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His Story/Her Story: Grace Aguilar

When Grace Aguilar died in 1847 in Frankfurt (where she had gone to improve her health), she was mourned internationally.

A worshiper holds up a Torah scroll
Photo by: Reuters
It is hard to imagine that in the mid-18th century, Portuguese conversos were still being hounded by the Inquisition, but it appears to have been the case. As the result of reforms in Portugal in the 1770s, the autos-dafé were abolished, whereas the Inquisition as an institution was not disbanded until 1821! As a result, the Aguilars arrived in England and were welcomed as new members of the London Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. Emanuel, head of the household, even served as a lay leader in the synagogue. In 1816, Grace was the first of three children born to Sarah and Emanuel; unfortunately, like her father, she suffered from an onslaught of health problems.

Despite her problematic health, Grace proved to be an unusual and energetic young lady. In many ways, she reflected the mores of the society in which she lived, namely Victorian English society, yet she was strongly attached to her Jewish past and devoted to its future. Aguilar developed an affinity for writing at an early age, keeping a journal as a child and writing her first book when she was 12.

While ill with tuberculosis, her father took advantage of this opportunity to expand his daughter’s education and regaled her with tales of Iberian Jewry, the Inquisition and the harrowing experiences of the crypto-Jews. This would provide the writer with material for her later works. She would even compare crypto-Judaism to the assimilation occurring in Jewish society; British Jews preferred not to flaunt their Jewishness.

As pointed out by Michael Galchinsky (“Engendering Liberal Jews: Jewish Women in Victorian England,” in Jewish Women in Historical Perspective, ed. Judith R. Baskin, 2nd edition, 1998), she took the Sephardi experience as a model and romanticized these experiences in a book entitled The Vale of the Cedars; or, The Martyr (published posthumously in 1850).

Aguilar represented a new generation of British Jewish women who began to successfully publish their own writings, often as a counter to the pressures upon them to convert to Christianity and to rectify the image of the Jewish woman while gently advancing modernization. The ideas she advocated in her works were by no means revolutionary, which probably accounts for their popularity and appeal to Jewish and non-Jewish readers, both male and female.

In 1844 she published an impressive three-volume work, The Women of Israel, in which she extolled the role of women in Jewish history; the women included ranged from biblical to contemporary figures.

This writer’s talents were incredibly impressive, for she gained a reputation in the fields of poetry, theology, literature, social history, religious reform and even liturgy. Her books were translated, carrying her ideas outside the British Isles. She advocated translating the Bible into English, but did not take on this task herself. Her Sabbath Thoughts and Sacred Communings (1853) reflected her religious and spiritual side; it contained prayers and sermons and her personal thoughts. At the same time, she published domestic novels, many of which became best-sellers. She hoped to encourage toleration of Jews in England on the part of the Christians by means of her own clear Jewish voice.

Ironically, while she herself was an independent, creative woman, she was not a revolutionary on the feminist front. On the contrary, she seemed to believe that women should be domestic, playing the role akin to that assigned to Victorian women. Yet she proceeded to call for reforms in education (women’s and children’s) and became adamantly opposed to assimilation.

Aguilar published in periodicals, both Jewish and non-Jewish, exposing readers to her poetry, her short stories and novellas. Her productivity (12 books) continued despite her frail health (a spinal illness paralyzing muscles and lungs); she was also in contact with leading Jewish figures in England and abroad. The popularity of her publications cannot be exaggerated. When Grace Aguilar died in 1847 in Frankfurt (where she had gone to improve her health), she mourned internationally.

The author is a professor of Jewish history and dean at the Schechter Institute as well as academic editor of the journal Nashim. She has published books and articles on Sephardi and Oriental Jewry and on Jewish women.


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