The British Jewish Writer and The British Jewish Press
This is an inglorious story. It begins badly. It goes on badly. Unto this day, it is bad. Perhaps we shall be able to give this story a happier ending, however. Perhaps.
So, let us begin.
Amy Levy was one of the first Jewish novelists in Britain to write about the British Jewish community. There had been a few before her.
Julia Frankau, for example, had published Dr Phillips: A Maida Vale Idyll in 1887. The novel had been critical of the British Jewish community, yes, but Frankau had the good sense to publish under the distinctly un-Jewish name of Frank Danby. Amy Levy — 27 years old, the first Jewish student ever to have attended Newnham College Cambridge, a friend of Oscar Wilde, a rising star in the London literary scene — published her novel Reuben Sachs under her own, evidently Jewish, name.
Reuben Sachs, published in 1888, is a fairly gentle satire of the Jewish community in Bayswater. It has some fun pointing out the anti-intellectualism and materialism of a particular kind of Jewish person familiar now as the “beck” or “Jewish American Princess” stereotype. There’s a hilarious scene during Yom Kippur, in which some members of the community return to synagogue suspiciously refreshed and bright-eyed after a “rest” at lunch time. It’s not The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but of course nor is it a paean of praise of the community. It’s a clear-eyed, funny and interesting novel. One might have expected the Jewish press in this country to welcome it as a sign of growing maturity and confidence in our homegrown literature.
Instead, Levy was vilified. The Jewish Chronicle ran endless articles and letters condemning her and her appalling novel. No ground was given, no quarter offered, no allowance made for literary invention or fun. She shouldn’t have written such things, the correspondents said or implied, where the non- Jews could read them. Levy felt increasingly under threat, alienated from her community, misunderstood and mis-read. She succumbed to the depression which had dogged her throughout her life. On 10 September 1889, she shut herself into her bedroom at the home of her parents in Endsleigh Gardens, just off the Euston Road, inhaled the fumes from a charcoal heater, and died.
But of course, that was long ago. Before the Holocaust, before the First World War, before the state of Israel, in a time when antisemitism was still perfectly acceptable and probably actively encouraged in British life. We’d react differently now, wouldn’t we?
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