Rebecca Gratz: A Study in Charm. By Rollin G. Osterweis.244 pp. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $2.75
The first Gratz, Barnard, came to Philadelphia in 1759. At that time there were already quite a number of Jews in America, enough to form at least six distinct congregations in Newport, New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, Charleston and Savannah. For the most part they were refugees or the descendants of refugees from the Spanish Inquisition. Sometimes they arrived in America via the circuitous routes of Holland, Italy or Turkey. These Jews brought with them a high degree of cosmopolitan culture, and the dignity and endowments of centuries of leadership in education, medicine, law and philosophy in Spain and Portugal. It is not hard to understand why, in a period entirely free of irrational economic jealousies, these Jews were immediately accepted as important citizens in their new home.
The firm of B & M. Gratz, shippers and importers, soon was engaged in a flourishing foreign trade.
The character of the business changed in 1765, when Michael and Barnard, at considerable sacrifice to themselves, cast their lot with the young revolutionary movement and signed the Non-Importation Resolutionsâ€”the colonies’ most effective protest against the Stamp Act. Their idealism was soon materially rewarded, however, for they became one of the leading suply houses for the Colonial and later ### United States armies operating west of the Alleghanies.
They played the role of true pioneers in the penetration of the Northwest Territory. In 1871, entirely at their own risk, they outfitted General Clark for his ill-fated expedition to drive the British out of Detroit. They were reimbursed for but a fraction of their outlay. In 1811 their sons, Joseph and Simon Gratz, were victualling the army of William Henry Harrison. And socially, no less than in business, the Gratzes were the esteemed and trusted inmates of the leading men of the young country.
It is into this atmosphere of tolerance and success and gentility that Rebecca Gratz was born in 1781, the seventh of twelve children. At an early age she graced the balls and teas of the Quaker City, and was immersed in various of its social projects. She was rapidly becoming famous for her beauty, wit and charm.
Two men became important in her life. The first was Washington Irving, who was so entranced ### her that he carried reports of ### to Walter Scott, who made of ### the immortal Rebecca of Ivanhoe. This Rebecca Gratz knew, and would shyly admit to curious friends. Her close friendship with Irving continued until his death, and has left its mark upon his work.
The second man was Samuel Ewing, son of a distinguished Quaker family. Moving upon an equal social plane with him, there was little to prevent Rebecca from falling in love with him, which she promptly did. But there was much to prevent their marriage. Rebecca wrote later that no matter how ###ely the Jews mingled with their neighbors, in family matters they should maintain themselves apart. This was her periphrastic way of criticizing intermarriage. The tragedy was the more intense for her because in her family there had already been precedents for intermarriage and it was merely her own principles which deterred her. She never fully recovered from the loss of Samuel Ewing, and never married.
Instead she plunged into the social work for which she became famous. She may justly be called the founder of Jewish philanthropy in America. Many of the organizations she started have persevered through the years. Her Female Benevolent Society was the first Jewish charitable organization in America, founded in 1819. Soon after there followed a Jewish Orphan Asylum. Her work did not cease until her death in 1869. This did not prevent her from following the fortunes of her large family through exploration, political developments, wars, booms and crises. She wrote hundreds of letters in an exquisite hand and style; many of these have been gathered by the American Jewish Society into a collection which is not only of literary and Jewish interest, but of historical importance.
Mr. Osterweis has conscientiously collected all the facts in this book, and put them together in readable form. It seems to me, however, that the inspiration of Rebecca Gratz might have induced him to write a book more substantial in proportions, which would fill out creatively the gaps in the story of her life, and in so doing, present a comprehensive picture of American Jewry before the Civil War. At the same time he would have done considerable service to the campaign against Anti-Semitism. For certainly the history of the early American Jews is one of which we may be proud.