The Jewish Americans: Three Centuries of Jewish Voices in America

The Jewish Americans: Three Centuries of Jewish Voices in America

by Beth Wenger


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385521390
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/23/2007
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 8.24(w) x 10.28(h) x 1.12(d)

About the Author

In addition to authoring The Jewish Americans, Beth S. Wenger served on the board of distinguished scholars who advised the PBS series. She holds the Katz Family Chair in American Jewish History and is Associate Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, where she serves as Director of the Jewish Studies Program. Wenger is the author of New York Jews and the Great Depression: Uncertain Promise (1996) which was awarded the Salo Baron Prize in Jewish History. The author of numerous scholarly articles, Wenger also co-edited Remembering the Lower East Side: American Jewish Reflections (2000) and “Holy Land:” Place, Past, and Future in American Jewish Culture (1997). Wenger serves on the board of the Association for Jewish Studies and she is also a member of the academic advisory boards of the Center for Jewish History, the American Jewish Historical Society, and the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

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The Jewish Americans

Three Centuries of Jewish Voices in America
By Beth Wenger


Copyright © 2007 Beth Wenger
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780385521390

1654 1880

When Twenty-three Jews arrived in New Amsterdam (later to become New York) in 1654, they not only found themselves in an unfamiliar New World, but also in a land with no established Jewish community. Coming from European countries where the Jewish community regulated virtually all aspects of religious, social, and economic life, these Jews and those who followed in subsequent years encountered an unprecedented challenge that would characterize the first two centuries of Jewish life in America: How would Jews build a community and culture from the ground up? Even more daunting, how would that Jewish community function when it had virtually no restrictions imposed upon it by the government—and where individual Jews and Jewish institutions had, for the first time, complete freedom to shape Jewish life on their own terms? The encounter with freedom defined the course of American Jewish history and resulted in the most unique, innovative, and diverse culture that Jews had ever known.

The twenty-three Jews who initiated the opening chapter of Jewish history in the colonies hardly had freedom granted to them immediately. These Jews had fled theisland of Recife when the Portuguese seized it from the Dutch. They took refuge aboard the Sainte Catherine, which happened to be sailing for New Amsterdam. Governor Peter Stuyvesant, who ruled the Dutch–owned colony, wanted to refuse them admission and requested that his superiors in Holland prohibit Jews from settling in New Amsterdam. Stuyvesant insisted that “the deceitful race,” “the hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ” would only bring harm the new colony. (1) But the Jewish settlers contacted fellow Jews in Amsterdam, who successfully petitioned the Dutch West India Company to overrule Stuyvesant’s pleas.

Because Jews had been loyal and economically productive residents of Holland, the Dutch believed they could be the same in the fledgling colony and ruled that Jews would be welcome to live and work in New Amsterdam. This did not mean that Jews received immediate equality or freedom in the New World; they encountered a number of restrictions on their economic and religious activity as well as limitations on office–holding and public service. Over the years, they petitioned and gradually won most rights of trade and commerce. They were allowed to construct a Jewish cemetery not long after arriving—a pressing need for any new Jewish community and usually the first collective act taken by Jews in each new settlement in colonial America. Jews received the right to worship in private homes relatively quickly, but it took almost thirty years for the community to receive permission to worship publicly, even after the British took over the colony in 1664 and renamed it New York. Jews were not the only group to face such restrictions in colonial America; in fact, many Christian denominations encountered even greater limitations on the practice of their religion, depending on which established church was in control at a given time. There remained many legal obstacles to overcome, but Jews proved willing to press for greater rights, constantly petitioning individual cases and in most cases succeeding in their efforts.

Despite lingering disabilities, Jews lived securely and relatively freely in the New World. There were so few Jews in the colonies that they generally attracted little attention. At the time of the American Revolution, more than a century after the first Jews arrived in New Amsterdam,
the Jewish population likely numbered about 2,000 out of a general population of roughly 2.5 million. To lend greater perspective, approximately 242 Jews resided in New York in 1773, constituting the largest Jewish population center at the time. (2) The Sephardim, or Iberian Jews, were the first to settle in the colonies and they remained the elites for more than two generations. All the colonial synagogues practiced Sephardic rite, despite the fact that by 1720, Ashkenazim, Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, made up the majority of the Jewish population, as they would for the duration of American Jewish history.

