The Jews in America

The Jews in America

by Max I. Dimont

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781497626997
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 06/10/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 285,273
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Max I. Dimont’s Jews, God, and History, with more than a million and a half copies in print, has been acclaimed the “best popular history of the Jews written in the English language.” It answers the questions of the layman searching for an interpretation and understanding of events and facts covering four thousand years of Jewish and world history. The author’s unique approach to his subject is continued in The Indestructible Jews, The Jews in America, and The Amazing Adventures of the Jewish People. His last book, Appointment in Jerusalem, was published, after twenty years of research, shortly before his death in 1992.

Read an Excerpt

The Jews in America

The Roots, History, and Destiny of American Jews

By Max I. Dimont


Copyright © 1978 Max Dimont
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-2699-7


Grandees and Marranos

The usual way to present the early history of the Jews in America is to tell of the twenty-three hapless, poverty-stricken faith-laden Jews who arrived one September day in 1654 on a French bark in the Dutch harbor of New York, then known as New Amsterdam, where they were met by a governor named Peter Stuyvesant, who told them to get out, presumably because he was an anti-Semite. The trouble is that, except for the year, the place, and the name of the governor, it is not quite true.

These Jews were not the first to arrive in the Colonies; there had been Jews in the Colonies as early as 1621. Those who arrived in 1654 had not always been paupers, but were educated and formerly wealthy merchants. They were not pious Talmudic Jews; some were worldly Sephardi Jews and others were the descendants of Marranos. And Stuyvesant was not an anti-Semite but an ordinary bigot who feared Catholics and Lutherans more than he disliked Jews.

This account raises some interesting questions. Where did these twenty-three Marrano and Sephardi Jews come from? How did they get there? Why did they leave? And what are Marranos and Sephardim?

The answers are even more interesting. These Jews came from South America, where they had been prosperous entrepreneurs; they were fleeing from the Inquisition, which had earlier forced them to leave Spain and Portugal. The Marranos were Sephardi (that is, Spanish or Portuguese) Jews who had converted to Christianity or were descendants of such converts.

Because this thread of Jewish history is woven into the subsequent history of the Jews in America, we must unravel it to find our way out of the labyrinth of events that took the Jews from Spain and Portugal to South America, and from there to New Amsterdam.

Jews had settled in Spain as early as the first century a.d., during its occupation by the Romans. It is said that St. James himself had preached the Gospel in Spain. But this fact had no effect on the Jews until the late sixth century, when Reccared, the Visigothic king of Spain, added force to persuasion. The Jews, who thought they had hit bottom with the Reccared persecutions, had not reckoned with a later king, Sisebut (612–620), who found a slack in the Reccared screws. He tightened them with his edict (616) that all Jews who had escaped baptism under Reccared must embrace Christianity or be banished with loss of all property. Though the Jews called this period "The First Evil," most chose conversion to expulsion. Over ninety thousand Jews—virtually the entire Jewish population in Spain in that century—embraced Christianity.

But Christianity had only a century in which to capture the minds and hearts of these reluctant converts. The Muslim conquest of the Iberian peninsula in 711 put an end to the forcible conversion of the Jews. The conquering Arabs did not care what religion their subjects professed, so long as all "nonbelievers" paid a special tax. Under their five-hundred-year rule there emerged what has been called the "Spain of three religions and one bedroom"—a Spain where Muslims, Christians, and Jews shared a brilliant civilization that blended their cultures, bloodlines, and religions.

Under Muslim rule, Spain became the most civilized country in the Western world. Jews helped usher in a five-century age of splendor and learning; they soared to the highest posts as diplomats, professionals, and entrepreneurs. In Muslim Spain there dawned a Golden Age of Jewish creativity, an age that spawned not only renowned Talmudists but also brilliant secular poets, philosophers, grammarians, and scientists—an intellectual tour de force not equaled until modern times.

