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July 22, 1983 - Image 34

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1983-07-22

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

34 Friday, July 22, 1983

THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

New Book Misses Issues on Jewish Woman in Christian Literature

By JOSEPH COHEN
NEW ORLEANS —
Though it is one of the most
pervasive literary subjects
in the history of Jewish-
Christian relations, no one
has yet written a definitive

study of what Hyam Mac-
coby once termed "the De-
lectable Daughter," the
Jewish woman portrayed in
the works of Christian
writers.
In "Madonna or Courte-

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san? The Jewish Woman in
Christian Literature' (Sea-
bury Press), Livia Bitton-
Jackson, professor of Judaic
studies at Herbert H.
Lehman College in New
York, explores the history of
the genre, and analyzes
representative examples in
English, French, German,
Italian, Russian and
American literature, con-
centrating attention upon
the key works including
Marlowe's "The Jew of
Malta," Shakespeare's "The
Merchant of Venice," Bec-
quer's "La Rosa de Passion,"
Lessing's "Nathan the
Jew," Scott's "Ivanhoe,"
Dickens' "Oliver Twist,"
Eliot's "Daniel Deronda,"
Chekhov's "Ivanov," Bal-
zac's "A Harlot High and
Low," de Maupassant's
"Mademoiselle Fifi,"
Dumas' "La Femme de
Claude" and Wolfe's "The
Web and the Rock."
While she illuminates
particularly our awareness
of the Continental narra-
tives and dramas — prob-
ably her most substantial
contribution to the subject
— her heavily-academic
style makes the reading
tough going. There are
nuggets to be mined in this
book but getting to them re-
quires persistence.
With the narrowly-
envisioned range of her
thesis, Bitton-Jackson
argues that Jewish
women, unlike their male
counterparts, have been
especially favored by
Christian writers be-
cause they took no active
role in the condemnation
of Jesus leading to the
crucifixion, that those

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Jewish women around
him at the time were
sympathetically inclined
towards him, and that
over the long haul of his-
tory there is a sustained
Madonna-like affinity be-
tween Jewish women
and the Virgin Mary in
terms of maternal nurtur-
ing and the power to re-
deem sin-prone men.
Complementary to this
moralistic view was an im-
moral one manifested in the
continuously-erotic fan-
tisizing by secular Chris-
tian writers over the sexual
charms of Jewish women,
imaged as the mysterious,
exotic seductresses of the
East. This thematic under-
current, long smoldering,
surfaced in 19th Century
France in the "la Belle
Juive" motif, prominent in
the works of Balzac, de
Maupassant, the brothers
Goncourt, Victor Hugo and
others.
In this motif, the Jewish
woman was depicted as the
enchanting courtesan, in
some instances, celebrated,
as in de Maupassant's
"Mademoiselle Fifi," not
merely for her charms but
for virtues not commonly
associated with courtesans.
The presence in late 19th
Century Paris of several
Jewish actresses, Rachel
and Sarah Bernhardt and
the sensational American
Mazeppa, Adah Isaacs
Menken, with their flam-
boyant life-styles, lent un-
usual credence to the depic-
tion.
Though the author tells
us that years of thought,
travel and research went
into her book, her thesis
seems to me seriously
flawed. She recognizes that
in nearly every conven-
tional retelling of the narra-
tive in which the old, ugly,
rich Jewish father is
brought low by the
treachery of the beautiful,
supposedly guileless daugh-
ter who then converts in
order to win her Christian
lover, the daughter, after
the betrayal of her father,
comes to a tragic end.
Yet Britton-Jackson
does not see this as in-
compatible with her
argument that Christian
writers traditionally
exalted the Jewish
woman. Nor does she
perceive the real implica-
tion of the often-present
sexual debasement of
Jewish women by Chris-
tian writers — in many of
the narratives Jewish
women are seduced and
then abandoned by their
Christian lovers — that
implication being that
sexual humiliation of the
daughter is not an end in
itself, however miserable
the victim, but a means to
further violation of the
father.
"Madonna or Courtesan?"
raises more questions than
it answers. One wonders
how Christian some of the
writers actually were. Was
Marlowe all that devout?
Hardly. Or Shakespeare?
The evidence suggests
otherwise.

The material to which
they were attracted, pure
and simple, was full of
dramatic tension; it had all
the ingredients for suc-
cessful theater: a loathe-
some villain, a beautiful,
oppressed maiden, and a
brave, virile young hero.
Though Bitton-Jackson
doesn't tell us, it is clear
that the conflict within this
cast of characters is one that
antedates Judaism, and, for
that matter, Western

Civilization itself. It is basi-
cally Oedipal. And oedipus,
who killed his father, was,
as Harold Fisch has re- -
minded us, "no Jew."

What we have, we prize,
not to the worth while we
enjoy it; but being lacked
and lost, why then we rack
the value; then we find the
virtue that possession
would not show us while it
was ours.
—Shakespeare

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