AMERICAN JEWRY 1776–1840: A SUMMARY AND SOME COMMENTS
Prior to 1775 and the violent break with Great Britain, no Jew in the British colonies could hold an honorific office unless he was willing to take a Christian test oath. By 1840, most Jews in the United States enjoyed full political rights. Several states denied them full equality, but, with exceptions, there were few Jews living in those commonwealths. Ultimately, even those laggard states would have to emancipate them; Gentiles were the prisoners of their own grandiloquent Rights of Man; it was becoming increasingly difficult to deny free men full civil and political immunities. The Jews speedily recognized that there was a future for them here in this new republic. As early as 1784, even before a federal Constitution existed or before Pennsylvania emancipated its Israelites, a Philadelphian, Manuel Josephson, made it quite clear that for the Jew America was the best of all countries. That was true. It was the first land to endow Jews with all immunities, at least on a federal level. For the Children of Abraham, the Revolution was truly important. Jewish veterans of the war were proud that they had helped effect this sociopolitical change. Noah once hoped to write a book or an essay on this subject. It was not long, however, before American Jewry became aware that it would always have to struggle to retain the privileges it had won. Encroachments of Christian religionists frequently threatened political parity. As of 1840, no Jew had as yet been elected to an important state or national office; individuals, however, were reaching out for recognition and for power; this decade would see a Jew in Congress.1
With political rights came commercial privileges; if nothing else, equality before the law conferred status. Merchant-shippers—not many, to be sure —lived in the coastal towns that curved southward and westward from Boston to New Orleans. Commerce, however, was moving from the Atlantic Ocean westward to the mountains and beyond. This was the age of continental expansion. The merchant-shippers traded with Europe, the Far East, and the West Indies as well as with South and Central America; the shopkeepers looked to the West, a West which began with Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and extended even then to the Pacific Coast. Before 1840, there was a Philadelphia Jew selling pantaloons in a village on the shores of San Francisco Bay. As businessmen, the Jews of the early republic tended to continue the economic traditions of colonial days. Most were petty shopkeepers, a few were craftsmen; still fewer were merchant-shippers; others were large-scale dry goods merchants, building emporia that would yet emerge as embryonic department stores. Jews, always literate, were relatively numerous in the civil service, employed both by towns and the federal government. In a day when most Americans were farmers or village folk, not many Jews tilled the soil; there were no mill hands. By 1840, however, important economic changes were taking place, all of which were to affect Jewish entrepreneurs. The older agrarian economy was radically modified by the beginnings of industry and banking and by turnpikes, canals, and railroads. Lawyers, the accoucheurs of big business, were already indispensable. In all of these areas, with the exception of textile manufacturing, Jews made their presence felt. In a way, one Jew embodied in his career some of the changes so characteristic of those early decades: John Jacob Hays (d. 1836), a native of New York, trekked north to Canada and then moved on to the Illinois Country, where he engaged in the fur trade. In the new transmontane West he served as postmaster, sheriff, collector of internal revenue, Indian agent; unlike most of his fellow Jews, he also ran a farm. Despite the prejudices that were never absent, Jews did move upward; most of them were in the middle-middle class; only a few became wealthy. The road to prosperity was a rocky one; there were eight depressions during the years 1776–1840.
GAINS IN THE ARTS AND SCIENCES
Political liberalism and broadened economic opportunity brought cultural emancipation. Before 1776, hardly a single Jew stood out as an exponent of western culture, though individuals, men and women, read widely and owned good libraries. After the Revolution, with its promises and its fulfillment, many Jews, men and women, became people of culture. They embraced the common American culture wholeheartedly; they were not cultural pluralists. Later, much later, in the second half of the twentieth century, the traumatic experience of Russian and Polish persecutions, American anti-Semitism, and German mass murders would make sociocultural pluralism an acceptable, even a desirable option. In the years between 1775 and 1840, Jews in the United States emerged as poets, writers, journalists, portrait painters, dramatists, physicians, lawyers, economists, and sponsors of libraries and art academies. Jacob C. Levy, a Charleston entrepreneur, preferred his study to his countinghouse; Jacob Mordecai, of Warrenton, North Carolina, was engrossed in biblical research; Rebecca Gratz, the Philadelphia spinster, read everything and moved freely and confidently in the salons of the literati. The attractions of an open society led frequently to assimilation and defection, but the defection of some families was a multigenerational process that offered no threat to the survival of American Jewry. A constant influx of Central European newcomers replenished the American Jewish reservoirs.
The many prerevolutionary Jews surviving to 1840 could testify to the changes in their lives, politically, economically, and culturally. Religiously, these men and women were less affected. The 2,000-year-old tradition maintained its hold despite the fact that apathy and indifference were rife. There was relatively little interest in traditional Hebrew texts; knowledge of the rabbinical classics was not deemed imperative. Hence there was to be no rabbi, no expounder of the Law, here in the United States till 1840, almost 200 years after the coming of the first Jew to the British colonies. Isaac Leeser made a desperate effort to link his generation to the past and its literature so that the chain of tradition would not be broken. To effect his purpose, he prepared text books, liturgies, and translations. His authority as a “rabbi” was never recognized. “Learning,” Talmud, rabbis—these were to play very little part in American Judaism in the six or more decades after the Revolution. Unlike the more autocratic European states, the government here would not buoy up the authority of Jewish religious leaders. American concepts of democracy influenced the synagog; democracy made the vote all powerful. Learned and unlearned lay leaders, backed by the ballot, ruled the congregations. Thus it was that the Orthodox elite of Charleston, victorious in 1824, went down to defeat in the 1840’s. Rugged individualism was to prevail over years of sacrosanct religious traditions.
In some towns, only a minority was affiliated with the congregation. It was the threat of defection that provoked some in cultured Charleston to attempt a synthesis of Americanism and Judaism. It was the hope of these Charleston Reformers that an Americanized Jewish religion would guarantee survival; this motivation explains the rise of the Reformed Society of Israelites. But even for the typical American Jew, for those men and women who tended to neglect the Sabbath, to ignore the dietary laws, and to absent themselves from the synagog, there was no thought of disloyalty. For those tempted to break completely with the past, the knowledge that there was a world outside ready to reject them deterred many from taking the final step. Judaism and its institutions were a tie to the past, a source of strength emotionally, a refuge when calamity struck. Most Jews were at least nominal religionists. It was not difficult to be a Jew as they defined that term. They accepted tradition in its entirety, but willfully—and, it would appear guiltlessly—ignored any law or ordinance which failed to interest them. They believed in the Jewish people, the need to help one another. They never doubted even for a second that the ties that bound Jews together were unbreakable. They insisted that their children learn to read Hebrew; it was imperative that the service be in the same holy language; they loved the liturgy and the Holy Days. Without matzos there was no Judaism; they created and supported mutual-aid societies, burial associations, charity organizations. In all these areas, religion and philanthropy, they were one with their predecessors who had landed at New Amsterdam in 1654. The incontrovertible proof that they were determined to remain Jewish is the steady increase in the number of new synagogs, all of them traditionally oriented.
The dominant Protestantism was not without an impact on Jewish traditionalists. There was an incessant drive for a Christian-like decorum in the service; the English sermon made its way forward; New Testament phrases rolled off the lips of the most orthodox; Sunday Schools were established in the major Jewish communities. Catechisms were published, and recondite theological dialogues were conned and repeated by bright Jewish youngsters. Yet, these Jewish religionists with their ethically motivated monotheism and their plethora of ceremonies and rituals had little interest in essential Christian dogmas. Jews summarily rejected the concept of a mediating divine savior. Revivalism was viewed as a religious aberration. Devotion to social reforms, to abolition, to temperance, evoked no enthusiasm on their part; the overriding concern of the synagog was to survive institutionally. The individual religionist was eager to maintain a low profile in the general community. Is there a typical religious layman? Many. Philip Hart, of Charleston (1727–1796), may well be a good example for the Revolutionary generation. This native of Hamburg was in America by 1750. He served in the Revolutionary army and made his way as a businessman and merchant-shipper. His generosity in 1794 helped build the beautiful Charleston synagog in which he was active, and when his will was probated, it was found that he had manumitted a slave, given liberally to the Charleston general charities, and left substantial legacies to the local congregation and to the Jews of his native Hamburg.2
THE AMERICAN JEW AND THE WORLD JEWISH COMMUNITY
THE PERVADING SENSE OF KINSHIP
Jews have always nursed a pervading sense of kinship with every other Jew in the world. This is the concept of Kelal Yisrael, the Totality, the Oneness of Israel, of World Jewry. Leeser called it “a tie holier than a fatherland.” What were the roots of this concept? Common suffering, indoctrination, cherished rituals, and customary law. The Charleston Jew of German provenance left money to a German rabbinical conventicle. That was important for him; he believed that talmudic studies were vital if Jewry was to survive. A New Orleans Jew who evinced little interest in the local Jewish congregation—the members were not his social peers—gave a large sum to his native German community. The New Orleans synagog honored the memory of Abbé Gregoire, the French Revolutionary cleric, because he had fought for Jewish emancipation. Jews everywhere never forgot that they were part of a very intimate world fellowship. The approach of the typical Jew was simple: since we are all kin, we have a right to ask for help from all Jews wherever they are; it is their bounden duty to respond, are we not responsible one for the other? In their loyalties, Jews are always “ultramontane.” Their basic fidelities are not to the local or the national Jewish community, but to any Jews in the world who need help. They come first.
The concept of the Totality of Israel admits of no exception. Thus, New Orleans Jewry in 1853 established the Hebrew Foreign Mission Society to help Chinese Jews in dire need. But long before that, American Jewry had reached out to its coreligionists in the Far East. Their language of communication was Hebrew. By 1787, as the postwar depression was slowly coming to an end, Solomon Simson, of New York, reached out to India; he began corresponding with the Jewish community in Cochin on the Malabar Coast. Why? Curiosity was certainly a factor that stirred him. Jews are always thrilled to hear of distant fellow Jews whose existence was heretofore almost unknown. There is of course a very special religious reason. The Bible made it clear that after the Dispersion would come the Ingathering followed by the Messiah, the Restoration, and everlasting peace and glory for the House of Israel. And finally Simson looked forward to establishing a lucrative business relationship with the Jews of India. It was these motivations that prompted him later, in 1795, to attempt to correspond with the Jews of China who had a settlement at Kai-fung-foo. The ship captain entrusted with the letter to the Chinese Jews was not able to locate the settlement.3
THE LINK TO PALESTINE
Like all other Jews, American Jewry also had a link to Palestine and prayed daily for the Return. True, this was but a mechanical ritual that meant very little to most who rushed through their prayers. Yet, let there be no question, Palestine itself was sacred to Jewry; Jewry was determined to do all in its power to maintain its communities—a tradition that went back for over 2,000 years. Jews here and in all lands looked upon the Palestinians as “real” Jews. They were World Jewry’s vicarious students, laboring as they did day and night over the tomes of the Law. They were the mediators who interceded at the graves of the patriarchs for Diaspora Jewry. It was a mitzvah to support these men, and one needed good deeds to enter the World to Come. These Palestinians are holding the fort till the dawn of the Restoration; they are God’s beloved pioneers. They depend upon us to support them and it is our sacred obligation, our privilege, to do so. The monies sent them were collected here at funerals, in charity boxes, and through offerings and personal gifts. The Palestinians, always impoverished, always oppressed, always importunate, were in constant touch with prosperous Diaspora communities. Printed circulars were dispatched from the Turkish-ruled Holy Land describing in heartrending phrases their injuries and their sufferings and their anguish. Amsterdam, London, and Constantinople Jewries wrote to the American communities soliciting gifts for the stalwarts of the four sacred Holy Land cities, Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias, and Safed. A more direct connection was established by those Palestinians who had been coming to the British North American colonies since the middle of the eighteenth century.
