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Alroy, Edited by Sheila A. Spector


Sheila A. Spector. “Alroy as Disraeli’s ‘Ideal Ambition.’” British Romanticism and the Jews: History, Culture, Literature. Ed. Sheila A. Spector. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2002. 235-48.
  1. Identified by Cecil Roth “as one of the earliest, and perhaps indeed the earliest, of Jewish historical novels,” Benjamin Disraeli’s The Wondrous Tale of Alroy has been criticized for its historical inaccuracies.1 Based on the failed messianic movement led by David Alroy in the twelfth century,2 the novel traces the archetypal cycle prevalent in Jewish culture of the rise and fall of an anointed king whose personal shortcomings, coupled with external exigencies, prevent his restoring the Jewish people to their homeland, where they are to rebuild the Temple and reestablish the ancient biblical cult.3 Instead, the novel ends where it began, with the Jews in their Eastern diaspora, paying tribute to their Muslim oppressors. In creating what he called a “dramatic romance,” Disraeli exercised a great deal of poetic license, some acknowledged, some not.4 He altered historical events, anachronistically relocated real individuals from their own epochs, and introduced not necessarily accurate portrayals of Jewish rites and ceremonies, including an elaborate overlay of kabbalistic machinery that, despite his assertion to the contrary, does not particularly reflect the mystical practices of the Jews, thus provoking the critical response to his only Jewish novel. Yet, to measure what the author would eventually call his “ideal ambition” against the standard of factual accuracy distorts the larger implications of the novel, limiting its fictional relevance to a narrowly defined Jewish context. Rather, as a “Jewish” work written by a practicing Anglican of Jewish ethnicity, Alroy is neither a “Jewish novel,” nor, as Disraeli’s early reviewers would testify, a popular work of fiction.5 Rather, as the only Jewish novel written by a baptized Jew, Alroy can more properly be viewed as a Christian apologetic, a fictionalized defense of Disraeli’s own apostasy.

  2. Psychologically, converts have frequently felt constrained to justify in writing their reasons for abandoning Judaism. Although, in contrast to Disraeli’s, their literary works are usually hostile, for the most part they serve two purposes. First, given the political realities of the diaspora, the apologetics are used to ingratiate converts with their new co-religionists, often by revealing to the public Jewish “secrets” that eventually would be turned against the Jewish populace. Second, these treatises serve an evangelical purpose. Possibly to rationalize their own choice, possibly to please their new spiritual advisors, apostates often feel compelled to persuade others to join them in their move from one faith to the other. As a result, some of the most virulent forms of anti-Semitism have emanated from those who experienced for themselves the effects of such religious discrimination.

  3. Such was not the case with Disraeli. Having been baptized at the age of twelve, by parents who themselves remained Jewish, Disraeli was technically part of both worlds, and consequently, felt he belonged in neither. While there is no evidence that his Anglican faith was anything other than sincere, he still retained an ethnic connection with what he called the Jewish race, believing that “Christianity is Judaism for the multitude.”6 Yet, he also recognized that his conversion, which gained him access to the political career he was about to embark upon when he published The Wondrous Tale of Alroy in 1833, would likely generate accusations of opportunism, that he had abandoned his faith for the sake of secular success. However, as the son of a second-generation Englishman with Mendelssohnian sympathies, Disraeli was historically a man out of his time. Internally, a separatist reformed synagogue would not be organized until 1840, while externally, English Jews would not gain full emancipation until 1871, when they would be permitted to take degrees at Oxford and Cambridge.7 Consequently, as Isaac D’Israeli was persuaded in 1817, it would be best to have his children baptized.

