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Bilhah Abigail Levy Franks


FRANKS, BILHAH ABIGAIL LEVY (1696?–1756), Jewish letter writer. Franks was born in London; the sources are inconclusive about the exact date, just as they are unclear about when the Levy family migrated to New York City. Some documents demonstrate that her father, Moses Levy, a merchant, was there by 1703. At a young age, Franks shed the name Bilhah and signed herself Abigaill, which she always spelled with a double l. She is best known because of her surviving correspondence to her eldest son, Naphtali, who was sent to London in 1733 to learn the family business from his uncles. Abigail Franks' letters, among the earliest of any woman in the British colonies, are the oldest surviving communications by a Jewish woman in North America.

Little is known about Franks' youth. She had four brothers with whom she maintained close relations throughout their lives. Her mother died when she was 11 years old, and her father, as was customary, remarried a much younger woman, who in turn gave birth to eight more children. At the age of 16, Abigail married Jacob Franks, a young merchant who also had migrated from London and lived in the Levy household. Naphtali was born in 1715, followed by at least six other children.

Thirty-five letters survive, written between 1733 and 1748. Despite minimal spelling and punctuation skills, the letters reveal that she read broadly in literature and history. Naphtali sent her works of fiction and poetry, some classics, such as Alexander Pope, as well as popular literature. When she disapproved of a book, she chastised him for sending her "trash." She requested a two-volume history of Poland. Her letters demonstrate, as well, her interest in local government and serve as a source of information about early New York's fractious politics. She gossiped with her son about people known to them both, often with a tart tongue. Her observations about Judaism are sharp and critical, but she admonished her son to maintain the dietary laws as well as his daily devotions. While Franks fails to mention some important events in her life, including the deaths of two of her children, she reveals her own personality and much more. She never saw her son again, and none of his letters to her survive.


Sources:E.B. Gelles (ed.), The Letters of Abigaill Levy Franks (1733–1748) (2004); L. Hershkowitz and I.S. Meyer, eds. Letters of the Franks Family (1733–1748) (1968); M.H. Stern. First American Jewish Families: 600 Genealogies, 1654–1988 (1991).

[Edith B. Gelles (2nd ed.)]

Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.