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Jewish Journal

Zionism, by George

by Naomi Pfefferman

March 27, 2003 | 7:00 pm

In a key scene in "Masterpiece Theatre's" "Daniel Deronda," adapted from George Eliot's 1876 novel, the hero attends a Zionist meeting. "Isn't the way forward through assimilation?" asks Deronda (Hugh Dancy), an orphaned aristocrat unsure of his roots.

"When we pretend to be what we are not, we lose a bit of our souls," Mordecai, a Jewish mystic, replies. 

If the early Zionist movement seems an unlikely topic for a Victorian novel, Eliot ("Middlemarch," "Silas Marner") was an unlikely Victorian novelist. "She raised eyebrows," said "Deronda's" Jewish producer, Louis Marks, who spearheaded the teledrama with screenwriter Andrew Davies.

Born Mary Ann Evans, Eliot began shocking people when she rejected Christianity at age 22, according to Marks.  She was further shunned when she moved in with her married lover in 1854.  Although the unofficial editor of the influential Westminster Review, she was never publicly acknowledged because she was a woman.  In 1859, she began publishing a string of acclaimed, socially conscious novels under the pseudonym George Eliot. 

Her final novel was "Deronda."  "As an outsider, she identified with the Jewish experience of oppression," Marks said.

"She was outraged and disgusted by the degree of anti-Semitism that existed in English society," Davies, Marks' longtime collaborator, said.

Eliot began writing "Deronda" after befriending the German-born scholar Emmanuel Deutsch, the prototype for the fictional Mordecai.  An official in the Jewish manuscripts department of the British Museum, he taught Eliot Hebrew and about the then-nascent idea of Zionism.  When he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in the 1870s, he went off to die in Jerusalem. "That inspired Eliot," said Marks, whose daughter lives in Beersheva. "His return to his roots perhaps moved her to create Deronda, a man also struggling to find his roots."

The producer said the novel inspired early Zionist leaders such as Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and aristocrats who backed Britain's Balfour Declaration, the first political recognition of Zionism.  With war erupting in the Middle East, he believes its message is equally relevant today:  "Many people are worried about Israel's survival, and 'Deronda' makes people aware of what is at stake," he said.

The two-part drama airs March 30 and 31 on KCET.

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