Bilah Abigail Levy Franks
1688 – 1746
No colonial American woman left a more engaging portrait of contemporary family, political, and social life than Bilah “Abigail” Franks. Her letters to her son Naphtali in England, covering the years 1733–1748, discuss the lives of his growing siblings, political and social life in early eighteenth-century New York City, her extensive reading, and her love of good Scottish snuff. The letters also shed extraordinary insight into the efforts of colonial American Jews to establish a functional equilibrium between being Jewish and being part of the larger colonial Christian society.
Abigail Levy was born in London, the eldest of five children of German-Jewish immigrant Moses Raphael Levy and his first wife, Richea Asher. The family moved to New York City by 1695, and in 1712, Abigail Levy married London-born Jacob Franks, son of a German-Jewish merchant and broker in England. The Frankses had nine children, born between 1715 and 1742. The family was active in New York’s Jewish life—they belonged to congregation Shearith Israel, where Jacob Franks was one of four men to lay the cornerstone of the new Mill Street synagogue in 1729 and where he served as syndic [president] in 1730—and they were active in broader Christian society, among whose women Franks counted her best friends. Franks reveled in the openness of New York society, rejoicing in the “Faire Charecter” the family enjoyed among both Christians and Jews. But the family never achieved the financial stability the Franks and Levy families had in England, and one by one, beginning around 1732, Jacob and Abigail sent their children to England in order to prosper. Abigail Franks probably never saw her adult children again after their departure, or any of her English grandchildren. For the remainder of her life, the exchange of letters, painted portraits, and small gifts were the only contacts she had with them.
Thirty-seven letters of the Franks family are known to survive, dating from May 7, 1733, to October 30, 1748. All are addressed to Naphtali Franks in England. Thirty-four are from Abigail, one is from Jacob, and two are written by his brother David. They discuss local politics, family and community activities, and aspects of the Franks family’s trans-Atlantic business. But Abigail Franks’s letters are most significant as an early American Jewish woman’s extended thoughts on the fit and fate of Judaism in colonial New York.
Franks worked diligently to raise her children as practicing Jews. Daughters and sons received instruction in Hebrew, and the family practiced traditional Judaism, honoring the Sabbath, keeping kosher, and keeping the Jewish holidays. Franks urged Naphtali in England to keep up with his morning devotions and cautioned him to avoid nonkosher food, warning him off even his uncle’s table. But Franks was also critical of much in Judaism. In the open air of colonial America, and likely under the influence of the broad range of philosophers and novelists she read—among her favorite authors were Pope, Fielding, Smollett, Dryden, Montesquieu, Addison, and Gentleman’s Magazine, all supplied to her by Naphtali—she yearned for a Calvin or a Luther to reform what she deemed Judaism’s worst superstitions. She was scathing in her critique of the New York Jewish community, calling its ladies a “Stupid Set of people” and despairing about the pool of Jewish suitors available for her daughters.
But the costs of such ambiguities were high. With a limited pool of Jewish marriage prospects, Franks’s disdain for most of them, and the entire Franks family’s desire to be part of the larger New York community, it was perhaps inevitable that two of her children would take non-Jewish spouses. Oldest daughter Phila was the first. In the fall of 1742, Phila secretly married Oliver de Lancey, son of a prominent and successful Huguenot New York merchant family. For six months they kept the match secret, but in the spring of 1743, Phila announced the deed and went to live with her husband. Abigail’s letters to Naphtali spoke of her sense of betrayal and her pain, and she never spoke to Phila again. This was not the last hurt she would feel. Son David married Margaret Evans, a Christian daughter of one of Abigail’s close friends. Her younger children seem never to have married at all. Even sons Naphtali and Moses, who married their English first cousins, watched as all of their own grandchildren left the Jewish faith. Of Jacob and Abigail Franks’s more than two dozen grandchildren, not one of them appears to have passed on Judaism to his or her descendants.
Other family connections were complex as well. In 1718, Franks’s father, widowed in 1716, married Grace Mears, with whom he had seven children. Franks despised her stepmother and spared no insult in her prose. But when Grace Levy, left a widow with many young children in 1728, made a bad remarriage in 1735, Franks’s assessments of her shifted. Through Franks’s letters a rare portrait of a widowed colonial Jewish woman emerges—of Grace Mears Levy Hays as female shopkeeper who single-handedly supported and raised her young family, survived a deeply unhappy second marriage, and died brokenhearted, too young, and finally admired by her oldest stepdaughter.
Franks’s letters also draw a portrait of another early Jewish woman: Grace Levy’s oldest daughter, Rachel Levy. Beloved by all members of the extended Levy-Franks family, Rachel married Isaac Mendes Seixas in 1740, a decidedly mixed marriage between New York’s leading Ashkenazi and Sephardi families. Franks described the Seixas clan as being in an uproar over the match, and many of them avoided the wedding. Rachel and Isaac removed themselves to New Jersey, where they ran a small country store, and Franks eventually relented in their favor, too. Rachel and Isaac Seixas had eight children; the fourth, Gershom Mendes Seixas, became the eighteenth century’s most prominent hazzan (religious leader) of Shearith Israel, in his person—and in part through the Levy-Franks family—unifying the many vying strains within the colonial New York community.
Abigail Franks portrays herself primarily as a parent. She doted on her children, referring to Naphtali as “Heartsey,” a play on the symbol for the Hebrew tribe of Naphtali [hart], and on “heart”/love itself. She adored her daughters and thrilled to the youngest ones born when she was in her forties. Her letters are full of the pain of her children’s departures from her, and she struggles throughout her long correspondence between rejoicing in her offsprings’ successes and the ache of never seeing them again. Her correspondence ends where it begins, concluding that a good name, upright behavior, and harmony within the family are the greatest achievements any family can attain.
Abigail Franks’s letters are rare testimony to the lived efforts to sustain and adapt Judaism within the realities of Christian New York. Franks’s deeply intelligent prose provides a rare example of the first-person views and experiences of an early American Jewish woman, as described in intimate conversation with her son.
Franks Family. Papers. American Jewish Historical Society, Waltham, Mass.; Hershkowitz, Leo, and Isidore S. Meyer, eds. Letters of the Franks Family (1733–1748) (1968); Smith, Ellen. “Portraits of a Community: The Image and Experience of Early American Jews.” In Facing the New World: Portraits of Jews in Colonial and Federal America (1997).