  4. In contrast to its Continental counterparts, the Anglo-Jewish community was slow to institute the kinds of reforms that might have dissuaded D’Israeli.8 Externally, instead of granting the Jews full citizenship, ever since the failed Jewish Naturalization Bill of 1753, England had followed a process of incremental emancipation,9 gradually eliminating civil disabilities until, in 1858, Baron Lionel de Rothschild could take his seat in Parliament, and in 1871, the Universities Tests Act would be passed. Existing in an amorphous state in which they were neither granted full privileges of citizenship nor forced to suffer the extreme hardships of anti-Semitism, English Jewry was bifurcated into two completely different groups. The older Sephardic community, some of whose members had been in England for centuries, had assimilated to the extent that they could, their knowledge of the modern European languages providing access to the intellectual world of post-Enlightenment England; yet, because of public prejudice and civil disabilities, they were still looked down upon as Jews. Basically, they had the sensibilities of Reformed Jews, though without any internal institutional support. In contrast, the newer Ashkenazic community, which for the most part lacked the educational background and linguistic facility of the Sephardim, required the security of a traditional synagogal hierarchy, maintained through a strict adherence to biblical rites and customs. Hence Isaac D’Israeli’s dilemma. While neither he nor his father believed in the tenets of rabbinic Judaism, both felt an emotional tie to their heritage, maintaining membership in the London Congregation of Spanish and Portuguese Jews. Yet, after his own father’s death, when embroiled in a controversy with the Wardens at the Bevis Marks Synagogue, Isaac formally broke with a community whose theology had always conflicted with his own.10 Still, despite his criticism of Anglo-Jewry, Isaac seems never to have come to terms with his decision to have his children baptized, publishing anonymously The Genius of Judaism in 1833, the same year Benjamin published Alroy. For his part, Benjamin seems to have accepted the necessity of his conversion, in The Wondrous Tale of Alroy satirizing a panorama of Jewish types found throughout the history of the diaspora, suggesting that as an “ideal ambition,” Alroy might be the hero of some sort of sentimental romance, but that as a whole, the traditional Jewish community constituted an unviable religious establishment for the modern world.

  5. In the novel, Disraeli uses David Alroy’s failed messianic movement as the vehicle for illuminating the shortcomings of the contemporary Anglo-Jewish community, with the backdrop of the medieval Muslim-Turkish world as the vehicle for displacing contemporary criticism onto a neutral culture. Within that context, Alroy, as the scion of the House of David, attempts to accommodate his personal desires with his social obligations, all within the exigencies of the real world. To that end, in the first half of the novel, he interacts with all of the disparate types found in a traditional Jewish community, including the secular leader, the virtuous woman, the rabbi, the kabbalist, the prophetess, and the marrano, or crypto-Jew, so that in the second half, he can try to consolidate their ultimately contradictory attitudes toward Judaism into a viable theocracy. As is to be expected, he will fail. However, Alroy’s experience provides Disraeli with what was apparently the necessary rationalization for his apostasy. Yet, in contrast to more conventional apologetics, he does not evangelize his Jewish readers but, instead, he seems to suggest that internal reform—along with civil emancipation—might help others avoid being forced to make the choice he and his father had to confront.

  6. Providing the context for the action are the male and female symbols of stability within the Jewish social structure: the lay leader, and the virtuous woman, that is, the secular head of the community and the female head of the household. Because, historically, Jews had been ghettoized into their own communities, they established their own internal political structure, a leader being required both to maintain order among the Jews and to intercede among the Christians of the larger community. By identifying Bostenay as the “exilarch” of his novel, Disraeli associates the action with the entire history of the Jewish diaspora, the title Resh Galuta, as an exilarch with hereditary ties to the House of David, dating back to the Second Temple era.11 Consequently, Bostenay’s official functions, including the protection of orphans like David and his sister Miriam, and the payment of tribute to the Turkish overlords, are historically authentic, reflecting the exilarch’s primary duties; but they also project the obligations to be imposed on their later Western manifestation, the parnas, who, like the official of the Bevis Marks Synagogue, imposed a fine on Isaac D’Israeli for refusing to serve as warden. Significantly, by naming his character Bostenay (or Bustenai), the name of the first exilarch, Disraeli not only associates the secular head of the community with the full history of Jewish exile, but more specifically, introduces the concept of inter-marriage, Bustenai supposedly having been married to the Persian emperor’s daughter. Applying the corrective of historical reality, Disraeli uses the actual Bustenai’s inter-marriage to undermine the pretext used by the fictional Jabaster and Esther for plotting against Alroy at the climax of the novel, implying that the former was actually more interested in restoring the biblical cult, and the latter in avenging a perceived sexual rejection. Within the novel, Bostenay is not really part of the action per se, but represents the Jewish community at large, literally interceding on its behalf, symbolically living at the mercy of external forces over which he has no control. In periods of prosperity, the exilarch lived like a prince, though when the novel opens, Bostenay undergoes the indignity of paying tribute to the Turks. When the nephew triumphs, his uncle prospers; at Alroy’s death, Bostenay is again degraded to the level of servant.

