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Rebecca Gratz: Women and Judaism in Antebellum America

by Dianne Ashton, Detroit, MI:

Wayne State University Press, 1997. 329 pp.,
Illustrations, notes and index. $35.00 ISBN 0-8143-2666-8.

She has been called "The Idol of Her Generation" and is said to have been the inspiration for the  heroine of Sir Walter Scott's famous novel Ivanhoe, the beautiful woman who chose to remain a spinster rather than wed a man of another faith. That is the legend of Rebecca Gratz. The reality, in the biography by Dianne Ashton of Rowan University, reveals a highly intelligent and deeply religious woman who devoted her life to promoting Jewish education and the welfare of the poor.

Rebecca Gratz was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the seventh child and fourth daughter of Miriam and Michael Gratz. Michael Gratz was a native of Langendorf, Silesia. He emigrated to America in 1752, and in 1769 married Miriam Simon, the American-born daughter of Jewish merchant Joseph Simon. As a member of an elite class of wealthy, educated Philadelphians, Rebecca and her brothers and sisters moved with ease in both Jewish and non-Jewish society. The Gratzes, although of German heritage, worshipped at Philadelphia's Mikveh Israel synagogue, founded by Sephardic Jews who settled in the New World as refugees from the Spanish Inquisition. Like many other early American Jewish families, intermarriage with Christians co-existed precariously with stringent observance within the same family. Of the ten Gratz offspring who lived to adulthood, five, including Rebecca, never married. Rebecca Gratz's sisters all married Jewish men, but her brothers chose Christian partners.

Rebecca's public service began when she was twenty years old, when she and her sisters, together with twenty other Jewish and non-Jewish women, established the Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances. This non-sectarian women's organization was founded to help women from formerly affluent families who had suffered a reversal of fortune. In order to make sure that the organization's funds remained in the hands of its members, the bylaws stated that the treasurer "must be chosen from among the UNMARRIED LADIES" of its membership. The civil laws of that time gave a woman's husband complete control over any funds she handled. Ironically, Jewish women could own property and enter business contracts on their own even after marriage, but once they became "emancipated" and subject to secular law, they lost their property rights.

Many of her non-Jewish friends in these intellectual circles were active members of the Protestant Church, and strongly influenced by the Evangelical movement. Gratz's response to the conversionary attempts of her friends was to strengthen her commitment to her own faith. In 1819, in an effort to combat evangelizing activities targeted at poor Jews, Rebecca Gratz organized the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society. Although the core membership came from the Sephardic Mikveh Israel synagogue, the FHBS reached out to Jews of all backgrounds.

Later, she established the Hebrew Sunday School as the Jewish equivalent of the Evangelical American Sunday School Union. Ever conscious of Christian proselytizing, Gratz felt that the best remedy was to strengthen Jewish young people in the knowledge and observance of their own religious tradition. Female education was another high priority. Evangelical propaganda aimed at converting Jewish women harped on the alleged inferior status of women in Judaism--ironically, a favorite theme of today's Jewish feminists.

The educational materials used in Gratz's Sunday School were written in English, and intended to provide American Jewish youth a solid understanding of their faith rather than repetition and translation of Hebrew text. Catechism For Jewish Children, reproduced on this website, developed by Isaac Leeser, explained the essentials of Judaism in an easy, question-and-answer format.

As an educated, upper-class woman, Rebecca Gratz was an avid patron of the arts and a voracious reader of poetry, essays, and popular fiction. She was concerned about the portrayal of Jews in popular literature, often writing to an author to correct a misconception or inaccuracy. She was especially impressed by Sir Walter Scott's Jewish heroine in his 1820 novel Ivanhoe, but, Prof. Ashton argues, there is no evidence to support the suggestion that Rebecca Gratz herself provided the model for Scott's Rebecca. Gratz encouraged Jewish women writers like Grace Aguilar, Marion Moss-Hartog, and Celia Moss in their favorable portrayal of Jewish loyalty and family life. One wonders what Rebecca Gratz would think of some of the popular Jewish fiction of the present day, in which religious Jewish men are portrayed as brutal tyrants, and quaint religion is used as an exotic backdrop for lurid crime stories filled with explicit sex and graphic violence.

Throughout her long, service-oriented life, Rebecca Gratz led both Jewish and secular benevolent and educational organizations, including the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum, the Jewish Foster Home, and the Hebrew Education Society. She received the full support of the traditional Orthodox leadership of Philadelphia--from men like Isaac Leeser and Rabbi Sabato Morais. Ironically, the tireless efforts of this dedicated Jewish women drew scorn and ridicule from radical Reform Rabbi David Einhorn, who sneered at her Orthodox faith as weibliche theologie--"women's religion." Gratz focused all her efforts on strengthening Jewish loyalty through education, and remained perfectly faithful to traditional forms worship. Different responsibilities, assigned by gender, in no way insinuated that one gender was inferior to the other. All souls are equal in G-d's eyes.

