- Jews & Gentiles in Early America, 1654–1800
How did Jews arrive within a century and a half after their arrival in America and how did they fare amidst their Christian neighbors in colonial cities? William Pencak’s Jews & Gentiles, the well-deserved runner-up for the National Book Award in American Jewish History in 2005, attempts to answer these questions.1 The book is a superb addition to the bookshelves [End Page 174] of students of early American religious and ethnic life, and to American Jewish history. Its broad arc traces the position of Jews within the Judeophobic colonial world of the late seventeenth century, where American colonial governments were frequently motivated to withhold full rights for Jews, to a world at the start of the nineteenth, in which Jews enjoyed full civic inclusion and fluid social, commercial, and political interactivity with non-Jews, and when Jacksonian democracy brought about the defeat of what the author calls “Federalist anti-semitism.”
What kinds of interactions took place between Jews and non-Jews? Pencak’s primary focus is antsemitism (lowercase s), both before the Revolution as a carry over from Europe, and in the first decades of American sovereignty. He argues that political antisemitism—the uses of anti-Jewish sentiment by political actors to advance political agendas—required a population willing to adopt loathsome attitudes owing largely to (not inaccurate) public perceptions of Jews as part of the elite class of prerevolutionary life. Other forms of antisemitism focused on poor Jews, whom Gentiles feared sought to raise fortunes at the cost of the republic’s ruin. Federalists, populists, revolutionaries, anti-Federalists, and their successors all took turns fomenting anti-Hebrew sentiment. For their part, Pencak shows, Jews consistently and vigilantly defended themselves against attacks in the public square, in courts, and in engagements with political leaders.
Pencak’s book is organized regionally, with chapters arranged in order of Jewish settlement in New York, Newport, Charleston, Savannah, and Philadelphia, with the first and last of these receiving a disproportionate half the book. This organizational scheme has the advantage of highlighting differences between the cities’ Jewries, their politics and ideologies, but the disadvantage of keeping Pencak from synthesizing his ideas about the broader experience of colonial American Jewry. His scheme also leads him to pass over important Jewish communities elsewhere in the Atlantic world in Halifax, Richmond, and Curacao, for example—unfortunate omissions, particularly given the recent calls for more comparative and transnational research among historians of the Americas’ Jews.
Pencak devotes considerable attention to economic cooperation and social encounters between Jews and Gentiles, showing the important contributions Jews made to the founding of the early republic’s commercial crystallization, its expanding frontier, and its revolution. He stresses the importance of Masonic membership to Jews’ success and their associational life, and explains Jews’ tremendous mobility owing to tight connections among Jews in various colonies around the Atlantic world.
To his further credit, Pencak focuses on tensions among Jews: between [End Page 175] Federalist and revolutionary Jews, Jews in different towns, Portuguese and Dutch Sephardim and German Ashkenazim, as well as Jews of different socioeconomic classes (particularly well articulated in the Charleston and Savannah chapters). These tensions played out in newspapers, courts, and synagogues. Though at times Pencak loses sight of why certain frictions are important to the story, like intrasynagogue rows about decorum (71) or interfamilial feuds between prominent families (62), other intra-Jewish conflicts are clearly fundamental, such as whether and how to support the revolution. Pencak exposes tensions among a given colonial city’s Jews, noting, for example, that “personal, political, ethnic and class divisions within Charleston’s Jewish community mirrored those of the new state” (138). Likewise he draws attention to those clashes between cities’ Jewish communities, pace the debate over the Navigation Act of 1696 in the middle colonies (64), or the fact that New York Jews were overwhelmingly Loyalist while Charleston Jewry, who lacked the same wealth, more uniformly supported the Revolution.
The Jewish population before 1800 was tiny. Still, “Jews...