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American Jewish history is the record of the Jewish experience on American soil. That is clear enough, but what is not so clear is: What constitutes a Jew? There are several definitions. A common Gentile definition is: Anyone is a Jew about whom there is the slightest recollection of Jewish origin. According to Jewish canon law, the halakah, every child of a Jewish mother is a Jew. Most probably this decision, rooted in an ancient Hebraic tradition, reflects a matriarchal age when it was a wise son who knew his father. Arbitrarily, to be sure, the author of the present work on American Jewry has decided that any individual with one Jewish parent is a Jew, even if “born” and reared as a Christian. Thus, for the purposes of this work, Senator Barry Goldwater was the first major party Jewish candidate for the Presidency. It is only too true that Jewish history is often the story of a community which shines in the reflected glory of those Jews who ignore the community that gave them birth. If practitioners of Judaism only were to be included in a study of the American Jew then a substantial percentage of all would have to be excluded. Jews are an ethnos not a church.

As late as 1900 Jews in the United States constituted little more than 1 percent of the total population! Why then study American Jewish history? Jews are eager to know the history of their people; that is its own justification. Knowledge is identification, security. Jews wish to know how other Jews lived in this land, what they accomplished. They were and are part of the American polity; studying Jewry throws light on the larger general community. Almost untrammeled by European traditional hatreds and disabilities, America’s attitude toward its Jews savors of the unique. Here in the United States the “medieval” Jew of Eastern Europe was for the first time completely emancipated. What did égalité do for him, for America? Did this emancipation bear fruits of righteousness?

The Jews here are heirs of a great culture; their fathers wrote the Bible, both the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament and much of the New Testament. Jesus was born, lived, and died as a Jew. Islam, too, emerged from Judeo-Christian tradition. Sigmund Freud was a Jew and Karl Marx was the scion of a distinguished rabbinical family; today there are possibly more worshippers of Marx than there are of Jesus. Though Jews are small in numbers, they are not an obscure group or an unimportant part of general American history. They are significant in the areas of commerce and scholarship, and occasionally even in politics. There were three Jews in President Kennedy’s cabinet: Arthur Goldberg, Abraham Ribicoff, and Douglas Dillon. The clothing and cinema industries owe much to Jews. The development of nuclear energy was furthered in large measure by them; Abraham Selman Waksman, Jonas Salk, and Albert Sabin will long be remembered among the great scientists and benefactors of humanity. Today, Reform Judaism may well be the largest liberal religious movement in the world.

By the end of World War II—if not earlier—America was already playing an increasingly important role in World Jewish history. About 2,500,000 immigrants had poured into this country since the middle 1830’s; millions of dollars had been sent overseas to support poor and oppressed Jews, especially in Eastern Europe. American liberty is a commodity the Jews here have insisted on exporting ever since 1840 when they raised their voices in protest against the torture of Jews in Damascus. It was this American Jewry that influenced President Truman to look sympathetically upon the new Jewish state proclaimed in Palestine. Eddie Jacobson, the President’s onetime business partner, interceded with Truman at a critical moment when the President appeared resistant to Zionist importuning and amenable to the anti-Zionist pressures of his own State Department. Despite the unquestioned importance of the State of Israel, many maintain that the mainstream of Jewish history lies in the United States. Today, this Jewry is the greatest the world has ever known, certainly in size, wealth, and general culture. No Jewish group has ever been as free. American Jews exercise a significant measure of hegemony over World Jewry; they send billions to the State of Israel. American Jewry in the late twentieth century is potentially a great Jewish cultural center and is well on its way to a Golden Age of its own.

Why study American Jewish history? It is not without pragmatic value for the American Jew. History is not a science but a record of human behavior and human experience. What has happened may happen again. We can profit from the past. Even he who runs may read; Jews must fight not only to secure civil and political rights but also to hold onto them, else they risk losing them. Liberal Jews have learned that Reform Judaism cannot live on ideology alone; without ceremonial and ritual the Jewish collectivity cannot maintain itself. Individuals who depart from the norms accepted by the Jewish masses are pushed to the periphery and ultimately fall off into oblivion. A study of history brings perspective. It teaches us to assess what is happening, to sense the direction in which Jewry is moving. A perceptive community can then plan socially and, if successful, assert itself as the subject, not merely the object, of history.


It may well be that historical prurience—curiosity—is the prime reason why we delve into the past experiences of American Jewry. How, when, why, did Jews come here? Where did they settle? What happened to them? Were the twenty-three who landed at New Amsterdam in 1654 the very first Jews in this country? Of course not! No Jew is ever the first Jew anywhere. There is always one before him. The twenty-three were probably met at the Battery by Jacob Barsimson; Solomon Pietersen, an assimilated Jew, had preceded Barsimson; Solomon Franco, a dubious bird of passage, had been in Boston as early as 1649. And before Franco? In 1585, thirty-five years before the Pilgrim Fathers landed, Joachim Gaunze, a Jewish mining expert, stepped off the gangplank at Roanoke Island.1

Let us go back to the beginning. In the beginning there was Arabia and the eastern Fertile Crescent. Then came Palestine and the rise and fall of several commonwealths: the ancient United Monarchy of David, the Divided Monarchy of Israel and Judah; finally there was the Hasmonean kingdom. There were the Ten Commandments, the prophets, the great struggle for freedom of conscience and worship in the days of the Maccabeans. The Romans, like the Russians and the Americans in the twentieth century, evinced an interest in the eastern Mediterranean; Jerusalem had fallen under Roman sway some generations before the Herodian Temple was razed in 70 C.E. After the fall of Jerusalem, a new Jewish center emerged in the Mesopotamian valley ruled by Zoroastrian Persia. A center? A center is a land or a region where Jews enjoy some degree of security and where rabbinic learning prospers. Centers always exert a large degree of hegemonic spiritual authority. The center is for World Jewry the government-in-exile of an epoch. It was in Persian-controlled and subsequently Muslim Arab-ruled Mesopotamia that the Jews produced a body of literature they called the Talmud. It became and remains authoritative for normative Jewish belief and practice, even more so than the Hebrew Bible. But by the eleventh century, because of political unrest and successful foreign invasions, Muslim Mesopotamia was already on the wane. With the decline of the Asian Arab states came the end of Jewry’s spiritual dominance by the rabbis and academies of the Middle East.

Now, for the first time in Jewish history, the Jews acquired noteworthy European credentials with the dawn of a Golden Age in Arab Spain. A Jewish community enjoys a Golden Age when among its leaders are men preeminent in general and Jewish studies. The classical example is Ismail ibn Nagrela—Samuel the Prince as he was called—in the principality of Granada. This eleventh-century polymath was a talmudist, mathematician, grammarian, philosopher, linguist, calligrapher, and poet. He became vizier of his country and personally directed its armies in time of war. Imagine Bernard Baruch, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Arthur Goldberg, or Bella Abzug writing a Hebrew poem or an essay on talmudic methodology. Unfortunately for the Jews of Spain the Arabs were crushed in the Christian Reconquest of the peninsula; new Christian states arose to supplant the Muslims. Their philosophy was simple and direct: only a good Christian could be a good subject; the Jews would have to go, and by the end of the fifteenth century they had gone. Associate Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo of the United States Supreme Court was one of the distinguished heirs of the ensuing Spanish-Portuguese diaspora.2

Uprooted, Sephardic (Spanish-Portuguese) Jewry now withered, but a new Jewish center rose on the plains of Poland. For the next 450 years the Law went forth from the academies of Poland and the Germanic lands. This was the age of the Ashkenazim (Northern European Jews). In the very flower of its youth, however, the Polish community was dealt a staggering blow. The oppressed Eastern Orthodox peasants of the Ukraine rose in revolt against their Polish Roman Catholic masters and the Jewish stewards dependent on the Polish landlords. Then Tatars, Swedes, and Russians invaded a weakened Poland, and again Jews died by the thousands. In desperation many turned to a Messiah who failed to deliver them: Shabbethai Zevi, the mystical savior of the magic year 1666. Two generations later, still seeking “escape,” many Jews in Eastern Europe turned to the Master of the Good Name, the Baal Shem Tov: Israel ben Eliezer, the founder of the latter-day Hasidic sect which in a variety of manifestations still flourishes throughout the Jewish world. Others, more realistic than the Hasidic mystics and the classical pietists, hoped to find their messianic age in a modern new world: Man, not God, was to be the new savior.