  7. As Alroy’s female counterpart, his sister Miriam is the virtuous Jewish woman whose piety and valor are celebrated in folklore. In the beginning of the novel, she provides the impetus for the action, Alschiroch’s attack symbolizing the eternal condition of the Jew in exile, being vulnerable to some form of rape by the sultan’s brother. In defending Miriam, Alroy assumes his obligations as messiah-king; his ensuing exile to the wilderness, like Moses’ before him, initiates the process of revelation as he accepts his larger obligations to his people. Symbolically, Miriam, as the archetypal Jewish woman, embodies the historical goal of Jewish messianism, to restore the Jewish nation. Consequently, she must die when Alroy is executed: the failure of the movement signifies the death of the traditional (i.e., pre-Reform) Jewish community.

  8. Within the context established by Bostenay and Miriam, the core of traditional Judaism emerges as the real object of Disraeli’s satire. Focusing on what he portrays as a rigid, irrational rabbinate, trapped by the combination of a superstitious adherence to archaic rites and customs, and a preference for revealed, as opposed to natural, religion, Disraeli implies that traditional Jews are incapable of adapting to the exigencies of the contemporary world. Personifying these non-rational Jewish archetypes are Zimri, the chief rabbi of Jerusalem; Jabaster, the kabbalistic zealot; and Esther, the prophetess.

  9. The most extensive satire is directed against the Talmudic sophistry of an unenlightened rabbinate, as portrayed by Zimri, Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, presumably the religious authority to whom Alroy must prove himself before he can be anointed the messiah-king. But by locating the rabbinic examination in medieval Jerusalem, Disraeli conveys the impotence of an institution supposedly designed to regenerate the Jewish community. As the embodiment of rabbinic Judaism, Zimri is physically old, intellectually constricted, and, consequently, spiritually blind. When they first meet, Alroy mistakes the “old man, in shabby robes, who was passing” (Pt3Ch2), for a doddering derelict:
         “Fellow, I see thou art a miserable prattler. Show me our quarter, and I will pay thee well, or be off.”
         “Be off! Art then a Hebrew? to say ‘be off’ to any one. You come from Bagdad! I tell you what, go back to Bagdad. You will never do for Jerusalem.”
         “Your grizzled beard protects you. Old fool, I am a pilgrim just arrived, wearied beyond expression, and you keep me here listening to your flat talk!”
         “Flat talk! Why! what would you?”
         “Lead me to the Rabbi Zimri, if that be his name.”
         “If that be his name! Why, every one knows Rabbi Zimri, the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, the successor of Aaron. We have our temple yet, say what they like. A very learned doctor is Rabbi Zimri.”
         “Wretched driveller. I am ashamed to lose my patience with such a dotard.” (Pt3Ch3)
    More than comic, the scene undermines the basic tenets of rabbinic Judaism. Taking place in a Jerusalem controlled by “Franks” who do not deign to speak to Jews, the setting provides a constant reminder of the central contradiction inherent in the messianic myth. Despite the facts that Jews live in Israel, that remnants of the temple exist—“We have our temple yet,” as Zimri boasts—and that the ancient Jewish rituals are adhered to, still, the majority of Jews live in exile. Significantly, the putative intellectual leader of the Jews is a silly old man who makes no sense, speaking “flat talk.” Even more important, though, the rabbi fails to recognize the future messiah, telling Alroy, “You will never do for Jerusalem.” Ironically, the rabbi is right. Alroy will not become the traditional messiah of rabbinic belief.

