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.)

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