Friday, December 17, 2010

St. Nicholas Visits the Mordecai House

Last December when I wrote "Did St. Nicholas Visit the Gratz House?" my answer was, "Possibly." I was suggesting that the poem now known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas" was a major source of the American-style holiday. Published in 1823 at a time when the majority of Americans did not recognize Christmas as a religious holiday, the poem re-invented it as a dazzling festival for children. And notice that in "A Visit from St. Nicholas," there is absolutely no mention of the Nativity or even any concern about which children have been "naughty or nice;" Christmas is all about toys and sweets for everyone.

With December 25 a business day in Philadelphia and most people treating it as such, and with a lack of Christmas paraphernalia -- the public Christmas trees, lights and creches -- some American Jews probably did not see it as a threat to their way of life and permitted their children the good time it offered.

In researching Alfred Mordecai, Rebecca's nephew-in-law, for a recent post, I found another reference to Christmas. Emily Bingham, in Mordecai: An Early American Family, describes a letter from Sara Mordecai, Alfred's wife, in December of 1855 in which she "recalled to her absent husband Christmases spent together in Washington, wrapping gifts and filling their children's stockings." It seems to be a happy memory which the two shared.

This is surprising. Alfred Mordecai, although he was brought up in an observant Jewish home, was an agnostic who would not permit his sons to be circumcised. He resisted his wife's attempts to bring him closer to her faith as firmly as he deplored his sister's conversion to Christianity. Sara Mordecai, a niece of Rebecca's, upheld the religion and traditions of her ancestors. She brought up her children as Jews and in 1867 when her son Alfred Jr. married a non-Jew, she refused to attend the wedding. You would think that at least one of these two would find grounds to object to Christmas yet it seems to be a moment they enjoyed together.

To have taken pleasure in a visit from St. Nick in the 1840's when their children were small, neither Alfred nor Sara could have thought of it as part and parcel of a religious observance. But as Protestant denominations warmed to the holiday, its Christian content would become inescapable, and American Jews in the latter part of the 19th century would do some reinvention of their own with Hanukkah.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Doctrine of Discovery, Indian Removal and the Gratz Family

(I recently wrote a post, "The Indian Removal Act, Evangelicals & Rebecca Gratz," about Rebecca's opposition to the government's forced removal of Native Americans from their lands east of the Mississippi.)

It must have seemed quite a caper in 1773, in the waning days of British rule of the colonies. A group of investors, chafing under the British policy forbidding them to buy land from Native Americans west of the Alleghenies, had found a possible way around. Somehow one of their number, William Murray, had come into possession of a doctored document: the original permitted land purchases by individuals without the need of prior royal approval in India; with the removal of all references to moguls and any other words limiting it to the British possession in Asia and the retention of words like "Indians," the "revised" document might seem to an unwary official west of the mountains to give permission for private investors to purchase land from Native Americans.

The investors, mostly Pennsylvanians who included Rebecca's father Michael Gratz and her grandfather Joseph Simon, formed the Illinois Company and sent Murray west. He waved the document in front of the British commander of the region and closed a deal with Native Americans for a stupendous 43,000 square miles of land in Illinois. Now all that was needed was for the claim to be recognized by the government.

The British government instead recognized the fraud and ruled the transaction illegal. The Illinois Company then turned to the Royal Governor of Virginia, a colony which had land claims in Illinois. To encourage his interest, they created the Wabash Company and bought more lands in the region; its investors were mostly Marylanders -- and the Governor of Virginia.
Confirmation of the claims seemed imminent when in 1775 the American rebellion began in earnest and the Governor fled.

For the next 45 years the two companies would press their land claims with whatever government was in power, and all to no avail, sometimes for reasons of national interest, sometimes for reasons of partisan politics. (The colonist investors had morphed into big Federalists whom the Jeffersonian Republican Democrats saw no reason to please.)

Finally in 1817-1818, the heirs to the original investors decided on one last attempt to secure the land through the courts. Rebecca's brother Benjamin Gratz was sent West to lay the legal groundwork necessary to bring a case. Anticipation ran high among the investing families, as we see from Rebecca's letter to Ben in the West:

"The Illinois & Wabash claim, of which I have all my life heard so much, seemed like a romance. I never expected to see anything but maps & pamphlets of the subject, or that it would cost us your society, for so long a time. but since it has proceeded so far, I catch a little of the mania and frame wishes for its success at any rate hope you will not permit it to engage years of toil on an uncertain event & that after satisfying your curiosity with every thing worth visiting, you will bend your course homeward."

Her words with some minor changes could have come from Dickens' 1851 Bleak House, his novel about a lawsuit which went on for generations.

In 1823, the Illinois and Wabash Companies' case, Johnson v. M'Intosh, came before the Supreme Court. The Gratz's and the other second- and third-generation investors lost, but Native Americans lost much more. John Marshall, the first and great Chief Justice, made a mistake. As part of his ruling, he invoked the "Doctrine of Discovery," which went back to the earliest explorations of America. The doctrine awarded sovereignty to the (white European) discoverers; the discovered lost legal title to their lands.

Marshall, who did have his reasons for invoking the doctrine at this point, realized too late that it could lead to the wholesale removal of Native Americans. He tried to alter what he had done in a later opinion, but the times were against him. Cotton was the greatest wealth-producer in the country, Southerners wanted more land to grow it and the only way open to that land, as they saw it, was to get rid of the Native Americans who held it. Jacksonian Democrats supported them, and as the Supreme Court took on Jackson appointees, Marshall lost control. The new Justices liked his "Doctrine of Discovery" ruling and used it as precedent. Marshall was all too aware of what he had done and regretted his error. Fortunately, he did not live to see the high courts of Canada and Australia use his Johnson v. M'Intosh opinion to disallow their own indigenous peoples' land rights.

Rebecca Gratz probably had no knowledge that her family was implicated in any way in the removal of Native Americans. In a quote reproduced in the earlier post on this subject, she shoulders her share of the blame for the catastrophe, but I think she did that as an American citizen, not as an interested party in a law suit.

(To me a blog post is not a journal article or a book chapter; it can serve to introduce readers to a topic and lead them to more detailed information elsewhere. I have pared down this story to its essentials. If you want to read a full account, including Marshall's reasons for invoking the discovery doctrine, I suggest Lindsay G. Robertson's Conquest by Law: How the Discovery of America Dispossessed Indigenous Peoples of Their Lands, on Google Books. Rebecca's letter is in Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by David Phillipson, also on Google Books.)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Women's Sabbath

It is Hanukkah again and I still have found no mention of the holiday in the Gratz correspondence. So this may be a good time to talk about the Sabbath which I have been thinking about since a young woman who was researching Rebecca Gratz approached me for information: her professor, she said, questioned whether Jewish women in America, circa 1800, attended synagogue each week. I replied that they did, but the clearest evidence I found was from 1825 when Rebecca, reporting on the dedication of her synagogue's new building, writes that she attended on Friday evenings and Saturdays. After that, there are quite a few mentions of visits made after services (See "Rebecca Gratz's First Bar Mitzvah Party?"as an example.) But there are no straightforward statements about synagogue attendance from her youth, that is, circa 1800. Although evidence may be gleaned from the letters, it is usually in passing remarks: the Sabbath traditions were so much part of the fabric of family life there was never a need to discuss them.

One point at which there is a little more about Sabbath synagogue attendance is when Rachel was away from home. The youngest Gratz sister seems to have been a bit of a slacker in her youth in the area of religious observance. For instance, when 17-year-old Rachel went to New York in 1800 to visit their non-Jewish friends, the Fenno's, her older sister Sarah wrote to her: "Have you been to synagogue -- you know my Rachel your attention on that score will be pleasing to our inestimable Parents." And also during this stay, in a letter to Rebecca, Maria Fenno offered reassurance to the Gratz family that "Rachel has gone to synagogue." I think it is a fair conclusion that her parents expected her to attend as usual although they were worried that she would not.

The strongest evidence for the Gratz women's customary attendance at services on the Sabbath is a poignant remark of Rebecca's. Following her mother's death in September 1808, she first went to synagogue in November for the naming of Rachel's baby daughter. All her grief returned, as raw as ever, when she saw "the vacant seat which our Parent used to occupy there." She knew where her mother had always sat in the women's section because Rebecca had attended services with her on a regular basis.

The correspondence doesn't tell us about how the family spent their Sabbath, but it makes clear that one observance was strictly followed: many, many letters end with a mention that it is nearly the Sabbath and so the writer must lay down her pen, writing being forbidden after sundown on Friday. Usually in the rush to finish, there is little else said, but in one of her letters to Maria Fenno in 1802, 21-year-old Rebecca says she must stop writing because "our dear old day shall not be forsaken." The artless affection for the Sabbath in her choice of words tells us that the "dear old day" was a time she cherished each week.

