In the heart of Jerusalem – almost midway between the King David Hotel and the Waldorf-Astoria, and also not far from the Mamilla Mall – lies a short street bearing the appellation George Eliot. This gives rise to two essential questions: First, which is the poshest place to stay in the city? And second, why is the name of a nineteenth-century British novelist given pride of place in one of Jerusalem’s most prestigious areas?
For our purposes, the second question is the more significant – although I would cast a vote for the King David Hotel, if you’re wondering.
George Eliot was actually Mary Anne Evans – Evans employed a male pen name to ensure that Victorian readers would take her writing seriously – a prolific editor, critic, and journalist best known for her masterpieces Silas Marner (1861) and Middlemarch (1872). Born on a farm in the English countryside in 1819, Eliot was not a conventionally pretty child. Because her prospects for marriage were therefore considered dim, her father encouraged her to pursue a far greater degree of education than what would be offered a more attractive daughter. (Her looks, incidentally, would not keep her from a twenty-year relationship with a married philosopher, or a later-in-life marriage to a man two decades her junior!) Smart, curious, and creative, Eliot began publishing in her twenties and – at the age of 30 – moved to London and declared her intention to work as a writer.
Her education also brought her into a group of freethinkers – young men and women who questioned the accuracy of the Bible and the Church tenets with which Eliot had been brought up. Among her new acquaintances was Emanuel Deutsch, a Jew who introduced Eliot to the Talmud and other Jewish teachings – and who was soon enough fielding requests from Eliot for books on all aspects of Judaism. Not only the Jewish experience – sympathy for the outsider is a major theme in Eliot’s work – but Deutsch himself had a profound effect on her writing.
In 1876 Eliot published Daniel Deronda – a typical Victorian novel with themes of arrogant women, wealthy louts, and sympathetic orphans. What was not at all typical, however, was the inclusion of a character named Mordechai Cohen – a Zionist almost certainly modeled on Deutsch – who was the first appealing Jewish figure ever to appear in English literature. Ever. Not only does Cohen anticipate the convictions of Theodor Herzl and the First Zionist Congress by decades – “Let there be,” he proclaims, “another great migration, another choosing of Israel to be a nationality!” – he also inspires the book’s title character to abandon his comfortable life in Britain and immigrate to Israel.
The first likeable Jew portrayed in British fiction, the uncanny foreshadowing of Zionist declarations, the best depiction of the Jewish mind by a non-Jewish author (this accolade coming from no less an authority than Sigmund Freud) – dayenu, right? But there is still more – and it is almost certainly this “more” that earned George Eliot a street in Jerusalem.
While plenty of non-Jews read Daniel Deronda – and many critics who did panned its positive Jewish and Zionist elements – plenty of Jews picked up the book as well. And for some of these Jews, George Eliot’s work was life-changing. For some of these Jews, George Eliot provided their first glimpse of Zionism – their first sense of the passion, the fire, the determination that underlay the growing Zionist enterprise. They had never really considered – or in some cases, even really encountered – Zionism; and Eliot’s words resonated with them in a deeply affecting way.
Among those Jews crediting George Eliot with sparking their Zionist fervor? Emma Lazarus, for one. For another, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda – considered the father of the modern Hebrew language. And for a third, Henrietta Szold – the founder of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.
So as you stroll around the King David Hotel, the Waldorf-Astoria, and the Mamilla Mall, take a moment of reflection, and of thanksgiving, on George Eliot Street. Because if not for her – and if not the book she created – you might not be there at all.