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.)

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