(The letters concerning Rachel's trip to New York are in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, American Philosophical Society. The 1808 letter is in the Gratz Collection, American Jewish Historical Society and the one from 1802 is in the Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection, Library of Congress. The 1825 letter is reproduced in Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by David Phillipson.)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Alfred Mordecai's Civil Wars

[As promised in a previous post, "Rebecca Gratz and the Civil War," here is the first of the profiles of Gratz relatives' war experiences.]

Alfred Mordecai, (1804-1887) was a North Carolinian. His father ran a girls' boarding school in Warrenton, NC, which was considered one of the best in the South. Alfred, the only boy who attended the Mordecai School, received special tutoring and was admitted to West Point (no doubt quite a change) when he was fifteen. He graduated first in his class of 1823, and after two years as an assistant professor at the Academy and a stint building forts in Virginia, he became the assistant to Gen. Alexander Macomb in the War Office's Engineering Department in Washington.

In 1835 he was appointed to head the Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia. Mordecai had met Sara Hays, Rebecca Gratz's niece, a few times during his Washington days and renewed the acquaintance. His father, a scholar of religion as well as a schoolmaster, had recently visited Philadelphia where he had met Rebecca; the Gratz's were ready to welcome his son. In June 1836 Alfred and Sara were married.

The marriage was not without its tensions. Mordecai, though not a slaveholder, upheld the institution and states' rights; his wife held northern (although not Abolitionist) views on slavery and the importance of the Union. While she was an observant Jew and tried to interest her husband in religion, he remained a firm agnostic despite his upbringing in an observant family. Still, in 1855 when his brother was about to marry, Alfred said he hoped the couple would be as happy as he and Sara were.

After his marriage Mordecai continued to rise in the army as an expert in ordnance, receiving assignments in recognition of his knowledge -- an inspection tour of European munitions factories and a trip to the Crimea to observe the war there. He and his family lived in Washington during most of this period, moving to Watervliet NY when Mordecai was posted to the Arsenal there in 1857.

As the Civil War approached, Major Mordecai faced an almost unbearable choice. He was a southerner by birth and would have lived there if his career had permitted it. He was also the pride of his large extended family -- a symbol of Jewish patriotism and success. Now they expected him to become one of their military heroes in the struggle against the North. But Mordecai had competing loyalties which his Southern relatives discounted. First, there was the United States Army to which he had devoted his life. Then there was his son, Alfred, Jr., at West Point as the War began, who, without any divided allegiances, would be fighting for the Union. Finally, there were Sara and his daughters, Northerners who would be forced to live in the Confederacy if he went with the South.

Both the Governor of North Carolina and Jefferson Davis, an old friend, offered Mordecai commissions as the War began. He turned them down and requested to be transferred to somewhere far away from the War -- in the West, perhaps. His request was denied, and he resigned from the United States Army; the family arrived in Philadelphia at the end of May 1861.

Mordecai's principled stand had immediate financial repercussions: he had no other income than his salary; in September 1861 his daughters opened a school on Delancey Place in Philadelphia by which they hoped to support their family. Rebecca Gratz reported at the time that Major Mordecai was "very broken-spirited" despite "the girls' noble efforts to cheer their parents."

A year later, another friend Elizabeth Blair Lee, visiting from Washington, looked in on the family and found the Major "a premature old, old man....he hangs about doing nothing not even reading and [his daughters] are working in their school for bread...." Rebecca, an ardent Unionist, was also critical: the major's "associates," she found, were those "among the disaffected [Southern sympathizers] I fear whatever sentiments he might have entertained in the beginning -- they are now so far implicated on the wrong side that he will find it difficult to recede -- poor Sara is victimized being the only loyal member of the household -- the subject nearest all our hearts is never discussed in their household."

The atmosphere in the Mordecai home may have been an emotional war zone, but somehow the family pulled through. Mordecai found a job teaching mathematics, then worked for a company owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad. At the end of the war, he was employed by the Imperial Mexican Railroad, which allowed him to get away from the scene of his humiliation. Mordecai liked Mexico and the many ex-Confederates who worked with him. Together they dreamed of setting up a slave state, and Alfred considered bringing his family to live there. These plans collapsed with the defeat of Maximillian, and Mordecai returned to Philadelphia and to the job he had left.

In post-war Philadelphia, Unionists and those who had been pro-South (a minority which included members of eminent local families) somehow patched up their differences. Alfred Mordecai, criticized by both sides for his decision to stay out of combat, was accepted. In 1877, when the Gratz family was concerned that the press had erroneously characterized Rebecca's relationship with Washington Irving as a romance, it was Mordecai who was delegated to write the first article about Rebecca by a family member.

In 1886, Alfred and Sara Mordecai celebrated their golden anniversary, a milestone rarely achieved in the nineteenth century. The family sent out hundreds of invitations, but only one member of Alfred Mordecai's southern family attended. His relatives had always believed that it was Sara who had prevented him from taking his place among the military leaders of the Confederacy.

(I have gleaned the information about Mordecai's life from Emily Bingham's Mordecai: An Early American Family. The quotes from Rebecca are in Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by David Phillipson, accessible on Google Books. Elizabeth Blair Lee's quote is from Wartime Washington: the Civil War Letters of Elizabeth Blair Lee, edited by Virginia Jeans Laas, also accessible on Google Books. Alfred Mordecai's article appeared in Philadelphia's Jewish Record.)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

My History with American History

Last week, the publicity attending the Rosenbach Museum & Library's acquisition of a gorgeous Thomas Sully portrait of Rebecca Gratz brought a number of people to this blog for the first time. One of them commented: "I found [your site] incredibly interesting, and I can't figure out why, because normally that period of American History is of limited interest to me."

His words took me back to a moment in my childhood when sitting at my desk in the 5th-grade, I gazed in dismay at the next section in our history book, "The Coming of the Iron Horse." I had liked American history to that point: the age of exploration, the colonies and the Revolutionary War, even the Constitution and the first years of the republic. There were stories, descriptions of the colonists' struggles and heroic Founding Fathers. But technology was not my cup of tea, and the account of America's antebellum period was full of it. The political events were even worse, as each came freighted with a name which included at least one long latinate word not in my vocabulary: the Missouri Compromise, the Tariff of Abominations, the Nullification Crisis. And all these things were described in a bright bland "Pageant of America" style.

I took American History again in the 8th and 11th grades, but to no better effect. I liked history
and continued to read it for pleasure -- English, French, Russian, medieval, classical -- but never American.

Passing quickly over college, graduate school, career and family -- by the 1990's I had found my interests in history to be focussed on women and everyday life and was ready to try a work of American history with these themes. A Midwife's Tale, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, swept me (and practically everyone else who read it) into the world of rural Maine at the beginning of the 19th century. Ulrich had teased out (through painstaking research) a picture of the lives of the women in the area through the brief entries in the local midwife's records.

My old scholarly leanings reawakened, I decided for fun to research Rebecca Gratz, a figure I had first encountered at the Rosenbach. As a docent I knew her story and the legends which surrounded her. I wished to determine the truth of these assertions, and this goal was feasible because Rebecca, her family and friends had left more than 2000 documents which might hold the answers. I've learned a great deal about Rebecca, but reading her letters also opened up her world to me: antebellum America with its moral ambiguities, religious ferment, new technologies and political stalemates seemed not so different from the United States of the 21st century, and with Rebecca at the center, it was possible to grasp how these issues affected individual lives. Researching Rebecca's life and times has been rewarding for me, and I hope I am sharing some of that experience with those who read the blog.

I will return to Rebecca after Thanksgiving. In the meantime, I wish you a happy holiday.

(Steven Riddle's complete comments about the blog, quoted in part in the first paragraph above,
can be read on his site, "A Momentary Taste of Being.")

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Rosenbach Acquires Sully Portrait of Rebecca Gratz

A little more than a year ago, I was wishing that I could see a color reproduction of Sully's first portrait of Rebecca. The painting was in private hands and had not been exhibited since the 1920's. Starting on November 9, 2010, you can view the original portrait at the Rosenbach Museum & Library which just acquired it (along with a portrait of Rebecca's brother Joseph, by George Peter Alexander Healy) from a Gratz family descendant.

Rereading what I wrote last year about the painting (based on a black-and-white reproduction), I feel that I got it right as far as I went. Now, having seen the portrait, which has an impact much beyond that of the small color reproduction above, I am prepared to go further.

In 1820, Rebecca Gratz at thirty-nine was an "old maid." We know exactly what people thought of unmarried middle-aged women from a poem Rebecca's lost love, Samuel Ewing, wrote in his youth (long before Rebecca would end up as one). In it, he describes a withered, embittered woman, filled with envy, who still practices in front of a mirror accepting the proposal which will never come. Single women were failed women who could not get a man, their empty lives filled with longing.

