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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