Jews, Modernity, and the Fiction of Ben-Levi

By Samuels, Maurice | Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Spring-Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Jews, Modernity, and the Fiction of Ben-Levi


Samuels, Maurice, Nineteenth-Century French Studies


Nineteenth-century French Jews experienced modernity in a unique fashion. As the first European Jews to receive full civil rights, they did not need to fight for emancipation. (1) Unlike their coreligionists elsewhere in Europe, their legal equality preceded their modernization. (2) Whereas at the time of the Revolution of 1789, the vast majority of France's Jews lived in poverty in isolated rural villages in Alsace and Lorraine and did not speak French, (3) within one generation the situation had changed dramatically--at least for those Jews who took advantage of the relaxation of residency restrictions to move to large towns or cities. (4) Faced with no legal impediments to their upward mobility, certain French Jews achieved unparalleled social integration in the first half of the nineteenth century. Though numbering only 0.2 percent of the French population in 1840, (5) Jews had reached high levels not only of banking and business, but also of the French government, (6) the army, the liberal professions, the press, and the arts, particularly music and the theater, by mid-century.

If French Jews experienced modernity differently from Jews in other parts of the world because of their privileged status, they also experienced it differently because France--and particularly Paris--was the center of modernity, the "capital of the nineteenth century" in the words of Walter Benjamin, and the magnet that attracted such forward-looking German Jews as Meyerbeer, Offenbach, Heine, and Marx. Indeed, Paris in the 1830s and 40s saw many of the political, social, and cultural transformations we associate with modernity take shape--including rapid urbanization, democratization, the birth of a mass press, and especially the rise of industrial capitalism. Becoming urban in much higher relative numbers than their Christian contemporaries, (7) and well represented in the transforming sectors of banking, transportation, the mass press, and popular culture, Jews were at the forefront of these changes.

Although scholars of Jewish modernity have lately begun to correct the myopia resulting from an exclusive focus on Germany, the French case remains relatively under explored. (8) This is particularly true in the realm of literary studies. Scholars have recently begun to illuminate the birth of a new Jewish literature in German, English, and Russian in the nineteenth century, showing how Jewish authors manifested unique responses to the Enlightenment, the quest for political equality, and the problem of assimilation in these countries. (9) And while fiction by Jews in French in the twentieth century--from Marcel Proust onward--occupies the attention of an ever growing number of scholars, we know almost nothing about the emergence of French Jewish writing in the nineteenth century.

In what follows, I want to begin to close this gap by investigating a series of short stories published in the leading French Jewish monthly newspaper, the Archives israelites de France, during the 1840s under the pseudonym Ben-Levi. Among the first examples of fiction written by a Jew in French, these stories shed light on the unique French Jewish experience of modernity and on the literary forms used to represent it. Combining sentimentalism with elements of the new poetics that critics in the 1840s were beginning to label "realist," Ben-Levi offers a view of modern Jewish lire filtered through a specifically French literary lens, just as he puts a Jewish spin on French literary conventions. In his deployment of French literary codes to represent the dilemmas of Jewish modernity--as well as in his often quite humorous evocation of the paradoxes of assimilation--Ben-Levi foreshadows Proust's masterful representation of French Jewish life three quarters of a century later. And indeed Proust might be said to be not only the literary but also the literal descendant of this mid-nineteenth-century Jewish writer, for the actual Ben-Levi, the man behind the pseudonym, was Godchaux Baruch Weil, Proust's great-uncle (the half-brother of his grandfather, Nathe Weil). …

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