. The painter Eugene Delacroix was a friend, correspondent, and visitor to Hippolyte's chateau at Fromont (Essonne). Hippolyte's son, Edgar Rodrigues (1837-1892), wrote military histories, and another of Eugénie's nephews, William Busnach (1832-1907), the son of her younger sister, Elisa Esther, was an extremely prolific Boulevard dramatist. Eugénie's maternal uncle, Benjamin Gradis (1789-1858), who married her younger sister, Laure Sarah, wrote a number of political treatises, as well as an "oriental novel" titled Zeidouna. Their son, Henri Gradis, was a historian.

Despite her alliances with Paris's Jewish intellectual and financial elite, Eugénie led a difficult life. In 1814, she married Joseph Eugene Foa, a Jewish merchant of Italian origin about whom little is known, and had two children. The marriage ended in separation. Although the sparse biographical accounts of Foa's life dispute whether she left her husband or was abandoned by him, the theme of the unhappily married Jewish woman, abandoned by her husband but unable to procure a divorce, recurs in much of Foa's fiction. In the short story "Rachel, ou l'héritage" [Rachel, or the Inheritance] (1833), which I discuss later in this chapter, the eponymous heroine tells how her repressive Jewish father forced her into an unhappy marriage with a man who soon left her. "While Rachel told me that story that was at once so sad and at the same time so typical of the lives of certain of us weak women whom relatives often sacrifice for money or propriety, I looked at that poor victim of marriage," comments the sympathetic female narrator. Despite the mockery and discouragement of her friends and family, who scorn her as a "woman writer," Rachel turns to writing in the hope of gaining financial independence.

Foa herself turned to writing in 1830, following her separation, to support herself and her children. Although historians have estimated that close to 50 percent of the writers in the July Monarchy were women, female authors in the period still faced social reprobation and encountered numerous material and legal obstacles. That a literary career nevertheless beckoned to a woman such as Foa in a difficult financial situation testifies both to the lack of other career options open to bourgeois women and to the changing economics of book publishing in nineteenth-century France. Growing numbers of readers allowed a growing cadre of authors to live by their pens, and the expansion of newspaper publishing following the July Revolution, along with the creation of the serial novel, the roman feuilleton, in the 1830s, provided another venue for enterprising writers of fiction, including many women.

Foa's varied literary output is typical of the professional writer of the period. In addition to contributing articles regularly to a number of newspapers and journals, under her own name and various pseudonyms (including Maria Fitz-Clarence), Foa published a great deal of fiction in a variety of genres. Between 1830 and 1835 alone, she published seven novels and collections of short stories, none of which went through more than one edition. In the 1840s, however, Foa finally found a degree of success as an author of children's literature, founding her own journal for children in 1843, Le livre de la jeunesse [The Book of Youth]. Dozens of her moralizing tales for young readers continued to be published throughout the nineteenth century and beyond; her most famous work, Le petit Robinson de Paris [The Little Robinson of Paris] was re-edited as late as 1945. As Elisabeth-Christine Muelsch has documented, Foa also took an active interest in the economics of publishing and in promoting female artists and writers. She helped found the Société des Gens de Lettres, dedicated to protecting the property rights of authors, and the Institut des Femmes.

Foa concerned herself with less self-interested causes as well. A collaborator on the newspapers Le Journal des Femmes in the 1830s and La Gazette des Femmes and La Voix des Femmes in the 1840s, she advocated on behalf of the incipient French feminist movement in both her journalism and her fiction as well as through direct political action. During the Revolution of 1848, she founded L'Oeuvre de Bon Secours, a charitable aid society, to provide work to unemployed women. Contracting with a clothing retailer, Foa's charity employed 150 female seamstresses in a shop on the rue de Rivoli, in which Foa read edifying literature to the women as they sewed. "I made sure that their work was well done, but at the same time I took it upon myself to moralize them," Foa proudly maintained in a request for financial support to the minister of public education in December 1848. The charity would close its doors shortly thereafter, when the Ministry of War requisitioned the workshop as a barracks.

Foa's activism clearly shocked some of her contemporaries. Traces of their enmity can be found in exceptionally cruel biographical sketches written about her after her death, which paint her as the archetypical bas-bleu (bluestocking). One writer comments on her "masculine physiognomy corresponding to her manners" and notes that her writing contains "a communicative sensibility entirely lacking from her character." By contrast, more favorably disposed contemporaries make reference to her renowned beauty, although most refrain from serious engagement with the subject or style of her writing. Both types of biographies, the openly misogynistic and the lewdly dismissive, testify to the threat that an outspoken woman writer such as Foa posed in nineteenth-century France and to the sexist strategies used by male critics to counter it. Interestingly, however, not a single one of the contemporary biographers comments on her Jewishness, reflecting the lack of overt antisemitism in literary circles of the period.

Jewishness was central to Foa's life and work, although her relationship to the religion itself proved highly ambivalent. A notice in L'Univers Israélite, the organ of Orthodox Judaism, recommends Foa's Livre de jeunesse by "our famous coreligionist" in 1844, despite the fact that she had begun to be drawn to Christianity several years earlier. In 1841, Foa began writing saints' lives, and in early 1846, she converted to Catholicism under the tutelage of the Abbé Ratisbonne, who himself had come from a prominent Jewish family. The Bibliotheque Marguerite Durand possesses an undated letter by Foa, which I verified, bearing the Catholicized signature "Marie Eugénie Foa," indicating that she intended to make her conversion public. According to Muelsch, Foa received a Catholic burial, and I did not find an obituary for her in either of the two main Jewish newspapers when she died in 1853.

Foa's conversion sets her apart from the other writers I consider in this book. Unlike Germany and Austria, France had no major waves of conversion in the nineteenth century. Foa's circle of elite Parisian Jews, however, did see a relatively small number of high-profile conversions to Catholicism, as well as to Saint-Simonianism, in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Even some of those most closely identified with the Jewish community converted in this period, including the son and son-in-law of the grand rabbi of the Central Consistory and the wife and children of Adolphe Crémieux, France's leading Jewish jurist. These apostasies can partly be explained by the unofficial antisemitism that prevailed in the upper echelons of Parisian society and by the pressures of social assimilation. But conversion was still rare enough in France in the early nineteenth century that the Catholic and Jewish press sparred over individual cases.


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Table of Contents


Introduction: Out of the Archive....................1
1. Romantic Exoticism: Eugenie Foa and the Dilemmas of Assimilation....................37
2. Between Realism and Idealism: Ben-Levi and the Reformist Impulse....................74
3. A Conservative Renegade: Ben Baruch and Neo-Orthodoxy....................112
4. Village Tales: Alexandre Weill and Mosaic Monotheism....................154
5. Ghetto Fiction: Daniel Stauben, David Schornstein, and the Uses of the Jewish Past....................193
Conclusion: Proust's Progenitors....................239

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