The Jews of early America
In 1654, 23 men, women and children sailed into Dutch-occupied New York City, then known as New Amsterdam. Though eager for new residents, the sparsely populated colony did not roll out a welcome wagon.
"The Jews who have arrived here would nearly all like to remain," the city's director-general, Peter Stuyvesant, complained to his superiors in Holland, "but ... with their customary usury and deceitful trading with Christians ... [are] very repugnant ..."
Stuyvesant denied Jews all essential rights and strictly forbade them from practicing their religion, even in private.
Jewish shareholders in the Dutch West India Trading Company, the colony's creators, quickly intervened. Reminding company directors that the "Jewish nation" had "always striven [its] best for the Company ... [losing] immense and great capital in its shares and obligations," they asked that Jews be given "passage and residence" in the Dutch-occupied colonies "to travel, live and traffic there ... and enjoy liberty on condition of contributing like others ..."
Their efforts proved successful. While acknowledging that New Amsterdam might become "infected by people of the Jewish nation," the directors ordered Mr. Stuyvesant to allow the Jews to "live and remain" in the colony.
Encouraged by their treatment in North America, more Jews soon trickled in from Europe and the Caribbean. And they prospered, serving as shopkeepers, merchants and traders.
Then the British seized New York in 1664, and the Jews were again beset with difficulties. Most towns and provinces in British America denied them the right to vote or hold public office. British citizenship was limited to those in the colonies who professed "the true faith of Christ."
Still, colonial Jews had it pretty good; they weren't burned at the stake, forced to convert to Christianity, expelled or denied the right to worship openly as they were in parts of Europe.
In the 1730s, New York Jews, who had worshipped communally as early as the 1650s, constructed their own synagogue, Shearith Israel, near present-day Wall Street. Philadelphia Jews owned their Spruce Street Cemetery by 1740 and a short time later worshipped at Congregation Mikveh Israel.
As Jews branched out into other port cities, they went on to create congregations in Newport, Savannah and Charleston -- aided by co-religionists in Amsterdam, the colonies and the Caribbean who donated Torah scrolls, other sacred objects and money. Still, North American Jews had no rabbinical courts, nor -- until the 1840s -- any rabbis. They relied on chazzans -- cantors -- to lead them in prayer.
During the earliest waves of immigration, most Jews were Sephardim. Their ancestors had been expelled from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisitions, which began in the late Middle Ages and continued sporadically thereafter.
Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews later sailed in from central and Eastern Europe and came to outnumber the Sephardim. Still, until the late 1700s, all colonial Jews followed the customs and liturgies of the Spanish-Portuguese Jews, who remained socially and economically a notch above the others.
Why did North American authorities tolerate the Jews?
Mostly because they were so small in number: In 1775, Jews numbered no more than 2,000 out of an overall colonial population approaching 2 million.
But also because they kept to themselves, trading with fellow Jews throughout the world and relying on their synagogues to educate their children and serve as the focal point of social life.
By contrast, it was the far more populous Roman Catholics, not the Jews, who encountered the fiercest discrimination in the Protestant colonies, including a ban on the open practice of their religion. In New England especially, where settlers lived in constant fear of attacks by the French and Indians, who were often led by priests, Catholics were considered security risks.
Not so the Jews, who in many instances were welcomed, even honored, despite a prevailing culture of anti-Semitism.
During the 1700s, Harvard College appointed its first Jewish faculty member, Judah Monis. A wealthy London Jew named Jacob Mendes de Costa endowed a Hebrew school in New York City. Rhode Island College opened its doors to Jewish students.
But it took the outbreak of revolution in 1775 to bring most Jews into the American fold. Remembering all too well their ancestors' fate under European monarchs, most threw in their lot with the rebels.
They signed non-import agreements, promising not to trade with the motherland, and, when war erupted, enlisted in the Continental Army and the various militias. Young Jewish males all but vanished from Charleston to serve under Capt. William Lushington in what became known as the "Jew Company." In all, more than 100 served in the military, both as officers and soldiers, fighting on the Sabbath and breaching dietary laws.
But the bulk of the Jewish contribution to the Revolution was financial. While archival research does not provide a precise accounting of their contributions, Jewish merchants, such as the Gratz brothers of Philadelphia and Joseph Simon of Lancaster, Pa., donated uniforms and ammunition to the American cause. Haym Salomon, a successful Jewish currency broker, gave untold amounts to the cause. Dubbed "the little Jew broker," he later served under Robert Morris, the superintendent of finance, negotiating war debts with foreign countries.
Despite the contributions of Jews to the rebel cause, for years states continued to discriminate against them by, for instance, requiring a Christian oath as a precondition for holding public office. But Jews did receive recognition from none other than the nation's first president. Soon after assuming office, George Washington dispatched letters to the country's Jewish congregations, thanking the Jews for their contributions to the Revolution and assuring them of religious liberty.
In a 1790 letter to the Newport Congregation, he wrote: "May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while everyone shall sit safely under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid."
First Published July 1, 2012 12:00 am