The first, Moses Malki, of Safed, arrived in 1759, lived for months in New York and Newport at the expense of those communities and then moved on. There is no evidence that he was seeking aid for his fellow townsmen. Beginning with the 1760’s, requests for help were continuous. The American Jews responded; there was a Palestine relief committee in New York in 1761; Daniel Gomez, of New York, apparently the American treasurer in 1770, was assigned the task of collecting funds from Newport, Philadelphia, and New York. Thus, we have here the intimation of a national Jewish effort to aid a foreign Jewry. Like Malki, Haim Isaac Carigal, of Hebron, was another itinerant. He was a man of quality, learned, dignified, charming, competent. Even though there is every reason to believe that he was collecting money for his own needs, he was respected and admired; he tied American Jewry to Palestine and he was a worthy representative, respected by both Jews and Christians. Samuel Cohen, who landed in Newport in 1775, was the first authentic apostle or messenger to land on these shores. He sought aid for the oppressed Jews of Hebron. While in Newport, he preached a fast day sermon, as the Continental Congress had suggested, praying for peace; the Americans were then besieging Boston. Because of the war, the Newporters and New Yorkers hastily shipped him back to Europe. During the Revolution, the crossing was hazardous and no Palestinian itinerant or “rabbinical messengers” (shaddarim) attempted it, but beginning with the late 1780’s, they again made their appearance with outstretched palm. The Pennsylvania Packet, in its edition of August 16, 1788, asked all good citizens to help redeem Hebron’s Jews from enslavement at the hands of the Turkish pashas. From the 1790’s on and well into the 1820’s, God’s messengers found it once more difficult to make the Atlantic crossing and to unite the two Jewries through the bond of charity; the Napoleonic wars and the War of 1812 made travel dangerous. Knowing of the distress under which the Palestinians labored, the Massachusetts philanthropist Abraham Touro set up a modest endowment fund at Shearith Israel to educate impoverished Jewish children in the Holy Land.
Beginning in the 1820’s, the persistent shaddarim again made their appearance. Since that time, they have never ceased to come or to petition for aid. Rabbi Samuel Isaacki appeared in 1825, collected a substantial sum and insisted that it be given to him; the New Yorkers had hoped to send their gifts directly to the needy. By this time, the American Jewish leaders were convinced that the messenger system, by which they documented their attachment to Palestine was inefficient. Providing for these visitors was a huge expense; some of them were probably imposters. The Jewish elite of Amsterdam and the Londoners—both Sephardic and Ashkenazic—suggested that all funds collected be sent for transmission to responsible men and agencies in Europe. Though the Americans turned against the messengers, the latter continued to come and not infrequently were showered with gifts. It was difficult to refuse them; these exotics were enveloped in an odor of sanctity.
To cope with the problem of safeguarding the monies destined for the Four Sacred Cities of their ancestors, the Europeans in the 1820’s had finally organized an international Society for the Offerings for the Sanctuary (Hevrah Terumat Ha-Kodesh). By 1832, a similar organization with the same name was established in New York. Local congregations were co-opted; branches in other cities here were established or contemplated. In founding this society, it was pointed out that oppression in Eastern Europe, revolution in the Balkans, and war in the Levant had disrupted the flow of funds to Palestine. America’s gifts were, therefore, of vital importance, and in order to keep in touch with the changing political scene, it was suggested that a committee of correspondence be appointed to study the situation abroad. This hevrah is historically significant, though it was to disappear after two decades; it marks a stage in the organic development of the local New York community. Equally important, it documents a drive toward nationwide Jewish consolidation and a strengthening of the link to Europe and Palestine. All told, it intensified the sense of kinship that was always present. New York’s Jews, the men who usually bore the brunt of providing for the “messengers,” wrote to their confreres in London, Paris, Amsterdam and Bordeaux, warning them not to encourage these solicitors to come here. The increasing immigration of Central Europeans to New York made it imperative to provide first for these newcomers. Charity begins at home. This protest of the Shearith Israel trustees points up a problem that has continued to confront American Jewry to the present day. What takes precedence: the needs of local Jewry or the demands of foreign communities (Palestine-Israel)? Jews of the Holy Land were always faced with a crisis.4
UNITED STATES JEWRY: A EUROPEAN RELIGIOUS SATELLITE
American Jews deemed themselves an indissoluble part of World Jewry; in addition, they looked upon themselves as satellites of the Jewish community in England. They had no rabbis of their own, men qualified to make authoritative decisions in the area of rabbinic law. They accepted willingly spiritual guidance from Amsterdam Jewry because that city was probably the largest Jewish community in Europe; they deferred to London, not because of its size, but because of its scholars and the common tie of Anglo-Saxon culture. Many of New York’s Jews were natives of England or were Central Europeans who had been anglicized in London before embarking for the United States. The Sephardim here listened to the mandates of Europe’s Sephardim; the Ashkenazim gave a respectful hearing to London and to Amsterdam’s Ashkenazic leaders. The Jews here turned to their respective doyens abroad in matters of marriage, divorce, burial, and conversion. They solicited their aid in the recruitment of officiants. American Jews were dependent on Europe not only for religious advice but also for material aid. As part of the Body of Israel, every Jew, in every land, was expected to help his fellow Jews, particularly when religious institutions were in need. Individual communities were not constrained by political boundaries; kinship surmounted them all. Despite the war with Great Britain, Jews in this country nursed no animus against English Jewry. After the treaty of peace was signed in 1783, the Sephardim here continued to maintain close relations with London’s Bevis Marks; Shearith Israel was always close to the English congregations in London, Barbados, and Jamaica.
If all America’s documents describing the building of Jewish sanctuaries during the years 1729 to 1839 were lost, the historian would probably be able to reconstruct some of their history by consulting foreign archives. Many early American synagogs wrote abroad seeking financial help. These petitions were dispatched as early as 1729, when the first sanctuary was being constructed; the New Yorkers then addressed requests to London and to the English and Dutch colonies in the West Indies. It must not be forgotten that Surinam and the Caribbean Jewish congregations were more prosperous, more numerous, more important than the North American mainland ones until the 1820’s. The Jewish colonists who settled en bloc at Savannah in 1733 were outfitted and financed by London Jewry; two years earlier, a London Jewish philanthropist had built the first Jewish school in this country. The English Sephardim were glad to see incoming refugees from Spain and Portugal emigrate to North America; dispatching them to the New World was motivated by more than ethnic and religious fellowship. European communities dumped their social-welfare problems on the colonies.
Newport’s congregation received a Scroll of the Law from London in 1759, and when Philadelphia’s Jews and the assembled exiles erected the city’s first Jewish sanctuary in 1782, they, too, turned to London, Surinam, and the West Indies. As late as 1818, New York’s Shearith Israel appealed to the Dutch in Curaçao for a building grant. This New York congregation always maintained good relations, not only with the Dutch in Curaçao, but also with the Dutch colonies of Surinam and St. Eustatius. When Sephardic Philadelphia set out in the early 1820’s to erect a new sanctuary, it appealed to, among others, a London Rothschild, a Montefiore, and a Goldsmid. These famous bankers were given an opportunity to perform a meritorious deed; it would stand them in good stead! It is strange, but there is no record, prior to 1840, of any Jewish group in this country appealing to the Germans in Berlin or Hamburg. Why were they beyond the pale of kinship? No good answer suggests itself. The Cincinnatians in 1825 turned to the English; B’nai Israel in that Ohio city was founded primarily by emigrants from the English hinterland; and when Charleston’s beautiful building was razed by fire in 1838, a printed circular soliciting contributions was sent to the chief congregations in Amsterdam, London, and Barbados. Long before this, when a majestic, impressive Sephardic sanctuary was built in 1792, the Charlestonians had secured a substantial grant from prosperous Barbados. Foreign communities besieged for help frequently said no for reasons of their own, but they never questioned the right of another Jewry to ask for such assistance and to expect it. In a way, the congregations seeking succor were not petitioners but fellow Jews asserting their claims. “Who can we apply to for aid unless it be our brethren of the House of Israel,” wrote the Baltimoreans in 1837.5
HELPING JEWS ABROAD
The prerogatives of fellowship induced merchants in the Islands to seek courtesies of fellow Jews on the North American mainland. Reflected here is a curious—but not unusual—admixture of business and friendship. West Indians sent their children north to be educated in Norfolk and New York and asked their suppliers to supervise their studies. Although the small American Jewries lived in the shadow of the more affluent Islands and the European communities, they did make an effort, a very modest one, to be sure, to help Jews in other lands. Common concern was deemed a two-way street; Jews here were expected to give as well as to receive. Indeed the contemporary historian of World Jewry, Isaac Marcus Jost, wrote that American Jews had more sympathy for oppressed brethren abroad than for suffering fellow Jews at home. In 1755 and 1775, London’s Spanish and Portuguese Bevis Marks wrote to New York Jews and asked them to help Smyrna Jews suffering from fires and poverty. The Philadelphians in the 1780’s responded to pleas from the Barbadians; Shearith Israel’s burial society aided the starving Jews of Persia in 1815. The Americans gave little; congregations could barely balance their own budgets; the members were poor and thrifty to a fault. Foreign supplicants on these shores did better as they peddled their tales of woe. An emissary from Tunis pleading his personal misfortune was treated generously as he traveled all the way from New York to Savannah—in 1815, in the midst of the war with Great Britain. Eight years later, the scholarly Aaron Judah Corcos appeared in New York pleading for funds to help ransom his family. All told, the funds dispatched to Palestine, the Islands, or possibly to Europe and Asia, between the years 1775 and 1840, were at the most a few thousand dollars. By the last decades of the twentieth century, the five million or more Jews in the United States were annually sending over $500,000,000 abroad to aid Jews in need.6
AMERICAN JEWRY AND THE CHALLENGE TO EUROPE
Throughout most of the nineteenth century, Europe influenced America. If the Jews of the United States played any part in world Jewish history, it was not because of intrinsic accomplishments, but because of the accident of history that set them up as exemplars to all the nations of Europe. American Jewry was the Diaspora’s first emancipated Jewish community. American liberals were redressing the European balance; they were speeding the emancipation of all Europe’s disabled people, including the Jews. A new dimension was now influencing World Jewry; the international Jewish community, always based on kinship, was strengthened by American egalitarian teachings, which then began to make their way in Europe. Europeans read the Declaration of Independence; Jefferson’s 1786 Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, too, was translated and read by many. Messiah-like, America deliberately set out to bring liberty to the whole world—whether it wanted it or not. Citizens here gloried in their liberal Constitution and its amendments. Enlightenment had made its impress on France even before the American Revolution, and there was talk then of emancipating the Israelites. Such a desire on the part of a few was reinforced in that century by the American egalitarianism of the 1770’s and the 1780’s.
