Early America’s Jewish Settlers

by Eli Faber

GLC04315If you had the opportunity to create a new society from scratch, to build its institutions and establish its social structure from the ground up, how would you go about doing it? This is one of the most fruitful ways for teachers and students to think about the colonial period of American history, for just such opportunities challenged the creativity of the founders of many of the thirteen colonies. Consider, for example, how Virginia’s founders in 1607 planned for a corporation whose purpose was to pay dividends to its stockholders in England; how New England’s Puritans arrived in North America during the 1630s with intentions of creating the perfect Christian church and society, one that conformed according to their lights to the original church envisioned by Jesus; or William Penn’s plans in the early 1680s to create a Quaker commonwealth that practiced religious inclusiveness, pacifism, and peaceful relations with the Native American population; and the trustees of Georgia who envisioned a haven for indebted prisoners, one that, unlike the other English colonies that would eventually comprise the United States, would not permit slavery within its borders.

Examined from this perspective, the colonial era prompts students and teachers to consider how, and to what degree, we as a society plan for the future. It induces a clear measure of humility in the presence of reality, for the fact is that, with the passage of time, the plans of Virginia’s corporate founders and New England’s Puritans, and the utopian visions of Pennsylvania’s Quakers and Georgia’s trustees did not work out as planned. How and why, of course, is the stuff of historical analysis.

Like the aforementioned planners (and dreamers), colonial America’s Jewish population offers a good case study of how original plans often went awry, though undoubtedly in the case of the Jews in large part to their satisfaction, rather than to their dismay and disappointment.

The history of the Jewish people on the North American mainland dates to 1654, when a small band of twenty-three men, women, and children made landfall at New Amsterdam on the southern edge of Manhattan Island. They arrived from northern Brazil, from where they had been forced to flee because of the reassertion of Portuguese rule in that colony. They had come originally to Brazil in the late 1620s, when the Dutch who worked for the Dutch West India Company seized it from the Portuguese. The Dutch remained in control until 1654, when a Portuguese naval force re-conquered Lisbon’s erstwhile colony, forcing not only all Dutch non-Jews to leave but also the entire Jewish population, for Portugal for more than a century had prohibited the presence of Jews within its territories. While many of Brazil’s Jews returned to Holland, others made for islands in the Caribbean (French Martinique and English Barbados), and twenty-three sailed for the Dutch island of Manhattan, the center of the colony of New Netherland, which stretched from the Delaware River to the south, northward along the Hudson River to present-day Albany, and even beyond.

Coming ashore at New Amsterdam initially proved disappointing, for, despite Holland’s toleration for members of the Jewish faith, which was atypical of European nations at the time, Governor Peter Stuyvesant preferred to invoke familiar anti-Semitic views. Backed by his council of advisors, Stuyvesant ordered them to leave, but New Amsterdam’s Jews successfully appealed to his employer, the Dutch West India Company, which countermanded their governor’s order. Thereafter, the town’s small Jewish population continued to contend with Stuyvesant, gradually winning the right to trade in all corners of the colony, to own real estate in New Amsterdam, and to serve in the town’s militia. By 1657, Stuyvesant threw in the towel and no longer attempted to circumvent the Jewish population’s efforts to take root. Symbolizing their intention to stay in New Amsterdam, they acquired land in 1656 to establish a cemetery, which is the first religious action that a Jewish population must take upon establishing a new community. Surprising to many, building a synagogue is not the first such action, for according to Jewish law one may pray in any location, but burial requires interment in land consecrated by Jewish law for that purpose and surrounded by a wall or fence. Hence, in every case where early America’s Jews settled, they established cemeteries as quickly as possible, but waited many years to erect synagogues. In New Amsterdam’s case, the town’s Jewish population did not construct its first synagogue until 1729—by which time, of course, it had long been renamed New York, following the conquest of New Netherland by England in 1664.