  10. The next chapter satirizes Talmudic learning for being ahistorical and circular. In the scene, Rabbi Zimri discusses Talmud with his elder, the 109-year-old Rabbi Maimon:
         “No one reasons like Abarbanel of Babylon,” said Rabbi Zimri.
         “The great Rabbi Akiba, of Pundebita, has answered them all,” said Rabbi Maimon, “and holds that they were taken up to heaven.”
         “And which is right?” inquired Rabbi Zimri.
         “Neither,” said Rabbi Maimon.
         “One hundred and twenty reasons are strong proof,” said Rabbi Zimri.
         “The most learned and illustrious Doctor Aaron Mendola, of Granada,” said Rabbi Maimon, “has shown that we must look for the Tombs of the Kings in the south of Spain.”
         “All that Mendola writes is worth attention,” said Rabbi Zimri.
         “Rabbi Hillel, of Samaria, is worth two Mendolas any day,” said Rabbi Maimon.
         “’Tis a most learned doctor,” said Rabbi Zimri; “and what thinks he?”
         “Hillel proves that there are two Tombs of the Kings,” said Rabbi Maimon, “and that neither of them are the right ones.”
         “What a learned doctor!” exclaimed Rabbi Zimri.
         “And very satisfactory,” remarked Alroy.
         “These are high subjects,” continued Maimon, his blear eyes twinkling with complacency. “Your guest, Rabbi Zimri, must read the treatise of the learned Shimei, of Damascus, on ‘Effecting Impossibilities.’”
         “That is a work!” exclaimed Zimri.
         “I never slept for three nights after reading that work,” said Rabbi Maimon.
         “It contains twelve thousand five hundred and thirty-seven quotations from the Pentateuch, and not a single original observation.”
         “There were giants in those days,” said Rabbi Zimri; “we are children now.”
         “The first chapter makes equal sense, read backward or forward,” continued Rabbi Maimon. (Pt3Ch4)
    In addition to mixing up historical names and titles of treatises, the two rabbis turn basic logic topsy turvy. They accept contradictory precepts—“‘Hillel proves that there are two Tombs of the Kings,’ said Rabbi Maimon, ‘and that neither of them are the right ones’”; they praise oxymoronic concepts, like Shimei’s “Effecting Impossibilities”; they laud triteness—“and not a single original observation”; and basically, they strive for the irrational: “The first chapter makes equal sense, read backward or forward.”

  11. The synagogue scene that follows depicts the moribund nature of Zimri’s religion. Located in a dark cemetery, which they must descend to enter, the synagogue is actually the inner chamber of a claustrophobic tomb that leaves the congregants essentially brain dead. After prayers, when Rabbi Zimri expounds the law, he poses a riddle that none of the Jerusalem Jews can solve: “it is written, that he took a rib from Adam when he was asleep. Is God then a robber?” (Pt4Ch2). It takes an outsider, an African pilgrim, to respond: “Rabbi, some robbers broke into my house last night, and stole an earthen pipkin, but they left a golden vase in its stead” (Pt4Ch2). The scene and the solution both reflect the need for new blood in the congregation, the riddle clearly indicating the need for change, the earthen pipkin symbolizing the old, moribund tradition, and the golden vase its evolution into a modern vessel whose use and beauty far surpass the original object.

  12. For his part, the African then poses a riddle about a laughing girl and dreaming boy who marry, which he must solve himself:
    “Now hear the interpretation,” said the African. “The youth is our people, and the damsel is our lost Sion, and the tomb of Absalom proves that salvation can only come from the house of David. Dost then hear this, young man?” said the African, coming forward and laying his hand on Alroy. “I speak to thee because I have observed a deep attention in thy conduct.” (Pt4Ch2)
    More than simply the intellectual limitations of the congregation, the riddle turns back on the messianic prayers just uttered in the synagogue. Not only do the congregants not understand that the solution to the riddle is the basic tenet of their faith, but more important, they fail to recognize that Alroy is quite literally the answer to their prayers. Yet, even after the African compliments Alroy, Zimri keeps talking, preventing Alroy from accompanying the African out of the synagogue. In the next chapter, Alroy must leave Jerusalem to find the Tomb of the Kings, where he will be made messiah.

  13. Rabbi Zimri is not only ineffectual, but his bumbling idiocy prevents the achievement of the messianic dream he espouses. He never recognizes, much less acknowledges, Alroy as messiah; instead, he buries himself in the ancient lore that makes equal sense backward and forward. Consequently, Alroy, in order to complete his obligations to the Jewish community, must leave both Jerusalem and its chief rabbi, symbols of a moribund rabbinate that inhibits the evolution of modern Judaism.

  14. Unlike his satiric approach to the rabbinate, Disraeli’s treatment of revealed religion is far more complex. Without actually attacking the possibility of either mysticism or prophecy, he confuses the issue, portraying Jabaster, the mystical zealot, and Esther, the prophetess, as fully human beings whose personal ambitions and drives are so intertwined with their Divine revelations that it becomes impossible to differentiate between the two.

  15. Jabaster, Alroy’s spiritual advisor, embodies the contradictions inherent in the question of revelation in the modern world. On the surface, he is depicted like the archetypal mystical ascetic, a Bar Kokhba living in the wilderness where he will be free to practice his ritualistic beliefs. Before the time of the novel, he had been Alroy’s teacher who, having recognized early on young David’s messianic potential, educated him in the supernatural lore associated with his Divine mission. At the beginning of the novel, Jabaster prepares Alroy for the quest in search of Solomon’s scepter, providing him with both the talisman that controls access to the Tomb, and the ring that will protect him from the Muslims. Then, immediately after Alroy locates the scepter, he is transported back to Jabaster’s cave, from where they will begin the proto-messiah’s miraculously successful campaign against the Turks.

