Romanticism/Judaica by Sheila Spector, ed., Reviewed by Todd Endelman

Ed. Sheila Spector
(Ashgate, 2011) xiv + 227 pp.
Reviewed by Todd Endelman on 2011-10-04.

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This is the third volume of essays on Jewish themes in Romantic literature that Sheila Spector has edited. As in the previous two volumes -- British Romanticism and the Jews (2002) and The Jews and British Romanticism (2005) -- the essays have a dual focus: British writers who featured Jewish characters and themes in their work, and Anglo-Jewish writers who contributed to the literature of the Romantic period. In this volume as in its predecessors, the criteria for inclusion are elastic, accommodating essays on twentieth-century Jewish critics of Romanticism as well as studies of Samuel David Luzzatto, a religious traditionalist who taught at the Collegio Rabbinico in Padua, and of the Enlightenment philosophers Solomon Maimon and Immanuel Kant. While the essay on Maimon and Kant falls well outside the scope of the volume, the novel perspective of the editor's contribution on Luzzatto is potentially fruitful. It casts a rabbinic opponent of the Jewish Enlightenment and of the movement to reform Judaism as an anti-rationalist Romantic. While I am not persuaded that Romanticism's celebration of spiritual selfhood and virtuosity can be reconciled with Orthodoxy's demand for obedience to the Law, the reading of Luzzatto as Romantic is suggestive.

The strongest essays in the volume are those that introduce to a wider audience Jewish writers and texts who are marginal to the English literary canon. Taking up, for instance, Coleridge's English translation of a Hebrew dirge, Karen Weisman compares it to the original, which the poet's friend Hyman Hurwitz wrote on the death of Princess Charlotte in 1817 and which was chanted at London's Great Synagogue on the day of her funeral. Strikingly enough, the translation obscures the allusions and references in the Hebrew original to well-known biblical and liturgical passages, and it also masks Hurwitz's distance from the British pastoral tradition. By contrast, the original confirms a larger point Weisman makes elsewhere -- "namely, that the Jewish history of exile and the deeply vexed Jewish history in England make for an alienation from the expressive resources of the pastoral and bucolic traditions in poetry" when Jewish authors seek to claim "the redemptions putatively inherent in the history of the English landscape" (53-54). Likewise, Judith Page finds non-Jewish sources reflected in Grace Aguilar's Records of Israel (1844). Demonstrating Aguilar's debts to British Romanticism and Evangelical bibliocentricity, she also shows how these currents inform her fictional retelling of the expulsion from Spain in 1492 and the fate of New Christians in Lisbon during the great earthquake of 1755. In particular, she explains how the two long stories that comprise the volume echo the narrative trajectory of the Bible from exile to redemption, a strategy that would appeal equally to both Jewish and Evangelical readers.

Most of the contributors to this collection do not make large claims about the intersection between Romanticism and Jewish writing. When they venture to do so, they do not always succeed. In her article on Maria Polack's novel Fiction without Romance (1830), for example, Heidi Kaufman argues that "with its emphasis on enlightened thinking, respect for religious difference, and education for all," Polack's novel belongs to a body of Anglo-Jewish literature that was "working to revive Jewish traditions by borrowing from a modern-day enlightenment discourse" (72). There are two problems with this claim. The first is that Kaufman never explains what she means by saying that Polack's novel worked "to revive Jewish traditions." Was he calling for a return to traditional Jewish observance? This is unlikely. The second problem is that Kaufman is restating the obvious. In the first decades of the nineteenth century in England, most Jewish writing in the vernacular was didactic, apologetic, and couched in "a modern-day enlightenment discourse." Further problems spring from Kaufman's claim that Polack belonged to a "network" of Jewish writers who pioneered an "Anglo-Jewish literary Renaissance" (73)--a network including Emma Lyon, S. I. Cohen, Joshua Van Oven, Hyman Hurwitz, and Polack. But these figures hardly made up a "network" of writers. For them, writing was an intermittent and--so far as we know-- independent task. Indeed, we know little about their lives and the extent to which they influenced or knew about each other. To characterize their output as a Jewish literary renaissance is to inflate the importance of a modest body of work whose influence then and later remains unknown.

The same tendency to exaggerate the cultural weight of a text weakens Mark Schonfield's study of the boxer Daniel Mendoza and his bestselling The Art of Boxing, four editions of which appeared between 1788 and 1792. According to Schoenfield, "In constituting himself as the theorist of boxing, Mendoza theatrically negotiated his public personality to construct an image of Jewish masculinity (120)." Implicit in this claim is that in late-eighteenth-century London, Jewish men were viewed as effeminate, and Mendoza was explicitly or implicitly overturning this perception. But were Jewish men always and everywhere marked as feminine? While often so marked in fin-de-siècle Europe, they were hardly seen this way in England at the end of the eighteenth century. On the contrary, they were often portrayed as dangerous, brutish, sexually aggressive toughs--a hyper-masculine image largely based on their actual prominence in boxing and crime.

Compared with Schoenfield's study, the essays that conclude the volume--on Jewish critics of Romanticism and Anglo-Jewish literature--are more successful. Thoughtfully reviewing earlier scholarship on Jewish themes in English literature, Michael Scrivener begins with the American-born Reform rabbi David Philipson in the 1880s and concludes with contemporary critics such as Frank Felsenstein, Bryan Cheyette, and the late Michael Ragussis. Earlier critics, Scrivener explains, tended to classify writers as simply philo- or anti-Semitic; they also shared the Enlightenment faith that progress would inevitably discredit negative stereotypes, treated Anglo-Jewish writing only in relation to the dominant culture (rather than other minority cultures), limited their analysis to the culturally prestigious genres of the novel and the drama, and practiced--overtly or otherwise--a kind of identity politics. By contrast, Scrivener shows, more recent critics have broadened the analysis of literature with Jewish themes and characters--without, however, being able to escape the influence of their own circumstances. In this spirit, Lloyd Davies' essay on the British-born Israeli literary critic Harold Fisch shows how Fisch's own religious commitments informed his critical perspective and then invokes that perspective to examine passages in Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" and "Ode on a Grecian Urn."

As is frequently the case with edited volumes, the essays in this collection are uneven. Some, like Davies's study of Fisch and his interpretive model, are challenging and sophisticated; others, like Frederick Burwick's study of the Jew on the Romantic stage, are descriptive rather than analytical and break no new ground; still others, as I explained above, make claims that do not withstand close scrutiny. However, the value of the volume, as well as of the previous two volumes that Spector edited, arises less from the strengths and weaknesses of this or that essay than from its overarching aim, which is to expand interest in texts and themes that are too often marginalized. In this, it succeeds to a great extent.

Todd M. Endelman is the William Haber Professor of Modern Jewish History at the University of Michigan. His most recent book is Broadening Jewish History: Towards a Social History of Ordinary Jews.

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