By Vered Shaked
Grace Aguilar, a Victorian Jewish writer, who drew on her own experiences, upbringing and traditions, to elevate Jewish women’s emancipation to the forefront of the period’s discussion.The article highlights the primary role of Jewish women in the preservation of Judaism.
women In the time of the Anglo-Jewish Haskalah, when England became an increasingly liberal and imperialist state, Jewish women played central roles as the “most important public spokespersons for English Jewry’s movements for emancipation and reform” (Baskin, 208). Between 1830 and 1880 they published “romance novels, polemics, philosophical and apologetic tracts, poems, conduct manuals and theological works” (Baskin, 209). Eager to publish as a response to the concerted campaigning of Christian conversionists, women writers were the first Anglo-Jews to produce literature on Jewish themes in England. By the end of the nineteenth century, literature by Jewish women had expanded to include not only works defensive of the dignity and rights of Anglo-Jewry, but also satirical novels critical of the community’s materialism and marriage practices. (Valman) Among them was Grace Aguilar, a descendent of Spanish and Portuguese conversos, who went on to become the first bestselling Anglo-Jewish author. She produced a body of work that appealed to both Jews and Christians, women and men, religious traditionalists and reformers. It was the unique circumstances, in which Grace Aguilar was raised, that influenced her and made her the spokesperson for English Jewish women’s emancipation in the Victorian world, and in the Jewish world.
Grace Aguilar was born at Hackney, London, on June 2, 1816. She was the eldest child of Emanuel and Sarah Aguilar; Emanuel’s family fled the Inquisition in Spain and immigrated to England in the eighteenth century. Sarah’s family arrived at about the same time from Portugal, through Jamaica. Jewish families, such as Aguilar’s, did not emigrate earlier because English law prohibited them from living in England from 1290 to 1656. Her father, Emanuel, was the Parnas of London’s Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, and the family was active in the Sephardic community. Grace had two brothers, Emanuel and Henry. (Wolf)
Grace’s health had been feeble since infancy, and she was taken to the sea-shore and to various rural localities in England to strengthen her. These experiences cultivated her love of nature; she started a collection of shells when she was four years old, which later was supplemented by mineralogical and botanical collections, and at the age of twelve she devoted herself to the study of natural science. Although Grace’s illness weakened her permanently, it didn’t prevent her from keeping a diary, almost uninterruptedly, beginning at the age of seven until her death, from dancing, singing, or playing the piano or the harp, and from traveling. (Jewish Encyclopedia)
Grace was educated mainly by her parents; she only attended school for eighteen months. Her mother, a cultured, religious woman, taught her to read the scriptures. It was her Spanish and Portuguese heritage that instilled in her a deep appreciation for female storytelling as a way to preserve identity. For Jews living in Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition, religion could only be practiced in the home, in secret. Galchinsky notes that “Families like Aguilar’s who had fled the Inquisition often had a matriarchal structure: the oral traditions of the crypto-Jews were passed down from mother to daughter in the domestic space because the traditionally male Judaic public spaces…had been closed down.” (The Origin of the Modern Jewish Woman Writer, 136–137)
In 1828, when she was twelve, her father contracted tuberculosis and the family moved to the coast in Devon for his health. There she wrote her first completed manuscript, a play called “Gustavus Vasa” about a Swedish king. At the age of fourteen her father read aloud to her regularly, primarily history beginning with Josephus, while she was occupied with drawing and needlework. He related the “oral history” of the crypto-Jews, who, to escape the Inquisition, had pretended to convert to Catholicism but continued to practice Judaism in secret. Later she drew on these tales to create her historical romances and her father served as her secretary. (Galchinsky. Jewish Women’s Archive) Enjoying reading history and foreign literature, made her proficient in these areas.
In Teignmouth, Devon, away from the Jewish community, she was exposed to Christian culture and wrote an essay about how important it is to experience other religious traditions. (White) According to Galchinsky, “Lacking any Jewish translation of the Bible into English, Aguilar often felt she could satisfy her religious yearnings only by going to hear sermons in Protestant churches. These church visits provided the material for one of her most moving and ironic poems, a reverie of Israel redeemed, entitled ‘A Vision of Jerusalem, While Listening to a Beautiful Organ in One of the Gentile Shrines.’ Her practice of attending church would later provide fodder for her critics. Missionaries claimed to be able to see the light of the gospel in her work; Jewish critics claimed she was a ‘Jewish Protestant.’” (Galchinsky. Jewish Women’s Archive) Some of her writings from this time were published later.
