Jewish Fiction: Before the Holocaust, Women in

The role and essence of the Jewish woman in early-twentieth-century Italy is a subject often explored in the Jewish fiction of the time. Orthodox women lead an existence enclosed in the life of the home, utterly sheltered from the surrounding Christian world, but the women of assimilated Jewish families embody the striving for social acceptance into the Catholic community. The issue is best dramatized by Enrico Castelnuovo in I Moncalvo (1908), through the conflict between Clara, the aging maiden aunt, a bastion of tradition attempting to weather the changing times—whose orthodox Jewish funeral will stand as the close of a world: an embarrassment, as alien to the remainder of her own family as to the Christian guests—and Mariannina, the beautiful daughter, who gladly accepts a mixed marriage without love and conversion without faith for the sake of illusory social advancement—the crowd cries ‘‘Jew!’’ as the couple leave the church.

The representation of assimilated Jewish women focuses for the most part on a predictable portrayal of anti-Semitism. More interesting, perhaps, are the many instances where authors attempt to create an emblem of the traditional Jewish Italian woman. The moments of direct definition are revealing for how they reiterate both a precise essence and a single function: beauty is a matter of vivid sensuality, and a woman’s realm of action is within the confines of a Jewish home.

E. D. Colonna, in Rachele al fonte (1923), gives the most sustained depiction of Mediterranean Jewish beauty, an image recurring with lesser intensity in most fiction. The women are Oriental in coloring and voluptuous in their every movement. Sensuality becomes a near-mystical attribute, the visible element in an offer of complete self-surrender to the male, a total giving of the self where the physical is a prelude to the spiritual.

Immolation of the self to the requisites of Jewish heritage appears to be at the core of orthodoxy for women. A woman stands as the very locus of tradition; her all-exclusive function is to pass on the legacy of the race, first by giving birth to a Jewish child and then by perpetuating for the young the ways of an orthodox home. It is a role as central as it may seem restricted.

In Graziadio Foa`’s Shylock senza maschera (1924), we find a long antisuf-fragist tirade, followed by a disquisition on how politics should be a male domain, along with all aspects of public living. Even prayer, when formal, is for men alone. In Adriano Grego’s Remo Maun, avvocato (1930), we are told that women learn at birth to live in sordina, without rebellion to the patriarchal system, or even moments of explicit discontent.

The subordination of the individual to a prescribed role has interesting effects. The Jewish maiden is a symbol of alluring vitality, but her single purpose is to attract a suitable mate. Older women seem to become almost diaphanous, disappearing into self-abnegation. Given the vibrant beauty of the young, it is revealing to find the hero of Alfredo Segre’s Agenzia Abram Lewis (1934) musing over how Jewish women are good mothers but bad lovers. Mothering, he concludes, is a function, while loving is a privilege and not part of the Jewish spectrum. He closes his argument by pointing out that Jewish men traditionally neither die of love nor go insane for its sake.

The most extensive and didactic extrapolation of virtuous Jewish living by a woman is given in Giuseppe Morpurgo’s Jom Hakkipurim (1925). In contrast to Giorgio’s doomed marriage to a beloved Christian, we are shown his sister’s arranged wedding to a man as suitable as he is unloved. Anna sadly agrees to marry her father’s least attractive and most orthodox pupil. While standing under the canopy, her apprehension and distaste are suddenly replaced by an ecstatic understanding of her purpose in life. She becomes a spouse of Israel. Her boys will be as strong and healthy as Giorgio’s single daughter will be sickly.

Jewish men are represented insistently as being Italian, patriotic, and involved in the current life of the country as deeply as any Christian. Orthodox women, however, enclosed in their Jewish homes, with little or no contact with the outside community, involved in neither politics nor culture, appear to have little that defines them as Italian—a common mother tongue alone joins them to the surrounding world of Italian women.

See also: Jewish Fiction: Before the Holocaust; Jewish Novel: On the Holocaust and After.

Bibliography: Castelnuovo, Enrico. I Moncalvo. Milan: Treves, 1908; Co-lonna, E. D. Rachele al fonte: novelle per gli ebrei. Torino: Comitato Edizioni Israelitiche, 1923; Foa`, Graziadio. Shylock senza maschera. Ferrara: Taddei, 1924; Morpurgo, Giuseppe. Jom Hakkipurim. Florence: Israel, 1925; Grego, Adriano. Remo Maun, avvocato. Milan: Alpes, 1930; Segre, Alfredo. Agenzia Abram Lewis. Milan: Mondadori, 1934.

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Mann Erudite – Essays on Literary Works