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Communal Jewish education, as it might be called, during the early days of the American republic must be seen as an aspect of social welfare. Parents, in accordance with Jewish tradition and custom, were expected to assume full responsibility for the instruction of their young. Only when they had no means did the congregation-community take over. On the whole, this was an obligation which Jewry did not shirk. By the 1820’s, societies had been organized in Philadelphia and New York with the joint purpose of relieving the unfortunate and educating the indigent. But long before that, as early as 1801, enterprising Charlestonians had already established a Hebrew Orphan Society to aid penniless mothers and educate their young. The Society had a school of its own where secular studies and, probably, Hebrew were taught. In 1828, even booming New Orleans, in its first synagogal statute, piously referred to the need of relieving the unfortunate and establishing schools. This genuflection in the direction of education betrayed the interests of the constitution’s author, Jacob S. Solis, who had already tried in vain to establish an academy in the North. That same year of 1828, New York set up a Society for the Education of Orphan Children and Relief of Indigent Persons of the Jewish Persuasion (Hinuk Nearim ve-Ezrat Evyonim).1 Rebecca Gratz pointed out, in her first annual report of the work done by her new Sunday School, that some of the children were clothed by a sewing society with which the school was allied.2



Efforts were constantly made to provide schooling for the poor, but what of the non-poor? That obligation, as we have said, fell upon the shoulders of the parents. Pursuing this subject further, what provision, if any, was made for the education of the average Jew, for his children, for adults? Was that generation conscious of the problems, of the needs? Actually, American Jewry was always exposed to indoctrinational influences of which it was hardly aware. Being Jewish was as natural as breathing; it was life. There was the home; there were the magical Hebrew prayers in the synagog. It was immaterial that for most Jews the words meant nothing; intellectual cognition was simply not deemed imperative. The home rituals and the congregational services constituted the core, the source, of Jewish culture, education, loyalties. Yet beyond these there was a literature, books which Jews imported or even wrote themselves. Judah Monis, a Christianized Jew, printed his Hebrew grammar at Harvard in 1735, but there is no evidence that unbaptized Jews ever used this “essay” on the “Primitive Tongue.” More than a hundred years passed after the first Jewish refugees landed in New Amsterdam before a Jew—a clergyman, as it happens—published a Jewish work in New York City: a militant Hebrew prayer thanking God for driving the French out of Canada, but ending with a plea for peace, tranquillity, and prosperity. Composed in 1760, the prayer was accompanied by an English translation, which was also read at the service of Thanksgiving. The writer of the prayer was the New York hazzan, the Rev. Dr. Joseph Yesurun Pinto, whose doctoral degree was honorary and self-conferred. (Coming events cast their shadow; generations later every hazzan with a frock coat automatically became a “doctor.”)

The Friend to Truth who made the translation may well have been Isaac Pinto, a scholarly linguist, who had published a Sephardic English prayer book for the Sabbath and High Holy Days in 1766; four years earlier, a different High Holy Day prayer book had already appeared, with no author’s or editor’s name attached. These two Jewish liturgical works are probably the first English translations of the prayer books issued by confessing Jews. They were not employed in the service, but are patent evidence of the desire of worshippers to follow the ritual intelligently. Several years later, in 1773, on Pentecost, the Venerable Hocham, the Learned Rabbi Haijm Isaac Karigal, preached in Spanish to a large and distinguished audience in Newport’s beautiful synagog. Only a few Iberian refugees were able to follow his discourse; the Ashkenazic majority and the Christians present could feast their eyes on his beautiful motley garb. The magisterial works of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus were also made available that year. Most Jewish intellectuals owned copies of the works of that ancient writer, although it is a question how many Jews read them; many probably looked upon the Wars and the Antiquities as Gentile literature since they had not been written in Hebrew.3

Much of the Jewish literature which Jews here wrote was called forth by the synagog and its needs. Beginning in 1805, the New York Jewish community and others, too, undertook to publish a variety of administrative documents, synagogal constitutions, rules, regulations, and special liturgies. After the Germans arrived in the late 1830’s, congregational leaders were compelled to employ the German language if they were to keep in touch with their followers. The constitution of the young Baltimore congregation carried a German subtitle in 1840. No later than 1825, the societies for social welfare, Palestine relief, and education began printing their constitutions, notices, and annual reports. These documents are important, invaluable historical sources, which reflect the culture and life of the Jewish communities; they help the student trace the Americanization process, the advances of democracy—Jeffersonianism, if you will—in the synagog asemblies, for they reflect not only the duties and the obligations but also the privileges and immunities of the members. As literature, sermons are more insightful than constitutions. The contemporary religious culture is best reflected, not in the unchanging age-old liturgies, but in dedication orations, catechisms, textbooks, theological works, formal apologiae, in the first periodical to make its appearance (briefly in the 1820’s), and in homiletical discourses. Sermons are important; they stimulate people to think, to reflect. Judaism is often best understood through its preachers; they are “leaders,” often people of culture, steeped in secular studies.4

American Jewish ministers were concerned about the survival of Jewry, especially of the youth, in a permissive American world. This is why they insisted on intelligible Jewish instruction in the vernacular. In planning for the future, in challenging the assimilatory environment, they were conscious of the problem which had bedeviled diaspora Jews for two millennia. They had to harmonize the goals of the exclusive, ethnic Jew and the all-encompassing humanitarian protestations of Judaism. The leaders never failed to emphasize the universal and the ethical, even while justifying Jewish religious separatism. When articulate laymen spoke at synagog consecrations and other occasions of thanksgiving—where Christians were invariably present—they stressed the cosmopolitan aspects of their faith. Over the decades, the sermon slowly, gradually became a prime educational instrument. Rebecca Gratz listened carefully to Leeser when he preached.5

The first synagogal leader to put some emphasis on preaching seems to have been the native-born Gershom Seixas, though it is questionable whether he preached more than once or twice a year. His first published homily appeared in print in 1789; it was meant to honor a day of thanksgiving and prayer in conformity with the proclamation of the president. In his second published discourse which appeared in 1798, the hazzan prayed for peace at the time of the undeclared war with France. He called for peace, for unity at home, for love of neighbor, “and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Micah 4:3). In 1803, on the occasion of a thanksgiving service after an epidemic of the prevailing fever, he called on the members of Shearith Israel to make good use of an educational endowment which had just been established; the children must become an ornament to society. When Seixas died in 1816, he in turn became the subject of three eulogies. All three speakers had an Anglo-Saxon background; one was a native of England; two were of American birth. Religious addresses in English became more frequent by the 1820’s. The Protestant environment would not be denied. Even New York’s Rev. Moses L. M. Peixotto, whose native tongues were Dutch and Ladino, essayed an occasional talk in English. Some cantors were not able to preach; synagogal and other public addresses were then made by educated laymen. Jacob Mordecai (1762–1838), an autodidact who had read widely, delivered the address in 1822, when Beth Shalome of Richmond was dedicated. In this discourse, written in excellent English, he admonished his Jewish auditors to repent of their manifold transgressions, if they hoped for restoration. This was a call for a moral reformation. When they return to God, they will be restored to their ancient homeland and usher in an age of great national glory. It was a call to Jews to be Jews, yet it was also an address “most liberal and catholic in its spirit.” He told his audience of Jews and Gentiles that the whole human family, however diversified, believed in the One God: “The creator of the universe is not the God of a sect.” In 1825, the rebels in Shearith Israel, on the verge of seceding, were talking of addresses in the vernacular.6

That same year, the leftist Charleston Reformers, led by Isaac Harby and Abraham Moïse, were also pushing hard for English sermons, necessary to edify the young and to gratify the old. Frightened by the pro-vernacular stress of the reformist rebels in their midst, Beth Elohim’s notables saw to it that the constitution of 1836 required the hazzan to preach every Sabbath. Whether the new rabbi Gustavus Poznanski complied is not known. He probably did; he had strong liberal leanings at that time. In 1830, Daniel L. M. Peixotto, the “rabbi’s” son, addressed New York’s Society for Orphan Children and the Relief of Indigent Persons of the Jewish Persuasion. His was a brilliant talk, for Peixotto had enjoyed an excellent education. A physician, Peixotto appealed to his listeners to diffuse knowledge and dispense charity among the ignorant and the indigent. Bnai Jeshurun in New York went out of its way in 1839 to hire a reader who was also a preacher; this was an important educational and acculturational step. Samuel Myer Isaacs (1804–1878), the Dutch-English hazzan who was then elected, thus became America’s first preacher in an Ashkenazic context, following in the footsteps of Leeser, the country’s first clergyman to employ the sermon as a Sephardi educational medium. By 1841, Louis Salomons (Salomon), a man of learning and dignity, was lecturing in German to his flock in Philadelphia’s Rodeph Shalom.7

Jewish women began writing poetry no later than the early nineteenth century. Gershom Seixas’s sister Grace Nathan wrote poems which reflected sensitivity and imagination though none of them saw print prior to 1980. Were they expressive of Jewishness? No, if judged by specific Jewish references; yes, if any piece of writing is Jewish when written by a Jew. Penina Moïse (1797–1880) has always been acclaimed as the outstanding Jewish bard of her day, yet very few of her verses have any specific Jewish content. She may have composed 200 hymns; practically all of them could have been sung with equal gusto by pious Protestants, yet she was an ardent committed Jew. Fancy’s Sketch Book, the first collection of her writings, was published at Charleston in 1833. Seven years later, when the Jews in Damascus were tortured on the false charge of using Christian blood in their Passover ceremonies, she wrote her “Lines on the Persecution of the Jews of Damascus.” Shortly thereafter she composed a poem commemorating the building of Charleston’s new synagog. Decades earlier, in 1819, the anti-Jewish Hep! Hep! riots raging throughout Germany had inspired her to invite the victims to sail for these shores:

