The Levy-Franks Family

The Levy-Franks family struggled with the ever-present challenge of maining a strong Jewish identity in a secular society.

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Chapters in American Jewish History are provided by the American Jewish Historical Society, collecting, preserving, fostering scholarship and providing access to the continuity of Jewish life in America for more than 350 years (and counting). Visit www.ajhs.org.
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In recent years, American Jewry has expressed concern about rising rates of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews. However, intermarriage is by no means a recent phenomenon. Maintaining Jewish identity in a highly tolerant, secular American culture is a challenge that confronted American Jewry since the earliest settlements in the New World. The story of the Levy-Franks family, Jews immersed in the Protestant milieu of early eighteenth-century New York, is particularly illustrative.

The Franks family matriarch, (Bilhah) Abigail Levy Franks, was born in New York in 1696, one year after her parents, Moses and Rachel Levy, arrived there from London. Abigail’s beloved husband Jacob Franks also emigrated from London. He lived as a boarder in the Levy household and married 16-year old Abigail in 1712. Together, they had nine children, six of whom survived past infancy.

Both the Levy and Franks families were leaders of New York’s tiny Jewish community, which numbered fewer than 50 families. Jacob Franks served as parnas (president) of Shearith Israel congregation, the oldest Jewish congregation in North America. Yet the Levys and Franks included among their closest friends some of New York’s elite Protestant families: the Livingstons, Bayards, DeLanceys, and Van Cortlands. As ship owners and civic-minded New Yorkers, Moses Levy and Jacob Franks were among eleven Jews who contributed funds to complete the steeple of Trinity church, which served both as a religious symbol and as a beacon to guide ships into New York harbor.

At a time when women were meant to forego formal education and devote themselves to home and children, Abigail Levy’s parents provided her with a classical education. In her letters, she quoted from the contemporary novels of Fielding and Smollett, read the works of Dryden, Montesquieu, and Pope (her favorite author), and encouraged her daughters to do the same. Her hopes for her children are known to us today primarily through letters she wrote to her son Naphtali, who had gone to seek his fortune in London. Abigail’s remarkable correspondence resides today in the archives of the American Jewish Historical Society.

(Image below: Abigail Franks’ letter to her son Naphtali, May 7, 1733. “…Still it Gives me a Seceret pleasure to Observe the faire Charecter Our Familys has in the place by Jews & Christians…” Courtesy of American Jewish Historical Society)
Abigail Franks’ letter to her son Naphtali

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Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.

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