Now largely forgotten, Robert Nathan (1894–1985) was a prolific writer of fantasy novels who found commercial success in the 1920s and 30s. Michael Weingrad introduces him thus:
Nathan was a Jewish-American writer, but not in the way we tend to think of that category. He was not a product of the mass migration of Jews from Eastern Europe that took place during the last two decades of the 19th century and first two decades of the 20th, and that has so extensively shaped the very notions of Jewishness—and, for that matter, Americanness—in the United States to this day.
No, Nathan was born into one of the old, close-knit families of New York’s Sephardi Jewish aristocracy, with roots going back to the colonial period. He was a descendant of the eminent 18th-century rabbi Gershom Mendes Seixas, and related to both Emma Lazarus and Benjamin Cardozo. . . . Nathan attended private school in Switzerland and Philips Exeter Academy, and matriculated at Harvard, though he dropped out to get married—the first of seven marriages—and go to work in advertising.
Among his novels was Road of Ages, which Weingrad describes as a “Zionist allegorical fantasy.” Another, There Is Another Heaven, imagines Professor Wuthridge, a scholar of Semitics, and Mr. Lewis (né Samuel Levy), a convert to Christianity, arriving in a dystopian afterlife that exemplifies a sort of desiccated American Protestantism. Weingrad writes:
Wutheridge is curious as to why Lewis converted to Christianity. Lewis explains that it was largely out of a desire to escape exclusion and feel a sense of belonging, particularly given his sense of inferiority and shame about his family. “I was unhappy because nobody wanted me. Nobody, that is, except my family,” he says. “But who wanted my family? Nobody.” Christianity seemed a better option: “their religion gives them pleasure; while mine only keeps me out of things.” Yet his conversion did not give him the belonging he sought. In life he had acquaintances, but no friends. And in heaven he is all alone.
Lewis has a sweet vision of his family, on Friday evening with the Sabbath candles lighted. Memories of Jewish friends of his childhood are brought to him to show that valor and mystery were both part of his Jewish world, and not something he needed to seek elsewhere. There was a Jewish playmate who went on to die in the First World War: “he was a hero, Sammy,” Lewis hears. There was a “little girl who kissed you so sweetly.”
There Is Another Heaven is also a reminder that we often find among earlier generations of Sephardi writers in America a more intimate and comfortable relationship with Christianity than among the American Jewish mainstream with its East European origins.