It's been a while since I've discussed Jewish conversion novels. Charlotte Elizabeth Stern's Esther: A Tale of Modern Jewish Burgher Life (1880), while mostly adhering to the genre's conventions, still has some points of interest. Although Stern was not herself a convert from Judaism--her father was the psalmodist Charles Henry Purday--her husband, Henry Aaron Stern, was a converted German Jew and active overseas missionary, best known at the time for his work among the Beta Israel (or "Falashas," a slur). Although Charlotte died in 1874, it appears that her family must have arranged for her two books, Eliezer (1877) and Esther, to be published posthumously.
Unusually for a conversion novel, Esther is not just philosemitic, but Hebrew Christian, with the main character proudly retaining her Jewish identity even after she becomes a Protestant (a Lutheran, to be precise). Although the seeds of such an approach lie in Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna's Judah's Lion, in which the protagonist continues to understand himself as "Jewish," most conversion novels require their characters to fully embed themselves within their new Christian community, casting off their residual allegiance to Judaism as either a faith community or an ethnic group. Moreover, nearly half the novel is given over to mostly non-judgmental accounts of Jewish holidays, prayers, and ritual observances, suggesting that Stern understood the novel as a kind of introduction to Orthodox Judaism for Christian readers--although disapproval does eventually creep in, especially when it comes to gender and legalism. And, intriguingly, while Stern does trot out the requisite Biblical quotations, the novel relies heavily on epigraphs from and allusions to such good evangelicals (ahem) as Lord Byron and George Eliot; in effect, the novel both insists that evangelicals can read and appreciate authors conventionally deemed problematic (that they have "taste," in other words), and that secular literature can be successfully appropriated for traditional Christian ends.
When the novel isn't explaining Judaism, it does manage to have a plot. The action mostly takes place in Germany against the background of the Franco-Prussian War; its Jewish characters, despite comprising a distinct community, nevertheless associate regularly with their Christian neighbors, assert their "patriotism," and refer to Germany as "the Fatherland" (116). Stern thus plays down accusations of eternal Jewish strangeness or otherness: these Jews serve as army officers and see no conflicts between Jewish and German identities. Esther, our heroine, is a beautiful blonde Jew whose "ideal of life is an intellectual one" (43)--aspirations that signal her coming dissatisfaction with Jewish ritual. Although Esther disdains the growing professionalism of Anglo-American women (42), she also manifests some impatience with her sister Thekla's belief that women should confine themselves to "needlework and pretty nick-nacks" (42). This discrepancy between the two ultimately leads into a standard Christian critique of Judaism and female subjectivity: the female Jew, not required to engage in most formal religious observances, is mentally and spiritually subjugated by a patriarchy run rampant. The more thoughtful Esther, despite her "good works," soon becomes "dissatisfied" (139) with Judaism, which the novel more and more explicitly aligns with a formalism disconnected from the heart. (As is so often the case, anti-Jewish rhetoric overlaps with anti-Catholic rhetoric here.) To make matters worse, her aristocratic lover, Colonel Rudolph von Girsperg (product of a mixed marriage), eventually declares that rabbinical Judaism is nothing more than "meaningless ritualistic forms" and "senseless fables and traditions" (118)--thereby heralding his incipient conversion, thanks to the efforts of his English friend, Col. Fraser.
The narrative thus resorts to the evangelical conversion genre's regular standbys: the critique of ritual as antithetical to heartfelt faith or love, and the equally common critique of traditions interposing between the believer and the Bible. "I am unhappy," Esther tells a Lutheran pastor (166): ritual repetition, far from being a mode of spiritual discipline and meditation, merely leaves the practitioner without any authentic outlet for emotion.1 Faced with a series of increasingly painful hardships, beginning with Rudolph's apparent death in battle (spoiler: no), Esther undergoes a regular Pilgrim's Progress (highlighted by, well, an allusion to the Pilgrim's Progress) that tests her allegiance to her newfound faith. Here, Stern trots out a number of the major Jewish conversion novel tropes, most importantly the abusive family: her parents conceal the converted Rudolph's letters from here, attempt to arrange a marriage for her with a man she barely knows, and then subject her to emotional abuse and, ultimately, rejection once her conversion becomes clear. The novel thus equates Jewish ritual practice with the emptiness of Jewish family feeling, which makes itself painfully clear at any sign of deviation from the norm; apparently loving families morph into psychologically (and, in other novels, physically) brutal enclaves. Of course, as one might expect, when Esther reaches her lowest point, so starved and demoralized to be unrecognizable, she is found again in an English church by the undead (OK, not dead) Rudolph, who promptly marries her. Happily ever after!
Interestingly enough, it is in England that the novel locates outright antisemitism. (Col. Fraser's victim-blaming for Jewish persecution does not, one must note, apparently count as antisemitism in the novel's estimation.) After Esther's family rejects her, the narrative suddenly detours into a governess novel, complete with shallow and materialistic parents--parents who also sneer at the Jews who have insinuated themselves into all the walks of genteel and professional life. "A Jew Prime Minister, and a Jew Master of the Rolls!" (191) complains the master of the house. The apparently unremarkable acculturation (albeit not outright assimilation) of German Jews stands in stark contrast to this overt prejudice; it is such bigotry, the novel hints, that produces Jewish "otherness," not Jewish clannishness or tribalism. In context, this attack on English prejudice (and, elsewhere, how the English treat the poor in general) up-ends more cheery Protestant and even Jewish assessments of England as a safe haven for oppressed Jews. A German Jew travels to England, only to find that "Jew" erases all other potential forms of identification, and that to be a Jew is, by definition, to be permanently strange. One wonders if Stern's German-born husband had had something to say.
1 For more on the role of "form" in Victorian spirituality, see Kirstie Blair's recent Form and Faith in Victorian Poetry and Poetics (OUP, 2012).
[Edited 5/3 to get rid of a chronology error.]