All this presupposes the death of medievalism, but the medieval past died hard, very hard. As late as 1761 a hungry moronic Jewish beggar wandered into an Alsatian church and ate a consecrated Host, for him a cracker, food. Unwittingly he had committed a sacrilege, a capital crime, but mercy prevailed and his sentence was commuted to hard labor for life in prison. Less than a generation later with the coming of the French Revolution he would not even have been arrested. Actually the French Revolution was the culmination of complex forces fermenting since at least the sixteenth century. Most important of all was the Commercial Revolution. World commerce flourished on Western Europe’s new oceanic highways to India and the Americas. European colonies and demands for new markets stimulated industry, manufactures, and a higher standard of living. France, Prussia, the Netherlands, England emerged on the North Atlantic littoral as new national states subject as much to burghers as to kings and barons. It was immaterial whether economic theoreticians talked of mercantilism, physiocratism, or capitalism, of controlled markets or free markets. They all had one goal in mind, power and wealth. The theocentric world of medievalism was dead. All would be well on earth as long as God remained in his Heavens and left men to manage their own affairs.

The new economic changes which ultimately would mean so much to the Jew were underpinned by rationalizing and humanitarian gestures and convictions. Philosophers talked and wrote of natural rights and natural religion, of Deism and Enlightenment, but they linked philosophy to reality when they declared that all men were entitled to life, liberty and property. It was in this crucial century, the years between 1650 and 1750, that a new Jewish center took shape in the mainly German-speaking lands of Central Europe, stretching all the way from Alsace to the borders of Poland. In the burgeoning world of international commerce and industry this Central European development was the first of the modern Jewish communities. The hated Jewish usurer of the early seventeenth century now became a respected banker. Economically, culturally, socially, the Jew started up the ladder. In 1743 a hunchbacked Yiddish-speaking student knocked at the gates of Berlin; a generation later he was a textile manufacturer and a recognized German stylist, aesthete, and philosopher, winner of a Berlin Academy of Science prize in competition with Immanuel Kant. This man was Moses Mendelssohn.

It is clear that most Jews would not think of leaving an ascendant and liberalizing Europe, but it is equally obvious that there would always be individuals willing to seek an ever larger measure of opportunity in the overseas colonies. European settlers were desperately needed there. Jews were encouraged to go by mercantilistically-minded governments and by wealthy Jews ever ready to sponsor the migration of impoverished coreligionists. In 1649, just one year after the treaty was signed at Muenster bringing to an end the fierce religious wars between Protestant and Catholic powers, a lonely Jew walked the streets of Boston. He, too, like Mendelssohn in Berlin, was symbolic of the future. In 1492 Spanish Jews had moved eastward after the expulsion; in 1648, with the Cossack massacres in Eastern Europe the stream of immigration turned westward until suspended by the enactment of the American Immigration Act of 1924. By the late seventeenth century there were already dozens of European settlements in the Western World, and there was hardly one that did not shelter a handful of secret or professed Jews who had spilled over from Europe.


The oldest colonies in the New World were those of the Spanish and Portuguese and they were closed to Jews as Jews. But as the historian, Kayserling, has pointed out: If Spanish Jewish history ended with the Inquisition, American Jewish history began with the Inquisition. The forced converts of the Iberian Peninsula fled to the colonies because the Holy Office of the Inquisition persisted in hounding them. Jewish blood, the Holy Office insisted, was predisposed to heresy. In the New World, the Iberians of Jewish ancestry, whom Christian Spain denigrated as Marranos or Conversos or New Christians, hoped at least to survive as human beings, if they could not survive as practitioners of their own distinctive Judeo-Christian way of life. There were others of converso stock who had long since lost interest in Judaism but sailed for the New World colonies because they saw a bright economic future for themselves overseas. Columbus himself was probably no Jew, as some have maintained, although it is true that he was encouraged and given aid by converso capitalists. “Not jewels but Jews were the real financial basis of the first expedition of Columbus,” wrote a Johns Hopkins historian.3

According to the Jewish calendar, the expulsion from Spain took place on the Ninth of Ab, the anniversary of the fall of Jerusalem. The very next day Columbus set out on a voyage that would uncover a new land destined in the distant future to offer refuge to millions of Jews fleeing from European disabilities and pogroms. Pious Jews are fond of quoting the talmudic maxim: “Before God brings the disaster he provides the remedy” (Meg. 13b). Luis de Torres, Columbus’s interpreter, probably one of the first men over the side after sighting land, settled down in Cuba to become America’s first Jewish settler though if the Indians encountered here were, as some of the Spanish thought, remnants of the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel, de Torres was only a Jewish latecomer to North America.

By the late sixteenth century Spanish and Portuguese New Christians had scattered all the way from Cuba to the Philippines and on into China. What was their occupational distribution, their class differentiation? They were anything from beggars to governors, and in between one could find an assortment that included farmers, priests, merchants, and miners. An openly Jewish community life was of course impossible, but those who retained Jewish loyalties had cells and when they assembled furtively they practiced what came to be a distorted twilight version of Judaism. The largest of these “communities” were in Peru and in Mexico. Are they to be regarded as Jews? Yes, for they deemed themselves Children of Israel and were in constant touch with unconverted Jews who had wandered in from Europe. By the mid-seventeenth century crypto-Jewish Marranos had been driven deep underground; many had been pitilessly rooted out by the Holy Office. As early as 1528 one of the conquistadors who had fought with Cortez in Mexico was burnt at the stake as a judaizer. This was Hernándo Alonso, a smith, who perished in Mexico City almost a hundred years before the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock. In January, 1639, the Inquisition cremated Dr. Francisco Maldonado de Silva in Lima, Peru. Although the father, a New Christian, had reared the son as a Roman Catholic, the young man somehow found his way back to Judaism and secretly practiced his new-old faith until betrayed by a sister whom he had attempted to convert. While rotting in prison, he managed to fashion a rope of cornhusks and swung himself out of his cell to bring words of comfort to fellow prisoners. When many years before his execution a member of his family warned him to give up his Judaism, Maldonado de Silva answered that “even if he had a thousand lives he would gladly lose them in the service of the living God.” He was put to death because he denied Jesus. Less than a decade later Jesuit missionaries serving in the wilds of America were tortured and murdered by Indians. These priests affirmed Jesus. The traditions of these martyrs, both Christian and non-Christian, were destined to bring a glow of pride to unborn generations of Catholics and Jews.4

Not all of the New World was Spanish: Brazil, explored by the Portuguese with the aid of Jewish-born mariners and pioneers, soon became an important outpost. More so even than in the Spanish colonies, the Jews—New Christians—were among the Portuguese colony’s Pilgrim Fathers, and when the crowns of Spain and Portugal were united in 1580, crypto-Jews infiltrated every Christian settlement in Latin America. Whatever there was of Jewish life in Brazil necessarily remained subterranean until 1624 when the Protestant Dutch began their conquest of the northeastern tip of the bulge. In the next decade Recife (Pernambuco) fell under Dutch control and was soon sheltering a great Jewish community, the first to be legally recognized in the New World. In its heyday it numbered about a thousand souls. Jews arrived from every corner of Europe and, though the Protestant Church and the Christian merchants vociferously resented the newcomers, they established themselves firmly in the colony. Holland and her West India Company were resolved to obtain a return on their investment. The new Jewish settlement was metropolitan in character; there were synagogs, a cemetery, a rabbi, schools, kosher meat, confraternities—among them one that raised money for the needy Jews of Palestine—and even Jewish-owned gambling houses, which were compelled to close on the Sabbath. There was no comparable Jewish life in North America until the second quarter of the nineteenth century.