It was almost impossible for an unmarried woman to escape the stereotype of this slightly ridiculous and pitiful figure, but something close to miraculous happened to Rebecca at this juncture in her life: at the end of 1819 Walter Scott's novel Ivanhoe was published and within a few years the story was circulating that Rebecca Gratz was the inspiration for the character of the beautiful Jewish girl Rebecca who was a universal favorite among readers.

In 1830, when Rebecca's family wanted to have her portrait painted, it almost surely was because they wished to preserve an image of the woman thought to be the original for Rebecca in Ivanhoe. Rebecca Gratz agreed to have the painting done, but it is clear she is not sitting as the inspiration for her fictional namesake. If she were, there would have been a reference to the novel -- a volume of Ivanhoe in her hand, perhaps a misty castle or a Gothic window in the background to recall the medieval setting of the novel or some "oriental" style of clothing to connote the eastern origins of her people. (At this time, anywhere east of Italy was considered "oriental.")

No, Rebecca appears as a beautiful woman, filled with vitality and dressed in the height of fashion (an anti-old-maid). Although she never chased after her identification with Rebecca in Ivanhoe, she was probably grateful for it because it caused people to remember and circulate her story. True, she was unmarried, but not because she was a failure who could not get a man: as a young woman, she had turned down the proposal of the man she loved because he was Christian. Her renunciation was seen by both her Jewish and Christian contemporaries as an act of integrity and an admirable example of filial piety. Rebecca Gratz was not simply the raw clay from whom Scott shaped his idealized heroine, she was a heroine herself, and what we see in the portrait is a woman who has overcome suffering, found fulfillment and is very much the hero of her own life.

A few years after the portrait was painted, Rebecca wrote about her niece Sarah Moses, whom she was raising (and who would eventually inherit the painting). Touched by the girl's optimism about the life awaiting her, Rebecca believed that "I...with the memory of many sorrows and disappointments may still encourage her thus far, that if she misses the favorite path to happiness [marriage] she may find another leading to content." Rebecca's life had proved to be anything but bleak and lonely and could be a positive model for other single women.

I have a lively awareness that Rebecca associates marriage with happiness and the alternative of good works with contentment, not quite the same thing. It indicates something of what it cost her to give up Samuel Ewing and suggests a reason why she did not identify with Rebecca in Ivanhoe: the fictional character suffers with surprising serenity through Ivanhoe's marriage to Rowena; Rebecca knew what it felt like to have that kind of experience -- serenity came only after a long struggle.

The newly acquired portraits of Rebecca and Joseph join a number of Gratz family portraits at the Rosenbach, including those of her father Michael Gratz, her brother Benjamin and another portrait of Rebecca, all by Thomas Sully; portraits of her sister and brother-in -law Rachel Gratz and Solomon Moses, by Gilbert Stuart; her sister-in-law Maria Cecil Gist, by Matthew Jouett; a copy of the Sully portrait of her father, by Jane Sully Darley; and a copy of a Stuart portrait of her mother, also by Jane Sully Darley. Most, but not all, are on view. If you have questions about the paintings or about museum hours and admission, use the link above to contact the Rosenbach.

(A letter from a friend asking Rebecca if she is in fact the original of the character in Ivanhoe is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, American Philosophical Society. Ewing's poem "An Old Maid" is from The Philadelphia Souvenir, edited by John Elihu Hall (1826) and is accessible on Google Books. The letter in which Rebecca writes about her niece Sarah is from Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by Rabbi David Philipson, and also on Google Books.)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Girls At Franklin College

In "Rebecca Gratz: NOT the First Female College Student," I reported that although Richea Gratz, Rebecca's older sister, attended Franklin College in 1788, she went to a section of the college which was a high school, not an institution of higher learning. Although we cannot confer the honor of the first American Jewish female college student on either Richea or Rebecca, the story has revealed a moment in early American history when girls were allowed to follow, along side boys, an academic curriculum.

After the Revolution, Americans (that is, white men) found themselves no longer subjects of a king but citizens of a republic which required more political participation of them. Education for good citizenship became a cause for many of the founding fathers. In Pennsylvania, Benjamin Rush was particularly interested; he founded Dickinson College, in Carlisle, PA, for the youth of the western part of the state and Franklin College, in Lancaster, to help inculcate republican values in the large German-speaking population in the area and to encourage their participation in the great American experiment.

Rush also gave thought to the best kind of education for American women, and in 1787 told an audience at the first female academic high school in Philadelphia:

"The equal share that every citizen has in liberty, and the possible share he may have in the government of our country, make it necessary that our ladies should be qualified to a certain degree by a peculiar and suitable education, to concur in instructing their sons in the principles of liberty and government....In particular it is incumbent upon us to make ornamental accomplishments yield to principles and knowledge in the education of our women....let the ladies of a country be educated properly and they will...form its manner and character."

Rush's ideas of "republican mothers" and female "makers of manners" gave women a role to play in building the new nation and seem to have fostered the notion of a more serious education for women, at least among some of the upper-class families in and around Philadelphia. Less than a year after Rush spoke, girls' names pop up on the roll of the new Franklin College, and we can speculate that his words played a part in this development, both because he had influence with the College and because, as a Founding Father, he had influence with the well-to-do families of the area who at other times were socially very conservative when it came to their daughters.

The new college was no doubt eager to fill as many places as it could in its first years, but many similar institutions had faced the same situation and didn't solve it by admitting girls. I think Franklin's doors were open to young women at this moment because of the double influence of Rush and Americans' consciousness that their republican experiment might require new attitudes about and expectations for women.

Richea Gratz, Margaret Coleman, Elizabeth Grubb and others lost to history attended school along with young men. It would be interesting to know which courses were open to them. Even Benjamin Rush, who championed their education in history, arithmetic, geography and composition, did not suggest they should take courses in Classics and higher mathematics which their male classmates were studying.

The Franklin College records for this period are incomplete, but the school soon returned to single-sex education. We have to assume that male applications were given preference over female ones, and girls were soon squeezed out. But in generation after generation, there were always some American women attempting to broaden and deepen the education of their sex. In the 1830's Sara Moses, Rebecca's niece, who was studying at the socially prestigious but by no means progressive French Academy in Philadelphia, learned conversational French and music, just as 18th-century girls did. But Sara also studied "French composition and criticism and Chemistry." Accomplishments were slowly giving way to knowledge.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Rebecca Gratz: NOT the First American Female College Student

Of all the "Tall Tales about Rebecca," this is one of the most annoying. Unlike the deathbed scene between Rebecca and Matilda Hoffman which was the product of faulty memory, the college girl story is based on enthusiasm run amok and a disregard for easily accessible facts.

Sadly, it starts with a primary document from the era: the roll of Franklin College, Lancaster, PA, January to April, 1788. On it is very clearly written the name of Richea Gratz, Rebecca's older sister, who was at this time fourteen years old. Someone, in the first half of the twentieth century, saw this and read it as "Rebecca Gratz." Perhaps since "Richea" had virtually died out as an American girl's name, the reader thought it was a misspelling of Rebecca or a form of "Rivka," the Hebrew version of Rebecca.  No one seems to have checked the Gratz family records to see if there was possibly another daughter with this name nor even taken cognizance of Rebecca's birth date: she was seven years old in 1788.

In any case, Rebecca story was publicized and struck a chord with Jewish women who were heading off to coeducational colleges and universities. Ironically, in the scholarly literature, Richea had already been identified as the Gratz sister at Franklin -- but the truth was the story of the better-known Rebecca as the first female college student was too good to go away, and the competing versions co-existed.

Then someone noted that there were at least two other girls on the roll with Richea who could also claim the honor of first college student, so Richea and Rebecca shared a new title, the "first Jewish female college student."

But there is more. Although in its articles of incorporation, Franklin College was authorized to grant degrees, it was in its first years divided into two sections. One took students advanced enough to do college work, but the other, which Richea attended, functioned as a high school rather than a college.

So stop telling this story about Rebecca or Richea. Neither should get a "first" for going to a high school that happened to be called a college. I know it is very powerful story for women but we have gotten past the "coed" stage and now comprise the majority of college students in the United States. Franklin & Marshall College, which superseded Franklin College, has every right to be proud that the school was admitting girls in 1788, but it needs to be clearer on what exactly Franklin College was at the time.

In truth, the admission of females to a male secondary school in 1788 is astounding, and the import of this moment in history has been lost in the bogus Rebecca Gratz story. Now that we have dispensed with that myth, it's time to ask, "How did those girls get into Franklin College and why did their parents let them go to a boys' school?"

