La belle juive

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La belle juive (literally, "The Beautiful Jewess") is a recurrent motif with archetypal significance in art and literature, most prevalent in 19th-century Romantic European literature. The belle juive is commonly portrayed as a lone, young and beautiful Jewish woman in a predominantly Christian world.

Historical background and themes[edit]

The origins of la belle juive date back to medieval literature.[1] However, the archetype’s full form as it’s known today was established during the 19th century. The appearance of the belle juive is commonly deemed a manifestation of antisemitism on the part of the invoker, primarily because the archetype is commonly employed by non-Jewish artists and authors and is frequently accompanied by other expressions of antisemitic notions both on the part of the creator intended for consumption by anti-Semitic audiences.[2] Britain, France and Germany are the three major countries where the archetype took roots and flourished in the cultural scene during the 19th and early 20th century.[3]

The belle juive is shaped by her relations with adjacent characters, most commonly by a Christian love interest or a villainous Jewish father.[4] There are two main categories of the belle juive; the first is “positive”, and describes her as noble, intelligent, pure and loyal, perhaps linking her to the Virgin Mary, or to the general principle of Christian martyrdom. The second is overtly negative, describing her as sly, coquettish, overly sexual, dangerous and destructive. Their differences aside, both types serve the same purpose; namely the distraction of the Christian hero. Appropriately, there are two acceptable fates for the belle juive; the first is total submission to the Christian lover and through him to the Christian world. The second is death.[5] The belle juive is fundamentally a tragic heroine. As a positive character she can never find true fulfillment in the damned Jewish world; and as a negative character she never had had the opportunity, seeing as she was born in the Jewish world, to be anything other than damned.

The belle juive shares traits with the femme fatale. However, where the femme fatale is mostly seen as the product of a misogynistic philosophy, the belle juive is the unique product of both antisemitism and misogyny.

Philosophical background[edit]

The belle juive archetype reveals antisemitism and misogyny on the part of the creator, for although the characters and the specific approaches to them varies with each appearance, the common thread shared by all is the Jewess’ basic function as an erotic symbol of the other, the strange and the forbidden, who is singular in her vulnerability and damning seductiveness. In his essay “Jew and Anti-Semite” (1946), Jean-Paul Sartre writes:

There is in the phrase ‘a beautiful Jewess’ a very special sexual signification, one quite different from that contained in the words ‘beautiful Rumanian’, ‘beautiful Greek’, or ‘beautiful American’, for example. This phrase carries an aura of rape and massacre. The ‘beautiful Jewess’ is she whom the Cossacks under the czar dragged by her hair through the streets of the burning village […] Frequently violated or beaten, she sometimes succeeds in escaping dishonor by means of death, but that is a form of justice; and those who keep their virtue are docile servants or  humiliated  women  in  love  with indifferent  Christians who marry Aryan women. I think nothing more is needed to indicate the place the Jewess holds as a sexual symbol in folklore.[6]

Furthermore, Anthony Bale in his essay “The Female ‘Jewish’ Libido in Medieval Culture” points specifically at the Christian-Jewish conflict as the source of the phenomena, remaking that: “The Jewess’s body is a site of competing jurisdictions, Christian and Jewish, with the rivalry between men articulated through controlling the Jewess […] the Jewish women is that which licenses an unsettling – but useful – alliance of sex and violence within normative codes of Christian conduct, an imaginary Jewish body for the self-regarding gratification of the Christian devotional body”.[7]

Physical attributes[edit]

The typical appearance of the belle juive includes long, thick, dark hair, large dark eyes, an olive skin tone, and a languid expression. Often the belle juive will be featured wearing exotic oriental clothing and jewelry.

Examples of la belle juive[edit]

La belle Juive (1865) by Henriette Browne

Perhaps the most celebrated Jewish heroine was Rachel, in Jacques Halévy's grand opera La Juive (1835). Rachel falls in love with a Christian prince who disguises himself as a Jew to court her. When Rachel realizes the deception, she denounces him, damning herself. 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 with her departure, intending to live as the Jewish equivalent of a nun.[8]

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 to 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, styling Sol as the archetypal belle juive.[9]

One prominent example of the 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 by Oscar Wilde and its opera adaptation by Richard Strauss, Salome. Both feature her dance for King Herod, called the Dance of the Seven Veils.[10]

Among the many works of art depicting la belle juive, the most famous examples include “Salome” by Henri Regnault, “Juive de Tanger en costume d'apparat” by Eugène Delacroix, “Tête de juive” by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and “La belle juive” by Henriette Browne.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bale (2007), pp. 94-95.
  2. ^ Sicher (2017), pp. 170-171.
  3. ^ Lathers (2000), pp. 27-32.
  4. ^ Sicher (2017), pp. 1-5.
  5. ^ Sicher (2017), p. 12.
  6. ^ Sartre (1946), pp. 34-35.
  7. ^ Bale (2007), pp. 99-100.
  8. ^ Lewin (2005), pp. 178-212.
  9. ^ Azagury (2011), p. 134.
  10. ^ Gilman (1993), pp. 195-211.


  • Azagury, Yaelle (2011). Gottreich, Emily; Schroeter, Daniel J. (eds.). Sol Hachuel in the Collective Memory and Folktales of Moroccan Jews. Jewish Culture and Society in North Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Bale, Anthony (2007). Amanda Hopkins; Cory James Rushton (eds.). The Female Jewish Libido in Medieval Culture. The Erotic in the Literature of Medieval Britain. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.
  • Gilman, Sander L. (1993). "Salome, Syphilis, Sarah Bernhardt and the "Modern Jewess"". The German Quarterly. 66 (2): 195–211. doi:10.2307/407468. JSTOR 407468.
  • Halpern, Stefanie (2011), "Kate Bateman: Sanitizing the Beautiful Jewess", TDR, 55 (3): 72–79, JSTOR 23017931
  • Lathers, Marie (2000). ""Posing the "Belle Juive": Jewish Models in 19th-Century Paris". Woman's Art Journal. 21 (1): 27–32. doi:10.2307/1358867. JSTOR 1358867.
  • Lewin, Judith (2005). "Legends of Rebecca: Ivanhoe, Dynamic Identification, and the Portraits of Rebecca Gratz". Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues (10): 178–212. JSTOR 40326602.
  • Sartre, Jean Paul (1995) [1946]. Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate. Translated by George J. Becker. New York: Schocken Books. ISBN 9780805210477.
  • Sicher, Efraim (2017). The Jew’s daughter: a cultural history of a conversion narrative. Lanham: Lexington books.
  • Valman, Nadia (Spring 2007). "La Belle Juive". The Jewish Quarterly (205). Archived from the original (extract) on 2016-03-04.