Nineteenth-Century Jewish British Literature
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Images from the riots in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2021 depict undoubtedly threatening actions. Violent language and hate speech were also present, including in overtly antisemitic forms. Some of the members of the white nationalist group, the Proud Boys, wore t-shirts with the slogan “6MWE,” a chilling reference to the Holocaust that stands for “six million wasn’t enough.” Unfortunately, antisemitic discourse exists beyond extremist groups and has a centuries-long history that college students often know little about.
The reality of increasing antisemitic discourse demonstrates the necessity for a deep and broad understanding of religious traditions, histories, and literature. My course, “Nineteenth-Century Jewish British Literature,” responds to present-day religious extremism, specifically the resurgence of antisemitism, by centering the voices of nineteenth-century Anglo-Jewry and interrogating questions about religious identity and belief. By design, this course, which I hope to teach soon, focuses on Jewish writers rather than stereotypical depictions of Jews by Christian or secular authors. Readings and assignments are intended to be fully accessible for students entering the course with a broad range of engagement (or lack thereof) with religious traditions of any kind. My goal is for students to develop an ethical framework for engaging with religious faiths and literatures regardless of their status as insiders or outsiders to the cultures and communities this course explores.
As I am not a practicing Jew, I feel it is especially important for me to amplify the perspectives of Jewish scholars and religious people in this course in order to model a sense of curiosity and hospitality for students who may have little familiarity with Judaism. I have designed this course for a student body that is generally not Jewish, so my intention with assignments like the glossary project and the experiential learning opportunities is not only to familiarize students with the more typical themes of a nineteenth-century British literature course, like social class or gender, but also to deepen religious understanding and empathy. To this end, in addition to assigning works by Jewish writers, I’ve set aside many days for guest speakers, envisioning these slots being filled with literary scholars, historians, or local religious leaders. I have left specific details out in this syllabus to allow instructors to find suitable guests in their own areas. The presence of contemporary voices alongside nineteenth-century ones is meant to underline the exigence of this course and encourage students to engage more richly with the readings and central course concepts.
I also want to model inclusivity for my students in the course. By being upfront about my own identity and the limitations of my own perspective, I hope to encourage them to acknowledge when their own frames of reference might not be enough to understand the experience of another. Starting with a pre-course reflection assignment invites all students to critically examine their preconceptions and similarly acknowledge the way their own experiences impact their engagement with Jewish literature. Rather than being confessional, this brief writing assignment asks students to explicitly think through their own positionalities in relation to course materials. I hope this cultivates a classroom culture of inclusivity, curiosity, and humility. This course aims to trouble stereotypes students may have acquired and remind them to avoid exoticizing approaches to a significant global religion.
My syllabus is informed by critical theorists and historians who acknowledge the complexities of Jewish identity formation. Notably, “Jewish” was considered a racial and religious category throughout the nineteenth century. Historical context shapes my course’s intellectual framework, starting with Grace Aguilar’s “History of the Jews in England” (1847), which provides a clear, detailed portrait of British Jewish history. Critics like Sander L. Gilman and Matthew F. Jacobson familiarize students with some of the complex issues involved in nineteenth-century and contemporary Jewish identity formation, while historian George L. Mosse situates our understanding of the range of complex attitudes historical theorists and groups have held toward Jewishness. This history sharpens the gravitas and exigence of this syllabus, as politicized antisemitism increased throughout the century. The course thus begins with a unit that orients students to the critical stakes of and relevant history for studying Anglo-Judaism in the nineteenth century; the rest of the course readings are chronological.
Ivan Davidson Kalmar and Derek J. Penslar argue that Jewishness is “often concurrently [considered] as occidental and oriental” (xiii). To encourage students to think critically about this duality, I’ve selected primary materials that depict British Jews as both insiders and outsiders to British society. While Victorianists may be aware of the writers whose work I’ve assigned, authors like Benjamin Disraeli, Grace Aguilar, Amy Levy, and Israel Zangwill typically do not appear in an average literature survey. These writers represent a range of attitudes toward Judaism: Benjamin Disraeli became a practicing Christian as an adolescent (although he was still racially viewed as Jewish), Aguilar’s devout religious work shaped the practices of many Jews and Christians alike, Levy held a deep ambivalence about her religious identity, and Zangwill engaged with early Zionism.
These authors and their texts provide a wide diversity of thought for the class even within the umbrella of nineteenth-century Anglo-Jewish writers. It is important to me that students do not come away from this course with the misunderstanding that nineteenth-century (or modern) Jews all practiced religion in the same way or held identical beliefs about faith, society, politics, gender, etc. All religious traditions and communities have a diversity of thought and practice, and those developing competence in discussing and studying the intersection of religion and literature must use nuance and avoid sweeping generalizations. Centering actual Jewish voices (as defined by nineteenth-century discourse) enables them to speak for themselves and destabilizes the broad assumptions about Jewishness that have fueled and continue to fuel antisemitism.
