- Invisible Hebrews:Jews in Early America
Early in Black Jews in Africa and the Americas, Tudor Parfitt relates an anecdote about the false prophet Richard Brothers, a British man who "was convinced initially that the Second Coming would be in 1795, when he would be revealed as Prince of the Hebrews and would lead the Jews back to Palestine along with the 'invisible Hebrews,' the descendants of the Lost Tribes, many of whom lived in England and other (Protestant) parts of northern Europe" (41). Parfitt shares this episode in order to support his argument—one of many in Black Jews in Africa and the Americas—that some "British Protestants [thought they] themselves were descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel" (41). The so-called "British Israel" theory, he contends, had a vast effect on colonial projects in Africa and the Americas. While Parfitt and Brothers use the term to allude to the secret Jews (metaphorical kin to the conversos) in their midst, I borrow the suggestive and multivalent idea of "invisible Hebrews" for a related, but slightly different [End Page 201] purpose: to mark the many ways in which Jews were both invisible in and fundamental to early American culture. Like the "invisible Hebrews" in Parfitt's anecdote, Jews in the Americas were not always easy to find, their numbers remaining small throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Yet they managed to be omnipresent—in Puritan theology and legal theory, transatlantic trade, and in the discourses surrounding otherness, estrangement, and indigeneity in the Atlantic world.
This dialectic of Jewish visibility and invisibility haunts the narratives of three recent books that treat the complex world of Jews in early America: Parfitt's aforementioned comparative work on blacks and Jews in Africa and the Americas; Michael Hoberman's New Israel/New England: Jews and Puritans in Early America; and Laura Arnold Leibman's Messianism, Secrecy and Mysticism: A New Interpretation of Early American Jewish Life, recent winner of the National Jewish Book Award. Each of these scholars employs a distinct methodology and a different definition of "America"; however, all three benefit greatly from renewed interest in the figuration of difference and otherness in an early American context, as well as from recent theorizations of what some scholars have called "the Jewish Atlantic."
The Jewish presence has always had a spectral role in Atlantic studies. Paul Gilroy opens his germinal work on the black Atlantic by invoking the history of the Jewish diaspora as an always already transnational one with structural parallels to the global history of African dispossession. Nonetheless, despite (or perhaps because of) this inherently transnational character, many scholars have cleaved to national paradigms. As Adam Sutcliffe points out in his important essay on "Jewish History in an Age of Atlanticism," the Jewish encounter with modernity "was marked by a widespread concern among Jews, in response to the implicit quid pro quo of Emancipation, to demonstrate that they saw themselves above all not as a part of a transnational ethno-religious body but as loyal citizens of the states in which they lived" (18). The impetus to demonstrate fealty to the state "has left deep historiographical traces: a nation-by-nation approach has dominated the study of the Jewish past, with a tendency, in comparative work, to posit a hierarchy of advancement in different national communities, with German Jewry generally blazing the trail followed later and more hesitantly by others" (18). Recent years have witnessed a growing interest in moving beyond this nation-centered approach.
The study of early modern Jewry, in particular, has begun to complicate [End Page 202] the field's formerly largely Ashkenazic, nation-based emphasis, especially as scholars who focus on the Mediterranean gain a voice in Jewish literary and cultural studies. Scholars of "the Jewish Atlantic" have borrowed a number of terms from studies of the early...