If thou art one of that oppressed race,

Whose pilgrimage from Palestine we trace,

Brave the Atlantic—Hope’s broad anchor weigh,

A Western sun will gild our future days.8


Liturgically, the nineteenth-century American synagog was no vacuum. The hymns of Penina Moïse became an integral part of the liturgical expression cultivated in nineteenth-and twentieth-century Reform synagogs. (Over a dozen of her hymns were still included in the revised Union Hymnal of 1940.) A Philadelphia Jew, E. Roget, adapted a favorite Italian air of F. G. Bertoni for one of the traditional synagogal hymns. Another liturgical manifestation of the day was the Holy Day calendar. It was imperative that Jews, especially those in the villages, know the dates of the Jewish festivals. Passover and the High Holy Days were of particular importance, since it was then that men and women from the hinterland would trek to the big towns. The calendars published at this time covered many years, inasmuch as the purchase of a new calendar annually would have been a luxury for that thrifty generation. Prayer books were also indispensable. Many Jews until the 1820’s certainly enjoyed using the numerous Hebrew-English works of David Levi, of London (d.1799/1801), a humble craftsman who turned author, publisher, compiler, and apologist. American Jews purchased his dictionary, as well as his grammar, Pentateuch, and Passover ritual (Haggadah), but above all they welcomed his massive six-volume Sephardic-English prayer book which began appearing in 1789 and on which the later Sephardic American translations of Solomon H. Jackson (1826) and Isaac Leeser (1837) both leaned. Jackson, in his edition, omitted a prayer for the medieval martyrs; what he took to be the liberalism of contemporary society assured him that those murderous days had passed—this he declared nearly 120 years before the German Holocaust. As had been true of the eighteenth-century New York English liturgical translations, the English versions were rarely used in worship, but were meant to serve the curious and the intelligent who wished to ponder the meaning of the Hebrew prayers—an aim not always easily achieved. The intellectual Rebecca Mordecai, for one, was offended by the poor English translations; others, too, were certainly not edified by renderings which, on occasion, were hardly intelligible.


Almost the only way antebellum American Jews exhibited significant cultural creativity was through their apologetic and polemical writings. They were harassed by frequent attacks in newspapers and magazines of the day and also in the sermons of Christian preachers. The decades of the early nineteenth century witnessed a religious rejuvenescence of the articulate Christian devout, who now often turned their attention to the Jews. It was not that most of these writers cherished any true love for the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but the persistence of the infidel Jews was a challenge to Christianity, a reflection on the validity of Christian faith and a testimony to its evangelical failure. Though conscious of the inadequacies of traditional Judaism, cultured modernist Jews like Isaac Harby deeply resented the denigration of their people and their religion by the pious and unenlightened followers of the gentle Jesus. Harby’s well-stocked library contained Deist and anti-Christian works, attacks on the Inquisition, and the skeptical writings of Voltaire. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock annoyed Harby who saw the bard catering to the prejudices of a dark age. Though Harby’s published analysis of The Merchant of Venice was not intended as an apologia, it was one in fact. There is a certain unnatural ferocity in the character of Shylock, he wrote; Shakespeare’s sole object in making the Jew a heartless usurer was to satisfy the malignant passions of his contemporaries. There is nothing redeeming in the portrayal of Shylock. The very plot is absurd. Harby resented a critic’s statement that it was only proper that the Jew should be limned as a villain. Actually, as Harby pointed out, the villain in the original story was a Christian; the victim was the Jew.10

Like Harby, Rachel Mordecai—she later married Aaron Lazarus, of Wilmington, North Carolina—resented negative stereotypes of Jews; she was a proud woman and such judgments reflected on her. Maria Edgeworth, the popular English author of moral tales, had presented the Jew as avaricious and unprincipled in her writings. Apparently influenced by the justice of Rachel’s reproaches, Miss Edgeworth wrote a novel in which she portrayed a Jewess of fine character, Berenice Montenero, who was to marry a Christian. (Rachel may well have been the model for Berenice.) In the denouement, Miss Edgeworth solved the problem of the Christian-Jewish love story handily: Berenice had actually been born a Christian! The Christian could marry a Christian. Rachel objected to this solution to the problem of intermarriage as a surrender to prejudice. Like Rebecca Gratz and the Gentile critic Mrs. Sarah Hall, Rachel probably believed that the lovers should have parted because of their religious convictions. It is interesting to note that Rachel on her deathbed became a convert to Christianity. A number of the women in the Mordecai family were spiritually unhappy; coping with the Christian environment was evidently too much for them.11

Not seldom theological apologetics turned into polemics as the Jews rallied to defend themselves. Actually it is very difficult to distinguish between apologetics and polemics. Leeser was the exception; he was never belligerent in attack. His first volume of sermons, published in 1837, appeared under the pacific title: Discourses Argumentative and Devotional on the Subject of the Jewish Religion. Though there were liberal Christians who were not unsympathetic to Jews, most Christians looked askance at them. Hence Jews, constantly on the defensive, were given to reading and publishing apologetic and polemical works. Eager for ammunition against opponents, Jews of that generation read the published Protestant attacks on the Spanish Inquisition, which had imprisoned and tortured so many of their fellow Jews, and relished the writings of the Deists, who were assailing the very principles upon which Christianity was built. It is true that the Deists were opposed to revealed religion and also rejected the Old Testament, but at least they attacked the New Testament with equal vehemence! The Jews were interested in any book that questioned or denied the authority of the Gospels. It became evident on close analysis that, though Jews were a heterogeneous lot, they were all in agreement in asserting the superiority of Judaism. Aware that the Federal Constitution held all religions equal before the law, the bold ones among them did not hesitate to express themselves freely in theological disputes with Christians. To be sure most Jews were securely ensconced on the right theologically, but there were always liberals and radicals among them. Charles T. C. Cohen, of New York, a chemist, was a well-known atheist. Most Jews, realizing that de facto this was a Christian country, were content to remain apologists; they did not lean too heavily on the first article of the Bill of Rights. If they did engage in polemics, they did so cautiously. They knew the limits of tolerance.12

Only rarely did Jews themselves publish anti-Christian literature. The actual publishers were frequently non-Jews appealing primarily to Gentiles who were not in sympathy with orthodox Christianity. One such apologia appeared with a Hebrew title. In 1791, Emet ve-Emunah, “Reason and Faith” (really Truth and Faith), was printed by F. Bailey in Philadelphia; the 1804 Richmond edition did have a Jewish publisher, a local shohet and shopkeeper named Marcus Levy, who had once been fined ten shillings and costs for keeping his store open on Sunday and selling to blacks and others. The book was ascribed to a pseudonymous Rabba Henriquis, but the actual author was Rabbi Joshua Hezekiah de Cordova (d. 1797), a scholarly Jamaican clergyman who was also a Hebrew poet. This work, written to refute Deists and freethinkers, had appeared in Jamaica originally in 1788 at a time when the Jewish community there was probably larger than any in the United States. Levy, in a preface to his edition, set out to appeal to the enlightened citizens of Virginia who in those Jeffersonian days were moving to the left. Radicals and philosophers, said Levy, undermined a reverence for the Supreme Being and His justice and thus imperiled the foundations of civil society. Rabbi de Cordova defended revelation and the superiority of the Jewish law, though he was quick to admit that both Christianity and Islam also taught love and kindness. Judaism commanded its followers to love not only one another but the stranger as well. It is the Jewish law which has enabled Jews to survive the great empires of antiquity. The continued existence of the Jews and God’s intervention on their behalf supply the veriest proof that He exists. All men of all faiths who travel to meet God will arrive at the same goal, no matter what road they follow!13

Deism had a following in post-Revolutionary America. Individual Jews, liberal religionists, were in sympathy with its philosophy; others, traditional in their beliefs, were interested in Deism only because it served their polemical purposes. Thus the Deistic works seem to have been eagerly purchased by Jews who read works like The Grounds of Christianity Examined by Comparing the New Testament with the Old (1813), the anti-Christian work of George Bethune English, a New England writer and subsequent adventurer. An apologia of this time that Jews probably bought and read was Philip Lefanu’s translation of Abbé Antoine Guénée’s Letters of Certain Jews to Monsieur Voltaire, Containing an Apology for Their Own People and for the Old Testament, etc. The 1795 Philadelphia edition reprinted the 1777 Dublin translation. The book was primarily a defense of the Hebrew Bible, which Voltaire had attacked. Both the French and the American works included letters of a distinguished European publicist, Isaac de Pinto (not to be confused with the American of the same name), who defended Jews against the aspersions of Voltaire in his article on the Jews in the Dictionnaire Philosophique. It is very probable that Marcus Elcan (d. 1808) included the Lefanu volume in his substantial library. Elcan, a Richmond merchant, was the first president of the local congregation, established in the late 1780’s. He did own a number of the works of David Levi, the most widely-read of Jewish apologists. In his Succinct Account of the Rites and Ceremonies of the Jews, Levi described Jewish religious practices and discussed the concepts of predestination, freewill, and resurrection. Christians, especially, were very much interested in these doctrines which are among the fundamentals of Christian theology. The Jews, said Levi, are not unfriendly to Christians, for Judaism maintains that humane Christians will also be “saved.” The traditional rabbinic citation that righteous Gentiles have a share in the world to come recurs in nearly all the apologetic works of this period. The list of books in Elcan’s library also included Levi’s Dissertations on the Prophecies of the Old Testament, a volume in which Levi refuted the arguments of Christian theologians that the Hebrew Bible foretold the coming of Jesus as the promised Messiah.14

In the 1790’s, the Jews were most eager to use Levi’s apologias, for there were no Jews here courageous or learned enough to enter the lists against the missionaries. It was Levi who defended the Jews against the importunings of the Rev. Joseph Priestley, the English Unitarian clergyman and scientist—Priestley, a political and religious liberal and no Judeophobe, was a formidable opponent. After the publication of Priestley’s Letters to the Jews Inviting Them to an Amicable Discussion of the Evidences of Christianity in 1787, the Anglo-Jewish apologist tackled the problems of Jesus as Messiah, his crucifixion by the Jews, the authority of the Mosaic code, and the Jewish exile as punishment. Levi’s rejoinders are found in all Jewish apologies; many of his arguments go back to medieval Jewish writers. In 1794, Benjamin Gomez, the New York stationer and bookseller, published Priestley’s Letters and Levi’s answers in a one-volume work. What prompted Gomez to undertake publication of the book? Obviously because he believed that there was a market for such a work. Thousands in the late eighteenth century may have rejected religion in its evangelical form, but there were many more who were interested in religion. The French Revolution induced people to reexamine their traditional religious beliefs. Anti-biblical literature was widely read. As a Jew, Gomez probably hoped that his publication would help Jews to find ready answers; even more probably he wanted a book the Gentiles, too, would read, and indeed Jefferson was one of the book’s many readers. It is worthy of note that Gomez retained David Levi’s citation of Jeremiah 14:14 on the title page: “The prophets [Jesus and the apostles] prophesy lies in my name.” Levi in England had printed this verse in Hebrew, which few could read; Gomez in America translated it into English, which all could read!

