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Constant suspicion dogged the Jews. They were often deemed different; they were rejected. The slights, snide remarks, and refusal to emancipate them politically, might lead one to the conclusion that American Jewry was in a sorry state. This would be a false conclusion. True, anti-Jewish prejudice was the continuum underlying Jewish-Christian relations, yet it was transcended by a complex structure of mutual tolerance and acceptance. Despite rejection, there was acceptance. The very fact that evangelical Christians were more than ready to convert Jews is some indication of “acceptance.” A racist Judeophobia was absent.


The grant of full political rights in some states and most privileges in the other states documents acceptance, willingness to integrate Jews. Resulting economic advances made for further acceptance of the Children of Israel; Americans had a profound respect for the successful and the affluent. Unlike Europe, America knew no national, no federal sanctions for anti-Jewish hostility; on the whole churches, too, were reconciled to political equality for all religious groups. Everyone talked of the United States as a haven and an asylum for the poor and oppressed. Did this citizenry mean what it said? Who knows? At all events, immigrants kept coming in; indeed the gates were to remain open till the first quarter of the twentieth century. Most Americans were ready to accept Jews as citizens, as human beings entitled to all immunities. Ever since the Revolution, some newspapers, editors, and correspondents had insisted on rights for Jews; notable defenders rose up to speak on their behalf. This was particularly true when the Maryland Jew Bill was being debated. In North Carolina, the legislators connived illegally at the retention of a Jew in the state legislature; good will, not law, was determining. In 1843, a Georgian bragged that, in his hometown of Savannah, an alderman, a state legislator, the city judge, the sheriff, and the Collector of the Port were all of the Jewish faith. Numerous Jews were elected or appointed to municipal, state, and federal offices, particularly in the South—all this before 1840. As early as 1795, New York’s Sampson Simson wrote to the Jews in China: Are you in “exile”; are you suffering? Do you have security? Here in America we enjoy great peace. The facts bear him out.1


Jews were accepted despite the fact that they were the only non-Christians, in the country. Even the blacks, slaves, were Christian, nominally at least. Religiously, this was a Christian country. Good Dr. Benjamin Rush prayed for the day when Jews would unite with Christians and devoutly turn to Jesus, their common and universal Savior. Jews and Christians were part of the same olive tree. Unfortunately, said the evangelicals, the Jews were a branch broken off, but they could be grafted on again. When, in 1773, the visiting Palestinian Sephardic rabbi Haim Isaac Carigal spoke in Newport, the governor and the leading judge of the province sat through a long sermon in Spanish. They could not understand a word he said, but they could enjoy his exotic multicolored garb; they could admire his beautiful long beard; the rabbi was a man of striking appearance. After the establishment of the American republic, Christian notables—governors, supreme court justices, bishops—were nearly always present at synagog dedications or Jewish celebrations of civic concern. This attendance by the governing elite was tantamount to recognition of Judaism as a licensed faith, a religio licita, one might say. Invariably, the Christian visitors said that they were delighted and professed to have been been edified. On such occasions it was not unusual to read an English prayer; the main address would be delivered by an educated Jewish layman—in English, of course. When, in early nineteenth-century Savannah, Jews assembled to entreat their Creator to abate the rigors of the prevailing yellow fever, the mayor reminded all present that Jews and Christians had but one God in common. On a somewhat similar occasion, a Philadelphia newspaper reminded the assembled Jews and Christians that they were all the children of a common eternal father. On the Jewish frontier, in Cincinnati, the Queen City of the West, over fifty Christians contributed liberally to build the first transallegheny synagog. The dedication address was given by Joseph Jonas, the community’s founding father; the audience, he wrote to a Jewish editor, was thrilled when “the sweet voices of the daughters of Zion ascended on high in joyful praises.…” And, when in financial trouble, a Philadelphia Christian church turned for help to a Jewish philanthropist in Germany.2

In general, Jews as religionists were accepted as part of America. Of course the disparateness of Judaism was recognized; on occasion, however, it was treated as a religion entitled to the same privileges as Christianity. Americans of culture were as a rule courteous to Jews, even though most Christians had scant respect for Judaism as a faith and were repelled by its exotic forms of worship. Individual Christians were tolerant of the Jewish dietary laws, particularly if the practitioners were friends. When one of the younger Sheftalls was apprenticed to a Christian lawyer, the indenture specified that the Jewish youth was to be free on his Sabbath and his Holy Days. In the early years of the Revolution, the New York authorities excused a Jew from performing military service on his Sabbath. On one occasion Jews were permitted to build a sukkah in the yard of a Christian institution. Like his Christian clerical counterparts, Gershom Seixas was invited to serve as a trustee of Columbia. To be sure, the time had not yet come for Jews to be invited to preach in Christian churches; for this the Jew would have to wait till the late 1860’s. “He who hates another man for not being a Christian is himself not a Christian. Christianity breathes love, peace, and good-will to man;” thus a Carolina writer during the final days of the Revolution. In 1829, a Virginia editor wrote:

Why should Christians despise and contemn the people of Israel? They worship the same God and draw religious instruction from the same Holy revelation.… “Religion is left free as air and unbounded as the ocean.”3


On occasion—rare, to be sure—Christians were eager to become Jewish communicants. These were generally pious Christians who believed in the literal inspiration of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament; they wanted to share the promises made to God’s chosen ones. Most converts to Judaism were men or women who sought marriage to a Jew; conviction and commitment were probably secondary in most of these cases. The larger number of these would-be converts, or actual proselytes, were women, some of whom had been living with Jews in common-law marriages. One such Christian woman had to wait twenty-one years before she was fully accepted for conversion. Shearith Israel of New York was most cautious in admitting non-Jews into the fold; using specious excuses, it urged applicants to go to Europe for a ritually authentic conversion. Other American congregations, particularly the immigrant congregations, were less intractable. It may well be that Shearith Israel was socially motivated in its rejections; it was in no hurry to welcome Christian-born strangers.4


American notables were sympathetic to Jews and their aspirations. Presidents of the United States accepted them, not because they were Jews but because they were American citizens. Ideologically, the country’s leaders had no choice; their personal philosophy compelled them to maintain that the Jews were fully entitled to all rights and privileges. Actually, in matters of worship, the Jews gained nothing from the Revolution. Under the British, in the colonies, Jewish religious services had never been proscribed. When the Founding Fathers wrote of religious freedom, they meant that in principle adherents of Judaism were entitled to the same political rights as Christians. Religion, or the lack of it, was no bar to equality. Presidents were Janus-faced. They were the children of their age; some of them may not have been without anti-Jewish bias, and on occasion this prejudice seeped out; as chief executives, however, their image of themselves in the world following on the Declaration of Independence and all that it implied, culturally and intellectually, compelled them to champion egalitarianism. They were fully conscious of the role history had assigned them; they were loyal to this picture of themselves as harbingers of a glorious new world of “equality.” These concepts almost threatened to intoxicate them. All presidents during this period, from Washington to Van Buren, had relations with Jews personally. For the most part they knew Jews through letters exchanged with them. Van Buren and Noah worked together, not always harmoniously. From the point of view of party and faction leaders, Noah could be difficult. Van Buren had a number of Jewish admirers, among them Samuel Hart, of Philadelphia, a brother of the well-known communal worker Louisa B. Hart; their father, Michael Hart, the Easton pioneer, had once entertained Washington as he passed through town. Jackson, too, had his devoted Jewish followers, none more loyal during the Nullification struggle than Colonel Chapman Levy, of Camden, South Carolina. John Quincy Adams, it would seem, was not enamored of Noah, yet he praised Jews; they were good citizens. As libertarians, Madison and Monroe had both fallen from grace when they recalled the Jew Noah as United States consul in Tunis; yet, as is amply documented, both of them, like Washington, Adams and Jefferson, were unreservedly committed to the enfranchisement of all Jewish citizens.5

Jefferson knew more Jews, and knew more about Jews, than any other president of that day. Of all the Founding Fathers, he was most concerned about their status. In 1776 he had made an unsuccessful attempt in Virginia to emancipate Jews, Catholics, and non-Protestants. Jefferson deplored the laws which still disabled American Jewish citizens. He was honest in his efforts to treat Jews as equals; this sincerity is shown by his willingness to consider a Jewish-born lawyer as his attorney general. The elder Adams was no admirer of Jews, yet he wanted all Jews, wherever they were found, to be admitted to all privileges. “This country has done much. I wish it may do more.” Was he conscious of the fact that the Massachusetts Jews of his day were still second-class citizens? The Bible, he once suggested, ought to become America’s basic law book. It was his hope that the Hebrew language would be taught, along with Greek and Latin, in a Quincy school whose establishment he envisaged. Washington had done business with Jews since 1758, at the time of the French and Indian War; there were Jews among his officers during the Revolution, and after the war, a Jewish merchant entertained him socially. Washington’s official relations with Jews really began after his inauguration, when the Jewish communities of America, separately or conjointly, congratulated him on his election to office. His several answers reflected his attitudes toward them: Americans accept one another despite their religious differences; everyone here is treated as an equal; this is unparalleled in the history of nations. Borrowing a phrase from one of the Jewish letters which he received, he emphasized it through repetition: the government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction.6


Courtesy to Jews by American notables was exemplified by Benjamin Franklin, who was in constant touch with them. Franklin, generous to many churches, made no exception where Jews were concerned. When the Philadelphia Jews built their first sanctuary in 1782, many Jewish businessmen, refugees from the British-occupied coastal cities, were living in town and contributed generously, but after the peace was signed, they returned home and left the Philadelphia remnant holding the bag—the mortgage. The postwar depression worsened conditions. In that emergency, congregants appealed to their Christian neighbors for aid: “Come over and help us.” “Enlightened citizens … will subscribe generously towards the preservation of a religious house of worship.” And so they did, beginning with Benjamin Franklin in 1788. Other notable Philadelphians contributed, including an outstanding Catholic—a signer of the Declaration of Independence—and a Lutheran. The Lutheran was John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg. What a miracle the Revolution had wrought! The father, Henry Melchior Muehlenberg, America’s best known Lutheran, was bitterly opposed to the enfranchisement of Pennsylvania’s Jews; the son, also a clergyman, gave money to what the father would have called a “synagog of Satan.” If the Jews were allowed to hold office, Muehlenberg père had once said, the state would become another Sodom. In this instance, Hansen’s Law should read: “What the father wishes to remember, the son wishes to forget.”7


Like the notables who set the tone, many American Gentiles did not wish to subject Jews to disabilities because of their religious convictions. Influenced by European Deistic ideas, by the Enlightenment, democracy, and the expedient need for tolerance in a multireligious society, the new national government preached the gospel of religiopolitical liberty for all. Here and there, individuals were even vehement in their insistence that all religionists must be equal before the law. In New Hampshire, William Plumer—later a United States Senator—raised his voice unsuccessfully against the Protestant Christian clauses in a proposed state constitution; he pleaded for complete religious freedom for all citizens, which would, of course, have included Jews.8

Though eager to convert Jews, an English poet who lived in Philadelphia in the 1780’s pleaded for unlimited toleration for them and emancipation for Negroes; another Philadelphian, the merchant and political economist Tench Coxe (d. 1824), emphasized the fact that here in America the “Hebrew Church” as well as numerous Christian sects were welcome. A third Pennsylvanian, the English-born scientist John Priestley, lamented that the Jewish faith had been grossly misrepresented and abused. Judaism, too, he said, is of divine origin and is infinitely superior to all other religions of equal antiquity. Speaking in London in 1792, the American leader of the Universalist Church, Elhanan Winchester, pointed out that, in the United States, all denominations were on an equal footing. There was no bigotry here; America had taught the world that giving the Jews privileges was not a dangerous experiment, but a good idea. The Catholic Bishop of Charleston, John England, who never forgot that he had suffered discrimination in his native Ireland, gloried in the emancipation of Maryland’s Jews. A Virginia Quaker, corresponding with Isaac Leeser, treated him with deference in 1829 as he sought information about Judaism and early Christianity. That same year, another Virginian, also a Quaker, carrying on a literary debate with Leeser in a Richmond paper, did not question that Jews were as moral as Christians: Jews, too, are God’s children. God loves them all, and those Jews who lead the good life will be accepted by Him. This Christian apologete protested that he did not wish to perpetuate prejudice; he was no proselytizer; he wanted Jews to love their neighbors as they loved themselves.9


The prime source of Gentile interest in Jews was not religion or egalitarian ideology; it was sheer curiosity. There were few Americans who did not want to know more about these exotics whose faith was already over 1,000 years old when Jesus walked the streets of Jerusalem. Christians wanted to know all about these relics who had miraculously survived twenty centuries of merciless persecution. Writings on Judaism, on Jewish customs and history, were not uncommon. The curiosity, to be sure, was rarely if ever divorced from religion, for it was the Jews who had given birth to Christianity. Interest in Jews was heightened, too, by the conjecture that the Indians were the Lost Ten Tribes. This identification was religiously important; if the American Indians were the Lost Ten Tribes, and if the Restoration of the Jews was about to take place, then Jesus himself would speedily reappear! The Second Advent was imminent! Christians frequently visited the synagog; clergy read Jewish periodicals, and almost everyone enjoyed Scott’s Ivanhoe. Over 2,500,000 copies of that novel were sold; Rebecca the Jewess was an attractive character.10

An abiding curiosity about Judaism, the faith which had nourished Jesus, was reflected in the numerous edificatory publications that dealt with the Jewish religion, with its relationship to Christianity, and with the hope—rarely absent—that the Jews would yet accept God’s only begotten Son. The early nineteenth-century professional writers on religion attempted to be objective in evaluating Judaism. Most of them scrupulously avoided vituperation; an exception was James Wilson, pastor of the Second Congregational Church of Providence, who wrote that Jews were “cruel, degenerate, idolatrous,” the very “picture of human depravity.” Reading books on Jews and Judaism was, in a way, a form of acceptance. Interest in Jewish infidels had never flagged since the first of them arrived in Boston. Christians were inordinately concerned with these living witnesses to the New Testament, the more so if they had never seen one in the flesh. These were the very people who had given birth to Christ himself. Christian curiosity was stimulated and satisfied by books and magazines, especially those of a religious nature. People read stories about Jews, descriptions of ancient Palestine, and, of course, Josephus; the Wars of the Jews was reprinted here as early as 1719. Inquisitive Gentiles purchased histories of the Hebrews and the Jews, books on the Old Testament, grammars on Hebrew and cognate languages, plays about Jews, works on the Restoration, brochures and tomes on the Wandering Jew. There was no dearth of pamphlets by the conversionists—and the anti-conversionists, too.11

Not only Jews, but American Christians also read the London publications of David Levi on Judaism, its ceremonies, its Hebrew language. They even read Mendelssohn’s Answer to Deacon Johann Kaspar Lavater. When Gershom Seixas’s Thanksgiving sermon appeared in print in 1789, Christians were enjoined by the publisher to read this work which “breathes nothing but pure morality.” The inhabitants of Keene, New Hampshire, a county seat 100 miles or so northwest of Boston, could boast in 1795 that a local printer had published a chapbook dealing with the Counterfeit Messiah, the picturesque Shabbethai Zevi, whom Jews had ecstatically accepted in the 1660’s as the man who would lead them back in triumph to the Promised Land. Seeking to cash in on the success of his earlier philosemitic comedy The Jew, Richard Cumberland published The Jew of Mogadore in 1808. Nadab, the new hero, was a kindly, charming, benevolent and courageous Jewish moneylender, among whose chief goals in life it was to help the poor, the enslaved, the unfortunate; he was a humanitarian whose charities knew no bounds of religion or national origins: “Children, you see there is a power above us, and whether we be Christian, mussulman or jew, a good man’s prayer will find its way to heaven.” As early as 1784 in her Alphabetical Compendium of the Sects, Hannah Adams dealt in some detail with Judaism. Later, in her two-volume History, republished twice in London and even translated into German, Adams pointed out that Jews, too, had furthered knowledge of the true God; it was they who had founded the Christian church and had written both the Old and the New Testaments. The History—so it would seem—was written to satisfy the curiosity of Christians, to fortify their faith in Christianity, and, possibly, to intimate to Jews that their sufferings would cease if they accepted the Son of God.12

