How a Peerless Scholar of Victorian England Found Hope in Jewish History

February 12, 2020 | Daniel Johnson
About the author: Daniel Johnson, the founding editor (2008-2018) of the British magazine Standpoint, is now the founding editor of TheArticle and a regular contributor to cultural and political publications in the UK and the U.S.

In an encomium to the intellectual legacy of the late Gertrude Himmelfarb, the distinguished historian of British manners and mores who died last month, Daniel Johnson takes her understanding of what she called the “de-moralization of society” as prophetic in its anticipation of the “hollowing-out of Western civilization.” Yet, Johnson writes, Himmelfarb “never succumbed to pessimism.”

I believe her equanimity arose from a renewed immersion in and appreciation of the Jewish culture of her youth, a culture that always put family first and last. She announced this return to her roots with a short book, The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot, published in 2009. . . . George Eliot was, for Himmelfarb, a kind of heroine. Her fiction, of course, speaks for itself, though in the case of Daniel Deronda, Eliot’s last novel, what she called “the Jewish element” baffled contemporaries.

In just 180 pages, Himmelfarb takes readers on their own odyssey, a journey that transcends George Eliot and stretches from the origins of Zionism and anti-Semitism in 19th-century Germany to the [very different] tracts on Jewish identity of Jean-Paul Sartre and Natan Sharansky in the 20th and 21st centuries. En route, she investigates Eliot’s “initiation” into “the Jewish question” and Judaism itself, explaining how this notorious agnostic saw the role of religion for Jewish people in an unexpectedly positive light.

Himmelfarb’s magnificent homage to George Eliot, published at the age of eighty-seven, might have been her final word on the subject of Jews and Judaism. Not a bit of it. Two years later, in 2011, she returned to the fray with The People of the Book: Philo-Semitism in England from Cromwell to Churchill. Similar in scale but much wider in scope than her study of Eliot, this volume was Himmelfarb’s response to the post-9/11 “resurgence of anti-Semitism throughout the world,” including the UK.

She wrote it to counter the “lachrymose” view of Jewish history, which is in perpetual danger of making Jews into victims and their history a chronicle of misfortunes: “Surely, I felt, Judaism is more than the history of anti-Semitism.” Himmelfarb wanted the Jewish people to be defined by the qualities that had enabled it to endure.

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