Priestley wanted the Jews to convert to his brand of Unitarianism and to acknowledge the divine messianic mission of Jesus. Saint John to the contrary (John 4:22), salvation belongs to Jesus. If the Jews have suffered God’s displeasure, it is because they have rejected the Galilean. They must accept him, though if they so desire they may remain on the periphery of Christendom as a distinct socioethnic Sabbatarian church. (Dr. Priestley’s suggestion has something in common with the platform of the late twentieth-century “Jews for Jesus.”) Conversion to Christianity, Priestley said, would be followed by the restoration of the Jews to their Promised Land. Judaism was of divine origin. Priestley’s sincere sympathy for Jews is frequently reflected in his writings and remains evident in a book which he wrote after he left England to settle in Pennsylvania, his Comparison of the Institutions of Moses with Those of the Hindoos and Other Ancient Nations. Hoping that American Jewry would also read this new work of his, he turned to an acquaintance, Simon Levi, of Philadelphia, and asked him to further its sale.15

In his two-volume Age of Reason, Thomas Paine, then in Paris, severely criticized the Old Testament, its heroes, and its theology. The Old Testament, he wrote, is not an authentic work; it is not the word of God; it is not a moral book, and its pages are stained with the murder and the blood of innocent men, women, and children. In answer to Paine’s attacks and the antibiblical fuliminations of others, David Levi wrote A Defence of the Old Testament in 1797, reprinted that same year by Naphtali Judah. As in his refutation of Dr. Priestley, Levi, here, too, maintained that the Hebrew prophecies—not the Christian interpretations—are true. The Mosaic Law is the only valid one; all the Christian claims for Jesus are unacceptable and are to be rejected. Like the Gomez publication, this Judah reprint was certainly intended for the Christian market, since Christians, too, had a stake in maintaining the authenticity and the validity of the Old Testament. The Jewish Sacred Scriptures were as much Christian as they were Jewish; they were an integral part of Christian religious literature.16

The very thought of abandoning Judaism and embracing Christianity frightened most Jews, whether the idea was proposed by liberals like Priestley or by the “fundamentalists” of that day. The conversion of but one member of a family threatened the peace and unity of the family as a whole. Conversion was looked upon as cultural genocide. Apologetics, therefore, was very important as an instrumentality to defend the Jew from extinction. Thus in 1816 when Joseph Samuel Levi Frey (1771–1850), an aggressive Jewish-Christian missionary, came to the United States, the Jews were very disturbed. That same year, an anti-missionary non-Jew republished an attack on Frey in New York. The Kol Yaakov, Koul Jacob (Voice of Jacob) had been written by Jacob Nikelsburger, a German Jew living in England; in 1814, he also attacked Frey and the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews. It remained for the immigrant Nikelsburger to answer Frey’s claims that Jesus was the long expected Messiah. Are we to assume that no English Jew of that day held himself capable of refuting Frey? It is far more likely that English Jewry, still politically disabled, deemed discretion in all confessional matters the better part of valor.17

It was a Christian who republished Nikelsburger’s anti-Frey booklet, and it was another Christian, writing under the pseudonym of “Tobit,” who attacked Frey for his conversionist activities and publications. The exact title of this new book was: Tobit’s Letters to Levi, or, A Reply to the Narrative of Joseph Samuel C. F. Frey (1816). By calling Frey Levi, “Tobit” set out to imply that Frey was still a Jew and not a sincere Christian. It is not easy to determine what prompted “Tobit”—or the American publisher of Koul Jacob—to assail Frey. “Tobit” was no Deist; he cherished the values of both the Old and the New Testament. Castigating Frey as a demagogue, he denied his integrity and questioned whether a bad Jew could become a good Christian. There were Christians in London, whence Frey had come, who had denounced him as a man of little moral worth. The Jews, “Tobit” implied, needed no Frey to lower their moral niveau. There were no profligates, no murderers among them; they counted no prostitutes among their women. The Jews here in the United States are proud, affluent, able, successful; they number men of morality, wisdom, talent. There is no reason why a Jew will not one day become President of the United States. There were some Gentiles whose real motive in challenging the conversionists was to attack the basic documents of Christianity. “Tobit” was certainly not of this group. He was probably one of many committed Christians who had rejected missions to the Jews on principle. Such Christians were no doubt readers of an American edition of the Letter of Moses Mendelssohn to Deacon Lavater—the Berlin Jew’s answer to Johann Kaspar Lavater, a Zurich preacher who wanted to convert the German Jewish Socrates. It was Lavater who had challenged Mendelssohn in 1769 either to refute a French cleric’s work on Christianity or accept it and be baptized. Mendelssohn had answered Lavater cautiously in 1770.18

Mendelssohn’s apologia had been couched in courteous terms—necessarily; eighteenth-century Frederician Prussia would have left him no choice. American religious apologists, both Christians and Jews, were at times less moderate. As suggested above, the Christian anti-conversionists were not a homogeneous lot, but this much the Gentile freethinkers and the committed Christians did have in common: they distrusted evangelical soul-savers who claimed to have the only truth. The liberals believed that, in matters of religion, all had a right to find their own way to heaven. Tolerance in the realm of faith and belief was the least one could accord fellow Americans. Jews, in particular, were bitter about the missionaries. They had been under the impression that America was a free country where they would be spared the seductive or intimidating religious advances so characteristic of their old European homelands. The missionary surge stimulated an anti-conversionist counter-response. Calling himself “An Israelite” in 1820, one anti-missionary writer, published a polemic entitled Israel Vindicated, Being a Refutation of the Calumnies Propagated Respecting the Jewish Nation in Which the Objects and Views of the American Society for Ameliorating the Condition of the Jews, are Investigated. Originally the title carried the additional clause: “and Reasons Assigned for Rejecting the Christian Religion.” That sentence was deleted when the publisher went to press. Even in free America, writers and printers were fearful lest polemics be damned as blasphemy.19

Israel Vindicated is very probably the work of a Gentile New York journalist, George Houston. Not necessarily a philosemite, he was an immigrant, a Deist, who had once served a jail term in England for his radical views. The publisher was also an English newcomer to these shores, Abraham Collins, a Jew. Collins may have encouraged Houston to write Israel Vindicated, indeed may well have supplied him with some of his material. Collins, well educated, had studied Hebrew and had traveled on the Continent before coming to America. In later years, he was an active member of Bnai Jeshurun. Coming from England where Jews were still without any political rights he became an ardent American patriot. Even England which the cleric John Oxlee says is the country of choice for Jews, cannot compete with America. Until the Jews can recover their ancient rights and dominions and take their rank among the governments of the earth, this is their chosen country.20

In all probability there were ancillary reasons for the writing of Israel Vindicated, assuming that Collins was more than a passive publisher. The year 1819 had witnessed the anti-Jewish Hep! Hep! riots in Germany. Jews were sensitized to discrimination, to encroachments, both here and abroad. In a sense, this book was a plea on behalf of real equality for Jews in an America at least six of whose original thirteen states as late as 1820 had not yet completely emancipated their Jewish citizens. The book itself followed the pattern which Montesquieu had employed in his Lettres Persanes, the strategy of letters as a literary device whereby make-believe people correspond. In the same fashion, two American Jews, one in New York and the other in Philadelphia, wrote to each other and discussed Jewish problems of the day. They proved—at least to their own satisfaction—that Jesus was not divine, that he was not the Messiah; he may never have existed. The Gospels? They may not even be authentic. If it is a sin to be a commercial speculator and to neglect the crafts, then blame the Christians, who have left the Jews no other alternative. Judaism believes in the worship of the Deity and universal benevolence toward man. The goal of the author of Israel Vindicated was to do away with anything that impeded social relationships between Jews and Gentiles. The Jew insists on absolute equality; he objects to an established church, no matter what form it assumes. Jews will not submit to defamation. The book’s bold approach and its unabashed criticisms of Christianity’s beginnings were denounced as calumnies by some Christians of that day. A number of well-established Jews, frightened by the critical candor of Israel Vindicated, hastened to assure their non-Jewish friends that they had not sponsored the new book, that Jesus and Christianity were to be lauded for their moral teachings. Three years later Israel Vindicated was republished in London, the first American “Jewish” book to gain recognition abroad.

