Her family descended from Portuguese Marranos who had sought asylum in England in the 18th century. Grace Aguilar was born there in 1816 and her remarkable work impacted the historiography of Jewish life for three decades.
Was it the impact of her family history that made this young woman dedicate her life to defending Judaism and extolling the values of its teachings? Perhaps the personal circumstances of her life contributed to the extraordinary focus of her intellectual and literary endeavors.
Grace Aguilar was educated mainly by her parents. Her mother, a cultivated woman of strong religious feeling, trained her to study the Torah systematically; and when she was fourteen her father read aloud to her regularly, chiefly Jewish history. As a result, young Grace’s knowledge, especially in history and foreign literature, was extensive.
At the age of seven Grace began a diary, which she continued almost uninterruptedly until her death in 1847. Before she was twelve she had written a drama, “Gustavus Vasa.” Her first published work were her collected poems under the title “The Magic Wreath,” dealing with religious subjects. She wrote tales founded on Marrano history. The most popular of Grace Aguilar’s Jewish tales is “The Vale of Cedars, or the Martyr: A Story of Spain in the Fifteenth Century.” This volume was written before 1835 and translated into German and and Hebrew. Her other stories founded on Jewish themes are included in a collection of nineteen tales and include “Home Scenes and Heart Studies,” “The Perez Family,” “The Edict” and “The Escape,” and “Woman’s Friendship.”
The first of Miss Aguilar’s religious works was a translation of the French version of “Israel Defended,” by the Marrano Orobio de Castro, printed for private circulation. It was closely followed by “The Spirit of Judaism.” Sermons by Rabbi Isaac Leeser, of Philadelphia, had fallen into her hands and, like all other accessible Jewish works, had been eagerly read. She requested that he revise the manuscript of the “Spirit of Judaism,” which was forwarded to him, but it was lost. The authoress rewrote it; and in 1842 it was published in Philadelphia, with notes by Leeser.
A second edition was issued in 1849 by the first American Jewish Publication Society; and a third (Cincinnati, 1864) has an appendix containing thirty-two poems (bearing the dates 1838-1847), all but two reprinted from “The Occident.” The editor’s notes serve mainly to mark dissent from Miss Aguilar’s depreciation of Jewish tradition – due probably to her Marrano ancestry and her country life, cut off from association with Jews.
In 1845 “The Women of Israel” appeared – a series of portraits delineated according to the Scriptures and Josephus. This was soon followed by “The Jewish Faith: Its Spiritual Consolation, Moral Guidance, and Immortal Hope,” in thirty-one letters, the last dated September 1846. Of this work – addressed to a Jewess under the spell of Christian influence, to demonstrate to her the spirituality of Judaism – the larger part is devoted to immortality in the Old Testament. Miss Aguilar’s other religious writings, some written as early as 1836, were collected in a volume of “Essays and Miscellanies” (1851–52).
In her religious writings Miss Aguilar’s attitude was defensive. Despite her almost exclusive intercourse with Christians and her utter lack of prejudice, her purpose, apparently, was to equip English Jewesses with arguments against conversionists. She inveighed against formalism, and stressed knowledge of Jewish history and the Hebrew language. In view of the neglect of the latter by women (to whom she modestly confined her expostulations), she constantly pleaded for the reading of the Scriptures in the English version. Her interest in the reform movement was deep; yet, despite her attitude toward tradition, she observed ritual ordinances punctiliously.