The Grandees: America's Sephardic Eliteby Stephen Birmingham
Tracing their origins to medieval Portugal and Spain, the Sephardic Jews consider themselves ‘the nobility of Jewry,’ in contrast to their pushier and more aggressive German counterparts. They were also the first Jews to inhabit the new worldfirst exiled from Spain and Portugal, and then forced out of Brazil, a ship bearing 23 Sephardic Jews was
Tracing their origins to medieval Portugal and Spain, the Sephardic Jews consider themselves ‘the nobility of Jewry,’ in contrast to their pushier and more aggressive German counterparts. They were also the first Jews to inhabit the new worldfirst exiled from Spain and Portugal, and then forced out of Brazil, a ship bearing 23 Sephardic Jews was blown off its course to Holland, beset by pirates, and then captured by a French captain before being ransomed for the ‘payment of their freight’ in the City of New Amsterdam. And so the American Sephardic Jewish story begins.
Here Stephen Birmingham tells the rich and varied history of this insular group of bewilderingly interrelated families, spiced with gossip and the gentle rattling of family skeletons. We find tales of fortunes made in the fur trade long before the Astors, revolutionary heroes and heroines, and poetic spinster Rebecca Gratz, thought to be Scott’s model for Rebecca in Ivanhoe. Through it all emerges a picture of a proud haughty people, who have chosen to remain aloof from the later-arriving Jews from Europe, and have staunchly refused to be swept up in the movement of Reform Judaism, preferring to adhere to their Orthodox rituals. Stephen Birmingham weaves a vibrant tapestry of the Sephardic experience in America, working in threads of their history in medieval Europe as he depicts the lives of these extraordinary Americans.
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America's Sephardic Elite
By Stephen Birmingham
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1971 Stephen Birmingham
All rights reserved.
In 1960, there appeared what must have been one of the least heralded books in the history of American publishing. It was called Americans of Jewish Descent, and was put together — not "written" exactly — by a scholarly New Yorker named Malcolm H. Stern. The book consisted almost entirely of genealogical charts, and represented a labor of mindboggling proportions.
Americans of Jewish Descent weighs close to ten pounds and is beautifully bound and printed on heavy, expensive stock. It is just over three hundred pages long, including an elaborate index, and traces the ancestry of some 25,000 American Jewish individuals back into the eighteenth, seventeenth, and even the sixteenth centuries, under family headings that list everyone from the Aarons to the Zuntzes. It was never intended to be a best seller; a limited first edition of just 550 numbered copies was printed. Nonetheless, though unheralded, unacclaimed by the critics, and unnoticed by the vast majority of the American reading public, the book created an immediate and profound stir among a small group of American Jews who had long considered themselves an elite, the nobility of Jewry, with the longest, richest, most romantic history: the Sephardim. They were the oldest American Jewish families, and they traced themselves back to the arrival of what has been called the "Jewish Mayflower," in 1654, and even farther back to medieval Spain and Portugal, where they lived as princes of the land. Despite its price — forty dollars — and its size, the book was soon gracing the coffee tables and bookshelves of some of the most elegant and prestigious houses in the country and a second printing was ordered. The book was suddenly The Book, and was being studied for the tiny errors that appeared, almost inevitably, in a volume of this one's size and scope — three centuries of interconnected family trees.
The Book created no stir at all among Sephardic Jews who lived not at elegant or prestigious addresses but in Sephardic communities in such places as Cedarhurst, Long Island, and The Bronx. These Sephardim had no Jewish Mayflower to trace back to, no ancestors who had fought in the American Revolution. They had arrived in the United States, under quite different circumstances and after a quite different history, during the first three decades of the twentieth century and as refugees from the fires of revolutions in Turkey, the Balkans, and Asia Minor. They had spent the first generation of their emigration struggling to emerge from the ghetto of New York's Lower East Side. Had they had access to Malcolm Stern's book, it would merely have confirmed the impression among these Sephardim that the old Sephardim were the ultimate snobs, who treated all Jews of lesser vintage with condescension, aloofness, and utter disdain. Americans of Jewish Descent includes only those Americans descended from Jews who arrived in the United States before 1840. All who arrived since are thereby automatically excluded from the vellum pages and, as it were, the club.