Histories and reference books concerning themselves with Jews or containing detailed data on them were rolling off the presses. Among them was Thomas Brown’s History of the City and Temple of Jerusalem and of the Ruin and Dispersion of the Jewish Nation (Albany, 1825). Despite his own conversionist goals, Brown was sympathetic to these historic unbelievers. Reminding his readers that Jews had been abused for centuries by Christians, Brown vindicated the Jews. The United States, he wrote, has given them rights; this is the only country that has never persecuted them. Organized conversionist efforts? They are expensive and a failure. It is true, he admitted, Jews are disliked here too, but they are as moral as others; they are champions of freedom, talented men whose qualities shine forth when they are treated as human beings. Here he was quoting the Abbé Gregoire, a hero of the French Revolution. Another book that appeared at this time was John Marsh’s An Epitome of General Ecclesiastical History (1827). This work, dealing with all religions, also included a brief history of the Jews, some statistical data on them, and a concise disquisition on the Lost Ten Tribes. In 1830, an American edition of Charles Buck’s London Theological Dictionary was published in Philadelphia. Like Brown, Buck expressed his admiration for the Jews, who had persisted despite persecution. The Jews must be led to the baptismal font but only through love; under no circumstances are their liberties to be abridged or their consciences forced.13

That same year, Henry Hart Milman’s History of the Jews was republished in New York by Harper. With this edition, pirated shortly after the original appeared in London, Milman made his bow to America. His was the most popular of all the chronicles of the Jews to appear in London and in the United States. Though the biblical records of the Hebrews are replete with barbaric deeds, he suggested, it must not be forgotten that the Jews were chosen by God and that they were the precursors of Christianity. Charles A. Goodrich, in his Religious Ceremonies and Customs (1834), described Jewish forms of worship and recounted Jewish travails through the ages. It was in 1834, too, that a novel was published rehearsing proof of the authenticity of Jesus and his disciples: Sadoc and Miriam, directed, however, not at the Jews, but at the doubting Christian Pharisees and Sadducees of the nineteenth century. In the New Orleans of the 1830’s, the synagogal officiant Manis Jacobs delivered two lectures on Jewish ritual and on the origins of Christianity; one of the talks was in French, the other in English. Jewish expositions of this type, addressed to Christians, were to be exceedingly rare; this is very probably the first such instance in the history of Jewish-Christian relations here in the United States.14


Did respect for the biblical Israelites and interest in the Hebrew language make for a sympathetic approach to Jews? Many Christians studied Hebrew seriously; there were certainly more Christians than Jews conning paradigms and declensions. Christian lovers of the Holy Tongue had been assembling libraries of biblical and rabbinic classics ever since the seventeenth century. Some of the Hebrew teachers employed by Christians were Jews; Christians frequently turned to them for instruction in the language of the Old Testament. Joseph Smith, the Mormon leader, hired Dr. Daniel L. M. Peixotto and James (Joshua) Seixas to give his followers some knowledge of this sacred tongue. Ezra Stiles, who taught Hebrew at Yale, delivered a commencement oration in that language in 1781. He had urged his students to study Hebrew and especially the Psalms, assuring them that they would hear these very songs of David when they passed through the gates of Heaven. Too much time was spent studying Greek and Latin, said Dr. Benjamin Rush. The clergy would be better served by the study of Hebrew and of Jewish antiquities. Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin, sitting as a committee hoped to use the theme of the escape of the Israelites across the Red Sea as the design for the great seal of the United States, though their suggestion was rejected. Jews, for their part, did not fail to appreciate Christian esteem for biblical tradition. Congratulating Washington on his election as president, Newport’s Jews identified him with the biblical Daniel and Joshua—with the administrator and the warrior. Charleston Jews, in their letter to the great Virginian, assured him that they would number him with their heroes of old, from Moses to the Maccabees. Thus the Jews forged a Hebraic link to the chief executive; he had now become a spiritual scion of Jewry; they had virtually adopted him.15

All this interest in Hebrew and in the references to biblical worthies is interesting, but there is little, if any, evidence that it predisposed Christians to Jews or to post-biblical Judaism. The Christians could maintain with justice that the Old Testament was as much their book as it was the Jews’. Protestant Christians at least read the Bible; Jews only rarely did so. Yet, surely thanks in part to the interest in biblical literature, there was a new approach to Jews, a new and effective climate of opinion. American citizens were sympathetic to their Jewish fellow citizens because of the growth of tolerance both here and abroad. New national states in Europe, economically motivated, insisted that their sovereignty superseded that of the church. For the emerging mercantilist governments, taxation was more important than salvation. In a world of nascent capitalism, the Jew was needed, hence emancipated; the motivations for emancipation, when probed to their depths, may have been little more than rationales to exploit the commercial capacities of these urban businessmen. Elements of the new egalitarianism were reflected in the organic statutes of the new American republic and in France as well. When the French moved to emancipate their Jews, the news was greeted with enthusiasm in the United States. The Jews were conscious that they were living in an era of great change.16

The churches and the masses were shedding some of their prejudices. This age would witness the rise of Universalism among American Protestants. The Catholics, too, were benefiting from the new tolerance; they began building houses of worship. In Charleston, the beautiful new synagog of the 1790’s was erected near a Catholic sanctuary. The Catholics certainly voiced no objection, but in Europe, especially in Catholic lands, this would have been most unusual; it would have been looked upon as a reproach to Christianity. In one of her interesting letters to Maria Edgeworth, Rachel Mordecai Lazarus pointed out that an Episcopalian woman had given her brother, a Jew, the task of building a church. He was her executor. The new tolerance then distinguishing the United States is amply attested to by the fact that Rachel’s father, an observant Jew living in a town where there were no other Jews, had conducted a successful boarding school for Christian children. Warrenton, North Carolina, was evidently glad to accept Jacob Mordecai. Gentiles as well as Jews were present when Isaac Harby spoke at an anniversary meeting of Charleston’s Hebrew Orphan Asylum. On the report that two Palestinian Jewish messengers had arrived in Philadelphia seeking funds to redeem enslaved Jews in Hebron, the editors of the Pennsylvania Packet urged Christians to be generous: “mercy is twice blest … it blesses those who receive and those who give.”17

At a time when there was not a known Jew in Vermont, liberals there raised their voices to protest a Sunday law that made for intolerance. American political liberalism was deemed by many a commodity worthy of export. America is a land which Jews can call their own; God will not be angry with the United States for welcoming and protecting Jews, said the Universalist clergyman Elhanan Winchester in 1792. Dr. Rush confided to his “Commonplace Book” in 1812 that, when a patient, Mr. Jacob M. Bravo, had died, his widow paid his medical bills. This was probably the first time in Rush’s experience that a family had honored a bill after the patient’s death: “Mrs. Bravo was a Jewess. Blush Christians.” In Cincinnati, Joseph Jonas reported that people came from a distance of 100 miles to talk to the “holy people of God.” Conversionists, too, could be admirers of Jews. Dr. John H. Livingston, president of Rutgers, was an officer of the American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews, but he saw no reason to confine converts to Christianity in a separate colony of their own. Jews make good citizens, he wrote; they are eminently respectable, an industrious people. They have a right to enjoy the same privileges as Christians. “The spirit of religious liberty has molded us all into affectionate forbearance and mutual friendship.”18

In 1837, a missionary journal reprinted an article from a Boston newspaper. If there is anything wrong with Jews, the writer had said, it is because of what the Christians have done to them. Jews have a beautiful home life; their husbands are faithful; Jews are generous, religious. Around 1750, generations before the Bostonians had sung the praises of the Jews, three men gathered in Savannah and formed a Union Society to help unfortunates. The three were a Protestant, a Catholic, and a Jew. In the early 1800’s, the American editor David Longworth republished Robert Southey’s Letters from England; the Southey book denigrated Jews, but Longworth insisted that Jews in this country had no resemblance to those attacked by the English poet. Longworth had nothing but praise for Jewish Americans; they were respectable, amiable, lofty citizens. You cannot punish Jews today for what happened in remote centuries, wrote a Virginian in 1829. The Jews who had survived centuries of persecution were a courageous people. Let the Jew be viewed with awe, sympathy, reverence: this is his country as much as another’s.”19

Under the code duello, only people of equal social station could respond to an insult by undertaking to kill each other. The acceptability of the Jew in early American life is authenticated by the fact that he was salonfaehig, “fit for good society,” which meant that in duels, meticulously arranged encounters, it was perfectly proper for Jews to kill Gentiles and for Gentiles to kill Jews. Thus, in order to live honorably, even Jewish gentlemen did not hesitate to shoot one another. With exceptions, Jews were accepted as worthy antagonists, as members of the peer group. When Dr. Edward Chisholm refused to meet G. P. Cohen, of Charleston, because he was a Jew, Cohen branded the Gentile a coward, pointing out that the constitutions of both South Carolina and the United States made it unequivocally clear that all citizens were equal irrespective of their religious commitments. Young Mordecai Noah wrote Uncle Naphtali Phillips that he had wounded a puppy by the name of John Canter, who had challenged him. Noah said that he was cool and comfortable during the encounter. His victim was a Jew, a portrait and miniature painter. In the duel between Captain James Barron and Commodore Stephen Decatur, the pistols used were borrowed from one of the Myers brothers, of Norfolk, but after the Decatur killing, Rebecca Gratz commented sadly that the Americans were a “barbarous people.” August Belmont was wounded in a duel in 1841 and carried the injury on his body as long as he lived. There were three Levys in Camden, South Carolina, and all had fought duels. One of them, Mordecai M. Levy, merchant, state legislator, an unsuccessful candidate for Congress in 1836, fought two duels on behalf of his friend Colonel Rochelle Blair. The latter was married and had a family; Levy at the time was not. Years later, now a married man himself, he named one of his daughters after the colonel. Writing to her sister-in-law in Lexington in 1830, Rebecca Gratz reported that an arrogant German, a Gentile, had forbidden Isaac Moses (b. 1807), a nephew, to ask a certain woman for a dance. Moses, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, responded to this demand by flogging the insolent foreigner. When the German challenged him, Moses answered that the man had been whipped and was no longer privileged to kill or be killed.20


As far as is now known, Jews of equal cultural and social standing were not excluded from associational institutions. Jews seem to have been members of numerous socioliterary groups, particularly in the South, where such societies flourished. It is not known whether any of these associations were social clubs, pure and simple, where only intimates met. A Savannah resident boasted that his fellow Jews were numbered among the founders of every charity and literary society in town. There is no question: the Jews were everywhere, in the philanthropic organizations, the orphan-aid groups, the mutual-aid associations, the cavalry troops, the Academy of Fine Arts, even in a mineralogical society. Apparently, foreign birth and humble origins were no bars to membership. No one would seem to have been more active in Richmond’s Amicable Society than Joseph Darmstadt, a former Hessian sutler. After his capture by the Americans, he was sent as a prisoner to Charlottesville; following his release, he settled in Richmond, where he became a successful merchant, respected and beloved—by the women, too—if only because he was the town’s prankster. His store had its never-failing coffeepot which made it a social center on cold mornings when Richmond’s elite forgathered to market.21

There were many other associations where Jews made their presence felt; political societies like the Columbian Order and, of course, the ethnic organizations patronized by the English, Germans, or French and their friends. One of the Charlestonians belonged to the Seventy-Six Association, which met on the Fourth of July and listened to a patriotic oration, then duly forwarded it to Thomas Jefferson. Grateful for election to the Virginia Historical and Philosophical Society, Richmond’s Rabbi A. H. Cohen gave the group a small mineral collection and Prescott’s three-volume work on Mexico. Solomon Cohen, of Georgetown, South Carolina, was treasurer of the local Library Society, which subscribed for newspapers from the major American cities and from London, too. The library had about 1,000 volumes. In 1801, at the age of twenty, Rebecca Gratz devoted herself to social welfare work in the larger Gentile community. Because of her skills, her culture, her literacy, and her social status her contribution was important. She was respected by all; there was probably not a drawing room in Philadelphia which would not have welcomed this gracious woman.22


The whilom Hessian sutler Joseph Darmstadt was Grand Treasurer of Virginia’s Masons in 1790, when John Marshall was the Grand Master; when Virginia’s Masonic meetinghouse was to be knocked down at auction because of a builder’s lien, Darmstadt advanced the funds to save it. Masonry had been brought to the colonies from England in the early eighteenth century; by that time, London Jews were already members in some of the lodges. It is not improbable that there were Jewish Masons in Oglethorpe’s Savannah of the 1730’s; they were certainly admitted into the Georgia lodge in the 1750’s. By that decade, indeed, Jews were Masons in a number of the colonies. Masonry took an important step forward in the 1760’s owing to the work of Moses Michael Hays, a Jewish merchant and probably the most innovative of all Masons in the America of the colonial and early national periods. Hays had gone to England in 1760 and there, it would seem, became enamored of the movement. From that decade on, despite their small numbers, Jews began to play a role of some consequence in American Masonry. In 1768, Hays was appointed Deputy Inspector General of the Rite of Perfection for the West Indies and North America. By virtue of the authority vested in him, he nominated eight Deputy Inspectors General in 1781 to carry on the work in the United States and in the Caribbean Islands. All but one of the men he then licensed were Jews. What his deputies accomplished is yet to be determined. In 1788, Hays, now a Bostonian, became Grand Master of the Massachusetts Grand Lodge, succeeding Dr. John Warren, one of the founders of Harvard’s medical school. When, in 1791, Hays was reelected Grand Master, he chose Colonel Paul Revere as his deputy. The two men knew each other well; Hays had been helpful to Revere in one of the latter’s business ventures. It is worth noting that the Jewish Masonic leaders in America seem all to have been religionists, untouched by the radical and skeptical trends that had come out of revolutionary France. There were two French lodges in Charleston, both frequented by Jews; undoubtedly some of these men were refugees who had fled when the blacks revolted in the Caribbean; some may have come from France. Before 1841, Jews had served as Grand Masters of state lodges, not only in Massachusetts, but also in Rhode Island, Virginia, Kentucky, and Illinois. Abraham Jonas, a friend of Lincoln, was elected Grand Master in both the two latter states.23


Jews could not help but be flattered by the fact that Masonry took over the traditional Jewish dating of the creation of the world. According to that doctrine, God brought the universe into being just 3,760 years before the appearance of Jesus. Jews like others, were entranced by stories of brotherhood both implicit and realized in this attractive secret order. There was a wide-spread belief that Masons helped one another in moments of danger. The myth—if that is what it is—has attached itself to several Jews. When arrested and threatened by the British during the Revolution, Israel Israel saved himself by giving a Masonic sign. Captured by pirates in the Mediterranean, Solomon B. Nones, a consular officer, escaped with his life when the Masons among the corsairs discovered that he was a member of the Order. It is practically impossible to verify such stories, but Masons did take their vows seriously.24

