- Jews and Gentiles in Early America: 1654–1800
Jews and Gentiles in Early America fills an important gap in the scholarship on American Jewish history and the history of early America. It offers a community by-community analysis of how Jews, a numerically insignificant but still visible element in the population, fit into the political and cultural world of America, from the years of the first settlement in the middle of the seventeenth century through the early national period, with the book ending in 1800. Pencak has organized his material, chapter by chapter, geographically, devoting his book to the five cities in which Jews lived in substantial enough numbers to have led them to create Jewish communal institutions. These five communities, whose Jews, their congregations, and their complex interactions with the vastly larger non-Jewish majority constitute the heart of Jews and Gentiles in Early America, New York, Newport, Rhode Island, Charleston, South Carolina, Savannah, Georgia and Philadelphia, all seaport cities, housed America's first Jewish communities.
For each community Pencak asks a series of questions. He wants to know how the local, non-Jewish population received the Jews who settled in their midst. Did they greet the Jews warmly or did they express antipathy towards the non-Christian newcomers? Where did anti-Jewish feelings come from, both in terms of historical origins and the social and economic strata of the local population? Why did the residents of some colonies provide a more hospitable [End Page 198] environment than others and how did differing levels of welcome—or the lack thereof—leave its mark on the Jews?
Pencak turns his attention, as such, not just to the words and deeds of the Christian majority, expressed in print and in the actions of courts and legislatures, but to the Jews themselves. He seeks to explore how Jews navigated life in the colonies and in the new nation. To what degree did they play a role in the Revolution, and how did they inject themselves into the political life of the states which emerged from the former colonies? Pencak's questions go further, and in posing them he provides a useful service to historians. How did Jews respond to attacks on their character and their religion when negative images became part of the public discourse? What did Jews do to defend themselves, and what did their arguments reveal about their understanding of themselves and their place in America, from the middle of the seventeenth century to the onset of the nineteenth?
Each colony, then state, had its own history, and each history took its shape from the particular political, religious, and cultural characteristics that dominated the local scene. Pencak discerns, especially in the long era before the Revolution, the existence of popular anti-Jewish feeling emanating primarily from the poorer classes. Jews, in part because of their role in trade, tended to be associated with the local colonial elites. Therefore, the rise of democratic stirrings among the less well off ignited anti-Jewish rhetoric. In the age of the Revolution and in the decade that followed, in which state constitutions got written and new a political apparatus came into play, antisemitism increased. Jews, for their part, according to Pencak, rose up to their own defense. They sought to disprove arguments hurled against them, claiming the rights of citizenship on the basis of their contributions to the economy, to the polity, and to the Revolution. They went out of their way to stress their respectability and even altered the structures of their congregations to make them more fitting to the new, more egalitarian ethos of post-Revolutionary times. Jews of the era worried about their continued future in America and sought both to prove their worthiness against negative rhetoric and to counter the desire of Christian missionaries to convert the Jews, a theme that deserved in actuality much greater attention in the book than it received.
The strength of this book lies in the five substantive chapters. While Pencak relies a bit too much on secondary...