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.)

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