Monday, April 7, 2014

Rebecca Gratz's Romance 1. Introduction

I was skeptical of this story when I started researching Rebecca.  I thought that it was a case of every- one wanting her to have had a great love, preferably a tragic one, and someone obliging, through speculation or exaggeration, with a "Christian gentleman" whom she had loved and renounced because of religion.

Certainly no one seemed to have found any hint of a romance in the Gratz papers then available.  This was important because during Rebecca's lifetime the appearance in print of an item about the private life of a respectable, not to say, revered, woman, without her permission, would have been a journalistic scandal.  Any evidence of an affair from that time could come only from private letters.  After her death, however, Rebecca's life would be fair game.

Yet, at the time I started my research, the earliest article in print that referred to a mystery man was thought to be in an issue of The Century magazine in 1882, thirteen years after her death  -- a long pause, it would seem, before anyone brought the subject up, certainly enough time for the story to be concocted.  There was a popular theory that the Gratz family, in an effort to explain Rebecca's not marrying, was responsible.

Unlike previous researchers, I had in the internet a highly effective search tool that only got better as my work went on.  One day, something popped up, a short article published in the February 1870 issue of the Australia (yes, Australia) Journal  (about six months after Rebecca died)  and there it was:  [Rebecca Gratz] "was addressed by a gentleman of wealth, position, and character whose passion she returned.  But the difference in their religious faith...proved an insuperable barrier to their union."  If the Gratz family had created the story, they did so immediately after her funeral and then made the press contacts which would send it to the other side of the world in a matter of months.  It just seems more likely that the tale had been in the gossip-sphere for decades and burst into print as soon as it was permissible.

This doesn't mean the story is true, but because it was in circulation much earlier than expected, there is a greater likelihood that it has some factual basis than if it had first appeared years after Rebecca's death.

Once the romance was public, candidates were suggested for the Christian man whom Rebecca loved.  Washington Irving was a favorite although the Gratz family denied they were sweethearts.  (Biographical research has borne this out.)  Henry Clay was another famous man who got a mention but once again research nixed that possibility.  There was also a story that she loved a friend's younger brother and nursed him in his final illness (No signs of that  have ever been found.)

And then in the early 20th century, a scion of an old Philadelphia family came forward.  Lucy Lee Ewing said that her grandfather, Samuel Ewing, had told her grandmother that Rebecca Gratz had been his first love but that they did not marry because of religious differences.  Beyond that fact she supplied some anecdotes, which seemed partial at best. For me, these sketchy secondary tales served to undermine rather than bolster the central fact of a Ewing-Gratz love affair.  However, like most family stories, I thought, there could be a grain of truth at the center.

And so we will take a  look at Samuel Ewing and see how he shapes up as the "Christian gentleman" of Rebecca's romance.  To read that post click here.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Rebecca's Legends & Why They Are Important

Despite her pioneering efforts in religious education and charities for women and children, Rebecca Gratz's enduring popularity in the American Jewish community rests on two romantic legends.  One is her purported romance with a non-Jew, and the other concerns her possible role as the inspiration for the character of Rebecca in Walter Scott's novel Ivanhoe.

Each tale is interesting enough in itself, but the two are intertwined: the real Rebecca, like the one in the novel, was a beautiful, intelligent, compassionate Jewish woman who fell in love with a Christian, did not marry him and went on to live a life of good works.  This parallel enhances the credibility of both tales.

Credibility aside, these legends are just too good to be ignored by the popular press.  From the 1870's to the present day, popular histories, newspapers and magazines have printed and reprinted the stories, despite  a dearth of documentary evidence.

However, as early as the 1950's some were questioning their veracity.  In 1954 a writer in the magazine Commentary called them "pious fables," and from then on scholars have often simply dismissed them.

Given the Gratz materials available during most of the 20th century, it was right to be cautious.  But in the last twenty years or so, more letters have become available and their content sheds some new light on the subject.

If you have read other of my blog posts, you know that in passing I have referred to Rebecca's romance as fact.  In upcoming posts,  I will be presenting the evidence for this conclusion.  I will then deal with what we know about the Ivanhoe story.

But why give these sideshows time and effort when the real story of Rebecca's life is found in her philanthropic and educational activities?  Earlier researchers tended to believe the legends were late accretions created by the Gratz family after Rebecca's death.  However, my research has uncovered evidence that by 1830 her contemporaries believed she was Rebecca in Ivanhoe.  Endowed with the charisma of everyone's favorite literary character as well as with her own, Rebecca was in an almost unassailable position to put forth the idea of a Hebrew Sunday School and make it succeed.  Other Jewish women attempted to emulate her with minor or no success.  Rebecca's special status, conferred by the romantic legends about her,  helped put the project across.  To put it crudely, "No legends, no Sunday School."  Her good works and the stories which swirled around her are both of importance.  Neither can be ignored if you wish to understand her life.

P.S.  Please take a moment to celebrate that life  on  Rebecca's 233rd birthday today.

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