In 1823, the year that Israel Vindicated crossed the ocean, Collins himself published The Voice of Israel, a brochure in which he expounded his views on Christianity and its founder, views re-echoing those expressed by Houston and Israel Vindicated. Collins now appeared clearly as a militant Deist, strongly anti-church, anti-Catholic, anti-Protestant. He was very much at home in the New Testament; the Golden Rule he recognized as Jewish and the Lord’s Prayer also. Like all other Jewish apologists and polemicists of his day, he denied all the claims made for the supernatural Jesus: the Nazarene was an observant Jew, a Galilian artisan. The stories in the Gospels are all lies, and a great lie is as easily told as a little one. The other-worldly maxims of Christianity are an “outrage to human nature and to common sense.” Christianity is at odds with nature and reason. Collins was atypical as a Jew who was both a loyal religionist and an aggressive Deist. Apparently it was no problem for him to resolve this antinomy. Twenty years after the appearance of The Voice of Israel, Collins reprinted a substantial brochure of the English rector John Oxlee, who had come out strongly “on the inexpediency and the futility of any attempts to convert the Jews to the Christian faith.” About a third of this work contains material inserted by Collins, whose original purpose was to convince American Protestants that they were wasting their time attempting to convert the Jewish masses. This was also Oxlee’s view, although the pastor hoped that ultimately the Jews would come to Jesus—but still remain Jews. Like Priestley, Oxlee, too, believed in “Jews for Jesus.” Collins admitted that some Jews had converted here in the United States, but they were not good people. The ministers would do better to make Christians out of their own flock. Judaism, said the apologist, had been divinely revealed; its morality is as pure as the sun. “We never arraign the faith of others—let none then, arraign our faith.… The religion of the Jew requires no defence; it speaks for itself; it is the religion of nature—the religion of reason and philosophy.” 21

The literary vintage of the year 1823 was a good one for the Jews. It was then that the Baltimore branch of the American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews reprinted an address of an English conversionist, the Rev. George Stanley Faber, who had been publishing missionary tracts for years. New York newspapers picked up the Baltimore pamphlet much to the annoyance of Solomon Henry Jackson, who sat down at once and issued a counterblast: Examination and Answer to a Sermon Delivered by the Rev. George Stanley Faber. Like Faber, Jackson, too, marshaled his proof-texts from the Hebrew Bible. That source could not be wrong; it was divinely inspired. Christianity, wrote Jackson, has no validity. Ultimately all Christians—by then circumcised, not baptized—will stream to Jerusalem to accept the truth from a restored Jewry and “the only true religion.”22

The very same year that Jackson wrote his answer to Faber he published America’s first Jewish periodical, The Jew. It was a monthly, and its title page reads: “A Defence of Judaism Against All Adversaries and Particularly Against the Insidious Attacks of Israel’s Advocate.” The latter was a missionary newspaper closely allied to the American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews. Thus, this first American Jewish magazine made its appearance to repel the advances of persistent conversionists. (Seven years later the first Catholic newspaper was published to defend the Mother Church from the attacks of her enemies.) On the title page of Jackson’s paper also appeared the following quotation from Psalm 119:42, “And I will answer the blasphemers of Thy Word.” The fact that to translate the Hebrew horfi, he used the word “blasphemers” points up his polemical approach (Leeser preferred “the one that reproacheth me.”

The arguments and proof texts that Jackson employed are certainly not new; there were no new literary weapons in the armory of Jewish apologists. What is new, in a way, is the aggressive spirit which distinguished Jackson. He was resentful that even the Unitarians and the Deists did not spare the Children of Israel. Actually, Jackson’s The Jew was no newspaper but a series of tracts written in answer to attacks on Jewish doctrine. The editor reprinted Moses Mendelssohn’s answer to Lavater and for the first time published the letters of Benjamin Dias Fernandes. The Dias apologias in defence of Judaism were to assume a classic stature. The text Jackson used was from a manuscript in the possession of Sampson Simson, the New York philanthropist. Isaac Leeser, years later, issued a more complete collection of the letters with the avowed purpose of giving the Jews material to ward off conversionists and missionaries. The only news items Jackson included in his periodical were detailed reports on the Jews of China and those living along the Malabar Coast of India. The paper lasted for two years before it ceased publication. It may well be that it elicited no support from Jews. It is possible after all that Jews did not yet consider the despised conversionists a real threat.23

By the 1820’s, Jews began to make their appearance in the daily press in letters to the editor, letters in which they not only defended themselves but carried the war into the camp of the Christians. Thus, a Jew writing under the pseudonym of “Levi” ingenuously informed the Christian readers of George Houston’s Deistic Correspondent that everything they believed was false, that the Mosaic Code alone was divinely inspired. The Ten Commandments of the ancient Hebrews would answer all the religious needs of The Correspondent’s readers. A year later, in 1828, another writer, employing the same name “Levi,” published a letter defending Judaism in The Correspondent. This “Levi” wrote that Jesus had attacked the religious conduct of individual Jews, but not the faith itself. The letterwriter manifested a more than cursory knowledge of the contemporary critical literature on the New Testament. He was very probably a Gentile, since few, if any, American Jews in that decade were at home in the scholarly work dealing with Christian origins.24

In 1837, Jackson printed David Davies’ The Philosophy of the Hebrews and of the Hebrew Scriptures. Davies was an immigrant Jew who had in all likelihood come from Holland or England. He was obviously at home in the original Hebrew text. His work, written in 1836, was dedicated to Solomon Herschel, Chief Rabbi of the German Jews (the Ashkenazim) in London. It appears to be a series of lectures delivered on a Saturday afternoon in New York City. At Bnai Jeshurun? The Hebrew Bible is God’s handiwork; the Mosaic writings had already been exploited by the early Greek philosophers. The Jews, of course, are among the great philosophers of history; the Bible is a scientific work; religion and science are not in conflict; biblical cosmogony is Newtonian; the earth does indeed revolve around the sun. The deluge of Genesis is no myth, but is proven by the marine deposits on the peaks of the highest mountains. King Solomon was one of the greatest of the natural philosophers. Judaism will never disappear, for God has sworn to preserve his Chosen People. Because men have free will they can choose between good and evil, and because the Jews have chosen evil, because they have not observed His Law, God has seen fit to punish them—but in no wise have the Jews been chastened because they rejected Jesus! Prejudice and anti-Jewish laws are disappearing; we are now enjoying freedom. “Let us bury in oblivion the acts of those who are merely the instruments of torture in the hands of divine power.” Jews must further their education; only through this means can we understand the great truths of religion and justice. God is the source of all knowledge; through knowledge we acquire wisdom, and with wisdom come peace and happiness. The more general education there is on the earth, the more tolerance there will be. Jews must acquire learning and develop industry and enterprise, if they are to be accepted by the peoples of the earth. We must not condemn others if their opinions do not square with ours. Thus far Davies. Like other forward-looking Jews of his day, he hoped that the congregation would appoint a religious leader able to explain the beauties of Judaism, at least to the enlightened. (This was written shortly before the English preacher Samuel Myer Isaacs was brought to Bnai Jeshurun in 1839.)25

Davies came to grips with science. Like other American intellectuals, he was moving towards a scientific theology which integrated the best in contemporary knowledge with the eternal biblical verities. Dr. Jonas Horwitz, another American Jew, when faced with the same challenge gave a different answer. About the year 1839, Horwitz published A Defence of the Cosmogony of Moses, Being lst. a Vindication from the Attacks of Geologists, etc. The title tells the the story. Horwitz, a German Jew who had come to this country in the early 1800’s, studied medicine and in 1815 wrote his doctoral dissertation on colic. Before he became a physician he made a living teaching Hebrew, primarily to Christian clergymen. There is no question, as to his competence: he was a linguist, a competent Hebraist, and had learned to write a good English letter.26

Christian ministers in America had been interested in the Hebrew text of the Bible ever since the days of the Pilgrim Fathers. Clergymen were supposed to know the Old Testament in the original, though very few actually did. Monis’s 1735 Grammar of the Hebrew Tongue had been prepared primarily for the Christian ministerial students of Harvard. Christian scholars continued to publish Hebrew grammars. Before 1812, numerous different works on the Holy Tongue had already been printed in the colonies and in the new republic. There is no reason to doubt that the grammars which Jews would publish later were written primarily for the Gentile market. During the second decade of the nineteenth century, when more people began to concern themselves with the Christian religion, there was a heightened interest in publishing a Hebrew Bible. The war with England in 1812 raised prices on imported books, and in 1813 Horwitz issued a prospectus seeking subscriptions for a two-volume unvocalized Hebrew Bible which he proposed to publish. He had no difficulty securing sponsors, including the president of Columbia College. The edition, a costly one, was certainly not intended for the handful of Jews in this country. Horwitz knew that Jews were rarely readers of the Hebrew or the English Bible. It is true that in the course of the liturgical year the Pentateuch was read in the synagog as part of the service, but few Jews had more than a faint intimation of what the reader was chanting unless they followed the English translation in David Levi’s version. Apparently the competition proved too much for Horwitz, who never went ahead with his prospective Bible. It did appear, however, in 1814 under different sponsorship and it was beautiful, one of the most attractive versions of the Holy Scriptures ever to have rolled off the presses.

Possibly Horwitz ceased to concern himself with editing a Hebrew Bible because he had begun to study medicine. By 1816 he was in Cincinnati, an itinerant physician, but he sank no roots there. His scare advertisement that he would save the town from an epidemic was very much resented by local physicians. He moved on. Hearing that Jefferson was hoping to establish a college in Charlottesville, Virginia, Horwitz applied for a job teaching German and the Oriental languages, but did not receive the appointment, even though he succeeded in enlisting the aid of Thomas Cooper, of the University of Pennsylvania. Cooper was a scholar, a lawyer, a scientist, a Unitarian, and a political liberal. Dr. Horwitz was not turned down because he was a Jew; there was no Judeophobia in the episode. David Isaacs, of Charlottesville, a merchant, was a contributor to the proposed new college. Had the Jews of this country been willing, Jefferson would gladly have inaugurated a department of Jewish studies. The idea was not new; Rhode Island College had made such a proposal as early as 1770 and had even received a gift from a Jewish indigo shipper in Charlestown, South Carolina. Horwitz continued to teach Hebrew, and probably practiced medicine in Philadelphia until 1830 when he moved on to Baltimore.

