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How Jewish Is Lady Grantham?

Jonathan Sarna weighs in on 19th century Cincinnati Jewry

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Lady Grantham.(IMDB)

Last week’s Commenter of the Week unearthed that Lady Grantham, the American-born wife of Lord Grantham in the BBC Masterpiece Theatre series Downton Abbey (whose second season is currently playing Sunday nights on U.S. public television), is, according to the program’s official website, “the beautiful daughter of Isidore Levinson, a dry goods multi millionaire from Cincinnati.” In other words: unless she converted—and there is no allusion in the program, as far as I know, even to her background, much less to any conversion—she is Jewish.

But I wanted to know more, including whether Lady Grantham’s mother, too, was Jewish (and therefore whether her three daughters with Lord Grantham—and any children they might have—are). I wasn’t going to let her being a fictional character stop me. I emailed Jonathan Sarna, a Brandeis professor, author of Nextbook Press’s forthcoming When General Grant Expelled The Jews, and co-author of a 1989 book called, yes, The Jews of Cincinnati.

First, Sarna explained, even if Isidore Levinson isn’t real, he’s based on reality. Start from the premise that Lady Grantham is probably in her 40s when the show’s first episode begins in April 1912 (you know the exact date because a certain event has occurred that morning). Meaning she was born in Cincinnati in the late 19th century. According to Sarna, one study pegged to 1860 reports, “The manufacture, distribution, and sales of men’s ready-made clothing and other apparel supplied at least a portion of the livelihood for well over one-half of Cincinnati’s Jews.” Sarna added, “Other Jews were in dry goods. Jews benefited enormously from the Civil War and by the 1870s numbers of them were wealthy. One need only look at Plum Street Temple (the former synagogue of Isaac M. Wise, built in 1867 and now a National Historic Shrine) to get a sense of the community’s wealth.”

So a wealthy Cincinnati-based Jewish dry-goods merchant makes sense. Would a theoretical Levinson have married a Jew? “Most of the Jews who were in their prime in the 1870s had arrived in Cincinnati as immigrants in the 1840s and ’50s,” Sarna continues. “Those Jews had overwhelmingly married Jews. Some of their children, of course, did not. The daughter of Charles Fleischmann (of dried yeast fame) married Christian R. Holmes and one of Rabbi Wise’s daughters also eloped with a non-Jew (but raised Jewish descendants). However, as late as World War I, the intermarriage rate was a paltry 4.5 percent.”

In conclusion? “‘Isidore Levinson’ would have been right at home in Cincinnati in the 1870s, his wife would have been Jewish, and perhaps his daughter was among those who married out—into faded English royalty.” Oh, hooray!

Earlier: The Jewish Character in ‘Downton Abbey’

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David Sucher says:

I am waiting for the puzzle to be solved. It seems inconceivable and, dramatically-absurd to foreshadow such a fascinating turn and not just leave it. Surely we’ll see this Jewish surprise in some future episode. One question is how far ahead –into the 1930s? — will Downton Abbey go?

Perhaps Tablet could set up a “contest” of sorts to elaborate on future plot elements.

Jordan says:

You’re happy that she’s really Jewish, even though she married a gentile? Oy!

My dad chased the skirts of debutantes…bad move dad.

Seriously, Tablet, this is getting pathetic. Enough trying to cash in on a pop culture moment with this slavering attempt to make some Jewish connection, no matter how weak. It’s embarrassing.

Arik Nevid says:

Ruminating over whether or not a fictional character had Jewish mother? Oh, please! Why not send a petition to Julian Fellowes, asking him to show, in a future episode, a porcelain dreidel in her jewelry box. Maybe, the script could have her shudder at the thought of eating pork. Hello? It’s a work of fiction.

Arik Nevid:

I suggest that you are missing the point. The issue is not “…whether or not a fictional character had Jewish mother?” but why did the writer specifically and explicitly introduce a Jewish character in a drama which is otherwise totally Christian? And introduces her indirectly and outside the drama itself.

Perhaps if you watched the series you might be more interested. A number of shows — The Wire, Sopranos, Mad Men et al — are so well-done that the viewer is truly engaged in the characters. Laugh if you like but that is what good drama is about — caring about the characters (or simply curious) _after_ one has seen the show and their presence lingers.

Well, in real life Elizabeth McGovern (who plays Lady Grantham) is not Jewish, although she looks like she could be. McGovern was the real-life lover of Israeli producer Arnon Milchan, who produced the classic ‘Once Upon a Time in America’, a movie which she starred in, playing the role of a nice Jewish girl who was pursued by Robert De Niro who played the role of ‘Noodles’, a Jewish gangster. So Elizabeth McGovern is no stranger to Jews or high-profile Jewish roles. A very talented and beutiful actress.

I ENJOYED reading Professor Sarna’s comments on 19th Century Ohio Jewry. I want to add one more item that may interest him and Marc Tracy. The estate that is used as the backdrop of DOWNTON ABBEY, was the estate in WWI of Lady Alamina. Her home was used as a rehab hospital, just as in Season 2 of the tv series.