That Brazilian community vanished in 1654 when the Portuguese reconquered the land, compelling Protestants and Jews to depart. The reconquest gave birth to a Brazilian Jewish Diaspora. Many returned to Europe, but some later came back to the New World. A few of the exiles turned to the French dependencies, finding a temporary haven on Martinique and Guadeloupe and a grudging refuge during the next century on Saint-Dominique. Colbert, the far-sighted mercantilist, sought to open the French islands to these industrious émigrés. More permanent Jewish settlements were established during the 1650’s and the succeeding decades in the Dutch colonies of Surinam and Curaçao and on English Barbados and Jamaica. Surinam and the Caribbean colonies were richer, more valuable, and consequently more important than the contemporary colonies on the North American mainland. To no small degree, the prosperity of the West Indies was built on sugar. That was the cash crop. Early Jewish settlers in Brazil may have helped bring sugar cane to the New World in the sixteenth century, and for the next three centuries they were tied up with the industry. Like their neighbors, they were slave owners and their mulatto children were occasionally reared as Jews. Some Jews owned plantations and sugar mills; others were merchant-shippers exporting Caribbean staples and South American specie. Directly or indirectly the Islanders tapped the Spanish South American trade. In exchange for local dyewoods, indigo, coffee, cacao, sugar, and molasses, Jewish shippers imported and sold Dutch and English manufactures and North American provisions. But most Jews, town dwellers, were petty tradesmen. Despite their many opportunities, life was not easy for these frontiersmen. This was particularly true on Jamaica. The Christian merchants and even some of the planters were often hostile. The steady traffic, the coming and going between Europe and the Islands, kept Continental prejudices fresh. The Jews constituted a substantial percentage of the urban whites; they stood out on Jews Street; Christian mercantile rivals berated them as “low-life thieves.” Jamaica saw anti-Jewish disabilities persist till the middle of the eighteenth century when the British authorities slowly bore down on the obstreperous Islanders. A world of mercantilism and imperial integration left scant room for prejudice against businessmen.

The Jews of Surinam and the Islands were not intimidated. They tended store and built their communities, patterned on Recife and Amsterdam. As recently as 1825, Curaçao was the largest Jewish settlement in the Western Hemisphere. The Caribbean Islands were studded with congregations, numerous cemeteries, and pious associations which performed almost every conceivable social and philanthropic task. It was not uncommon to meet with knowledgeable Hebraists, for Caribbean wealth attracted immigrants of intellectual achievement; the Antilles were deemed an extension of Europe. The Spanish-Portuguese tradition of belles lettres—all but totally absent in the contemporary North American colonies—made itself felt, and it is not improbable that the well-to-do cultured Sephardic planter and businessman predisposed the conservative Britons toward the emancipation of English Jewry; Jews and pro-Jewish publicists stoutly maintained that, if given rights, the Jews in Britain herself could measure up to the colonials. The blend of general and Jewish learning is exemplified by the Haham, or rabbi, of Kingston, Jamaica, Joshua Hezekiah De Cordova. Here was the Sephardi at his best, a Latinist, linguist, student of the sciences, and adept in Bible and Talmud. It was the Haham De Cordova who wrote the first English work on Judaism to be published in the New World. Reason and Faith he called his defense of Judaism against Deists and atheists. The book was twice reprinted in the United States, for the first time in 1791.



One of De Cordova’s grandnephews was a pioneer Texas newspaper publisher, a land promoter, who helped lay out the city of Waco. Today this unconverted Jew rests peacefully—one hopes—under a large stone cross erected by his pious Christian descendants. The Texan De Cordova is said to have owned more than a million acres of land in 1854. But just 200 years earlier the first Jews to settle in North America had barely owned the shirts on their backs. They were Brazilian refugees who had been taken captive by Spanish privateers as they fled from Recife. Twenty-three of them landed at Dutch New Amsterdam in late August or early September, 1654. The following spring saw Jewish merchants of substance arrive from Amsterdam. The first community was now established.5

These Jewish newcomers of 1654–1655 were not made very welcome by Peter Stuyvesant, the Calvinist director general of the colony. He wanted no infidel Jews; he wanted no Catholics; indeed he despised all non-Calvinist Protestants. “Giving them [the Jews] liberty, we cannot refuse the Lutherans and Papists,” the Governor wrote the West India Company in October, 1655. Less than a year earlier, in Amsterdam, the Sephardim had excommunicated Spinoza. Jews, too, despised and feared heretics and “troublemakers.” Stuyvesant denied the Jews almost every right and liberty. Hardly a country in all Europe was as restrictive as New Netherland. David Ferera, found guilty of contempt, was fined 800 guilders, an enormous sum, and in addition was ordered to be scourged at the stake and then banished. This was bad, but the Quakers in the colony received even harsher treatment. One of them was tortured and nearly beaten to death.

But the Jews were not pacifists. Knowing full well their value, they fought vigorously for the right to carry on trade. A new age was in the making. Holland and England wanted Jews. Cromwell admitted them to London; the Dutch and the English competed for them on the wild Guiana Coast; Amsterdam Jewish merchants were stockholders in the Dutch West India Company, an enterprise never unconscious of the biblical verse deemed supportive of mercantilism: “In the multitude of people is the king’s honour, but in the want of people is the destruction of the prince” (Prov. 14:28). The company overrode the zealous Stuyvesant and by 1657 the Jews had won enough rights to survive in New Netherland. As soon as there were ten male adults, they conducted services. Within two years they owned a cemetery and started filling it, largely no doubt due to the tremendously high rate of infant mortality. The colony’s Jews traded on the Hudson and the Delaware, bought tobacco in Maryland, shipped products to Holland and the Caribbean, and, with or without permission, opened modest retail shops. Yet by 1663 the little community had begun to melt away. That year it returned its borrowed Scroll of the Law to the mother congregation in Amsterdam. Had Stuyvesant and his ungracious cohorts succeeded in killing the community? Not necessarily. The Jewish settlers left because there were greater opportunities in Surinam, Curaçao, and in the English West Indies. At no time in the seventeenth century were there more than a couple of hundred Jews in the North American tidewater. Ten years after the Brazilian émigrés landed at the Battery, Stuyvesant capitulated to the English and New Amsterdam became New York. The English now ruled the coast all the way from Maine to the Carolinas.

