Wednesday, June 15, 2005


In all the literature I have read, the one work that speaks most kindly of the Jews is Ivanhoe. I have read the views of some that Shakespeare's Shylock was not intended to be a monster, but rather, was a man even in his evil acts. But even if so, Shakespeare never wrote of the Jew or Jewess as Sir Walter Scott did, nor would he ever. The Jewess is a proud and beautiful maiden as expressed in Ivanhoe, she is a contender for Ivanhoe's affections, she is one who knows how to act. She is the black-haired beauty as compared to the pale Saxon maiden, Rowena. She is brilliant in her beauty, and if there is any literary figure the Jewess should admire, how could it be anyone but Rebecca?

The descriptions Sir Walter Scott composes are of a sort that pay homage even to Rebecca in her beauty, her strength of mind, her oppression. For example,

    Rebecca was now to expect a fate even more dreadful than that of Rowena; for what probability was there that either softness or ceremony would be used towards one of her oppressed race, whatever shadow of these might be preserved towards a Saxon heiress? Yet had the Jewess this advantage, that she was better prepared by habits of thought, and by natural strength of mind, to encounter the dangers to which she was exposed. Of a strong and observing character, even from her earliest years, the pomp and wealth which her father displayed within his walls, or which she witnessed in the houses of other wealthy Hebrews, had not been able to blind her to the precarious circumstances under which they were enjoyed. Like Damocles at his celebrated banquet, Rebecca perpetually beheld, amid that gorgeous display, the sword which was suspended over the heads of her people by a single hair. These reflections had tamed and brought down to a pitch of sounder judgment a temper, which, under other circumstances, might have waxed haughty, supercilious, and obstinate.

    From her father's example and injunctions, Rebecca had learnt to bear herself courteously towards all who approached her. She could not indeed imitate his excess of subservience, because she was a stranger to the meanness of mind, and to the constant state of timid apprehension, by which it was dictated; but she bore herself with a proud humility, as if submitting to the evil circumstances in which she was placed as the daughter of a despised race, while she felt in her mind the consciousness that she was entitled to hold a higher rank from her merit, than the arbitrary despotism of religious prejudice permitted her to aspire to.
    Thus prepared to expect adverse circumstances, she had acquired the firmness necessary for acting under them. Her present situation required all her presence of mind, and she summoned it up accordingly.

And indeed, her actions are magnificent! She has her claws, and she uses them, she fights as a lioness, brave daughter of Judah that she is:
    "Submit to my fate!" said Rebecca---"and, sacred Heaven! to what fate?---embrace thy religion! and what religion can it be that harbours such a villain?---THOU the best lance of the Templars! ---Craven knight!---forsworn priest! I spit at thee, and I defy thee.---The God of Abraham's promise hath opened an escape to his daughter---even from this abyss of infamy!"

    As she spoke, she threw open the latticed window which led to the bartisan, and in an instant after, stood on the very verge of the parapet, with not the slightest screen between her and the tremendous depth below. Unprepared for such a desperate effort, for she had hitherto stood perfectly motionless, Bois-Guilbert had neither time to intercept nor to stop her. As he offered to advance, she exclaimed, "Remain where thou art, proud Templar, or at thy choice advance!---one foot nearer, and I plunge myself from the precipice; my body shall be crushed out of the very form of humanity upon the stones of that court-yard, ere it become the victim of thy brutality!"

    As she spoke this, she clasped her hands and extended them towards heaven, as if imploring mercy on her soul before she made the final plunge. The Templar hesitated, and a resolution which had never yielded to pity or distress, gave way to his admiration of her fortitude. "Come down," he said, "rash girl!---I swear by earth, and sea, and sky, I will offer thee no offence."

Compare such actions and attitudes with the description of the golden-haired Rowena, the proud Saxon maiden and Ivanhoe's fiancee:

    Hitherto, Rowena had sustained her part in this trying scene with undismayed courage, but it was because she had not considered the danger as serious and imminent. Her disposition was naturally that which physiognomists consider as proper to fair complexions, mild, timid, and gentle; but it had been tempered, and, as it were, hardened, by the circumstances of her education. Accustomed to see the will of all, even of Cedric himself, (sufficiently arbitrary with others,) give way before her wishes, she had acquired that sort of courage and self-confidence which arises from the habitual and constant deference of the circle in which we move. She could scarce conceive the possibility of her will being opposed, far less that of its being treated with total disregard.
    Her haughtiness and habit of domination was, therefore, a fictitious character, induced over that which was natural to her, and it deserted her when her eyes were opened to the extent of her own danger, as well as that of her lover and her guardian; and when she found her will, the slightest expression of which was wont to command respect and attention, now placed in opposition to that of a man of a strong, fierce, and determined mind, who possessed the advantage over her, and was resolved to use it, she quailed before him.

    After casting her eyes around, as if to look for the aid which was nowhere to be found, and after a few broken interjections, she raised her hands to heaven, and burst into a passion of uncontrolled vexation and sorrow. It was impossible to see so beautiful a creature in such extremity without feeling for her, and De Bracy was not unmoved, though he was yet more embarrassed than touched. He had, in truth, gone too far to recede; and yet, in Rowena's present condition, she could not be acted on either by argument or threats. He paced the apartment to and fro, now vainly exhorting the terrified maiden to compose herself, now hesitating concerning his own line of conduct.

Ah! The woman quailing and weeping is nowise the same to the one who chooses death over the Templar! Look again to the despised Jewess, to Rebecca:

    While Rebecca spoke thus, her high and firm resolve, which corresponded so well with the expressive beauty of her countenance, gave to her looks, air, and manner, a dignity that seemed more than mortal. Her glance quailed not, her cheek blanched not, for the fear of a fate so instant and so horrible; on the contrary, the thought that she had her fate at her command, and could escape at will from infamy to death, gave a yet deeper colour of carnation to her complexion, and a yet more brilliant fire to her eye. Bois-Guilbert, proud himself and high-spirited, thought he had never beheld beauty so animated and so commanding.

Rebecca is the one who endures, the one who is put on trial for witchcraft- for supposedly seducing Bois-Guilbert with her sorcery so that he would be bewitched by her. But his fellow knights know as well as he the charge is false:

    She withdrew her veil, and looked on them with a countenance in which bashfulness contended with dignity. Her exceeding beauty excited a murmur of surprise, and the younger knights told each other with their eyes, in silent correspondence, that Brian's best apology was in the power of her real charms, rather than of her imaginary witchcraft

And even at the end of the book, when Ivanhoe and Rowena are wed:
    He lived long and happily with Rowena, for they were attached to each other by the bonds of early affection, and they loved each other the more, from the recollection of the obstacles which had impeded their union. Yet it would be enquiring too curiously to ask, whether the recollection of Rebecca's beauty and magnanimity did not recur to his mind more frequently than the fair descendant of Alfred might altogether have approved.

The spirited, beautiful, magnaminous Jewess Scott creates is perhaps the most intriguing Jewish character I have ever come across. Incredibly different from Isaac of York or the other Jews and Jewesses she cites throughout the book, she is the flame, the spirit, the brilliance of the Jewish people. She is courageous, she helps Ivanhoe and loves him (though she should not) and parts from him, allowing him to wed Rowena, even though she herself loves him. She upholds her religion in all situations. Truly, she must be the epitome of the literary Judaic characters! I have not yet seen one more cleverly crafted than she. Hurrah for Scott! And hurrah for the Jewess!