Maurice Samuels


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

Cover Interview of July 04, 2010

A close-up

Chapter two of the book focuses on the writer Ben-Lévi (the pseudonym of Godchaux Weil, 1806-1878) who published a dozen short stories, as well as many non-fiction pieces, in the reform Jewish newspaper, Les Archives Israélites, in the 1840s.  Originally from Alsace, Weil’s father was a prosperous porcelain manufacturer and a leader of the Parisian Jewish community.  His nephew was perhaps the most famous of all modern French writers—Marcel Proust. 

Written entirely in French, the articles in Les Archives Israélites targeted an acculturated, elite readership, eager to modify Jewish religious practice and tradition in order more fully to embrace the opportunities offered to them by France’s revolutionary granting of citizenship.

Ben-Lévi’s fiction theorizes the nature of this transition, extolling the advantages of emancipation while exhorting readers to remain loyal to a newly modernized Judaism.  Written in the new descriptive style of Balzac that critics at the time were beginning to label “realist,” Ben-Lévi’s stories stand out from the other articles in the newspaper, which tend to flatter the ethnic pride of the community, by asking readers to contemplate what they have left behind in their social ascent.

One story from 1841 entitled “The Rise and Fall of a Polish Taleth,” narrates the adventures of a prayer shawl as it gets handed down through three generations of a Parisian Jewish family.  The story opens in the 1780s, as the very orthodox Père Jacob, an iron dealer, imports a taleth from Poland for his wedding.  Upon his death, the prayer shawl passes to his son Jacobi, an officer in Napoleon’s army, who is “much less religious” than his father but nevertheless venerates the taleth as a link to family tradition.  By the time it reaches Jacobi’s son, a fashionable French gentleman who calls himself Jacoubé “in order to dissimulate entirely his israelite origin,” the taleth has become a mere piece of cloth, devoid of both familial and religious significance.  At the end of the story, we learn that Jacoubé has given it to a prostitute to wear to a costume ball.

Whereas the taleth story functions as a modern parable criticizing the losses entailed by the assimilation process, Ben-Lévi holds out hope in his other stories for a renewed appreciation of the Jewish tradition.  In a story from 1846, called “The Fish and the Breadcrumbs,” an assimilated skeptic named Gustave learns to respect the Jewish religion by watching a widow comfort her young son through the performance of a religious ritual.  The spiritual awakening of Ben-Lévi’s character has little to do with the supernatural or with God as such, but rather with a new understanding of the way Jewish tradition forges ethical bonds linking human beings in spite of the pressures of capitalist modernity.

In the conclusion to the book, I ask how the rediscovery of Ben-Lévi’s fiction might help us to understand what his much more famous great-nephew, Marcel Proust, had to say about Jews and Judaism.  I show how both writers ask very similar questions about what it means to be a Jew in the absence of religious faith, inherited tradition, or legal strictures.  I suggest that Proust’s character Swann, an assimilated Jew who “returns to the spiritual fold of his fathers” as a result of the Dreyfus Affair, becomes a kind of modern(ist) version of Gustave, Ben-Lévi’s reformed cynic.