The Jewish community faded away, but individuals stayed on. Among them was a man named Asser Levy, a petty trader in Fort Orange and New Amsterdam. Levy was apparently too poor to pay the military exemption tax imposed on the Jews because, as the governor said, the trainbands were unwilling to serve with them. A tough, energetic man, always an aggressive personality, Levy refused to pay the tax and ultimately won the right to stand guard and be recognized as a burgher. Under the British he became a merchant, an importer, and an amateur attorney. Though not endowed with prophetic insight he opened a slaughterhouse quite appropriately on what is today Wall Street. In later years his influence extended even into New England, where he spread his sheltering wings over a Jewish peddler who had been tried and fined for “lascivious daliance and wanton profers to severall women.” The year he intervened for the amorous peddler, he sat on a jury trying a case in which Stuyvesant, the former director general, was the defendant. The jury found for the defendant, the very man who had once invited Levy to leave New Netherland. Later, when Levy’s estate was inventoried, the court listed goblets, a special lamp, and a spice box, all needed for the observance of the Sabbath. They also found two swords and a gun. All these items aptly characterize the man who would become the symbol of continuity. As a Jew and as a citizen, he had hewed out a home for himself on this remote North American frontier.6


For the last seventeen years of his life Levy lived under English rule. Jewish history in North America was now part of English history to 1776. American Jewry was to remain pitifully small, never more than one-tenth of one percent of the population into the nineteenth century, and never more than 1 percent of World Jewry till as late as 1850. Very few Jews set out for America; after all, Europe was then flourishing, an era of wealth and culture and political liberalization was opening. There were no savage Indians lurking in Berlin and London; Sephardic émigrés in the southern colonies feared the Spanish threat in Florida, and, in any event, Iberian Jews practically stopped coming after 1720 since by then the Inquisition had become quiescent; the wars with the French were to drag on in the Americas from the 1680’s to the 1760’s. From what places, then, did the Jewish settlers come? Some straggled in from the Caribbean; most immigrants, however, were Central and East European villagers.7

Why did these Ashkenazim come? The teenager Michael Gratz was an adventurer. He had already been to distant India; now he would try his luck in America: “I must learn … how things are done in the world.” Some of the newcomers were fed up with the disabilities Europe persisted in imposing on Jews. As late as 1770, the Westphalian principality of Lippe Detmold issued this pronouncement:

All foreign beggars, collectors, [German] Jewish peddlers, Polish Jews, jugglers, bear trainers and tramps are forbidden access to this country under penalty of sentence to prison. All gypsies caught will be hanged and shot.8

Like his fellow Christian immigrant, the Jew came here primarily to improve himself economically, and often he succeeded. Young Jacob Franks, who landed here in the first decade of the eighteenth century, seems to have made both ends meet by teaching Hebrew. Before he died he was one of the country’s largest army purveyors and one of the most influential men in all of North America.

Who came? The rich? Did rich Americans flock to Alaska in the mid-nineteenth century? Jacob Franks’s brothers, already successful, stayed in London. Brother Jacob made good here and married the daughter of Moses Levy. Back in England the successful Levy clan had dispatched Moses to the colonies where he speedily built an economic empire of his own. His brothers, too, remained home. Frontier North America was simply not an inviting prospect for European Jews in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This country would play no important role in world history till the second half of the nineteenth century. Among those who came were Jewish remittance men, misfits never able to make a living anywhere, and Jewish indentured servants. A few “transports” were landed, criminals condemned to exile by the British for their misdeeds. Fifteen-year-old Feibel, the son of Jacob Joseph, the Dover “rabbi,” was sentenced to serve seven years in the colonies because he had stolen a handkerchief worth ten pennies. But Feibel was exceptional: the typical immigrant was a young unmarried man who came to these shores aided by relatives and fortified with cash or a modest stock of goods or a line of credit in London.

Where did they settle? They made their way in all sixteen British provinces from Quebec to West Florida, although there is no evidence of Jews in Maine, New Hampshire, and East Florida in the days before the Revolution. They were found in Montreal, Quebec, and Halifax, in the larger tidewater towns of the Atlantic coast, in Pensacola, Mobile, and Franco-Spanish New Orleans. Communities were established in Montreal, Newport, New York, Philadelphia, Lancaster, Charleston, and Savannah, but there was no guarantee of immediate speedy growth for any of them. New Amsterdam-New York, Newport, Charleston, and Savannah saw a “community” rise only to fall before a new conventicle rose on the vestiges of the past. Though New York was one of the smaller provinces numerically, it sheltered the mother synagog, but even so never counted more than 400 Jews, and that may be a liberal estimate. There were no Jewish settlements in the two largest provinces, Virginia and Massachusetts. The tobacco colony could not use capital-poor shopkeepers; the New England Jews apparently preferred Newport to the more competitive Boston. The Puritans were not particularly hospitable. The seven established North American communities served as regional and subregional centers for the Jews scattered in the backcountry. These Jewish frontiersmen were active as trader-outfitters and shopkeepers as far north as Mackinac and as far south as Augusta, Georgia.


If Jews were found almost anywhere, it was because they enjoyed immunities which enabled them to make a living. By 1657 the Dutch had granted the Jews privileges indispensable for carrying on business. After the English took over, they extended these rights, allowing Jews legally to practice crafts, to sell at retail, and to hold religious services. In these ameliorative grants the London government was exemplary, for by the year 1700 the Jews had been assimilated into the English economy. Yet certain disabilities still persisted on this side of the Atlantic: cemeteries and synagogs were not incorporated; Jews were taxed for the support of church establishments, and honorific offices were denied them, although they were allowed in some colonies to vote for provincial officials. (On a local level it is hard to imagine that the Jewish shopkeeper was denied the franchise. Would Easton, Pennsylvania, dare discriminate against Myer Hart, one of the original settlers and its leading shopkeeper?)

Back home the mercantile-minded British government was not happy with the lack of adequate naturalization laws embracing all non-Catholic aliens in the colonies. (Native-born Jews were deemed native-born Englishmen.) More liberal and far-visioned than the colonists, Parliament in 1740 passed an imperial Plantation Act that made it possible to naturalize any Jewish alien in the American colonies. Jews could now buy and sell anywhere in the Empire under the protection of the Acts of Trade and Navigation. In those days, however, naturalization did not open the way to public office; that was restricted to Christians, primarily Anglicans. Liberty is relative. In 1751 Pennsylvania proudly celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its charter of privileges by casting a bell in London that carried the Old Testament inscription: “Ye shall proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” The bell was brought to these shores in the Myrtilla owned by Levy and Franks, but David Franks, already a third-generation American, was excluded from some of the charter’s prerogatives because he would not “profess belief in Jesus Christ.” Rhode Island, Roger Williams’s soul child, disabled its Jews through sundry devices. Even after the enactment of the imperial Plantation Act, the Rhode Island colony refused to naturalize Aaron Lopez, destined within a decade to become Newport’s most eminent merchant. The province that would be willing to entrust its most delicate negotiations to his judgment—its stake in the future of the Newfoundland fisheries—was the province that had refused to naturalize him.

Jews were not deterred by what was in effect anti-Jewish legislation. Four of the seven towns in which Jews settled had church establishments with their discriminatory taxation. Sunday closing laws were annoying:

Henceforth let none on peril of their lives,

Attempt a journey or embrace their wives.

Jews often labored under special disadvantages. They had to padlock their shops on both Saturday and Sunday, for in prerevolutionary times most were strict observers of the Saturday Sabbath. A Maryland merchant, Jacob Lumbrozo, was charged with blasphemy in the 1650’s because he had denied the divinity of Jesus. That, under the terms of the Toleration Act, was a capital crime, but he escaped punishment. Did he save his life by converting to Christianity? It was the first and last time that any Jew was charged with blasphemy. North American Jews made no public fight for political privilege as did their bellicose coreligionists on Jamaica. The Anglo-American Franks clan was among the proprietors of the new colony of Vandalia, yet assented to the proposal to grant immunities to Christians only; Francis Salvador in South Carolina’s rump Provincial Assembly was no more heroic. Very likely he offered no protest when Protestantism was declared the established religion of the new state, thus continuing the disabilities already traditional in the colony. Were the Jews unusually supine? They kept their mouths shut and accepted a secondary status because they were convinced that there was nothing that they could do to improve it; they realized that on the whole they lived in the freest country in the world. Here in the colonies there were no compulsory ghettos, no tough anti-Jewish guilds, no special jeopardy to Jewish life and limb, nothing analogous to the situation which in the 1770’s saw Baptists in Virginia jailed for their religious convictions.


