Is Something Jewish Brewing at Downton Abbey

Lady Cora, as played by Elizabeth McGovern

Lady Cora, as played by Elizabeth McGovern

Downton Abbey, the award-winning British television series that is a hit and obsession in the United States and UK, may have a Jewess hidden in the upstairs rooms. The series is set in the fictional North Yorkshire estate of Downton Abbey during World War One, and tells the story of upstairs aristocrats, the downstairs staff in service, village life, and the changes taking place due to war, electricity, women’s right, Irish nationalism, and the automobile.

The upstairs stories center on the lives of the Earl and Countess of Grantham – the Crawleys – and their three daughters. Lady Cora, the Countess of Grantham, is played by the American actress, Elizabeth McGovern, and her character is an American from a wealthy family who has married into an aristocratic British family. The series uses Highclere Castle in Hampshire for exterior and most of the interior filming.

Lady Cora’s backstory is as follows: Cora is the beautiful daughter of Isidore Levinson, a dry goods multi-millionaire from Cincinnati. She arrived in England with her mother in 1888 at the age of 20, and was engaged to Robert by the end of her first season.

Isidore Levinson? Yes.

Is Cora therefore Jewish? Perhaps.

None other than Brandeis University Professor Jonathan Sarna, author of “The Jews of Cincinnati” (1989), weighed in on Lady Cora’s Jewishness on Tablet Magazine, last week. Sarna’s conclusion is that Isidore Levinson, even though 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, most likely would have married a Jewish woman and Miss Cora Levinson would have been Jewish prior to her journey to London.

But I would like to go a step further.

Highclere Castle, where the series is filmed, was actually the home of Lord Carnarvon prior to World War One, who in addition to being an explorer of Egyptian antiquities (King Tut), married Lady Almina, the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild (Lady Almina was therefore the daughter of a Jewish man, as is Lady Cora).

Lady Almina was officially the daughter of Marie and Fred Wombwell, but, unofficially, Alfred de Rothschild was “fond” of her mother, Marie, fathered the daughter, and supplied her with funds. Lady Almina turned the castle into a rehab hospital during WWI, just as in Season 2 of the television series.

So maybe, just maybe, future seasons will make mention of Lady Cora’s childhood? One wonder if her parents will visit England from Ohio in Season 3?

BREAKING NEWS: SHIRLEY MacLAINE HAS Been cast to play Lady Cora’s American mother. The good thing about casting MacLaine is that she probably was her mother in a previous life.

6 Comments

  1. Rabbi Yonah

    1/30/2012 at 1:49 pm

    I love this series and while her Jewishness will not make me like it more, it does add a curious twist. thanks larry

  2. ck

    1/30/2012 at 2:03 pm

    I have no idea how I became addicted to this series, but yeah, I’m addicted. Saw Season 1 and 2 basically in one sitting. So Lady Cora might be a Jewess? I don’t see how that will make the show any better but, whatever. It’s all good!

  3. Rabbi Yonah

    1/30/2012 at 2:16 pm

    Have you seen Case Histories? If not its online – this was by far the most compelling thing that I have seen on Masterpiece in a while. Totally awesome.

  4. larry

    1/30/2012 at 2:36 pm

    BREAKING NEWS: SHIRLEY MacLAINE HAS Been cast to play Lady Cora’s American mother. The good thing about casting MacLaine is that she probably was her mother in a previous life.

    How would you write the script if Lady Cora mother, Mrs. Levinson, is a proper Ohio Jewish matron. Will she be shocked that her granddaughters go to church? Will she be Jewish, or perhaps converted to Anglicanism? Will she face off with Maggie Smith? I would write her mother as a leftie, a pro-union workers’ advocate of German Jewish 1948 heritage who shakes up the downstairs in post WWI England. I would have her share US Civil War stories with the veterans of WWI. How would your write her character?

  5. winston

    2/18/2012 at 10:18 pm

    What’s most interesting about Shirley Maclaine’s casting is that for two seasons we have not heard a word about Cora’s American family or friends – no mention of any letters or visits, no family stories or reminiscences. or visits to Cincinnati – the only reminders she’s not English are when Robert makes some disparaging reference to her “acting American.” It will be interesting to see how that is explained in the plot.

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