by Bar­bara Klein Moss

Ear­li­er this week, Jew­ish Book Coun­cil inter­viewed Bar­bara Klein Moss, the author of The Lan­guage of Par­adise: A Nov­el about the com­plex­i­ties of cast­ing a Jew­ish vil­lain. The con­ver­sa­tion pro­voked the author to reex­am­ine her por­tray­al of the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence of nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry New Eng­land and pro­vide the fol­low­ing rumi­na­tion.
Read the orig­i­nal inter­view here.

It was an inter­est­ing expe­ri­ence for me, as a writer who is Jew­ish, to write from the point of view of Calvin­ist New Eng­lan­ders for whom fixed atti­tudes about Jews were an accept­ed part of the cul­ture. The char­ac­ter of the Rev­erend Hedge was inspired by an eccen­tric poly­math par­son named Jonathan Fish­er, who lived and preached in Blue Hill, Maine in the ear­ly part of the 19th cen­tu­ry. He knew many lan­guages but had a spe­cial rev­er­ence for Hebrew as the lan­guage of Holy Scrip­ture, even enshrin­ing the Hebrew let­ters in an Alpha­bet­i­cal Bes­tiary of the Bible, sim­i­lar to the one I gave to Hedge. Yet, one of his few sur­viv­ing ser­mons rails against the Jews. This para­dox was very com­mon at the time. Hedge can effuse to Gideon about the sen­su­al­i­ty of the Hebrew let­ters, their heft,” their shape­li­ness,” while still pious­ly opin­ing about the bur­den he bears for the Jews, how he prays for them, but with­out much hope.”

Gideon, as a mem­ber of this soci­ety though not tru­ly of it, still has to con­front the car­i­ca­tures he grew up with: the two tribes who lived side by side in him,” the Hebrews in the sto­ries and the Jews, who, in his mother’s words, kept to them­selves.” When he first learns that Lean­der is Jew­ish, he sees him through the scrim of all the clichés, com­par­ing his friend, whom he has begun to love, to the com­mon per­cep­tions about Jews, and then looked this leer­ing car­i­ca­ture full in the face, and, with a sin­gle shaky breath, dis­missed it.” As he goes through this process, he is aware that Lean­der is watch­ing him, reg­is­ter­ing each stage of his thought as it made its lurch­ing pil­grim­age from com­mon wis­dom to fable .” Lean­der has been through this before. If he has become a shape-shifter,” pitch­ing his tent in oth­er men’s minds,” it is to escape this relent­less cat­e­go­riz­ing, and he is wait­ing to see whether Gideon will change toward him now that he knows the one fact.” It’s not that Lean­der him­self is a car­i­ca­ture, but that he has a long his­to­ry of being seen as one.

Lean­der and Gideon are drawn to the exper­i­ment in the green­house for dif­fer­ent rea­sons. Gideon believes he is ful­fill­ing his vision. Lean­der is con­vinced he has found his tribe. Each, in his own way, believes he’s start­ing new, leav­ing a cor­rupt old world for a pur­er one. When Lean­der choos­es to set up a house­hold with Sophy and Gideon, he is tak­ing the risk of stay­ing put for the first time since leav­ing the Ger­man Jew­ish soci­ety that his father rep­re­sent­ed. Sophy per­ceives his inter­est in them as cold and cal­cu­lat­ing — and to some extent she’s right — but he’s also gen­uine­ly tak­en with them, and invest­ed in Sophy’s preg­nan­cy and the child to come, the lit­tle man” who will per­haps replace the son he lost in his old life. We are a small tribe,” he says to Gideon, but we are increasing.”

Which brings us to The Shy­lock Moment. I was sur­prised asked why I hadn’t giv­en Lean­der one because, for me, this hap­pens very clear­ly when the par­son warns them that vicious gos­sip has begun to cir­cu­late in the vil­lage — clas­sic slan­ders such as using the baby’s blood to sea­son our soups. To add fla­vor to our bread.” Lean­der rec­og­nizes them as Gideon and Sophy do not, and begins to laugh hys­ter­i­cal­ly. One expects such bar­bar­i­ties in Europe, but that the ten­ta­cles reach to our art­less lit­tle vil­lage …” He sees that there is no refuge from hatred in their iso­lat­ed enclave. The prej­u­dice he knew in Europe will fol­low him. How­ev­er high he builds his wall, the stones will be used to shat­ter the glass walls of their frag­ile Eden.

There are a lot of under­tones in the scene when Sophy catch­es Lean­der in the glasshouse look­ing at the secret sides of her paint­ings and con­fronts him. Leander’s self-mock­ery is evi­dent: I’ve heard of Jews with horns, but wings? An inno­va­tion!” He defends him­self from her accu­sa­tions, insist­ing he hasn’t destroyed their fam­i­ly, but pre­served it by cre­at­ing a new one, and talks objec­tive­ly about Gideon’s obses­sion and how he is putting his friend’s gift to prac­ti­cal use.” He’s par­tic­u­lar­ly defen­sive about Aleph, whom he claims to love: Do you think a man like me — a world­ly man, as you quaint­ly put it — has no ten­der feel­ings?” He nev­er dis­cuss­es his Jew­ish­ness with Sophy, but in the empha­sis he puts on world­ly,” implies that he inter­prets the word as a euphemism. Lat­er, he betrays his need for her, mak­ing an over­ture and speak­ing of their like natures, and she is swayed for a moment before keep­ing him at bay by ask­ing about his mother’s for­tune and whether it has sup­port­ed them all these months. It’s only then that he reverts to type, spec­u­lat­ing that her paint­ings might be worth something.”

Though Lean­der has the place of the ser­pent in the nov­el, he’s hard­ly an unal­loyed vil­lain. He’s a pro­gres­sive man, ahead of his time in many ways, and, for all his wiles and manip­u­la­tions, there is a lot of good in him. As a school­mas­ter, he treats his pupils like human beings and dis­ci­plines them with­out the rod. He takes Sophy’s art seri­ous­ly when no one else does — a fact that she acknowl­edges at the end. He dis­ap­pears after the fire, but the impli­ca­tion is that he’s res­cued Gideon and saved Sophy’s paint­ings. He haunts her long after he is gone. I intend­ed him to be a com­plex char­ac­ter, one not eas­i­ly cat­e­go­rized. As a writer, I have great fond­ness for him because he sparked the nov­el for me when I had reached a dif­fi­cult point. I heard his voice dis­tinct­ly and he was a pure plea­sure to get on the page.

Final­ly, Jew­ish Book Coun­cil asked why I had cho­sen Kas­sel as Leander’s birth­place. Though the choice was arbi­trary — long ago I’d tak­en care of an elder­ly Jew­ish woman who came from there and had fled to the states just before the war — I did do some research about the city. I don’t have time to cor­ral my notes, but I’m pret­ty cer­tain that I inves­ti­gat­ed Jew­ish life there and deter­mined that there was an Ortho­dox syn­a­gogue in Kas­sel dur­ing that era. (I hon­est­ly didn’t know about the Broth­ers Grimm’s Jew­ish car­i­ca­tures, though I’m not sur­prised they exist.)

Read the orig­i­nal inter­view with Bar­bara Klein Moss here.

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