What Dr. Stern had done, intentionally or not, was to compose a curious combination of a Jewish Who's Who and Social Register — fatter than the former, much harder to get into than the latter. The Book immediately emphasized a distinction which everyone knew existed but which most people preferred not to talk about, between the old, established Jewish families and the Johnny-come-lately arrivals, the distinguished upper crust and the brash parvenus. With its 1840 cutoff date, Dr. Stern's book eliminates, as he explains in a preface, "the large migration of German Jews in the 1840's, which achieved its greatest impetus following the European revolutions of 1848." Dr. Stern says that this date is "arbitrary," but it isn't really, because it eliminates those Jews to whom the Sephardim consider themselves specifically and emphatically superior. These are the "upstarts" — Kuhns, Loebs, Schiffs, Warburgs, Lehmans, Guggenheims, and their like — who achieved such importance in banking and commerce in the latter part of the nineteenth century; who, by the sheer force of their money, grew to dominate the American Jewish community; and whom the older-established Sephardim therefore looked down upon and actively resented. The Germans have been not only upstarts but usurpers.
Though he does not make a point of this, the 1840 cutoff also makes it possible for Dr. Stern himself to slip under the wire and into the privileged pages. He descends from one Jacob Stern, who emigrated to Newark in 1837 — from Germany, of all places.
With the publication of Dr. Stern's book, small nuances of Jewish social position were reversed overnight. In New York, for example, there had always been a difference in social weight between the two unrelated Loeb families who headed two rival banking houses — Kuhn, Loeb & Company and Loeb, Rhoades & Company. The former were considered "old Loebs," and the latter "new Loebs" (they were sometimes labeled "real Loebs" and "not real Loebs"), since one family had arrived perhaps thirty years earlier than the other. Dr. Stern's book, however, sensationally revealed that the new Loebs were actually older than the old ones, by virtue of a grandmother who was descended from an old, genteel, if slightly impoverished, southern family named Moses. This didn't make the Loebs Sephardim exactly, but it got them in The Book, and the old "old" Loebs were not admitted. The banker John L. Loeb, of the new "old" Loebs, promptly bought a number of copies of The Book and sent them to friends — including quite a few Christians whom, in his researches, Dr. Stern had discovered to be of Jewish descent. To a few of the latter Dr. Stern's book must have come as something of a shock.
Who would expect, for example, to find the Rockefellers in The Book? They are there, along with such old-family members of American society as the DeLanceys, the Livingstons, the Goodwins, the Stevensons, the Ingersolls, the Lodges, the Ten Eycks, the Tiffanys, the Van Rensselaers, the Hopkins, and the Baltimore McBlairs.
The Book made it clear that there were also two kinds of Lazaruses — the old and the new. The old, who include the poet Emma Lazarus, and who for many years were among the very few Jews who summered splendidly in Newport, are prominently in The Book. The new, who include the wealthy owners of Federated Department Stores, are not. Similarly, though the name Levy is now a common Jewish name in America, there are certain Sephardic Levys who stem from an extremely old family. One of the first Jews to set foot on American soil was one of these Levys; they went into fur trading, banking, and government service, and had nothing to do with making rye bread.
Barnaby Conrad, the author, was startled to find his name in The Book. His family, socially prominent in San Francisco, had always boasted of its descent from Martha Custis, whose second marriage was to George Washington. Yet one of Conrad's many-times-great grandfathers was one of those early Levys. Discovering this, Mr. Conrad had his genealogy Xeroxed and mailed to several of his family-proud relatives. His mother's comment was: "At least we were good Jews."
In New York society, a rumor had long existed that the Vanderbilts were Jewish. Dr. Stern's book was no sooner out than it was confirmed that some of them indeed were. Mrs. William A. M. Burden, whose husband had recently been appointed U.S. ambassador to Belgium by President Eisenhower, was in The Book. Mr. Burden's mother was the former Florence Vanderbilt Twombly, and of course the Burdens were members of a long list of New York clubs that traditionally have been closed to Jews, including the Brook, the Links, the Racquet and Tennis, and the River. Once again, it was those Levys at work high up in Mrs. Burden's family tree. In 1779, it seemed, Abigail Levy married a Dr. Lyde Goodwin. Was Dr. Goodwin also Jewish? Perhaps, because for some reason one of his sons, Charles Ridgely Goodwin, changed his name to Charles Goodwin Ridgely. He married a Livingston; their daughter married a Schott; their daughter married another Schott; and their daughter married a Partridge, Mrs. Burden's father. When this was pointed out to her, and that Jewishness is said, by tradition, to descend from the distaff side of a union — as it would appear to do in her case — Mrs. Burden said politely, "Thank you very much for telling me."