Returning French Jews who had lived in the United States or had fought in the American Revolution brought back American concepts of liberty. French liberals and leaders like Mirabeau and the Abbé Gregoire knew what the new America had done for its Jews; the Abbé was ready to accord full rights to French Jewry. On January 29, 1790, when French Jews petitioned the National Assembly for political and religious liberty, they referred specifically to the new North American republic which had rejected toleration in favor of justice and liberty. Writing to the Jews of Savannah in 1790, Washington expressed his conviction that the enlightened nations of the earth would accept the political principles espoused by the new republic on this side of the Atlantic. The President’s hopes were prophetic. Finally in 1791, France, influenced in part by the United States, emancipated all its Jews. During the 1790’s, America offered asylum to refugees fleeing from Revolutionary France and from the black revolutionaries in the French West Indies who had successfully turned on their white oppressors. In 1818, Noah expressed his conviction that the rights accorded here would profoundly affect the European states, that the emancipation of Jewry in the Old World was inevitable. When Paris rose in revolt in 1830, an American Jewish orator in New York implied that it was this country that had helped the French to strike out for larger freedoms.7
HOLLAND, GERMANY, ENGLAND, AND AMERICAN JEWRY
When, under the influence of the French, emancipation of the Dutch Jews was debated in the Dutch National Assembly in 1796, the libertarians pointed out that emancipating the Jews in the United States and France had contributed to the prosperity of those countries. A political exemplar, tiny American Jewry reached out across the ocean ultimately to exert a perceptible influence on the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. This was important, since these two regions were to become reservoirs out of which would pour a torrent of men and women to make twentieth-century United States the largest Jewry in the world. In 1840, there were at most 15,000 Jews in this republic; in the 1980’s, it was estimated, there were well over 5,000,000. Passive American Jewry, merely by virtue of being “free,” was reaching out and tying world Jewry to the new western republic. The rights granted American Jewry were finally to influence Western and Central Europe to emancipate their Jews; more significantly, the privileges and immunities enjoyed by this country’s Jews were to buoy up millions until time and circumstance made it possible for them to emigrate. The cumulative evidence is interesting. In 1783, German Jews, oppressed, were appealing to the Continental Congress to make a home for them in the United States. It was immaterial that this letter may have been only a propagandistic device; German Jews were hoping eventually to become part of an emancipated, not a disabled, World Jewry. In 1797, a Moravian Jew published a Hebrew work informing his readers that Charleston’s Jews enjoyed political rights, and in 1808 a Prussian Minister of State lauded the bravery of American Jewish soldiers. That same year a German Gentile writer, seeking to further Jews politically, printed a list of Jews holding office in the United States—probably the first of the “lists” which were later compiled to prove that, if Jews were emancipated, they could become exemplary citizens.
In 1809, a Galician Jew published a Hebrew ethical work, based in part on the writings of Benjamin Franklin. America was indeed beginning to make its influence felt in Europe. Franklin, this author said, was “a Gentile who kindled a light which has made brighter the light of Israel.” Hannah Adams’s History of the Jews was translated into German in 1819. Her good tidings about America found their way almost immediately into current Judeo-German literature. Brackenridge’s 1819 appeal to give all rights to Maryland Jewry was published in Berlin, the Prussian capital, a year later. Circumstances conspired to make these publications about the United States very acceptable, for in 1819 German mobs had risen in several cities to club and plunder the Jews. An English review of Isaac Harby’s provocative address on Reform Jewry appeared also in German. Finally, in 1840, a pseudepigraphical work appeared in Rothenberg, Germany: a book, There is But One God, which pretended to be a German translation of an American religious polemic. Jesus was depicted as a human being, an Essene; there was no Virgin Birth. The purpose of this pseudepigraph was to point out that Jews were permitted to polemicize in the United States, but not in Germany. The implication is clear; the Jews in this country were free in every sense of the word.8
ENGLAND AND AMERICAN JEWRY
It is not easy to determine whether the many German states were indeed influenced by conditions in the United States when confronted with the problem of fully emancipating their Jewish citizens. It was not until 1871 that all German Jews were finally accorded parity with their Gentile fellow citizens, on paper at least. Long before this, however, thousands of German Jews had emigrated to the West, to the United States, seeking political equality and a larger economic opportunity. English Jews, however, did not leave for America in substantial numbers. They remained at home and initiated a vigorous campaign for more rights after the enfranchisement of Protestant dissenters and Catholics in 1829. When, in the late 1820’s, Jews, too, began to push for more privileges in England, they had the whole-hearted support of American Jewry—and Christians, too. In 1821, a New York Gentile liberationist wrote to a friend in England informing him that Jews in this country were not excluded from any political rights. The mayor of New York, he said, was a Jew. (This was wrong; Noah, however, was then sheriff.) The conversion-minded Christian Philo-Judeans in London began to work for the emancipation of English Jewry even before the Jews themselves turned to this task. Christian love was in the ascendency. In 1829, an Anglo-Jewish pamphleteer, encouraged and aided by Gentiles, began a campaign to secure more political, economic, and cultural privileges for his people. Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote on their behalf in 1831 in the Edinburgh Review and two years later addressed himself to the same subject in Parliament. In both instances, he cited the example of the American Jews. Joseph Hume, another member of Parliament, quoted John Quincy Adams, who had written a letter recommending the grant of rights to all European Jews: “No set of men can be better subjects,” said the ex-President; Harriet Martineau also joined in the battle for political equality; she had visited America and was impressed by the Jews she met there in 1834.
English Jewry now turned to the Americans for the evidence that Jews living in an enlightened state as full citizens had carved out notable careers. The Americans were only too happy to respond to the call of fellow Jews whom they admired and respected. Mendes Cohen, of Baltimore, then in London, sent for copies of the pro-Jewish addresses on the Maryland Jew Bill. A New York Israelite compiled a list of American Jewish officeholders and sent it off to the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Anglo-Jewish leaders encouraged the publication of similar lists which were widely circulated. These pleas for privileges and immunities, made by London Gentiles and Jews, were probably effective; the emancipation process, however, was a slow one. Offices were open to the Jews in the 1830’s; a Rothschild was admitted to Parliament in 1858, and in 1871 Cambridge and Oxford were finally ready to grant degrees to Jews. This was the very year that the Germans also emancipated their Jewish subjects. American Jews watched the developments in England with keen interest. They admired and respected the Rothschilds and loved Sir Moses Montefiore, English Jewry’s grand old man. The Jews in the British Isles were fellow Jews fighting to survive with dignity.9
AMERICA’S NATIONAL JEWISH COMMUNITY
Obviously, Jews in the United States were part of an international Jewish community. No one international organization linked them closely together, but there was really no need for this; the sense of belonging, of fellowship, was intense. Was there an American national Jewish community? Here, too, no formal organization existed. Jews were few in number, about 6,000 souls in 1829; yet there was a national Jewish “community,” one by consensus. What was its nature, its quality? Individuals, confraternities, and synagogs reached out to one another. In most instances they were seeking aid or giving aid. Not infrequently, they ignored requests from other towns, but this was not due to indifference. Most congregations were poor. Memberships were small; the dues and fees paid were inadequate. Yet, individual Jews asked to provide help were often generous; even men living in towns where there was no organized congregation were solicited and responded. In some respects, Jacob S. Solis, of Westchester County, New York, was exceptional; he established the New Orleans congregation and helped other communities, too. He was, indeed, a committed, dedicated Jew. The Sephardim felt close to congregations adhering to their Spanish-Portuguese liturgy; but they were not always parochial in their interests; they rendered assistance to Ashkenazim also. The classical example of a far-visioned Sephardic merchant and industrialist was Harmon Hendricks; he was most generous in helping New York’s Bnai Jeshurun, the town’s first Ashkenazic congregation, a break away from Hendricks’s Shearith Israel. His largess was not denied other synagogs which turned to him. When the founders of Bnai Jeshurun decided to go out on their own, they did not hesitate to turn to Shearith Israel; we newcomers are European émigrés, help us!10
Congregations were never slow in turning to one another; often the response was favorable, but not always, for most synagogs barely managed to balance their budgets. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, Shearith Israel was exceptional in having means. The country’s mother synagog in a metropolitan community, it was able to help others, but on rare occasions it, too, solicited help for itself when it was faced by heavy outlays, as in shoring up its Chatham Square Cemetery. Fortunately, the Gentiles in the city responded generously in this instance. The services to fellow Jewish communities rendered by Shearith Israel were at times true also of other American congregations in relation to one another: money was contributed to help others build; Charleston’s Beth Elohim was aided when razed by fire in 1838; Palestine messengers and itinerants (schnorrers!) were received and dispatched. Shearith Israel was in touch with other American Jewish communities. This New York congregation was represented in cornerstone layings and dedications in other cities; it scouted around for hazzanim, shohatim, and teachers for others and for itself; it served as trustee for a Charleston cemetery, and when New Orleans’s newly organized synagog wrote to them, the New Yorkers sent the special Ashkenazic prayer books needed in the Louisiana port. Shearith Israel stored Scrolls for defunct communities and lent them out when new conventicles arose. Thus, when the pioneer Savannah community folded, for the time being, its Sefer Torah was sent to New York, and when the Newport community was temporarily reconstituted in 1860, the Savannah Scroll was lent to it. In 1818, all the Scrolls had been taken out of the Newport ark and shipped to New York for safekeeping; the local community had faded away. In 1835, after selling their Mill Street building, the New Yorkers sent Cincinnati five chandeliers for its new sanctuary, the first synagog to be erected in the transallegheny country. The chandeliers, some of which had been used as early as 1764, were shipped by sea to New Orleans and then up the Mississippi and the Ohio to the Queen City of the West.11
American Jewry knew affectively that it was one community, though it never rushed to give the conviction permanent expression. Shearith Israel was the mother synagog by virtue of age, wealth, and the willingness, at times, to assume responsibility, to work with others. This fact, that all Jews in the United States were one community, was certainly strengthened in 1782, when the Jews, exiled from their homes by the War, gathered together in Philadelphia and established The Hope of Israel, Mikveh Israel, a congregation that included members from almost every major town in the country. Seven years after American Jewry built this Philadelphia synagog, George Washington was inaugurated in New York City. The different American religious denominations, now in the process of organizing themselves nationally, hastened to congratulate him, each as a united body. One letter from a nationally organized church was welcomed, for it was bruited about that the president’s secretariat would rather deal with large organized groups than with individual churches or congregations. The Jews, too, were expected to take note of the accession to power of the country’s first President. However, there was a problem; the Jews had no national organization. Diaspora Jewry had no hierarchial tradition; every Jewish institution was fiercely jealous of its autonomy. Yet it was necessary that the Jews get together, somehow or other, for a conjoint effort and send a letter. After all, they as much as any other religious group in the country had become political beneficiaries of the newly adopted Constitution.
It was not easily accomplished. Shearith Israel was expected to take the initiative; New York was the capital; George Washington was resident there. For reasons that are by no means clear, the New Yorkers dragged their feet, although they were pushed by other Jewish communities. It was more than a year after the inauguration before Shearith Israel began to bestir itself. In the meantime, Savannah, impatient, had written to the president; the head of the Georgia congregation was certainly eager to put his best foot forward, since he had once been damned as a Tory, although his Whig credentials were impeccable. When Newport was first asked to join with the other communities in a letter to Washington, it demurred because the state, Rhode Island, which had just joined the Union, had not yet written to the president. Moses Seixas, the head of the tiny congregation, believed that his first loyalty was to the secular state, but when Washington visited the city, Seixas and the congregants reversed their stand. They waited on Washington on August 17, 1790, and presented a letter felicitating him. During the War, Seixas and a few of his Jewish friends had secretly protested their loyalties to the king. Obviously, at the time, these men had tried to salvage what they could of their holdings during the British occupation. By the fall of 1790, after the capital had shifted to Philadelphia, the New Yorkers offered no objection when Manuel Josephson, the head of Mikveh Israel, took over. Relatively hurriedly he secured permission from New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, and Charleston to represent them, and on December 13, 1790, called on Washington and read to him a conjoint message from those four communities. The President answered in a courteous letter addressed to all four. It is by no means improbable, however, that individual copies were dispatched to the four participating synagogs. To a degree, at least, the Jews in their various addresses to the President represented themselves as part of a national Jewish community. American Jewry, they said, had been raised from a state of political degradation and had been enfranchised by the federal Constitution. There is no question that Washington thought of American Jews as a national body, even though there was no formal organization embracing all of them.12
THE DAMASCUS AFFAIR AND THE BEGINNINGS OF A NATIONAL AMERICAN JEWISH COMMUNITY
Some thirty years later, the visionary Moses E. Levy and his handful of associates set out to influence and unite American Jewry. Theirs was a Grand Design. Nothing, apparently, of lasting value emerged from this incident, yet their proposal is notable in American history as the first attempt to organize American Jewry as a whole behind an institution designed to relieve disenfranchised European Jewry and to create a cultural and spiritual center for American Jews. With many modifications, Levy’s 1821 plan reappeared twenty years later in Isaac Leeser’s proposal for “establishing a religious union among the Israelites of America.” The attempt was made again in 1849 and in the 1850’s by Isaac Mayer Wise, but it was not finally successful till 1873, when the Union of American Hebrew Congregations was created with the primary purpose of supporting a national college: the Hebrew Union College, which opened its doors in 1875 and is today the oldest surviving Jewish theological school in the western hemisphere. In 1832, the need to remedy the abuses in the offerings for Palestine brought the Hevrah Terumat Ha-Kodesh into existence. From the aspect of national organization, the Hevrah is the first hesitant step toward a formal unification of the American Jewish communities. There were people who were convinced that an intercity union was necessary at times to reach a philanthropic goal.13
THE DAMASCUS AFFAIR
It was not until 1840, fifty years after Manuel Josephson’s representation on behalf of four of the country’s six communities, that the national consciousness of the Jews in this country was again aroused. Their feeling of oneness, their sense of kinship, was fired by the accusations, both in Damascus and on the isle of Rhodes, that Jews were murdering Christians and using their blood to make unleavened bread for Passover. This libel had already cost the lives of many Jews in previous centuries. Jews here and in most countries of Europe and Asia were particularly shocked by the charge that their coreligionists in Damascus had murdered Father Tomaso, a Franciscan monk, and his companion. Ritual murder allegations under various guises had been made against Jews in pre-Christian times and later against the early Christians by their enemies. Such anti-Jewish libels were common in the Middle Ages and have continued in Europe and even here in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. James Gordon Bennett, editor of the Herald, rehashed these charges in 1850, though, on a previous occasion he had rejected them summarily. His one goal was to sell newspapers; nothing else mattered. The monks who, it seemed, spread the rumor of ritual murder after the disappearance of Father Tomaso were probably hoping to establish a shrine in his memory and thus attract pious pilgrims. Denunciation of the Jews was also supported by the French consul in the city, a man of influence. Dozens of Jews—even children—were arrested, and the tortures inflicted on the men were almost unbelievable; at least one of them died from the torments to which he was subjected.