Jews who had been converted forcibly to Christianity by the Visigoths now had five centuries in which to make up their minds about returning to Talmudic Judaism. Though many of these converts and their descendants did return to orthodox Judaism, many did not. Most did not like orthodox Judaism any more than they liked Catholic Christianity. They became the cynics of their age, believing neither in the virgin birth nor in the divine origin of the Talmud. Many became cosmopolitan world citizens, moving with aplomb in the courts of viziers and grandees, marrying into the families of both. It was these converts who were destined to form the nucleus of a most vexing problem in Christian Spain.

By 1250, the Reconquista, the two-century Christian reconquest of Spain, was all but complete. At first Jewish life and scholarship continued to flourish under the Cross as they had under the Crescent. As Christians resettled the reconquered territories, however, hostility rose against the entrenched Jewish intellectual and social establishment. In 1350, the Spanish began a series of conversion drives to convert all Jews in Spain to Christianity. In unprecedented numbers, and with little resistance, the Jews converted. This event, unparalleled in Jewish history, is perhaps best summed up by Cecil Roth in A History of the Marranos: "In some places the Jews did not wait for the application of compulsion, but anticipated the popular attack by coming forward spontaneously, clamoring for admission to the Church. All told, the number of conversions in the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile were reckoned at the improbable figure of two hundred thousand. It was a phenomenon unique in the whole of Jewish history."

What caused this rush to mass conversion before any real danger confronted the Jews? Centuries of well-being in Spain had made the Jews reluctant to face penury and refugeeism. Expulsions from England, France, and many of the German states had cut off old avenues of escape. But perhaps the most overriding reason is the one stressed by Roth: "It was not difficult for insincere, temporizing Jews to become insincere, temporizing Christians."

Thus, from 1400 on, a new state of Jewish affairs existed in Spain. There were at least some 250,000 unconverted Jews and a like number of converted ones. It is difficult to assess accurately the Jewish population in Spain in the fifteenth century. Estimates have ranged from 250,000 to 1 million Jews, both converted and unconverted. We believe that there were from 500,000 to 600,000 Jews. As time went by, the converted Jews and their descendants were increasingly suspected of not being truly Christian at heart. Ironically, forced baptisms had converted a large proportion of Jews from "infidels" outside the Church to "heretics" inside it.

The usual portrait painted of these converted Jews, or Marranos, is that of pious Jews forcibly converted to Christianity and forcibly kept in the Christian fold. According to this view, the love of these Marranos for Judaism was so great that at the risk of their lives they continued to practice their religion in secret.

But this view of the Marranos runs counter to a puzzling fact—that of the word "Marrano" itself. The Spanish did not call the converted Jews "Marranos." They called them conversos (the converted), or nefiti (the neophytes), or "New Christians." It was the unconverted Jews who called the converted Jews "Marranos," a Spanish word meaning "swine." The unconverted Jews seemingly had no love, only contempt, for the converted Jews, degrading them with a most derisive epithet. They apparently viewed these Marranos not as fellow Jews in distress but as hypocritical apostates. Had the Marranos been converted under imminent threat of torture, Jewish history would have bestowed upon them the term anusim, the "forced ones." This is the Hebrew word used for more than fifteen hundred years to describe such forced converts.

Thus, for the modern historian, the shining image of the Marrano as a beloved Jewish brother in distress has become a bit tarnished. It is difficult for such a historian to visualize the head of a Marrano household attending the wedding of his daughter to a Catholic grandee one week and then secretly preparing for his son's bar mitzvah in a dank cellar a week later.

A new historic view of the Marranos is that many did not lead heroic, submerged Jewish lives but wanted to remain Catholic. According to this interpretation, the entire Inquisitorial procedure was a tragic hoax perpetrated by the Spanish bureaucracy in order to proceed against the Marranos, condemn them, and thus enrich itself with the spoils.

The Marrano problem might have been one of class rather than religion. The Marranos, some historians now believe, had perhaps been denounced by the Old Christians not because of suspicion of the sincerity of their religious beliefs but out of envy of their wealth. The reason the Marranos often confessed to Judaizing was to escape the tortures of the Inquisition.

