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Jewish “Continuity” in Early America

By Michael Feldberg

American Jewry has expressed concern about rising rates of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews. However, intermarriage is by no means a recent phenomenon. Maintaining Jewish identity in a highly tolerant, secular American culture is a challenged that has confronted American Jewry since the earliest settlements in the New World. The story of the Levy-Franks family, who lived in the Protestant milieu of early 18th-century New York, is particularly illustrative.

The Franks family matriarch, (Bilhah) Abigail Levy Franks, was born in New York in 1696, one year after her parents, Moses and Rachel Levy, arrived there from London. Abigail’s beloved Jacob Franks also emigrated from London. He lived as a boarder in the Levy household and married 16-year old Abigail in 1712. Together, they had nine children, six of whom survived infancy.

Both the Levy and Franks families were leaders of New York’s tiny Jewish community, which numbered fewer than 50 families. Jacob Franks served as parnas (president) of Shearith Israel congregation, the oldest Jewish congregation in North America. Yet the Levys and Frankses included among their closest friends some of New York’s elite Protestant families: the Livingstons, Bayards, DeLanceys and Van Cortlands. As ship owners and civic-minded New Yorkers, Moses Levy and Jacob Franks were among eleven Jews who contributed funds to complete the steeple of Trinity church, which served as a beacon to guide ships into New York harbor.

At a time when women were meant to forego formal education and devote themselves to home and children, Abigail Levy Franks received a classical education. She quoted from the contemporary novels of Fielding and Smollett, read the works of Dryden, Montesquieu and Pope (her favorite), and encouraged her daughters to do the same. Her hopes for her children are known to us today through letters she wrote to her son Naphtali, who had gone to seek his fortune in London. Abigail’s remarkable correspondence resides today in the archives of the American Jewish Historical Society, which published them in a volume.

Abigail prided herself on her strict observance of the Sabbath, holy days and dietary laws, as well as her regular attendance at Shearith Israel. Suspicious of the kitchens even of relatives, she repeatedly sent food to son Naphtali in London and warned him not to eat anything in his English uncle’s home "unless it be bread and butter . . . nor anywhere else where there is the least doubt of things not done after our strict Judaical method."

While observing kashrut in colonial New York was manageable, finding suitable mates for her children in New York’s tiny Jewish community posed a problem for Abigail. With so few local Jewish suitors, she worried that her daughters would have to live, in her words, as "nuns." To cope with the shortage of eligible Jewish mates for her sons, she encouraged Naphtali to marry his Jewish cousin in London. He followed his mother’s advice.

Abigail was therefore profoundly dismayed when in 1743 her daughter Phila eloped with Oliver DeLancey, the gentile son of a wealthy and politically powerful family. Although her husband Jacob soon reconciled himself to Phila’s marriage because it allied the Franks clan with the well-connected DeLanceys, Abigail refused to speak to Phila or let Oliver in her home. There is no evidence that mother and daughter ever reconciled. Jacob was heartbroken.

Paradoxically, in at least one instance, the appearance of a rare Jewish suitor for one of her daughters did not please Abigail. She opposed the courtship of her daughter Richa by a member of the New York Sephardic Gomez family because she regarded the prospective bridegroom as a "stupid wretch." Richa later rejected the proposal of a Christian suitor to avoid adding to her mother’s unhappiness, and finally married a Jew in England after her parents’ deaths. While Naphtali and his older brother both married Jewish first cousins, Abigail’s youngest son David married one of Philadelphia’s Christian belles. Today, no known descendant of the Franks family professes Judaism.

The story of the Franks family marriages –and marriagelessness— illustrates the dilemma young Jewish men and women faced when seeking spouses in colonial America. New York had only a few hundred Jews. London, Amsterdam, Berlin and other great cities formed the center of Jewish life. Abigail Franks’s New York had only a few hundred Jews. To compound matters, the city’s Protestant elite considered New York’s Jews eligible marriage partners. The dearth of potential Jewish partners and the acceptance that greeted the city’s Jews is a challenge that the Franks family confronted 250 years ago. While the number of Jews in New York and America has increased exponentially, the question of how to maintain Jewish "continuity" in America’s socially tolerant environment remains as vital today as in the age of Abigail Franks.

Source:  Michael Feldberg, PhD, reprinted with permission of the author.