In 1830, her first verses were evoked by the beautiful scenery about Tavistock in Devonshire. (Jewish Encyclopedia) By age fifteen she had started writing a historical romance set during the Spanish Inquisition, The Vale of Cedars; or, the Martyr. The book was written in reaction to Scott’s Ivanhoe, and it took her four years to complete. It was published after her death in 1850, and was translated into German and twice into Hebrew. While writing this romance novel, she was also taking care of her mother, who underwent an operation and required her care for several years. With both parents ill, Grace considered becoming a professional writer to help support the family. In 1834, she wrote short domestic sketches and poetry. In 1835, her brothers were sent away to school and the family moved to Brighton, where she published anonymously her first book, The Magic Wreath; a collection of poems, in which each poem contains clues to the name of a particular flower. (Galchinsky. Jewish Women’s Archive)
In 1835, at the age of nineteen, she suffered from the measles but that did not stop her from writing. Her writings were primarily stories and religious works dealing with Jewish subjects. Her domestic stories were based on conversos history. She also wrote a romance of Scottish history, The Days of Bruce (1852). Between 1836 and 1837, she wrote her domestic novel Home Influence; A tale From Mothers and Daughters (1847). Galchinsky notes that, “In this novel, its sequel A Mother’s Recompense, and the novel, Woman’s Friendship, she offered her ideal model of the domestic woman who cared for husband and home and inculcated religion and morality into the hearts of her children.” (Galchinsky. Jewish Women’s Archive)
Grace Aguilar believed that Jewish education begins at home from infancy, for that reason she instructs mothers to pray with and tell Bible stories to their sons and daughters: “A mother, whose heart is in her work will find many opportunities, which properly improved, will lead her little charge to God. … A mother’s lips should teach [prayers and Bible] to her child, and not leave the first impressions of religion to be received from a Christian nurse. Were the associations of a mother connected with the act of praying, associations of such long continuance that the child knew not when they were implanted: the piety of maturer years would not be so likely to waver.” (The Spirit of Judaism, 225)
Her other stories founded on Jewish episodes are included in a collection of nineteen tales, “Home Scenes and Heart Studies”; “The Perez Family” (1843) and “The Edict,” together with “The Escape,” had appeared as two separate volumes; the others were reprinted from magazines. “The Perez Family, is a sentimental domestic novella that documents Victorian Jews’ ambivalence toward their own modernization and demonstrates Aguilar’s belief in women’s capacity to interpret the dictates of the Bible.” (Galchinsky. Jewish Women’s Archive)
The first of Grace Aguilar’s religious works was a translation of the French version of “Israel Defended,” by the Marano Orobio de Castro, which was requested by her father and was printed for private circulation in Brighton. (Jewish Encyclopedia) In Galchinsky’s view “Here, Aguilar was already striking the ambivalent tone—simultaneously trusting and suspicious of England, assimilationist and resistant—that would become the hallmark of many of her more mature works.” (Galchinsky. Jewish Women’s Archive)
In 1840, the Aguilar family moved back to London, Hackney. From there she established a relationship with R. Groombridge & Sons, the publisher who published most of her work in England. Her next work was The Spirit of Judaism. After reading Sermons by Rabbi Isaac Leeser, of Philadelphia, she requested him to revise the manuscript of the Spirit of Judaism, which was forwarded to him, but was lost at sea. Grace rewrote it from her notes and it was published in Philadelphia in 1842 with notes by Leeser. The editorial notes highlighted the differences between him, a traditionalist, and Grace Aguilar, who grow up as a descendent of conversos in the countryside, away from other Jews; as so she was more tolerant and open to religious reforms. According to Galchinsky, “In Spirit of Judaism, Aguilar meditated on the significance of the Shema. She polemicized on behalf of both English tolerance and Jewish religious reform. She called for a vernacular translation of the Bible and changes in Jewish childhood education. And she offered a new vision of the spiritual needs of women in general and Jewish women in particular.” (Galchinsky. Jewish Women’s Archive)
Grace Aguilar’s theology in The Spirit of Judaism was criticized by some as “Jewish Protestantism.” The criticism was about her lack of knowledge of rabbinical texts to make theological statements. However, as a woman in the traditional Jewish community, she did not have access to those texts. Scheinberg responds to the label “Jewish Protestant”: “Aguilar fervently believed that only through active “defensive” engagement with Christian culture could Jews and Judaism advance in Diaspora life; she took on this project of advancing Jewish learning despite the fact that she was excluded from traditional Jewish theology. If she sought strategies that could speak conclusively and inclusively to Christian readers, it was always part of a project of advancing Judaism and the Jewish people, a rhetorical strategy… rather than ideological commitment to Christian/Protestant doctrine.” (Scheinberg, 154)
Leeser published over thirty of Grace’s poems in the Occident magazine and she was listed as the magazine’s highest paid writer. He introduced her to Miriam Solomon, the wife of Solomon Cohen, who became her primary American distributer. Miriam was the niece of Rebecca Gratz. Through her, Grace Aguilar’s work was introduced to Rebecca, who used her texts as teaching materials in her Sunday school. In 1841 she began publishing her poems in British Jewish magazines. Seeking audience beyond the Jewish community she expanded her writings to popular English women journals such as the Keepsake, Friendships Offering, and La Belle Assemblee.” (Galchinsky. Jewish Women’s Archive)
Grace Aguilar’s book, The Women of Israel, which was published in 1845, was recognized as her masterpiece. It is a series of biographies of biblical, Talmudic (according to the Scriptures and Josephus), and modern (Victorian) Jewish women. In this book she centered Jewish history and Midrash on women’s experiences, shared her domestic ideology and theology, and appealed for Jews emancipation and Christian social acceptance. (Galchinsky. Jewish Women’s Archive)
Grace’s ideology was that Jewish women needed to be strengthened in their Judaism, to feel fulfilled intellectually and spiritually, and they should have full educational access to Jewish religious texts including the Talmud. The Women of Israel is written as an apologetic text, proving women’s equality in Judaism, stressing that even the idea of ideal Victorian womanhood can be found in Jewish texts. Sarah is described as the model of the ideal Victorian woman and Miriam is portrayed as a Victorian old maid. (White) According to Grace Aguilar, the roles of men and women in Judaism are different, but they are equally important. She called for Jewish women not to be influenced by conversionists’ arguments that Judaism treats them as second-class citizens.
