Recognizing the first Jewish woman born in St. Louis

Mathilda Sarah Levi 

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

As St. Louis marks the 250th anniversary of its founding this year, the Jewish Light is turning back the pages to significant “firsts” in the 207-year history of the Jewish community of our town. Today, we pay long overdue recognition to Mathilda Sarah Levi, who is believed to have been the first Jewish woman born in St. Louis and possibly the first native-born St. Louis Jew of either gender.

According to the late historian Walter Ehrlich’s two-volume history of St. Louis Jewry, “Zion in the Valley,” Joseph Philipson was the first permanent Jewish resident of our city in 1807, having moved here from Philadelphia. However, no record exists of where his sons were born (and one son was born after 1822, the year in which Mathilda Sarah Johnson Levi was born).

Mathilda Johnson Levi’s father was Phineas Israel Johnson, one of the few early St. Louis Jewish residents to come not from Germany, Austria or France, but from England. 

“He lived only briefly in St. Louis, but his importance lies more in his family ties and offspring,” Ehrlich writes. 

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Phineas was born to a pious Jewish couple whose family was part of the same distinguished British Jewish family that produced Benjamin Disraeli, the famed British prime minister during the reign of Queen Victoria.

Phineas Israel and his brother David immigrated to America in 1818 and almost immediately adopted the family name “Johnson.” They went first to Cincinnati, where David, his wife and child settled. Phineas moved on to Louisville, Ky., and  in 1819 entered the auction business. While David Israel Johnson remained closely tied to his Jewishness, Phineas was less strongly identified. He married Clarissa Clark, who was not Jewish (and was a niece of Abraham Clark of New Jersey, a signer of the Declaration of Independence).

In 1822, Phineas and Clarissa Johnson had a daughter, Mathilda Marian, born at the Johnson home on Second Street in St. Louis. Shortly thereafter, the family moved to Louisville. Mathilda grew up and was educated in Louisville, where, on Jan. 16, 1840, she married Solomon J. Levi, a rising St. Louis Jewish lawyer and businessman.

The following year, the young couple moved back to St. Louis. At the time of her marriage, Mathilda embraced Judaism fully and enthusiastically. According to Ehrlich’s history, she even changed her middle name to Sarah from Marian “so as to bear one of the biblical names of her ancestors” – the wife of Abraham and the first Jewish woman. This was a fitting moniker given the presumption that Mathilda was the first St. Louis-born Jewish woman. 

For the rest of her days, she was known as Mathilda Sarah Levi and was “a devout and dedicated Jewess,” in the language her day. Her husband, described in Ehrlich’s book as a “zealous Hebrew,” was involved in forming United Hebrew Cemetery and United Hebrew Congregation. Solomon and Mathilda were actively involved in religious and charitable affairs in the growing general community of St. Louis.

While some might question whether Mathilda meets the traditional halachic interpretation of being Jewish at birth, “no doubts exist (that) once she married,” she fully and actively embraced the Jewish faith of her father and her husband, Erhlich writes. Some historians have suggested that Mathilda might even be considered the first Jewish female born west of the Mississippi River. But, Ehrlich writes, “being the first Jewish girl born in St. Louis merits sufficient recognition.”