Downton Abbey's Lady Grantham: Honorary Jewess With Attitude
"Is she Jewish?"
It's one of the first questions we Jews ask about anyone in pop culture who even slightly looks like one of the tribe, or has a "berg" or a "witz" as their name's last syllable.
I'm usually curious to find out the answer, but I'm rarely obsessed. But with one particular woman, I absolutely MUST KNOW. Who is she? None other than Lady Grantham of Downton Abbey.
Yes, I know she's not real. But I don't care. I can't get enough of this show. So imagine my delight reading the countess's official PBS bio. "Cora is the beautiful daughter of Isidore Levinson, a dry goods multi-millionaire from Cincinnati." With that one piece of information, I joined the chorus of Jewish Downton Abbey fanatics murmuring some variation of "Hmm. Levinson. I wonder..."
None other than Jonathan Sarna, Brandeis professor, noted historian, and contributor to JWA's online Encyclopedia of Jewish women, has weighed in, telling Tablet's Marc Tracy that in the late 19th century, (when Cora would have been born), Cincinnati was very much a haven for for Jewish men who gained wealth in the dry goods industry, just like Isidore. Sarna went on to say that, since the inter-marriage rate was extremely low back then, chances are that Isidore's wife would have been Jewish. Which would make Cora Jewish. And going by Jewish law, that would make Cora's daughters Jewish. In short, the possibilities of a menorah lighting or a Passover seder at the Abbey are plentiful. Tablet has even gone so far as to suggest Jewish plot lines for next season.
So far, the Jewish question has not been specifically addressed on the show. And the one man who would know for sure--series creator and writer Julian Fellowes--isn't talking.
I, for one, think Lady Grantham would be an outstanding Jewish role model. She's whip smart, compassionate, and bold when she has to be. In the recently completed second season, when the Abbey became a makeshift hospital for soldiers severely injured in the first World War, she ruled the massive mansion with a combination of toughness and compassion. That's why we're making her an honorary "Jewess With Attitude," no matter what happens next season.
Still, I hope Mr. Fellowes finds some way to address the "is she or isn't she" issue. It's not just that I'm dying to know (even though I am.) It's more than that. Judaism rarely gets addressed on television in any meaningful way. If the first two seasons are any indication, Downton Abbey would handle Lady Grantham's religion and heritage with great thought, compassion and wit. Who wouldn't want to see that?
In the meantime, check out these real-life Jewish women, historic and contemporary, with Cincinnati connections on jwa.org:
- Theda Bara, the original "vamp"
- Lillian Wald, public health nurse and founder of the Henry Street Settlement
- Stella Heinsheimer Freiberg, civic activist, supporter of the Arts and Reform Judaism
- Marie Pichel Levinson Warner, birth control and family planning activist
- Jean W. Rothenberg, founder of the Cincinnati's Speech and Hearing Center
- Alysa Stanton, ordained as first African-American female rabbi at HUC-JIR