*Roth cites this story by Manasseh ben Israel: A Portuguese nobleman, whose personal physician had confessed under torture to "Judaizing," ordered the Inquisitor himself seized, and then extracted from him a similar confession with the aid of the same torture. For more material on this subject, see Roth's bibliography and footnotes to A History of the Marranos, which are as fascinating as they are enlightening.

Many first-generation converts were sincere; many were not. But both groups, sincere or insincere, lived as Christians, baptized their children, took them to church, and had them married by priests. The havoc was not created by this first generation of converts. The havoc came with the children who were baptized at birth. All doors were open to them—university, army, court, even the Church itself. They were liberated from the legal, cultural, and religious restraints that set the unconverted Jews apart from the rest of society. These children and grandchildren of the Marranos entered Christian society with enthusiasm. And thus the history of the Jews in Muslim Spain was recapitulated in Christian Spain. By virtue of their learning and sophistication they again rose to positions of great wealth, power, and prestige. They married into the noblest Christian families. Not only did they become grandees, but they also penetrated into the highest Church circles, becoming bishops and archbishops. In fact, according to Roth, "within a few generations there was barely a single aristocratic family in Aragon from the royal house downward which was free from the 'taint' of Jewish blood."

The success of the Marranos proved to be their undoing. Their prominence was galling to the "Old Christians"—the Christians who had no Jewish ancestry—who could not attain the lofty positions held by so many "New Christians." The Old Christians were also incensed by the insincere piety of the New Christians. And many orthodox (that is, unconverted) Jews, were enraged at seeing their Judaism flouted by these worldly, converted Jews. It was at this time in history, in the first half of the fifteenth century, that the epithet "Marrano" was first flung at the New Christians by the unconverted Jews.

As the Marranos grew more powerful, coming to dominate Spanish social and economic life, resentment against these "Jews in Christian clothes" increased and flared into hatred. The Old Christians claimed that the New Christians were not loyal to the Church, that they were in fact "Judaizing" it, turning it into a "Jewish institution." To stop this trend, the Old Christians held that mere ability should not determine fitness to hold high office. The criterion, they claimed, should be limpieza de sangre—"purity of blood." Only those whose ancestry reached back to Visigothic times had "pure" blood. This concept of "purity of blood," first adopted in Toledo in 1449, was to become, four centuries later, the basis for modern racism.

*"In the literature of the Church Fathers, both in the Latin and the Greek, the term 'Judaizing' ... denotes the policy of imitation of Jewish ideas, practices and customs...."—Louis Israel Newman, Jewish Influence on Christian Reform Movements.

So persistent was the cry of the Old Christians for a litmus test of limpieza before appointment to high office that many New Christians, fearful of this threat, clamored for an Inquisition to examine their beliefs and certify them as loyal Christians. The stage was now set for the Inquisition and Torquemada, the chief inquisitor. The Pope opposed the Inquisition, but so strong was public sentiment in its favor that he was openly defied until he eventually gave his approval.

Torquemada was not a racist bent on extermination of the Jews; he was a bigot concerned with stamping out heresy. Just as Robespierre quoted Rousseau while sending noblemen to the guillotine, so Torquemada quoted the Gospel as he sent heretics to the autos-da-fé. Those brought before the Inquisition and burned at these "acts-of-faith" were Old Christians, New Christians, and converted Muslims condemned for heresy. Jews and Muslims who had kept their own faiths were not brought before the Inquisition, nor were they burned.

But whether the Inquisition was instituted for religious or economic reasons, Torquemada did not demand the extermination of the unconverted Jews. He asked for their conversion or expulsion if they refused conversion, giving the Jews themselves the choice. No charge was brought against them other than that they were not Catholic. The same applied to the Muslims, who were expelled in like manner and in greater numbers than the Jews. In fact, the situation was much the same as that of the Huguenots in seventeenth-century France, when the choice given them by Louis XIV in 1685 was either acceptance of Catholicism or expulsion. Like the Jews, the Huguenots for the most part chose expulsion.

