The Jew's Daughter

A Cultural History of a Conversion Narrative

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Efraim Sicher
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Rowman & Littlefield
    , May
     2017.
     322 pages.
     $100.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781498527781.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Efraim Sicher, in his book The Jew’s Daughter: A Cultural History of a Conversion Narrative, chooses to focus on the figure of the “Jew,” whom he describes as an “archetypal Other” (1). This figure of the “Jew” has, in Western cultures, represented the “stereotyped construction of the immigrant, the alien, and all that is threatening and hateful” (1). Sicher makes the interesting choice of focusing on two related literary tropes: the “Jew” and the “Jew’s Daughter.” In this relationship as it is depicted in poetry, song, drama, art, architecture, and literature, Sicher presents a compelling argument for “how the narrative of the Jew and his daughter informs discourses about gender, sexuality, race, and nationhood in European societies from the eleventh to the twenty-first centuries” (2). He does this through a comparative, interdisciplinary analysis of various texts. This analysis is also informed by historical anecdotes relating the experiences of particular Jewish women, Jewish men, and Jewish communities in Europe, Russia, and North Africa. These historical experiences are both combined into this narrative tradition and also serve, at times, to resist and subvert it.  

Sicher situates his work in relation to the work of scholars like Bryan Cheyette and Zygmunt Bauman. Bauman’s term “allosemitism” is particularly helpful in this context, referring to the ambivalence of presentation of the figure of the “Jew.” As Sicher notes, trying to argue that texts are anti-Semitic or philo-Semitic can distract from the multiple meanings and readings available to the reader. Sicher affirms, along with Cheyette, that he is focusing on the “Jew” as “a figure of the constructed Other in social discourse” (2–3). Sicher notes the importance of biblical characters like Esther in both Jewish and Christian imaginations. In addition to biblical characters, Sicher highlights the power and importance of Jewish literary characters like the father-daughter pairs Barabas and Abigail in Christopher Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta, Shylock and Jessica in Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, and Isaac and Rebecca in Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe. While these texts originate in England, they were translated widely and influenced Spain, France, Germany, and Russia with differing results.

In chapter 1, Sicher surveys various tropes for the “Jew’s Daughter” in the Middle Ages in Europe. He points to references of the “Jew’s Daughter” in accusations of the murder of Christian children. The “Jew’s Daughter” is presented as an object of desire and as a potential convert to the Christian faith. The “Jew’s Daughter” is also depicted, in some settings, as the potential mother of the Antichrist. Ultimately, though, the “Jew’s Daughter” emerges as a beautiful woman who is both desired for her beauty and wealth and also feared. As Sicher writes, “The Beautiful Jewess, for her part, threatened masculinity doubly—through her sexuality and her racialized Jewishness” (50). Sicher continues, in the chapters that follow, to trace the development of this stereotype in Western Europe. While a complete summary of the text is not necessary, chapter 2 serves as a good example of the work that Sicher does in his text.

In chapter 2, Sicher traces the influence of the story of the biblical character Queen Esther in various European contexts. Sicher notes, “The Beautiful Jewess was in the European imagination a dangerous figure who used her bewitching beauty to influence the king on behalf of the Jews” (58). Sicher contrasts early legends about a Polish Jewish woman named Esterke who served as Casimir the Great’s (1310–1370 CE) mistress with legends about the Spanish king Alphonso VIII (who reigned from 1158–1214 CE) and his Jewish mistress. Spanish playwright Lope de Vega’s play The Jewess of Toledo (1617) presents Alphonso’s Jewish mistress as a powerful and dangerous woman in contrast to the “benign” Esterka. Sicher sees this shift reflecting emerging “modern concepts of female empowerment and the seductive femme fatale who is both a religious and sexual threat” (73). Sicher traces the migration of this Spanish fable to France, Austria, and Germany. In a later work of resistance, German-Jewish authors in the mid twentieth century rework the Spanish fable to “prioritize the greater Jewish common good over the fate of the individual. The stakes are no longer emancipation, but survival of the Jewish people” (83). In chapters 3 and 5, Sicher focuses on depictions of the “Jew” and the “Jew’s Daughter” in both early modern and nineteenth century England. In chapter 4, Sicher and his co-author Noa Sophie Kohler focus on depictions of the “Jew” and the “Jew’s Daughter” in Germany. In chapter 6, Sicher focuses on depictions of the “Jew” and the “Jew’s Daughter” in France and in French colonial territories in North Africa. As with The Jewess of Toledo, these various texts and depictions circulate from country to country, being utilized as part of larger conversations about the emancipation of the Jews, the emancipation of women, religion in public life, and the emerging nation-state.

Mary Douglas, Judith Butler, René Girard, Michel Foucault, and Edward Said are mentioned in passing by Sicher, but he writes very little about his use of their work. Sicher’s presentation of the “Jew’s Daughter” would also potentially benefit from more direct reference to the field of religious studies and the critical study of religion. Essentializing the “Jew” as “wealthy,” “unforgiving,” and “one who hates Christ and Christians” while making no reference to religious traditions, texts, rituals, and practices may have been commonplace in Western Europe but it suggests a serious lack in understanding, definition, and the politics of identity. It may be that further work on this topic could focus more on the theoretical as well as the disciplinary contributions of the academic study of religion. Aside from these minor concerns, Sicher’s text is an impressive presentation of research from many times and places that serves to support and illustrate his thesis well.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Gillingham is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta.

Date of Review: 
March 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Efraim Sicher is a professor of English and comparative literature at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

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