Jews found in Masonry an organization which taught and practiced the principles of toleration and social equality. It was one of the few institutions, outside of the synagog, where the human dignity of the Jew was given recognition and where he could hope to meet people of culture and intelligence on a plane of equality. To be sure, Jews were not unaware of the personal, commercial, and social advantages to be garnered from membership. They soon discovered that Masonry embodied in itself all the aspirations of English rationalism and French humanitarianism. They saw it as an aspect of the new Enlightenment. For the Jew, Masonry was one of the chief links to a larger world which he yearned to embrace but which, at times, still kept him at arm’s length. Unless we understand this, we will never realize what Masonry meant to the socially starved Jews during the period of an emerging civil and political emancipation. Many were insecure immigrants; Masonry was a world of fantasy; it was good for their ego; the mouth-filling titles pleased them no end. Masonry demanded no religious sacrifice; Jewish clergymen were frequently active members. Religiously, Masonry was universalist; its code was moral, one Jews could readily accept. This is why Jews so often invited Masons to participate in synagog dedications. In the larger towns, Jews hastened to become devotees of this cult; in some places they became its leaders and its propagandists. For a time, it would seem, they had taken over certain branches of the movement. Isaac Harby said point blank in 1825 that it was the Jews who had “disseminated the beautiful institutions of Masonry, that universal link of brotherhood.” Early American Jewry would have taken seriously the couplet which satirized Masonry in 1787:

For in a moment, all sects, Christians, Turks,

Gentiles, and Jews

The feelings of nature, pride, malice, and prejudice lose.25


More and more evidence is emerging that the relations between Jews and non-Jews were often most cordial. In 1802, Charleston’s General Christopher Gadsden, a Revolutionary War veteran, gave the local congregation a gift of some classical rabbinic works, three volumes of the Mishnah and two volumes of the writings of Maimonides. Gadsden had learned Hebrew while imprisoned by the British. Accompanying his gift was a gracious note expressing his admiration for the Jewish community and invoking God’s blessing upon them. The General was a political liberal interested in disestablishing the church. In the first annual report of the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society of Philadelphia in 1820, it was disclosed that the largest gift or donation received by this organization had come from the estate of a Christian. In this same city of Philadelphia, the members of the United Hebrew Beneficent Society said frankly that they would welcome donations from persons of every religious sect. Charleston’s Reformed Society of Israelites turned to Christian friends when it collected money for a synagog, and in 1830, when the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation published its first constitution, it announced that it had received funds from Christians who would be gratefully mentioned in its prayers. Christians joined Jews in petitioning the Savannah authorities for a free lot for a sanctuary; the Richmond council gave the Jews a cemetery, and when the Savannah synagog was destroyed by fire, Christians helped to rebuild it. When, in the early 1840’s, the Orthodox and the Reform Jews of Charleston went to court to settle their religious differences, one of the litigants employed Christopher G. Memminger, a local Christian lawyer. Memminger charged no fee, since, he said, this was a religious matter. Years later, after Memminger had become Secretary of the Treasury in the Confederacy, the Union General Benjamin F. Butler referred to him as a Jew. It is possible that this was guilt by association, for the Secretary’s courtesy to the Jews was probably no secret. And it may well be that General Butler dammed him because he was foreign born, a “Dutchman,” and in charge of the South’s finances. Money was a Jewish business!26

Individual acts of friendship and kindness by Christians to Jews were numerous. Seixas had many Christian admirers. One Albany family was close to him; the Seixas children called these Christians Uncle and Aunt. Another Albanian—Dunbar was his name—had once heard the hazzan chaunt the service on Yom Kippur. Impressed, Mr. Dunbar sent Seixas a barrel of very good cider. Seixas sent all of his friends a sample of this delicious brew, but, fearful that they would besiege him for more, he withheld the fact that he had a whole barrel hidden in his cellar. When Quartermaster Mordecai Sheftall was in prison and later exiled by the British after they captured Savannah, his Christian friends rallied around him. One family sent him three gallons of the best Jamaican rum, a great comfort to the unhappy man.27


There is no question that encounters in the Masonic lodges between Jews and Christians made for tolerance, for formal acceptance at least. In most instances, certainly, friendships between Jews and non-Jews developed outside of Masonic circles. Jews in general patterned themselves slavishly on the Gentiles about them. Eager to conform, possibly overeager, the Jews were uncompromisingly American in their habits. They went hunting with their hounds, sported double-barrelled deer guns, ran with the fire engines, flocked to the watering places, dressed, ate, and gestured like their neighbors. Intimacies were inevitable in small towns and villages where no Jewish community was ever established. This had been true since colonial days. The individual Jew had to live with Gentiles; in a way he became one of them. It is not without interest that Jews and Christians developed close personal relations in preemancipation times, when the former were still denied political rights. Obviously, social equality and friendships were not predicated on the privilege of voting or holding office. The eighteenth-century Frankses and the Lopezes were juridically second-class citizens; yet the Frankses, of New York, were accepted everywhere; the aristocratic Christian Pollocks, of North Carolina, were house guests of the Lopezes in Newport.28

Christians who came out of the Rivera and Lopez countinghouses in prerevolutionary and Revolutionary days respected and admired their employers. Evaluating the character and conduct of these notable Rhode Island merchant-shippers, a Christian, quoting Jesus, enjoined his Gentile readers: “Go, and do thou likewise” (Luke, 10:37). After Aaron Lopez drowned, Ezra Stiles eulogized him saying that he was “the most universally beloved by an extensive Acquaintance of any man I ever knew.… He was my intimate Friend and Acquaintance.” At Stiles’s request, Lopez and Rivera had made available to him a portrait of the Palestinian rabbi Haim Isaac Carigal. Stiles, president of Yale, hung the portrait on the walls of the College library; the Christian clergyman cherished his friendship with the Sephardic scholar from the Holy Land. Thomas Jefferson had no illusions about the abilities of the somewhat unstable Colonel David S. Franks; nevertheless, he befriended the former army officer whenever he could and lent him money when he was in need. Apparently, Franks was a not infrequent guest at the table of this great American. Hazzan Seixas and John Christopher Kunze (d. 1807) were good friends. The Rev. Kunze, said to have been a fine Hebraist, undoubtedly hoped to refine his knowledge of the Sacred Tongue by associating with the hazzan of Shearith Israel. William Wirt, an attorney general of the United States, who was close to a number of Jews, discussed the Jewish problem with one of the Myerses, of Norfolk. When army officer Alfred Mordecai went abroad, General Winfield Scott gave him a most cordial letter of introduction to an American living in Paris.29

A Christian might well document his affection for a Jewish friend by naming a child after him. This seems to explain why Andrew Jackson’s first Secretary of the Treasury carried the name Samuel Delucenna Ingham. The original Samuel De Lucena was a well-known Jewish merchant of the Revolutionary War period. Gratz Van Rensselaer, a writer, and Benjamin Gratz Brown bear witness to the affection of Christian families for the Gratz clan. Brown, named after Rebecca Gratz’s brother, was to become a United States senator, a governor of Missouri, and a candidate for vice president in 1872 on the Liberal Republican ticket. Benjamin Gratz’s brother-in-law was the influential politician and editor Francis Preston Blair, Sr. (b. 1791). Blair was wont to refer to the Gratzes as his “Jewish relatives” and, in a letter to a Jewish friend, denied vigorously that he harbored any anti-Jewish prejudice. The land promoter Aaron Levy and the politician and later governor of Pennsylvania Simeon Snyder were intimates. Obviously, Snyder picked up his Hebrew-Yiddish phrases from his confidant; the word chammer is so much more expressive than jackass. Rebecca Gratz had a host of Christian friends; she was close to Washington Irving, James Paulding, the writer and Secretary of the Navy, the Fennos, the Hoffmans, and the New York Verplancks. The Unitarian clergyman, reformer and abolitionist Samuel J. May spent weeks as a child in the hospitable home of Moses M. Hays, and at night before bedtime the maid in the house or the Hayses themselves would stand by as the child recited his Christian prayers.30

Recapitulating the attitude of Gentiles to Jews here in the United States, it is patent that during the years 1776–1840 the Children of Israel were a constant challenge to the curious and the learned. On the whole, this was a friendly interest. It is obvious, too, that Jews were widely accepted in the young republic: their business talents were recognized; men of culture and integrity were elevated to office by the franchises of their admirers. The political tone in the country was set by the Virginia presidents and by the Adamses and their advisors. The generous, all-embracing policies of the Founding Fathers were supported by a small but influential group of Gentile journalists, Christian clergymen, and others convinced that political liberalism was the very essence of republicanism and that it was an article for export. The Jews in the United States were better off than any other Jewish group in the world; no Jewish community elsewhere enjoyed the political freedom and the social relations which characterized American Jewry.


By 1840, twenty-one of the twenty-six states had given Jews full political rights; actually, there were very few Jews in the remaining five states whose laws denied them high office. In the states that counted, Jews were accepted as peers by their fellow citizens. America was home for the Jews here, and this is why the newcomers among them continued to bring their friends and families here. These non-Christians, in every way integrated into the body politic, were indistinguishable in their loyalties from all others. The world was watching an America that dared for the first time in Christian history to give Jews equal privileges and immunities. The spectacle of Noah, the Jew, exercising a sheriff’s authority in New York, one of the great cities of the far-flung American republic, aroused much interest and curiosity. It was even noted in 1826 by Dr. Ferdinand Philippi, a Grand-Ducal Court Councillor in Saxony, who wrote a three-volume History of the United free States of North America. This, he pointed out, was a land, which granted religious freedom to everyone and dared even to make a Jew sheriff at a time when the English were still debating vigorously whether the Catholic Duke of Norfolk should even be permitted to carry a gilded stave in the presence of the Protestant king. Phillipi might well have added that, in the England of the 1820’s, no Jew could hold an office of any significance.31


The Jew of this period wanted to be a good citizen, and on the whole he was. Jacob Pinto, a long-time resident in New Haven, joined with his neighbors when they petitioned the state to incorporate their town. The gravamen of their complaint was that they could make no living farming; they wanted to become a corporation with full powers to enact laws and to regulate commerce; they wanted a jurisdiction of their own, wharves, courts, and police, too. When Governor George Clinton returned to New York after the city had been evacuated in 1783 by the British, the returning New York Jewish Whigs wrote a congratulatory note to the chief executive. These exiles were also glad to be back home after their travels! With hope that the village would grow, Michael Hart, of Easton, joined his fellow citizens in sponsoring an ordinance to stop horses and swine from running at large. As forward-looking citizens, Philadelphia’s Jews supported an innovative deaf-mute home, called for a new water system and additional wharves, joined a library association, and helped pay for an experimental balloon ascension.32

Richmond’s Israelites frowned on gambling houses, but petitioned for canals and railroads; one of Richmond’s natives, Jacob I. Cohen, Jr., presided over the Baltimore committee appointed to celebrate the centennial of Washington’s birth. Charleston Jews played important roles on the local political stage. There were few honors they did not receive, few offices they did not grace. They were commissioners of the free schools, of the poorhouse, of streets, lamps, and markets. Among them was a weigher in the customhouse, a steamboat inspector, a city marshal, a town treasurer, an assistant assessor, and a member of the Board of Health. Jews served in the South Carolina house and senate, as militia officers of high rank; one of them was a state treasurer. In the hinterland, they were mayors and city councillors. Abraham Tobias is worthy of mention, not because he was a notable Jew but because his career is typical. An accountant, he became a successful merchant and participated actively in the politics of nullification. By the 1830’s, he was the director of a bank, a member of the Board of Health, a commissioner of pilotage, and an honorary guard when the body of John C. Calhoun lay in state.33

Question: in proportion to their percentage in the Jewish and general population, did Jews in the South hold more offices than Jews in the North? Were they more eager to serve? Were they better citizens than their coreligionists in New York and Philadelphia? Such questions are easier to ask than to answer. This much is known: Jews in the South were eager to serve the general community; they sought recognition; they wanted to be accepted. Did they feel that, as non-Christians, they had a lesser status in the eyes of the public? Yes! A question all Jews had had to resolve in their minds ever since they landed in the mid-seventeenth century was this: Did they want to maintain their traditional medieval separatist corporate system, or did they want to participate in the larger polity and become one with all others? It was a problem that had confronted the Jews at least since they returned to Cromwellian England. In the 1790’s, many Amsterdam Jews did not want to surrender their communal autonomy; they did not want to lose their “minority rights”; they had no desire to exchange their chartered privileges for a new unitary type of citizenship. It was otherwise in America: with the possible exception of the decade under the Dutch in New Netherland, Jews here never sought to live as a disparate withdrawn group. Under the English and later the Americans, the Jews were integrated into American society. The hope for complete citizenship was always their goal in the early republic; the Jews wanted to be in the mainstream of American life.34


Not improbably, the prime motivation pushing many Jews to turn to politics was the realization that for the first time in their Diaspora history, they were accorded equal rights. This they appreciated fully. Francis Salvador, of South Carolina, assumed the responsibilities of a citizen in 1776, even though as a Jew he was still subject to disabilities; he sensed that, despite his non-Christian origin, there was a future for his kind here, a future that had been decisively denied him in his native England. It is a pity that he was fatally wounded in battle that year and did not survive until 1790 to read Washington’s message to the Jews of Newport:

The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

Many Jews enjoyed politics, because they were partisans with strong convictions; some sought office because it offered a livelihood and was a respected vocation. Jews wanted to be respected; all of them had been second-class citizens; authority and power were psychological needs. Every native-born American Jew could hope one day to become president.35

The Jews of this period were very active on the hustings and at the polls, probably more so than in the late twentieth century. In a sense, they were Federalists, grateful to the national government that granted them all rights and cherishing the hope—a vain one—that the liberal federal Constitution would override state disabilities. For reasons that are not quite clear—the sources are sparse—Jews who voted the Federal ticket were not too visible. Were they few in number? One would think that the many Jewish shopkeepers and merchants would have identified with the Federalists, the party of strong central government and of business. Many did, but substantial numbers, even men of wealth like Solomon Simson, of New York, were Democrats. Aaron Levy, the land enterpreneur, was a Federalist, his wife was a staunch Democrat, though of course as a woman she had no vote. It may well be that solid Jewish businessmen were unhappy, watching their fellow Federalists besmirch the opposition as the party of Jews, Negroes, and the unwashed masses. Some Jews did belong to the radical Democratic-Republican club. The published evidence would indicate that Jews as a group were not committed to any one party or any one faction, and later, like their fellow citizens, they were to be Democrats or Whigs. One man, a Charlestonian who would make a career in politics in the North, was a temperance advocate, a reformer, a nativist. This Jew was anything but typical.36

Jews in Georgia, it would seem, were active politically years before they were constitutionally eligible for office. Obviously, the moment the Jews obtained the franchise and the right to hold office, politicians would pursue them, for it was assumed that they voted en bloc. Mr. Christopher Knight, a Charleston delegate to the 1790 constitutional convention in South Carolina, received the support of the local Jewish community and gratefully sent the congregation fifty guineas. The president of Beth Elohim, Jacob Cohen, a veteran of the late war, returned the money with a polite note informing Knight that the votes of the Jewish community were not for sale. Both in the North and the South, Jews threw themselves wholeheartedly into the 1800 campaign that was to usher Jefferson into the presidency. This was a bitterly fought contest with a great deal at stake. When a Federalist in Charleston accused the Jews of voting as a group and agitating in their synagogs for Jefferson, the Jews issued a vigorous denial: they would not “prostitute the Temple of the Most High for electioneering purposes.” One may hazard a guess—and this is only a guess—that, despite their interest in a strong central government, many Jews were Jeffersonian republicans and thus strongly pro-French since the French seemed set on emancipating all Europeans. Except for those Jews in France or under French control, no European Jew at that time enjoyed full political rights. American Jews always identified themselves emotionally with their rightless fellow ethnics abroad. Here in this country, many Jews hoped that the Democratic-Republicans, the party of the people, would bring full rights to the Jews in every state.37