Rest martyr, rest! neath the Syrian sod
Whose spirit ne’er bow’d but to truth and thy God.14
Fortunately, the surviving prisoners were saved through fortuitous circumstances. Though European Jewries had made vigorous protests, led by Moses Montefiore and the Rothschilds in England and by Adolphe Crémieux in France, it was politics, not Jewish cries of outrage, that saved the accused in Damascus and Rhodes. In this instance, liberal France was not on the side of the angels. The French had labored for centuries to increase their influence in the Levant. In more recent days, this effort was part of an ongoing struggle to hinder the rise of the English. The two empires had been rivals ever since the late seventeenth century; Waterloo marked a precipitous decline, but the hostility continued. England, moving to control the road to India via Suez, supported the Turkish state, the nominal overlord of Egypt; the French supported Mehemet Ali, the actual ruler of Egypt and Syria. The authorities in Paris tolerated, if they did not encourage, the ritual murder charge, hoping thereby to strengthen their political influence in the Eastern Mediterranean. When England and most European states raised their voices in defense of the Jews, denouncing torture and medieval superstitions, they were motivated by more than humanitarian impulses; they were wary of French aggrandizement; Napoleon was a spectre that continued to haunt them.
The English took the lead in working to secure the release of the Jews in Damascus. In part they were impelled by their traditional Protestant Restorationism. The Jews, God’s people, were yet to return to Palestine (then under control of the Egyptian-Syrian ruler). This was something that God had promised! Indeed, in 1841, the British representative in Damascus, Charles Henry Churchill, worked actively for the reestablishment of a Jewish state in the ancient homeland. A year earlier, a writer in Cincinnati’s Western Messenger had described in detail the tortures inflicted on the Damascus Jews and then suggested that England expel the Egyptians from Palestine and reestablish an independent Jewish state. England’s lifeline to India would thus be secure; the southward drive of the Russians would be halted; Jews, numerically strong, would find no difficulty in defending their ancient homeland. Palestine belonged to them; they were resolved to rebuild it. With the Jews in power, the New East would blossom and bloom again. Noah was not the only American who dreamed of the reconquest and the rebirth of the Land of Israel. In March, within weeks after the arrest of the Damascus accused, Constantinople’s Jews appealed to the Rothschilds to do something. It took some time for the English Foreign Office to get into gear, but by June, it was intervening in Constantinople and Alexandria. In April, English Jewry began to push vigorously; in July, there was a public protest meeting in London at Mansion House, and by August, Montefiore and Crémieux (without the blessing of the French) had arrived in Alexandria to meet with Mehemet Ali. Behind Montefiore stood the English government and a number of European countries. The Egyptian ruler had little choice but to order his deputy in Damascus to release the prisoners. This was in late August; in September, they were freed. The following month Syria was restored to Turkey, and in November the sultan issued a decree exculpating the Jews of Damascus and Rhodes.15
As early as July, at the time of the London outcry against the Damascus and Rhodes outrages, the American minister to the Court of St. James, Alexander Stevenson, had forwarded documents in the Damascus affair to John Forsyth, Van Buren’s Secretary of State. Washington had been alerted to the arrest and torture of the Jews as early as March by the American consul, a Judeophobe of Macedonian origin, who was convinced that the Jews really did practice ritual murder. The State Department ignored his charges, but was ready to take action in defense of the Jews when it heard from Stevenson. Forsyth moved in August. He knew of the rivalry between England and France and, with Stevenson, opted to side with the British. The Americans were still embroiled in spoliation claims against the French, who had seized their ships in the 1790’s. On August 14th, Forsyth wrote to John Glidden, the consul at Alexandria, informing him that President Van Buren and American citizens were horrified at the unfounded accusations against the hapless Jews: Employ your good offices on behalf of a persecuted people; justice requires it; work with the governments of Europe; do what you can. Indeed Glidden had already joined European consuls in a protest even before the arrival of Forsyth’s strong note. A similar letter was dispatched to David Porter, the minister to the Sublime Porte (Rhodes was Turkish, not Egyptian): Tell the Sultan that the United States is a land which acknowledges no distinctions between Moslems, Jews, and Christians; do something; humanity demands it. Forsyth’s letters, it happens, arrived too late in Alexandria and in Constantinople to be of any use; the prisoners were already being released.
The Secretary of State had been moved to take action by the American newspapers which, with few exceptions, rose to the defense of the Jews. The United States government was not prompted by American Jewry to intervene in this affair. When Forsyth wrote to Glidden and Porter, he was undoubtedly influenced strongly by Stevenson in London. Both men were Jacksonians, Democrats. Humanitarianism, too, impelled them. Beyond this, however, intervention was a wise political move; the Americans and their clergy were anti-Moslem; Van Buren and his followers were on the eve of a national election which was to determine whether the Democrats would remain in power or have to make way for the Whigs. Harrison, the rival candidate, was popular. Every ballot counted; the few thousand Jewish votes could not be ignored. Forsyth’s instructions to Glidden and Porter mark the first time that the United States government intervened on behalf of Jews, non-citizens, in a foreign land, in an issue where human rights were at stake. Whatever the diverse motivations, sympathy for Jews was certainly reflected in the efforts of Van Buren and Forsyth to aid the wretched prisoners at Damascus and Rhodes.16
THE REACTION OF AMERICAN JEWRY TO THE DAMASCUS AFFAIR
It was not until August that American Jews as a body organized themselves locally to protest the Damascus persecution. It was then rather late (though they did not realize that) to influence the course of events in the Near East. The prisoners were about to go free but the American mass meetings on behalf of the Damascene Jews did have a perceptible impact on American Jewry. Therein lies the cisatlantic significance of this tragedy. Between August 17 and September 21, 1840, protest meetings were held in Richmond, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, Savannah, Cincinnati, and Boston. Not all of these were sponsored by Jews. There were two meetings in Charleston; one for the Jews and one for the general public. Like the latter, the Savannah assembly chaired by the mayor, was a general, not a Jewish demonstration. The Boston meeting was solely for Christians; Boston as yet had no organized Jewish community. It is strange that Baltimore Jews did not meet to raise their voices. The obvious reason here is that the elite families, the Cohens and the Ettings, would not join together with the more recent German immigrants. It may well be, too, that these two clans of notables looked upon themselves as exurban Philadelphians.
The first group to meet were the Virginians, at Richmond in mid-August. Why did they, why did all American Jews wait so long? In late July, a New York Jew had published a letter in a local newspaper expressing his surprise that his coreligionists had as yet taken no action to help the Damascus captives; Jews and enlightened Christians, he wrote, were hoping that something would be done here: Jews had known for weeks, if not for months, of the arrest and torture of fellow Jews in Syria. The British Board of Deputies had written to the Americans soliciting their aid and cooperation. Apparently, the so-called leaders in each American town hesitated to move. Jews then, as today, shrank from high visibility; they were apprehensive. Leeser preached on this cause célèbre, on July 24, more than a month before the Philadelphians met in protest. A remarkable talk! He discussed the tragedy in depth, but did not mention the word “Damascus.” His interpretation of the event was simple and unequivocal: Jews were being punished for the sins of their fathers and their own transgressions—neglect of the Sabbath, rejection of circumcision and the dietary laws, marriages to Gentiles. Jews were reforming, tampering with, their worship service! If we want God to protect us, we have to observe his Law. Assimilation is a “festering cancer.” Not once did Leeser ask the Jews to rise in protest. This man was emphatically no coward, but apparently the service was no place to make such a proposal; his board would have resented it; the synagog was concerned with “religion.”17
It was not until the middle of August that Shearith Israel’s trustees began to think of a public meeting. Richmond, however, took the initiative. Its congregational leaders may have known that President Van Buren and his Secretary of State, Forsyth, had already taken action. After having organized a committee of correspondence, the Jewish Virginians wrote to other congregations, apparently asking for or suggesting concerted action. Other Jewish communities established similar committees, exchanged copies of their proceedings, and urged the newspapers to take note. The Boston meeting was unique. It was called by Christian Jews, conversionists, Jews for Jesus. The meeting was a proselytizing tactic oriented particularly toward the Central European immigrants who were now coming to this country in increasing numbers. Resolutions were passed in defense of the persecuted; immigrants were urged to seek the safety of America’s shores. Let them turn to Jesus lest they be eternally damned! This was the magic year 1840. Christ’s return was imminent. William Miller, a founder of the new Adventist movement, had assured the Christian world that it was only a few years before the Son of God would reappear in all his glory.18
When Jews and Christians assembled in protest, they passed resolutions which were dispatched to Washington, to the President and the Department of State. What did they want and what did they say? They denied that Jews ever practiced ritual murder; they asked for a fair trial for the prisoners; they expressed their sympathy for the sufferers, resolved to aid them, and deplored all persecutions for the sake of conscience. They thanked the American authorities, American representatives abroad, and European liberals, and urged them to work with the diplomatic corps of enlightened states to bring freedom to the imprisoned. Let the Jews of Damascus come to America, this free and happy land, said the Philadelphians and the Charlestonians. It was patent in the proceedings of these assemblies that all present, Jews and Protestants and Catholics, were vigorously opposed to all manifestations of bigotry. Protestant and Catholic clergymen were one in denouncing intolerance. Jacob C. Levy, of Charleston, warned his audience that what affected Hebrews in Moslem lands could be equally fatal to Christians in a later decade. How true this was: the Moslems in Damascus ultimately destroyed the church of the very Christians who had originally raised the cry of ritual murder. The resolutions passed made it manifest that American rights and privileges were this country’s most precious export. The Damascene Jews and all human beings were entitled to the civil and religious privileges guaranteed by our constitution. We were the “vindicators of the principles of universal toleration.” Greece, Poland, Ireland, and Texas had a right to be free! So had the Jews! In 1789, after the ratification of the federal Constitution, the Richmond Jews met and proposed this toast: “May the Israelites throughout the world enjoy the same religious rights and political advantages as their American brethren.”19
THE ULTIMATE MOTIVATIONS FOR PROTEST
Christians and Jews made common cause as they reached out to one another from the Hudson to the Ohio. Christian liberals were willing to help Jews, fellow human beings in distress. When the protest meeting was held in Philadelphia, one of the speakers, the Rev. Mr. Ducachet, exulted that for the “first time for centuries a Christian minister was addressing a religious assembly in a Jewish synagog, a spectacle at once sublime and pleasing to humanity.” Men like Ducachet were opposed to bigotry. With Jews, they believed in American political ideals; freedom was the natural right of every man and woman. When Leeser spoke at Mikveh Israel on July 24, he was cautious in expressing himself; he dared not violate the unwritten congregational prohibition against preaching on a mundane topic. A month later, on August 27, when he made the main address at the Philadelphia protest assembly, he spoke with more authority. He asked the Jews and Christians, too, of his city and other American towns to help the oppressed abroad secure complete and full political equality: the Greeks are free, they who have given us art and the tragic poets; we Jews have given the world the Ten Commandments and the Sacred Scriptures. We Jews here must unite with all Jews, wherever they are; we are all kin. Like Leeser, the rank and file of Jewry identified with the Jews of Damascus, with Jews in all lands; this was the ultimate motivation that spurred them to action. Initially, they had been pushed to do something by England’s representative body, the Board of Deputies of British Jews. American Jews still looked to their English coreligionists for guidance. The charge of ritual murder frightened the Jews in this country; they feared similar accusations might be made against them here and impair the status in which they gloried.
