- Jews in America: From New Amsterdam to the Yiddish Stage by Stephen D. Corrsin, Amanda Seigel, and Kenneth Benson
The New York Public Library’s (NYPL) new book about its Dorot Jewish Division holdings stems from the 2004 NYPL exhibit in memory of the 350th anniversary of Jews landing in New Amsterdam. It is not the exhibit catalog but an exhibit overview, which attempts to present the exhibit’s richness without picturing all the cited catalog items while it tries to showcase the breadth and depth of the Dorot Jewish Division. As Jonathan Sarna notes in his introduction, this book on the exhibition signals the changes since the 1954 exhibit for the 300th anniversary. The focus here is not on “who was a Jew” and contributions of Jews, but rather on collaboration and the relationship of “Port Jews” across the Atlantic basin and the question of what American identity is. The 2004 exhibition was called “Jews in America: Conquistadors, Knickerbockers, Pilgrims and the Hope of Israel.”
There are six chapters and the first five are pre-nineteenth century. The sixth, called the “Long Century,” goes from the American Revolution through the 1920s, when changes in immigration laws shut the door to East European Jews. Each chapter has a brief written narrative that summarizes that exhibit section, along with selected catalog illustrations.
Chapter One deals with the Age of Discovery and places it within the context of the contributions of contemporary Jewish scientists, conversos, and financiers. It features a letter (cat. #10) from Christopher Columbus to Luis de Santangel, Chancellor of Aragon, a converso descendant who financed seventy percent of Columbus’ second voyage in 1493. Chapter Two, on Jewish involvement in seventeenth-century Dutch Caribbean expansion, places the 1654 Jewish arrival in North America in this setting. To me, a striking item is the responsa [cat. #14] sent to the Recife Jewish Community by the noted European rabbi Hayyim Shabbetai of Salonika, Greece, about changing the time of year for saying the prayer for rain to a “time more appropriate to the Southern Hemisphere. Shabbetai ‘chose a “’middle path:’ the Recife Jews should not pray for rain when it could be harmful, but they should not recite the prayer at a non-traditional time” (44). By the 1600’s New World Jews were already distinct.
The third chapter focuses on the New Amsterdam Jewish community’s close relationship with the Dutch West India Company, whose business interests facilitated the Jewish settlement over Governor Peter Stuyvesant’s objections. The fourth chapter, which concentrates on the seventeenth-century theory that Native Americans were descendants of [End Page 444] the Lost Ten Tribes, features NYPL items that show both Jewish [cat. #43, 50] and Christian [cat. #40, 48] arguments and counter arguments.
The fifth chapter is somewhat diffuse. There are two topics barely tied together other than by chronology. The first is the growth of religious freedom in the various North American Jewish communities. The expanding Jewish settlement in the New World meant wider use of English in daily dealings. Early American printed sermons and prayer books show the spread of English in religious use [cat. #57–8]. As Jews grew more secular, toleration grew, and NYPL has a strong collection of regional or state laws and constitutions which demonstrate this [cat. # 59–65]. The second, more minor topic concerns eighteenth-century Jewish merchant trading, exemplified by business records of both Sir Solomon de Medina [cat. #52] and Aaron Lopez [cat. # 66–68].
The last chapter–the “Long 19th Century”–is more diffuse. The focus is not the usual relative periods of Jewish linguistic immigration (German speaking, then Slavic and Yiddish speaking), but rather on the mid-century epoch of the Civil War as a major Americanizing event for Jews. It also contains important NYPL religious texts [e.g. Isaac Leeser’s 1845 bible translation, cat #84] and items about the development of Jewish women’s communal life [cat # 92–100], most of which are not shown. Yiddish cultural...