Madame Ezra and the Jews of K’aifung, China
As a devout Jew, Madame Ezra made sure that Jewish holidays, ceremonies,
and practices were strictly followed in her home. She had aspirations to
one day see her son married to a strong, Jewish woman and have him lead
her people back the "promised" land, Palestine. But after the
death of Leah, Madame Ezra began to fade. Her hope began to dwindle and
she slowly died. Much like Madame Ezra, the Jews that had come to K’aifung,
China, were a strong people proud of their heritage and religion. They
were welcomed into China with arms wide open as they fled from the persecution
faced in their homeland. But as time passed, the Jews began to disappear,
practicing more and more of the Confucian ways with each new generation.
Slowly, Jewish practices ceased, the last Rabbi died, and the remaining
Jews began to forget their origins. It is in Pearl S. Buck’s Peony, that
this is shown; here Madame Ezra’s life coincides with that of the Jews
living in K’aifung,
China. Madame Ezra’s role in Peony is a prominent one. For more than half the novel, she is the mother, the wife, and the mistress of the House of Ezra. She is the reason the Jewish customs are still practiced in her home; without her constant supervision her husband and son would easily accept the Chinese ways. This is the first similarities between Madame Ezra and the K’aifung Jews. Like Ezra and David, the Jews are fighting between remaining staunch followers of Jehovah or merging with the Chinese and eventually forgetting their Jewish heritage. The destruction of the Synagogue and the Rabbi would bring Jews together for the rebuilding of the Synagogue, renewing their faith, much as Madame Ezra thought the marriage of Leah to David would restore the strength lost by her people.
David’s marriage to Leah was supposed to be a revitalization. Madame Ezra thought that it would install a new hope in her people. In one conversation discussing the planned betrothal of David and Leah, Madame Ezra says, ". . . I do not ask you to think of me, David. Think of our people! You and Leah, David—together—your children—carrying on the blood of Judah, in this heathen land!" (24). She could picture her son as the new Rabbi, leading the Jews in China back to their home land in Palestine. So she brought Leah, a Rabbi’s daughter and a "rare creature born beautiful and good together" (3), into the House of Ezra. She told Leah, "I want you to—to—persuade David. . .[y]ou and he together, Leah! Think how you could influence him!. . . Entice him—entice him" (69). Madame Ezra felt that with Leah as his wife, a major influence in his life, she could induce her son into practicing his faith more rigorously than before; her hope was to turn her son into a devout Jew, using Leah to get there.
Her main reason for trying to do this is not because of her rigid Jewish up-bringing and her own beliefs, but because she saw the decline of her people. In a plea to Leah for her help, Madame Ezra states, "Child, you know—and no one so well as you—what is happening to our people here in this Chinese city—how few of us are faithful any more! Leah, we are being lost!" (68).
After Leah’s suicide, Madame Ezra begins to lose her strength. Her "heart was sore with sorrow and bewildered with the downfall of all her plans and the loss of all her hopes. She grew weak . . ."(206). "When Leah died, something died in her, too" (217). And with this, not only does the decline of Madame Ezra begin, but also the downfall, or rather the disappearance, of the Jews in K’aifung reaches its most drastic point. After feeling the face of his dead daughter, the Rabbi goes crazy. He becomes unaware of what had happened and his mind slips back to a time much more pleasant to remember. With the Rabbi now an imbecile and Aaron, her brother, nowhere to be found, there is no one to conduct the Sabbath worship and to teach and preach the Torah. David has decided to marry a Chinese girl and thus Madame Ezra’s hope of seeing him lead the Jews, as the new Rabbi, fades and dies.
It is not until after Ezra’s death, however, that Madame Ezra’s influence disappears. The last remaining scrolls and other Jewish objects disappear from the house. David may read a prayer book or from the Torah for time to time, but that is all that remains of the once strong and powerful mistress of the House of Ezra. At the same time, Buck describes the deterioration of the Synagogue; but this time there were no Jews left to help rebuild it. The Jews had been absorbed into the Chinese culture. All that remained of them were a few high noses born every few generations and a few out of place practices incorporated into a few Chinese traditions. It is through the long and sad death of Madame Ezra that the depletion of Jews is shown; and it is her death that symbolizes the death of the Jewish civilization in K’aifung, China.
Buck, Pearl S. Peony. Wakefield: Moyer Bell, 1948.
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