The first Jews settled largely in port cities along the East Coast in colonies, and later states, with the most liberal policies of toleration. In the young, developing frontier of early America, Jews constructed new lives in an unprecedented environment, in a country with no legacy of a medieval past and comparatively few restrictions on their individual and communal rights. Those who ventured to this untested terrain spent their first years in America preoccupied with making a living and establishing the rudiments of a Jewish community.

The tiny Jewish settlements of the nascent United States functioned as satellites of the larger, more established Jewish communities in England and Holland. The Atlantic Jewish world of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries consisted of interconnected, interdependent Jewish communities throughout the New World, with London and Amsterdam as the anchors. For more than a century, early America was simply one of many outposts, along with Jamaica,
Barbados, Suriname, and Curaçao; in fact, the American colonies began as the smallest and least developed of the newly emerging communities. Economic ties linked Jewish communities and Jewish families across the ocean and throughout the New World. Indeed, the colonial Jewish economy could be described using family names, such as Lopez, Seixas, Gomez, and Hendricks, whose family connections crossed both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and extended up and down the East Coast, fortified by marriages, sibling cooperation, and intricate family ties. Ocean commerce created the nexus of the Jewish economy. Shipping records from the period reveal that Jews depended on trade and cooperation with one another. They traded sugar, furniture, candles, horses, all sorts of meat and fish, barley, rice, and a host of other goods. Some colonial Jews did transport slaves to the New World, though it was hardly a dominant area of trade. While most inhabitants of early America engaged in agrarian pursuits, Jews gravitated toward commerce and used their international connections to build the emerging economy. The unprecedented level of tolerance that Jews found in the New World owed largely to their economic contributions. As one historian has explained, “trade made the colonies and Jews made trade.” (3)

Religious observance could be a challenge in early America. By all accounts, many Jews exhibited a certain laxity in keeping the Sabbath and following the Jewish dietary laws (kashrut), especially outside their own homes. At the same time, a concerted effort to maintain Jewish practice also existed among the first Jewish generations in America. Life in the New World offered some the first opportunity to live openly as Jews. Aaron Lopez, one of the most successful merchants in Newport, had been born a Catholic to a family living under the Portuguese Inquisition, but once in the colonies reclaimed his Judaism, submitted to circumcision as an adult, and faithfully practiced Judaism throughout his life. (4) The value placed on Jewish observance can be seen in the number of Jews who journeyed across the ocean with cherished ritual objects, such as Shabbat candles and Kiddush cups. In virtually every sizeable community, Jews built a mikveh (ritual bath), established the means to obtain kosher meat through a shochet (ritual slaughterer), and created synagogues as soon as they had the legal and financial ability to do so.

Observing Jewish law was easier in the larger Jewish communities than in the outlying areas of early America. Writing to her parents in Germany in the early 1700s, Rebecca Samuel lamented the lack of Jewish practice in the small town of Petersburg, Virginia, where she lived. She complained that local Jews kept their businesses open on Saturdays and worshipped without even a Torah scroll on Rosh Hashanah. “Jewishness is pushed aside here…I crave to see a synagogue to which I can go,” Samuel reported, informing her parents that she and her family would soon relocate to the larger Jewish community of Charleston, South Carolina. (5)

In the first century after Jewish arrival, congregations sprang up in the port cities of New York, Newport, Savannah, Philadelphia, and Charleston. When they raised sufficient funds to construct houses of worship, the Jews of these communities built synagogues in the architectural styles of the times; they reflected traditional Jewish custom and design on the inside but contained no outward signs to mark the buildings as Jewish congregations, blending unobtrusively into the American environment. Just as they did in the arena of commerce, Jews relied on mutual support to create and sustain the first synagogues. In 1759, when the Jews of Newport set out to build a synagogue, they turned to the more established congregation in New York “for charitable assistance towards carrying on this work,” and the Jewish New Yorkers complied. Some thirty years earlier, Jews from London, Jamaica, Curaçao and Barbados had done the same for New York when it built its first synagogue. (6) Within the Atlantic world, Torah scrolls, religious ornaments, and other necessities were regularly donated and exchanged to fortify fledgling Jewish communities.