Despite the symbolic importance of establishing a cemetery in 1656 as a sign of intended permanence, nearly all New Amsterdam’s Jews left New Netherland by the mid-1660s, quite possibly because four non-Jewish commercial houses back in Amsterdam dominated the colony’s trade, a fact of commercial life that did not permit interlopers or newcomers to thrive, non-Jews included. The interest in mercantile activity alerts us to another pattern that typified Jewish settlement during the colonial era: the ambition to be merchants who traded across the length and breadth of the Atlantic World. This commercial orientation meant, in turn, settlement in urban centers on the seacoast. Very few Jewish inhabitants were to be found in the interior. Nearly all established themselves in the mainland colonies’ major ports, where they could pursue their international trading aspirations. Some prospered in that capacity, but many did not, settling down instead to become small shopkeepers and artisans or to work as bookkeepers in the merchants’ countinghouses (offices).

With New Amsterdam’s Jewish population almost completely gone by the mid-1660s, Newport, Rhode Island, was the next seaport to surface as a center of Jewish settlement. Coming probably from Barbados, a contingent of Jewish settlers appeared in Rhode Island in 1658, which had no Governor Stuyvesant to harass them. If excoriated everywhere else in New England for its embrace of religious toleration, religious freedom was probably one of the calculations that drew the Jewish newcomers to the small colony, though the potential for overseas trade at Newport was perhaps decisive. Accordingly, they engaged in commerce, established a cemetery in Newport in 1677, and were augmented by an additional ninety or so settlers in the early 1690s. Thereafter they disappeared from Newport’s records, not reappearing again until the 1740s. This later attempt to establish themselves in Rhode Island was more successful, and in the mid-1760s they constructed their first synagogue, a gem in the style of colonial America’s newly introduced Palladian architecture. Still standing and still in use in Newport, it is the oldest synagogue building extant in the United States, and has been designated a National Historic Site and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Jewish settlers began to reappear on Manhattan Island in 1680–1681, coming to New York from England’s Caribbean islands as well as from London and Amsterdam. In 1682, they established a new cemetery, once again evincing an intention to stay permanently. This time they did. By 1695, approximately a hundred Jewish inhabitants resided in New York, comprising 2.5 percent of the town’s population. By the late 1720s, when they numbered about two hundred, they felt sufficiently well established to form a congregation (the oldest in continuous existence in the United States); formulate its rules of administration and governance; construct a synagogue; build other small, adjacent structures necessary for a life lived according to the rituals of Judaism; and conduct a school, where pupils studied not only the Hebrew language and prayers but also reading, writing, English, Spanish, and arithmetic, all requirements for eventual careers as merchants and bookkeepers. The community, in other words, sought to prepare its members not only for the religious life but also for worldly affairs.

The New York Jewish community’s maturation coincided with the emergence of new Jewish settlements in several other locations. Savannah, Georgia, saw the arrival of some forty-two Jewish settlers in 1733, though most were gone by the early 1740s. Nevertheless, a small number of Jewish families remained there, some of whose members played significant roles in Georgia’s resistance to the British during the American Revolution. Several of New York’s Jewish inhabitants moved to Philadelphia in 1737–1740 in order to develop branches of their families’ commercial enterprises. (Indeed, the initial appearance of Jewish settlers in all of Britain’s colonies, whether on the mainland or in the Caribbean, often occurred when families sent sons and brothers, nephews and cousins, from one port to another in order to serve as commercial representatives.) As noted previously, a second Jewish community in Newport developed in the early 1740s, while a new one began to form in Charleston, South Carolina, at the end of the decade.

In all, therefore, Jewish settlers resided in five of early America’s port towns by the middle of the eighteenth century. A handful were also to be found elsewhere, on eastern Long Island and in Westchester County in New York; in New Jersey; and in Lancaster, Reading, and Easton, Pennsylvania. Despite the achievement of permanence, they comprised only a minute portion of the American population. Of approximately two-and-half million colonists on the eve of the Revolution, only about a thousand were Jewish. And in 1790, the first census of the United States recorded between 1,300 and 1,500 Jewish inhabitants, out of a total population of three million.

Unlike the founders of New England, Pennsylvania, and Georgia who had ambitious plans to create new models of society, early America’s Jewish settlers did not come to the American colonies with designs in mind for a new kind of Jewish community in the freshness of the New World. They intended, rather, to re-create the Jewish communities and way of life they had known in Europe. Specifically, they envisioned, first, the establishment of communities that exercised hegemony over all Jewish inhabitants in any given region. Membership in the Jewish community was to be compulsory, as had been the case in their European homelands, with individuals subordinating themselves to the authority of the organized, official Jewish community. Second, the Jewish inhabitants of North America would adhere to the laws, rituals, and practices of traditional Judaism, all of which had their roots in the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) and the Talmud. Finally, Jews, as was the case throughout Europe, even in tolerant Holland and relatively benevolent England, would accept marginalization in the form of exclusion from civic life. Just as they could not vote or serve in public office on the other side of the Atlantic, they knew they would not be able to do so in New York or Pennsylvania, or wherever else they chose to settle in the colonies.