Many of the Virginians who came to Williamsburg in 1759 to see Shylock’s story told in The Merchant of Venice, had probably never glimpsed a Jew—and probably did not know that the local physician, Dr. John de Sequeyra (Siccary), was a Jew. There were very few flesh and blood Jews then in Virginia because the province had no large towns; Jews were city folk and, for the most part, had not followed the plough for a thousand years. There were some Jewish demi-farmers in the colonies: for example the Hayses of Westchester, the clan that published the New York Times in the twentieth century. Down South the Jews were pioneers in the cultivation of grapes and were among the first entrepreneurs to further the silk industry in Georgia as well as the marketing of indigo in South Carolina. Francis Salvador grew indigo on his plantation in the Ninety Six District. This cultured English immigrant had come to the colonies to rebuild the family fortunes; the Salvadors had once owned 100,000 acres in the Carolina hinterland. In the new province of Georgia, the Sheftalls ran cattle in the pine barrens; they were ranchers as well as merchants. Mordecai Sheftall’s brand was the 5S because he had five youngsters. Mordecai’s half brother Levi was also a rancher—the L diamond S—but made his money as a butcher. Despite the fact that Jews were kept out of the crafts in Europe, some artisans were always to be found in every land. In America, too, there were few trades which could not boast of at least one Jewish practitioner. Some Jews, like Myer Meyers, were silver and goldsmiths. Meyers was a fine craftsman, and his skill and taste are still reflected in his silver Torah ornaments and in the baptismal bowl he fashioned for a Presbyterian church. Some of the artisans were specialists, performing artists, who toured the provinces astonishing the yokels. Henry Hymes could balance nineteen wine glasses on his chin to a height of almost six feet. The gamut of men in the professions—no women—included congregational employees, interpreters, amateur attorneys, physicians, and surgeons. None was notable, though Dr. Sequeyra solemnly assured his patients that if they ate tomatoes they would never die. This is reported by no less a witness than Thomas Jefferson, who certainly lived to a ripe old age.9

The real métier of the Jew was and is business. In eighteenth-century America, the biggest business of all was army supply, and the Frankses were, as likely as not, at the top of the heap. In the intermittent War for the World that stretched from the Mississippi to Calcutta between 1689 and 1815, the Frankses supplied provisions for the American troops. It would be difficult to overestimate their importance in making possible the British conquest of Canada and the transallegheny West. Army supply was of course a gamble, but even more hazardous were privateering and lotteries, the “stock market” of that day. To lose money on lottery tickets or in privateering, one has to make it somewhere, and Jews made it—such as it was—primarily as shopkeepers selling hard, soft or dry goods in addition to wet goods: it was hardware, cloth, and liquor on which Jews founded their economy. Stocks were small, practically all sales were on a credit basis, and debts frequently had to be collected through the courts. It is interesting to note that not a single Jew is known to have made a living exclusively as a moneylender, pawnbroker, or old clothes dealer. In some towns, nearly 10 percent of the businessmen were Jews, which made for high visibility on Front Street. The local shopkeeper rarely dealt directly with the merchant-supplier in London or Bristol. He bought what he needed from his regional wholesaler. In the world of business there was no one higher than the merchant. The Frankses were exemplary merchants; they handled everything from enamel fountainpens to newly-built ships, but rarely tobacco, the most important of all the colonial commodities. Merchants, Jews among them, were retailers, wholesalers, commissionmen, bill brokers, maritime insurers, and manufacturers; in short, they were merchant capitalists. Their prime job was to export North American raw materials, provisions, and semi-finished goods in exchange for West Indian staples and British manufactures. They owned ships, warehouses, and wharves, and would not balk at smuggling when their economy demanded it. Diversification was the norm in order to minimize losses and enlarge opportunities.

Aaron Lopez offers a classical example of a great merchant-shipper. He was twenty-one when he came to Newport a Portuguese refugee (1752). Starting as a shopkeeper, he branched out in the coastal traffic and very slowly moved into the transoceanic trade, dispatching ships, lumber, and provisions to English and West Indian ports. Above all else a brilliant manipulator of credit, he was nonetheless highly respected for his integrity. Ten years after he landed, he was on the way to sizable wealth. In 1768 his fleet made thirty-seven coastal voyages; he owned or chartered about thirty ships. Employing the typical domestic or put-out system of that prefactory age, he assembled, manufactured, or processed meats, cheeses, fish, chocolate, rum, potash, and soap. The shoes he ordered made for his trade were worn as far west as Detroit and Michilimackinac; his prefabricated houses were erected in Central America, and he was one of the first Jewish garment manufacturers—specializing, of course, in the proletarian trade. A whaler and a candle manufacturer, he was a member of the United Company of Spermaceti Candlers, an unsuccessful cartel. He and his father-in-law, Jacob R. Rivera, were the largest, and for many years virtually the only, Jewish slave importers, persisting in what was at best an extremely hazardous business. By 1774 Lopez was the biggest taxpayer in Newport, a major American commercial center. Yet his death by accidental drowning in 1782 found him insolvent, an economic victim of the Revolutionary War.

Lopez played no part in the fur business. In the eighteenth century furs constituted less than 3 percent of North American exports to the mother country. The trade, however, was all important to the Canadian Jews and bulked large in the affairs of some of their New York and Pennsylvania coreligionists. The Gomezes of the 1720’s had a trading post near Newburgh, New York, and the building is still there, the oldest known Jewish structure in the colonies. The fur trade was not for delicate personalities. The Devil’s Dance Chamber was dangerous country:

For none that visit the Indian’s den,

Return again to the haunts of men;

The knife is their doom, oh sad is their lot;

Beware! beware of the blood-stained spot.

A great deal is known about the Pennsylvania Jewish fur traders. By sheer accident their papers have survived. Actually few of them were traders; instead, they were outfitters, capitalists like Simon, Trent, Levy & Company, who had opened a store at Fort Pitt in 1760 before the fortifications were even completed. Their field man was Levy Andrew Levy, who was captured by the Indians during the French and Indian War. One of the Nunezes of Georgia bought furs in Augusta, and in the wilds of the Old Southwest there was a Creek Indian by the name of Cohen, obviously a souvenir left behind by a Jewish entrepreneur.

Fur trading, army supply, and land speculation were closely tied together: their common locale was the “heart of America,” the area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. After the French forces were driven out, British settlers and merchants, Jews among them, moved in to exploit the opportunity they believed awaited them in mining and in selling goods to the garrisons, the Indians, the Illinois habitants, and the onrushing English squatters. Notwithstanding the opposition of the British government many Americans—George Washington was one of them—were determined to establish massive colonies in the area and to peddle acreage to land hungry newcomers. To a greater or lesser degree, the Pennsylvania Jews took part in several such enterprises. They planned to establish colonies between the Monongahela and the Mississippi; one of the colonies included the site of present-day Chicago. All these designs failed, since their claims to millions of acres were never recognized by the new states and the United States Congress. The railroads of the mid-nineteenth century would be more successful in profiting from the huge grants made them by a generous national government. Yet though these early colonizing schemes came to grief, the large stocks of supplies they shipped in, the deals they made with the Indians and others, prepared the way for settlers and pushed back the frontier.

