Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Jews of Charles Dickens

As has been frequently reported, anti-Semitism is on the rise.

Beyond strengthening our own Jewish identities, what can we do? There are often simple, non-threatening actions that can make a difference. The following is the tale of how one woman’s letter-writing had a positive affect on a celebrity author.

In Victorian England, there was no more popular author than Charles Dickens. While Dickens was known as a great social reformer, his 1838-39 newspaper serial publication of Oliver Twist demonstrated the deep societal anti-Semitism of Dickens' time. Fagin, a major character in the story, is an underworld criminal who trains small children to be pickpockets. He is a very unseemly character and, more often than not, he is referred to derisively as “the Jew.”

In 1863, Dickens received a letter from Eliza Davis, a Jewish woman whose husband had purchased Dickens’ home in 1860. Davis wrote to Dickens that his negative portrayal of Jews "encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew." Dickens immediate reaction was defensive, but the letter had an obvious affect on him. The episodes of Oliver Twist were in the process of being printed in book form. Dickens halted the publication to make changes. Unfortunately, 38 chapters had already been printed and in these the reference to “the Jew” remain. In the final 15 chapters, however, Dickens altered approximately 180 such negative references.

Additionally, his next major book, Our Mutual Friend, included a favorable character named Mr. Riah, who is the manager (but not the evil owner) of a money-lending establishment. While it is widely assumed that Mr. Riah was created as an apology, he is, unfortunately, so good, kind and humble that he becomes two dimensional.

Despite the enormous celebrity of Charles Dickens, Eliza Davis reached out and expressed her concern, and made a difference.

(Today is Dickens' birthday.)

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