The recent release of Emma by director Autumn de Wilde marks, by my count, the twelfth adaptation of the Jane Austen classic Emma for television and/or film. We are also coming out of an award season that saw the sixteenth adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott novel Little Women. And, for good measure, PBS just finished airing the fourth adaptation of Howard’s End.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Austen and Alcott. E.M. Forester is fine. Their works are great and timeless and frequently adapted for good cause. But there are other classics. Generally, the cultural failure to be more adventurous in adapting literary classics is the reason that the canon remains so homogenous, and that wide perceptions of historical demographics and literary life are riddled with misconceptions.
With that in mind, here are five classics, written by Jewish women, that would fit right into the current line-up. These books, like the oft-adapted fare, were written in English, by Jewish women in Britain and America, in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Seriously, one of these could slide right in between a Pride and Prejudice and Middlemarch:
1. Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy (1888)
This book, in essence, is Little Women but set in a London photography studio. After the death of their parents, four sisters take over the running of their family’s photography business, and all the drama that comes with it. The sisters have to go do photo-shoots for corpses and big game trophies, among other escapades. Funny and sweet, the book chronicles each sister’s personal, romantic, and professional growth in a voice very familiar to anyone who has read Alcott.
Romance of a Shop was written by the prolific poet, author, and essayist Amy Levy. The daughter of a well-to-do Sephardic family in Victorian London, Levy was among the first Jewish women to attend Cambridge University. She was a frequent contributor to The Jewish Chronicle, a bestie of Oscar Wilde’s, and queer, a fact readily evident in her poetry and letters she left behind following her untimely death at age 27.
Funny, heartfelt, and unabashedly feminist? Rachel Bloom would be the perfect director to turn Romance of a Shop into a quirky musical series. And if this is going to be a musical about four young women making their way in the world, then it’s practically made for Beanie Feldstein, Zoey Deutch, Molly Gordon, and Hailee Steinfeld.
2. Farewell Leicester Square by Betty Miller (1935)
Betty Miller’s novel about a young Jewish film director’s encounters with anti-Semitism in interwar London has everything. Class drama, Brighton seascapes, and inner turmoil about identity and assimilation in a time where fascism is looming. As an Irish-Jewish author writing in the late 1930s, her meditation on belonging and the psychological toll of “polite” anti-Semitism feels as relevant today as it did in the 1930s.
This would be a perfect fit for director Alma Har’el, whose recent film Honey Boy touched on some of the same concerns. Like Honey Boy, this too would be a brooding, psychological film set in the entertainment industry. As for stars, might I suggest none other than everyone’s favorite Hollywood NJB with Irish ancestry, Daniel Radcliffe? Having recently shared the painful role of 1930s anti-Semitism in his family’s history on Who Do You Think You Are?, this role would be very timely for him.
3. Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy (1888)
Okay, another Amy Levy, but for good cause. This book follows two doomed Jewish lovers: the brilliant-but-penniless Judith and Reuben, who loves Judith but not enough to forgo his burgeoning political career and the nagging of his parents. A moody and cynical look at the toll of money and class ambition on Victorian Jewish life and romance, this is the perfect book for people who just finished Emma and are like, “okay, but what if that was Jewish and depressing?”
In its day, this book was controversial in some segments of the Jewish community for being an unflattering depiction of Jewish life. In her time, Levy was adamant that real Jewish representation should go beyond the sentimental and overly-romanticized, and instead portray Jews as flawed and capable of the same moral failings as anyone else. While this earned her some harsh criticism in her day, given that there was no shortage of unflattering depictions of Jews in popular literature, the novel holds up as a sophisticated portrait of middle-class Victorian Jewish life.
Natalie Portman’s directorial debut, A Tale of Love and Darkness, proved her skill directing devastating Jewish period dramas about longing. The Band’s Visit alum Sharone Sayegh would make a fabulous Judith Quixano, while Michael Zegen would make the perfect earnest and ambitious Reuben Sachs.
4. Vale of the Cedars by Grace Aguilar (1850)
One area of fiction where 19th century Jewish women were particularly prolific was historical romance. In the 19th century sense, “romance” referred to adventure novels, not necessarily ones with kissing (though they could certainly have some of that, too). Usually set in Ancient Judaea or Inquisition Spain, the Jewish Historical Romance genre was one full of sweaty, brave warriors, virtuous maidens, and all the archetypes one would expect in a historical adventure… but Jewish!
Aguilar is among the most prominent to write in this genre. While the bulk of her work included non-fiction and educational materials about Jewish womanhood, Vale of the Cedars is probably her most well-known work of fiction. Vale of the Cedars follows a crypto-Jewish woman in Inquisition Spain, and in the tradition of the 19th century historical romance, it is full of drama and social commentary. These books were significant in that they sought to introduce non-Jewish readers to sympathetic portrayals of Jews and Jewish history, and for Jewish readers, they were intended to build a positive identity at a time marked by intense societal pressure, particularly in Britain, to convert. In its time, it was a twist on a popular literary format meant to make a marginalized people the heroes of their own stories, and is therefore perfect for anyone who swooned while watching (and re-watching) the trailer for The Green Knight starring Dev Patel.
Might I suggest this as Rachel Weisz’s directorial debut? She’s got experience with period dramas in ancient settings (Agora) and movies with explicitly Jewish content (Denial, Disobedience). Everything she touches is frankly excellent. This project would need to be led by an actress who could hold her own in a sweeping, big-budget project. Which means we’re spoiled for choice, with the likes of Zoë Kravitz, Mila Kunis, and Gal Gadot.
5. All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor (1951)
How has All-Of-A-Kind Family not been made into a movie? It’s delightful! It has charming children doing charming things! A coming of age classic set in a tenement on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century! All without the gross racism of The Secret Garden (which has been adapted nine times) or The Little Princess (which has been adapted 13 times)! Sydney Taylor is a titan of American Jewish children’s literature, with one of the top prizes in the field named in her honor. I repeat: HOW HAS THIS NOT BEEN TURNED INTO A MOVIE?
You know who recently made a beautiful film with Jewish subject matter starring charming children set in the early 20th century? Taika Waititi. You know who I would love to see take a funny, meaningful, and subversive approach to this classic? Taika Waititi. You know who could direct literally anything and make it excellent? Taika Waititi.
Your move, Hollywood.