Socially, Jews belonged to one class, a broadly-conceived middle class. Very few were impoverished; only a handful were rich. With all the opportunities available in an America which still hugged the tidewater, why could they not all become rich? They were handicapped by the lack of market and credit information, banking facilities, and sound currencies. The risks on land and sea were numerous and incalculable. At one time or another many if not most Jewish merchants became bankrupt, but almost invariably they bounced back. The typical colonial Jew was a shopkeeper who never went hungry, owned a home and a Negro slave-servant or had a white maid whom he kept until she broke the dishes. He always paid his congregational dues if he had the money and if he was properly dunned. The career of Mordecai Gomez is typical of the successful merchants. When he passed away at New York City in 1750, this Sephardic aristocrat left behind him slaves, silverware, snuff mills, and a number of houses and lots. During a smallpox scare, the Provincial Assembly met in his summer home in Greenwich Village. He did not forget to leave a legacy for the synagog and, what was equally generous, set up an annuity for his mother-in-law.10

Did the Jews make a significant contribution to the colonial economy? It never occurred to Jewish businessmen to make a contribution; they wanted to make a living, to be left alone, and to enjoy the security of low visibility. Actually they were by no means unimportant purveyors of sorely needed goods in an agrarian economy remote from industrial sources. In their own modest fashion, the wares of the Jewish shopkeeper served to maintain and raise the colonial standard of living. Through his religious association with fellow Jews, he ignored and transcended colonial barriers. By virtue of his intercolonial traffic, the Jewish shipper brought people and products together, disseminating goods and even ideas. In 1712 Joseph Addison wrote in the Spectator that the Jews

are become the instruments … by which mankind are knit together in a general correspondence. They are like the pegs and nails in a great building which, though they are but little valued in themselves, are absolutely necessary to keep the whole frame together.

Thus the Jewish businessman contributed to the breakdown of geographic particularism and aided in the decomposition of parochialism. In a way, he too assisted in creating a common American culture uniting the colonies and preparing the way for the new nationalism which would culminate in the American Revolution.11


Mordecai Gomez served four terms as the president of New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel. In his will he bequeathed the “Five Books of Moses and one pair of silver ornaments” to his son Isaac, named after a grandfather who had languished as a judaizer in an Inquisitional prison. It must be borne in mind constantly that for the colonial Jew Judaism was important; he would not have remained in colonial America despite its opportunities if he had not been permitted to practice his faith. To ensure that the religion would live and be passed on to his children, he established a synagog, a cemetery, a school, and a system of charities. These in effect, constituted a community which like the European counterpart upon which it was patterned, was in essence a compulsory one: “Join with us or we will ostracize and excise you. We won’t even bury you.” What choice did a newcomer have? Was he to convert and join the Christians?12

Colonial Jewry’s leading businessmen were mostly immigrants with strong religious loyalties; they automatically brought their institutions and practices and folkways with them to North America. These immigrants dominated American Jewish life until the early nineteenth century and never forgot the European rock whence they were hewn. Their Judaism was of the traditional type; there was no other at the time. It was an indoctrinated compound of theology, practices, and religious exercises. The Jews believed in one God who had revealed himself to them alone and had covenanted with them to be their God if they would keep his rituals and adhere to his ethical commands. If they made atonement for sin through good works he would send them a Messiah in his own good time and restore them to the Promised Land where they would await the resurrection and the great day of judgment. Theology as such was something to accept and forget. The ongoing life cycle ceremonies were more real: circumcision, bar mitzvah (by which the thirteen-year-old boy became a man), marriage, burial, and mourning. The immigrant generation kept the dietary laws, saw to it that the women took their monthly ablutions in a mikveh, and were generally meticulous in celebrating the Sabbath and Holy Days.

The synagog began in a rented room, moved on to a house, and finally to a new building of its own. Synagogs for the living and cemeteries for the dead were almost coeval. There was a burial plot in New Amsterdam in 1656, but the oldest extant cemetery in the country is that of Newport (1678); New York’s Chatham Square graveyard dates from 1682. Two synagog buildings were erected by the Jews in colonial days: in 1730, fifty-six years before the Roman Catholic Church constructed a permanent sanctuary in New York City, the Jews dedicated their Mill Street synagog. Newport followed in 1763. During the Revolution, Montreal and Philadelphia consecrated new buildings of their own. The Newport sanctuary was one of the most beautiful of colonial structures, unique in Jewish history in that it was planned for Jews by an Episcopalian who turned to pagan antiquity for his design. Though the sole rite maintained in all colonial synagogs was the Spanish-Portuguese or Sephardic, every Jew, no matter of what background, was a welcome guest, and the Ashkenazic newcomers apparently found it easy enough to adjust to the unfamiliar liturgy. Except for a social club in Newport, the synagog of that day was the only Jewish organization in town. It was the community’s associative center serving a variety of purposes. The leadership, composed of a president (parnas) and a board (mahamad or junto) was entirely lay; the congregational employees were, in effect, hired hands: a beadle (shammash), a ritual slaughterer (shohet), and a hazzan, a precentor, who chaunted the worship service and taught the children. The mohel or circumciser was not part of the official family; very often he was a pious volunteer. No rabbi was ever employed by a North American synagog until the second quarter of the nineteenth century; no community believed that it could afford the luxury of a talmudic academician—in the unlikely event that such a dignitary would have been willing to settle on this far western frontier of European civilization. As it was, all the employees, shohet, shammash, and even hazzan, had to hustle on the side to make an extra pound. They could not live on their communal salaries.


The laymen may have had no money for a rabbi, but, despite the burden of double taxation in several towns, taxation by Jewish communal authorities and taxation by the established church, there was always money in the treasury for obras pias, pious works. The synagogal mahamad was a complete social welfare agency in itself. The aid given was in the form of money, food, fuel, clothes, medical attention, and sick care. The local respectable poor who had come down in the world, or had never gone up, were pensioned. Transients coming from all corners of the earth were courteously treated, fed, and more or less gently pushed onto the next leg of their often endless odyssey. Palestinian visitors and “messengers of the Merciful One” came here as early as 1759, but candidates for alms also came from Europe, Surinam, and the Caribbean Islands: such clients were never wanting. Here is the whole story in one laconic sentence: “To cash for lodging, boarding, doctering, and burying Solomon Solomons, £23, 8, 10.” Rehabilitation? The minutes of the New York congregation record pathology not cures. Any self-respecting Jew who wanted to peddle or start a business could always get an assortment of goods on credit. New York’s Shearith Israel lent Michael Judah enough money to open a shop in Norwalk, Connecticut. Theodore Dehone Judah, who planned the first railroad across the Sierras, was Michael’s great-grandson, but by that time the Connecticut Judahs had long been Christians.13

No matter how small a community, it was riven with dissension. Bitter hatreds plagued every Jewish settlement, for unhappy men, immigrants struggling to make a living, vented their frustrations on one another. Within a week or so after their landing in New Amsterdam—it was in September, 1654—two Jewish Pilgrim Fathers were confronting each other in the courts. During the next century one of the Nordens of Savannah found a unique way to revenge himself on fellow townsmen. His will reads: “Sheftalls need not come to my funeral.” But the potential for fragmentation was countered by the leadership, the synagogal board, which though, in every community, autocratic in intent, was permissive in practice. After all every Jew was needed, often desperately needed, for a minyan, a religious quorum. The colonial Jew readily understood this equation: no minyan, no services; no Judaism, no survival. Despite “Jewish Wars,” no congregation ever fell apart because of factionalism; in a final showdown, a truce was almost always patched up. Unity had been developing for a long time among the Jews here: the English language, the primary medium of communication, tied them all together, and the Sephardic minority took comfort in the thought that its rite had prevailed in all the congregations. Initial polarization between Sephardim and Ashkenazim was the norm, but then they began to intermarry; ultimately the colonial Jewish community was a melting pot of at least a dozen ethnic elements. Gershom Seixas, the Revolutionary War minister, half-Sephardi and half-Ashkenazi, married an Ashkenazi, and notwithstanding his love for Spanish meatballs learned to smack his lips over a German pudding, kugel. All the congregations leaned heavily on the mother synagog, Shearith Israel, in New York; the New Yorkers completely dominated American Jewish spiritual life. From Montreal to Savannah, the communities (kahals) kept in touch with one another through wandering mendicants, visits, gifts, letters, and an occasional exchange of pulpits by cantors (hazzanim).14

