Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Rebecca & Mixed Marriages

Rebecca Gratz gave up the man she loved for religious reasons: he was Presbyterian and she was Jewish. In a poem written in 1807, two years after Samuel Ewing proposed marriage, Rebecca recalled her happiness during their brief engagement and how it was ended when "interfering religion...called [her] home."

Ten years later in 1817, and two years before her brother Benjamin married Maria Cecil Gist, Rebecca spoke of her feelings on mixed marriages:

"I believe it is impossible to reconcile a matrimonial engagement between persons of so different a creed without requiring one or the other to yield. In all instances we have heard of in real life this has been the case and where a family of children are to be brought up it appears necessary that parents should agree on so important a subject. I have known many Jews marry Christian women whose wives have become strict conformists to the rites of our religion -- and Jewesses married to Christians who have entered the church as in the instance of my Aunt Schuyler [her mother's younger sister Shinah Simon who married Nicholas Schuyler]...."

Rebecca believed in one family, one religion, but you will note that in each of her examples it was the woman who converted. Given these facts, it would seem that the desire for a religiously unified family and her reluctance to convert were probably at the heart of her renunciation of Samuel Ewing.

When in 1819 Rebecca received a letter from her youngest brother Benjamin announcing that he would be marrying Maria Cecil Gist, a non-Jewish Kentucky woman whom he had met in Philadelphia the previous summer, it created conflicts for her. She had also met Maria, and had been drawn to her by their mutual interests and similar values. But Ben must have written that he and Maria would continue to follow their individual religious traditions, which she thought to be an unworkable plan. She wrote about her feelings to her friend Maria Fenno Hoffman:

"I hope mine is not a narrow creed. My most cherished friends and the companions of my choice have generally been worshipers of a different faith from mine and I have not loved them less on that account. But in a family connection I have always thought conformity of religious opinions essential and there fore could not approve my brother's election. In other respects Miss Gist is a woman any family might be proud to receive, and as they have resolved to blend their fate I most sincerely hope they may find the means to worship God faithfully and without offense to each other."

Rebecca also wrote to Ben, a letter which has gone missing, due, I would guess, to a little family editing. She must have voiced the same concerns to her brother. It would have been very interesting to see how she expressed herself on this occasion and what exactly she suggested, especially because Ben showed Rebecca's letter to Maria.

There cannot have been anything personally offensive to Maria in it, but Ben's fiancee may have felt betrayed by a woman she had taken to be her friend. She did not realize that important as religion was to Rebecca, family ties came first. Once Maria had married Ben, Rebecca would accept her wholeheartedly. However, the correspondence between the two new sisters-in-law began a bit awkwardly; once Maria and Ben visited Philadelphia in 1821 with their new baby the easy friendship the two women felt for each other when they first met reasserted itself. They would be the best of friends until Maria's untimely death in 1841. (Most of the letters in Letters of Rebecca Gratz are addressed to Maria.)

In 1825, Rebecca 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 to the throne of Grace...."

We know from the correspondence that the Gratz family of Lexington, Kentucky, observed Jewish holidays as well as Christian ones. The children were reared in Maria's Episcopalian faith, but Benjamin retained his Jewish identity throughout his life. In 1884, when he died in his 92nd year, a rabbi presided over his funeral service.

(Rebecca's letters from 1817 and 1819 are from the Gratz Family Collection at the American Jewish Historical Society. The 1825 letter is published in Letters of Rebecca Gratz.)


  1. As a docent at the National Museum of American Jewish History, I look forward to reading your blog and will recommend it to my fellow docents.

  2. Thank you. The Rosenbach docents had the opportunity to visit the National Museum of American Jewish History as part of the pre-opening shakedown, and we all were enthusiastic in our response. I particularly admire your museum's exhibit covering the period through the Civil War. Until now, it has been an era of Jewish American history that has been largely unknown--except to a few people like me--and I am delighted that you have made it so accessible to the public.


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