  16. Interlaced with the mystical signs, however, are indications of a frustrated man, hoping to fulfill his own ambitions through the agency of his student. In an early soliloquy, Jabaster admits that in his own youth, he had attempted to lead his own crusade, but lacking Divine sanction, he had failed. Then, during Alroy’s early messianic wars, Jabaster’s Jewish troops falter, requiring the assistance of Scherirah and his band of multi-cultural mercenaries. Yet, after their success, Jabaster attempts to persuade Alroy to impose a rigid theocracy on the empire, permits his own troops to desecrate Muslim holy places, and resists Alroy’s wish to include on the council representatives of all of the empire’s disparate peoples. Then, when Alroy marries Schirene and chooses Bagdad over Jerusalem, Jabaster plots against the putative messiah, intending himself to slay the scion of the House of David.

  17. The point is less Jabaster’s human weaknesses than the ambiguity of the situation as a whole. Because the supernatural and purely human are so thoroughly mixed in Jabaster, it is impossible to know which of his demands are Divinely sanctioned, and which result from his own prejudices. Obviously, from an orthodox perspective, Alroy’s inter-marriage could be interpreted as anathema, some biblical antecedents, such as Samson and Solomon, providing evidence of a religious prohibition. Similarly, the choice of Bagdad over Jerusalem could also be interpreted as the kind of violation that resulted in the diaspora. Yet, Jabaster’s troops would have died like the Zealots of Masada had Scherirah not saved them; and as the extensive scene with Rabbi Zimri suggests, any attempt to restore the biblical cult in the Jerusalem of the twelfth century (itself modeled after the Jerusalem of the nineteenth century that Disraeli visited while writing the novel) would have been absurd. Most significant, though, Jabaster’s messianic ideology caused him to violate its most basic tenet—he was actually prepared to kill the messiah-king, thus privileging his own supposed revelation, which had already been proven unreliable, over that of the man who had been given Solomon’s scepter.

  18. Like Jabaster, Esther the prophetess embodies the same confusing mixture of Divine revelation and human desire, her prophecies directly paralleling her emotional state. That is, as long as she felt that she might have a chance with Alroy, her interpretations of his mission were positive. When first introduced in Part VII, she is overcome with her vision of the messiah’s imminent success, as “foaming and panting, she rushed to Alroy, threw herself upon the ground, embraced his feet, and wiped off the dust from his sandals with her hair” (104). But once he announces his engagement to Schirene, Esther’s prophecies grow increasingly more antagonistic; she endorses the plot against Alroy and the plan to murder Honain; and finally, she attempts to assassinate Alroy herself. As she says, “An irresistible impulse hath carried me into this chamber! . . . The light haunted me like a spectre; and wheresoever I moved, it seemed to summon me” (Pt7Ch14). While the subconscious wish-fulfillment seems obvious, Disraeli leaves open the question of Esther’s visionary prowess. After all, Alroy’s decisions to marry Schirene and turn to Bagdad do cause Jabaster to set in motion the dastardly plot. Consequently, even though the prophecy does come true, we do not know whether it is a coincidence caused by human machinations, part of Divine providence, or possibly even both.

  19. Just as Disraeli questions the validity of the mystic and prophet, he similarly undermines the integrity of the marrano, historically the crypto-Jew who pretended to convert to Christianity in order to escape punishment by the Inquisition. Although Disraeli would later romanticize the marrano, even going so far as to create for himself a pseudo-genealogy in which he claimed to have been descended from crypto-Jews, in Alroy, he portrays the anachronistic moranno, Honain, as a hypocrite, no better than the self-serving pragmatic utilitarian of nineteenth-century England.