Jews who chose conversion could stay in Spain, and some fifty thousand, one fifth of the unconverted Jewish population, chose to convert rather than leave a land that had been their home for fifteen hundred years. The Jews expelled from Spain fled in all directions— to North Africa, to Holland, to South America, and to the Ottoman Empire. The majority of Spanish Jews, however, fled to Portugal, where new disasters awaited them.

Though the history of the Jews in Portugal recapitulates that of the Jews in Spain, the scenario there lagged a half century behind the Spanish one. After an initial honeymoon of tolerance in the late 1400s, conversion was forced upon the Jews in Portugal just as it had been in Spain. But the edicts, which forbade Jews to leave Portugal and restricted most of their economic activities, were soon rescinded. The Portuguese suddenly found themselves with an empire in Brazil, but with no entrepreneurial class other than the Jews who had the skill to exploit it commercially. Thus the decree of 1507 permitted the Jews what the decree of 1499 had prohibited. It was a Magna Carta for Jews and Marranos. Jews of whatever religious coloration could leave Portugal, trade, and buy property anywhere they wished. They took off, heading mainly for four places: the Ottoman Empire, Holland, the Dutch colonies, and Portuguese Brazil.

These Spanish and Portuguese Jewish refugees—Sephardim and Marranos—had several important characteristics in common. They were not the dregs of society. They were not peasants or an exploited proletariat. In the main they were members of an elite business and intellectual class. They had little or no ghetto heritage, for the ghetto did not exist to any great degree in either Spain or Portugal. They were not refugees searching for religious freedom, but entrepreneurs looking for economic opportunities. When they fled, or emigrated, or moved (according to circumstances), they brought few Torah scrolls and even fewer copies of the Talmud with them.

These Iberian Jews constituted a unique immigrant group in Jewish history. Piety was not their chief characteristic. True, the Jews of Spain and Portugal had a proud Mosaic heritage, but this heritage had been enriched by five centuries of Islamic learning, two centuries of Christian thought, adding up to seven centuries of cynicism and worldliness. It was the descendants of these Jews who came to settle in the American Colonies.

*Cecil Roth, when asked what he thought most Marranos knew of Judaism when they arrived in Amsterdam after their flight from Spain and Portugal, answered in one word, "Nothing."

By 1500, the race for empire in the New World was on. By 1500 Santo Domingo was Spain's first official New World colony; by 1535 most of the West Indies and Caribbean Islands and most of South America had been claimed by Spain. The conquest of Mexico began in 1518 and was concluded in 1535. Florida had fallen to the Spanish conquistadors by 1574.

Brazil, first discovered by the Spanish, was claimed by Portugal in 1500. Portuguese Jews—Sephardim and Marranos—settled in Brazil as early as 1503, before the decree of 1507 permitting them to emigrate, through one of those improbable turns of Jewish history. A Marrano buccaneer, Fernando de Loronha, agreed to explore three hundred leagues of the Brazilian coast every year, to build forts wherever he landed, and to claim the land for Portugal. In 1501, Loronha set sail for Brazil with five ships, and in 1503 his Marranos built their first fort on Brazilian soil in the name of King Manuel, their persecutor.


Excerpted from The Jews in America by Max I. Dimont. Copyright © 1978 Max Dimont. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


American Judaism: Wasteland or Renaissance?,
A Note to the Reader,
Grandees and Marranos,
The Transformation of the British Anglicans into Hebraic Puritans,
The Transformation of the Colonial Jews into "Puritan" Jews,
The Collective Colonial Experience,
From Moses Mendelssohn to Napoleon Bonaparte,
The Transformation of the Ashkenazi Jews into Congregational Jews,
The Rise And Fall Of German Scientific Judaism,
The Age of the American Reform Jews,
Sad Sacks And Intellectuals,
The Great Confrontation,
Revolt In the Shtetl,
The Great Awakening,
VI. The Unique and the Universal,
The Great Fusion,
Jews, God, and Destiny,
General Jewish History,
Religious and Philosophic Aspects of Jewish History,
Aspects of American and European History,

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