Though Mordecai M. Noah tended to shift his political allegiances, he and most other Jewish journalists were Democrats. Within the party, editors Harby, Cardozo, and Noah sided with the faction that furthered their personal careers. When, in 1828, Harby went to New York, the metropolis of the future, he may have hoped that the party would take care of him as a Democratic stalwart. An ardent Jacksonian, he wrote on the general’s behalf in the New York Evening Post, glorifying Jackson as a paragon of all virtues, a cultivated man, generous in nature, the very soul of truth. Lawyer Zalegman Phillips, of Philadelphia, was far more influential than Harby. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress, attacking corruption and the money machine. For Phillips, Jackson was an American Cincinnatus, who would defend the rights of man, provide universal suffrage, and save the country from a coalition of evil aristocrats and demagogues. Jewish liberals were thrilled in 1830, when they heard the news from France of the overthrow of the restored Bourbons and the rise to power of Louis Philippe. In the great celebration then mounted in New York City, Noah, Dr. D. L. M. Peixotto, Uriah P. Levy, and the banker J. L. Joseph, were among the sponsors and leaders. Myer Moses published a detailed description of this event, A Full Account of the Celebration of Said Revolution in the City of New-York, and the playwright and poet Jonas B. Phillips wrote a drama and an ode for two of the local theatres. Throughout the 1830’s, Jews turned more and more to politics as they reacted to the partisan issues of the decade. Nationally, so it would seem, most were followers of Jackson and Van Buren; certainly these two were able to recruit enthusiastic Jewish votaries in a number of the large cities. One of Van Buren’s Jewish devotees lauded him for his defense of the poor and for his leadership in the battle against the oppressive money power. In a somewhat similar vein, the Florida Democrat David Levy (Yulee) came out with a strong attack on the banks and other debased institutions. On the banks of the Ohio, Joseph Jonas was acclaimed “The Father of Cincinnati Democracy.”38


When the accusation was made in 1832, at the time of the Nullification controversy in South Carolina, that the Charleston Jews wanted to be represented as a body, by a Jew, in a state convention, eighty-five Charleston Jewish citizens indignantly denied the charge. No one, they said, controlled their votes; they voted as they saw fit. This was true, for the Nullification Affair split the Jewish community as it did the state. Two political factions emerged in South Carolina; both opposed high tariffs, pleading for free trade and less national domination—the one party, the Nullificationists, maintained that the state had the right to nullify national legislation which it deemed deleterious; the other party, the Unionists, did not accept the principle of nullification and certainly not of secession, a threat voiced by some of the radicals. A convention meeting in Columbia in October, 1832, to discuss the national tariffs of 1828 and 1832, declared them null and void in South Carolina. Four of the delegates were Jews; two were Nullifiers, two were Unionists. Three of the four had no Jewish followers, for they and their constituents came from the backcountry, where Jews were scarce. One delegate was a Charlestonian, who had been elected by Nullifiers. This is not to imply that the majority of Charleston Jews were Nullifiers; indeed, it may well be that more local Jews were Unionists, for they were business-minded and wanted adequate banking facilities with national controls; their interests were commercial.39

The Charlestonian who voted for nullification in 1832 was Philip Cohen (d. 1866). As a good citizen eager to serve the larger community, he was active on the Board of Health and at the Marine Hospital; like many other Jewish Charlestonians, he was an officer in the militia. His fervent devotion to South Carolina became a family tradition; his granddaughter Eleanor rejoiced in 1865, when she heard of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The Reform Jew Colonel Myer Jacobs also voted for nullification. Unlike most other Jewish Charlestonians, he was no shopkeeper or practitioner of a profession; he served the federal government as a customs officer. Too old to bear arms during the Civil War, he volunteered for the home guards. Philip Phillips of Cheraw in the Chesterfield district, voted with the Unionist minority. Not much later he left the state and moved west, to the new cotton lands of Alabama. There he continued a legal practice that was ultimately to bring him to Washington, where he became a prominent counselor-at-law.40

Were these Southern Jews, these “colonels,” if you will, a different breed than the Northern Jews? Were they of a different peoplehood? Did these Jewish sectionalists pursue a different way of life than their Northern coreligionists? Superficially, yes. They stressed loyalty to their state; they were proslavery; they emphasized Southern concepts of chivalry; they adhered to the code duello; they were free traders; they set their faces against the encroachments of the federal government. All this may have been merely a defense of their agrarian interests as they reacted to their fear of Northern political and industrial domination. As businessmen, they knew that their farm customers wanted cheap supplies. The acceptance of the Southern way of thinking is reflected in the letter of a German-Jewish immigrant who landed in Charleston in the spring of 1832 when the clash over the hated tariffs was at the fever point and nullification appeared imminent. The writer was Samuel Maas (b. 1810), a native of Mannheim. He quickly became aware that dissension and even secession were in the offing. Though realizing the need for protection for American industries, he was opposed to high tariffs. His German liberal background and his respect for certain English economic teachings made him a free trader. Maas, while still in Europe, had watched with interest the July Revolution in France; he was a political liberal. He had been in this country but a few weeks when he wrote his parents in Mannheim, Germany: Why should we pay taxes to support our Northern brothers?

There is no question that individual Jews in the South were regional patriots, sectionalists. In part—possibly in large part—the Jews, native and foreign-born, wanted to conform to the prejudices of their neighbors. Yet, from the very scanty evidence available it would seem that Southern Jews bore no hostility whatsoever to the Jews of the North. Later, as the South became fearful of its national influence, after sectionalism became secession, and when war was declared in 1861, Jews continued to go along with their neighbors. Long before this, loyalty to the state, to South Carolina, had become marked. When, in 1847, a toast was proposed to “our” palmetto banner and “our” palmetto regiment at a banquet of the Hebrew Benevolent Society, “the cheering was most deafening.” Those were the days of the war with Mexico, which surely had its patriotic effect.41


At this same banquet in 1847, the Hebrew Benevolent Society also proposed a toast to the President of the United States. Most Jews, like most Gentiles, were national patriots. How did their patriotism express itself? Jews were in the process of becoming American nationalists no later than the 1760’s, when the trouble with the mother country became acute. By the early 1770’s, this loyalty to America was fully developed; in 1783, the members of Mikveh Israel informed the Pennsylvania authorities that Jews were entitled to equal rights because they had suffered for their attachment to the principles of the Revolution. When, in 1800, Sampson Simson read a Hebrew oration at Columbia’s commencement exercises, he reminded his audience that the Israelites had risen up “like one man in the cause of liberty and independence.” Earlier, in 1783, when young Sheftall Sheftall wrote to his father informing him that Congress had ratified the provisional treaty of peace, he said: “We are delivered from a cursed proud nation.” Virginia Jews reminded their state’s legislators that when, in 1807, the British had fired on the Chesapeake, the Jews were foremost among those who seized arms to defend their country. Then came the War of 1812. Young Jews in New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston responded to the call for volunteers. A substantial number from families of affluence were officers; some were in elite militia units, especially artillery batteries and cavalry troops, organizations, incidentally, that were as much social as they were military. Others were noncommissioned officers and soldiers of the line.42

A Hollander by the name of Isaac De Young, age sixteen, enlisted as a common soldier and fought in almost a dozen engagements during the War of 1812. When standing guard at Fort George, he refused to let his commanding officer, the later General Winfield Scott, pass, because the latter would not give the countersign. That took courage. De Young also served at Fort McHenry in Baltimore. Captain Abraham A. Massias fought a much larger force of British invaders in Georgia, during the War of 1812. When the captain made his will, he asked Charleston’s Beth Elohim to serve as trustee for funds bequeathed to a niece in St. Thomas. He was always close to the Jewish religious community and made provision for the synagog as long as it remained Reform. His testamentary legatee, however, was a Gentile. U. P. Levy, the man who was one day to become the ranking officer of the American fleet in the Mediterranean, served as a sailing master in the War of 1812 until he was captured by the British. Many Americans during this unhappy war gave it no support; there were others, like Grace Seixas Nathan, who were not unconscious of the desperate need to reopen the channels of trade, but whose belief in the justice of this struggle left little room for half-hearted support. When things looked bad on the New York frontier in 1814, she wrote her niece Sarah Kursheedt:

I cannot for the life of me feel terrified. Besides I am so true an American, so warm a patriot that I hold these mighty Armies and their proud arrogant, presumptious, and over-powering nation as beings that we have conquered and shall conquer again—this, I persuade myself will be so. And may the Lord of Battles grant that it may be so.43

Many Jews served in the Second Florida War (1835–1842). These were in the main cultured Charlestonians, who, fired by Greek and Roman classical traditions of the glory of battle, sought fame in the Indian wars. Some of them, no doubt, saw military service as an opportunity to attain public acclaim in a hurry; they were mistaken, for the war was misbegotten. The exaltation of patriotism was not exhausted by shooting at one’s enemies. Haym Salomon considered it a privilege to lend money without interest to an impecunious delegate to the Continental Congress; Da Ponte, the librettist, wrote an Italian hymn commemorating Washington’s birthday. Rebecca Gratz, ardent in her regard for George Washington, deplored that few people celebrated his birthday, or did so by giving a dinner and getting drunk. Patriotic parents reflected their love of country in the names they gave their offspring. One of the Savannah Sheftalls numbered three notables among his children: a Henry Clay, a Benjamin Franklin, and a Thomas Jefferson. During the War of 1812, Harmon Hendricks, the New York businessman, subscribed for a total of $58,000 in government loans—a most substantial purchase in a war looked upon with disfavor by many. In 1821, Lt. Colonel Aaron Levy, of the 9th Regiment of Artillery, celebrated the Fourth of July in the village of Caldwell, New York, at the south end of Lake George. Levy, a canny entrepreneur, combined business and patriotism on this occasion by dedicating a tract of land in which he had an interest. A Protestant preacher opened with prayer; church hymns were sung; the Declaration of Independence was read; a minister preached, but the oration of the day was delivered by Colonel Levy. Following the benediction, the newly laid-out tract was given the name Mount Levy. After a band played, and the men, women, and children marched, hundreds of participants, including veterans of the Revolutionary War, sat down to a dinner under a bower of laurel and evergreen. They were all Colonel Levy’s guests.44


Love of country, a theme to which Jews frequently addressed themselves, can be summarized by citing the views of three Jews who flourished during the 1790’s. In Philadelphia, Dr. Nassy, a naturalized American who had returned to his home in Surinam, wrote a defense of Dutch Jewry in which he said that the United States had given the world the first example of liberty and equality; in Charleston, Jacob Cohen, president of the congregation, said that the American Revolution and the Constitution had saved the Jews from degradation and oppression. Writing to her mother in Germany, Rebecca Samuel, of Petersburg, Virginia, said: “Jew and Gentile are as one.… You cannot know what a wonderful country this is for the common man.” In 1820, Dr. Jacob De La Motta asked an audience: “On what spot in this habitable globe, does an Israelite enjoy more blessings?” The Jew was immensely pleased with the privileges accorded him. The American Gentile was not as euphoric; under the British, he had long enjoyed rights as a citizen. Most Jews, however, were immigrants or the children of immigrants; Europe was very much with them; they were just emerging from “intolerant bigotry.”45

Here in the United States, they were immeasurably better off than the Jewish masses under the Romanovs and the Ottoman Turks. Carl Schurz once pointed out, correctly, that immigrants were more patriotic than many natives. Writing to Hannah Adams in 1811, Philip Cohen, of Charleston, had epitomized the why of Jewish patriotism in a single sentence: “It is but natural that people who for ages have groaned under the impolitic barbarity and blind fanaticism of Europe should inhale the breath of freedom with delight.” Jews split on political issues, but they were one in their love of the country which had done so much for them; this was “our country,” “our city,” “our people,” “our fellow citizens.” God himself has brought us to this land of milk and honey; this is the land of promise. Answering a Judeophobe in 1778, a Southern Jew had signed himself: “A Real American.”46


Except in the realm of religion, where Jews were loathe to make significant concessions, Jews “accepted” the United States; they wanted to be loved. They dressed, thought, acted, and lived like Gentile neighbors of their own social class. They adopted the mores of the Gentiles. In the South, they were grandiloquent in their respect for women. Slavery? On the whole Jews accepted this institution without question. In the 1770’s, in the North, Rivera and Lopez, of Newport, had been known as slave importers on a substantial scale; after Lopez died, his father-in-law Rivera continued to dispatch his slavers to the African coast for cargoes. With Rivera’s retirement in the late eighteenth century, there were no more Jewish slave importers, but by the early decades of the next century a few Jewish merchants limited themselves primarily to the buying and selling of slaves. After 1840, large scale wholesalers began to make their appearance. In the North before 1800 and in the South all through this period, slaves were stocked as a commodity by Jewish shopkeepers and merchants. An advertisement of Abraham Seixas speaks for itself. As was his wont, he resorted to doggerel to puff his wares:

He has for sale

Some Negroes, male,

Will suit full well grooms.

He has likewise

Some of their wives,

Can make clean, dirty rooms.

