Disraeli's Jewishness, Edited by Todd M. Endelman and Tony Kushner

By Felsenstein, Frank | Shofar, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Disraeli's Jewishness, Edited by Todd M. Endelman and Tony Kushner


Felsenstein, Frank, Shofar


London and Portland, OR: Valentine Mitchell, 2002. 265 pp. $59.50 (c), $26.50 (p). ISBN 0-85303-366-8 (c); 0-85303-373-0 (p).

Even though they may be long dead, the private lives of public figures retain an abiding fascination. More often than not, the intimate details that are uncovered or concocted have to do with an individual's sexual proclivities and, as we are reminded by Tony Kushner, in the case of Benjamin Disraeli his "love interests were a constant feature in popular portrayals of his life story" (p. 245). If there exists another, though generally less commonly scrutinized, aspect of the deeper personal life of an individual, it has to do with that person's religious convictions. In that sense, the title to this fine collection of essays is deliberately misleading, since Disraeli was only a Jew (at least in the traditional religious sense of the word) for the first dozen years of his life. In 1817, a year after the death of his grandfather and with open encouragement from his father, Benjamin and his siblings were baptized into the Christian faith. As Lord Blake tellingly remarked in his 1966 biography of Disraeli, "had he remained a Jew, his later political career would have been impossible."

Unarguably, in the early religious life of a Jewish male, the two most significant events are his circumcision on the eighth day following his birth and his bar mitzvah at the age of thirteen. In terms of the development of his faith, Disraeli could not have had any direct choice in the first of these life-cycle events. However, it is difficult to ignore the fact that his conversion to Christianity took place a little less than five months before he would have attained the age of religious responsibility and duty within the Jewish faith. Perhaps because of paucity of evidence, the editors of Disraeli's Jewishness give short shrift to these seminal years of his life, concentrating instead on important aspects of his much more closely documented later existence as a novelist and a politician.

Yet, in his anonymously published work, The Genius of Judaism (1833), Disraeli's own father, the writer Isaac D'Israeli, provides a significant clue as to why he may have been more than willing to sanction his son's conversion. As a modern thinker imbued with the beliefs of the rational Enlightenment, D'Israeli views circumcision historically as "a seal of blood" by which, in ancient days, the Jews "pledged their fealty to the Hebrew Republic." Over time, however, he complains, "this bondage of customs...[has] been converted into rites," with the inescapable outcome that, in an era of liberty, "every man of the race [who] enters into Judaism [does so] without the interposition of his own choice." Can Isaac D'Israeli's unease with Jewry's initial rite of passage have prompted him to abandon the faith of his fathers? Not according to Todd Endelman and Tony Kushner. Though describing his religious ideas as "deistic," they prefer the simpler explanation that Isaac's decision to convert his children was spurred by the utilitarian realization that they "would have more opportunities in life as Christians than Jews" (p. 1).

Circumcision, maintains Isaac D'Israeli in a memorable phrase, leaves the apostate from Jewry forever "haunted, or betrayed by [its] indelible testimony" (my italics), and the overwhelming evidence of Disraeli's Jewishness endorses the truth of this observation. As a just-short-of-bar-mitzvah convert to Christianity, Benjamin Disraeli may have justified his new faith to the gentile world as "completed Judaism" (p. 49), but there is no doubt that throughout the remainder of his extraordinary career he remained obsessed ("haunted") by his Jewishness. Equally, as he himself very soon came to realize, there was no way that he could conceal his origins from the public, since in the popular perception through caricature, skit, and innuendo, he was constantly portrayed ("betrayed") as a Jew.

The essays that make up Disraeli's Jewishness have been judiciously sectioned. …

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