BUT… Professor Sarna… LADY ALMINA was the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild

While Almina was the daughter of Marie and Fred Wombwell, she was really the daughter of Marie (from France) and her lover, Alfred de Rothschild. Almina was married to Lord Carnarvon and became mistress of Highclere Castle (which is used for Downton Abbey)

Larry (,

Cora Levinson would have been born in 1868 since it also mentions that she was 20 years old when she married in 1888.

I’ve seen the whole of the second series and not a plot spoiler, but in one episode Cora makes reference to praying during a church service at Christmas.

Julian Fellowes mentioned that he was readying about American heiress Mary Leiter in “To Marry An English Lord” by Gail MacColl. Leiter’s father, Levi Leiter, was descended from German Lutherans and his grandfather, Abraham Leiter, founded the town of Leitersburg, Maryland.

Odd trivia note, Mary Leiter’s second daughter, Lady Cynthia Curzon, later married Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Fascist Movement.

Another inspiration for Cora was the wife of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, Almina Wombwell, legally the daughter of her mother’s husband, Captain Frederick Wombwell. However, her biological father was Alfred de Rothschild, an unmarried member of the prominent Jewish banking Rothschild family, who in 1918 made her his heiress shortly before his death.

Downton Abbey is NOT a BBC series, it is an ITV series.

They just cast Cora’s mother, Martha Levinson!

We will get answers in the next season!!!!!

Yaakov Sullivan says:

I doubt very much if Shirley MacLaine would be cast as a Jewish character. It is most likely that Martha is a gentile and Isidore Levinson, a German Jew,either converted at the time of the marriage or agreed that his children would be baptised and raised as Christians. Lady Grantham was raised as an Episcopalian. Perhaps one of the daughters, I would think Lady Edith, becomes enamoured of the Zionist cause and settles in Palestine. Her sister of course marries the Irish chauffeur and like a number of English upper class took on the Irish cause with considerable vehemence. Or one of the girls could join an Anglican order of nuns who were drawing considerable numbers at that time.

Who cares?

Shirley MacLaine has played a Jewish character many times. Most notably probably in Used People (1992) and In Her Shoes (2005).


Interview with Elizabeth McGovern:

Q: The name of Shirley’s character is “Martha Levinson.” So is it possible that Cora is from a Jewish family?

A: It is possible! So we’ll see if it has ramifications later on in the story as the inevitable wheels of history roll forward, but to be perfectly honest, I’m finding out along with everybody else [laughs]! So I’m doing my best to adjust to these revelations as well.

Read more:

Graham Combs says:

In 2007, young British historians were critical of Wilberforce because of his prominence in the abolitonist movement. A damned if you do, damned if you don’t dilemma. A fan of DA, not least because of Ms. McGovern’s Lady Grantham. I get the impression that somehow Lord Grantham is also damned for being English;damned for loving his Jewish wife.There have been worse countries than England for the Jewish people. I certainly wish the US had Lord Sacks. We could use his moral authority.

Set271 says:

Is there anyone more racist than a Jew?


I haven’t followed the show from the beginning so wasn’t aware of Lady Grantham’s ancestry but I found this article funny.

Yaakov Sullivan says:

They were German Jews, followers of Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise and his colleague in Germany, Rabbi Samuel Holdheim who were radical reformers of Jewish tradition. The Jews who made their fortune in clothing the Civil War troops and cornering the cotton market could have married non-Jews and it is highly unlikely that the non-Jewish spouse would have converted to Judaism. It is more likely that Isidore Levinson married a Christian woman and either converted to Protestantism or raised his daughters as Christians. The treasurer of the Confederacy, Judah Benjamin was one case of a Jew who married a gentile and converted raising their children as Christians.

Pat Ehrlich says:

I am not sure which episode it occured in, (I believe it was the Christmas Special) but Cora makes mention to Anna that they mentioned Mr. Bates in their prayers at church that morning. It didn’t mention what type of church, but I don’t believe that Cora is a practicing Jew – not in 19th century England.

Is it not a bit racist to delve into whether the Lady was of Jewish origin?

im kvelling

first episode of Season 3 – Martha Levinson arrives and her maid tells the kitchen staff about her requirements for the duration of the visit, including “no fats, no crab” – I suspect Martha not only married Isidore Levinson, but was also Jewish herself. (Keeping kosher in those days in an area unfamiliar with such requirements wasn’t easy. I have a piece written by my grandmother as a young girl in 1913 where they were travelling on a US Naval ship and had to turn down the cook’s offer of bread because it had been made with lard.

Daniel R. layman says:

Cincinnati has also had, I believe, 2 Jewish mayors.

Cora is likely Jewish. She is likely inspired by Lady Almina, the daughter of Alfred de Rothschild, who married the 5th Earl of Carnarvon (Highclere Castle). Like Cora, her fortune supported the struggling estate.


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How Jewish Is Lady Grantham?

Jonathan Sarna weighs in on 19th century Cincinnati Jewry

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