Petty Jewish shopkeepers catered to the Negro trade—to the dismay of some of their fellow citizens. Encouraging and tolerating black customers was deemed an incitement to theft. All through the eighteenth century, into the early nineteenth, Jews in the North were to own black servants; in the South, the few plantations owned by Jews were tilled with slave labor. In 1820, over 75 percent of all Jewish families in Charleston, Richmond, and Savannah owned slaves, employed as domestic servants; almost 40 percent of all Jewish householders in the United States owned one slave or more. There were no protests against slavery as such by Jews in the South, where they were always outnumbered at least 100 to 1; discretion was held imperative if they were to survive. But very few Jews anywhere in the United States protested against chattel slavery on moral grounds. What is true is that individual Jews were distinguished by their kindness to their slaves, as is well documented in a number of instances.47

Even prior to 1848 and the coming of German Jewish political liberals, there were Jews interested in the manumission societies, but their numbers was pitifully small. The protection of blacks was among the primary aims of these associations, though manumission advocates were not always sympathetic to the human situation of the slaves and the members of these societies were not necessarily abolitionists. Baltimore’s Solomon Etting was a member of the Maryland Colonization Society, which aimed to ship freedman back to Africa; Etting himself owned slaves. Members of manumission organizations were not thinking in terms of an American multiracial society. Still the freeing of slaves by Jews was by no means unusual. The motivations were diverse. Some bondsmen were emancipated during the lifetime of the master, or by testament, as a reward for loyal service, for care during an illness, for friendship and devotion. Many of the women emancipated had obviously been their owners’ mistresses; some of them had borne their masters children; in a few instances, testators acknowledged their parentage. Two educated and cultured blacks, Francis Louis Cardozo, Sr., and his brother Thomas Y., may have been the children of a scion of this Charleston clan. Not infrequently, the mistress, the common-law wife, was a freedwoman, often a mulatto.48

Inasmuch as manumissions were frowned upon in some Southern states, testators circumvented the law by providing special treatment for slaves. They made liberal bequests to them; heirs were enjoined never to sell them and were urged to treat them with lenity; these slaves were to be accorded many of the courtesies enjoyed by freedmen and freed-women. Jacob I. Cohen and Isaiah Isaacs, the well-known Richmond merchants, partners for years, both manumitted slaves in their wills. Isaacs stipulated that the men and women to be freed were to receive a generous supply of clothing; Cohen left money to these servants but specified that if any of them preferred to remain in bondage, they were free to choose their own masters. The money from their sale was to be invested by the municipal authorities and the interest used to buy bread for the poor on the Fourth of July. It is apparent that both Cohen and Isaacs were not untouched by the egalitarian doctrines of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia. Isaacs prefaced his manumissions with a familiar phrase: “Being of opinion that all men are by nature equally free, etc.” One of the witnesses to an Isaacs codicil was Dabney Carr, Jefferson’s nephew.49


Close friendships between Jews and blacks were not altogether unusual. Sampson Simson, the New York lawyer and philanthropist, was known for his sympathies for blacks. David Brandon, of Charleston, in his will probated in 1838, asked his family to be kind to his servant, a free black, the “best friend I ever had.” The dour New Orleans businessman and philanthropist Judah Touro was very generous to “a free woman of color,” but in this instance there is no reason to believe that she was the white man’s mistress. One of his executors and a beneficiary in his will was Pierre Destrac Cazenave, who had once served Touro as a confidential clerk and friend; Cazenave was a descendant of blacks. Another New Orleans Jew closely associated with blacks was Leon Godchaux (1824–1899). This immigrant, a native of Lorraine, landed in the Louisiana metropolis no later than 1840. Over the years, he became a successful clothing manufacturer and sugar planter, at one time owning fourteen plantations, 60,000 acres of land, and eight sugar refineries. He is said to have been one of the largest sugar producers and the largest taxpayer in the state. Associated with him as his friend and adviser was a West Indian, whom he had met on board ship when he sailed from Le Havre. His friend, like Cazenave, was descended from blacks. Every coin has its reverse side. Despite the good treatment accorded slaves by some Jewish masters, there were others who abused them. This assumption seems warranted by the fact that slaves fled from Jewish homes as readily as they fled from bondage to Gentiles.50


Unlike the Jews in Surinam and possibly some of the West Indies, American Jews did not encourage their slaves to accept Judaism. On occasion, black servants here observed Jewish rites and were even buried in Jewish cemeteries, but the Charleston and New Orleans congregations deliberately excluded blacks from membership, whether they were free or slave. The reasons are obvious; blacks had no social status; they were identified as bondsmen. Fearful of their own acceptance, Jews would do nothing that might endanger their standing in racist America; with rare exceptions, Southern Jews were careful to conform to the prevailing attitudes toward slaves and slavery. It would have been surprising if Jacob N. Cardozo, the journalist and economist, had not defended this peculiar Southern institution. Jews in the South knew full well that there was a slave problem, but like the people about them, they did nothing to come to grips with this evil. Though Captain Uriah P. Levy wanted to abolish slavery, his wish did not deter him from running his Virginia plantation with slave labor.51

As did their white fellow citizens in the South, Jews, too, lived in fear of servile revolts, a dread reflected in a letter that Samuel Maas wrote to his family in Germany. The rebellion of Nat Turner and the Virginia blacks erupted only a few months after Maas landed in this country. The insurrection struck terror into the hearts of the slaveholders of the South; no one felt safe. A tense atmosphere already prevailed when the intelligent and impressionable young German Jew arrived in Charleston to live with his uncle, an affluent merchant. It took Maas only four weeks to be convinced that blacks had to be watched, disciplined, and, if necessary, ruthlessly punished. Slavery he agreed, was a sound institution; the Southern economy was built on black labor. The black made an ideal workhand, for only he, stemming from the torrid African lands, could tolerate the humidity, intense heat, and backbreaking labor of the Carolina lowlands. Undoubtedly, Maas was influenced in his views by his uncle and by the luxury of the well-appointed home with its massive silver service and numerous, obsequious slaves ready to respond to his slightest nod—all this impressed Maas mightily.52

The Friedman brothers, of Tuscumbia, Alabama, took a great risk when they helped some blacks free themselves clandestinely. The Friedmans were not abolitionists; abolitionists were hated; very few Jews dared to align themselves with this group of reformers. In 1828 Samuel Myers, of Norfolk, seems to have been one of the rare exceptions. Myers, an idealist, was interested, too, in the solution of the eternal Jewish Problem. Rachel Mordecai Lazarus was fully aware of the evils of slavery, but, after a fashion, defended this institution in her correspondence with Maria Edgeworth. Rachel contended that the black under chattel slavery was no worse off than the European who suffered under wage slavery. Rachel’s son, Marx E. Lazarus, a socialist, was in 1860 opposed to slavery, to any form of oppression under which blacks or whites labored. Yet, when the Civil War broke out, this humanitarian joined the Confederate Army, not because he had changed his views, but because as a Southern nationalist, he was determined to save his country from the tyranny of the North.53


Fitting into a slave society was obviously not too difficult for Jews who had settled in the South or had grown up there. Jews had no choice but to accept the social system of the masses who enveloped them, for with the exception of Charleston, they were but a tiny fraction of the population in every other city of the South. They were pleased to be integrated into the American body politic, even though they were often perilously close to the periphery. As it has already been pointed out, they joined the Masons, gave to all good causes, and relaxed with their Gentile friends in some of their leisure activities. Jews were members of almost all societies, whether sociocultural, mutual-aid, or philanthropic. They were quick to invite Gentiles to formal synagog celebrations and sent their children to church oriented private schools, but certainly were glad when Jefferson’s new college in Virginia announced that it would not require theological readings of the students. Because Jews were eager to be like their neighbors, they expected their hazzanim to be Jewish versions of the classically educated Christian clergymen. Leaders of Charleston’s Beth Elohim wanted a minister with the capacity to “stamp an additional degree of dignity and responsibility upon our congregation.”

In general, social relations between Jews and Gentiles were not of an intimate nature; eighteen hundred years of contention were not easily bridged. Yet, individual Jewish businessmen developed good relations, even close relations, with Gentile clients. While in exile in Leicester during the Revolutionary War, the Riveras made some good friends. Letters exchanged during this period testify that Jews and Gentiles cemented friendships. In Leicester, Ezra Stiles called on the Riveras and was rewarded with a half-dozen bottles of wine. Jacob Rivera and Stiles had known each other in Newport for many years, though in the privacy of his diary the erudite Christian still identified the generous Rivera as a “Jew merchant.” Jews went to balls in the small towns and to the more fashionable and exclusive assemblies in the cities. Rebecca Franks, a daughter of David Franks, the army purveyor, was one of the belles of the Meschianza fête, when the British occupied Philadelphia during the Revolution. A Philadelphia Jewish merchant was a dinner guest at the home of Washington and Nancy Shippen. Nancy’s circle included General Washington, the Penns, the Chews, the Pinckneys—and the Frankses.54

Were the Loyalist and Whig branches of the widely ramified Franks clan accepted because they were marginal Jews? In this instance, yes, but it is equally true that in many towns and cities, observant and even committed Jews were welcome guests in the best homes. Moses Myers was one of the managers of the elite Norfolk Assembly in 1817. Benjamin I. Cohen’s fancy dress party of February 2, 1837, was one of the highlights of the social season in Baltimore. The putative model for Walter Scott’s Rebecca, the Philadelphian Rebecca Gratz, was an Orthodox Jew who moved in the most select circles. She was entertained in the home of Henry Clay and numbered some of the country’s most eminent politicians and litterateurs among her friends, even though, wherever she went, she observed the traditional dietary laws. Speaking of Jews in 1818, Noah said: “generally, they mix and commingle without any distinction.” Noah may have erred on the sanguine side.55


The adoption of American names is one of the indicia of acculturation, of the Jew’s attempt to identify with the Gentile society in which he lived. The seventeenth-century Spanish-Portuguese Pardos changed their name in North America to the English equivalent, Brown. A North Carolina businessman anglicized his Jewish name—whatever it was—to Laney, but the official records naively refer to him as “a Jew.” Hyam Levy became Higham Levy; Israel Baer Kursheedt, a German-born talmudist, was known as Barry to his intimates. Haym M. Salomon’s daughter Debra wanted to be called Delia; her husband, a convert or possibly even a born Jew, was Thomas Washington Donovan. Debra-Delia had one brother with the given name Benjamin Franklin; another was Samuel Napoleon. John D. Jackson was the clerk of Congregation Bnai Jeshurun in the 1830’s. After Nathan bar Gershon had been called to the Torah in New York, he immediately resumed his civil name, William Warner. In 1832, Warner, no longer a youngster, volunteered to nurse the sick during the fearful cholera epidemic. Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel records the following names of members: Allen, Florance, Jones, Mitchel, Phillips, Hunt, Arnold, Roget, Coleman, Gardiner, and King. When John Maximillian Dyer came to America in the early nineteenth century, he called himself Philip Heim; when he left Germany, his name had been Imanuel Gershon Feist. The first change had come because of the Napoleonic conscription laws; the last change had been prompted by desire to compliment a Christian friend in this country. Before 1824, Jews bore the following names in the Charleston Jewish community: Lewis, Morris, Pool, Simpson, Waterman; Moses Hyams’s middle name was Kosciusko. Beth Elohim’s rabbi Poznanski had come to New York’s Orthodox Shearith Israel with the first name Gedalia; in Charleston, he soon became Gustavus. A trooper of South Carolina’s 5th Regiment of Cavalry, twice wounded in Civil War battles, was carried on the muster rolls as McDuff Cohen; Savannah’s Joseph Davis had been born in Koenigsberg and given the name Joseph Hamburger.56


Assuming an Anglo-Saxon name and giving children the names of American notables were, it is evident, common forms of integration. In relation to the community where he had sunk roots, the Jew frequently forgot that he was a Jew; he thought of himself only as a citizen, a good citizen. When help and charity were needed, Jews were among the first and the most generous of the givers; Jews, apparently without exception, wanted to become an intimate part of America and all that it stood for. A very substantial form of identification was philanthropy, the giving of one’s means to help the community. The Jew, said Dr. Peixotto in 1830, can never be deaf to the cry of the destitute. Jews, he emphasized, are taught to love their neighbor. In the course of two or three years—and this is typical of Jewry at that time—New Orleans Jews were happy to collect money for cholera relief, to dispatch funds to Charleston after a devastating fire, to contribute substantial sums to the poor of their own city, and to send help abroad to the widows and orphans of the men who had died in France’s July Revolution. A very famous German writer of the late eighteenth century reported that a Portuguese Jew, who had died in Charleston, had left an enormous sum for the poor without regard to religion or sect. The man and the story are mythical, but the intent of this Enlightenment fabrication is clear: the emancipated Jew loves his fellow-man and is ready to support every good cause. The Charleston Jews—indeed Jews in all the states—were determined to make this myth a reality. The acting minister in Richmond asked his parishioners to support a public school; let us manifest our gratitude, he pleaded; we live in a land of liberty. A friend left $1,000 to endow a charity school in that same city. In Philadelphia, Simon Gratz gave money to a Quaker school; in Boston, Moses M. Hays contributed to Harvard. The Virginia pair, Cohen and Isaacs, rallied to establish a college which hoped to have branches in Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York.57

In their willingness to help their neighbors, Jews reached out in all directions. In 1781, after the British banished Charlestonians who would not take the oath of allegiance, a subscription list was circulated in Philadelphia to relieve exiles seeking shelter there. Philadelphia Jews were among those who responded to this appeal. Distressed that Americans from the Wyoming Valley had been imprisoned by the Pennsylvanians in the 1780’s and, so it is said, given only bread and water, Michael Hart, of Easton, sent them solid food every Friday afternoon. When February 2, 1814, was set aside as a day of fasting and prayer for the people of northwest New York state who had been burnt out of their homes by the invading British, collections on their behalf were taken up in the churches and synagogs. New York’s Jews, 500 souls in a population of 90,000, raised one-ninth of all the money collected—a tribute to Jewish generosity and also an indication of the unconcern of the affluent and the unpopularity of the war. In Philadelphia, David Seixas gathered deaf-mute derelicts and taught them to communicate; in New York, the newly established Bnai Jeshurun Congregation used some of its limited funds to come to the aid of fellow citizens whose homes had gone up in flames.58

Jews had their pet Gentile charity, the orphan asylum. Philadelphia Jewry supported the local home with money, supplies, food, linen, hay, and the like. This was the society which Rebecca Gratz had joined when it was first established in 1814. Her Christian colleagues respected and admired her; they would have allowed her an apprentice Christian servant from the asylum, but they adamantly refused to accord the same privilege to a heretical Unitarian. Charleston Jews also loved their general orphan asylum; quite a number of them left it money in their wills. On August 21, 1791, Joseph M. Myers, a merchant and a Mason of high degree in the Scottish Rite branch of Masonry—he was a Deputy Inspector General of the order in South Carolina—was called upon to make an address in the synagog on behalf of the asylum. The congregation’s minister at that time, Abraham Azuby, was bypassed; apparently he was not an able English preacher. The service arranged was a most attractive one, enhanced by a volunteer choir of men and boys. “The tunes [were] delightful pretty.” The congregants were almost ecstatic with the success of this philanthropic foray. Describing what went on, a local Jew said that it brought honor to the congregation and to Jewry at large. Obviously the city officials, the Gentiles who were present, were impressed, particularly because the Jews raised a large sum. The fact that the meeting was held on Sunday dismayed the New York Jewish traditionalists, but does not seem to have disturbed the Jewish Charlestonians. “Neivour was more decoram observed”; this pleased them.59


When Jews could turn to Christians and ask them to support Jewish religious institutions, it was evident that gentle breezes were blowing in a world prepared to embrace both Jews and Christians. In the area of religion, both groups were learning to live together amicably. Hannah Adams taking note of the change in her History, reminded her readers that when Catholics were finally allowed to build a church at Paramaribo in Dutch Surinam, the Jews—and Protestants, too—made generous gifts. Decades earlier, here in this country, Jews were already helping Christian religionists. In 1711, the Jewish merchants of New York contributed to the building of Trinity Church. Among the donors was a businessman who also officiated as the “rabbi” of the community. Rivera, of Newport, in the 1770’s, bought tickets in a lottery designed to erect a meetinghouse in Providence. Certainly, he had no objection to winning a few pounds, if he was lucky enough to pick a prize, but he seems to have been primarily interested in promoting “publick” buildings.60

In 1778 at Mackinac, two of the first Jews in the Michigan country obligated themselves to help support a missionary priest. Why this gesture? A courtesy to Catholic friends? Were these Jews being good citizens, good neighbors, or did they want someone with moral authority to tame the turbulent French, Indians, and “breeds”? Loving Christians was for some Jews a counsel of perfection. Warned by Ezra Stiles, the Newport Jews hesitated to let Christians use their synagog. During the war, when the British occupied Newport, the churches were not always available to worshippers. The Jews, torn between the demands of neighborliness and Jewish Law, with which they were not familiar, did not know what to do. For the time being, they refused to let the Christians use their sanctuary. The nineteenth century brought more permissive Jews. In Galveston, Samuel Maas aided fellow Germans, Christians, to secure a free lot for a church; in Savannah, Dorothea Abrahams left money in her will to put up a Christian chapel. Was she a convert or a liberal-minded Jew? The Charlestonians, in 1850, permitted Christians to use the hall of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum for religious purposes; it was put at their disposal for a nominal rental. Long, long before this, in the late eighteenth century, in his neatly laid-out town of Aaronsburg, Aaron Levy granted lots to Christian churches and presented a communion set to the Lutherans. Providing ground at no cost to churches in a new town was considered good business; it was to became a standard practice since churches brought settlers.61

Hazzan Gershom Seixas was friendly with Christian clerics, as was emphasized in a eulogy after his death in 1816. In S. I. Cohen’s Elements of the Jewish Faith, a London work reprinted here in 1817, the liberal author and his American Jewish publisher expressed the Enlightenment belief that all moral men are guaranteed a hereafter. Reviewing this book the following year, the Rev. Ezra S. Ely of Philadelphia chose to disagree; there could be no happiness, no heaven, except through Jesus Christ. When Noah dedicated the Mill Street Synagogue in 1818—aware that there were many Christians in the audience—he praised the Christian Bible societies because they emphasized the religious truths held by both religions. Rebecca Gratz’s staunch traditionalism did not deter her from listening to William Ellery Channing, the Boston preacher, and from cultivating the friendship of Philadelphia’s Unitarian minister, William Henry Furness. When Furness visited Rebecca and discussed Christianity with her, she did not hesitate to tell him that the nearer Christianity approached Judaism the more perfect it would become. In 1847 some Charleston Protestants asked Beth Elohim to take up a collection for them. The Jews did so, and the grateful church wrote a most urbane note of thanks to the people from whom all Christians had received “the oracles of God.”