Americans of Jewish Descent is, in a sense, a cross-reference to The Social Register, since whenever names listed in Americans are also listed in the Register,this fact is noted. But Americans contains information that is a good deal more personal and gossipy, and states its facts with much more bluntness, than its non-Jewish counterpart. For example, spinsters are pointedly labeled "Unmarried," and as deaths have occurred not only the fact but the manner of death is indicated. Next to the name of the deceased one can find such notations as "Drowned," "Suicide," or "Murdered." As listees in The Book have become baptized, this has been noted, but sometimes the information provided is quite arbitrary. Next to the name of Rebecca Franks, for instance, in addition to her dates — "B. 1760, Philadelphia, D. Mar. 1823, Bath, England" — and her marriage to Sir Henry Johnson is the cryptic comment "Meschianza," which turns out merely to refer to a large party that Miss Franks attended during the American Revolution. Some of Dr. Stern's remarks seem to verge on the libelous. The word "Insane" appears after a number of names. Again in the Franks family, he notes that Caiman Solomons was "in bad repute with Jacob Franks," who was his uncle but obviously some family father figure. Referring to Caiman's brother Moses (a bad strain in the Franks family here, quite obviously), Americans of Jewish Descent advises that he died "in Charleston, S.C. Debtor's Prison, 1745." Dr. Stern also makes, or appears to make, social value judgments such as when, in the case of DeWitt Clinton Judah, he notes that Mr. Judah was married, but omits the wife's name with this comment: "An Irish cook."
The Book shows that the earliest generations of Sephardim in America were astonishingly prolific, with twelve, fifteen, and even twenty children to a marriage. When Ziporah Levy Hendricks died in 1832, she had fifteen children and no less than seventy grandchildren. Remembering family birthdays was no problem because one occurred nearly every week. Frances Nathan Wolff had, in the Hart-Seixas-Nathan-Hendricks family complex, ninety-nine first cousins. Gershom Mendes Seixas, born in New York in 1746, one of a modest brood of eight children, eventually fathered sixteen of his own. His younger brother, Benjamin, not to be outdone, had twenty-one. As a result, today there are thousands who can claim some degree of kinship to one or more Seixases.
From the very beginning, a tight pattern of intramural marriages was formed. Today the intermarriages between members of the Jewish first families present a dizzyingly labyrinthine design. Amelia Lazarus, for example, nee Tobias, had six brothers and sisters, no less than four of whom married Hendrickses. One brother married a Hendricks first then, for his second wife, he chose another Tobias. The Hendrickses, meanwhile, were every bit as loyal. Uriah Hendricks, whose first wife was a Gomez, and whose second was a Lopez, had ten children, two of whom married Gomezes. In the next generation, the thirteen children of Harmon Hendricks married, among others, two Tobias sisters, two Tobias brothers, a Gomez first cousin, and two Nathans. And consider the descendants of Abraham de Lucena, one of the earliest arrivals. In the first American generation of the distaff side — his daughter married a Gomez — there were three Gomez-Hendricks marriages; in the next, there were four Hendricks-Tobias unions, two Hendricks-Nathan marriages, two Gomez-Dreyfous marriages, and one Gomez-Nathan marriage. Meanwhile, Gomezes were marrying other Gomezes, and a disturbing pattern of insanity — clear from Dr. Stern's book — that began to appear did not seem to discourage these close unions.
A measure of the intricacy of the interrelationships may be grasped by considering that the 25,000 individuals listed in Malcolm Stern's book are all grouped under a little more than two hundred family dynasties. It is no exaggeration to say that, today, all the descendants of the early Jewish families are, in some way, related to one another. The late Lafayette Goldstone, a retired New York architect, was so fascinated with his Sephardic wife's elaborate ancestry that, suspecting that she was indeed related to everybody else, he attempted to plot all the American Sephardim on one large, all-encompassing chart. Years, and hundreds of charts, later, he was forced to admit that the tightly inter-knotted families had presented him with a task that could not be executed.