For answers, see "Girls at Franklin College."

(You can see a reproduction of the page of the Franklin College roll which contains the name "Richea Gratz" on page 14 of Franklin & Marshall College, by David Schuyler and Jane A. Bee. It is on Google Books. History of Franklin & Marshall College, by Joseph Henry Dubbs, gives an account of the college's early years. It is also on Google Books.)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Rebecca & the Proselytizers

In the previous blog,"The Indian Removal Act, Evangelicals and Rebecca Gratz," I reported on some of the positive effects -- influences on the women's rights and anti-slavery movements, for instance -- of the the Second Great Awakening of the 19th century. The Evangelicals also founded institutions of higher learning, notably Oberlin College in Ohio, which was the first to admit women and African-Americans. That said, many Evangelicals deeply offended Jews with their aggressive efforts at conversion. Rebecca Gratz sometimes found herself a target of the proselytizers since she was celebrated as the inspiration for the character of Rebecca in Scott's tremendously popular novel Ivanhoe. In her correspondence she records two of these approaches; neither came from her Christian friends and associates of long standing who seem to have respected her faith.

In 1834, Rebecca reported to her sister-in-law Maria in Kentucky:

"I received a note from one of my neighbours a few days ago, requesting the loan of my bible, as she found according to hers the time was near at hand when the Jews would be gathered to their own land [millennialism, the belief in the coming Apocalypse, was one thread among many in the Second Great Awakening] --on returning it she expressed in another note her joy at finding my bible the same she used. [The King James Bible was the English-language version readily available in the United States.] She begged me not to let the light that was in me be darkness -- but daily to examine myself -- and have regard to my soul -- by studying the scriptures etc. -- and she is so earnest that I cannot help being obliged to her --thank God I have the law and the prophets and am willing to hear them."

Rebecca had acute insight into the intentions behind words and actions, and when they were good-hearted, she was patient with and forgiving of their consequences. She seems to have thought that this woman had had the essential Evangelical experience of spiritual rebirth and she wanted others to experience it as well. Rebecca honored her sincerity, but she also sensed another motivation mixed in: she thought the woman "should try to canonize herself by my conversion." The rebirth experience was becoming less important to the proselytizers than just getting a convert.

When she received an anonymous letter and pamphlet in 1842 from a women's group in Boston dedicated to the conversion of the Jews, Rebecca was not so charitable. The writer detailed a visit she had made to a synagogue in Nice, France, and ridiculed the Jewish form of worship. Rebecca was insulted by the ignorance and presumptuousness represented and thought it in "very bad taste" to be so addressed. Her fame had again made her a target for strangers.

But Rebecca was most irate at what befell her friends Jacob and Hannah Florance in 1845. The couple were bringing up an orphaned niece Sarah Marx with their own children, and in the summer of 1844 had taken the whole family on vacation to Schooley's Mountain, a fashionable watering place in northern New Jersey. There they had made the acquaintance of another Philadelphia family, the Hockton's. Capt. Hockton, the son of the family, proposed to Sarah, but the Florance's had asked his forbearance since she was only 17 and still at school. Sarah went back to school in the fall, but continued to see Hockton secretly, and the following June the two eloped.

Elopement seems romantic today, but at the time it was a scandal and extremely painful for the families involved. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the situation, parents felt terribly betrayed by their children and vulnerable to the gossip and criticism of the community. So, when Mrs. Florance got a letter from Sarah stating that she had married, the distraught woman went to the young man's mother, thinking that they could commiserate with each other. But Mrs. Hockton announced that she knew all about the secret romance, "that she had prayed in her closet that this might be the means of converting all the family to Christianity." Mrs. Florance could only reply that the Florances's faith was as fixed as Hockton's.

Rebecca was outraged. This had nothing to do with a spiritual rebirth central to Evangelicalism.
"Poor Sarah will soon be cited as a Christian convert -- probably thinks as little about religion" as her new husband's family. Rebecca knew it would be a social conversion, not a religious one, and she was infuriated at the arrogance which would carelessly break family ties. "Alas, how little the spirit of religion enters into [those] who dare trample on the rights -- the domestic peace of [their] neighbors -- steal a child -- and presume to justify the act by the profane prayer."

Here was the movement at its worst: all self-righteousness and sanctimonious justifications. In fact, Evangelicals' organized efforts to convert Jews were singularly unfruitful. Social forces rather than spiritual needs were more likely to effect the change where it took place.

Rebecca's Hebrew Sunday School Society is sometimes characterized as a defense against the Evangelical fervor, and this concern probably played a part in its creation and continued support by the Philadelphia Jewish community. Rebecca, in her correspondence, never mentions its mission as a shield against the Evangelical onslaught. For her, religious education for children was closer to being an absolute good than a tactic necessary in a particular situation.

(The story about her neighbor's attempt at conversion is from Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by Rabbi David Philipson. The other two stories are from letters in the Miriam Moses Cohen Collection, Southern History Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Indian Removal Act, Evangelicals and Rebecca Gratz

My discussion of 19th-century evangelicalism began, oddly enough, with the post entitled "Rebecca Gratz and Baseball," in which I asserted that there were issues on which Rebecca and the Evangelicals, not natural allies, did see eye to eye. One such issue was the removal of Native Americans from their homes.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 called for the exile of all Native Americans living east of the Mississippi to Oklahoma, opening up their ancestral lands to settlement by whites. Although it was passed (greed usually wins), it faced strong opposition in Congress and in the country. The leaders of this movement were Jeremiah Evarts, a missionary, and Theodore Frelinghuysen, a Senator from New Jersey. Both men were Evangelicals and their powerful speeches and writings brought many into agreement with their position. And although Evarts and Frelinghuysen would cite the plan as bad political policy, their most forceful argument was that this betrayal reached the level of a national sin.

The first dire consequences of the Act were seen when Native Americans refused to leave and troops moved in to forcibly resettle them. The Seminoles in Florida were, because of their land's defensibility, able to resist more effectively than other tribes. In 1835, the government was still trying to move them out, setting off the Second Seminole War. In February 1836, shortly after Seminoles ambushed and massacred United States troops, Rebecca wrote of the conflict:

"This is a hateful war. The poor wretches who have done such mischief as to have sealed their own doom, may rise in judgment at the Great Day against this Nation for the wrongs and outrages committed upon them in their own wilderness and wigwams, the home in which God placed them. What plea can we make to Infinite Justice for invading them in their peaceful possession. That they were savage and we civilized; that they had lands which we wanted and could cultivate, and build cities? And because they would not give all, we hunt them like beasts of prey; and they are a fearful enemy to encounter, savage demons in their revenge."

Rebecca is being ironic when she states that the Native Americans "were savage and we civilized." Like the Evangelicals Rebecca saw the removal as a national sin and the government's savage actions as the root cause of all that followed. Notice that she is not condemning "them" for this disaster; she wonders what plea we can make to God, bearing her part in the national guilt.

Also note that Rebecca has made these statements in a PRIVATE LETTER, not in a public speech or in a publication. She had a horror of being in the public eye, which was reinforced by society's dictum that women's domain was private life.

Although Rebecca was central to the nineteenth-century innovations of women's charities and Jewish religious education, she pushed the envelope where it was most yielding. Women had traditionally given aid to the poor on an individual basis and acted as their children's first teachers in academics and religion -- her work was an extension of women's traditional roles beyond the home. Rebecca did not take on roles -- as public speaker for a political cause or a social reform, for instance -- which were new to women.

The opposition to the Indian Act marked the first time women took organized action to participate in a political debate. This was possible because the Evangelicals had given women greater roles in church endeavors than had been traditional in Christianity. For the first time women were forming benevolent and missionary societies within their congregations and developing networks around the country. Catharine Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe's sister, grasped the potential here for political action and anonymously started a petition campaign in support of Native Americans. About 1500 women signed petitions opposing the Indian Act and sent them to Congress. Beecher's methods would be used repeatedly as women became more fully involved in the anti-slavery movement and the many other reforms (including women's rights) which would spring up. Rebecca Gratz would privately support some of these causes in her letters, but did not publicly endorse any of these movements.

