A Southern Jewish Woman’s Story from 1879 Asks Questions Still Lingering Today

I recently came across a short story titled Miss Magdalena Peanuts, published in the Atlantic Monthly in September, 1879. It was written by Phoebe Yates Pember, a Southern Jewish woman who lived during the Great Awakening, a time of intense Christian proselytization.

Miss Magdalena Peanuts is about Mrs. Pinotte, a sick woman who is close to dying and is trying to make guardianship arrangements for her teenage daughter, Miss Magdalena (or Maggie). The narrator, Mizz Lizzie, chronicles the visits of various church leaders who seem to have a stake in Mrs. Pinotte’s decision. Their motivation is clear: each potential caretaker wants Maggie to claim their faith as her own.

Mrs. Pinotte is visited by the Presbyterian, Baptist and Episcopal ministers. All of these clerics are disturbed by Mrs. Pinotte’s ultimate selection of Mr. Rosen, the Jewish pharmacist, as Maggie’s guardian—and also Ms.  Pinotte’s choice to be cared for by the Catholic sisters in her final days.

Miss Magdalena Peanuts is a work of fiction, but this story clearly makes a statement about the place of Jews in a predominately Christian context. It makes the Jewish character, Mr. Rosen, a visible member of his community—and more than that, as an individual as suitable as anyone else in the community to be Maggie’s guardian. In this story, the author seems to question the allegiances people have to religious institutions, and to cast doubt on the suspicion many Protestants had of the Jews and Catholics at that time.

In fact, Ms. Yates Pember makes us question the motives of all involved… but also whether motives even matter, so long as the outcome in the end is the desired one. Mizz Lizzie shares a conversation between her sister and a visitor. When the visitor shares her concerns with Mizz Lizzie’s sister, her sister remarks:

“What object could they have?” And then, “Well suppose they do; I am sure I have no objection. They will take excellent care of her, and that is, after all, the most important duty (pg. 295).”

Ms. Yates-Pember clearly used storytelling to get a message across to her readers, and this piece is an example of how storytelling, and writing, can be a platform through which we can raise awareness about social issues, human realities, and the need for change. Sometimes, through fiction, we can vitally explore realities and issues faced by many.

Stories challenge our understanding of the human experience and there is particular value to designating time to listening to stories that we may not hear on a regular basis. Storytelling can highlight the need for action and change. Though written more than a century ago, this story’s themes resonate with me as I consider the implications of religious affiliation in the Bible Belt today. The question that has stuck with me since I read the story is whether the issues raised by this story can present a challenge to Jewish communities as well. When we talk about increasing synagogue affiliation, what is our motivation? Additionally, how would we describe the ideal relationships among people of different faiths in our community? How do they perceive us, how do we perceive them — and as long as we treat each other well, how much do motives matter?

This story is more than 100 years old, but these questions still linger.

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