How Jewish Is Lady Grantham?
Jonathan Sarna weighs in on 19th century Cincinnati Jewry
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!
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