In all three instances, original plans and expectations did not work out as intended. The realities and conditions of life in the colonies led to the emergence of a new kind of Jewish community instead of a compulsory one, t;o abandonment by many colonists of the norms of the traditional Jewish way of life; and to inclusion, for the first time anywhere in the modern world, in civic life, though only on a gradually evolving basis. If the first two shifts from what was anticipated caused anguish for some, the third was a welcome development, indeed.

The claim to universal authority in the lives of all members of the Jewish faith is apparent in the records of the community in New York. From them, we learn that the community asserted that it had the power to impose a tax on all Jews in the region—not just those who resided in New York City but also on those to be found at a distance “in the country,” meaning to the east on Long Island, to the north in Westchester County, and to the west in New Jersey. Similarly, it proclaimed that all Jews, again whether in the city or “in the country,” were required to adhere to the age-old religious laws regulating the Sabbath and the consumption of food, the latter meaning compliance with the laws of kashrut, which specified which meats and seafood Jews were permitted to eat, as well as the manner in which meat had to be slaughtered and then prepared for cooking. To enforce its right to rule, the community prescribed sanctions for any who would not comply with its edicts. Punishments ranged along a spectrum of severity that began with admonition and moved to denial of privileges and honors during synagogue services, then on to revoking membership in the community, and from there to excommunication, a penalty so severe that it meant exclusion not only from the synagogue but also worse: exclusion from all social and economic contact with other members of the community. The roster of sanctions culminated in the threat to bar an individual and even the members of his or her family from burial in the community’s cemetery.

The community’s claim to universal authority originated in the experiences of the Jewish people in Europe, where they were defined in all the nations in which they resided as belonging to a separate nation, that is, as permanent outsiders who could never become members of the host nation. The modern idea of citizenship, wherein one automatically belongs to the nation in which one is born, did not develop until the end of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It followed that, because Jews were not members of the nation in which they resided, an institution representing them to the host nation’s authorities was necessary. The Jews called this structure the kehilla (pronounced k’hee-la, with the accent on the last syllable), derived from the Hebrew word for community or congregation. The role of the kehilla, whose officers were not democratically chosen by the Jewish population, was to transmit the government’s directives, to collect its taxes, and to finance as well as administer the internal institutions of the Jewish community. Its power was supreme within the latter, because it derived its authority from its status as an official entity recognized by the host government. All Jews had no choice but to subordinate themselves to the kehilla, because this was the only place where they could fit in, inasmuch as they could not belong to or fit into the nation at large.

Early America’s Jewish settlers soon discovered that the institution of the kehilla did not make sense in the environment in which they now found themselves. The non-Jewish majority did not regard the Jewish population in their midst with anywhere near the level of hostility that Jews experienced in Europe. There was, therefore, no need for an entity like the kehilla to represent them and to convey the dictates of the larger society’s government to them. They were never required to establish such an institution, and, without such an imperative, the idea of transplanting the kehilla, a universal compulsory community, had no future. One result the community encountered before long was grave difficulty recruiting men who would agree to serve in positions of leadership, a situation that occasioned much rancor and even outright demonstrations of hostility within the walls of the synagogue itself. Men refused to serve in the onerous and time-consuming positions of president and assistant, for such offices did not confer status or power in what, in America, was clearly not a body of any consequence to the general government.

Early America’s Jewish settlers therefore had to fashion a new kind of community and to explore how it would function and how it might succeed. Rather than a compulsory community, they began to experiment with and flesh out the contours of a voluntary community. They were among the first members of the Jewish faith in the modern world to do so, developing what in fact would eventually become the norm among Jewish communities everywhere in the modern world. What they were doing was in fact very American, for, as Alexis de Tocqueville was to observe in the 1830s with no small degree of amazement, voluntary associations permeated American culture, doing much of society’s communal work.

