Colonial Jewish Matriarch
|Abigail Levy Franks|
Bilhah Abigail Levy was born in New York in 1696, the eldest of five children, one year after her parents, Moses and Rachel Levy, arrived there from London. Moses Levy became a successful New York merchant. A few years later, Abigail’s mother died, leaving her eleven-year-old daughter, the only female, to care for her younger brothers until Moses wed again.
Jacob Franks also came from London, where he was a member of a large, thriving Jewish merchant family. Jacob lived as a boarder in the Levy household. Perhaps the tensions that erupted between the children of the first Levy marriage and their new stepmother propelled Abigail to marry Jacob Franks in 1712 at the age of sixteen, which was uncommonly young for colonial Jewish women.
Together, they had nine children, six of whom survived infancy. They became very wealthy as Jacob rose to become a major supplier of food, clothing and ammunition to Britain’s colonial forces.
Jacob was a pious Jew and joined with others to build Kahal Kadosh Shearith Israel, the first Jewish congregation in New York, in 1728. Until his death in 1769, he was a pillar of the synagogue, serving as parnas seven times and in other leadership roles continually.
Both the Levy and Franks families were leaders of New York’s tiny Jewish community, which numbered fewer than 50 families. 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 both as a religious symbol and as a beacon to guide ships into New York harbor.
Abigail’s eldest son, Naphtali, emigrated to London to represent the family businesses there. She doted on Naphtali, to whom she wrote numerous letters nagging him to write to his sister, to read more, to write to his mother more often, and if he could not write more often, at least longer letters. She suggests that he might get more done if he followed a schedule.
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 compound matters, New York’s Protestant elite considered the city’s Jews eligible marriage partners. To cope with the shortage of eligible Jewish mates for her sons, Abigail encouraged Naphtali to marry his Jewish cousin in London. He followed his mother’s advice.
Abigail was profoundly dismayed when, in 1743, her daughter Phila eloped with Oliver DeLancey, the son of a wealthy and politically powerful Christian family, which was the first known case of an American daughter of Israel marrying out of the faith.
Although Jacob Franks 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 before her death. Jacob was heartbroken.
The story of the Franks family marriages – or the lack thereof – illustrates the dilemma young Jewish men and women faced when seeking spouses in colonial America. New York was the home of only a few hundred Jews. London, Amsterdam, Berlin and other great European cities, by contrast, formed the center of Jewish life.
In the end, a price, and a very steep one, had to be paid for such hasty elopements, however socially advantageous. While Naphtali and his brother Moses who joined him in London, did marry their English first cousins, their own children left the Jewish fold.
Abigail Levy Franks died in 1756. Although other members of her family are buried in the cemetery of Shearith Israel in lower Manhattan, there is no record of her grave.
Maintaining Jewish identity in a highly tolerant, secular American culture was a difficult task. The delicate balance between tradition and assimilation proved a far trickier feat to negotiate than Abigail Levy Franks had ever imagined. Of her more than two-dozen grandchildren, none passed on their Jewish heritage to subsequent generations.
The legacy Abigail left are her letters, which tell of a devoutly religious and warm Jewish mother, who loved her children. They offer us a window into her mind, as well as a portrait of Jewish family life in early America. Her many letters to her son Naphtali, dating back to the 1730s, are now housed in the archives of the American Jewish Historical Society.
The Letters of Abigail Levy Franks (1733-1748) by Edith Gelles was published by Yale University Press in December 2004.