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Reading George Eliot in Jerusalem

Who knew that the 19th century feminist novelist — decidedly not Jewish — was the woman who helped shape the women who shaped me?

In her books, The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis; The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious; and The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus (two have won the National Jewish Book Award), Zornberg gives voice to the tragedy and pathos of human life from the Bible to our own day, to the difficulty of finding a path in a world where God’s presence feels muted and our steps are shadowed by doubt. Here, I think, George Eliot nods her head in agreement.

Unlike many popular lecturers, Zornberg teaches above the heads of many of her listeners, taking inspiration from a startling array of thinkers. George Eliot did likewise. As Anthony Trollope put it, she “fired above the heads of her audience.”

While Zornberg rarely speaks of feminism outright, her writings, like Eliot’s, clearly derive from being born into a world with no obvious place for a woman like herself. Both women hear the “roar on the other side of silence” that Eliot associated with moving out of moral stupidity into a sense of the primacy of others’ lives and needs. Neither Eliot nor Zornberg were actively political, but in their books and their lives they are deeply and intrinsically so.

 Here in Jerusalem, there is a street named after George Eliot, most likely because of her proto-Zionist novel, Daniel Deronda; required reading for many Israelis in the 1950s. But that name was actually a pen name. The writer signed the majority of her letters at mid-life “Marian Lewes.” Most readers assume Eliot took this pen name because women’s books wouldn’t sell as well as men’s, but that’s historically false. By the third quarter of the 19th century, approximately 75 percent of English novels were written by females, with males only regaining the field near the century’s end.

Marian Lewes took on her pen name because she was a radical. She braved the storm of familial and social censure to live with a man who remained in an open marriage to a woman who herself had a lover. Shalvi’s and Zornberg’s lives could not be further from this; they chose marriage and motherhood. But never mistake traditional lives for non-radical propositions; both have forged extraordinarily bold paths for Jewish women.

 When I pick the library card up from the floor on that snowy Jerusalem afternoon and then rescue it from my small daughter’s tight grasp, I wonder if it would be wrong to keep it. Hebrew University will, after all, eventually standardize its bar codes, as books slow to be checked out make their appearance at the circulation desk. Someone will likely throw the card away.

Neither my name nor my husband’s is on the faded card, which seems right to me. And I don’t know who “Margolioth” was or is, in spite of Google. I know only that the name means “pearls” in Hebrew, something Eliot, who studied Hebrew, would have known, too. Untold histories merge with told ones, as do multiple countries, religions, languages and eras. Marian Lewes never had biological children of her own, but among us she has many daughters. I find it fascinating that some of her most notable children are Jewish women raised to be both Orthodox and modern.

When I close The Letters of George Eliot, setting the index card to hold my place, I remember that as a girl, I, too, loved to write and receive letters. What I loved was the stirring back-and-forth, the question-and-answer, of people not in the same place, but also entirely in the same place.

I will keep the index card.  

Ilana Blumberg is associate professor of humanities at Michigan State University and the author of Houses of Study: A Jewish Woman among Books, winner of the Sami Rohr Choice Prize. She is currently on sabbatical in Jerusalem.