(A transcript of Rebecca's letter is in the Gratz Collection at the Rosenbach Museum & Library, Philadelphia.)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Rebecca Gratz & Baseball

I have enjoyed linking Rebecca Gratz to such disparate subjects as the Barbary Pirates, Charles Dickens and even St. Nicholas. I never dreamed, however, there was a (somewhat more tenuous) connection with the national pastime until baseball historian John Thorn brought to my attention an article from the American Sunday School Magazine issue of January 1830:

"Early on a Sabbath [Sunday] afternoon during the summer, the matron of the [Philadelphia Orphan Asylum] was pained to find a company of eighteen men (rope-makers) at a game of ball, in an enclosure near the building, and in view of the children. Knowing the power of such an example, she went to them -- requested them to desist a moment, till they should hear what she had to say." In essence, she told them that although she was a humble sinner herself, she must point out that their play was against God's law of keeping the Sabbath and a bad example for the children. She then asked them to come into the asylum where the children sang hymns and recited scripture for their visitors. Her language, the article states, was so civil to the visitors and so simple and affectionate to the children that many of the men, no longer interested in renewing their game, went home and returned to the asylum for services on the following Sunday.

This is the American Sunday School Society version of what happened. Thorn thinks it more likely that the men picked up their equipment and took the ferry to Camden where they could play in peace. As to the game the men were playing, 1829 is part of baseball's prehistoric era, so we cannot be sure, but the fact that there were nine men on each team strongly suggests an early version of the sport. In the illustration of the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum around 1830 shown above, you can see a ball in the air over the playground -- many of the children would have been interested in watching the rope-makers' game.

The connection with Rebecca Gratz? In 1815 she had attended an early meeting of the Philadelphia Orphan Society, became a member and was soon the secretary and one of the 24 manageresses of the new orphan asylum, positions she would hold for the rest of her active life. Besides fulfilling her duties as secretary and as manageress -- which included the disposition of children when they were old enough to leave the asylum -- she devoted untold hours at the asylum nursing the sick during epidemics and standing in when the matron was ill or absent.

Beyond that connection is a more specific one: Rebecca Gratz repeatedly told those who asked her advice about running an orphanage that having a good matron was perhaps the most essential thing, and she was most appreciative of the matron, Mrs. Hall, who appears in the story above. And indeed Mrs. Hall seems to have handled the situation with grace where she could have easily antagonized the working-class men. But knowing Rebecca's concern for the emotions and intellectual development of children (see Happy Birthday, Hebrew School), I think that the description of Mrs. Hall's language as "simple and affectionate" is key. For Rebecca a matron who kept a clean and orderly home (as Mrs. Hall did) was not enough; she would also have had to care about and understand children to rise so high in Rebecca's regard.

The baseball story also reveals one of the preoccupations of the nineteenth century: Sabbatarianism, the movement to limit all activity on Sunday's to only godly things. For adults this meant no games, no dancing, no gambling, no buying and selling, no theatre or secular concerts, etc. Children were forbidden to play with toys or participate in games or indulge in any other boisterous play. On a national level, the Sabbatarians sought to outlaw mail deliveries, store hours and public transportation on Sundays (and ultimately succeeded).

Robert Ralston, a Philadelphia merchant, a major benefactor of the Orphan Asylum and the husband of its foundress Sarah Ralston, was a leader of the Sabbatarian movement in the United States. Under these circumstances Mrs. Hall, the matron, must have grasped the importance that her charges adhere to Sabbatarian ways. Hence, the rush to the baseball field to stop the play from distracting the children.

Sabbatarianism was one of many elements in what is called the Second Great Awakening, the Evangelical upsurge which began in the 1790's and would continue into the early 20th century.
In its relation to American Jews, Evangelicalism was at its most appalling, and it is no wonder that many of those who have written about Rebecca Gratz have sometimes depicted her as a champion of her people, defending them from the Evangelical dragon.

As always, history proves more complex than we would think. For one thing, not all Evangelicals were intent on converting Jews. Rebecca worked amicably for years with Sarah Ralston and other women (in both the Female Association and the Orphan Society) who were Evangelicals. She also was in agreement with them on some issues: most famously, on the need for religious education for children.

(You can read the full article from the January 1830 American Sunday School Magazine on Google Books. The woodcut is from John Thorn's copy of History of the Orphan Asylum, in Philadelphia, with an account of the fire in which twenty-three orphans were burned (1831), which he kindly allowed me to use. If your interest in baseball's "prehistoric era" has been piqued by this post, you will be delighted to know that Thorn's new book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game, will be published in March 2011 by Simon & Schuster.)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Rebecca's Monotheism

Alexander Pope's "The Universal Prayer," Rebecca Gratz's favorite poem, provided her with some views, which if not heterodox, were not exactly traditional in western religion.

The most important of these is enunciated in the very first stanza of Pope's poem:

Father of all! In every age,
In every clime adored,
By saint, by savage, and by sage,
Jehovah, Jove, or Lord!

There is in Pope's universe not one God and many false gods; for him, every "god" represents the human attempt to understand the One.

Here is Rebecca, writing in 1834:

"The sublime, beneficent holy Spirit, to which all forms are but the outward costumes in which different nations chuse [sic] to dress it -- is still the same and all who lift their souls on high in Adoration -- may walk the earth in charity with one another...."

This sounds like Pope and makes clear how Rebecca's religious toleration, one of her most attractive qualities, is tied in her belief in the One behind the many.

In 1837 Rebecca found another writer who used a clothing metaphor to explain the variety of gods worshipped on earth (and much else). Here is an excerpt from Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (The Tailor Retailored):

"Church-clothes are...the Vestures, under which men have embodied and represented for themselves the Religious Principle....They are first spun and woven, I may say so, by that wonder of wonders, Society...."

Rebecca read Sartor Resartus and sent it on to her "book buddy," Maria Gratz, her sister-in-law in Kentucky. In following letters she asked Maria what she thought of it, but sadly, if they had a discussion through the mail, the letters have not survived. I remember reading Sartor Resartus in college and being amazed that what in many ways could be termed an early Existentialist work had been written in the 1830's. Just as surprising was that although his satirical jibes had not aged well, Carlyle's prose style was still exhilarating. I would love to know what Rebecca and Maria, two spiritual pilgrims (and by no means Existentialists), made of this extraordinary work.

The second of Pope's non-traditional opinions was that God could not be Lord of Earth alone in a universe so large:

Yet not to earth's contracted span
Thy goodness let me bound.
Or think Thee Lord alone of man,
When thousand worlds are round.

This idea got Giordano Bruno burned at the stake in 1600, but by the eighteenth century it was less a scandal and more of an interesting speculation which even the Roman Catholic Alexander Pope could take up in print. There is no evidence in her writings that Rebecca believed in multiple worlds, but based on what I know about her it is possible she would have found it an intellectually stimulating topic, but of not much use in determining the best way to live her life, the focus of religion for her.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rebecca's Favorite Poem

Much of Rebecca Gratz's girlhood education in literature must have been given over to the memorization of poetry. A niece remembered that she and her sisters played a game in which Aunt Becky quoted a few lines of poetry and everyone tried to guess the poem. The same niece said that Rebecca's favorite was Alexander Pope's "The Universal Prayer," and its place in her life is revealed in a letter from the late 1850's. Rebecca at Saratoga Springs had started to write down the poem for a woman she had met there, but found she was unsure of a line in the last verse. (At 76, she was certainly allowed her senior moment.) She wrote to her nephew in Philadelphia to have the poem copied out and sent immediately. Here is the poem Rebecca thought was important enough to get right:

The Universal Prayer
Alexander Pope

Father of all! In every age,
In every clime adored,
By saint, by savage, and by sage,
Jehovah, Jove, or Lord!

Thou Great First Cause, least understood
Who all my sense confined
To know but this, that Thou art good
And that myself am blind.

Yet gave me, in this dark estate,
To see the good from ill;
And, binding Nature fast in fate,
Left free the human will.

What conscience dictates to be done,
Or warns me not to do,
This teach me more than Hell to shun,
That more than Heaven pursue.

What blessings Thy free bounty gives
Let me not cast away;
For God is paid when man receives;
To enjoy is to obey.

Yet not to earth's contracted span
Thy goodness let me bound.
Or think Thee Lord alone of man,
When thousand worlds are round.

Let not this weak, unknowing hand
Presume Thy bolts to throw,
And teach damnation round the land
On each I judge Thy foe.

If I am right, Thy grace impart
Still in the right to stay;
If I am wrong, oh teach my heart
To find that better way!

Save me alike from foolish pride,
Or impious discontent,
At aught Thy wisdom has denied,
Or aught that goodness lent.

Teach me to feel another's woe,
To right the fault I see;
That mercy I to others show,
That mercy show to me.

Mean though I am, not wholely so,
Since quickened by Thy breath;
Oh, lead me wheresoe'er I go,
Through this day's life or death.

This day be bread and peace my lot:
all else beneath the sun
Thou know'st if best bestowed or not,
And let Thy will be done!

To Thee Whose temple is of space,--
Whose altar earth, sea, skies,--
One chorus let all beings raise!
All Nature's incense rise.