Relations with Jews in other lands were just as intimate. “Every Jew is responsible for his fellow Jew.” Diaspora Jews had learned to do without a hierarchy; religion and kinship cemented them firmly together. Shearith Israel was in constant touch with the Sephardim of Bevis Marks in London and with the Dutch and English Jews in the Antilles. The Jews here sought aid and gave aid. Aaron Lopez called upon the Surinamese to help build the Newport sanctuary, and when St. Eustatius in the Caribbean was devastated by a hurricane the New Yorkers helped the Jews there rebuild their shattered house of worship. These, to be sure, were the very people with whom the Jews of North America did business: the synagog followed trade and trade followed the synagog.15

Simon the Just, a Jewish high priest in pre-Christian times, once said: “The world stands on three pillars: the Teaching (Torah), worship, and deeds of loving kindness” (Abot 1:2). It is worth noting that Torah—learning, education—comes first in his scale of values. At all times the purpose of religious instruction was to condition the child to be spiritually, religiously, loyally Jewish, to enable him to establish a right relationship with his God. Ribbis, teachers, were already working at their jobs in New York during the seventeenth century; schools were opened no later than the early eighteenth century. By 1731, a London philanthropist, yearning to pile up merits in the world to come, had enabled the New York congregation to construct a separate school building. This school was sui generis; it was a charity, a private, and a communal school all in one; the children of poor families paid no tuition. The curriculum included Hebrew, the prayers, blessings, and translation of the Pentateuch. Girls, too, were admitted to the classes, but of course only the boys were prepared for bar mitzvah. For its time it was a good school: it succeeded in training young Seixas to serve as a competent precentor. By 1755 secular studies were introduced, the three R’s and Spanish, though the Spanish was soon dropped. There is every reason to believe that the general subjects taught were adequate to prepare the youngsters to go on as commercial clerks or as apprentices in the crafts at the age of thirteen. No record extant indicates that any effort was ever made to teach adults rabbinic lore, even though there was always a sprinkling of learned men, some of whom possessed Hebrew libraries. The prerevolutionary Jew produced virtually nothing of intellectual value except two English translations of the Sephardic liturgy, the first such publications in either America or England. This is nothing to boast about in an age of great rabbinic learning, a generation that gave birth to the Hasidic Master of the Good Name, to Elijah, the Majestic Genius of Vilna, and to Moses Mendelssohn. But then there were a mere five hundred Jewish families in all America, and most of the Jews here paid only lip service to Jewish culture. They surely enjoyed being Jews, but did the colonies enjoy them?


Did the colonies enjoy the Jews—take pleasure or pride in their presence? A better question would be: Did the typical American—not the elite—enjoy anyone in this sense? Protestants vilified nonconformist Protestants, and all of them, conformist or not, feared and hated Catholics; no church had much use for Jews. Anti-Jewish prejudice among Christians is as old as the Gospels; “Jew” was always a term of contempt; the Jew was almost invariably perceived as the great deicide, the “Christ-Killer,” guilty, as Increase Mather put it, of “the most prodigious murther that ever the sun beheld.” Judeophobia came to the colonies in the baggage of the first immigrants, and the Jew was to remain a second-class citizen in America until the dawn of the nineteenth century. A tightly contested election to the New York Provincial Assembly in 1737 even temporarily deprived Jews of the franchise. Assemblyman William Smith, Hebraist and lawyer, harangued his colleagues on Christ’s sufferings at Calvary. Men wept—and voted—as they listened to the impassioned oratory. In the next decade, Lawyer Smith was afraid to undertake a case against Oliver, brother of the provincial Chief Justice, James De Lancey. Oliver De Lancey and a number of his cronies had broken into the home of a Jew and threatened violence to his attractive wife. De Lancey was drunk, but drunk or sober he had a penchant for Jewish women. Phila, his wife, was the daughter of Jacob Franks; one of their sons, Oliver, Jr., raised as a Christian, became an adjutant general in the British Army.16


There is no record of Jews complaining of abuse at the hands of Gentiles. Relatively speaking they were well-treated, and they knew it, for they had the example of the far more vehement prejudice of the British West Indies. The Islands were more European in the traditional anti-Jewish sense; North America, for reasons that are not entirely clear, was emotionally more immune from Continental Judeophobia. It is true that someone saw fit to to break the windows of the Newport synagog, but it is equally true that a Barbados mob tore down the entire synagog.

Were Jews more accepted here in North America because of a common Judeo-Christian heritage, because they were the children of the Old Testament and were deemed Hebraists? There is little—if indeed any—proof that a common belief in the first thirty-nine books of the Bible made for better Jewish-Christian relations. The first Christian colonial émigrés had been Hebraists in an England which sheltered no overt Jews, and their descendants who pursued or were pursued by Hebrew courses at Harvard and Yale would have been exposed to Hebraic subjects had there been not a single Jew in America. Hebraic studies were most intense in colonial New England where Jews were conspicuous by their absence. Learned and pious Christians were perhaps interested in Hebrew; how else would they understand the angels singing psalms in Heaven? They were not interested in Hebrews, Jews. No individual is of one piece. Ezra Stiles nourished a barely concealed contempt for the faith of “professed enemies to a crucified Jesus,” yet esteemed as a dear friend the visiting Palestinian rabbi, Haim Isaac Carigal. There can be no question that the Gentiles here learned to live with their Jewish neighbors; they even published the Jewish calendar in their almanacs. How does one account for their more or less gracious acceptance of the Jews in their midst? Actually the non-Jews had no choice. The decision had been unequivocally made for them in the imperial Plantation Act of 1740: “The increase of people is a means of advancing the wealth and strength of any nation or country.” The Jews were not too conspicuous; there was—fortunately—in North America no unitary religiocultural pattern to which the Jew had to conform or be damned. It may well be, however, that the prime motivation impelling non-Jewish settlers to accept Jews was their need of them. Jews were shopkeepers and extended credit. That was important. The story is altogether different with the cultured few (Gentiles) who were often associated with the power structure. Under the influence of Deism and the Enlightenment, many intellectuals had come to believe that religious prejudice was wrong. Truly tolerant and humanitarian, they encouraged Masonry which emphasized religioethical universalism and frowned on Christian credal provincialism. Jews, quick to sense the spiritual, social, and political import of Masonry, became ardent devotees of the movement. It was a passport to better things. Moses M. Hays, an American-born Jewish businessman, introduced into North America and the Islands a Masonic system which was later to be affiliated with the Scottish Rite.17

The colonial non-Jew accepted the Jew; this explains in large part why the Jew accepted America. A few immigrants, accustomed to an intensely Jewish environment, were unhappy here and left; most of them stayed on. They enjoyed a large measure of social tolerance, civil rights, and economic privilege. Feeling at one with their neighbors, they worked closely with them in business and philanthropy; they were active in all that furthered the social and cultural welfare of the general community. They marched with the militia; endured Indian captivities, and did what they could to improve the streets, wharves, hospitals, and colleges. As far south as Charleston, Jewish entrepreneurs rallied to the support of liberal Rhode Island College; Newport Jews sent the new school thousands of feet of lumber and even contributed “chierfully” to the erection of a Baptist Meeting House. Aid for the First Baptist Church in Providence was not the first instance of Jewish interest in a Christian house of worship. As far back as 1711 seven New York Jews, the “rabbi” among them, contributed funds to complete the steeple on Trinity Church. No later than the 1770’s, a Union Society of Jews, Catholics, and Protestants emerged in Savannah for general philanthropic purposes, and in that same decade the Newport synagog raised $120 to help Thomas Allen support his blind wife and seven blind children—all this in a generation when the Jews were being massacred by the thousands on the steppes of the Ukraine. Something of an index to Jewish acceptance of non-Jewish norms in America, Anglicization of names was typical: Amschel became Answell, Hirsch (deer) became Hart, and the Spanish Pardo became Brown. There is a record of three men, however, who did not find it necessary to change their names to document their Americanization: Sam Moses, Solomon Abraham, and Isaac Cohen. All three were native-born Indians.18


