Maurice Samuels

 

On his book Inventing the Israelite: Jewish Fiction in Nineteenth-Century France

Cover Interview of July 05, 2010

The wide angle

Nineteenth-century French Jews have often received bad press.  Denounced by antisemites at the time as the new feudal lords of capitalism, they were also seen as nefarious agents of communist revolution.

But more damning—because less preposterous—criticisms have come from other Jews.  Indeed, twentieth-century Jewish historians often characterized nineteenth-century French Jews as misguided apostles of assimilation.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, for example, Hannah Arendt criticizes the French Jews for having renounced their Jewish identity in a bid to become French and for having been woefully unprepared to deal with the difficulties of the Dreyfus Affair and the Vichy period as a result.

I decided to examine the fiction produced by the nineteenth-century French Jews to test the truth of these stereotypes.  I quickly discovered, however, that most scholars did not believe that such a literature existed.

One recent textbook that I consulted declared that there was no French Jewish literature to speak of before the Dreyfus Affair at the end of the nineteenth century.  Before this period, French Jews had apparently been too busy with their social integration and economic advancement to write. 

And yet, while researching my last book, on historical representation in nineteenth-century France, I came across a historical novel entitled La Juive (The Jewess) published in 1835 by a Jewish woman from Bordeaux named Eugénie Foa.  Written in the descriptive style of Walter Scott, this melodramatic page-turner, set in eighteenth-century Paris, tells the story of a Jewish woman who falls in love with a handsome Christian nobleman and dies as a result of her illicit passion.

This novel fascinated me because of the way it used the popular generic forms of the historical and sentimental novel to confront the central problems of Jewish modernity, including intermarriage, conversion, and the conflict between personal freedom and Jewish tradition.  Here, it seemed, lay evidence that a French Jew of the early nineteenth century in fact had made an attempt at writing fiction about the Jewish experience.  But did Foa represent a lone case?

When I began to read the new French Jewish press of the period, especially the two major monthly Jewish newspapers founded in the early 1840s, Les Archives Israélites and L’Univers Israélite, I realized that Foa had in fact inaugurated a trend.  These newspapers, which continued to thrive until World War II, published a great deal of writing in many genres, all depicting Jews.  They also published reviews of other works, including much fiction.  After locating these works at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, I was finally convinced that something like a French Jewish literary sphere existed in the nineteenth century.

The period I researched (1830-1870), spanning the July Monarchy, the Second Republic, and the Second Empire, represents the point at which French Jews’ faith in the path of emancipation was at its highest level, following the fall of the conservative Restoration monarchy and prior to the outbreak of fin-de-siècle antisemitism.

As I show, even in this period, most French Jews resisted the temptations of assimilation—if by “assimilation” one means the renunciation of all Jewish specificity in the rush to integrate completely with the dominant culture.  Indeed, the very fact of their publishing fiction about Jews reflects a willingness to assert their Jewishness in the public sphere.  This is true even of Eugénie Foa, who advocates intermarriage and conversion, but who nevertheless attempted to carve a place for herself in the crowded literary marketplace as France’s first Jewish writer.