Though Jews in Europe under less happy circumstances had made gifts to Christian religious institutions, one suspects that relatively good relations between the two religions are uniquely American. Why? Jews felt it good citizenship to help churches; Christians, too, often aided the Jews to build houses of worship; the followers of Jesus cherished an image of themselves as an enlightened, tolerant people. Jews probably felt flattered to be asked; they gave willingly. America, the United States, was going to be different. This was not Europe; this was a new world. As an integral part of the body politic, Jews could no longer live religiously in complete isolation from their fellow citizens. They had to emancipate themselves from a past of rejection; now they were accepted. They moderated their hostilities and abated their suspicions. In 1819, a Charleston Jew wrote: “The benevolent offices of humanity, not confined merely to this or that sect, enlarging its theatre of action, becomes at once sufficiently capacious to encompass the whole human race.”62

Because this was an entirely new world, where Jews were to be treated like other human beings, they were ready and eager to accept the culture, the mores, the dress, the mannerisms—even the prejudices—of their neighbors. America succeeded in integrating these immigrants. For the first generation of newcomers, pluralism was still important; the ties to Europe were still strong. By the following generation, at the latest, the moorings had been loosened; the native-born were very eager to become an indistinguishable part of America. Integration was now unconscious. It expressed itself in patriotism, in politics, in the desire for office. Yet even second and third-generation American Jews continued to make further efforts to complete, to intensify, the Americanization that meant so much to them. This assimilatory process, made inevitable by the millions of non-Jews surrounding them, was reinforced by the synagog, the Jewish school, the social welfare organizations. All of them were, to a degree, Americanizing agencies helping Jews to survive in a challenging new world.63

English was accepted as the prime medium of communication by the new immigrants. The use of language was associated with status. Some of Georgia’s Christian Germans, even those born in the province and later the state, still retained German as their daily speech; some probably could not even speak English. This may have been true, too, of some of the Pennsylvania “Dutch.” It was certainly not true of the Jews who switched to English as speedily as possible. The epitaphs in the Newport cemetery were almost all in English and in Hebrew; the Jews realized that, living or dead, they confronted an Anglo-Saxon world. Uncle Zalma Rehine, writing to Leeser, said that, if a young man was “accuguint in the English langush” he would do well in this country. Despite his phonetic spelling, Uncle Zalma was the complete patriot and a member of the Light Infantry Blues. Though his Richmond friends “Cohen & Isaacs” wrote Yinglish, Yiddish-English or English-Yiddish, they were Jeffersonian Virginians as their wills demonstrate. In their minutes, some congregations gradually shifted from the ancient Hebrew dating to the current Christian chronology. Anshe Chesed of New York employed the services of a competent and literate clerk and began keeping its records in English. Just about a decade after its establishment, this same congregation, originally made up of Germans, Poles, and Dutch, began translating its English records into German for the sake of newcomers. When Jews began building synagogs, they adopted the architectural styles of their Christian neighbors; new synagogs were neo-classical and even neo-Egyptian.64

American national culture was strongly tinged with Protestantism and civil religion. The Jews never realized the extent to which they had been Protestantized. Only rarely did they offer objections, as when Shearith Israel forbade the hazzan to use Christian melodies in his liturgical chaunts. With one notable exception, Jewry as a body never set out deliberately to harmonize Judaism and the national culture. A group of young Charlestonians did make this effort in the 1820’s (their venture will be analyzed in a later chapter). In postbellum days, Isaac Mayer Wise would admit that American Judaism had been colored by Christian thought. Jews, he pointed out sarcastically and simplistically, had made a number of substitutions; instead of Jesus, they invoked God; instead of the Trinity, they emphasized unity, and instead of the Christian Messiah, who had already come, they offered a Jewish one, who had yet to make his appearance.65

Christian influences were reflected in the rituals for synagog dedications. The formal invitations were often printed; the discourse was in English, and a well-trained choir of men—and women, too—intoned Hebrew psalms and English hymns. An organ, an innovation for this very special occasion, accompanied the singers. Despite its cultural lag, its adherence to cherished customs, the American synagog was consciously patterning itself on the church, certainly in some of the amenities. The constant emphasis and reemphasis on decorum was really more Protestant than American. There was to be no walking around during the services; infants and young children were to be left at home; parliamentary rules of order were to be observed in all meetings and, to make sure that the congregation understood them, were incorporated into constitutions and bylaws. Umbrellas and canes were to be left in the back or deposited in one’s own pew; no one was ever to raise his voice and drown out the cantor. The number of “blessings”—actually financial offerings—during the service was to be reduced. In at least one congregation, the donors were permitted to make their offerings in English instead of the traditional foreign vernacular. Shearith Israel reminded its members in its 1805 constitution that it hoped to promote “solemnity and order … devotion and harmony.”66

The strongest bond tying the Jew to this his new country was a political one; the concept of democracy, in the sense of equal rights for all, was important. It was the privilege of the vote and the right to hold office that served to make the Jew one with his fellow citizens. Jews wanted to be in the mainstream of American life; this gave them a sense of security, of belonging. Jews, it is true, embraced America voluntarily and enthusiastically, but integration would have proceeded apace anyway; they were outnumbered a thousand to one; the human environment enveloped and overpowered them. It would not—could not—be denied. Most Jews believed that acculturation would bring a large or larger measure of acceptance. Entrenched in the “synagog” as institution and faith, the Jew had no hesitation in reaching out into the world of the arts and the sciences, in accommodating himself to the cultural patterns of the man next door, but he never desired or intended to surrender traditional religious values. Accommodation is frequently a technique for religioethnic survival. Of course, the ultimate question is this: could the acculturation process ever be complete for the Jew who would not foreswear his religion?67

Acculturation, assimilation, in no sense necessarily implies religious or ethnic defection. Even the first generation of elite New Orleans Jews did not convert to Christianity, though they intermarried and rejected synagogal affiliation. Most Philadelphia Jewish lawyers, college graduates, identified themselves as Jews; some were active in the local congregation. Catherine Hays, of Richmond, owned hogs and may well have eaten swine’s flesh, but she was an accepted member of the Jewish community. Rebecca Gratz, of Philadelphia, Major M. M. Noah, of New York, Jacob Mordecai, of Warrenton, Jacob Cardozo, Penina Moïse, and Isaac Harby, all of Charleston, were cultured Americans; all were identified as Jewish religionists. Let us turn back to New York; Gershom Seixas, the rabbi, was a trustee of Columbia College; brother Ben was a founder of what came to be the New York Stock Exchange; brother Moses, the cashier of the first bank in Rhode Island, was Grand Master of the state’s Masonic Grand Lodge.68

Wealthy Moses M. Hays was one of but a handful of Jews in Boston; there was no community there until the 1840’s. His friends and associates, it seems, were all Christians; he gave liberally to their charities and supported public enterprises, but made it abundantly clear that he was opposed to Christian missions. He once said that he had never met a Jewish convert to Christianity who was sincere. Moses Myers, of Norfolk, one of the South’s outstanding merchant-shippers, a board member of the Bank of Richmond, served also as an officer in the militia, as consular representative of France and Holland, as Collector of the Port of Norfolk, and as president of the town council. He was a loyal Jew. In remote Lexington, Kentucky, where there were few Jews, Benjamin Gratz felt that he had no choice but to intermarry and married out twice, into families of his own social class, families of repute. Before he settled in the West, while still in Pennsylvania, this graduate lawyer had served as a lieutenant in the War of 1812; in Lexington he was a hemp manufacturer, organizer of a turnpike company, president of a railroad, founder of a bank, sponsor of a public library, and head of the Kentucky Agricultural and Mechanical Association. Despite his intermarriages he maintained Jewish religious interests.69

A substantial number of Jews during this period were nonobservant and unaffiliated, yet content to remain within the religiosocial ambit of Jewry. To be sure, the degree of loyalty varied with the individual. Only a minority in every community went to services regularly; the typical Jew of that day was not a synagoguegoer. The number of confessing but unsynagogued Jews had been growing since the late 1700’s; after the turn of the century, they certainly constituted a majority in the cities. Many of them turned to the mutual-aid confraternities. Because of their numbers, they were in not in limbo spiritually or socially; they built a Jewish world of their own as they nestled comfortably between the synagoguegoers and those nominal Jews whose ties to Jewry were very tenuous. Reading the letters of this Jewish generation, one is frequently not aware of their origins; one might even assume, wrongly, that they practiced the rites of the Christian masses who encompassed them. Few Jews of that day (or of any later generation) were so conscious of their religious and ethnic backgrounds that they sought to document these in their daily actions. This was particularly true if they lived in small towns and villages surrounded by the embracing kindness of intelligent Christian folk. The typical Jew did not carry his faith on his sleeve, not even on his face.



Acculturation is but one side of the culture coin; the reverse side is deculturation. The price of cultural change is often cultural surrender. Jews who became Americans had to come to terms with the national way of life. Often this required divestiture, modification, even surrender of older mores and practices. Jacob I. Cohen ignored the protest of the Philadelphia congregation and flouted rabbinic law by marrying Elizabeth Whitlock Mordecai, a widow and proselyte. Mr. Cohen, a “priest” by descent, was religiously subject to certain limitations in choosing a spouse. Thus his action, his rebellion, amounted to deculturation; it was a flagrant disregard of hallowed traditions. Yet deculturation, like acculturation, is not necessarily defection. Jewish families moving toward defection usually survive three generations before they disappear into the common Gentile stream. Of course, there are always exceptions; the process may be completed in one generation. An Ezekiel Levy was once charged with shaving on the Sabbath. Ultimately, an Ezekiel Levy—it may be the same man—married out and joined a Christian church. A break with tradition may initiate a course that will lead to apostasy, but this is not at all typical. Here in the United States, where Jewish communal and religious controls were weak, it was relatively easy to cease being an observant traditional Jew. Some immigrants, indeed, were so eager to become Americans that they did not hesitate to jettison age-old customs which they deemed a hindrance; other immigrants, still tied to their native Europe, rejected compromises which they saw as defection. Isaac Leeser was embittered by what he experienced as a widespread disregard for Jewish religious practices. He chastised his congregants for neglecting the synagog, for disregard of the Sabbath and Holy Days, for non-observance of the dietary laws, for intermarriage, for zeal in worshipping at the altar of Mammon. There were times, in the 1820’s, when New York’s prestigious Shearith Israel could not muster the necessary minyan, ten males, for a religious service.70

Traveling on holidays was frowned upon by the observant, but an increasing number of Jews ignored this prohibition. Ever since the late 1790’s, violators of the sanctity of the Sabbath might well be fined, but they were no longer excised from the community. Joseph Marx, Richmond’s outstanding merchant, allowed his children to observe either Saturday or Sunday as a day of rest; one of them opted for Sunday. He himself would not have objected to a Sunday Sabbath for all Jews, inasmuch as the Jewish Sabbath was constantly being observed in the breach. Kashrut, the dietary laws, had been a problem ever since colonial days. Even in the early nineteenth century, there was no shohet and no ritually proper food except in the major towns; Jews in the backcountry had to shift for themselves. This was certainly true of those young men who clerked for Gentiles and ate with the family. Many Jews concocted their own dietary laws. Religious radical Joseph Marx paid the shohet a fee to provide kosher meat, but the same account book which lists this payment includes an entry for oysters, a forbidden delicacy. By the early nineteenth century, the paid synagog officiants had become the community’s vicarious Jews; they had to observe the dietary laws. The rank and file then, as today, often neglected kashrut. Offending Jews were no longer excluded from membership in the congregation, nor were they denied honors.71

Flouting the dietary laws was bad enough; much worse was the refusal of some Jewish intellectuals to circumcise their children. This was bad, for, though Jews had no sacraments—that is no outward sign of inward grace—circumcision, in effect, functioned as one. A number of antebellum Jews condemned circumcision as a custom unfit for civilized people. Typical of this revolt was a case that occurred at Philadelphia in 1835. Benjamin Etting (d. 1875), the son-in-law of Joseph Marx, was uncircumcised. He was born in Baltimore at a time there seems to have been no circumciser in town. Two sons were born to uncircumcised Benjamin; neither was circumcised. The older one, Frank Marx Etting (d. 1890), an army officer and historian, married the granddaughter of a Catholic Chief Justice of the United States, Roger B. Taney; the younger one, Frederick Henry, died when he was less than a year old. The question that now confronted Rabbi Leeser and his congregants was thorny: can an uncircumcised child be given a traditional Jewish burial? All the Jewish congregations and welfare confraternities of that day frowned upon Jews who had rejected the Abrahamitic covenant. Reuben Etting, the child’s grandfather, was still alive. Since he was an important member of Leeser’s Mikveh Israel, it would be very difficult to deny his grandson burial in hallowed ground. Hesitantly, then, Leeser and the officers of the congregation finally permitted the burial and went on to write rabbinic authorities in London asking for guidance in future cases. The replies, if made, are not extant. Major Alfred Mordecai, of the United States Army, apparently also refused to circumcise his sons. Years later, probably after the Major’s death, one of his sons, already an adult, submitted to circumcision to please his mother, a traditional Jew, a member of the Gratz-Hays clan.72

Though the rebels against circumcision had rejected an important Jewish practice, they were not defectors but respected members of the Jewish community. Given an open society where Jews were not mistreated, they tended to be less observant. Ever since the days of Ezra, if not earlier, separatist legislation had been a defense mechanism to ensure survival in a hostile environment, but Jewish sociocommunal controls slackened with the rise of the American republic. Equality was very probably interpreted by some Jews as the right to live like their fellow citizens. The French Revolution was another invitation to latitudinarianism. The Jewish desire for expression and fulfillment was satisfied by new civic and cultural opportunities; there was less inducement to cultivate the pre-Emancipation Jewish way of life. It was not that the apathetic and the lax were necessarily hostile to Judaism; for many, the synagog was still a religiosocial center where they felt at home. Actually, synagog membership was relatively high if compared to church affiliation; nevertheless, a substantial percentage of Jews in the large cities declined congregational membership. Judging from the estimates of population in the “Jewish” towns and the seating capacity of the synagogs, it is obvious that a very substantial number of Jews did not join.