  20. In his first appearance, Honain projects the impression of a marrano who chose to go underground because even though the contemporary Jewish community could not fulfill his intellectual needs, he still wished to retain ties with his people, possibly even to help them from the outside. He first enters when Alroy is embroiled with a merchant in an argument about the ownership of Jabaster’s ring. In sharp contrast to Alroy who, as a Jew, had been vilified by all who saw him, Honain conveys the impression of an urbane, cosmopolitan, international intellectual, eliciting the respect of everyone present. Immediately recognizing the ring as the token he had given his brother, Honain knows that Alroy is Jewish and, through a Solomonic judgment, retrieves the ring and saves its bearer, whom he brings to his home. But once they are in private, Honain reveals his hypocrisy:
    “Listen to me, Alroy,” said Honain in a low voice, and he placed his arm around him, “I am your friend. Our acquaintance is very brief: no matter, I love you; I rescued you in injury, I tended you in sickness, even now your life is in my power, I would protect it with my own. You cannot doubt me. Our affections are not under our own control; and mine are yours. The sympathy between us is entire. You see me, you see what I am; a Hebrew, though unknown; one of that despised, rejected, persecuted people, of whom you are the chief. I too would be free and honoured. Freedom and honour are mine, but I was my own messiah. I quitted in good time our desperate cause, but I gave it a trial. Ask Jabaster how I fought. Youth could be my only excuse for such indiscretion. I left this country; I studied and resided among the Greeks. I returned from Constantinople, with all their learning, some of their craft. No one knew me. I assumed their turban, and I am, the Lord Honain. Take my experience, child, and save yourself much sorrow. Turn your late adventure to good account. No one can recognise you here. I will introduce you amongst the highest as my child by some fair Greek. The world is before you. You may fight, you may love, you may revel. War, and women, and luxury are all at your command. With your person and talents you may be grand vizir. Clear your head of nonsense. In the present disordered state of the empire, you may even carve yourself out a kingdom, infinitely more delightful than the barren land of milk and honey. I have seen it, child; a rocky wilderness, where I would not let my courser graze.” (Pt1Ch2)
    Devoid of principles, Honain has become the deaf-mute eunuch he has Alroy pretend to be. He lies, panders, and even kills his own brother, all for the sake of power and wealth. Motivated strictly by self-interest, Honain manipulates Alroy, during the period of Jewish ascendancy, into replacing Jabaster with him as chief advisor. But after the Turks begin to rally, he negotiates Alroy’s capture, to the last minute trying to persuade Alroy to accept Islam, not out of any religious conviction, but to curry favor with Alp Arslan. Contrary to the more usual Jewish interpretation, Disraeli portrays the marrano as being far worse than the convert, who at least retains some semblance of religious principle.

  21. Within this context, Alroy emerges as a Romantic hero doomed to failure. Descended from David, he accepts his obligation to lead the messianic wars, though once he triumphs, there is no way to establish himself as a messiah-king over a Jewish nation that can reclaim Jerusalem, rebuild the Temple and restore the biblical cult. Rather, the rabbinate, as represented by Rabbi Zimri, is moribund. The conquest of Jerusalem would require another war, this one against the Western Europeans, and given Jabaster’s military inadequacies in the crusade against the Turks, not to mention his subsequent discrimination against Muslims, there is no reason to believe that his forces alone would triumph against all of the non-Jews in Palestine. Finally, even if Alroy did regain Jerusalem, he still would not be certain which elements of the newly revealed religion reflected Divine Will, and which were projections of human wish-fulfillment. The only other alternative open to him, the push toward Bagdad, is motivated by the utilitarian self-interest of the morally vacuous Honain, whose lack of principles could guarantee only the survival of the slyest.

  22. Unavailable to Alroy—and to Disraeli—were the prerequisites for Reform Judaism, an evolved theology adapted to the exigencies of the contemporary world. Internally, the leaders of both the fictional Jewish community of twelfth-century Asia, and the historical community of early nineteenth-century England, adhered to tradition and opposed change, both religious establishments preventing the Jews from substituting newer forms of worship for what some considered to be archaic rites and ceremonies. Externally, constitutional restrictions against religious freedom forced the Jews to choose between the possibility of worshiping as they chose or participating in the secular world. Consequently, modern-thinking Jews who had been exposed to post-Enlightenment learning had no viable options. Unable to practice Judaism in the way he saw fit, the ideal hero, David Alroy, chose death. In contrast, Benjamin Disraeli, the real man living in the real world, accepted the necessity of conversion, working from the outside to remove the last disabilities against the Jews in Victorian England.12