It was in that city that he published his Defence of the Cosmogony of Moses. Believing that the Bible was God’s word, he did not believe, as did the good evolutionary geologists, in harmonizing religion and science. In this respect, he differed with Thomas Cooper, who was convinced that there was no need to reconcile the traditional account of creation and modern geological science. This conviction enraged the clergy, who set out, in vain, to remove him from the position he occupied at the time, the presidency of South Carolina College. It would seem that Dr. Horwitz practiced medicine in Baltimore, but there is no evidence that he was competent or successful. His father-in-law did not think much of him or of his wife, for he cut off Mrs. Horwitz with a shilling. During the Mexican War, Horwitz served as surgeon of a local volunteer group of soldiers, many of them Jews, but his regiment—if such it was—never saw active service. Few men can be unsuccessful in all things. Horwitz could console himself that he was the founder of a most distinguished family. Jonathan Phineas Horwitz, his son, was to head the Navy medical corps after the Civil War. Indeed, he had functioned as its head before his appointment as Chief of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. Jonathan’s children who had married out and who, it would appear, lived as Christians, buried him in the local Episcopal cemetery though there is no available evidence that Horwitz had ever become a Christian.27

Horwitz’s Defence may well fall into the realm of apologetics. On behalf of Christians and Jews alike, he had set out to repel the new scientists. The motive that prompted Nathaniel Levin and a Charleston associate to reprint an English translation of the sermons of Gotthold Salomon was apologetic in nature, too. The book was Twelve Sermons Delivered in the New Temple of the Israelites at Hamburgh. (The Hamburg temple in Germany was a liberal Jewish synagog, one of the first in Europe.) An English translation had been made of the sermons at London in 1839 by Anna Maria Goldsmid, the daughter of Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, the Anglo-Jewish emancipator and religious liberal. The American reprint appeared two years later. Both editions were intended, not only to edify Jews, but also to interest and attract non-Jews. It was Levin’s hope that these sermons would remove unjust prejudices against the Jew and would present “the lofty character of the Israelite in its true colors.” A book of this sort would help the Jews put their best foot forward.28


To summarize, the works produced by American Jews, between 1776 and 1840 were not distinguished for their originality. The new literature included liturgies, an occasional letter to the press, and an anti-missionary periodical. At first, most of the books read and used by Jews came from England; by the 1790’s, almost imperceptibly, Jews had begun to emancipate themselves from London imports and to reprint for themselves a few works of Jewish interest; by the 1820’s, Jews were not only reprinting but publishing new original brochures and pamphlets. The market? As apologists, the Jews had Christians primarily in mind, though they were never loath to provide Jewish disputants with ammunition for the fray. The appearance of missionary societies and of an anti-Judaistic literature stimulated the Jews to efforts in their own defense; an apologetic literature was now created. Resenting the attacks directed against them and their faith, the Jews rose to defend themselves. They were not resigned to prejudice or disabilities. From 1829 on the apologias which had been published were reinforced by the works of Isaac Leeser, the most original, most pragmatic writer of the period.

Compared with the creative literary and organizational activities of American churches, coeval Jewish accomplishments seem of no great moment, but there were always individual Jews of secular culture—and of Hebraic and Judaic education, too—who sought to deepen Jewish knowledge, to further Jewish loyalties in others. Whether on the left or the right religiously, they were open to new ideas, new trends, new emphases; they were reaching out to the world around them. Eager to survive as Jews, they wanted equally to bring all Jews, both the native-born and the immigrants, fully into the modern age. This desire is reflected in diverse educational proposals. The sociocultural projects that now surfaced reflected the views, different preconceptions, and ambitions of the individuals who proposed them. The age was one of significant change—especially in Europe, where the French Revolution evoked respect for the worth, if not the sanctity, of the individual and his personality. It was a time of educational ferment, of Deism, materialism, confrontation with religion, and often of a consequent move to the right or to the left, spiritually, culturally, politically.

Not the least of all these concerns was a new attitude toward children. Among the men who profoundly influenced the education of the new generation were Rousseau, Pestalozzi, and Fellenberg, all of whom rejected formalism: the child was all important; facts to be learned were secondary. The child must be showered with love and understanding. Memorization was not education; flogging could be brutal. Children must be permitted to be themselves. These European educational pioneers were also interested in a return to the soil; they were convinced of the ennobling character of labor, of the values inherent in the arts. They preached the gospel of morality and ethics. The drive for education here in the United States came into being at the very time Christians in this country were evincing a further concern for religion. America witnessed the rise of numerous denominational schools, church academies, and colleges. It was an age of revivalism, of home and foreign missions, of Bible, conversionist and tract societies. Millions of Bibles and religious leaflets were printed and distributed. The country’s miniscule Jewish intelligentsia, cognizant of all that was going on in non-Jewish society, was to a very modest degree influenced by the new educational outlook and the radical communitarianism in the air. The academic phase of the evangelical euphoria appealed to Jews; the religious enthusiasm disturbed them. They were attracted to Europe’s innovative political and socioeconomic experiments, some of which were tied up with the new pedagogy. The views of Claude Henri Saint-Simon, the social reformer, and of François Marie Charles Fourier, the protagonist of communes, were known to most cultured Americans. Utopian agricultural enclaves and religious colonies began to make their appearance here. There was even an attempt to establish a Jewish commune during the years 1818–1821.

In confronting the imaginative innovations of the early nineteenth century, there was no consensus among the handful of concerned American Jews. A few nourished the hope for better, more modern schools for children, schools in a rural setting where they would be trained in crafts and farming. They were to go back to the soil, to avoid commerce. Radicals among them wanted to break with rabbinical Judaism, to resuscitate the biblical faith of old through new emphasis on universalism. At the outset, let it be said, there was little or no prospect for success in any of these areas of thought and proposed social change, but—and this must also be said—individuals were reaching out, seeking. This handful was thinking furiously of the problems of Jewish spiritual, cultural survival, and advancement here in the United States. For them, this was the only land of freedom in the Atlantic basin. Whether conservative or radical, thoughtful, committed Jews realized that they were faced with acculturation and assimilation. They had to come to terms with a different, an unprecedented world that was challenging them economically, culturally, socially, spiritually. The problem of surviving in this tolerant American Christian world was real. In this struggle to help Jews, two rivulets of thought—they cannot be properly described as broad streams—now rose to the surface. The one was concerned with colonization, a colonization largely, though not exclusively, motivated by political and economic goals; the other directed its attention to cooperative living, to close settlement where sociocultural and religious changes were envisaged. The colonization aspect will be treated in another part of this work. Even Mordecai M. Noah, colonizer par excellence, also spoke of Jewish schools in his proposed colony, of education, of faith and morality, of sermons in English. And this was years before Leeser began to preach regularly. If the Jew was to be regenerated, it was here in the United States that the work had to be done. Thus Noah in 1820.29


Moses Elias Levy (ca. 1781–1854) exemplifies the second school of thought; he is the most interesting and the most radical cultural and spiritual entrepreneur of this period. In him, the educational motif is dominant. Though he is not an important Jewish leader—perhaps he is not to be considered a leader at all—he is worthy of this biographical vignette. A native Moroccan who had lived in Gibraltar and then moved on to England and St. Thomas in the Danish Virgin Islands about the year 1800, Moses Elias Levy was a merchant, a lumber dealer, a land developer, and a commercial agent for the Spanish in Cuba. One way or another this brilliant autodidact acquired a good English education. His first visit to the United States must have been in 1818, when he was about thirty-six years of age. By then he had purchased tracts of land in Florida from the Spanish and had begun to recruit colonists. Subsequently, he became an American citizen. Completely devoted to Jewry and to Judaism, Levy had for years nursed far-reaching plans to regenerate the Jewish people practically all of whom were suffering civic oppression in his day. Politically inspired by the new freedoms that came with the French Revolution, he was religiously in no sense a traditional Jew, but he was part Deist and part religious reformer. He was very much influenced by what he knew of Israel Jacobson, the German lay founder of Reform Judaism, a banker and civil rights leader, who had set out to establish an industrial and agricultural school for Jews in the Rhineland. The institution was opened, but local restrictions rendered it impossible for industrial and agricultural courses to be introduced.

Levy, however, was determined to refashion the Jewish people—and this visionary had all the makings of a pseudo-Messiah. Had he been born 200 years earlier, he would have settled in Palestine in a conventicle of mystics or he would have died at the stake in Spain or Portugal. In a way, Levy, too, was an evangelist looking for disciples. Initially he hoped that his son David (1810–1886) would become his chief apostle, but this was not to be. He sent David to Norfolk to be with the Myerses, whom he instructed to secure a good tutor, preferably a liberal Unitarian clergyman, for the boy. There was no need for the youngster to observe the Jewish ceremonies, but he was expected to rest on the Sabbath and to eat no pork. After David grew up, he was a sore disappointment to his father. He had no interest in saving the Jewish people and preferred to become a lawyer—and the elder Levy detested lawyers! As David Levy Yulee, the young man went into politics, served in Congress as a Florida representative and United States senator, married a Christian, and lived as one.

Levy disclosed his hopes for American Jewry during the years 1818–1821. In a letter dated November 1, 1818, to his friend Samuel Myers, Levy wrote: the essence and spirit of our religion is important; we must understand the Bible. The basic concept of the Law of Moses is “To Love God in our fellow-creatures and our fellow-creatures in God.” Love of God will unite our immortal souls to our Father in Heaven in the world to come. It is incumbent upon the Jews to teach love through their exemplary lives; to accomplish this, it is necessary to do away with all rabbinic interpretations of the Bible. In a spirit akin to that of the medieval Karaites, he insisted that the Bible is for Jews the basic source of Judaism. Sin? Sin is the turning against God and his fellow-creatures. Atonement is achieved through reform. Prayer? Prayer is praise of God and the call to live the moral life. We must educate our children. “The children belong to the community, not to the parents.” The boys are to be taught Hebrew, secular subjects, agriculture, the sciences, the use of arms for defense, trades, music, the fine arts. Girls, too, are included in his educational plans. No books were to be used in the school and colony he had in mind. Every man in the settlement is to own five acres of land; Jews must return to the soil, and in 1818, it bears remembering, most Americans still lived in rural regions. The form of government to be supported is the republican, not the monarchical. To effectuate his goals, Levy proposed to raise a fund of $50,000 for the purpose of educating children. The youngsters his commune would seek to rear must manifest talent; they need not be overly religious. Levy proposed to visit Jacobson in Germany and to interest him in the American project. The German Reformer had broken with tradition. His chief instruments were religious reform and the establishment of a school. It is obvious in Levy’s letter that Rousseau, Fourier, Pestalozzi, Fellenberg and Jacobson were, one might say, peeping over his shoulder.30

Finally, after some three and a half years, a plan was published in May, 1821, issued by a group that called itself “The Hebrew Society of New York.” (Levy, like most of his compatriots, preferred the nouns “Hebrew” and “Israelite” to “Jew.”) The new organization was to be a national one with cells of four men each in the different towns. A national executive elected by the cells was to establish a school in a rural setting to implement the curriculum outlined by the founder. As the published statement made clear, the basic hope of the Society was to further a universal love of mankind, to teach religion in its purity. The final circular distributed was a compromise. Levy could not afford to antagonize his associates—who all told, could have been counted on the fingers of his two hands. The academy which was to open its doors to Jewish youth was, after all, no radical departure from the conventional. The allies he had won were interested solely in raising the intellectual plane of American Jewry through the establishment of a good Jewish school. The curriculum was to embrace general studies and Hebrew as well as practical lessons in agriculture and horticulture. Religion, morality, patriotism, and the universal love of mankind were to be stressed. The “Institution” was to be financed by the cells. The school itself would bear the name Chenuch, which the founders translated as “Probationary,” though “training” is closer to the intent of the Hebrew.