In 1845, the Aguilar family relocated to Clapton Square, where Grace nursed her dying father. She continued to write in an amazing pace despite her sever illness. She wrote The Jewish Faith: Its Spiritual Consolation, Moral Guidance, and Immortal Hope (1846). In thirty-one letters, written from an old woman to a young woman, she demonstrated the immortality in the Old Testament, and the spirit of Judaism in order to free Jews from conversionists’ influence. (Jewish Encyclopedia)
In 1846 Grace Aguilar wrote an essay, The history of the Jews in England. In the essay that was published just before her death, Grace rejected assimilation and offered more radical view than ever before about the Jewish-Christian relationships. (Galchinsky. Jewish Women’s Archive) Grace’s other religious work includes the Essays and Miscellanies (1851-52), which consists of “Sabbath Thoughts” on Scriptural passages and prophecies, and “Communings” for the family circle. (Jewish Encyclopedia)
Aguilar’s religious writing was characterized as “defensive”. Her purpose was to equip English Jewesses with arguments against conversionists. She stressed the importance of knowing the Jewish history and the Hebrew language, mostly among Jewish women, who at that time were denied formal education in these areas. She encouraged Jewish women to read the Scriptures in the English version in order to comprehend it.
In 1847, Grace’s health deteriorated and she traveled to her brother in Frankfurt, in hope to recover. Before her departure, she was honored in a ceremony, given by London’s Jewish women, for her achievements in behalf of Judaism and Jewish women. Initially the visit seemed to improve her condition, but then she had to resort to the baths of Schwalbach. Her condition deteriorated again, she returned to Frankfurt and died on September 16, 1847. Her last words, spelled on her fingers, were, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him,” and her epitaph on the tombstone is the verse from Proverbs 31- “Woman of Valor”: “Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her from the gates.” (Jewish Encyclopedia)
The liberal environment in Victorian England, and the relative emancipation of Jews in the English society, did not affect the way traditional Jewish women were brought up. They were denied access to formal Jewish education and to rabbinical texts. They were not taught Talmud, they were exempt from public prayer, and they could not hold leadership positions in the Jewish community. Jewish Women were more susceptible to pressures of conversionists, who viewed them as more spiritual and more willing to convert in order to change their social status as “second class citizens” in the Jewish community. Grace Aguilar, through her writings, provided tools to Jewish women to shield themselves and stand strong against converisonists’ pressures. For example, in her novel The Vale of Cedars, Aguilar’s heroic main character gives up the love of her life, a Christian, and is willing to suffer at the hands of Inquisitors in order to remain true to her Jewish faith. Grace Aguilar tells the history of the Jews of Spain, in order to create sympathy, and understanding of her culture and history, in her readers.