In the fall, when it was evident that the Damascus Jews were free and exculpated, Jews here were jubilant. They realized that throughout this ordeal, which had been prolonged for three months, the American people, its churches and press, had been most sympathetic. All this gave Jews a sense of well-being; their feeling of self-respect was heightened; they believed that they had made their presence felt. Because of the concern of the United States government and its citizens for the prisoners abroad and their coreligionists here, Jews were convinced that their status in America had been enhanced. What was equally gratifying, World Jewry—and American Jewry with it—had been accorded recognition by the World Powers, which had intervened to rectify a grave injustice. Many, if not most, Jews probably—and mistakenly—believed that the mass meetings staged by Jews and their Gentile allies had been effective.
This, however, was certain: Jews here were developing a feeling of political power, and in writing to Van Buren in this crucial election year, one of the Jewish communities did not hesitate to tell him that it was working “in conjunction with our brethren of other cities.” That was the kind of subtle message that Van Buren would understand. It was immaterial that American Jews had made little, if any, contribution to the resolution of the Damascus affair; what was sufficient was their belief that they had rallied successfully to the defense of fellow Jews. This conviction furthered their self-esteem and their identification with World Jewry. The belief tended to strengthen the sense of community of all American Jews. Important, too, is the fact that American Jewry now set out to be the subjects, not the objects, of history. Now, in 1840, for the first time in American Jewish life, the Jews here organized themselves politically to help a Diaspora Jewry in distress. One of the by-products of this endeavor was the strengthening of the already existent affective national Jewish community. Their efforts are laudable when one bears in mind, that in number, American Jews did not then exceed 15,000.20
WHAT THE DAMASCUS AFFAIR DID FOR JEWRY IN THE UNITED STATES
Jews react to crises. The “Hep Hep” German mob attacks in 1819 encouraged Noah to think of the United States as an asylum for the Jews of Europe. The Damascus accusations aroused American Jewry in 1840. Through committees of correspondence, close relations were established among the synagog-communities of the country. Jews in the United States now began to think of themselves in nationwide terms, as a national American Jewish body. They began to conceive of themselves as a specific Jewish group within the geographic limits of the United States. Normally, the religious loyalties of Jews are to a universal body, World Jewry, Kelal Yisrael. This universal loyalty has never diminished; recognition and awareness of Jewry in the United States as a distinct body was a concomitant of the Damascus protests. Obviously in union there was strength; the Jews had only to look at the Protestant and Catholic hierarchies to realize how true this was. But this incipient development must not be overemphasized. The basic corporate unit in Jewish life was the synagog; it commanded devotion, though the Jew’s prime loyalty was to the Body of Israel, Universal Jewry. Traditionally, Diaspora Jews have not been interested in a formal structured Jewish organization established within the confines of a limited geographical area. When such were created, the motivation was usually one of administrative convenience; frequently, they have been imposed on Jewry by autocratic governmental authorities.
In the past, the individual Jew has most often thought of himself as an integral part of World Israel. Kelal Yisrael is a consensus; Jews share common beliefs, traditions, hopes. They are bound together for mutual help in the struggle for survival; they belong to one another. Thus, during the days of the Damascus disaster, Noah emphasized world Jewish unity, not American Jewish unity, which of course was absorbed and included in the concept that all Jews are one. When American Jews approached their government and asked it to intervene, they constituted only a series of separate synagogs, each of which deemed itself a distinct community. Congregationalism is the hallmark of Judaism. Each synagog is autonomous. At the time of the Damascus affair, Rebecca Gratz mentioned—but did not deplore!—the fact that Jewry had no “representative power.” Jews are citizens of the country in which they live and can act only through the constituted governmental authorities. The final solution of all problems is trust in God: thus, Rebecca Gratz. Her pious rabbi, Isaac Leeser, also trusted in God, but he believed that God helped those who helped themselves. That is why he attempted to create a formal national organization for all American Jews exactly ten months after Philadelphia’s Jewry had met in solemn protest. The attempt was premature and it failed. But the Damascus crisis did intensify Jewish loyalty. In Philadelphia, it put down all petty strife, wrote Rebecca. The Western Messenger, a non-Jewish Cincinnati periodical, wrote that the sufferings of the Syrian Jews “would bind together as one man the scattered tribes of Israel.” That was true.
In 1840, because they were learning to work together, some Jews were conscious that they were part, not only of a local and a World Jewry, but of an American Jewry, one that had been reinforced and strengthened by its sympathy for the Jews of Damascus. Addressing the congregations of the country, Jewish Virginians expressed their willingness to unite in a common union and to dispatch delegates, if there was to be a national congregational convention. Writing to President Van Buren, the New Yorkers told him that they were expressing unanimous opinions shared by all Israelites in this country. By working together in a crisis, the Damascus brutalities had taught Jewry here to think of itself as an American national unit, though a generation would pass before some congregations came together in a formal national organization in 1859. United States Jewry has to date never created a structured instrument that would embrace all.21
THE LOCAL JEWISH COMMUNITY, 1775–1840
Who is a Jew? What is a local community? It is worth repeating: an international Jewish community existed by consensus; there were only intimations of a national American Jewish community because of the accident of geography and the reality of a common United States government. Was there a local American Jewish community? How define it? Since it was peopled by Jews, it would not be amiss to ask: who was an American Jew? A non-canonical definition is that a Jew was any man or woman who identified himself or herself as a Jew—but felt free to ignore any, if not most, traditional Jewish practices. There was no compulsion to remain Jewish in this country, yet most Jews did not defect; they enjoyed being Jewish; they could not conceive of being anything else. A Jew was a member of a folk and a religion, for Judaism and Jewry were, and are, one.
The degree of religious observance, or nonobservance, varied with individuals. Behaviorally, Jews tended to be more American than Jewish. Since there were anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 Jews in the United States in 1840, our definition of a Jew would imply that there were as many Judaisms as there were cognitive and affective individuals. That is true. In this early American generation, Jewry ran the gamut from a Samuel Hermann to a Rebecca Samuel. The wealthy Hermann, of New Orleans, gave 1,000 gulden to his German hometown community of Roedelheim; he gave nothing to the struggling Jewish community on the Mississippi delta. The meticulously Orthodox Rebecca Samuel, of Petersburg, Virginia, observed every jot and tittle of the Law. Yet, despite the almost infinite number of variations, there were but two basic types of Jews in the American community: the newly arrived immigrant and the acculturated citizen. The newcomers, with one foot in Europe, still looked eastward. They held onto their cultural baggage; it promised them security. They were encouraged to maintain their way of life, for many, if not most, of America’s Jews had been born abroad. As late as 1840, some 40 percent of Shearith Israel’s presidents were not native Americans; the percentage of foreign-born presidents was probably higher in Mikveh Israel. Rodeph Shalom, the Ashkenazic congregation in Philadelphia, was an immigrant bastion. The majority of the newcomers strove desperately to transplant their European culture; their Old World roots were strong despite the fact that they were Americans in a state of becoming.22
The acculturated Jews were themselves an amalgam of two groups, the natives and the old-time immigrants. They were middle-class businessmen; some were affluent; practically all were literate. A few Jews—these were the professionals—were well educated; some were classicists and nursed literary ambitions. Most, if not all, of the old-timers had Christian friends and slavishly adhered to the American cultural pattern; they joined the socially-oriented militia and ran with their fire company. Politically, they were all committed to the republican style of government, but when they went to the polls, they were not necessarily Jeffersonians or Jacksonians. A substantial number were always on the right. Very few seem to have been interested in the humanitarian reforms of the day; these smacked too much of Protestantism. Judaism? Practically all respected the faith of their ancestors. Observant? That was something different.
What did all American Jews, the old settlers and the newcomers, have in common? What consensus, what sentiment, what beliefs held them together, foreigner and native, the Jew with his face toward Europe and the Jew with his back to the Old World? Negatively, Jews rejected Christianity straightway. Many, coming from lands of oppression, were wary of Christians, too. The Jewish sense of kinship was very strong. The intimate, gregarious emotion that possessed them was enheartening. If the cement that bonded them was Jewish ethnicity, the locus where they played their role as Jews was the synagog. The building, its worship services, its constitution and bylaws were all part of a core around which they agglomerated. It was an association that was cherished because, on the whole, it was democratic, voluntary, influenced by an atmosphere of freedom. Here, in the United States, there was no compulsion from the government, the secular authorities. Theirs was thus a pervasive community. In principle at least, they recognized the right of every Jew to make demands on a fellow Jew. There was strong mutual concern. In a formal sense, nearly all were traditional in their religious loyalties; only a handful were truly observant, but the nostalgia for religious practices was never absent. Need for Jewish education was a basic principle which all were eager to accept. They surrendered to the mystique of Hebrew; it was held imperative that every Jew be taught to read the Sacred Tongue. They knew that they belonged to a fellowship which would nourish and protect them; this was always a comforting thought. Within this group, every man, woman, and child had a Jewish niche; to be sure, not all occupied the same one.
American Jews of the postrevolutionary and early republican period hailed from over a dozen different lands. In 1782, several Philadelphia Jews, squabbling, hurled charges at one another. Involved were a Lithuanian, a Pole, a German, and a Frenchman. The Frenchman was indignant that the Pole spoke two languages, Yiddish and Polish, which were foreign to him; by the same token, the Pole would never have understood the French and the Spanish-Portuguese so familiar to the native of Bordeaux. Despite their diverse backgrounds, they were learning to live together. Iberian, German, Hebrew, and Yiddish phrases were becoming part of a common American Jewish vocabulary. No matter how all- encompassing their embrace of Americanism, Jews, even marginal ones, never forgot that they belonged to one another. In itself, the consensus that prevailed among Jews eventuated in a sentimental, if not a physical, community. The community was unity; it was a concept and a reality; it was the sum of all agencies and activities, folkways and practices, beliefs and worship services, all religiously motivated. It included all who identified with the Jewish group, willingly or reluctantly. Jews did not join the fellowship; they were born into it; they identified completely one with another. They quarreled and clawed one another, but never failed to succor one another. They presented a common front, because they were afraid to be “alone.” The community integrated the newcomers, giving both natives and immigrants a cohesion that made for stubborn loyalties. When second generation “aristocrats” refused to integrate themselves—and they sometimes did—they were automatically excised by the weight of numbers. They joined their peers in another town or they defected.23
The Jews knew they were a “community” at all times; certainly the Gentiles among whom they lived never doubted this. Thus, wherever there were Jews, there was a preexistent community. It took on flesh as soon as there were ten adult males for a religious quorum. What kind of community did American Jews inherit in 1775? The Jews had lived quite comfortably without formal recognition under the British in colonial America. Indeed, their synagog was not exempt from taxation. It is not without irony that Jews were compelled to serve as constables in eighteenth-century New York and as such collected taxes from Jews, too, for the support of Trinity Church and its ministry. From the time of the British conquest in 1664 to the signing of the final treaty of peace in 1783, the formal American Jewish community was completely embraced in one institution, the synagog, which provided all necessary services: worship, charity, and when necessary, Jewish education. Authority was resident in the president (parnas) and the junta or board. The salaried staff included a reader (hazzan), the shohet (ritual slaughterer), and the beadle (shammash). No officiating rabbi was elected in any town until well into the nineteenth century. On the whole, the synagog was accepted benignly and tolerantly by the British authorities.