Cells were established in New York and Norfolk, where the Myerses formed the core. They were close to Levy, if only because their great merchant-shipping firm was then bankrupt and indebted to the rich Floridian. An effort to organize a group in Baltimore did not succeed, though Levy was very eager to co-opt other Southerners, especially since Charleston still sheltered the country’s largest Jewish community. The Richmond Jews were kept au courant. Samuel Myers had probably tried to enlist the aid of his father-in-law, Joseph Marx, the banker, but Marx would have nothing to do with Levy’s project. He was opposed to segregating Jews in a commune of their own, which he felt would only invite prejudice; there was already too much anti-Jewish sentiment in America. This outstanding citizen of Virginia seemed to imply that the preponderance of unacculturated immigrants aroused Gentiles to view them with a jaundiced eye. Looking at the Jewish newcomers, the old-timers were apprehensive; some of the affluent tended to forget that they themselves had once been immigrants. Nevertheless, Marx, who himself had come from Germany, believed that, with the rise of a new generation of native-born Americans, Judeophobic prejudice would decline. Marx indeed had ideas of his own: since, as he assumed, Jews could not economically survive two days of rest—Saturday and Sunday—let Sunday become the new Jewish Sabbath. Jews, he mused, must stay Jewish, yet at the same time become one with the larger American body politic.31

As for Levy, American Jewish notables might well disagree with much that he proposed, but they could not ignore him entirely, even as a century later they would have to accord a hearing to the left wing religious radical Isaac Wolfe Bernheim of Kentucky, who, anti-Zionist that he was, proposed in 1918 the founding of the Reformed Church of American Israelites to be composed of 100 percent Americans. Though Charleston remained unmoved by Levy, it is surely significant that only three years later the Reformed Society of Israelites came into being there. Both Levy and the Charlestonians were influenced by the German Reform Movement, which was then pioneering an attempt at a synthesis of Judaism and Western culture. All of Levy’s associates were in agreement with him on the larger issues: the condition of all Jews everywhere has to be “ameliorated”; Judaism must be preserved; the American Jew is called upon “to promote the continuity of our religion”—the men whom Levy had approached were attracted by the spirit of the Law as well as its letter.32

It is difficult to document any lasting value that emerged from Levy’s spiritual adventure, although he surely did influence a number of his contemporaries. His proposal remains notable in American Jewish history as the first attempt to rally Jewry as a body behind an institute designed to serve as a national center for Jewish culture. This challenge to influence American Jews spiritually and to further them educationally was accepted in 1841 by Leeser, in 1848 by Isaac M. Wise, and in 1873–1875 by the Jews living in the Mississippi basin when they called into being the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Hebrew Union College. Levy’s plans died stillborn with the publication of his “Circular,” but he himself never surrendered his hopes. He had dreamt for many years of helping his people, and there is some evidence that, as early as 1816, even before he came to the United States, he had thought of bringing European Jews to this country. Years later—in 1825—he again set out to invite Jews here, to his Florida holdings. That same year Mordecai M. Noah announced the establishment of a colony in western New York State. Levy, then in London on a visit, wrote Isaac L. Goldsmid, the financier, expressing a desire to settle Jews in a Florida colony where they could live according to the precepts of the Bible. There Jews would be regenerated, reeducated religiously; there they could blossom as an exemplary ideal group, fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham that “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him” (Gen. 18:18). The implication of Levy’s letter is clear: the Jews have a mission to the world. How different were the Jews with their “mission” from Christian, conversionists who offered the Jews and all the peoples the only true faith?

In 1828, Levy was back again in London assuring his Christian friends that the Israelites were interested in helping all mankind. Implicit in his declaration was the reminder that Jews were still politically disabled in the kingdom. The late 1820’s was a period which found the Jews and Catholics of England struggling for emancipation; the era of reform in Great Britain was about to be inaugurated. Levy took part in this political struggle of English Jewry, though his interest and his hopes were primarily spiritual. In pursuit of his goals, he met in February, 1828, with the Philo-Judean Society at London’s Free Mason’s Hall. The Philo-Judeans were a group bent on helping Jews, to whom they felt indebted for the Bible: the Jews are our neighbors; the days of persecution are over; mistreatment must be countered by all who believe in revelation; we must raise Jews from the sad state into which our fathers have plunged them. This, the group believed, was owed to humanity; atonement had to be made. Conversion? After the Jews were restored to Jerusalem, there was always the possibility that they would embrace Christ Jesus. Thus far the Philo-Judeans. And Levy? Once the Christians had stopped oppressing Jews, the day would draw nigh when Jews and Gentiles would share a common faith. Conversion? Christians, Levy told the Philo-Judeans, would never succeed in this effort! Then Levy went on to enlarge upon his own program. He spoke of circulating biblical tracts among the Jews, of establishing all-day and Sabbath schools, of furthering women’s organizations, of succoring the sick and of removing disabilities in every land in which such prejudice persisted.33

Levy made it unequivocally clear in one of his writings that his humanitarian and spiritual program as a Jew could be summed up in verses 1 through 10 of Deuteronomy 30: Love God, obey his laws, and he will restore his people to the Promised Land where they will enjoy prosperity forever after. The theme in all his unpublished papers never varies; Love God and your fellowman. Actually, he was writing a book on the subject The Nature of Man. Some of his thoughts achieved printed form, for he spoke of distributing pamphlets to the Free Masons. His humanistic longings were not limited to Jews alone. In 1828, before England emancipated her slaves in the colonies, he advocated the abolition of human bondage; as a social reformer of sorts, Levy spoke out for free schools and for salutary changes in judicial procedure. He protested against the prevalence of poverty and praised the institution of the Mosaic jubilee when the dispossessed were restored to their ancestral holdings. The older he became, the more he became a “seeker.” Like many Americans he turned to spiritualism and clairvoyance and was in touch with the visionary proselyte Warder Cresson, who as a Jew in Jerusalem called himself Michael Boaz Israel. Is Levy to be deemed emotionally disturbed? From the vantage point of the late twentieth century, that is beyond determining. There is every reason to believe that the apostasy of his children, their rejection of his singular notions, certainly must have been responsible in part for the estrangement between him and his sons.34

Levy’s influence was obvious in the “Circular” which Jacob S. Solis (1780–1829) published during the 1820’s to seek subscriptions for a Jewish academy. The term “Circular” and the word “meliorating” occur in both pronouncements. The fact that Levy and Solis both used a form of the verb “meliorate” strongly suggests that they had one eye cocked on Frey and his national missionary group which set out to “meliorate” the (religious) condition of the Jews, their refusal to honor Jesus as the Christ. Solis was fully aware that the board of the conversionist society had leased a large farm in Harrison, Westchester County—at his very doorstep, as it were. Very probably also, he was mindful that the Jews of England had established Free Schools to meet the threat of similar institutions already set up by London conversionists. Solis himself, an observant Jew and a devoted communal worker, had come from England at the age of twenty-three; he married into the Hays family of Westchester County, carried on a business in Wilmington, Delaware, and in 1827 landed in New Orleans where he founded the town’s first Jewish congregation. Eager to help the Cincinnatians then thinking of building a house of worship, he solicited funds for their synagog. It is likely to have been in 1826 that he issued a Circular and Plan for an American Jewish Asylum. This was to be an academy and asylum for Jewish boys and girls, where they could live till they had come of age. Like Levy’s “Institution,” Solis’s asylum was to cultivate the arts, sciences, crafts, and agriculture. It was hoped that orphans and children would also be brought from Europe. Again, like Levy’s academy, this Asylum never came into being. Opening a national academy for American youngsters and European orphans was too ambitious a project for a Jewry that numbered only 6,000 souls.35

It may not be fortuitous that those who sought better educational facilities for American youth were Jews of Spanish-Portuguese origin. Though these ethnic Sephardim had been a minority in the Jewish community since the 1720’s, they had a traditional interest in the arts and sciences. M. E. Levy and Jacob S. Solis were followed by the young Dr. Daniel Levy Maduro Peixotto. This physician was the son of the hazzan who had succeeded Seixas at Shearith Israel. The father, Moses L. M. Peixotto, had brought Daniel with him from Amsterdam. Moses Peixotto and M. E. Levy were friends; the hazzan was a member of Levy’s New York cell, and Dr. Peixotto, too, was well acquainted with Levy and acknowledged this connection publicly. In a sense, Dr. Daniel was a spiritual heir of Levy’s. In 1830, the Society for the Education of Orphan Children and the Relief of Indigent Persons of the Jewish Persuasion called on the aspiring physician to make the anniversary address. He spoke at length on this occasion and outlined his philosophy of Jewish education. He had read Levy’s and Solis’s Circulars. Like them he wanted to found an institution in the countryside on Pestalozzian principles where rich and poor could grow up together, where Hebrew lore could be studied, and where the secular arts could be pursued. Only Judaism and the Hebrew language could hold Jews together. Professional leadership was, of course, needed; like the Charlestonians and Davies, he, too, hoped that a young man of promise and character would be educated by New York’s congregation to serve as the religious instructor of the entire community. It would be this teacher’s job to expound the Hebrew Bible, to teach morality. He reminded his auditors that it was not merely their duty to dispense charity; they were called upon to encourage learning among the ignorant and the indigent. Jews must maintain their ancient traditions of educating the young, revering their women, cultivating music and the mechanical arts, pursuing agriculture. In Arabic Spain, Jews had been preeminent in philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. Peixotto’s essay is really a panegyric on the intellectual achievements of Jewry throughout the ages. The ideal Jew for him was Moses Mendelssohn, religious Jewry’s first modern man. Nothing, however, was done subsequently to effectuate Dr. Peixotto’s appeal. In their religiocultural programs, Levy was on the left, Peixotto in the center, Leeser on the right, but they all had this conviction in common: Judaism can survive only through education, through a knowledge of the meaning of the faith.36