Many Jews did, however, flock in ever-increasing numbers to the Jewish mutual-aid societies. Clearly they wanted insurance in this world rather than in the world to come. But these unsynagogued Jews were not invariably secularists. The source of loyalty seems to have shifted. With the growing sense of nationalism in the lands of the Atlantic basin came a stronger emphasis on ethnicity as the tie that binds. Jews were now less dependent on the synagog as an instrument for cohesion. There was no question but that traditional Judaism in the United States was confronted by serious challenges. In 1783 Haym Salomon had summed it up morosely: venig yiddishkeit, too little Jewishness. Fifty years later a friend of Leeser said that Jews here were not really committed to Judaism. If they were observant, if they went through the motions, it was only to impress the Gentiles who expected the Chosen People to be respectably loyal to their faith. There was an element of truth in this contention.73

The forms of deculturation are many. Individuals in a family that had broken the bonds tying them to the Jewish way of life influenced siblings to follow in their footsteps: a path that could lead only to defection. Some members of Shearith Israel began coming to services without prayer shawls; Jews in Newport’s Masonic lodge observed the feast of St. John; youngsters in private academies voluntarily attended Christian services and wanted to be looked upon as conformists. It took moral courage to persist in separatism. Many Jews sought to maintain a low profile. In his book Richmond in By-Gone Days, the author Samuel Mordecai did not identify the Jews whom he described. For him, these Central Europeans were Germans or Dutch, not Jews. Unlike some of his brothers and sisters, this Mordecai was loyal to his inherited religion, although there is little evidence that he was observant; after his death his relatives buried him in a non-Jewish cemetery.

Samson Levy, of the Philadelphia clan, married out, but circumcised his first-born son; one does not easily cease being a Jew. Apparently, however, the circumciser was not called in for his next son. Several of his younger children were baptized, though not at birth; no doubt the wishes of his Christian wife proved determinative. There is ample evidence of drift on the part of many under the impact of American culture. There was little desire to study Hebrew, to further Jewish schools, to observe the time-honored ceremonies. Jews forgot that they were in exile; the Restoration they prayed for daily meant little, if anything, to many. In the small towns, villages, and hamlets, Jews found it almost impossible to survive religiously, but this was often enough true even in the cities. Abby Bloch, Leeser’s kinswoman who had gone to Cincinnati in the 1830’s, felt lost Jewishly; this was no place to raise children, she wrote him. In Petersburg, Virginia, the lack of observance among the local Jews, all immigrants, shocked the impressionable Rebecca Samuel, who was determined to leave town. It seemed to her that these Jews were doing nothing to maintain the faith; their hallowing of the Sabbath was a mockery.74


If the American-born Jewish community of the early nineteenth century was weak, so was the Christian religious community. Unitarianism was growing; many Protestants were moving to the left; unaffiliation and apathy among Christians were common. Henry Clay was no religionist, and Governor James H. Hammond, the South Carolinian who had called on his fellow citizens in a Thanksgiving Day proclamation to worship Jesus, was not himself a believer. In the authoritarian European Jewish communities where dissent was not tolerated, it was easy to remain a Jew; little choice was given; in free America, it was much more difficult to maintain discipline. There were American Jews—not many, to be sure—who were rationalists, Deists, atheists, completely at odds with the traditional way of life and thought; there was no Jewish liberal movement to which they could turn. The fact that a Jew was not a member of a synagog is no proof that he rejected Judaism. He may not have been on the congregational roster because he was thrifty or parsimonious or because he bore a grudge against the hazzan or the president. He vented his fury by withdrawing, by punishing God; loyalty to the synagog was often governed by personal bias.

An intermarried Jew might well hesitate to affiliate; he feared a hostile reception; in some congregations, he was constitutionally ineligible for membership. Successful professionals and individuals who played a part in civic life were often wont to make their careers their prime goal. In Richmond, Charleston, New Orleans, and other towns, too, there were Jews who were only marginally members of the clan. A Jew might be a planter, a lawyer, a politician, a land speculator, a merchant for whom personal interests were always paramount. The following three men were marginal Jews: Colonel David Salisbury Franks lusted for advancement in government service; Raphael J. Moses, later a Confederate officer, had no interest in Judaism as a religion; Mordecai Myers, after his marriage to a Christian, ceased to play an important role in the Jewish community, though continuing to read the Jewish press and to contribute to Jewish causes and to hope that his fellow Jews in Schenectady would close their shops on the Sabbath. None of the three ever concealed their Jewish background; Moses in postbellum days became a passionate and eloquent defender of Jewry.75

It is obvious that individuals varied in their degree of observance. Over here most men did what they wished. Most of them were probably in the process of shifting their loyalties, to a greater or lesser extent, to new cultural and humanistic values. Congregations were learning that they would have to take the times into account or lose out. Mid-eighteenth-century Shearith Israel could threaten non-conformists with expulsion; the synagogal authorities knew that the rebels had nowhere to turn; defection was unthinkable. By 1800, offenders were merely threatened with deprivation of synagogal honors; they were not to be driven out. In the early nineteenth century, communities began to wink at religious violations; a new spirit of freedom, individualism, and revolt made itself felt; congregations dared not bear down too hard. By 1823, Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel refused to exclude from membership a man who would not circumcise his son. More important: not only was there salutary neglect by the individual, but by the community, too! New Orleans and Savannah Jewry made provision for the burial of children born of a Jewish father and a Christian mother. In the conflicts between the seductive American culture and entrenched Jewish traditions, America generally won out. Compromises were made by the Jewish community. In a way, this form of accommodation became customary law and meant that there was no need for violators to secede.76



At first glance, it would seem that marriage-out is a form of deculturation and secession from the community. Actually, not every intermarriage is a loss; Jews who marry Christians may remain loyal members of a congregation and even succeed in rearing Jewish families. The non-Jewish partner may become a Jew in practice or through formal conversion. On the whole, however, intermarriage in earlier generations was a threat to Jewish survival. No two intermarriages were alike, of course, since no two individuals were alike. In Baltimore, the dry goods storekeeper Levi Collmus, married to a non-Jew, was buried in a nonsectarian cemetery, though he had been active in the Jewish community. Fanny Etting, who married a Taylor, was buried in the family cemetery of her Jewish forbears; Jacob Hays, the New York police officer, married a Christian and reared a Christian family, but may never himself have accepted baptism. If he had, his pious Jewish father would hardly have made him one of his heirs. Dr. David Nassy reported that there were several intermarried families in Philadelphia. Husbands and wives, so he said, maintained their original religious loyalties and went to their respective churches or synagogs. What he failed to point out was that the children of these families were all reared as Christians and were lost to Jewry.77


Intermarriage was prevalent in the backcountry ever since the first Jews arrived in New Amsterdam. Jewish women were scarce on the frontier. When the twenty-three Jewish Founding Fathers, mothers, and children landed in this Dutch outpost in 1654, they found two known Jews; one of them, Solomon Pieters, had a Christian wife, and it is very likely that Asser Levy, one of the newly arrived argonauts also found himself a non-Jewish mate. The Jewish village shopkeeper soon discovered that it was difficult to persuade a Jewish woman to go into “exile” with him. That may be why Jacob Lucena, a peddler, had been arrested in 1670 for “lascivious dalience … and profers to severall women.” The typical Jewish settler had no desire to become involved in illicit love affairs; he found himself a Christian mate, with or without benefit of clergy, and reared a family. The Pintos, of eighteenth-century New Haven, were probably Deists; their children grew up as Gentiles. The first Jews in Pittsburgh, in Malta, Ohio, in Kentucky, in Frederick County, Maryland, in Missouri, took Gentile wives and disappeared as Jews. S. Meylert, in the Pennsylvania hinterland, never told his wife and young ones that he had been born a Jew.78

In 1785, Philadelphia’s Jews were confronted with a difficult religious decision. Was Benjamin Moses Clava entitled to a Jewish funeral? Clava, a born Jew, had been in the colonies no later than the 1750’s when he appeared in the records as a partner of Bernard Gratz shortly after the latter arrived in Philadelphia. Now—a generation later—he was dead and was to be buried. What, then, was the problem? Like many other peddlers who lived in obscure villages, this Jew, who had settled in the Jerseys, had fallen in love with a Gentile and had been married by a Christian minister. Under the circumstances was he to be looked upon as a Jew and permitted interment in the Spruce Street Cemetery? The Philadelphians weighed the matter. When the Jews needed his help in building their synagog three years earlier, his name had not been found on the list of donors. The final decision was to bury him in consecrated ground—but without shroud and ritual cleansing. Even after the vote was taken, there was still uncertainty as to whether they had done the right thing—had they not been too lenient?—and they decided, no doubt for future guidance, to refer the matter to the rabbis of Amsterdam and The Hague. At the time, in all North America, there was not a single rabbi, a man qualified to lead them through the mazes of Jewish canon law. Yet, in this very Philadelphia, a generation later in 1823, Congregation Mikveh Israel refused to penalize Jews who had married out. Four years later, however, the town’s United Hebrew Beneficent Society still would not tolerate intermarriage. Charleston Jewry also, in 1820 repulsed Jews who married out; they could not become or remain members.79


Jewish individuals and congregations may have made their peace with Jews who intermarried, but they were never fully reconciled to such departures from venerable Jewish laws. They were convinced that intermarriage threatened the very existence of the community; the children would be lost. On occasion parents threatened to disinherit their progeny if they chose Gentiles as husbands or wives. Appealing for funds in 1825 to help build a house of God, Joseph Jonas, Cincinnati’s founding father, argued that, if a congregation was established in town, intermarriages would diminish. Rebecca Gratz was opposed to marriage between Jews and Gentiles. She believed there could be no happiness in such a union; mixed marriages created problems for the children; there should be but one religion in the home. Rebecca was of the opinion that, even if a Jewess fell in love with a non-Jew, she must not marry him. In a letter to her brother Ben who had married a Christian, she encouraged him to persevere as a Jew. She was trying to make sure that he would never defect, though she had always preached that a house divided against itself religiously could not stand.80


Cultured Jewish men and women sought to marry within their peer group. American-born Jews would not ordinarily marry one of the newcomers, for immigrants usually spoke with an accent and were often uncouth and without means. Occasionally, a Jewish woman would marry a Christian for romantic reasons; thus Phila Franks ran off with Oliver De Lancey—but that was deemed no mésalliance; Oliver, after all, belonged to one of the most powerful families in the North American colonies. David Franks, Phila’s brother, married an Evans of Pennsylvania, and their children, reared as Christians, made excellent marriages. David, however, always identified himself as a Jew and occasionally made offerings in the synagog, though he was not an enrolled member. One may venture the guess that the Cohens of Baltimore wrestled with this problem of intermarriage. They were one of America’s most distinguished Jewish clans, nestling securely and comfortably—so it would seem—behind the ramparts of Jewish loyalty. This banking, insurance, and railroad family saw to it that Jews were not fined for absenting themselves on the Jewish Sabbath and Holy Days from the local stock exchange, which they had helped establish. One of the brothers, Dr. Joshua I. Cohen was the country’s first collector of Jewish books. Among the Gentiles, the Cohens enjoyed a social station as high as anyone in the city. Seven Cohens survived; three married Jews; the others never married. It is patent that those who remained single would not marry outside of their own Jewish social set; they certainly would not look for wives among the incoming Jewish rustics from Central Europe. Had they been willing to compromise socially, they could have set up a Sephardic synagog; the Ashkenazic newcomers would have been happy to join. The refusal of the Cohens and the Ettings to do so was motivated by class consciousness.81

During the early decades of the American republic, there were many Jewish women from native, affluent families who never found husbands. If they had married Christians, they would have had to accept their husbands’ religion or conform to it. This they would not do. Since Jewish men of culture, status, and wealth had relatively little choice in marriages with other Jews because of the paucity of numbers, they tended to marry Christians who were their social peers. If they refused to intermarry, they took on Gentile mistresses or contracted common-law unions with women of humble origin. In a few instances the Christian-born wife and the children she bore him lived scrupulously Jewish lives, while the husband attempted to induce the congregation to accept the family as converts, but this was often most difficult. The knowledge that he would be rebuffed by the Jewish “authorities” must have deterred many a young man from bringing in his sweetheart for conversion. The alternatives were obvious: to forget the girl, to marry her under Christian auspices, or to live with her in a common-law marriage. All these alternatives are documented for this period.


Backcountry Jews who married Gentiles did not set out to desert their ancestral religion. There can be no doubt that, on occasion, the Jewish village shopkeeper held on to his ancestral faith to his dying day and would gladly have brought his Gentile wife into town for conversion, had he been given any encouragement by the Jewish community, but proselytization was frowned upon. This intransigent approach—rejection of converts—was not sanctioned by Jewish law, yet it was consistently followed, in New York at least, into the nineteenth century. It is not too difficult to understand what moved these early Jews. They could have maintained in defense of their attitudes that they did not have the proper religious organization to admit converts; they could have argued with some cogency that English Jewry had promised the civil rulers to abstain from proselytization and that they were merely adopting current English synagogal practices. These arguments—had they been employed—would have been nothing more than rationalizations. Once they let the bars down, so American Jews believed, they would be lost as a separate group. Underlying the taboos in the colonies and the later states was a desire on the part of the struggling young community to maintain itself in the face of powerful assimilatory influences. Back of it all was a grim, almost fanatical determination to survive as a distinct religious entity. It was unwilling to tolerate any compromise.

