Stanford scholar resuscitates colonial womans letters

After spending her professional career — some 30 years — studying the lives of New England women, Edith B. Gelles, an American colonialist historian, thought she’d like to study a Jewish woman.

So, in search of a topic, the senior scholar at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Stanford University, consulted Jonathan Sarna, an American Jewish historian at Brandeis University. He told her about Abigaill Levy Franks.

Gelles, who lives in Palo Alto and is a member of Keddem Congregation, had not heard of Franks. Sarna told her that a collection of her letters to her son in England, written between 1733 and 1748, were in the archives at the American Jewish Historical Society in New York.

They had been published once before, but were since out of print.

Gelles, who had written a book about Abigail Adams, was underwhelmed.

“I read those letters over and over, until I could almost memorize them,” she said. “At first, I didn’t see interest in them, partly because at first I had to struggle to read them.”

Franks wrote like all people did living at that time, spelling phonetically and using no punctuation except for the occasional dash.

“I finally went through my own copies and punctuated them,” she said.

Gelles said that this trove of letters is remarkable in that it is the earliest collection by any woman — not just a Jewish woman — living in colonial times. “It’s remarkable that these 35 letters have survived,” she said.

No other historian she has consulted knows of other collections as big. “Individual letters from other women exist, but no collection of letters of this magnitude has survived for any woman. There’s a letter here and a letter there, but nothing like a collection of 35.”

Gelles wrote the introduction of the book, putting the letters in context. At the time they were written, only 5,000 people lived in New York City, all of them in lower Manhattan. The Jewish population was estimated to be about 250 people.

As a historian studying women, Gelles pointed out that usually at that time, men have narrated whatever is known about women’s lives. “When we work around women in that early period, we have to accept men’s words of what women’s lives were like.”

Franks’ letters change that.

Gelles said she was surprised by Franks, because she was highly literate. While the fact that she could write was not unusual for a woman for her class, she was incredibly well-read, too.

“Her reading was incredible,” said Gelles. “She asked her son to send her books, both history and literature. She really was a woman of the Enlightenment.” Franks even asked her son to send her a two-volume history of Poland.

“What was she doing reading that?” Gelles asked.

She described Franks as having a sharp tongue. In one example, her son suggested that his sister might be interested in someone not up to Franks’ standards. She wrote, “Good god. Sure no woman of common sense can be so infatuated as to throw herself away upon one who is the most unaccountable creature of God Almighty’s creations.”

While Gelles did not write much about Jewish issues to her son, she did comment that she hoped her son was still keeping kosher. And while she did not seem very observant, when two of her children married non-Jews, she refused to see them again.

“For someone whose whole life was spent mothering, that was big,” said Gelles. “So while she didn’t write about Judaism a great deal, you sense how strong it was in her core. Her identity was extremely Jewish because when her children married out, she grieved.”

“The Letters of Abigaill Levy Franks 1733-1748” edited by Edith B. Gelles (186 pages, Yale University Press, $35).

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."