1 Cecil Roth, Benjamin Disraeli (New York: Philosophical Library, 1952), 61. Published in 1833, The Wondrous Tale of Alroy, as it was originally entitled, was intended primarily for a Christian audience, its anti-theocratic, anti-utilitarian theme anticipating the contemporary debate about dis-establishing the constitutional relationship between the Church of England and Great Britain. By the twentieth century, however, the focus had shifted, the Jewish content of the novel having taken precedence over its Christian theme. In “A Masterpiece for the Week: Disraeli’s ‘Alroy,’” (The Jewish World, No. 3005 [11 Tamuz 5673/16 July 1913], 9-10), Israel Abrahams explicitly associates Alroy with the Anglo-Jewish community, and now, as can be seen from John Vincent’s assertion that “Alroy is important because of its Jewishness” (Disraeli [Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1990], 68), the Christian significance has been effectively erased. The title of this chapter derives from a passage quoted in Disraeli’s earliest biography: “In Vivian Grey I have portrayed my active and real ambition; in Alroy my ideal ambition” (William Flavelle Monypenny and George Earle Buckle, The Life of Benjamin Disraeli Earl of Beaconsfield, 6 vols. [London: Murray, 1910-20] 1:185). As will be seen from this chapter, the word ideal can be subject to much interpretation.

2 The primary source for information about David Alroy is Benjamin of Tudela’s twelfth-century diary account (see Jewish Travellers in the Middle Ages: 19 Firsthand Accounts, ed. Elkan Nathan Adler [New York: Dover, 1987; reprint of 1930 ed], 50-52). A spurious account, attributed to Maimonides, is included in the Chronologia Sacra-Profana A Mundi Conditu ad Annum M.5352 vel Christi 1592, dicta [Tsema David] of David Ben Solomon Gans (1541-1613), as derived from the Shevet Yehudah (1553) of Solomon ibn Verga (second half of the fifteenth-first quarter of sixteenth century). Despite its lack of authenticity, Disraeli was attracted to this version, a portion of which he included (in Latin) in his last footnote. Salo Baron straightens out the historical record in A Social and Religious History of the Jews, particularly in Volume III: Heirs of Rome and Persia, and Volume V: Religious Controls and Dissentions (New York: Columbia University Press, and Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1957), part of which is reprinted in Essential Papers on Messianic Movements and Personalities in Jewish History, ed. Marc Saperstein (New York: New York University Press, 1992), 238-40. See also Abraham N. Poliak’s entry, “Alroy, David,” in the Encyclopædia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter, 1972), 2:750-1.

3 On Jewish messianic movements, see Saperstein’s anthology, especially his introduction (1-31), and the overviews by R. J. Zwi Werblowsky, “Messianism in Jewish History” (35-52), and Eliezer Schweid, “Jewish Messianism: Metamorphoses of an Idea” (53-70).

4 The first edition of The Wondrous Tale of Alroy was accompanied by an extensive polemical introduction, in which Disraeli defended his choice of genre and style, as well as by eighty-two footnotes, which supplement the text with information gleaned from his personal experiences and extensive reading. Interestingly, while he included background information about Jewish history and culture (usually from Christian sources), he never clarified the liberties he took with Muslim history.

5 Daniel R. Schwarz believes that “Alroy represents Disraeli’s own dreams of personal heroism and political power in the alien British culture” (Disraeli’s Fiction [New York: Macmillan, 1979], 42-51). The six-volume Monypenny-Buckle biography has been superseded by Robert Blake’s Disraeli (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1967). Roth’s Benjamin Disraeli, the first to deal with the Jewish heritage, has been superseded by Stanley Weintraub’s Disraeli: A Biography (New York: Truman Talley Books/Dutton, 1993).

6 The quotation is from Disraeli’s 1847 novel Tancred, or The New Crusade (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1870-1), 427.

7 The standard, if somewhat dated, source for Anglo-Jewish history is Roth’s A History of the Jews in England, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964). Todd M. Endelman’s The Jews of Georgian England, 1714-1830: Tradition and Change in a Liberal Society (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1979; reprint, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), deals with the period leading up to the publication of Alroy. On Isaac D’Israeli, see James Ogden’s Isaac D’Israeli (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), especially the tenth chapter, “D’Israeli and Judaism” (192-206), and Stuart Peterfreund’s “Not for ‘Antiquaries,’ but for ‘Philosophers’: Isaac D’Israeli’s Talmudic Critique and His Talmudical Way with Literature”.

8 See Michael A. Meyer, Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), especially the first two chapters, “Adapting Judaism to the Modern World” (10-60), and “Ideological Ferment” (62-99).

9 On the emancipation of English Jews, in contrast to other European communities, see David Vital, A People Apart: The Jews in Europe, 1789-1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), especially 177-83. On the Jew Bill in particular, see Alan H. Singer, “Great Britain or Judea Nova? National Identity, Property, and the Jewish Naturalization Controversy of 1753,” in this volume.