Up into the second half of the nineteenth century the synagog continued to remain the community’s prime institution. American Jewry was to grow from the bottom up. Indeed there was to be no national federation of local societies until the 1840’s. Shearith Israel, a generation before the rise of a rival congregation, attempted to force all Jews in town to affiliate. The effort failed; non-affiliated Jews became increasingly numerous, but they were still part of the community. No Jew was denied the right to attend a synagog and participate in the service. Jewry in post-1775 days was essentially the same as its colonial predecessor. Congregations, now chartered, began to dot the country; constitutions and bylaws were adopted; governing boards were uniform in that they all included a president, a secretary, and a treasurer; committees began to proliferate, each with a specific jurisdiction.
New and important in the early national period was the appearance of social-welfare confraternities. Though there may have been a burial society in New York in the mid-eighteenth century, its existence has not yet been definitively documented. These hevrot began to rise in large numbers as they set out to provide education for children and care for the sick, the dead, and the orphan. Even the women established an association to make provision for respectable families in reduced circumstances. The synagog remained the umbrella institution, sheltering all others, but its authority was diminished, if only slightly at first, by the appearance of the welfare associations. Some of these new societies were semi-autonomous; others, independent, raised their sights, reaching out for all Jews in town.
Because the voluntary independent church was common, if not typical, in this country, the unitary-synagog community vanished the minute a second congregation was founded. Multiple Jewish communities now appeared in the larger towns; no city-wide congregational federation was established during this period, though there was a faint beginning in the shortlived pro-Palestine Society for the Offerings of the Sanctuary. At first glance, the local Jewish welfare societies that now appeared contributed to the atomization of the Jewish community, to centrifugality. They were, one might think, rivals of the synagog. Actually they helped build communities and furthered Jewish loyalties. They took up the slack, for they often enlisted unaffiliated Jews. They appealed to the communality; they were not proponents of what could be a divisive religious philosophy; hevrot unified by uniting members on the basis of prospective benefits. It is very significant that the 1822 welfare association established by Philadelphians called itself the United Hebrew Beneficent Society; it united, for it set out to embrace all. Autonomy, disparateness, was to characterize the American Jewish community. Even then, no local Jewish community was as well organized as the secular city administration.24
Problems Confronting the Developing Local Community
The developing local Jewish community was wracked by intramural problems. A solid front was usually presented when Jews in a distant land were threatened. At home, the Children of Israel allowed themselves the luxury of discord and contention. One is almost tempted to say with the prophet (Micah 7:7): “A man’s enemies are the men of his own house.” Some ethnic Spanish and Portuguese Jews tried in marriage and in burial to exclude non-Iberians. For at least two generations, the Gomez clan managed to escape intramarriage with other Jews. Shearith Israel made a determined and successful effort to remain a traditional Sephardic synagog. The 1682 Chatham Square Cemetery in New York may have been intended originally as a resting place for Spanish-Portuguese Jews only. In the early 1780’s, the Charleston Da Costas set aside a burial plot for Iberians alone. They looked upon themselves as aristocrats. In a later generation, the cemetery was used as a potter’s field for impoverished Polish and Russian Jews. Some of the beautiful tombstones were carried off, probably to be used as hearthstones in neighboring cabins. In the early nineteenth century, the Touro brothers provided an ample endowment for the Newport synagog and cemetery, though there were at that time no Jews left in the town. They looked forward to the rebirth of the community and in this hope were not disappointed. The proud Cohens and Ettings, of Baltimore, members of Philadelphia’s Sephardic Mikveh Israel, had their own cemeteries in their Maryland hometown. Even in death, they would not breach the wall between themselves and the newcomers, despite the fact that in actual ethnic provenance these Baltimore “Sephardim” and the immigrants were all Germans.25
It was traditional in American Jewry for immigrants of one decade to look with disdain upon those of the next decade. A Virginia spinster, an aristocrat, laughed at the advances of a German newcomer; Seixas was amused by the accent of the Germans in his synagog and was mildly contemptuous of these recent arrivals from Central Europe. Because American amenities were foreign to some of these immigrants, Seixas was wont to think of them as a motley crew, a gang. Jewish newcomers brought with them ethnic characteristics as well as religious customs and traditions which they were loath to surrender. These differences made for divisiveness and hostility. The Iberians, the Central Europeans, and the East Europeans each brought their own Jewish and secular cultures with them; these dissonances were not easily harmonized. Ultimately, when the newcomers were reinforced by countrymen from the old homeland or their native province, they succeeded in establishing conventicles where they could revel in their own conventions and practices. In so doing, the Jews were tacitly encouraged by American governmental permissiveness and the prevalent Protestant sectarianism. There were at least six national Baptist denominations among the whites and three among the blacks. Jews were slow to establish separate, independent congregations. The newer immigrants first attempted to induce the congregations with which they had affiliated to tolerate them as a separate confraternity within the parent organization; only when that request was rejected did they secede.26
Secession was the last resort; establishing a new congregation was an expense not easily borne by immigrants struggling to gain an economic foothold. When immigrants began to arrive in large numbers, congregations began to proliferate, albeit slowly. Centrifugality was the order of the day. There were breakaways in Charleston and in Philadelphia in the late eighteenth century, but they were not to be permanent. By 1802, however, with the creation of Philadelphia’s Hebrew German Society, Rodeph Shalom, the urban multi-community system was inaugurated in this country. By the 1820’s, the Ashkenazic (non-Sephardic) newcomers began to establish small congregations in the major cities, from New York westward to St. Louis. In towns where there was an established Sephardic synagog, various pretexts were offered for secession; the ultimate reasons were social, ethnic, and liturgical; the newly arrived immigrants wanted to be by themselves. Seventy-five years later, the fully acculturated grandchildren of these selfsame German newcomers were shocked and apprehensive when the East European Orthodox émigrés, flocking to this land of liberty, insisted on their right to the kind of services to which they were accustomed. In the early period, local congregations kept their distance, one from the other; in a way, they were rivals. In 1837, Sephardic Shearith Israel politely but firmly refused to allow Ashkenazic Anshe Chesed to use its rooms for services, but even in the confines of a synagog, liturgical variations and congregational elections provided ample opportunities for intramural quarrels and recriminations. That was a generation when Christian religionists, too, were at each others’ throats; Catholics were burnt out; Mormons were lynched.27
The gingerliness, if not suspicion, with which Jews of the same community often viewed one another merits further study. What really separated Jews and hindered the development of a single overall local community? Ritual and ethnic differences certainly played their part. Yet one wonders how definitive they were in separating Jews. By 1840, American Jews were divided into two groups; those affiliated with Sephardic congregations or sympathetic to the Sephardic religiocultural approach and the Ashkenazim, the English, Dutch, and Central Europeans, recently arrived for the most part. The original core of most Sephardic congregations was of course Iberian; as late as 1820, some of these “Portuguese,” as they called themselves, made determined efforts to preserve their ethnic integrity. A century earlier, in the 1720’s, the non-Iberians were already in the numerical ascendancy in New York’s Shearith Israel. In their synagogs, which stretched from New York to Savannah, these devotees of the Spanish-Portuguese ritual maintained that they were a superior group. They received replenishments constantly from non-Iberian immigrants who had come up in the world and were eager to be associated with Jews of status. Uriah Hendricks, a Yiddish-writing Dutch merchant, even married into the Gomez clan; he was the first Tedesco to breach those aristocratic walls. Jacob I. Cohen, a Bavarian who had begun life here as a trader with Indians and as a peddler, was the head of the Richmond-Baltimore Cohen clan. His nephew was a cultured magnate who entertained the Gentile elite of Baltimore and dressed his servants in livery. Hendricks and Jacob I. Cohen were to serve as presidents of a Spanish-Portuguese synagog. Even the cultured elite who seceded to form the Reformed Society of Israelites could boast of very few Iberian blue bloods; only six of the forty-four protestants were of Iberian descent.28
Thus, it is quite clear that, by 1840, there were two distinctly separate Jewish groups in the five major American Jewish towns: one comprised natives and old-time acculturated Europeans, “Sephardim,” and the other comprised newcomers who were establishing congregations of their own. They were separated, barely tangential, not because of ritual or even assumed Iberian provenance, but because of sociocultural differences. This bias went to extremes with the Mordecai children, who taught in their father’s school. It would seem that they were not happy with any Jewish youngsters in the school, which was patronized almost exclusively by Gentiles. This was (anti-Jewish?) snobbishness with a vengeance. The wealthy, established New Orleans Jews were an interesting lot. They identified with the Sephardic elite in the congregations of the North; for the most part, they avoided the New Orleans newcomers who established a congregation in 1828; they refused to affiliate with them. The Etting and Cohen congeries had very little to do with the European immigrants who began to settle in Baltimore in relatively large numbers. These affluent native Americans were members of Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, though it is by no means improbable that, on occasion, they conducted Sephardic services in the privacy of their homes. They were “good” Jews, certainly not escapists, but, like their New Orleans contemporaries, they refused to join with the newcomers to establish a synagog and thus create a united community. Indeed, the elite seemed to ignore the very existence of the new arrivals as if they were non-persons.29
Why did the established Baltimore Jewish families of wealth and position give the incoming émigrés a wide berth? They ignored them for the same reason they would have ignored an untutored Gentile and for no other reason. Who can question that a Solomon Etting, president of the First Branch of the City Council, had more in common culturally and socially with the Catholic Charles Carroll of Carrollton than with Immanuel Gershom Feist or Jonas Friedenwald? It was their cultural, their “American” background that moved the Ettings and Cohens to treat with restrained courtesy even the older Germans, who had arrived around the year 1800. Their prejudice was not ethnic—they were all Germans themselves, only one generation removed—it was cultural and social snobbery. It was hard for the Cohens and the Ettings to recall that their own parents had once been poor immigrants from Bavaria and Frankfort on the Main. Had they been willing to work in concert with these incoming rustics, they could easily have established a Sephardic congregation in Baltimore, even as such houses of worship were established in all the other large coastal towns from New York to Savannah.30
Despite the fact that the Americanized settlers kept the less acculturated at arm’s length, there are indicia that Jews in the same towns were beginning to surmount their differences. On occasion, congregations collaborated. This is all important if one is interested in the history of the development of the local community. When the Jewish Whig patriots, exiles, reorganized New York’s congregation after the British evacuation, the local Tories, Jewish Loyalists, were incorporated into the new Shearith Israel, apparently without question. When a new congregation was founded in a town, it often borrowed Torah Scrolls and other ritual appurtenances from a sister congregation; a shohet might work for more than one synagog; the congregations joined together to bake matzos; generous gifts of money were made to help newcomers build a sanctuary of their own. When Jewish paupers died in the almshouse or in a public hospital, some congregations in New York did make the effort to share the expense of burial, and during the 1837 depression, there was talk at least among New York’s congregations of jointly establishing a colony to help impoverished immigrants. At the time that the beloved Sephardic Hazzan Peixotto died, prayers for him were recited in Ashkenazic Bnai Jeshurun and its members joined the funeral cortege.