No rabbis lived or worked regularly in the United States until 1840, so for almost 200 years, congregations relied entirely on lay leadership. If they had questions about Jewish law, Jews sent them to rabbinic authorities in Europe. Throughout the eighteenth century, synagogues remained the central Jewish institutions in America, and with only one in each community, they operated as monopolies. Synagogues controlled the Jewish cemetery, paid the shochet who provided kosher meat, offered rudimentary Jewish education to children, and supervised every Jewish life cycle event from the cradle to the grave. New York’s Shearith Israel (Remnant of Israel) congregation initially managed its synagogue affairs according to the European paradigm, exerting supreme control over its members. The congregation exacted fines for all sorts of transgressions, from violating the Sabbath to failing to attend meetings. The synagogue mandated that any Jew who contravened Jewish law would be expelled from the synagogue and excluded from crucial benefits of membership, including burial in the cemetery. Synagogue leaders insisted on the right to tax all Jewish residents in the area, and then to impose penalties on all who failed to pay. (7) Such policies reflected the standard method employed by synagogues in Europe. European governments mandated and recognized an official Jewish community to regulate all Jewish affairs, enabling synagogues to exercise complete authority over Jewish behavior. But in colonial America and later in the United States, the government never sanctioned an official community, so the synagogue could not wield the same authority. In the eighteenth century, when communities remained under the control of only one synagogue, congregations still retained a degree of power over individual Jews, at least over any who wanted the privileges and services controlled by the congregation. Yet Shearith Israel’s increasingly harsh regulations reveal a tenor of anxiety and a loss of power over New York Jews, indicating that attempts to regulate Jewish behavior in America were not succeeding. The European model of Jewish communal life would not survive in a nation where participation in the Jewish community was entirely voluntary.

America’s open society presented both opportunities and challenges for Jewish communal life and for individual Jews. The small number of Jews in early America and the environment of tolerance meant that Jews and non–Jews interacted on a regular basis. Portraits commissioned by Jews in this period suggest that they had abandoned any sort of distinctive dress. Men shaved their beards, and married Jewish women no longer covered their hair. Their letters reveal that they maintained friendships with non–Jews and participated with them in social and cultural activities. With few barriers to limit social contact and a scarcity of eligible marriage partners, Jewish intermarriage rates remained relatively high through the years of the early republic, reaching perhaps 10 to 15 percent.8 Some Jews sought Jewish marriage partners in Europe; some remained unmarried, but a significant minority found non-Jewish partners. In 1742, when Phila Franks, daughter of successful New York merchant couple Abigail and Jacob Franks, secretly married Oliver DeLancey, son of a prominent non-Jewish family, her mother was grief-stricken. A devout Jew, scrupulous in her observance, Abigail Franks had often written to her son, reminding him to be meticulous in his Jewish practice, and she simply could not abide her daughter’s intermarriage. Upon learning the news, she refused to leave her home and vowed never to see her daughter again. “I am determined,” she wrote to her son, “I never will see nor lett none of the family goe near her.”9 While Abigail Franks remained devastated by her daughter’s choice, the fact that Phila Franks and other Jews of the period married outside their faith demonstrates the unprecedented level of acceptance that Jews experienced in early America.

While Jews worked to maintain Jewish identity and formulate new models of Jewish community, they also endeavored to become full participants in the new society taking shape around them. In colonial America, naturalization and voting rights were granted to Jews in piecemeal fashion, varying from colony to colony and improving gradually over time. The American Revolution provided the first opportunity for Jews to stake a broader claim in what would become the United States. Though Jews fought on both sides of the conflict, most supported the cause of independence. As merchants, Jews had reason to resist Britain’s restrictive economic policies and to feel some allegiance to the revolutionary impulse. Some Jewish men fought in the Revolutionary War. Colonel Isaac Franks and Major Benjamin Nones served alongside George Washington; twenty or thirty Jewish men from Charleston battled the British during the siege of the city. Even those who did not fight demonstrated commitment to the Revolution in other ways. As a show of support for the cause, the Jews of New York and Rhode Island left their homes en masse when the British occupied their cities.


Excerpted from The Jewish Americans by Beth Wenger Copyright © 2007 by Beth Wenger. Excerpted by permission.
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