restricted access Rebecca Gratz: Women and Judaism in Antebellum America (review)
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American Jewish History 88.1 (2000) 152-154

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Rebecca Gratz: Women and Judaism in Antebellum America. By Dianne Ashton. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997. 329 pp.

In her engaging biography of Rebecca Gratz (1781-1869), historian Dianne Ashton puts her extraordinary subject's life in the context of assimilation, anti-Semitism, and the challenges posed by the arrival of large numbers of poor Jewish immigrants before the Civil War. These themes will not be surprising to scholars familiar with the Jewish experience in antebellum America; yet Ashton skillfully uses Gratz to put a human face on these historical processes. Moreover, Ashton's emphasis on Jewish women's roles in shaping American Judaism is an important contribution.

Gratz, who lived virtually her whole life in Philadelphia, was a member of a wealthy and influential mercantile family. The family's [End Page 152] wealth gave Gratz entrée into Philadelphia's highest social circles. Gratz mingled with the city's social and literary elite--Jews and Gentiles--from an early age. By her late teens Gratz began a voluminous correspondence with friends and far-flung family; surviving letters provide Ashton with the majority of her sources. Even though Gratz was a beautiful and wealthy socialite with numerous suitors, she eventually tired of Philadelphia's elite singles scene and turned her passions to social causes. At the early age of twenty, Gratz was among the founders of Philadelphia's first nonsectarian women's charity, the Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances (1801). To her credit, Ashton does not overlook the fact that this benevolent society, like many antebellum charities, aimed to aid only the "worthy poor." Prostitutes and alcoholics need not apply.

As Gratz gained maturity and confidence, she increasingly turned her attention to the plight of poor Jews. In the antebellum period, many Protestant Americans were becoming increasingly evangelical, seeking converts at every opportunity. Ashton deftly connects this context with Gratz's desire to offer indigent Jews aid from Jewish organizations that would not try to convert them to Christianity. As a result, in 1819, Gratz founded the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society, "America's first independent Jewish women's charitable society" (p. 16). Taking a cue from the Protestant Sunday School movement, Gratz helped found the Hebrew Sunday School (HSS) in 1838--another first in America. Ashton highlights the fascinating dialectic between Christianity and Judaism exemplified by the HSS: because there were no English-language Jewish textbooks available in America, Gratz used primers provided by Protestants--but she tore out and pasted over passages referring to Jesus! Gratz's final institutional triumph occurred in 1855 when she established the first American Jewish foster home. Gratz, who never married, died in her late eighties, but not before leaving an impressive legacy of benevolent work.

But the story does not end with Gratz's death. In a sophisticated postscript, Ashton analyzes the "legend" of Rebecca Gratz. Beginning in the 1820s and continuing through the twentieth century, numerous sources erroneously held that Gratz was the model for Rebecca of York in Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1819). The beautiful Jewess who refused to marry her true love because he was Christian, Rebecca of York helped American Jews explain away Gratz's bedeviling choice never to marry. According to the legend, Gratz was a romantic martyr to her faith.

Ashton is at her best in connecting Gratz's charitable work with the development of a distinctively American style of Judaism in which women played unprecedented public roles. Scholarship on Protestant [End Page 153] American women has identified the ideology of "domestic feminism," by which, in Ashton's words, "women used a rhetoric of domesticity to justify their work outside of their own homes" (p. 23). Jewish women in America, like Gratz, adopted this prevailing rhetoric to their own situation. This helped propel American Jewish women into new positions of religious leadership and teaching outside the home.

Ashton's evident sympathy for her subject is a great strength of the book, but it also leads her occasionally to a...