The need to support Palestine’s Jews, perpetual suppliants, brought about the founding of a truly city-wide organization to raise funds for them. Mutual benefits impelled Jewish institutions to cooperate. Jews worked together in the multi-congregational communities, because Judaism demanded that they help one another; aiding other Jews or Jewish institutions was a mitzvah. In crises, as in the Damascus affair, the community acted as a unit. Even though Shearith Israel’s board refused to join the Damascus protesters, several of its most prominent members unhesitatingly assumed leadership in this cause célèbre. This congregation had a number of far-visioned prominent laymen who were interested in furthering the Jewish community as a whole. But, let there be no doubt, cooperation was not integration, structurally or socially. American Jewry in 1840 was still a hodgepodge of at least a dozen foreign elements; it would be another century before an American Jewish ethnos would be forged. That would come only when the portals to America were closed to Jewish immigrants. Then and only then could a local community begin to take on form and substance.31
Though there was no formal overall local community structure, there was always a concern for the Jewish faith, its people, and such institutions as the synagog, the school, the cemeteries, and the confraternities. These organizations, in turn, were dependent on leadership, whatever its quality and whatever its definition. It is difficult to determine whether any of the hazzanim, the ministers, were to be considered leaders. As hired hands, they enjoyed no high status. Yet they all had friends, admirers, and followers. As the keepers of the traditions and as interpreters of the Law—God’s Law—they enjoyed a degree of authority, even if they were not sacramental personalities. Seixas was loved and respected by many; Carvalho in Charleston had his followers among the hoi polloi; even young Leeser was widely admired for his knowledge, his piety, his moral courage. No lay leader dominated the scene during this period; none moved the people to collective action. To be sure, authority was built into the office of president of a congregation or of a confraternity. Men of wealth and generosity like Harmon Hendricks were powerful, but whether they led or dominated is moot. Noah was influential, because he was the editor of a general newspaper, frequently held public office, and was the country’s favored Jewish speaker whether he was consecrating a synagog or haranguing Gentiles. What leadership there was in New York City or elsewhere was lay. No one here could claim the prestige of a Moses Montefiore in England; he was the cherished, if uncrowned, King of the Jews. Ultimate control of institutions and of the community was resident in an oligarchy of affluent men. The goals of these men were the goals of all American Jews—the preservation of Judaism. In this effort, they were successful despite the gloomy predictions of an ever-despairing Leeser.
Congregations and confraternities were guided by their elected heads; their work and influence were reinforced by the home, the family, wives and mothers. Our knowledge is limited largely to the homes and diverse domestic activities of the more affluent members of the middle class. The poor made no wills and had nothing to leave; they wrote few letters, for postage was expensive. Shopkeepers, even in the hinterland, made every effort to see that their children were well educated; girls were taught to sing and play the piano. Manners and morals were important; there was a constant effort toward upward cultural mobility. Individual Jews obtained social acceptance in Gentile circles. It was not uncommon for Jews who visited the new capital, Washington, to attend a levee at the White House and shake the hand of the President; on occasion, Jews were asked to dine there. Business relations and professional activities brought Jews and Christians together socially. Some of Rebecca Gratz’s most intimate friends were Christian women; she wrote them constantly. Jews dressed in the latest fashion and meticulously observed the amenities. Young Raphael Moses, something of a dandy, wore gloves and swung a rattan cane. When his employer asked him to carry a turkey down fashionable Chestnut Street, Moses resigned rather than suffer the humiliation. Intra-Jewish social mobility, always a problem, was eased for second-generation acculturated Jews. The chasm that separated parents was bridged by their children. Intramarriages were, therefore, common if both parties belonged to the Sephardic synagog, but Jews who remained in the Ashkenazic congregations were not so quickly accepted in fashionable social circles.32
One need not pity early nineteenth-century Jews because they were denied the privilege of the telephone, the radio, and television. Men and women of that early generation somehow managed to entertain themselves and to escape boredom. A visit to another town or city was an important occasion. In 1793, Mrs. Benjamin Nones returned from New York, glowing in her possession of an elegant gold watch and chain. In Philadelphia, “we only breathe … New York is the place to live.” That trip to New York was both a vacation and an escape from Philadelphia’s yellow fever. For the Jewish businessman and his wife, vacations were important. Going to the various hot and medicinal springs in Virginia served to make recuperation a pleasure. Zalma Rehine had no difficulty at one of the spas in maintaining a kosher diet; he lived on eggs, herring, potatoes, and milk; the cost was $9 a week, a lot of money in those days. Friendships were cultivated through the written word. Letter writing was the usual method of communication between friends and relatives. In the first two decades of the 1800’s, Rebecca Gratz would use her Sunday mornings for keeping in touch with close friends. The hours she sat down to write to Maria Fenno Hoffman were, she said, her happiest.
It was not easy for Joyce Myers, of New York, to cope with widowhood when her husband, the silversmith Myer Myers, died. She read a good book when she was able to borrow one; visited friends for tea, and was delighted when she was invited to weddings. Like Rebecca Gratz and Gershom Seixas, she, too, enjoyed writing to the family. Her daughter Becky, Mrs. Jacob Mordecai, lived in Richmond. In one of her gossipy notes Joyce described in detail how a bride had been adorned: she had worn a satin dress, white kid shoes, and silk gloves, and around her neck a string of pearls. This was a generation that enjoyed the theatre. Certainly it turned out when Mordecai M. Noah’s plays were performed at the Park and the New-York theatres. The synagog was an associational, if not a social, center. Jews did attend services on the Pilgrimage Festivals and on the High Holy Days; many came in from the countryside. In New York’s Anshe Chesed, in an improvised booth, the seventh day of the Sukkot festival was celebrated in a long night of study of Deuteronomy, Psalms, and some cabalistic passages. The liquor bill, paid by the synagog, was substantial. In those days, Purim was one of the most favored holidays; parties were held in many homes. Judging from a description of a gathering in 1789 at Jacob I. Cohen’s home, the injunction to make Purim “a day of feasting and gladness” (Esther, 9:17) was not disregarded. There was an ample supply of porter, ale, gin, and brandy to help celebrate the escape of the Jews from Persia’s wicked Haman. The most colorful celebrations were those held for cornerstone-layings and synagog dedications. A public parade marked the transfer of the Scrolls of the Law to the new sanctuary; a band, singing, Masonic ceremonies, and magniloquent speeches were also featured. What a great day it was for New York’s Jewish community when the Crosby Street Synagogue was consecrated in 1834 and the House of God was illuminated for the first time by gas.33
HOME AND FAMILY
Jews enjoyed their beautiful synagogs and delighted in their homes. Solomon Jacobs, of Richmond, in a letter to his wife who was visiting her parents in Philadelphia, kept her abreast of the news: the house is being papered; the lawn is beautiful; “I miss you more than I expected.” He is not sure he will be willing to let her leave him again; he is lonely, but with the yellow fever in town, the “sickness,” he hesitates to urge her to return. The “servants”—the slaves—miss her. But not all marriages were happy. In his will, David Nathans made provision for his wife, though she had not lived with him for some years and had not treated him like a husband. Manuel Noah, Mordecai’s father, deserted his wife. There were men who failed to support their parents and grandparents in their hour of need. Jews of this type, blind to their responsibilities, seem to have been few. Far more typical, every effort was made to hold the family together. The marriage of Shinah Simon, of Lancaster, to a Christian, Dr. Nicholas Schuyler, was certainly a shock to the Simon-Gratz clan, but it learned to embrace the doctor and, in turn, became part of his family. The early republican period was an age when children respected their parents or at least expressed themselves dutifully in their letters. The patriarchal mode prevailed; children were expected to obey; brothers dominated sisters. There are many indicia that the Jewish home, at its best, was still a live tradition. This was certainly true of Gershom Seixas, his wife, and his fourteen surviving boys and girls. Dignified in his relations with uncouth congregants, he was jolly and charming in the bosom of his family. When he wrote to his beloved daughter Sally Kursheedt in Richmond, he took his letter, descended into the kitchen basement, and read it to his daughters and to “the primary leader of the pots and pans,” his wife. At times he even read his letter to the servants in the house. Purim was an important holiday to the Seixas family members. They received gifts from members of the congregation, and all of them sat down around a large table in the parlor to enjoy tea and all sorts of sweets. Not one but two candles were lit for that happy day. The children were allowed to stay up until 8:30, and Seixas entertained them with a romantic story of his life.34
Women played an important part in the life of Gershom Seixas; with his wife and eight daughters there were nine all told. Though Ma (Hannah Manuel) spent much of her life in the kitchen, she was no drudge. The position of a Jewish woman in early America—as in later America, too!—depended on her personality. Abigail Franks (d. 1756), like Abigail Adams, was a highly intelligent woman who could stand on her own two feet; her husband, one of North America’s most influential army purveyors, could not—and did not—dwarf her. Her children respected her. Jewish women in her day and well up to the threshold of the twentieth century were exposed to many restraints, built-in problems, because they were females. In the traditional synagog, though relegated to the galleries, they managed in a modest fashion to make their presence felt. They contributed money to help build North America’s first sanctuary, and in every generation theirs was the task and the privilege of preparing the vestments, curtains, and cloths for the sacred Scrolls, holy ark, and reading desk. Most girls were taught to sew. When Mordecai Sheftall was imprisoned by the British during the Revolutionary War, Fanny, his wife, supported the children as a seamstress. Young girls, with time on their hands, kept themselves busy making samplers. The versified Ten Commandments were a challenge to their skills:
Take not the name of God in vain,
Nor dare the Sabbath day profane.35
In colonial days, the wives, sisters, mothers, and children were often distraught when the fathers, the providers, were away on long sea voyages or had crossed the mountains to the forks of the Ohio. There is every reason to believe that most grown-up girls were eager to marry. No evidence indicates that spinsters remained unmarried by choice, but suitable males were scarce; women would not marry outside their class. For most of them, intermarriage with Gentiles was summarily rejected. There were always unmarried women who were compelled to remain dependent on their parents or siblings. A paragraph in Charleston’s 1820 constitution is ominous; it implied rather clearly that there were Jewish prostitutes—but, and this is significant—the woman and her husband could become fully accredited members if the woman had lived a “moral and decent life” after marriage.36
By 1819, at the latest, Jewish women were aware of themselves, self-consciously as a group, for in that year distaff Philadelphians established the first Female Hebrew Benevolent Society. They were undoubtedly impelled by the example of their Gentile sisters, who had already established a women’s organization of their own; Jewish girls and wives were invited to participate and did. The Jewish society flourished; its constitution was reprinted and modified three times in less than twenty years. Thus, by the beginning of the third decade of the nineteenth century, Jewish women in the community began to make charity their specific task outside the home. This was to be their métier for just about a century. Like the Gentile women about them, these Jewish women began reaching out in different directions and also wrote and published poetry and religious textbooks. It was women who created the Jewish Sunday School, the most successful children’s educational instrument in the history of American Jewry—this no later than 1840. One of the problems they faced was that they were expected to conform to a male standardized mental picture. They did conform; they had no choice. There is very little, if any, evidence that individuals were prepared to kick over the traces. The acrostic Hebrew prose poem which begins with Proverbs 31:10 had for millennia determined the role in life of the Woman of Valor:
The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her,
And he hath no lack of gain.
It is all so simple; she works, he prospers, but he must not fail to praise her on the public square; her children must rise up and call her blessed. The cult of true womanhood was thus outlined by a Jewish gnomic writer centuries before the rise of Christianity. In eighteenth and early nineteenth-century America, she helped her husband in the business, reared their children, taught them to be pious, virtuous, genteel, and modest, and to become part of an extended family. Let there be no doubt about it, however: in the final analysis, she was expected to be submissive to her husband. As a contemporary Jewish orator said—sarcastically, to be sure—he was the Lord of Creation.
