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The Jewish Character in ‘Downton Abbey’

Comment of the Week

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(Ravi Joshi/Tablet Magazine)

Winner gets a free Nextbook Press book appropriate to his or her comment (if he or she emails me at with his or her mailing address).

This week’s winner is “Jenny,” who offered a bit of constructive criticism to Amanda Walgrove’s essay last Friday on the BBC series Downtown Abbey. The conceit of Walgrove’s essay is that the Granthams, the central family, are well understood through a comparison to Tevye’s clan in Fiddler on the Roof, despite the fact that these North Yorkshire aristocrats are, of course, not Jews.

But not so fast, notes Jenny. Viewers know that Lady Grantham (first name: Cora), whose marriage to Lord Grantham brough a large dowry that saved the estate some years ago, is actually American: that is as plain as her accent. What is apparently unmentioned within the show, but is described in her biography on the official Downton Abbey website, is this: “Cora is the beautiful daughter of Isidore Levinson, a dry goods multi millionaire from Cincinnati.”


For this discovery, Jenny receives our undying gratitude as well as a copy of Adam Kirsch’s biography of perhaps Britain’s most famous (onetime) Jew, Benjamin Disraeli.

The Aristocrats
Benjamin Disraeli [Nextbook Press]

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Under matrilineal descent, the title should definitely be in the plural. Who would have thought Lady Mary a Jew?
However, I sincerely doubt the Dowager Countess’s late husband could have gone for the intermarriage, even with the money aspect.

bob weisberger says:

I agree with Tzvi – Lady Mary being the daughter of Izy Levinson doesn’t add up as a likely shidduch and why even have that in the back story if there is no mention of it. Certainly having Mary and her three Jewish daughters loose in the English countryside would yield some upper crust twittering – perhaps the shock of Mary’s provenance will be sprung on the eve of one the girl’s weddings.

Fortunately the producers have better sense than the writers. What makes an interesting back story would be irrelevant to the drama.

This is exciting news, and I’m afraid the name “Abbey” will have to be changed as well; its Christian implications are not fitting for the home of so many fair maidelehs, and gives the wrong impression to the potential basherts.

For more on this intriguing British-Yiddish connection, might I suggest my own dear IN THE KING’S ARMS, recently lauded by the New York TImes Book Review, not to mention Jewish Book World? Many of its key scenes take place in a Downtonian venue.

Gail Abramson says:

A clever plot device but hard to believe because of supposed entrenched anti-Semitism in the British upper classes. I guess Lord Grantham really needed Cora’s fortune. Nevertheless he presents as a genuinely decent chap. And as he said recently to one of his daughters: “Your mother has made me very happy!” Can’t wait for season 3. It’s a gift to those of us still in withdrawal from Upstairs Downstairs. Let the games begin!

Marvin Wolf says:

There seems to be some conflict in the background of Cora. Contrary to her official biography, Mary tells Matthew, in the last episode, that she is going to America and will stay with her maternal grandmother. She says her grandmother has houses in New York City and Newport, hardly a place where Jews in 1920 hung out. Explain.

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The Jewish Character in ‘Downton Abbey’

Comment of the Week

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