Alexander Pope (1688-1744), England's greatest poet of the eighteenth century, is not much read today. Although he has not fallen in scholarly esteem, his satires are too topical to be easily accessible to modern readers and his poetic style has gone out of fashion. The heroic couplets, for which Pope was famous, and the "common meter" of this poem are a little too obvious for most twentieth- and twenty-first-century tastes.

The poetry cannot be said to be short on substance, and Pope's outlook is echoed in Rebecca's writings. Like him, she believed in a loving but unknowable God who moved "in mysterious ways" (to quote another of her favorite poets William Cowper). She was very sensitive to the power of conscience, the importance of its guidance and the hell on earth which guilt could cause.
She also saw her spiritual bond with God not dependent on right theological beliefs so much as on the way she lived her life, with mercy, kindness and toleration.

"The Universal Prayer" was a very popular poem for two hundred years, and most people who liked it were happy to overlook some of its elements which are not traditional Christian or Jewish beliefs. Rebecca did more than that; she embraced at least one of his more unorthodox views.

To be continued in "Rebecca's Monotheism."

(The niece who remembered Rebecca's mastery of poetry was Sarah Hays Mordecai. She wrote "Recollections of My Aunt, Rebecca Gratz" in 1870; it was privately published in 1893 (31 pp).
Her letter from Saratoga is undated but internal evidence puts it at 1857. It is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, American Philosophical Society.)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Festival of Tabernacles

In early November 1837, Rebecca wrote to her sister-in-law Maria Gratz in Kentucky about the Festival of Tabernacles (in Hebrew, Sukkot), the Jewish holiday of thanksgiving for the harvest which takes place in September or October each year:

"I am glad you...kept the Tabernacle celebration, in scenes so naturally appropriate to the season. For my own part I was only once under the shelter of its roof [Rebecca was ill during the festival], and partook no further of the feast spread before me than a little bread and salt tho' I enjoyed the sight of goodly fruit and wine distributed in plenty and listened to a hymn of thanksgiving...we were permitted to meet at the sanctification of this festival & view the emblems of former rejoicing. The palm and branches of goodly trees, mentioned in scripture as taken by the youths and damsels as they went out after the ingathering of the blessings of the year, to dwell in booths and rejoice before the Lord, has always had a great charm in my imagination. I like the idea of cheerful gratitude and combining religious worship with heartfelt thankfulness in scenes where they had just reaped the benefits of their labor -- and praying that God would enable them to use his gifts for their good and the benefit of the poor -- this is making religion one of our daily duties -- a habit of our lives..."

Besides giving us Rebecca's meditation on Sukkot and the place of religion in her life, this passage reveals that her brother Ben and his family observed the holiday in Kentucky. In 1819, when Ben married Maria Cecil Gist, a non-Jew, the couple decided that each would keep his/her own religion although the children would be brought up Episcopalian. Nearly twenty years into their marriage, we find what seems to be a modern and ongoing arrangement in which the family observed the Jewish holidays as well as the Christian ones. Rebecca had been initially hesitant about Ben and Maria's decision, but in 1825, she was able to write to Ben: "I love your dear Maria, and admire the forbearance which leaves unmolested the religious opinions she knows are sacred in your estimation. May you both continue to worship according to the dictates of your conscience and your orisons be equally acceptable at the throne of Grace...."

(Both letters are from Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by Rabbi David Philipson.)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Yom Kippur, 1861

On August 10, 1861, Cary Gratz, the son of Rebecca's brother Ben, was killed at the Battle of Wilson's Creek on the side of the Union. His stepbrother and cousin, Jo Shelby, the son of Ben's second wife Ann, fought for the Confederacy in the same battle. Rebecca had known both young men since boyhood. This is an extract from a letter of Rebecca's to Ann, who was not Jewish, dated September 13:

"How I wish by sharing I could lessen My poor brother's grief!

I sympathize with you, too My dear Ann, in the anxiety which is so harassing by the uncertain accounts the papers bring of the contending Armies -- we may pray for Jo's personal safety -- tho' we cannot for the success of his arms -- Faith in Him, who in justice & in Mercy rules over the destiny of all, must give us patience! Tomorrow will be a holy day with us -- Sabbath & day of Atonement, when memorials of the dead mingle with petitions for the living -- and we endeavour to purify ourselves by devotion, confession & repentance -- you will all be remembered by me, in the house of prayer --"

(For the full letter, see Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by Rabbi David Philipson.)

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Did the Gratz Sisters Learn Hebrew?

In 1790, nineteen-year-old Fanny Gratz, Rebecca's sister, wrote to her mother from New York that she hoped "you spent the afternoon agreeably at the _____ [sic] you know where I mean. I cannot get this bad pen to make a Hebrew stroke so excuse the blank."

This is the only reference in all the family letters I have read that indicates at least one of the Gratz sisters had some instruction in Hebrew in her youth. Fanny's knowledge probably has to do with the fact that she was Michael and Miriam Gratz's oldest surviving child; often fathers, uncles and grandfathers become impatient for a boy to teach. Oldest girls learn all sorts of things that their younger sisters miss -- how to bat, where to fish and perhaps in this case how to read and write Hebrew.

The Hebrew word which Fanny could not write with her bad pen was probably "mikvah," the bath house where Jewish married women traditionally take a ritual bath, which is also called a mikvah, after menstruation and childbirth and before they resume marital relations.

Rebecca Gratz did study Hebrew as an adult, but that is a story for another post.

(Fanny's letter is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, the American Philosophical Society.)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Rebecca Gratz Club

(This post was revised on March 7, 2011, to reflect more and more accurate information which I recently discovered.)

I have received so many queries about the Rebecca Gratz Club that I feel I should write a post on the subject. The problem is that although there are records pertaining to it at Temple University in Philadelphia, the Club is on the very periphery of my research. I do not have time to delve into the primary documents of which I am so fond.

I have looked through some secondary sources, which often contradict each other, and this is as much as I can say. Most people agree that in 1904 a group of Jewish women in Philadelphia founded a boarding house for immigrant Jewish girls working on their own in the city. Besides housing the organization provided "naturalization" services like English lessons to help the tenants adjust to America. Its location may have been on North 6th St. It may not have been called the Rebecca Gratz Club from the start, but somewhere along the way that was the name given. (Some sources use the term "Rebecca Gratz House," and I am not sure if this is a mistake or an earlier version of the name.)

In the 1920's, the Club moved to 532 Spruce St. where the words "Rebecca Gratz Club," carved into the arch over the courtyard gateway, are still visible. As immigration was being stifled by new legal restrictions in the 1920's, the Club began to accept single Jewish women born in America who were in the labor force or going to school in Philadelphia. At this time, there were many women's boarding houses in the city, most run by religious groups, to provide secure housing and to support the religious identity of their tenants. In the 1950's the popularity of women-only residences was waning, and the Rebecca Gratz Club took on a new role, as a nonsectarian half-way house for girls and women who had been under hospital care for emotional problems. In the years to come the organization would modify its services to meet new needs, offering residential care for troubled girls who could not live with their families and outpatient care for the girls' families and to teenagers in the community.

In 1976, the Club opened a treatment unit for severely disturbed adolescent girls and in 1978 it introduced a program which developed "foster care homes for adolescents who wanted to remain with their baby....By living in homes of foster parents" the girls could finish high school and learn the parenting and life skills needed to be self-sufficient.

The Club moved to Wynnewood in the early 1980's. In 1987, it merged with another organization and became known as SERV/Greater Philadelphia. In 1990 SERV became the mental health division of Tabor Children's Services, a private non-profit organization to support children and families. All that remains of the Rebecca Gratz Club is the building on Spruce with its carved name above the gate; it was sold to a developer sometime ago and has been turned into condominium.

I will editorialize here by saying that the women who founded the Club must have been themselves inspired by Rebecca Gratz's contributions to the common good, especially by her work helping Jewish women. By naming their endeavor the Rebecca Gratz Club they were announcing that they were carrying on her legacy and also using her name as an inspiration to their tenants for what a Jewish woman could achieve in America.

I am sorry this post is so meager. If anyone has more information, please leave a comment.

(The new information I have added is from Invisible Philadelphia: Community Through Voluntary Organizations, edited by Jean Barth Toll and Mildred S. Gillam. The entry for the Rebecca Gratz Club, which deals mostly with its modern incarnation as a mental health facility, is by the Executive Director during the 1980's and 90's and is much more reliable than any other secondary source I have discovered.)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Rebecca and Matilda Hoffman

If you use the words "Rebecca Gratz" and "Matilda Hoffman" to search the internet you will come up with more than 300 hits (on Google), most of which will assure you that Matilda died in Rebecca's arms. This is one of those Tall Tales about Rebecca. Here is the real story:

When Rebecca's best friend Maria Fenno married Josiah Ogden Hoffman of New York, she also became the stepmother of his children by his first marriage. Matilda, born in 1791 and therefore ten years younger than Rebecca and Maria, is the one who appears most often in their correspondence.

