American Jewish History and…Ivanhoe?

The real-life inspiration behind one of Sir Walter Scott's most interesting Ivanhoe characters, Rebecca of York.

What does Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, published in 1820, have to do with American Jewish History? At face value, very little. The book is set in 12th century England, and single-handedly boosted popular interest in such figures as Richard the Lionheart and King John. One of the standout characters from this book is the “Jewess,” Rebecca of York. Rebecca was so popular that, generations before fan communities coined the term “fanfiction,” William Thackeray wrote a post-Ivanhoe fanfic in which the eponymous character ended up with Rebecca instead of Rowena (today, this is called “fix-it fic”).

In the book, Rebecca of York was an accomplished healer. Passionately dedicated to her faith, she chose Judaism over her own life even when threatened with execution by fire, and chose her faith over the love she held for a non-Jewish man. In the end, she left England with her father, Isaac, to settle in Granada.

A fascinating character, Rebecca of York also served a rhetorical purpose. Scott wrote as the “Hep! Hep!” riots broke out in Germany, and as European national identity conflicted with the meaning and implications of Jewish identity in Europe.1 Indeed, this critique was most evident when Rebecca says to Rowena that “less cruel are the cruelties of the Moors unto the race of Jacob than the cruelties of the Nazarenes of England.”  

Rebecca of York did not burst out of Scott’s head fully formed. One tradition holds that Rebecca of York was inspired by Rebecca Gratz (1781-1869) of Philadelphia. 

A passionate philanthropist and educator, Rebecca Gratz was the most prominent Jewish woman in the Early Republic period of American history. Highly educated, she founded the Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances in 1801, at the age of 20. She also founded the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum and the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society—the first American Jewish institution run by women. She founded the first “Hebrew Sunday School” in 1838, and served as its president, superintendent, and assisted in developing its curriculum.

Rebecca Gratz maintained friendships with many prominent intellectuals of her day. She was particularly close to Washington Irving. In their youth, Rebecca had nursed Irving’s dying fiancé, Matilda Hoffman, through the last six months of her life, and the Gratz family set aside a room in their home specifically for Irving. Further, In Recollections of my aunt, Rebecca Gratz by Rebecca’s niece, Sara Ann Mordecai, Mordecai recalled that she would “never forget when Washington Irving returned from Spain, after an absence of fifteen years from his native country. I most fortunately was at Aunt Becky’s when he called, immediately after his arrival, to see his old friend, Rebecca, and, with the familiarity of an old friend, she called him ‘Washington.’”

Irving was a frequent traveler, and during one trip, he befriended Sir Walter Scott. During a visit in 1817, Irving told Sir Walter Scott all about his dear friend Rebecca. Three years later, Sir Walter Scott published Ivanhoe. Word began to spread through American society that Rebecca Gratz was the true Rebecca of York. After all, the two women had much in common: their intelligence, their kindness, their beauty, their nursing skills, and their doomed love for non-Jewish men.2 So influential was this rumor that Mordecai opened her Recollections with: “Those who knew my aunt…have gone…to their rest, and I feel that my time is drawing near, and that no one will be left to record the memory of Rebecca Gratz…the original of Scott’s Rebecca in ‘Ivanhoe.’”

So, was Rebecca Gratz the true model for Rebecca of York? Many secondary accounts claim to have seen letters between Irving and Scott stating as much, yet, none have seen these letters since. So, perhaps it is best to allow Ms. Gratz to speak. During her lifetime, many approached Rebecca to ask if the rumors were true. Her response?  “They say so, my dear.”

The American Jewish Historical Society has in its collections the Gratz Family Papers, and Recollections of My Aunt, Rebecca Gratz. The American Jewish Archives also has a collection of her papers. That finding aid may be found at http://collections.americanjewisharchives.org/ms/ms0236/ms0236.html.

References:

Jacobs, Joseph. “THE ORIGINAL OF SCOTT’S REBECCA." Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, no. 22 (1914): 53-60. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43057926.

Mordecai, Sara Ann. Recollections of My Aunt, Rebecca Gratz, 1893. digital.cjh.org/4066398.

Ragussis, Michael. "Writing Nationalist History: England, the Conversion of the Jews, and Ivanhoe.” ELH 60, no. 1 (1993): 181-215. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2873312.

Finding Aid; Gratz family (Philadelphia) Papers; P-8; box number; American Jewish Historical Society, New York, NY. http://findingaids.cjh.org/?pID=364725.

Finding Aid, MS-236. Rebecca Gratz Collection. American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio.http://collections.americanjewisharchives.org/ms/ms0236/ms0236.html.

1 The Hep! Hep! riots were a series of anti-Semitic riots, which broke out in the German states in 1819.
2 Samuel Ewing, a Christian man, proposed to Gratz. By many accounts, she loved him but refused to marry him due to her faith.  (Joseph Jacobs, “THE ORIGINAL OF SCOTT’S REBECCA,” Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society 22 (1917): 53-60; http://www.jstor.org/stable/43057926

 
 

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