Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Rebecca Rejects Authorship

(This story from the 1830's only makes sense if you know that by that time Rebecca was famously identified with the character of the same name in Scott's novel Ivanhoe.)

Always pious, Rebecca, probably influenced by the fact that she was now the symbol of her religion in the eyes of the public, read all that she could about her faith. She probably discussed religious questions with Isaac Leeser, the scholarly young man who had become the hazzan ("reader": the man who led religious services) at Mikveh Israel, her synagogue. Since there were no rabbis in the United States at this time, Leeser's was the most authoritative opinion readily available to her.

In 1833-34, Rebecca met another young man who, like her, was interested in their religion. Solomon Cohen, from Georgetown, South Carolina, shared with her his concern about the ignorance and misrepresentation of Judaism among Christians, even among those who were well-disposed towards Jews.

After their meeting, Cohen wrote Rebecca "to offer a suggestion. Would it not be well to give to the public a work explaining our doctrine...? Such a work...would be of immense advantage in removing the mist of ignorance and prejudice which hang heavy and thick upon us and our faith--and permit me to add that I know of no one in America more admirably calculated than you are to perform this sacred task."

This may be a first in the history of world religion: a man suggesting a woman write a book on the subject of their religion. Cohen might have been driven to it by his excellent instincts for marketing. He probably was visualizing the author line on the title page as reading "by Rebecca Gratz (the Inspiration for the Character of Rebecca in Ivanhoe)".

Rebecca of course had no interest in this venture. She was rightly modest about her knowledge, and would have been distressed by any attempt to link her publicly to Scott's novel.

And yet--. It's hard not to think that if she had had more confidence in her understanding of her religion and was willing to use her celebrity in a good cause, such a book, attractive to both Jews and Christians, might have done a measure of good.

Cohen continued to look for and encourage books on Judaism in English; he would be instrumental in arranging for the publication of works by Grace Aguilar, the Anglo-Jewish author, in the United States in the 1840's. He also remained close to Rebecca, marrying Miriam Moses, one of her nieces, in 1836.

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

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