My course assignments are equally as important as the readings and are intended to challenge students to fill in gaps they may have about Jewish writing and culture. While there are many assignments in this course, I like to offer students multiple opportunities to earn points since this reduces the stakes of each project, encourages students to take risks with their learning, and helps them keep an open mind as their overall grade is not linked to any one task. Instructors who adapt this syllabus may find it useful to pare down and select from the assignments or alter my grading schema.
As part of the coursework, I have included three written reflection opportunities to engage metacognition and to actively encourage students to explore their biases and growing understanding of Judaism and nineteenth-century literature. I bookend the semester with pre- and post-course reflections, open-ended assignments that allow students to process their previous knowledge and what they have learned over the course of the semester. Additionally, they are asked to write a reflection specifically addressing what they have learned through the course’s experiential elements. These low-stakes assignments permit students to be honest and truthful in assessing what they are learning about specific texts, an ancient religious tradition, and themselves.
The glossary project and biography essay are designed to put learning in the hands of students who can work together in learning communities to cultivate a more robust understanding of elements of Judaism with which they may be unfamiliar. In addition to teaching research skills, these tasks ask students to collaboratively build vocabularies that enrich their engagement with Judaism, develop faculties in researching religion, and practice discussing and writing about religious elements. This flipped classroom assignment invites students to become the experts on a chosen topic or person, troubling the centering of the instructor and raising the importance of the student.
Finally, the outside text group project asks students to work in a learning community as they think critically about how canonical literature has depicted Judaism and Jewish people. As Heidi Kaufman writes, nineteenth-century use of “Jewish discourse reflects far less about Judaism or Jewish historical subjects than about those who create and use this discourse” (2). For this project, students will explore this assertion and evaluate representations of Jewishness in famous texts like George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda or Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. Critically engaging with these novels in smaller groups has several aims. First, student groups should demonstrate agency over the material since each group will be the expert on their chosen text. Second, this gives students the opportunity to compare and contrast the course works by Jewish authors with the way Jewish characters were commonly depicted. In addition to reading and discussing this novel, students will write evaluations of their selected canonical text and then work together to present their findings to the class.
By highlighting Jewishness and Jewish authors, this syllabus challenges prevailing assumptions and scholarly tendencies that treat Christianity as the only religious tradition relevant to the study of nineteenth-century British literature. It also resists the vision of the instructor as a “sage on a stage” who delivers wisdom to passive students and instead facilitates active learning through projects and experiences. I hope this course models ways of engaging with religious cultures and communities that are not one’s own, ultimately contributing to a deeper cultivation of religious tolerance and understanding.
Aguilar, Grace. “History of the Jews in England.” Grace Aguilar: Selected Writings, edited by Michael Galchinsky, Broadview Press, 2003, pp. 313–53.
Gilman, Sander L. “Are Jews White? Or, the History of the Nose Job.” Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader, edited by Les Back and John Solomos, Routledge, 2000, pp. 229–37.
Jacobson, Matthew F. “Looking Jewish, Seeing Jews.” Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader, edited by Les Back and John Solomos, Routledge, 2000, pp. 238–52.
Kalmar, Ivan Davidson, and Derek J. Penslar. “Orientalism and the Jews: An Introduction.” Orientalism and the Jews, edited by Ivan Davidson Kalmar and Derek J. Penslar, Brandeis University Press, 2005, pp. xiii–xl.
Kaufman, Heidi. English Origins, Jewish Discourse, and the Nineteenth-Century British Novel: Reflections on a Nested Nation. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009.
Mosse, George L. “Introduction: The Meaning of Race.” Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism, The University of Wisconsin Press, 2020, pp. xxxv–xxxix.
---. “The Jews: Myth and Counter-Myth.” Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader, edited by Les Back and John Solomos, Routledge, 2000, pp. 195–205.
The Nineteenth-Century Religious Other Series
While religion remains a central topic in the field of Victorian Studies, scholars continue to prioritize Christian perspectives. This cluster of syllabi provides resources that expand engagement beyond Christianity, highlighting texts by and about those considered religious “others” in the nineteenth century. Through frameworks from Postcolonial and Religious Studies, the cluster decenters white Christian metropolitan Britishness by amplifying the voices of those who have been often overlooked due to racial and religious biases. At their best, religions cultivate attitudes of care, and in teasing out the multifaceted Victorian religious perspectives with which students may not be familiar, these syllabi seek to broaden religious tolerance, awareness, and appreciation.
Alyssa Quinn Johnson completed her Ph.D. in English at Texas Christian University, where her dissertation discussed Gothicized depictions of Protestant fanatics in nineteenth-century British fiction. Her research interests lie at the intersection of religion and the Gothic in long-nineteenth-century British fiction.
Header Image Caption
Carpenter, Shawn. “Candle.” 28 June 2010. Flickr. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Page/Syllabus Citation (MLA)
Alyssa Quinn Johnson, dev. “Nineteenth-Century Jewish British Literature.” Mark Knight, peer rev.; Dana Aicha Shaaban, syllabus cluster dev. Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom, 2023, https://undiscipliningvc.org/html/syllabi/jewish_british.html.