The efforts of most Jewish educators were directed toward children. It follows—though it was not always the case—that the educationists were themselves men with considerable Judaic, if not Hebraic, background: Dr. Peixotto could and did quote the Jewish Scriptures in the original Hebrew; Moses Elias Levy boasted that he had read a Hebrew prophetic portion from the Prophets when he was but four years of age. Relatively little emphasis, however, was laid on adult Jewish studies during the first four decades of the new century. No academy, no college, would open its doors in that generation; the Jews here were too few and too poor. There was to be no college sponsored by Jews until 1855, no rabbinical seminary until 1867, and neither would be anything to brag about. Massachusetts was ready to open Harvard College in 1636 when there were only 40,000 men, women, and children in the Bay Colony; American Jewry, about 200,000 strong—but, unlike the Bay Colony settlers, scattered over the continent—would not support Leeser’s Maimonides College after its founding in 1867. Adult religious education was simply not a Jewish concern in this country in the early days. It was deemed enough if most men could read the Hebrew prayer book and, in any case, should the eye rove, the reader could glean the meaning of the text from the accompanying English translation. The typical congregant did not know what the Hebrew words meant. In 1789, no man in Newport, Rhode Island, could read the unpointed text to be found in the Scroll of the Law. To be sure, two nights of the liturgical calendar were set aside for “study”: the first night of Pentecost and the night of Hoshana Rabbah. The “study,” stereotyped, included published readings from the Bible, rabbinic writings, and the mystical Zohar. Unfortunately, there was no edition with a translation on the left side of the page, though this in no sense dampened the enthusiasm of the devout.37

There were always men—and women, too—who bought books of Jewish interest, mostly British imports like David Levi’s works. The Jews here also enjoyed reading Tama’s English-language Transactions of the Parisian Sanhedrin; European Jews had been summoned by Napoleon to meet at Paris in 1807 to formulate answers to questions meant to document their attitude toward the modern state and society. Most cultured Jews here read the polemical works of anti-Christian Gentiles, although they were at times wary of associating personally with such radicals. The one book few Jews read was the English Bible itself. Unlike the Protestants, they were not—and are not—Bible readers. Even Jacob Mordecai, one of the country’s most devout and learned Jews, never imposed Bible reading on his brilliant son Alfred, who later indeed, as an army officer living almost always among Christians, found it advisable to know the English Bible. His father had neglected the Bible, but made him read the ancient classics and modern French writings, too.

There was a change for the better in the 1820’s. Jewish immigrants were landing; they had to be taken care of spiritually. Back in Europe, too, Jews were beginning to stir culturally; by the 1830’s, the historicocritical approach to Jewish studies in Central Europe had become a reality. Jews here may have been stimulated by the flood of Protestant religious publications that poured into every town and village and an increasing number of Jews began to evince an interest in adult education. The conventicle that made its appearance in Shearith Israel—it called itself Training of Youth (Hinukh Nearim)—made it clear that adults, too, wanted to know more about Judaism and Jewish practices. They proposed appointment of a teacher who would talk to them once a week in English about their ceremonies, their laws, their religion. Saturday afternoon, no doubt, was the time set aside. The Hinukh Nearim society, a hevrah, was indeed to be a religious commune, very much like the havurot of the 1970’s. The 1820’s was a decade of revolt, and cultural and religious as well as political ferment throughout the world; this decade would witness a religious bouleversement among the Jews in Charleston. The rebels in New York’s Shearith Israel were also angry men, and their constitution documents this. They were touched by the universal atmosphere of protest and saddened by the extended religious indifference. They wanted change, improvement, but always within the ambit of tradition.

Yet, let there be no doubt, their revolt was also an expression of their Ashkenazic Central European ethnicity, still strong in them. They seceded and created a separate congregation, Bnai Jeshurun. Once on their own, however, they seem to have lost their crusading fervor, their lust for learning. Can we assume that the later (1837) lectures of David Davies—if ever delivered—reflected a rebirth of the drive for adult education? By 1840, when there were well over 5,000 Jews in the city, Shearith Israel itself had established a Hebrew Literary and Religious Association. Dr. Simeon Abrahams met with the group to explain Jewish laws and customs. There were classes also in Hebrew, in reading and in translation. Professor Nordheimer was one of the instructors but nothing further is known about this group. The typical layman was not interested in furthering himself educationally, culturally, or Jewishly. Wittingly or unwittingly, he knew that he would be kept Jewish by his ethnic environment. He sensed that for him a formal Jewish education was not imperative. Further study was not needed to ensure religious loyalty. Through home ceremonies, synagogal services, and a world of ritualistic practices, the adult was bound to become adept in the Jewish way of life. Most Jews of that day, certainly the immigrants, were secure in their devotion to their people and content to be Jews.38

Jews were literate; all owned some books. The inventory of Asser Levy, who had landed on American shores in 1654, included a number of books. Synagogs did not supply prayer books, neither did the Jewish schools; parents and children had to bring their own. Abigail Franks was always reading, although, judging from her letters, her primary interest was in English literature. Personally, she was a pious observant, if questioning, Jew. Her son David must have owned a large library; when he was expelled from Philadelphia as a Loyalist, he published a catalogue of his books and sold them at auction. Since no copy of the catalogue has yet turned up, it is impossible to determine his Jewish holdings. The libraries owned by businessmen and artisans were pitifully small. This is true of most Americans of that day. Jewish books were not numerous; there were not many available in Yiddish, German or English. Yet such works were never completely absent. Even the humble and the untutored possessed a number of dog-eared Hebrew prayer books. The learned owned legal code books, for they were called upon to solve problems of ritual and ceremonial conduct. One wonders if Marcus Elcan’s library was in any sense typical. His substantial collection indicates that he was a man of education, liberal in his political, cultural, and social views. The Enlightenment had left its mark on him. Among the Jewish authors he read were David Levi and Mendelssohn, and he probably had about 200 books and pamphlets, all told. If this seems a small number, let it be borne in mind that the Library of Congress began in 1802 with 964 volumes and nine maps.39


Elcan was no scholar of Judaica. Only a few men here were at home in rabbinical and legal literature. As a rule, the learned among the Jews avoided this continent, which for them meant a frontier where apathy and ignorance prevailed—so they thought. Learning, they believed, was not valued here. But this was only partially true. Haym Salomon respected a scholarly uncle, but advised him to stay home: “Your yikes (family and academic background) is worth very little here.” No learned Jew could survive here on his scholarship alone; no community would support an adept in the rabbinic codes, not even modestly. Still, men of knowledge did find their way here. Judging from the extant books he once had in his library, Isaac Miranda (d. 1732), a convert to Christianity and a pioneer Pennsylvanian, was at home in rabbinic literature. One is almost tempted to suggest that, with a few notable exceptions, the scholarly men who settled here were devoid of business acumen. Around the year 1820, a religious functionary in Philadelphia was not even considered for a job though he described his talents as a reader, circumciser, and shofar blower in a Hebrew acrostic poem.

We have some reason to believe that the number of learned Jews here was larger than previously supposed. Actually, ever since the seventeenth century, even some Christians in the country had been collecting Hebrew books in the hope of becoming adepts. Most Christians who studied the Holy Scriptures had Jews as teachers, men who could translate the Hebrew into passable English. There is a chain of Jewish scholars here going back into the eighteenth century, although there is little evidence that this learning was transmitted directly from generation to generation. The reservoir of scholarship was constantly replenished by European immigration. When important issues arose, men who had attended European yeshivot, rabbinical academies, answered questions dealing with marriage, divorce, the mikveh (for ritual immersion), the legitimacy of children born of a Gentile mother, and the like. When Jews here did not feel competent to deal with these juristic difficulties—or the authority of the scholars here was not acknowledged—American congregational wardens turned to rabbinical authorities in Amsterdam or London. American Jewry never had any illusions about its expertise in the field of rabbinics. Eastern Europe supported numerous talmudic scholars; in Central Europe there was a growing body of young men equally at home in Hebrew and in secular studies. Moses Mendelssohn was a notable prototype.40

Here in the new republic one found an intermediate group of concerned Jews who cannot be described as scholars, yet were Jewishly knowledgeable. Noah, the country’s best known Jewish layman, may well fit into this category. He knew some Hebrew, for he had studied under Rabbi Seixas. Years later, he published a translation of a medieval Hebrew book, the Sefer Ha-Yashar, a reprint of a work first produced in England by Moses Samuels. Professional Hebrew scribes who copied Scrolls of the Law and other Hebrew documents were never wanting in North America. It is a valid assumption that they understood the contents of the material they copied, and probably knew even more. Manuscript prayer books intended for personal use or for gifts were not uncommon. It is not known for sure whether the men who prepared such works were able to interpret the texts but probably they could. It is interesting to note that, in 1824, Jonas A. Phillips (1806–1862) was the author of a manuscript translation of Johannes Buxtorf’s Hebrew grammar. The original edition had appeared in Latin, though a English translation appeared at London in 1656. Apparently young Phillips, then only eighteen, made a translation of his own, possibly from the Latin. Even if he did no more than copy another, already existing translation, his manuscript still remains something of a tour de force. He could not have undertaken the job without a good knowledge of Hebrew grammar. The question still presents itself: what prompted this young man to embark on such a task? Who trained him?41


Contradictions in cultural policies do not seem to have annoyed the Jewish communities. While they did not set out seriously to further the study of Hebrew, they occasionally called on their gifted men to write Hebrew odes for marriages and for synagog dedications, or a lament on the untimely passing of a national official like President William Henry Harrison. One classicist who wrote a Hebrew “Prayer for the Government” in 1818, when the Mill Street Synagogue was rebuilt, invoked God’s blessings on “Jimmy”—not James—Monroe! Finding an equivalent for the English “J,” which does not exist in Hebrew, was difficult, but the poet compromised on “dsh.” By the early nineteenth century, a number of immigrants in the United States had already studied biblical Hebrew scientifically, that is to say grammatically. One took a rabbinical post, and all of them added to their meager salaries by teaching Hebrew to Jews and Christians; several published grammatical works.42

