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The Secret Jewish History Of Jane Austen

A Janeite is a Jane Austen fan. Quite possibly a Jane Austen fanatic. Austen, who was born on December 16, 1775 and died two hundred years ago on July 18, 1817 was the author of six beloved novels. She has such a devoted following these days that she is more than a novelist: She is an industry.

Publishers list more than 100 forthcoming books related to Jane Austen during this 200th anniversary year of her death. More than one will be devoted to Janeites. Expect, as well, a new Austen film starring Charlotte Rampling. Television shows. Austen-themed tours of England. National and international conferences on Austen [Over 800 Janeites are expected at the sold out Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) in California in October.] Dolls. Tea towels. And possible mash-ups in fan fiction between Austen and/or her characters and zombies, werewolves, super heroes, robots, aliens and — amazingly — Jews.

As far as we know, Jane Austen never met a Jew, although “Jewry Street,” memorializing Jewish moneylenders and merchants before the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, runs through the city of Winchester, where she breathed her last before her 42nd birthday, probably a victim of Addison’s Disease.

Austen gives us one vulgar character (in “Northanger Abbey”) who is churlish enough to characterize another as “rich as a Jew.” Otherwise, Jews go unmentioned in the Austen canon, which includes, besides the six best known works of fiction, one unpublished epistolary novella (“Lady Susan”), two uncompleted novels (“Sanditon” and “The Watsons”) letters, prayers, poems and juvenile works.

But some Jewish writers have imagined their co-religionists rather neatly into Jane Austen’s world, and Jane Austen into theirs:

Catherine Schine’s “The Three Weissmans of Westport” —based on Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” — made The New York Times extended bestseller list in 2010. Lev Raphael, in his 2011 “Pride & Prejudice: The Jewess and the Gentile (Mash-up),” transformed Elizabeth Bennet into an Anglo-Jewess with a pushy Jewish mother, and endowed her Mr. Darcy with a troublesome attitude problem about “Hebrews.” In her 1990 story collection, “The Samaritan Treasure,” Marianne Luban proposed her own fictional character, “The Jew of Bath,” as the rumored summer lover of Jane Austen, herself, whose family of Anglican clerics, sailors and landed gentry strongly disapproved.

Those fictional “Jewish Connections” with Austen are intriguing but tenuous. In Jane Austen fandom, however, the enthusiasms of a Baltimore Jewish couple, Henry Gershon Burke and his wife, Alberta Hirshheimer Burke, are both tangible and matchless.

The over-used term “Renaissance Man” falls short in describing Henry Gershon Burke (1902-1989) B.C.S, L.L.B, and Ph.D. — “Harry” to his friends. His wife, Alberta—heiress to a fortune in farm machinery from a secular Jewish Wisconsin family —had a life-long interest in Jane Austen. She amassed an extensive collection of Austen letters, books and other treasures. She bequeathed the letters to the J.P. Morgan Library after her death in 1975. Harry continued to augment their collection of 1,000 volumes by and about Jane Austen, which, along with Alberta’s Austen archives and multiple scrapbooks, were donated to Goucher College, her alma mater. He co-founded in 1979 the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) with Joan Austen-Leigh of Canada (a great great great grand niece of Austen) and J. David Grey (vice principal of a junior high school in Spanish East Harlem).

The Burkes were ardent fans of Sherlock Holmes, sophisticated travelers, passionate theater-goers in England and America, and aficionados of classical music, dance and costumes. They had extensive collections of books, postcards, programs and illustrations in all these fields, as well as his particular areas of expertise: law, political philosophy and Judaica. No television or recorded music or arts were permitted in the Burke’s double apartment in Baltimore (one flat was devoted to their collections). Instead, they read their favorite literature aloud to each other each night, including the entire six novels of Jane Austen every year.

Mr. Burke specialized in estate law, but his philanthropic and leadership accomplishments extended far beyond his profession. He chaired the boards of the Baltimore Hebrew University (where he also taught Yiddish language), the Jewish Family and Children’s Service, and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. The Baltimore Bar Association, the Peabody Institute of Music, Johns Hopkins University, the Samuel Johnson Society and other organizations enjoyed his active membership and patronage.

For JASNA, he co-chaired (with Elsa Solender) the second Annual General Meeting in 1980, held in Baltimore, and he was guiding spirit of the Maryland JASNA Region. In memory of his wife, he commissioned a setting to music of “Three Prayers of Jane Austen” by Robert Hall Lewis. He team-taught (with Prof. Laurie Kaplan and Elsa Solender) a course on Jane Austen at Goucher College that concluded with a performance reading in which he played Lady Catherine de Bourgh to Elsa’s Elizabeth Bennet in their renowned face-off.

Blessed with nearly total recall, Henry Burke was a gifted raconteur. He relished recalling the furor that his wife caused at a meeting of the British Jane Austen Society in Chawton (the village where Jane Austen lived when she wrote the final drafts of her novels). After listening to complaints that “some American” had bought at auction a lock of Jane Austen’s hair, she told Henry, “If they want it, let them have the damn thing!” She then rose, declared herself the American and presented the Society with her purchase, now on exhibition at Chawton Cottage (Jane Austen’s House Museum).

Elsa Solender is past president of the Jane Austen Society of North America (1996-2000) and a prize-winning journalist. She is author of “Jane Austen in Love: An Entertainment,” a biographical novel available on Amazon.

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