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1816: A Writer Whose Star Burned Briefly Is Born

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An engraved portrait of Grace Aguilar.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

June 2, 1816 is the birth date of Grace Aguilar, an English-Jewish writer who in her very short life turned out a remarkable variety and quantity of books and manuscripts that left a mark on both Jewish and non-Jewish society.

Aguilar was the daughter of Emanuel Aguilar and the former Sarah Dias Fernandes. Both of her parents were descendants of converso families that had left Spain for Jamaica, where their families owned sugar plantations, and that in the 18th century had immigrated to Britain.

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Grace was a sickly child from infancy, and because her parents thought that being outside would be good for her health, she became very interested in natural science from a young age. She began collecting seashells at age four, later adding rock and plant collections, and started keeping a journal at age seven. She also danced, and studied piano and harp.

After Emanuel Aguilar contracted tuberculosis, the family moved from Hackney, London, to the seashore at Devon. While he was recuperating he would tell Grace the history of Iberian Jewry.

In 1838, at age 21, Grace had the measles, which left her weak and prone to illness until the end of her life, nine years later. And yet, the sicker she was, the more productive she became.

In her own day and just after, Aguilar was probably best known for her novels, several of which were published posthumously, through the efforts of her mother. These included the domestic novels “A Mother’s Recompense” and “Home Influence” (which had 30 printings); “The Days of Bruce,” a romance of Scottish history; and “Vale of Cedars,” about 15th-century Spain.

Aguilar also wrote extensively on Judaism and Jewish history. While devout, she was critical of strict legalism in religion, favoring a more taken with a spiritual approach. Frustrated by the lack of a vernacular Jewish translation of the Bible, she attended church to hear the King James translation. This antagonized some Jews, while leading Christian missionaries to see her as a potential convert. In truth, though, she wanted to modernize Judaism so as to keep young Jews within the fold.

In 1842, Aguilar wrote “The Spirit of Judaism,” in which she presented her understanding of the religion by way of a meditation on the “Shema” prayer. After it came out in England, the book was published in the United States by Rabbi Isaac Leeser, who founded the original Jewish Publication Society, and was read by Jews and Christians alike. (On its way to America, the manuscript was lost, and Aguilar had to reconstitute the book from her notes.) The philanthropist Miriam Moses Cohen also did a lot to popularize her work in the United States.

Aguilar wrote numerous other works on Jewish themes, including a history of British Jewry, and a text directed at a young Jewish woman drawn to Christianity by its spirituality. And she pressed for a greater role for women in Jewish intellectual life.

In 1847, after her health took a turn for the worse, she went to Germany, where her composer brother Emanuel lived. She saw a specialist and spent several weeks at a spa, but did not recover. She died in Frankfurt on September 16, 1847.

Apparently recognizing that she was very ill, the Jewish women of London held a testimonial event in Aguilar’s honor before she left for Germany, saluting her as “the first woman who had stood forth as the public advocate of the faith of Israel.” Her death later that year elicited moving eulogies to her from around the world, from both Jews and Christians.

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