A worshiper holds up a Torah scroll 370.
(photo credit: 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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