Jews shied away from would-be converts. In the first place, they believed—perhaps wrongly—that, if they induced Christians to accept Judaism, the Gentile community would protest vigorously. In turn, the Jews were conscious of the fact that conversion to Judaism had long been a capital crime in much of Europe; though this was naturally not the case in the United States, Jews still lived under the shadow of this remembered threat. They could not divest themselves of their ancient fear. Even as late as 1783, the Jews of England excommunicated one of their followers for circumcising a Christian from Flanders. The Jews heard rumors—and they were not exaggerated—that men were still being dismembered in eighteenth-century Europe for violations of canon law. There was still another reason why Jews closed their ears and their hearts to those who pleaded for admission into the Jewish fold. They knew from their own experiences that, only too frequently, a Jewish apostate was a bad Jew who became a worse Christian. The terms apostate, traitor, and scoundrel were practically synonymous in Jewish lore; the worse excesses had been committed by Jews who had turned against their people. Accordingly, they made the sweeping generalization—a wrong one, to be sure—that, if all Jewish converts to Christianity were no good, converts to Judaism were equally suspect. These reservations—and a lack of comprehension for that type of religiosity which inspired pious Bible-believing Gentiles to turn to Judaism—induced Jews to look askance at prospective proselytes. Nevertheless, as the early nineteenth century advanced, some intermarried Jews did succeed in having their “Christian” families admitted. Moses Nathans had three children, two boys and a girl, by his marriage of sorts with a Gentile. His boys were circumcised; his wife was converted; the family was accepted.82


The shortage of Jewish marriage partners for men and women of “good” families is eloquently reflected in the statistical data. Intermarriage usually began in the second generation; it became a problem in the third and fourth generations. The five sons of Michael Gratz, an immigrant, either did not marry or contracted intermarriages, or entered into liaisons with women of a lower social class. Not one married a Jew. As far as the Philadelphia Mikveh Israel community was concerned, none of the sons was married. The women in the Gratz family married Jews or remained spinsters. Benjamin and Rachel Levy, of Baltimore, scions of a very distinguished clan, had five children; two married out; three remained unmarried; by the fourth generation, this family was no longer Jewish. Most Jewish families of that day, whether humble or aristocratic, fought intermarriage. Of the seven surviving Etting children, two girls married; three of the women remained unmarried; the two sons married Jewish women. In Richmond, Joseph Marx and Jacob Mordecai attempted to stem the tide of mixed marriages in their families. Nine of Marx’s children grew up; one of the men and two of the women married Gentiles; four of the girls married Jews; two of the men remained single. Adeline Marx married a Virginia Mayo and thus became a kinswoman of the New York Archibald Gracies and of General Winfield Scott, the Whig candidate for president in 1852. A contemporary report had it that the Marx family took pleasure in Adeline’s intermarriage with a Mayo, but this was gossip.83

Intermarriage was very painful to the educator Jacob Mordecai, a committed Jew. Five of his children married Christians during his lifetime; most of his sons and daughters drifted away from Jews and Judaism. For a decade, this family had lived in a North Carolina village, in an overpowering Christian religious milieu; there were no Jews with whom to associate. One wonders, too, if Mordecai took time out to indoctrinate his youngsters Jewishly. In later years, some of his grandchildren, Christians, would visit him at his farm near Richmond. At night they would recite their Christian prayers to their Orthodox grandparents. As Jacob Mordecai lay dying, his beloved daughter Rachel, the most brilliant of the girls, became a convert to Christianity. She, too, was very ill at the time and was obviously concerned about her future in the World to Come. Only a few years after her marriage to Aaron Lazarus, of Wilmington, North Carolina, she and her husband had to cope with the threatened defection of her stepson Gershom, who had become a Christian or was about to become one. The young man was shipped to Richmond where Jacob Mordecai induced him to remain Jewish. Rachel Mordecai’s brother Alfred, the ordnance expert, married within the fold, but this may be looked upon as a purely fortuitous circumstance. He was a man of integrity, a dignified, self-respecting human being, too honorable to disdain his faith or disavow his Jewish background, even though Judaism was for him naught but a familial heritage. As the son of a learned father and as a Jew reared in an observant home, Alfred Mordecai was not unaware of the traditions of Judaism, but he was coldly unconcerned with the obligations and opportunities inherent in the faith to which his father was so passionately devoted.84

The Richmond in which Jacob Mordecai finally settled had no Jew more respected than Solomon Jacobs. All of Jacobs’s children chose Christians as mates. A German-Jewish newcomer with a bad accent made up to the aristocratic Miss Slowey Hays; the family thought it all a huge joke. Levy Andrew Levy, kinsman of Joseph Simon, the Lancaster fur entrepreneur, made his home in Baltimore. By that time, he had married out; when he was ninety-three—and probably senile—his Christian children made sure that papa was baptized. Simon Magruder Levy may well have been his son; Simon was a member of the first class at West Point. The Pettigrews, of Easton, may be unique. During the Revolution, Lieutenant James Pettigrew was married to a Hart girl by a chaplain. The Jewish father drove her out of the house, but when she became pregnant, he was reconciled, particularly after a relative performed a Jewish marriage. The indignant Philadelphia Jewish community set out unsuccessfully to punish the Jew who had officiated at this intermarriage. It is not known whether a formal arrangement was made with Pettigrew, but, at all events, his sons became Christians, while the girls remained Jewish. Years later, one of the boys, Samuel, was elected mayor of Pittsburgh.

Out in the West, in Cincinnati, one of its first Jewish settlers was a man named Phineas D. Israel. The surname was later changed to Johnson, possibly because the family bought a tavern in Indiana once owned by a man named Johnson. Israel-Johnson married a niece of Abram Clark, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The Johnson daughter, though reared as a Christian, married a Jew and was converted to his faith. In New Orleans, the printer and publisher Benjamin Levy—not to be confused with the Baltimorean of the same name—married a Catholic. One of his daughters married a Protestant in a civil ceremony, which was reinforced when the couple was remarried by a Catholic priest. David Lopez, of Charleston, the gifted builder, had espoused a Christian, but when she died, she was not granted burial by Congregation Beth Elohim. Thereupon, the bereaved husband bought a lot abutting on the Jewish cemetery, a lot later incorporated into the synagogal burial ground. Lopez’s second marriage was to a Jewish woman, who reared his children by the first wife as Jews. According to rabbinic statutes, Washington Bartlett was a Jew inasmuch as his mother was. Bartlett lived to become one of the most popular governors of California. As far as is known, he had no Jewish religious associations.

It is impossible to determine with any accuracy how many Jews intermarried in the years 1776–1840. Many married out and disappeared, leaving no trace of their Jewish origin. Scholars have estimated, however, that in the cities at least 10 percent intermarried; in a wide-open boom town like New Orleans, the rate of mixed marriages may have reached 50 percent. Malcolm Stern, the genealogist, is convinced that the rate of intermarriage at this time, in the United States, was at least 20 percent, probably higher. When Jews married Gentiles, very few lived as Jews; the overwhelming majority adopted the Christian way of life.85


In Zionist thinking, “assimilation” is defection, disappearance. The premise here is that, if a Jew is completely absorbed by the culture of a host land, he may no longer remain a Jew, and surely not a Jewish nationalist. Actually, all Jews everywhere are culturally eclectic, and in no land is this more evident than in the present State of Israel. Some Jews, however, do defect totally, though there is apparently no method to determine with any degree of certainty how many consciously surrender their allegiance to Jewry and its religious or religioethnic values. Defection is usually a gradual process; few men or women moving out of Judaism ever make a precipitous jump; they edge away from their fellow Jews very slowly. They may marry Gentiles and live as Christians but only rarely do they become formal converts. After a few generations, the descendants are no longer Jews. Young Moses Franks, son of David and his Christian wife, did not dare at first to go to England and study law at the Inns of Court where, eventually, he would have had to take a Christian test oath. Moses was reared as a Christian by his mother and could have taken the oath in good conscience. The reason he hesitated was that the rich and powerful London head of the clan, still an observant Jew, would have disavowed him. Ultimately, he did study law and of course took the required oath. No doubt, it was through his family in London that he received an appointment as attorney general for the Bahamas.86

James ( Joshua) Seixas became a convert. Was he eager to guarantee himself a career as a Hebrew teacher? Shinah Simon married Dr. Nicholas Schuyler and became a Christian. This seems to have been a love affair, but she remained utterly devoted to her Jewish family; when Michael Gratz, a kinsman, visited the Schuylers, they fed him kosher food. A Charleston Jewish woman, falling in love with a Gentile, adopted his faith and married him; years later, she repented rejoined Beth Elohim. Sarah Jane Picken, a Presbyterian, converted to Judaism in order to marry a rabbi. She, too, repented years later, rejoined her church, and wrote her memoirs, not only to validate her Christian faith, but to underscore the hazards of intermarriage. It is interesting to trace the course of complete assimilation in Jewish families. In the well-organized, disciplined European Jewish community, it was hard not to be a Jew; in the permissive American Jewish community, it was often hard to be a Jew. Defection in most cases began with intermarriage. This seems to have been true of Lieutenant Colonel Solomon Bush, Isaac Franks, and High Constable Jacob Hays. These three men are typical of those who lived as Christians and threw in their lot with the Gentile majority. Theirs was a conscious choice. They opted to be Protestant Americans, not Jewish Americans, even though they did not go through a formal conversion ceremony. After death their Christian children did not hesitate to give their Jewish-born parents Christian burial.

David Levy Yulee became a truly pious Christian. He had inherited his religious euphoria from his father, Moses E. Levy. The father remained a weird Jew; the son was utterly evangelical in his tenets; it is hard to believe that he was not baptized. David quoted with approval the following sentences from a Christian edificatory work: “Let us meditate upon our Saviour’s cross and our Saviour’s crown; let prayer keep the Holy Ghost always near us.” When David took the name Yulee, however, he was not trying to conceal his Jewish origins; invariably he used his middle name Levy as well. Asher Marx, brother of Joseph of Richmond, became an eminent New York merchant. In order to marry the woman of his choice, he accepted Christianity and reared his children as Protestants. One of them, Henry or Harry Carroll (“Dandy”) Marx, was the city’s best dressed man; he is said to have introduced the waxed mustache into America. Dandy Marx organized a company of elegant hussars, belonged to a hose company, and succeeded in running through the large estate left him by his father. His sisters adorned their King Charles spaniels and Italian greyhounds with silver collars and silk strings. In a way, the Monsantos, of Natchez, were unique, living as tolerated Marranos in a Spanish state where only Catholics were accepted. Everyone, including the Spanish rulers, knew that they were Jews and no one molested them, but as “Jews” they had no future.

Why did Jews live as Christians or become converts to Christianity? A host of reasons are given but one never really knows with certainty what motivates any individual to take this important step. Some Jews were convinced that Judaism was unenlightened; many wanted to become part of the larger American Protestant community. Few knew much about Judaism; it had little appeal for them. Many wanted to make a career by intermarriage and thus further themselves. A few, as Christians, were spiritually reborn. Ellen Mordecai in The History of a Heart declared that Jesus Christ was her savior and redeemer. Given an uncompromising Jewish Orthodoxy, acculturated Jews may have turned to Christianity with its possibility of a modernistic cultural appeal. There was little, if any, inspiring Jewish leadership during this period. Leeser was very knowledgeable, but hardly charismatic. His own congregational board ended up by letting him go. Intelligent men and women often drifted away; they stopped going to the synagog; they observed no Sabbath, ate no kosher food, and made no Jewish friends. Judaism did not appeal to them; the sociocultural complex which they knew as Christianity did attract them; it was more “American.” It is surprising that so few defected.87


There was no end to the assortment of Jews who were to appear on the scene between 1776 and 1840: one sometimes wonders if there was such a thing as a typical Jew. There was Isaac Leeser, the hazzan, utterly devoted; there was Nathaniel Levin, of Charleston, a well-educated layman, an earnest and sincere practicing Jew. Farther North, Richmond Jewry treasured Gustavus A. Myers. No Jew in the United States was more distinguished as a lawyer than this man; the only others comparable to him were Philip Phillips and Judah P. Benjamin. Myers, born at Richmond in 1801, was a grandson of Moses M. Hays, of Boston, and a kinsman of the Touros and the Mordecais. He became a very successful lawyer, representing clients in Virginia, in the neighboring state of Maryland, and even in New York. One of his biographers maintains that he had the largest legal practice ever enjoyed by any attorney in Richmond. Because of his activity in Virginia’s capital and in the smaller Jewish community, Myers became the most distinguished Israelite in the Richmond of his generation. He was in a large measure a marginal Jew, for he married out and was buried in a Christian cemetery, yet he was acceptable to all groups. Jews admired him because he was ready to defend them; the Gentiles respected him because of his influence, his prestige, his distinction as a legal practitioner. The city co-opted him for many important communal tasks: the dinner in honor of the visiting Lafayette, the dedication of the Washington monument at Mt. Vernon, the meetings at the death of Thomas Jefferson, the administration of the Richmond Library.

All in all, Myers was a remarkable man. His cultural background was most impressive, for he was well versed in ancient and modern literature. The roster of his offices and achievements includes membership in the Virginia Historical Society and service on the city council as well as in the state legislature; he was a leader in the important local clubs, a Master in his Masonic lodge. In the larger world of business, Myers was the director of a railroad and of the Mutual Assurance Society of Virginia. After Richmond was abandoned early in April, 1865, he was one of the committee that waited on Lincoln to discuss the future of Virginia, and when Jefferson Davis was finally released on bail, Myers was a cosignatory who made it possible for the former Confederate president to return to the bosom of his family. Yet in more than one sense, he was not a marginal religionist; he was accounted the state’s most notable Jew. He was interested in the conduct of the local synagog, presided at the Richmond meeting to protest the torture of Jews in Damascus, and was outstanding among those who appealed to public opinion when the Italian Jewish child Edgar Mortara, of Bologna, was taken from his mother’s arms to be reared as a Christian. He raised his voice in indignation when some of the country’s largest insurance companies boycotted Jewish businessmen. Myers was charming, witty, cultured, an exceedingly attractive person. Sully, in his later years, painted his portrait at a time when the Richmond lawyer was already sixty-four years of age, and although this beautiful picture portrays the fatigue of a man who has lived through a hard civil war, it still reflects the sensitivity and the refinement that were indubitably his. His was a strikingly “Jewish” face. For Virginia Christendom, he was the voice of Jewry, and Old Dominion Jewry was proud to acclaim him. As a distinguished man standing Janus-like between the Jews and the generality of the citizenry, he was the prototype of many nineteenth- and twentieth-century American Jewish leaders.88

And then there was the complete defector, who was determined that no one should ever know of his Jewish origin. Such a man was Alexander Bryan Johnson (1787–1867). Born in Gasport, England, he was brought to this country as a child in 1801 and grew up in Utica. Determined to succeed with as few hurdles as possible, he told no one of his Jewish origins, though on both his paternal and maternal side he was of rabbinic stock. He became a wealthy banker, married the granddaughter of President John Adams, became a good churchman, wrote numerous books and articles, and was highly respected for his work on banking and the philosophy of language. He was a man of exceptional intellect. Finally, there is the born Christian child of a Jewish parent, and proud of his or her Jewish origin. Anna Gratz Clay, who had married the grandson of Henry Clay, once told a rabbi: “I am a Jewess by race, and an Episcopalian by religion.”89


The personal letters and papers of men like Jacob Mordecai, the Ettings, Mordecai Manuel Noah, Gustavus A. Myers, or a woman like Rachel Mordecai, pose a question for the Jewish historian: What was Jewish about them? In the preponderant majority of their daily activities these people were as American as any one else. Except in his patriotic ardor, when his political temperature usually rose to about 125 degrees, the typical Jew was nearly always 99 percent American. He was rarely conscious of his Jewishness. He reserved 1 percent for attendance at an occasional synagogal service for celebration of some specific Holy Day, or relish for some particular food, Spanish-Jewish meatballs or German-Jewish puddings. For a few, like Jacob Mordecai, the Carolina educator, Judaism was a passion; for others, like his kinsman Gustavus A. Myers, it was an old aunt to whom one was loyal, but hardly devoted. A further question must be put: Were the natives kept Jewishly loyal by the Orthodox German immigrants who were now beginning to arrive? It is hard to see how these low-status, often uncouth newcomers could have had any real influence on the proud acculturated natives.90

The “typical” American-born Jew was a religionist sui generis; he visited the synagog occasionally, associated primarily with Jews, kept the Sabbath after a fashion, and made a stab at maintaining a kosher home. Some, like Rebecca Gratz, were quite observant even when dining with Gentiles, refusing to eat swine’s flesh and shellfish and blandly ignoring all invitations to apostasy. It is not easy to divide Jews into categories according to the degree of adherence to Orthodoxy or lack of it. Actually there were almost as many Judaisms as there were individuals. Many were hardly observant at all and rarely attended religious service. The congregational boards realizing that the times were against them, tended to ignore the old bylaws which threatened or punished the lax. Yet many who were remiss often supported the synagog in order to impress their Christian neighbors. Religion and respectability were closely associated, but even to the slack, Orthodoxy was important, at least in principle, and they expected the hazzan to be scrupulously observant. As a Jew, he was exhibit A.91

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