Dr. Stern's book also reveals how, through the long corridor of years, the Sephardic Jewish community in America — from the tight-knit, proud entity it once was — has steadily lost members as Sephardim have turned from Judaism to Christianity. The Book shows that prior to 1840 more than 15 percent of the marriages recorded were between Jews and Christians, and that of the total number of mixed marriages only 8 percent involved the conversion of the non-Jew to Judaism; members of only another 5 percent showed any indication of wishing to remain identified as Jews, or as members of the Jewish community. At the same time, as the years pass, and the Sephardic family trees stretch their branches downward into the present, one begins to see another phenomenon. The old Sephardic names with their Spanish and Portuguese musicality — Lopez, Mendes, Mendola, de Sola, de Silva, de Fonseca, Peixotto, Solis — begin gradually to be replaced by the somewhat harsher-sounding Ashkenazic, or German, names, as the old Iberian families feel the influx of the Germans throughout the nineteenth century, as the Sephardim and Ashkenazim intermarry and the Germans — as the Sephardim complain — try to "dominate" with their stiff-necked ways.
But the processes of Germanization and Christianization have by no means been complete. The old Sephardic families continue to compose a tight-knit, proud, and aristocratic elite who know who is "one of us" and who is not; who see each other at weddings, coming-out parties, and funerals; and who worship, with their own particular variations in the orthodox Jewish service, at the Spanish and Portuguese synagogues such as New York's Shearith Israel, the oldest in the United States. They lead lives of wealth, exclusivity, privacy, a privacy so deep and so complete that few people remember that they still exist — which is just what the Sephardim prefer, for the Sephardim have by nature been shy, reticent, the opposite of showy.CHAPTER 2
WHO ARE THEY?
How much each person knows and understands about the past is one of the great preoccupations of the Sephardim everywhere. With some, it is a hobby; with others, an obsession. This is very Jewish. After all, the concept of zekhut avot, or ancestral merit, is said to provide the spiritual capital of the Jewish people. In this is embodied the idea that the past must be correctly interpreted in order that it can be passed on to enrich future generations. But there are also strong overtones here of a belief in predestination — that meritorious ancestors offer a kind of guarantee that their descendants will be meritorious also.
When one is dealing with hundreds of years of family history, and when family history relates to political and religious history, confusions and contradictions are bound to arise. And when family histories interconnect and tangle in such a variety of ways as they do within the Sephardic community, and as they have done for centuries, there are bound to be jealousies and rivalries and no small amount of bickering. This makes the Sephardic community a lively place. Where everyone professes to be an expert on the past, and where everyone wants to claim the best ancestors — and where there are many claimants for the same people — everyone must be on his toes.
Take New York's Nathan family. The Nathans are indirectly descended from Abraham de Lucena, one of the first Jews to set foot on American soil in 1655, and, in the process of their long history in this country, the Nathans are now "connected," if not directly related, to all the other old families — the Seixases, the Gomezes, the Hendrickses, the de Silvas, the Solises, and Philadelphia's distinguished Solis-Cohens. Like Massachusetts Adamses, Nathans have managed to produce men of stature in almost every generation. These have included such figures as the late New York State Justice Edgar J. Nathan, Jr., who was also Manhattan borough president under Mayor La Guardia, and United States Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Nathan Cardozo, and — looking further back — Rabbi Gershom Mendes Seixas, called "the patriot rabbi," who was the spiritual leader of Shearith Israel during the American Revolution. During the war, he closed his synagogue in New York and moved the congregation to Philadelphia rather than ask his flock to pray for George III. Later, he assisted at George Washington's inauguration. His niece, Sarah, married a cousin, Mendes Seixas Nathan, a banker who was one of the little group who gathered one day under a buttonwood tree in lower Manhattan to draw up the constitution of the New York Stock Exchange. Annie Nathan Meyer, the founder of Barnard College, who was a granddaughter of Isaac Mendes Seixas Nathan, once wrote: "Looking back on it, it seems to me that this intense pride, accompanied by a strong sense of noblesse oblige among the Sephardim was the nearest approach to royalty in the United States. The Nathan family possessed this distinguishing trait to a high degree." As a child, she recalled, the subject of cheating at school came up. She never forgot her mother's clipped comment: "Nathans don't cheat."
Excerpted from The Grandees by Stephen Birmingham. Copyright © 1971 Stephen Birmingham. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Meet the Author
Stephen Birmingham is a preeminent social historian, known for his books The Right People, Real Lace, and The Grandees. He allows his reader unparalleled access to the most exclusive society sets, and tells their stories with great warmth and wit.
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