Adopting English names is only one aspect of Americanization and superficial in a way. Secular education is much more significant. Every Jewish child in colonial times was given some schooling; most of them attended the primitive private schools that dotted the towns and villages. For Jews, of course, this was all atypical, for in the areas of mass settlement, in Central and Eastern Europe, they received little if any formal training in the three R’s. Because in Europe general education and Christianity were one indivisible whole, Jews eyed all non-Jewish cultural studies warily. In the colonies, however, wealthier American Jews sent their youngsters to the private schools patronized by the aristocracy. Admission was easy; there was no numerus clausus, no Jewish quota such as prevailed in the United States in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Jews and Christians mixed freely in those elite circles. The children studied art and painting and cultivated music: when they grew up, they joined the musical clubs and played in the quartets. Most colleges were open to Jews but few matriculated. They simply saw no reason to attend schools of higher learning, most of whose students were candidates for the Christian ministry. Theology, classics, mathematics? This education buttered no Jewish parsnips. Of course it was not a college-going generation even for Gentiles; nor was it a book-reading generation. For every William Byrd who read a book, there were many more George Washingtons who had no interest in books. So, in that age of Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, and young Thomas Jefferson, the Jews in America could boast of no cultural accomplishments. (The one exception was the Grammar of the Hebrew Tongue, published in 1735 by Harvard College. Its author was Judah Monis, a Harvard instructor who had become a Christian.) American Jewry was too small, too obscure, too ill-prepared to make a literary contribution of any significance.

Still let it be accounted a virtue that these immigrants were as receptive as they were to Gentile learning. Clearly, the Jews here were convinced that they and their religion were not threatened by such exposure. Actually, here, too, they had little choice: American culture engulfed them; they were outnumbered a thousand to one. To be sure, like the Pennsylvania Germans, the Moravian Brethren, and the Georgia Ebenezer Lutherans, the Jews might have chosen to isolate themselves—but, in fact, they were not farmers and declined to live apart in a religioethnic enclave; they opted to live in the frontier world of North American opportunity. Portuguese, Spanish, and Yiddish began to disappear: the Gratzes stuck to Yiddish phrases and paragraphs, but stopped writing entire Yiddish letters; Seixas never could speak Portuguese. Not that the Jews meant to become secularists—certainly that was not their conscious intent—but they were governed by self-interest. Shopkeepers and merchants, they had to live and do business with their neighbors. Many of them had Christian partners. In order to survive, they naturally dressed, talked, and decorated their homes like typical English colonials. Culturally they were or rapidly became Anglo-Americans. They assimilated in order to survive and, after all, they liked what they were doing. The immigrant cantor of Charleston was buried under a tombstone that proudly pronounced him a doctor of divinity.

There was an ineluctable drift—however imperceptible it may have been—away from the traditional European Ashkenazic way of life. Stay away from America, Haym Salomon warned a relative: There is “little Jewishness” here, and in a way—a Polish way—Salomon was right. Here was neither ghetto nor rabbi nor talmudic study; classical Jewish legalities had no currency in this market. Here Jews began to make compromises, often unwittingly so, to be sure. They eased off in religious practices, on Sabbath observances, and on kosher foods. A few bold souls wandered into churches to listen to Christian preachers, and some even dared to peek into the New Testament. Those who read books enjoyed reading the English Deists, who, they could not fail to see, were knocking the props out from under Christianity. This straying from immemorial custom and prejudice was a shock to traditionalists, happy and secure in their stereotypes. Dr. Samuel Nunez had sacrificed his fortune when he fled Portugal to live as a Jew in England and the colonies. Out on the Georgia frontier, his sons ate and slept with Indians, blacks, and Christians and, apparently, cared not one whit for the ideals for which their father had been willing to brave the rack and the stake. It was a new generation, America was a new world.

Except for the land and its challenges, much here was on a small scale. In the villages, the towns, and even the cities—none of them huge—neighborly friendships, intimacies, and courtesies were common if not inevitable. An American portrait painter, Cosmo Alexander, who had been one of Gilbert Stuart’s teachers, struck up a friendship with Bernard Gratz. This Jewish merchant, one of Alexander’s creditors, went out of his way to help the artist free himself from a debtor’s prison and secured for him a letter of license that would permit him to straighten out his affairs. One of Gratz’s kinswomen married a Christian, a Schuyler of New York. In the free American society of that day, marriages between Jews and Gentiles could not be prevented. Trying to head off intermarriage was probably one of the motivations that induced the wealthy New York Frankses to ship two of their sons to London; two of their remaining three children did marry Christians: David married Margaret Evans; when, in later years Margaret gave birth to Rebecca, she opened the family Bible and dutifully recorded Becky’s birth “on Good Friday & Purim.” Thus, the Anglican wife of a Jewish merchant built her own little bridge between Judaism and Christianity.19

In larger towns, the rate of intermarriage was not inconsequential, but in the villages and hamlets the Jewish shopkeeper nearly always took a Christian wife and frequently ended up by joining the church. Levi Solomon, who peddled in and around Freehold, New Jersey, married three times, always out of the faith. He survived his wives and then saw to it that he was buried between two of them with a third at his feet; it is evident that he meant to make ample provision for himself in the Resurrection. Conversions to Judaism were rare, for the Jews fought off would-be proselytes. This fear was a hangover from the Old World past, for ever since early medieval days Jews who induced Christians or Muslims to adopt Judaism were subject to the death penalty. It is true that practically all of the Jews in America were committed to acculturation, but they were even more determined to avoid intermarriage and conversion. Outwardly the Jewish businessman was completely integrated into the life of the larger community; inwardly he was resolute in his loyalty to his religion and its values; he clung to his folkways and linguistic reminiscences, his group distinctiveness, and his moral ideals.20


American Jewry began with a motley collection of twenty-three men, women, and children, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, all refugees, all poor. By 1775 may have been as many as 2,500 souls in the colonies in seven towns and a number of villages. With an apologetic bow to Crèvecoeur, the question may be posed: “What then is an American Jew?” He was an Anglicized Central European immigrant, rough and ready, a venturesome individualist. He was not uprooted, not a crisis émigrés like his late nineteenth-century East European spiritual descendant. There was no necessity for him to resign himself to extreme departures from his European norms, religiously or economically. He left an agricultural economy behind him and he came to an agricultural economy. There was no industrialism in the colonies to shatter his wonted religious habits. If he had been a peddler in Europe, he became a shopkeeper in America. Here he upgraded himself economically, politically, socially, and culturally. The smart or fortunate shopkeeper became a merchant importing from and exporting to England and the Caribbean, shipping supplies westward across the mountains, grandiosely reaching out for transallegheny colonies and wealth which were always to elude him. No one can deny that he was enterprising. “The Quakers and Jews are the men now a days,” complained Gerard G. Beekman enviously.21

There was one area in which they were unquestionably successful. They transplanted the Jewish community and kept it alive, adapting an Old World culture to the Atlantic frontier. The new freedom was their greatest challenge, and they handled it well. While welcoming the new cultural opportunities, they shied away from radical change and continued to hold onto the past. They experienced little difficulty in maintaining a comfortable balance between European religious traditionalism and an American way of life, but it was a balance that varied with the whims of each individual. What is truly significant is their—implicit—conviction that here they were not in Galut, not in Exile. There was no wall of separation in their minds; America was home. These are the people who laid the foundations of America’s present-day Jewry of over five million. Their Jewish accomplishments can be summed up in a short sentence: They survived as Jews. It was quite an achievement.

An important question: What did their children build on the foundations these immigrants laid? After the Declaration of Independence, what happened to Jews and Judaism in the new United States of America?

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