Grace places the Bible above all other texts and considers it as the unquestionable authority. She gives little importance to the Oral law, probably because she did not have access to rabbinic texts. For her, as a traditional Jewish woman, words of the Bible are divine truth. She states that, “the Bible and reason are the only guides to which the child of Israel can look in security….those observances…for which no reason can be assigned save the ideas of our ancient fathers, cannot be compared in weight and consequence to the piety of the heart.”(The Spirit of Judaism, 228) On the other hand she criticizes Jews who, “earnest in the cause, yet mistaken in the means, search and believe the writings of the Rabbis, take as divine truths all they have suggested, and neglect the Bible as not to be compared with such learned dissertations.” (The Spirit of Judaism, 51) Scheinberg sums up Aguilar’s philosophy: “Aguilar maintains an unwavering commitment to Judaism; she constructs a theology that makes a commitment to ‘God, Torah, and Israel’ while never fully deferring to the ‘normative’ scholarly traditions of Jewish commentary.” (Scheinberg, 155)
Aguilar theological point of view is different from traditional thinkers partly because she does not have access to these traditions, and partly because she sees these traditions as evolving. She merges traditional Judaism with progressive thinking by making the role of the Jewish woman equal to the Jewish man, while emphasizing the domestic role of Jewish women. Aguilar argues that “Circumstances demand the modification…of some of these Rabbinical statutes; and could the wise and pious originators have been consulted on the subject, they would have unhesitatingly adopted those measures.” (The Spirit of Judaism, 31)
As a progressive thinker, Grace Aguilar believes that in order for Jews to succeed in the world, to be a “light unto the nations,” they need to interact daily with their non-Jewish neighbors, to promote the beauty of Judaism. Jewish texts should be read by everyone, not just by Jews. She fought for equal theological education for boys and girls, and opposed the separation between men and women inside the synagogue. Aguilar believes that spirituality should be an individual, private affair, and that public societal positions should be left in the male domain; women should always remain in that spiritual, private sphere.
In her short life of thirty-one years, Grace Aguilar, a Victorian Jewish writer, drew on her own experiences, upbringing and traditions, to elevate Jewish women’s emancipation to the forefront of the period’s discussion. Her writings spread to communities throughout the world. In her writings, she advocated for equality of status and responsibility between Jewish men and women. She provided Jewish women with the philosophical and theological tools to fight conversionsits’ attempts to lure them into Christianity, and called for Victorian Christians to accept Jews, not “tolerate” them. She attempted to preserve a distinct Anglo-Jewish communal identity. She wrote about how to be a part of the English society outside the home and how to be Jews at home and in the synagogue; quite a modern idea for that time when Jews in other European countries converted in order to be accepted and to gain equal rights.
I share some of Grace Aguilar’s views regarding the separate roles of men and women in Judaism. Gender is an issue in Judaism; it is not as if women are considered to be less than men in traditional Judaism, as believed by some people, it is just that, they have different roles, and that’s where I see the beauty of it – together they complete a Jewish home. I feel that if a Jewish woman wants to do every religious thing a Jewish man does, such as reading the Torah in front of the congregation, then being “equal” is more important to her than observing the tradition. I see women’s role in Judaism mainly in the private sphere, at home, and as having a supportive role in public in the synagogue. However, traditional Jewish women do take leading roles in public – some teach, some run Jewish Day Schools, etc.
I believe that Jewish education begins at home from infancy. As a descendent of conversos, Grace Aguilar’s Jewish education was conducted mainly at home. I raised my children in a part of Florida where Jews were a few. I had to teach my two-year-old daughter, and explain to her preschool teacher, that she is not allowed to eat pepperoni pizza, even if the meat was removed from the pizza, because the meat did touch the cheese, and this was a lesson for two rules: 1. No pepperoni – can’t have swine products, or non-kosher meat. 2. No mixing meat and cheese. I believe that when you raise your children in a multicultural society and they interact daily with their non-Jewish friends, they need to know how to be a part of society, while maintaining their religious traditions, in order to preserve and pass them from generation to generation.
- Aguilar, Grace. The Jewish Faith: Its Spiritual Consolation, Moral Guidance, and Immortal Hope. Philadelphia [L. Johnson] 5633 [1872/73]
- Aguilar, Grace. The Women of Israel. New York, D. Appleton & Co. [etc.] 1851,1884
- Baskin, Judith R. Ed. Jewish Women in Historical Perspective. Detroit, Mich: Wayne State University Press, 1998.
- Galchinsky, Michael. “Grace Aguilar.” Jewish Women’s Archive. 04/25/10
- Galchinsky, Michael ed., Grace Aguilar: Selected Writings. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 2003.
- Galchinsky, Michael. The Origin of the Modern Jewish Woman Writer: Romance and Reform in Victorian England. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1996.
- Scheinberg, Cynthia. Women’s Poetry and Religion in Victorian England: Jewish Identity and Christian Culture. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
- Szold, Henrietta. “Grace Aguilar” (volume 1, P. 274-275) in The Jewish Encyclopedia: A Descriptive Record of the History, Religion, Literature, and Customs of the Jewish People from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. 12 volumes. New York: Funk & Wagnells, 1901.
- Valman, Nadia. “Writers in Victorian England.” Jewish Women Archive. 04/25/10
- White, Ellen. “A Presentation.” 2005. Grace Aguilar. Family History. 04/25/2010
- Wolf, Lucien. “Biographical Notes.” Grace Aguilar. Family History. 04/25/10