If the original plan to transplant the kehilla failed, so too did the expectation that all would adhere to Judaism’s religious laws and practices. The demand by the New York community that everyone, whether in the city or “in the country,” conform to the laws of Sabbath and food consumption is only one piece of evidence demonstrating that some Jews in early America began to abandon tradition. Similarly, non-Jews as well as individual Jewish colonists reported declining compliance with religious laws and practices, while non-Jewish observers remarked that Jews in the colonies abandoned the distinctive clothing, headwear, and beards worn by Jews in Europe. In a small number of cases, Jews married non-Jews and disappeared into the majority population.

Here, then, was a clash between maintaining a distinctive identity and assimilating into the general culture, a formidable conflict with which many an immigrant group in America has grappled. It was a problem that, again, Jews in the modern world encountered for the first time. To resolve the tension between the extremes of distinctiveness and adaptation, they experimented with carving a path between the two choices. The synthesis they envisioned took concrete form in the synagogues they constructed in Rhode Island and South Carolina, dedicated respectively in 1763 and 1794. In Newport, the building’s exterior employed the Palladian style’s use of Greek and Roman columns, pediments, entablatures, and perfect balance in the placement of windows and doors, but inside it was an exact replica on a smaller scale of the interior of London’s oldest synagogue. In Charleston, the exterior was that of an English parish church (something no doubt quite shocking to traditionalists), but the interior copied a traditional Sephardic (Spanish-Portuguese) synagogue perfectly. The two buildings implied that, on the outside, early American Jews could adapt to the culture of their host society, but on the inside they would remain Jewish.

The necessity to devise a new kind of community and to formulate ways to preserve the group’s unique identity no doubt caused anxiety among early America’s Jews, but the slow evolution toward inclusion in the society’s civic life did not. Because they were defined in European thought as members of a perpetually separate nation, they could not vote or serve in office. Despite the fact that the colonial American environment was far more accepting of them, and that the anti-Semitic excesses of Europe were at a harmless minimum in the English colonies, the latter did not permit Jews (or Catholics for that matter) to participate in public life, limiting voting and public office to adult, white, male, propertied adherents of the Protestant faith.

Probably to their astonishment, the Jewish inhabitants of New York found they were able to vote in municipal elections beginning in 1715, and shortly after to serve as constables, the eighteenth-century’s amateur police force. However, when they voted in 1737 in the election for the colony’s assembly (the lower house of the legislature), an uproar ensued, effectively barring them from doing that again. The real breakthrough in civic participation, one experienced throughout the colonies, came in the era of the American Revolution, when the Jewish population began to participate in public affairs, again for the first time anywhere in the modern world, by taking highly visible stands for either the American cause or the British. It took many forms, including signing petitions before hostilities broke out, abandoning their homes and going into exile behind American lines or, conversely, remaining in British-held areas, serving in positions of leadership on Revolutionary committees, and, most vividly of all, performing military service in large numbers on the American side. They need not have exposed themselves by choosing sides, for a large proportion of the colonial population elected to be neutral without recriminations or penalties, in many cases.

Clearly, the members of the Jewish population had decided overwhelmingly to begin to assert themselves politically. Disappointingly, however, the new constitutions adopted by each state perpetuated their exclusion from voting and office, save one: New York. But after the Revolution ended, the nation’s Jews openly, forcefully, and unabashedly made the case for inclusion in the body politic, on the grounds that so many of them had devoted their lives and resources to the American cause. Their arguments for full citizenship bore fruit when Virginia, Pennsylvania, Georgia, South Carolina, and Delaware eliminated religious requirements for voting and holding office before the century ended. The other original states gradually followed suit in the nineteenth century, while new states admitted to the Union did not erect religious barriers to civic inclusion as a matter of course.

In sum, early America’s Jewish inhabitants began with a set of plans and expectations they ultimately jettisoned because of the realities they encountered in the New World. We may conclude that they were pioneers and innovators who not only forged new directions for Jews in the modern world generally, but also contributed to the slow but steady evolution of democracy in the United States of America.

Eli Faber, professor emeritus of history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (The City University of New York), is the author of A Time for Planting: The First Migration, 1654–1820 (1992) and Jews, Slaves and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight (1998). He is currently working on a biography of the youngest person executed in the United States, a child of fourteen in 1944.


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