Although Jewish conversion narratives are an ancient form indeed, and Jewish conversion-to-Catholicism novels appeared on the Continent, all of the well-known (er, to people like me) Anglo-American Jewish conversion novels are overwhelmingly Protestant. This makes The Jewess, A Tale of Our Own Time (1867) something of a curiosity. It went through what appears to have been a grand total of one printing with the Catholic publisher P. O'Shea, then vanished from the planet. In part, the novel appears to have been intended as advertising copy for the then-new Sisters of Our Lady of Sion (Notre Dame de Sion), located in Ein Karem.
Unlike one of the better-known (less unknown?) English-language Catholic examples of the Jewish conversion narrative, "A Brief History of Weglij Hockwer, A Jewess of Constantinople,"1 The Jewess does not involve visionary dreams, abusive parents (a standard in Protestant texts as well), or, indeed, any dramatic personal trauma. However, it does offer a conventional supersessionist reading of the relationship between Judaism and Catholicism, figured in part by the transition from the wealthy Jewish patriarch to his converted daughter. As in many other conversion novels, the wealthy father/child convert dynamic deliberately echoes The Merchant of Venice, although here the father is not otherwise Shylockian, and the relationship never becomes cruel. Gonzalez of Evora, the father, is a "living receptacle of all the Hebraic traditions; keyless symbols, aimless ceremonies, phantoms of the past, which are not yet scattered by the full light of day" (6). The "problem" of Judaism, as the novel understand it, rests in part with its reduction to pure, non-signifying form--the usual Protestant critique of Catholicism, as it happens--and in part with its status as weird Gothic revenant, haunting the Christian present. Where Gonzalez seamlessly embodies Judaism's pure formalism, however, his daughter Ada suffers from an uneasy self-consciousness that her religion consists of "mechanical prayers" (9) that bring her no nearer to God. Ada, in other words, senses--although she cannot quite articulate it yet (10)--that her religion constitutes a hollowed-out anachronism; she realizes the possibility of a spiritual difference, but does not yet understand the historical or theological implications of that difference.
As in many Catholic conversion narratives, Ada's route to belief proceeds through a series of well-defined steps: encountering an exemplary lay believer; becoming initially convinced through study and conversation; and finally receiving tutelage and baptism from a priest. Unlike a Protestant narrative, in which Bible-reading would be emphasized, Ada's change of heart derives primarily from her charitable dealings with the impoverished, dying Cornelia Joonckere and her son, Floris. As we will eventually discover, one of Ada's family's ancestors had been rewarded for services rendered with the Joonckere family property, even though accepting this payment contradicted the Decalogue (31); Ada's providential encounter with the Joonckeres, then, atones for a sin at the heart of her own family's prosperity, restores Floris to material comforts, and finally results in her own salvation. In contrast to the Gonzalez family's formalist rites and props, the Joonckere household's religious statues, devotional books, and rosaries all appear pregnant with meaning--a meaning that Ada slowly decodes during the months that she spends caring for Cornelia. (Indeed, her interaction with Cornelia itself is a change from her father's tribalist charitable practices.) Cornelia's love for Christ teaches Ada to reread the Bible typologically and prophetically (26), so that her conversion derives not from a close reading of the New Testament, but a newly sympathetic understanding of Christian hermeneutics. (The emphasis on sentiment in this arrangement is part and parcel of the novel's gendered account of religious change, with the paternal rule of Law giving way to the maternal rule of Love.)
Ada's final jump to conversion turns out to be channeled through another Jew--the Virgin Mary, "the Virgin of Israel, the mother 'mid thorns" (36). Invoking Mary specifically in the context of converting Jews has centuries of precedent (and it also crops up in the Weglij Hockwer narrative).2 Mary's intercession in the chapel is apparently successful, for Ada immediately encounters the priest who will officially tutor her in Catholic doctrine. Moreover, Mary symbolically replaces Ada's long-dead mother, just as the priest will now take over the spiritual authority originally associated with her father. In any event, her turn to the "study of religion, habitual prayer, and above all the exercise of charity" (39)--a Protestant novelist, already grouchy about the Virgin Mary, would continue grousing here--makes her an exemplar to both Jews and Christians, and, along the way, obviously makes her conversion clear to her father. Unlike many conversion novels, this one emphasizes the father's loving agreement with his daughter's decision; as the Jewish father willingly gives his daughter up to Christianity on his deathbed, the narrative implies, so too must Judaism resign itself to its own obsolescence. The narrative enacts this shift in Ada's decision to join Our Lady of Sion, where she will join them in "pray[ing] for the conversion of the Jews, wherein they try to love God as much as possible, in order to repair the crimes of that unfaithful nation [...]" (44). Ada finds the true end to Jewish "exile" in Christianity, and enters the "land of her forefathers" (45) in order to re-home the Jews, as it were.
1 Which may or may not be fiction; I don't think anybody knows.
2 E.g., Miri Rubin, Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 160. Adrienne Boyarin's Miracles of the Virgin in Medieval England: Law and Jewishness in Marian Legends (Rochester, NY: D. S. Brewer, 2010) discusses the significance of the Virgin's Jewishness in a more restricted context, but also argues for the importance of identifying Mary as a Jew.