The Family Halévy
In the last years of the eighteenth century, a poor Jewish scholar, Elyahu Halfon Levy, born in 1760 in Fü
rth near Nuremberg, came to Paris with his wife Julie. Within three generations his descendants and their families
were leaders in French politics, high society, learning, and, especially, music theatre. The following pages outline their dramatic dynastic saga.
Élie comes to Paris
We know little about the early years of Elyahu Halfon. His father Jacob was a rabbi, who shortly after Elyahu's birth moved to Würzburg. Before the French Revolution, Elyahu moved with his brother to Metz, a major Jewish centre at the time. According to family traditions, although his more timid brother returned to Germany, Elyhau became intrigued by the events of the Revolution and decided to try his luck in Paris. This seems a bold decision for one who was no longer a young man; he may have been motivated by his intellectual contacts in Metz, who included the mathematician Moses Emsheim and the Hebrew poet Buschental. Certainly his career in Paris indicates dedication to the the new ideas of freedom and citizenship resulting from the 1789 revolution. In 1798 he married Julie Meyer, from the Alsatian village of Malzeville.
In Paris, where his first name became naturally Élie, he commenced a variety of unsuccessful business projects but also became a chazan (cantor) at one of the leading synagogues. Before long his facility with languages gave him an opportunity substantially to advance his status in the community by becoming interpreter and translator in its dealings with the French government. His eldest son, Jacque-Francois-Fromental, was born in 1799, and his other son Léon in 1802. (Fromental's unusual name comes from the official name of his birthday, 7th prairal, in the French Revolutionary Calendar).
In the same year of 1802 Élie published his Hebrew poem 'Hashalom' ('The Peace'), celebrating the successes of Napoléon and the Peace of Amiens, which is described in the 'Encyclopaedia Judaica' as 'a classic of the early period of Hebrew literature'. It is also symbolic of the way in which Élie sought from the beginning to establish himself both as a Jew and a Frenchman, or perhaps rather as a Frenchman who happened to be a Jew. He adopted the surname Halévy at the time of Napoléon's 1808 Decree, although how this squared with the requirement that 'no name shall be admitted if it is taken from the Old Testament…' is difficult to surmise. Élie was in many ways the prototype 'israëlite', the term which French establishment Jews came to prefer to the word 'juif'. The israëlites, with some emotional or intellectual interest in Jewish traditions and history, but broadly indifferent to Jewish theology and religious practices, could, and did, with relative ease take up a position within the French bourgeoisie.
What is of particular interest in this context, in these early years of the century, is Élie's Ashkenazi (German Jewish) origin. In general it was the Sephardi (Spanish) Jews of Bordeaux, and in particular their leading wealthy merchant families, the Rodrigues, Pereiras and Gradis, who took the lead in acculturation at this period; a step which followed perhaps naturally from their converso origins. Élie's role as interpreter and translator to the Paris Consistoire (the official body representing the Jewish community) however brought him into contact with many of the Sephardi leaders and their families played crucial roles in the lives of his sons: Fromental was to marry a Rodrigues (the niece of a Gradis); Léon was introduced by the mathematician and banker Olinde Rodrigues to the philosopher Saint-Simon, whose secretary and (for some years) standard-bearer he became, and whose disciples included members of the Rodrigues and Pereire families who later played distinguished roles in the development of the modern French economy.
Élie opposed the trend in the Jewish community by sending both his sons to French, rather than Jewish schools (although they had also been given a standard cheder education); Fromental, who showed early signs of musical ability at the crammer of M. Cazot, was enrolled at the Conservatoire in 1809, whilst Léon displayed prodigal abilities in Greek and rhetoric at the lycée Charlemagne. Fromental made solid progress and became a favourite of the Conservatoire director, the very conservative Cherubini; at his third attempt, in 1819, he won the coveted Prix de Rome, a scholarship entitling him to study at the Villa Medici in Rome and in Germany, which was deferred for a year because of the death of Julie Halévy.
Élie's last two literary productions, in 1820, were true to his israëlite philosophy; the bilingual `Limmudei dat u-mussa: Instructions réligieuses et morales a l'usage de la jeunesse israëlite ', published in Worms but often reprinted, a catechism for Jewish youth which included a section outlining the proceedings of Napoleon's Sanhedrin; and an adaptation of Psalm 130 (`Mima'amakim') as a De Profundis, an elegy for the assassinated (and extreme reactionary) Bourbon Duc de Berry. The latter provided an early opportunity for Fromental to make his own declaration as an israëlite; he composed a choral setting of the text and a funeral march which were performed as an act of loyalty at the rue Saint-Avoye synagogue, six weeks after the assassination. The score was engraved, at public expense, with a dedication to Cherubini. The music is naturally in the secular classical style and neither here nor anywhere in Halévy's later works - even in `La Juive' - is there any hint of `Jewishness'. Securing both a performance (before a prestigious audience of both Jews and Gentiles) and a publication were notable achievements for the young composer.