This is because Matilda's father decided in 1804 to send her to boarding school in Philadelphia and asked Rebecca to look after her while she was there. Rebecca, who already was acquainted with Matilda and her "gentle sensibility," enthusiastically accepted the responsibility. "You may be assured," she wrote Judge Hoffman, "every attention the most affectionate sister would pay shall be proffered her." She also suggested that Matilda stay at the Gratz's for a time before starting school to "give her an opportunity of becoming acquainted with my family as I wish her to look upon us as friends and our house as a home." (Rebecca's initial excitement at being able to help a young friend would blossom into a lifelong avocation in which she played "Aunt Becky" to the children of friends and relatives visiting in Philadelphia.)

During the school terms for the next sixteen months, Rebecca's letters to Maria are full of the clothes and shoes she has purchased for Matilda (with an accounting of the expenses), outings they've been on and weekends spent at the Gratz house. In the spring of 1806, Maria wrote that Rebecca must bring Matilda home because one of her favorites, Washington Irving, was just back from Europe. Irving had studied law in Judge Hoffman's law office from 1802 to 1804 and had been a frequent visitor at their house.

Irving became again a familiar presence in the Hoffman household, resuming his role as the "fun" older brother to the siblings. His new friendship with Rebecca and her family would grow through visits in Philadelphia and New York. In the late spring of 1808, he must have seen and heard a great deal of Rebecca when she came to New York to help Maria care for her sister Harriet Fenno Rodman who was dying of tuberculosis. Rebecca nursed Harriet for more than a month at the Hoffman house which Irving visited often.

In September 1808, after Rebecca had returned to Philadelphia, Miriam Gratz, her mother, died after a four-day illness. No other event in Rebecca's life would ever cause her such pain. She took to her bed in the days after, and she let her charitable work slide. An officer of the Female Association wrote her in November encouraging her to return to her secretarial duties. In December her brother Hyman voiced his continuing concern "for [her] health and spirits" to Maria Fenno Hoffman.

By this same autumn of 1808, so terrible for Rebecca, it was generally acknowledged that Washington Irving had fallen in love with Matilda Hoffman. Judge Hoffman, who liked Irving and who thought that Matilda was mature enough to contemplate marriage, offered his consent -- if Irving would settle down to a job and provide financial security for his daughter. Irving applied himself to the law and planned a life with Matilda.

In February 1809 Matilda came down with a cold which quickly turned into tuberculosis. In the surviving letters from this period, no one in the Hoffman family asks Rebecca to come nor does she suggest it. Both Maria and the Gratz's must have been extremely anxious about Rebecca's physical and emotional fragility, and Rebecca may also have realized that she was unfit for nursing yet another terminally ill loved one, the third within a year.

So, as Washington Irving himself related, Matilda was gazing at him when she died. Rebecca's absence from her bedside, however, does not mean there was not an affectionate relationship between Matilda and her. The two, a decade apart in age, were not "best friends forever" as they are usually depicted; they were more like a nurturing young aunt and a loving niece. During Matilda's illness her older sister wrote to Rebecca, "She talks much of her dear Becky...[and] said she had been very happy in her dreams for you had been with her."

After Matilda's death Rebecca sent a message to Washington Irving through Maria, hoping that it would be some consolation to him, knowing "all [Matilda] felt of earth-born attachment was his."

It is easy to see how Rebecca's nieces and great-nieces, in piecing together their aunt's life from memory, could confuse her nursing of Harriet Fenno Rodman with Matilda's very similar illness of the following year. Consciously or unconsciously, they also may have preferred the version which involved Washington Irving's fiancee because it bound Rebecca and Irving together in a way that gave greater credence to the story that his description of her to Scott was the inspiration for the character of Rebecca in Ivanhoe.

(Rebecca's letter to Judge Hoffman is in the Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection at the Library of Congress. The letter from Matilda's sister Ann is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, the American Philosophical Society, and Rebecca's to Maria is in the Gratz Family Collection at the American Jewish Historical Society. The letter from the officer of the Female Association is among the papers of that organization in the special collections at the Haverford College Library.)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

At the Piano

In 1803, Rebecca wrote a friend, "At this late day we are learning music." Since the study of a musical instrument was usually part of a girl's ornamental education, it was indeed late for the three Gratz sisters, in their twenties, to be taking it up. Perhaps Miriam Gratz did not think that her daughters had the talent and interest to warrant the expense when they were younger. As young women, the sisters might have seemed more likely to apply themselves to their study and make up in serious efforts what they lacked in talent. Everyone seems to have been fairly realistic about the outcome: Rebecca thought that the music would be "at least amusement for ourselves."

She does not say what musical instrument they were studying in this letter, but within a few months the piano is mentioned. Why the piano? They could have taken lessons in the guitar, the harp or one of the other keyboard instruments then in use.

Their choice may have had to do with the fact that a local piano maker, John Isaac Hawkins, had produced a greatly improved upright piano in 1800. With a sound more expressive than other keyboard instruments and a size and shape which fit easily into a parlor, Hawkins' piano had both musical and practical attractions.

How did the lessons go? In April 1804 Rebecca wrote to Rachel who was visiting their sister Fanny in Baltimore:

"This morning unharmonious chords of my piano out of tune and a new
sonata have sent me so out of humour with music that if it 'be the food
of love,' I would rather starve than touch a morsel more today."

Attempting a sonata six months into your study of the piano would be hard work for anyone not overly talented. Perhaps Rebecca was trying to play one of Alexander Reinagle's "Philadelphia Sonatas" for the piano, published in the city in 1800. Reinagle, an English immigrant, had been a kind of unofficial composer for President Washington's administration. He also wrote an instruction book for keyboard instruments which the Gratz sisters may have used.

In any case, this is the last mention which Rebecca makes of playing the piano. Her sister Sarah has left no record of her musical endeavors at all. This does not mean that they stopped playing, just that their playing was not worthy of mention; it was indeed something to amuse themselves. Only Rachel proved a serious student: in 1807, for instance, Sarah writes that her younger sister "is quite well this morning and at the piano as usual."

(The first letter is from the Verplanck Collection at the New York Historical Society. The others are in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society.)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Finding the Gothic in America

In 1798-99, Jane Austen wrote her first novel, Northanger Abbey (published in 1817). The plot concerns a young woman, Catherine Moreland, an avid reader of gothic novels, who imposes the conventions of the genre on the family at a house she visits in the country. A spoof of the popular books of the era, the novel is an indication of just how absorbing the gothic was for young women.

Gothic novels were also popular with young women in the United States, who were entranced by the romantic landscapes of castles and ancient ruins, the supernatural, murder and a heroine in danger. But unlike English aficionados, Americans had none of the medieval architecture and ruins which seemed so necessary to set the scene.

In 1808 Eliza (Mary Elizabeth) Fenno, Rebecca's friend, visited a country house in New Jersey called Mount Pleasant. Built probably during the first half of the eighteenth century, the mansion was as close to a Gothic castle as anyone was going to get in America at that time. The building no longer exists but we know it through Washington Irving's Salmagundi stories about the estate he called "Cockloft Hall" and the eccentric family who lived there. He describes the "ancient edifice" as "being so patched and repaired that it has become as full of whims and oddities as its tenants....Whenever the wind blows, the old mansion makes a most perilous groaning, and every storm makes a day's work for the carpenter....A propensity to save everything that bears the stamp of family antiquity, has accumulated an abundance of trumpery and rubbish, with which the house is incumbered from the cellar to the garret...." Irving is writing for comic effect, but since his friend Gouverneur Kemble had recently inherited Mt. Pleasant, he and his friends spent much of their leisure time there and knew it well.

The house did seem to have had something gothic about it to Eliza Fenno, and it almost immediately stirred her imagination. She wrote to Rebecca: "Though there are no trap doors or winding passages and I firmly believe there never was blood shed within the walls, my imagination converted it into one of those castles I have read of." But, she continued, a "group of beaux arrived and dissipated the ghosts." Unlike Austen's seventeen-year-old Catherine Moreland, a rural minister's daughter, Eliza Fenno was a twenty-one-year-old New Yorker who was playing with the idea of the gothic.

Nevertheless, her remarks show the longing Americans would feel for the ancient and the supernatural, neither of which was easily summoned up in the new republic. Charles Brockden Brown, America's first novelist, had already developed the American gothic in Wieland, which dealt with murder and manipulation, and other popular novelists would continue the tradition in an American setting. Poe, who had lived in England for several years as a boy, was most at ease with the castles and other props of the English gothic, but perhaps the most successful of the attempts to naturalize the genre are the novels and stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne who found an authentic American gothic in the Puritan New England of the seventeenth century.

