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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Charlotte Bronte & the Jew Basket

The sign outside the Bronte museum
in Haworth, England

In Charlotte Bronte's novel Shirley, Caroline Helstone receives some female visitors. When it comes time for tea,

Caroline had to usher them upstairs, to help them to unshawl, smooth their hair, and make themselves smart; to reconduct them to the drawing-room, to distribute amongst them books of engravings, or odd things purchased from the Jew-basket. She was obliged to be a purchaser, though she was a slack contributor.

Charlotte Bronte describes this Jew-basket as:

A monster collection of pincushions, needlebooks, cardracks, workbags, articles of infant wear, etc., etc., etc., made by the willing or reluctant hands of the Christian ladies of a parish, and sold perforce to the heathenish gentlemen thereof, at prices unblushingly exorbitant. 

So, the women of the village make craft items, and contribute these to the Jew-basket. The basket then gets handed off to women in the village. Some eagerly await its coming. Others dread its arrival. But when it comes your time to take charge of the Jew-basket, you have only one option: sell, sell, sell!

So, what was the money used for?

The proceeds of such compulsory sales are applied to the conversion of the Jews, the seeking out of the ten missing tribes, or to the regeneration of the interesting coloured population of the globe. 

It's hard to really know how to interpret that last sentence. It would be easy, in today's politically correct society, to cast that sentence in a negative context. But, as a nonJewish, nonEnglish Christian male, the aims of the Jew-basket society seem fairly positive. 

The good women of England wish to help fund a ministry to preach the Gospel to the Jews.

I particularly like the second portion of their stated purpose: "the seeking out of the ten missing tribes." The biblical books of Kings 1 & 2 tell of the split of ancient Israel into northern and southern kingdoms. Unlike the southern kingdom, the northern kingdom was not only conquered, but its inhabitants dispersed. Many were no doubt forced to intermarry with nonJews. Over time, their heritage was lost. So an effort to seek out the descendants of these missing tribes seems a noble goal.

I don't know if there ever was such a Jewish Ministry society in England. Perhaps Charlotte Bronte was merely satirizing a common fundraising practice. But I'd be interested to learn if a group of nineteenth century English Christians actually raised funds for such a purpose, and if they were successful in helping the descendants of the northern kingdom reclaim their Jewish heritage. Wouldn't you?

Dragon Dave 

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