Dianne Ashton also addresses the enigma that Rebecca Gratz presents to some Jewish scholars: why is it that so devout and dedicated a woman chose to remain single? Judaism discourages celibacy, and everyone is supposed to marry. In the Eastern European tradition, and in Orthodox circles today, arranged marriages and large families are the norm. Ashton does an excellent job of explaining the social environment in which Rebecca Gratz lived. In her American society, marriage was expected to come through romance. Many Victorian-era women, not finding a grand romantic passion, were satisfied with a life of public service. Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton are good examples. Ashton could find no evidence to support the myth that Gratz remained unmarried because she harbored a secret passion for a Christian. Her voluminous correspondence reveals many warm friendships with non-Jewish men and women, but no long-standing unrequited love affair. It must here also be pointed out that there have been a few extraordinary Jewish women whose dedication to public service kept them from enjoying married life--such as Selma Meyer, the legendary nurse of Jerusalem's Shaarey Tsedek Hospital, or Sara Schnirer, founder of the Beth Jacob movement for female education.

I just re-read Ivanhoe for the gazillionth time. According to the "Gratz Legend" (debunked by Dianne Ashton), the heroine of this novel chooses to remain loyal to her faith rather than marry the Christian hero. But that is a legend of a legend. There is no romantic attachment between Rebecca and Ivanhoe. All the scenes in which Rebecca and Ivanhoe are together, he is incapacitated, tended by her. While his feelings during his recovery are those of any normal man in the company of a beautiful woman, his romantic attachment and affection is all for Rowena. "He calls me dear Rebecca," said the maiden to herself; "but it is in the cold and careless tone which ill suits the word. His war horse, his hunting hound, are dearer to him than the despised Jewess!"

There is a man who has a very great passion for Rebecca, a man so consumed with desire for her that he even offers to convert to Judaism if only Rebecca will return his love. "Nay, by Heaven! When I gaze on thee, and think when and how we are next to meet, I could even wish myself one of thine own degraded nation--my hand conversant with ingots and shekels instead of spear and shield, my head bent down before each petty noble, and my look only terrible to the shivering and bankrupt debtor;--this could I wish, Rebecca, to be near to thee in life, and to escape the fearful share I must have in thy death." It is Brian, not Wilfred, who saves Rebecca by sacrificing his own life for hers. In Scott's novel, Brian succumbs to a fatal stroke at the moment Wilfred's spear touches his shield. A recent film version portrayed the scene somewhat differently--as Brian and Wilfred are engaged in mortal combat, Brian gives one last longing glance at Rebecca, and throws himself on Wilfred's sword! (this was the film version with Sam Neill as Brian and Olivia Hussey as Rebecca.) A reader of modern romance fiction will easily identify Brian as a complex, dark hero whose passion is more of a match for Rebecca than the wimpy Ivanhoe. And the conflict! And the sexual tension!

But in the interest of a happy and kosher ending--even if Brian were to sling Rebecca over his saddle as he threatens to do, and carry her off to Palestine--he would be a convert "like Shechem". Fortunately, Sir Walter Scott left in the possibility of a Jewish hero for Rebecca.

"Let us go," Isaac said, "my dear daughter, my recovered treasure--let us go to throw ourselves at the feet of the good youth."

"Not so," said Rebecca, "oh, no--no--no--I must not at this moment dare to speak to him. Alas! I should say more than--No, my father, let us instantly leave this evil place."

"But, my daughter," said Isaac, "to leave him who hath come forth like a strong man with his spear and shield, holding his life as nothing, so he might redeem thy captivity--and thou, too, the daughter of a people strange unto him and his--this is service to be thankfully acknowledged."

"It is--it is--most thankfully--most devoutly acknowledged," said Rebecca--"it shall be still more so--but not now--for the sake of thy beloved Rachel, father, grant my request--not now!"

"Nay, but," said Isaac, insisting, "they will deem us more thankless than mere dogs!"

"But thou seest, my dear father, that King Richard is in presence, and that--"

"True, my best, my wisest Rebecca! Let us hence--let us hence! Money he will lack, for he has just returned from Palestine, and, as they say, from prison; and pretext for exacting it, should he need any, may arise out of my simple traffic with his brother John. Away, away, let us hence!"

And hurrying his daughter in his turn, he conducted her from the lists, and by means of conveyance which he had provided, transported her safely to the house of the Rabbi Nathan.

Nathan Ben Samuel, who appears very briefly in the novel, is not described in great detail. The reader only knows he is a respected Rabbi and a physician. His age is not mentioned, nor his physical description other than he wears traditional Jewish costume. The reader supposes he is the same age as Isaac, although there is no reason to assume he is not much younger, and a suitable match for Rebecca.