At least eight such grammars and primers were printed here in postrevolutionary days. Two of the grammarians of Jewish background were confessing Christians. In 1833, Joshua Seixas, son of the Revolutionary War rabbi, wrote a Manual Hebrew Grammar for the Use of Beginners and also A Key to the Chaldee Language. A convert to Christianity, he had taken the name James, and it was under his new given name that his works appeared. He also prepared a Syriac and Arabic grammar in manuscript form. Seixas, a professional Hebrew teacher, claimed that he had taught hundreds, Christians no doubt. This is probably true. During the winter of 1835–1836, he was hired to instruct the Mormons, who had then settled in Kirkland, Ohio, where he held classes for them and their leader Joseph Smith. He also vetted the Hebrew grammar of Moses Stuart, the outstanding Christian grammarian of that day. In 1834, Joseph Aaron, of New York, published his Key to the Hebrew Language and the Science of Hebrew Grammar. Aaron taught both children and adults. With an eye to the basic needs of the city’s Jewish youngsters, “Professor” Aaron appended a morning prayer, the blessing for bread, the grace after meals according to the Sephardic and the Ashkenazic rites, and the devotions recited at bedtime.43

Only one among these Jewish grammarians was a scholar of calibre, Isaac Nordheimer (1809–1842), the first scientifically trained Jewish scholar in the United States. He was indeed exceptional; he could hold his own in any department of Semitics in any college today. Nordheimer was a polymath, a talmudist, a student of the classics and of modern European languages, a learned philologist who had earned his doctor’s degree at Munich. Shortly after landing here in 1838, he published A Critical Grammar of the Hebrew Language, and the same year A Grammatical Analysis of Selections from the Hebrew Scriptures with an Exercise in Hebrew Composition. The languages he taught were Hebrew, and, probably, Arabic and Syriac. He supplemented his modest income by occupying a teaching post at the University of the City of New York. His students, it may be assumed, were in the main Protestant clergymen, though Jonas A. Phillips’s earlier venture into Hebrew grammar would indicate that there were young Jews willing to memorize the Hebrew conjugations and declensions. Nordheimer is significant not only on the basis of what he wrote, but because he was in himself an intimation of changes to come. In little more than a decade, America would become home for a number of scholars combining religious liberalism with a modern critical approach to biblical and rabbinical literature. Nordheimer was in the van of this group; by the time he came to these shores, he had already emancipated himself from the authority of rabbinical law. In his historicocritical approach, he was influenced by Isaac Marcus Jost, Abraham Geiger, and Judah Loeb Rapoport. For the American Biblical Repository, he wrote two excellent articles on the Talmud, the rabbis, their schools, and their literature. In these surveys, he carried the story as far as the Golden Age in Spain. His is probably the first objective study of rabbinical literature published in the United States.44

Coeval with Nordheimer and the earlier grammarians were a number of other educated men who stand out, though for diverse reasons. Gershom Seixas, Joshua-James’s father, was notable as the first American-born Hebraist to serve a large community as hazzan. Despite his meager training he could consult the standard law code, the Shulhan Arukh, and knew enough to write a Hebrew oration for young Sampson Simson when he graduated from Columbia. Greek and Latin addresses were made by others, all this in the best English humanist tradition. Emma Lazarus’s grandfather Eleazer S. Lazarus also native-born and, it would seem, a disciple of Hazzan Seixas, revised and corrected the Hebrew text of the Sephardic prayer book published by Solomon H. Jackson. Dr. Jonas Horwitz also had a manuscript Hebrew grammar, which he forbore to publish. In 1827, the professor of Hebrew at Princeton College—in Massachusetts, not New Jersey—M. Michalowitch made a rhymed verse translation of the articles of faith of the Reformed Society of Israelites. One of New York’s most educated Jews was the Christian missionary Frey, whose bibliography is truly impressive, including a Hebrew grammar which went through at least nine printings in England and the United States. In addition, Frey published an edition of the Psalter, a Hebrew-English vocabulary, a Hebrew-Latin dictionary, a Hebrew-English lexicon, and also edited Van der Hooght’s Hebrew Bible. In his last years, so a biographer reports, he taught the Holy Tongue at the University of Michigan, the first instructor there in that language.45

Two other Hebraists merit mention in any history of American Jewry, Manuel Josephson (ca. 1729–1796) and Israel Baer Kursheedt (1766–1852). Josephson, the elected head of the Philadelphia Jewish community when Washington served as President in what was then the nation’s capital, was not only a competent rabbinical scholar but was able to express himself in well-ordered fashion in good English when discussing religiolegal (halakic) problems. Kursheedt appears to have been an even more accomplished scholar; Leeser, his contemporary, said that he had enjoyed a national repute for his learning. Kursheedt served on religious courts, made himself available when questions of rabbinic law were at issue, and on occasion lectured at Congregation Bnai Jeshurun. His first loyalty, however, was to Shearith Israel, where his father-in-law Gershom Seixas officiated. The latter bragged about his son-in-law to his distinguished Christian friends on the board of Columbia College.46

In many respects, the most interesting of all these learned men was the American-born Jacob Mordecai (1762–1838). He was reared as a businessman, a merchant, but he was not successful. Finally—in desperation?—he opened an academy for girls in the village of Warrenton, North Carolina, and in this venture he was successful. He was educated, and in his children, a brilliant congeries, he had a built-in faculty. Mordecai knew the Bible in the original Hebrew, but this autodidact was in no sense a thoroughgoing scholar. His knowledge of rabbinics must have been minimal. People tended to exaggerate his learning, but he was well-read in English literature, history, and Christian theology. He acquired a respectable body of learning despite the fact that he was immured in a remote settlement where library facilities were distinguished by their absence. In his devotion to Jewish learning and to apologetics, Mordecai was anything but typical. He was devout, observant, and later, when he lived in Richmond, chanted the service as a volunteer reader. Nothing that he wrote was ever published, yet he wrote a great deal hoping through his apologias to defend his people and the faith he loved.

Although he was highly esteemed, the extent of his influence is difficult to determine. Somehow or other he had studied the writings of Maimonides—translations had appeared in London. He corresponded with Rebecca Gratz, sent her a copy of an essay he had written, and dedicated Richmond’s first synagog building. After Charleston’s Isaac Harby broke with rabbinic Judaism in 1825, the indignant Mordecai wrote a long essay, in 1826, attacking the reformer. A copy of Mordecai’s counterstatement was dispatched to Charleston. The Virginia apologist hewed to the traditionalist line: Palestine is central in Judaism; the day will yet come when God will restore his people to the Promised Land. Ceremonies and rituals are important. Schisms and sectarianism are dangerous; rejection of ancestral laws and practices can only lead to assimilation. Hebrew must be retained in the prayers; it is the common bond that holds us together as Jews. Yes, some English in the service may serve a useful purpose; the English sermon would be helpful, but rabbinic authority must be respected. Like our ancestral Hebrew tongue, the dicta of the rabbis unite us. We are a people enjoying a national life and must continue as a cultural and religious enclave.47

Mordecai’s most important manuscripts are the two volumes now deposited in the American Jewish Archives. Both were written in the 1830’s. Volume One, dated 1836, bears the following ponderous title: “Remarks on Miss Martineau’s Tract Entitled Providence as Manifested Through Israel, and on the Writings of the Rev’d Alexander Keith Entitled Evidences of the Truth of the Christian Religion, Derived from the Literal Fulfillment of Prophecy, Particularly as illustrated by the History of the Jews and by the Discovery of Recent Travellers.” As the title suggests, Mordecai set out to answer Miss Harriet Martineau, who had traveled in the United States in 1834 and had come to know Rebecca Gratz. Miss Gratz found her “accessible” and “warmhearted,” which she may well have been; she may even have visited Ben Gratz and his family in Lexington. She was a Unitarian, a thoroughly modern person, a religious liberal—yet also a conversionist. As she saw it, Jews, Catholics, and Moslems would do well to accept Protestant Christianity, the best of all religions. Miss Martineau did not hold Judaism in high regard, as is clear in her Providence as Manifested Through Israel. Mordecai’s second volume essays an analysis of the Old Testament verses which Christians used to prove that Jesus must be acknowledged as the promised Messiah and the Son of God. The Christian assumptions and Christian interpretations of the Old Testament prophecies are rejected by Mordecai the apologist: these predictions had not been fulfilled in Jesus; what the Rev. Alexander Keith and others had adduced was in no sense evidence of the truth of the Christian religion. Mordecai may well have been pushed to answer Miss Martineau and Alexander Keith because he and his children, while in Warrenton, had been constantly subjected to conversionist pressures.48

Mordecai’s contentions and arguments in answering the persistent proselytizers were standard among Jews. They are found in all the Anglo-Jewish literary arsenals available to American Jewry: Jesus was not God; the Nazarene’s very existence, his historicity, has never been authenticated; the gospels are not good history. The polemic went on: there is no Trinity; Jesus was no Messiah; the seventh day is the only true day of rest ordained by God. If Jews have been scattered and oppressed, it was not because they rejected Jesus; they had started their wanderings long before the birth of that man. Jews have suffered because they have broken God’s law; Christianity has not superseded and will not supersede Judaism. Let the Christians believe in Jesus; let the Jews save themselves. In Richmond, Mordecai had helped train the German stripling Isaac Leeser, who arrived in the city in 1824. Leeser of course had come with considerable learning. By 1840, the maturing Leeser had already published six books on Judaism and was widely recognized as an educator of quality. Religiously, he, too, was comfortably ensconced on the right. It was in 1840 also that Abraham Rice arrived in Baltimore to serve as rabbi for the Dispersed of Israel. Now, for the first time in nearly two centuries of Jewish settlement in North America, there was an ordained rabbi in the land, a man well-versed in rabbinical lore and aglow with determination to hold fast to time-honored doctrines and practices. With the exception of Nordheimer, all the scholarly men of that generation were traditionalists: “Moses commanded us a law.” This verse from Deuteronomy 33:4 was taken literally. Despite their acculturation, their complete acceptance of their beloved America, these bookish men gladly bore the yoke of the Torah.

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