La belle juive (literally, "the beautiful Jewess") was an archetype of 19-century romantic European literature. The typical appearance of the belle juive included long, thick, dark hair, large dark eyes, an olive skin tone, and a languid expression. Her personality traits could be portrayed either positively or negatively. The positive portrayal of the belle juive was noble, pure, loyal, and exhibited qualities similar to Christian martyrdom. The negative portrayal was sly, coquettish, and overly sexual.
Perhaps the most celebrated Jewish heroine was Rachel, of Jacques Halévy's grand opera La Juive (1853). Rachel falls in love with a Christian prince who disguises himself as Jew to court her. When Rachel realizes the deception, she denounces him, landing both of them in trouble. The cardinal promises her that she will be saved if she converts to Christianity. She refuses, and is sent to her death in a cauldron of boiling water.
Another popular belle juive is Rebecca from Sir Walter Scott's novel Ivanhoe. Rebecca falls in love with the title character, but they cannot be together because he is Christian. She does not act on her feelings but instead sacrifices herself for her love. She takes care of Ivanhoe throughout the novel, and is even gracious enough to give his future wife a fond farewell at the end of the book.
Though virtually all of the literature about la belle juive is Western work, they can be about Eastern characters. A famous example of this archetype from the Eastern world is Sol Hachuel, also known as Soleika. Sol, a Moroccan Jew, is accused by a Muslim neighbor of converting to Islam and then rejecting her newfound faith. Sol is sentenced to imprisonment, and then death. The sultan tells her that she can be freed and rewarded with jewels and a husband if she converts, but she refuses. She is beheaded in the town square of Fez. Later she became a martyr for both Jews and Muslims alike. Many Spanish and French poets penned her story in a romantic style, utilizing Sol as the belle juive archetype.
One prominent example of a negatively portrayed belle juive is Salome. Originally a Biblical character, Salome is said to have danced seductively for King Herod, so that he would behead John the Baptist for her. She represents sexuality, foolishness, and danger. She has been the subject of many works of art, including Salome (play) by Oscar Wilde and its opera adaptation by Richard Strauss Salome (opera). Both feature her dance for King Herod, called the Dance of the Seven Veils.
Azagury, Yaelle. “Sol Hachuel in the Collective Memory and Folktales of Moroccan Jews.” Jewish Culture and Society in North Africa, ed. Gottreich, Emily and Schroeter, Daniel J. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011.
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