Isaac Leeser had very definite, fixed ideas about women. His views are important, for through his Occident, which began appearing in 1843, he influenced many: a woman must be educated because the fate of the young lies in her hands. Let her not read romantic novels; there are no great truths in them. There is no need for her to enter a profession; to do so would unsex her. Only men are to pursue more advanced studies. Speakers in those days were often carried away by their own euphoria when they praised women. Did they believe what they said? Did the women believe what they heard?
’Tis woman who holds the balance of power and controls the destinies of nations! She it is who stamps upon the infant mind the signet of greatness and sends forth into the world the author, the orator, the hero, and the statesman!37
WHAT DID THE LOCAL COMMUNITY ACCOMPLISH?
By 1840, the so-called communities were usually made up of a number of synagogs and confraternities. Each synagog and society had its function, its job to do, its loyal members. The sum of all loyalties added up to an emotion-based community. This was “real.” In a larger sense the total Jewish community was trying to take shape—which meant a struggle. It was difficult to keep some of the towns alive. Newport was dead; Savannah for generations was barely viable; Philadelphia for decades was financially desperate; Richmond, Charleston, and New York were alive and well. Judaism was alive; synagogs were open; new ones were being established. The charities had loyal followings; schools of various types rose and disappeared; Jewish education, even if it was shallow, was always available. Folkways persisted; Jews huddled together for comfort, if only because they sensed a lack of cordiality on the part of their Christian neighbors. Assimilation and defection constituted no real danger, but there was no real leadership anywhere. Old-timers who had immigrated in colonial days hewed to the line Jewishly; the Jews of the new native-born generation, educated, more sophisticated, less ardent in observance, were in their own way loyal, determined to be faithful to the religion of their fathers. In the postrevolutionary decades, established Jewries assimilated the new European migrants and gave them a Sephardic veneer; they found their niche in the synagog and in the hevrot. Later arrivals, in the 1820’s and 1830’s, more Orthodox than their hosts, endured the natives until they were numerous enough to go off on their own. The Damascus affair not only made them aware of themselves nationally, but locally, too. They learned to work together, if only temporarily, as a community. It was a precedent that would bear fruit, albeit slowly, in the next two decades.38
SIGNIFICANCE OF AMERICAN JEWRY IN THE LIGHT OF JEWISH HISTORY
The American experience from 1654 to 1840 is significant in documenting the transfer of Jewish institutions and the establishment of settlements in a new corner of the Diaspora. More important is the fact that this new Jewry, living in an open society, survived as Jews and as citizens; it set up a pattern of integration that was accepted by the Gentiles among whom these Jews lived. Theirs was a Judaism of salutary neglect. In order to effectuate an acceptable integration, they found it necessary to make constant religious adjustments. This they did, yet in their minds their Judaism was still traditional. As Jews, they could boast of no rabbis, no seminaries, no scholars who devoted their lives to the study of the Talmud; they were a “frontier” community and would remain such until the early twentieth century. As Americans, they developed a vocational, economic pattern which was typically Jewish; that is to say, they were an urban extended middle-class body of businessmen. There were among them almost no dirt farmers and very few plantation owners and industrialists. They were as yet too few in number to make any lasting contributions to American literature. There was no Jew in Congress. No Jew was a social reformer; as a conspicuous minority, they were assiduous in avoiding controversy.
America had done a great deal for the Jew since 1776. Privileges of wealth, heredity, and aristocracy were strongly curtailed; more precisely privileges were made available to all, including Jews. No area of economic life was closed to them; infinite vistas of business and commerce beckoned. In a modest fashion, individual Jews began to appear as litterateurs, poets, dramatists, portrait painters, musicians, artists, physicians, attorneys, judges, politicians, economists, army officers, and naval commanders. They were learning to live with Gentile neighbors; this was something new. As in ancient Alexandria and medieval Moslem Spain, they were absorbing a new culture. They were fully aware that a new era was opening and they took advantage of the new opportunities. No longer tolerated second-class citizens as in the colonial period, they were now invested with all rights and immunities. They began to enter the professions, to run for office, to go to college, to write and to teach. Individuals developed a sense of pride that they were culturally the equal of all others. Wealth brought dignity. Conscious of the import of their citizenship, they resented any diminution of their rights. The larger United States as a national polity commanded their devotion: the Constitution was their patron and protector, not the individual states that were reluctant to emancipate them. As men engaged in interstate commerce, they were concerned with the welfare of the country as a whole. Thus, they were eager protagonists of American nationalism, and because they were widely scattered in important centers, they served as a cement to hold the new republic together. The new America made possible a whole gallery of personalities: Moses E. Levy with his hope of a cultural enclave; Mordecai Noah, writer, journalist, politician, proto-Zionist; Harmon Hendricks, industrialist and philanthropist; Isaac Moses, merchant-shipper; Moses M. Hays, capitalist and Masonic pioneer; Judah Touro, whose legacies were to enrich Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish institutions.
Was American Jewry a unique part of World Jewry? It was the first completely free Jewish community in all Diaspora history and Christian society. It is true that, with certain exceptions, no European state limited the right of Jews to worship in accordance with the dictates of their conscience, but only here in the United States were these non-Christian sectarians formally accepted and accorded an increasing respect and recognition. This is eloquently reflected in the wholehearted participation of Gentile community leaders and Christian clergymen in synagog consecrations. Every country produces a Jew who is distinctive. America was no exception—though the type would vary over the years. The new Jew emerging in the United States was an amalgam of Anglo-Saxon culture, French political thought, American rugged individualism, and commitment to an “Oriental” religion that had already flourished for more than twenty centuries.39
How many Jews and congregations were there in the United States in 1840? This is not easy to determine, since the United States at that time was not interested in collecting religious statistics of any sort. However, statisticians and others have made guesses and have engaged in demographic studies since the early nineteenth century on the basis of oral traditions, government documents, town records, and synagogal papers. The problem is that many Jews left no trace of their existence in the cities and villages where they led uneventful lives; their number was probably not inconsequential. By 1840, there may have been as many as 15,000 Jews in the United States, but possibly no more than 10,000. For the early days of the Revolution, estimates run anywhere from 1,500 to 2,500 souls; in 1811, on the basis of contemporary reports, one may assume that there was a national community of no fewer than 2,000. In his 1818 Discourse, Noah guessed that there were 3,000 Jews on this continent; a present-day careful demographer believes that there were about 3,000 souls here in 1820. There may have been many more. Talking to Charleston’s Unitarian minister in 1826, Isaac Harby said that he thought there were about 6,000 Jews in the country. In retrospect, it is patent that American Jewry had increased more rapidly than the generality since 1776; the increase was at least 500 percent and may well have been much more.
By 1840, there were at least twenty-one congregations in sixteen cities. Six synagogs adhered to the Sephardic or Iberian rite; the others were Ashkenazic, “German.” From 1654 to 1801, only eight congregations were established in North America. (Included here is Canada’s Montreal as well as Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where Joseph Simon, the fur entrepreneur, maintained a private conventicle.) In the next thirty-nine years, at least sixteen congregations or prayer groups were established. The New York community, founded in 1654/1655, ceased soon after to hold services for a while but was firmly established by 1700. Charleston may have had a religious quorum as early as 1695, when several Spanish-Portuguese refugees arrived from France; the South Carolina congregation was well-established by 1749. The Savannah Jewish colonists organized a congregation on landing in 1733, but there was no well-structured religious community until 1790. Philadelphia Jews met to pray together in the 1740’s, but about twenty years elapsed before a permanent kehillah came into being. By 1789, Richmond had a chartered congregation; it was probably several years older. Cincinnati Jews were holding services in 1819, Columbia, South Carolina, in 1822, New Orleans, in 1827; Baltimore, in 1829. The Louisville Jews first assembled together in prayer during the years 1834–1838.
The pace was accelerated in the last years of this decade. St. Louis had a prayer group in 1837, Albany in 1838, Cleveland, Easton, and Syracuse in 1839. Hanover, in Eastern Pennsylvania, had a congregation before 1840, but it was not destined to last. This village of fewer than a 1,000 people turned out to be but a temporary foothold for Jewish adventurers as they continued their trek westward. All the above towns were organized as congregations or prayer groups, but there is reason to believe that Jews in ten other towns met for services, if only rarely. The important cities were in the tidewater; Richmond was in the piedmont, on a river that flowed into Chesapeake Bay. Charleston was the most important Jewish community till the 1820’s; then New York took over. From 1819 on, the Jews began to make their presence felt in the West as they followed the trails and turnpikes leading to the Mississippi. They were a generation late, but as urban shopkeepers they waited till the towns across the mountains were firmly rooted. By the late 1830’s there was a Philadelphia adventurer in a northern California Mexican village. A very substantial percentage of all American Jews were immigrants, but despite the relatively large influx of immigrants from Central Europe, the Jews here still numbered less than one in a thousand.40
THE COMING OF THE GERMANS AND THE SYMBOLIC ABDICATION OF SEPHARDIC LEADERSHIP
Ashkenaz is the medieval Hebrew word for Germany. The Ashkenazic congregations were patronized primarily by Central Europeans, although they also sheltered many East Europeans and Englishmen. Settlers from the lands between the Vosges Mountains and the Dnieper River had found their way across the Atlantic as early as the 1660’s; by 1720 most Jews in North America were of Ashkenazic origin. For all Jews, distant America was looked upon as a land of opportunity; Russia, Poland, and Germany were lands of disability. Goethe’s mother was dismayed that a public park was to be opened to Jews in 1807 at Frankfurt on the Main; she might even have to sit on the same bench with Jews. New York’s Jews were well aware that there was a “push to America.” While dedicating the Mill Street Synagogue in 1818, Noah made clear that this new building was necessary because of the influx of immigrants; seven years later the city’s first Ashkenazic rebels announced publicly that another house of worship was necessary “because the increase of our brethren is so great.” In 1833 when a Hebrew Benevolent Society was first established in Baltimore, the constitution was published in German. Shearith Israel looked upon the newcomers as inferiors; they were socially unacceptable. Thus, when a city-wide protest was organized to protest against the Damascus outrages, some of the leaders at Shearith Israel were wary. They were not pleased with the prospect of working closely with Ashkenazim. When, in August, 1840, the Sephardic banker Solomon I. Joseph wanted to use the synagog to stage the meeting, these lay leaders refused: “No benefits can rise from such a course.” This was on the 13th. Even more, when on the 30th of the month a resolution was offered at a board meeting that Shearith Israel work closely with Sephardic Richmond in this crisis, it was not even seconded. The congregation’s trustees would have nothing to do with any Jewish group involved in this affair.41
The rejection of the opportunity to protest publicly the tortures of fellow-Jews—Sephardim at that—is difficult to understand. It may be that there are reasons which historians today cannot even begin to fathom. Or is the reason patent: they were too timid? The Sephardim, with their crypto-Jewish Marrano tradition dating back to the fifteenth century, were a frightened group determined to maintain a low profile. Or it may well be that the reason why Shearith Israel’s board members would not join in the August mass meeting was because they were not overly fond of Ashkenazim. These old-timers knew that they were outnumbered and could not dominate the proceedings. In a sense, the refusal of the majority of the board to participate in this public gathering meant abdication of a leadership that had been exercised for over a century. Actually, in all other towns, the Sephardim, the natives and the acculturated immigrants, did join in the protests against the Syrian bigots. There is no question, however, that by refusing to allow New York’s Jews to use its sanctuary, Shearith Israel as an institution had relinquished its authority; it was a symbolic renunciation, but a very real one. Shearith Israel sensed that the hegemony of the Sephardim was fading rapidly; the scepter of rule would soon pass to the Ashkenazim. Were the “Germans” from non-Iberian Europe ready to take over? The protest mass meeting was held in the Bnai Jeshurun sanctuary, New York’s first Ashkenazic synagog, founded only fifteen years earlier. This was prophetic.