10 In The Jews in the History of England, 1485-1850, David S. Katz notes that as a result of the D’Israeli incident, the Anglo-Jewish community began instituting some of the changes that would eventually consolidate into a Reform Movement: “While this is probably wishful thinking along, certainly the Reform Movement went some way towards achieving the ideals expressed by Isaac d’Israeli. Had it existed in 1817, it is likely that the entire family would have stayed within the fold” ([Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994], 334).

11 According to tradition, the exilarch (Resh Galuta), scion of the House of David, was, among other things, guardian of orphans and illegitimate children (H. H. Ben-Sasson, ed., A History of the Jewish People [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976], 281). If not technically allegorical, most of the names used in the novel are at least evocative of Jewish or Muslim history. In addition to biblical references, like Miriam and Esther, Disraeli incorporates a broad range of Jewish allusions. From the post-biblical period, there are Rabbi Hillel (first century B.C.E. to beginning of the first century C.E.) and Rabbi Shammei, his contemporary (approximately 50 B.C.E. to 30 C.E.). Rabbi Akiva (c. 50-135 C.E.), one of the greatest scholars of his age, is frequently associated with the zealots who, under the leadership of Bar Kokhba (d. 135 C.E.) defended Masada. From later history, Pumbedita is the location of an academy established in the mid-third century. Shimei, of Damascus, supposed author of Effecting Impossibilities, might be a reference to Joseph ben Judah ibn Shim’on (twelfth-thirteenth centuries), physician, poet, and philosopher. Rabbi Maimon is a possible allusion to the Maimon family—Maimon ben Joseph (d. 1165/1170) and his son Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides; 1135-1204). Similarly, Disraeli’s Abarbanel seems based on Abrabanel or Abravanel, the family name of prominent Jews in fifteenth-century Spain who, during the time of the Forced Conversion of 1497, were baptized, but in the seventeenth century, reverted to Judaism and revived the name. Aaron Mendola, of Granada, may be a play on Raphael Meldola (1754-1828), one of the rabbis involved in the dispute between Isaac D’Israeli and the Jewish community. Not a historical figure, Rabbi Zimri might have derived from either of two biblical figures. The first (Numbers 25) became a symbol of the worst rebellion against God and his Word; the second Zimri, who reigned as king for only seven days (1 Kings 16), symbolized the slave who turned against his master.

The other names derive from the Eastern diaspora or from Islamic history. Bostenay seems named after Bustenai ben Haninai (c. 618-670), the first exilarch under Islam, and supposedly married to Izdundad, one of the captive daughters of Chosroes II, king of Persia. Scherirah is possibly based on Sherira ben Hanina Gaon (c. 906-1006), head of the academy at Pumbadita from 968-1006, who believed that the exilarchs all descended from Bustanai, from whom he claimed descent. Honain is a possible allusion either to Hunayn (d. 873), a multi-lingual Syrian who translated a number of Greek scientific works into Arabic, or to Hunayn ibn Ishaq (d. 874), the first physician to translate Greek medical works into Arabic. Alschiroch seems to be an ironic allusion to Shīrkūh I b. Ayyūb Abū Salāh al-Din (Ayyūbīd(e), “the lion of the mountain”; c. 1169), uncle of Saladin. Schirene, or Shereen, was the beloved of royal chieftains. Alp Arslan (r. 1063-72) was a Turkish sultan whose dynasty, the Seljuks, reigned from 1038-1157. The only name for which there seems no biblical or historical antecedent is Jabaster, a possible neologism based on the root yavash, “dry up, make ashamed.”

12 This is not to imply that conversion was an easy choice. As Harold Fisch points out in his essay “Disraeli’s Hebraic Compulsions,” Disraeli never really reconciled the two parts of his identity: “Here, very accurately stated, is the betrayal of selfhood from which Disraeli suffered—the betrayal of his innermost Jewish selfhood from which he had partially, but nonetheless effectively, alienated himself. But such betrayals cannot go unnoticed in a man of imagination. They will reveal themselves in fantasy, emptiness and sentimentality, the spiritual ills of the dreamer from whom the true source of his dream is hidden” (in Essays Presented to Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday, ed. H. J. Zimmels, J. Rabbinowitz and I. Finestein, Jews’ College Publication, New Series, No. 3, 2 vols. (London: Soncino, 1967), 1:94.

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January 2005