(Eliza's letter is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society.)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Fire at the Masonic Hall, 1819

John Lewis Krimmel, a Philadelphia artist whose work has been previously reproduced on this blog (Sleigh Bells Ring), recorded a spectacular city disaster of 1819, the destruction by fire of the Masonic Hall.

Rebecca Gratz, whose house was on the same block of Chestnut Street (between 8th and 9th Sts.) as the Hall gives her own account of the blaze:

"The weather was so fine during the months of January and February that walking was more agreeable than dancing -- and the evening appointed for the last Cotillion party -- the Masonic Hall took fire and was entirely destroyed. We were in some peril but thank God were preserved and no other building was injured. The Girls [her nieces] were already dressed for the Ball -- indeed some ladies had already arrived in the room when the fire was discovered -- you may imagine what a night of consternation it was here. Those who watched the progress of the destroying element say it exhibited a most beautiful spectacle -- the most splendid part of it involved too much anxiety to be enjoyed by us, the falling of the cupola on which the safety of our house depended and we were told it would most probably crush our back buildings, but it happened otherwise (do not think I attribute it to chance) it fell in on its own roof and the lodge alone was consumed....Seeing pretty soon that we should escape, we set about making those comfortable to whose exertion we were indebted and had the house open all night to give refreshments to the firemen. Many a merry fellow whose loquacity was assisted by a dram made enquiries for you -- some of the Niagaras [a volunteer fire company] I suppose, or your old soldiers who thought to fare better by naming you as their acquaintance."

Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell if the Gratz house is one of those pictured in Krimmel's painting, but it must have been very close to have been threatened by the collapse of the cupola. It must also have had enough grounds around it so that the fire could threaten its outbuildings, without necessarily threatening the house itself.

Rebecca's account gives us a clear idea of the way in which she saw God at work in the world. Her remark that it was not by chance that their house survived indicates that she, like most other Americans of the time, thought that His providence was responsible for such fortunate outcomes. She also felt an immediate duty to those human agents of this providence, demonstrating her gratitude through hospitality to the firemen.

However, she is rather curt about the firefighters who have asked about Ben. Despite her description of "merry" fellows, she makes it clear that the men were drunk. They probably had become so due (at least in part) to the Gratz's hospitality, but the volunteer fire companies were already acquiring a reputation as social (drinking) clubs for post-adolescent men. Over the next three decades as the nation divided (nativists vs. immigrants, Protestants vs. Catholics, whites vs. blacks) fire companies became identified with different ethnicities, political parties and religions. Fueled by alcohol and idle talk the various companies were more like rival gangs than public servants and were often involved in the riots and other disorders which plagued cities during this period. By midcentury, the city fathers must have been breathing a sigh of relief as more complex and efficient firefighting equipment was invented. The new technology required the recruitment and training of professional firefighters and led to the eventual disbandment of the volunteer companies in the 1870's.

(Rebecca's letter is in Letters of Rebecca Gratz, accessible through Google Books. For more about volunteer fire companies, see Philadelphia: A 300-Year History, edited by Russell F. Weigley, also accessible through Google Books. You can see Krimmel's painting, Conflagration of the Masonic Hall, Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1819, at the Art Institute of Chicago.)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tall Tales about Rebecca

Several generations of Jewish women in Philadelphia have been brought up on stories about Rebecca Gratz. I know because I have spoken to audiences who could cue me if I faltered in my narration. However, some of these old, beloved stories are not quite true.

The inaccuracies survive because Rebecca is not a major historical figure -- scholars have not been swarming over the Gratz papers for decades to verify or debunk every anecdote about her. In the decades following her death, the first stories to be printed were from family and friends. The newspaper and magazine writers who popularized Rebecca during these years accepted the memories as true since they had no way to verify the facts. Some of them must have suspected though that people may simply misremember events long past and that relatives may have their own agendas.

In 1929 Letters of Rebecca Gratz was published. Covering her correspondence with her family in Kentucky between 1819 and 1866, it gave readers, for the first time, Rebecca in her own words. The book demonstrated that behind the romantic stories was a woman of substance. It also inspired in 1935 the most insubstantial of biographies, Rollin G. Osterweis's Rebecca Gratz: a study in charm.

Although Osterweis would go on to a long career as a professor of history and oratory at his alma mater Yale, his book on Rebecca was the work of an enthusiast, not a scholar. He made use of the correspondence found in Letters as well as some other material which had become available, but he did not have access to most of the family papers which were still in private hands. For the many years not covered by his sources, he fell back on the old family stories -- and to fill out the book he used his imagination to create scenes and dialog.

I think that most readers realized that it was unlikely that anyone was sitting there taking notes as Rebecca and Samuel Ewing had their final painful conversation. However, Osterweis did more than put words in the mouths of his subjects. Places and dates, which readers might be more likely to assume were based on primary documents, often turn out to be as bogus as the conversations.

Other enthusiasts have taken up the subject of Rebecca in articles and histories over the years. Their most common mistake is not understanding that her opinions were private ones expressed in personal letters. Their work often gives readers the impression that she was a public figure fighting against the many social ills of the time, up on the platform beside Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Angelina Grimke. This "activist" version of Rebecca might have also been an attempt to make her seem more like the twentieth century's idea of a heroine. Ironically, it was her determination to keep to her private life which contributed to the nineteenth-century's admiration for her.

In the 1970's some anecdotes about Rebecca's life appeared in Stephen Birmingham's The Grandees: America's Sephardic Elite. Birmingham differed from other Rebecca enthusiasts in that his main interest was not in her, but in the great story he could craft around her, even if he had to fabricate much of it himself. For instance, he used an erroneous Spanish derivation for "Gratz" to shoehorn her Ashkenazic (northern European Jewish) family into a book about American Sephardim (Jews from the Mediterranean area). The problem with Birmingham is that his stories are so good as stories, people still cannot resist repeating them despite the disservice they do to Rebecca Gratz. His baroque embroideries deserve and will get a post of their own.

And then there are the simple mistakes, which, once made, are picked up and used repeatedly until everyone takes for granted they are true. For instance, somewhere along the way someone got the idea that Samuel Ewing was two years younger than Rebecca. If this were so, he would have graduated from the University of Pennsylvania at the age of nine. Since there is no mention of his being a child prodigy and since the Ewing genealogies and a family history indicate Ewing was born in 1776, it seems that he was five years older than Rebecca, in those days the appropriate age difference for courtship. A recent mistake was in Cokie Roberts' Ladies of Liberty in which Samuel Ewing was referred to throughout as Samuel Erving.

In the early 1990's a large cache of Gratz family letters and other documents became available, making possible the first real biography: Diane Ashton's Rebecca Gratz: women and Judaism in antebellum America. Ms. Ashton, unlike earlier researchers, had an embarrassment of riches from which to sculpt her biography. The Gratz material now accessible is a collection so large that I have been writing this blog for a year and have repeated very little which is in the Ashton book. This is in part due to the fact that my interests are slightly different from hers: where Ashton keeps Rebecca in the steady middle distance, I zoom in on the human interest and go to wide angle for the societal context. The difference illustrates what works in different media: linear biography for a printed book, a collage of posts on the internet to build up a picture of a person and an era.

Having brought up others' errors, it is only right that I confess my own. About three years ago I wrote a brief biography of Rebecca for a study group at the Rosenbach Museum and Library. I recently reread it and cringed -- I had made my share of false assumptions and outright mistakes of fact. My research has been a constant revision -- every time I read a new letter there is the possibility that much I think I know is going to change.

The most recent of such moments came when I read a friend's description of Sarah Gratz's illness. (See Sarah Gratz's Mysterious Malady.) Although I had been aware that Sarah had some kind of health problem from the few family letters written during the period 1812-1817, I had had no suspicion she might have bipolar disorder. I felt profound pity for her (I have read so many of her letters, that rightly or wrongly, I feel like I know her) and astonished respect for Rebecca for her devotion to her sister under the most difficult of circumstances. This period must have been one of the greatest trials of Rebecca's character and her faith and no one had known it had ever occurred.

Fortunately when I read this letter, I had not written a post about the "quiet family years, 1812-1817." I may not always be so lucky. At least with a blog I can readily correct posts in which I have erred, an option not so easy for those who have committed themselves in print. Although I have gone back and tidied up my writing from time to time, I have made no substantive changes -- yet. When I do, I will post a notice of the revision.

(Letters of Rebecca Gratz is accessible on Google Books. One caution: the editor, Rabbi David Philipson, states in his introductory remarks that he has excised material which the family found too sensitive. The result is that Rebecca seems to have had a somewhat more serene life than is true.)

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