On the way to the King David hotel one crosses a small alley way where a small sign attached to a stone building says “Rechov George Eliot”. One of the great writers of the Victorian era, neither Jewish, nor particularly knowledgeable of Jews, Eliot wrote one of the great Jewish novels of the 19th century, Daniel Deronda.
Through the power of scholarship and imagination, Eliot, unlike her Victorian counterparts, evokes a sympathetic portrait of Jews, and Judaism. Joseph Epstein reviews Gertrude Himmelfarb’s treatment of this phenomenon, The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot.
When researching the novel that defined Eliot’s affinity for the Jews she never actually knew, Himmelfarb reports:
Eliot’s notebooks for this period contained excerpts from the Bible and Prophets, the Mishnah and Talmud, Maimonides, medieval rabbis and Kabbalistic works, as well as contemporary German scholars (Moses Mendelssohn, Heinrich Graetz, Moritz Steinschneider, Leopold Zunz, Abraham Geiger, Abraham Berliner, Emmanuel Deutsch), French scholars (Ernest Renan, Jassuda Bedarride, Georges Depping, Salomon Munk), English scholars (Henry Milman, Christian David Ginsburg, Abraham Benisch, David de Solar, Hyam Isaacs), and score of others.
Before pogroms and the Holocaust, Eliot intuited that it is Judaism that defines Jews and not victimhood. Jews are a people who dwells alone, but in that capacity have much to offer the world. Epstein’s review is worth a look, and Daniel Deronda should be required reading for the successive generations of Holocaustalogians, and those who vicariously identify primarily with Jewish victimhood and not Jewish spiritual contributions.
It’s time to read Daniel Deronda again.