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Zion in America
The Jewish Experience from Colonial Times to the Present
By Henry L. Feingold
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Old World Background
WHEN THE JEWISH EXPERIENCE IN AMERICA IS COMPARED WITH JEWISH experience in other nations its uniqueness stands out in bold relief. One finds no evidence of expulsions or officially sanctioned pogroms and relatively few instances of restrictions and prohibitions and the numerous other travesties to which Jewish history is traditionally heir. Indeed when Louis Brandeis suggested, a generation ago, that "Jewish spirit and ideals" were never more in consonance with the "noblest aspirations" of the host country than they were between America and its Jews he was pointing out the existence of a reciprocity of interest which others have noted in that area where Jewish and American history intersect. Each party has reaped advantage from the existence of the other.
That reciprocity is evident throughout the more than three centuries of the American Jewish experience, but particularly so in the relationship between the "discovery" of the New World and the Jewish condition in Europe which is the subject of this first chapter. We note that at the juncture in Jewish history when the Iberian and later the Polish haven, in which Jews had found some measure of security, became untenable, their desperate need for a new refuge was realized. They were, of course, not the only group in Europe which would benefit from the discovery of America but few other groups played such an active role in the commercial activities and the development of the nautical technology which allowed it to come to pass.
In September, 1654, the bark St. Charles dropped anchor in the spacious harbor of the port of New Amsterdam and discharged twenty-three bedraggled passengers. They were Sephardic Jews (stemming from the Iberian peninsula) from the former Dutch colony of Recife which had been recaptured by the Portuguese in January of that year. There was little in their meager belongings to suggest that these Jews had once belonged to a thriving community. Now they stood virtually penniless on the pier, unable to square accounts with Jacques la Motte, the Captain of the St. Charles. Only after much argument was the grasping La Motte grudgingly satisfied with holding three of their group as security against the outstanding debt. It was not an auspicious beginning in a land that would one day become the principal hope for Jewish refuge and resettlement.
Behind the arrival of these refugees lay a long history of misfortune which began with the dispersion of Iberia's Jewish community. The Jews who lived in Spain and Portugal once considered themselves fortunate. Under the enlightened rule of the Moors, who consolidated their conquest of the peninsula in 711, the Jews thrived and even experienced a kind of "golden age" in their exile. They were able to make significant contributions to science, culture and commerce. Many became highly regarded court physicians and advisers, while others made their mark as highly skilled artisans. Not forgetting their Judaic faith, they honed sharp a special talent for interpreting Jewish law and developing its philosophical underpinnings.
The idyllic situation in which Jews found themselves under Moorish hegemony changed markedly in the twelfth century. Divided among themselves, the Moors proved unable to withstand the Christian onslaught from the north. By the year 1212 only the kingdom of Granada in the southeastern part of the peninsula remained in their hands. Now subject to the whims of the less cosmopolitan princes in the Christian part of Spain, the position of the Jews began to deteriorate. At the behest of the indigenous merchant class, priests and certain hostile officials of the court, the activities of Jewish traders were curtailed. Jewish artisans and small merchants too began to feel the effects of unfavorable regulations. By the end of the century their once secure economic and cultural position had been replaced by uncertainty and widespread impoverishment.
Had Christian hostility been merely directed against the commercial activities of the Jews they might have been able to endure it. But it was made of more volatile stuff. In its ascendancy the Catholic Church of Spain could boast of possessing more than its share of militancy and passion. Years of struggle with Islam had generated an unmatched crusading zeal and a suspicion of all non-Christians. The memory of the favored position of the Jews under the Moslems could not fail to rankle the aroused Christian masses who had been taught by their priests that the Jews had betrayed and helped crucify their Lord. As if to compound the felony the Jews of Spain subbornly rejected Christ and the Christian faith.
Ironically the high priorities given by Spaniards to the soldierly virtues allowed some Jews to continue to play an important role in administering the kingdom. A nominal conversion to Christianity allowed many Jews to exercise the administrative and commercial talents they appeared to possess in such abundance. For generations after the decline of Moorish power Spanish princes maintained this mutually profitable liaison with this experienced cadre of administrators and businessmen called New Christians, conversos or Marranos. Marranos and Jews continued to fill the critical posts that maintained the economy and the state. Some Marranos were able to enter the innermost core of the Church and state hierarchy by means of intermarriage. A liaison with a Christian prince through a highly placed Marrano or court-Jew often gave the local Jewish community a modicum of security.
But their position remained at best a precarious one since not even conversion proved sufficient to allay the hostility of the masses. Suspicion regarding the sincerity of the conversion proved relatively easy to arouse and princes were not above deflecting hostility directed against themselves to the Marrano tax farmer. On Ash Wednesday in 1391, for example, popular hostility against Jews was skillfully played upon by the monk Ferrand Martinez and by Archbishop Paul of Burgos, who was himself a convert. As a result, a bloody massacre of Jews occurred in Seville. Hundreds of Jews were slaughtered while others were forcibly converted or sold into slavery. A bloody riot in Toledo in 1449 was sparked by popular resentment against a special border defense tax of one million Maravedis paid to a Marrano tax collector. The suspicion that the Marrano conversions were not sincere had, in a minority of cases, some basis in fact. Some Marranos continued to practice in secret Judaic rituals such as lighting candles on Friday nights. Moreover, the high rate of recidivism among them was common knowledge.
It was to counteract such reversion that the tribunal of the Inquisition, which had been in existence in Aragon since the thirteenth century, was brought to Castile in 1480. Established by the Church to counteract heresy, the tribunal soon found a fertile field for its activities among the Marranos. But Ferdinand, whose maternal grandmother was rumored to have been a Jewess, had no reason to welcome the Inquisition. The tribunal's jurisdiction was not controlled by the crown and its power to confiscate property could serve to enrich the Church at the expense of the crown. However, that possible disadvantage was balanced by the opportunity the Inquisition offered to weaken dissident nobles, especially among the Castilians, where the proportion of Marranos was particularly high. Agitation by the militant clergy to impose the Inquisition proved nigh impossible to withstand. Thus in 1480 the persistent pressure brought to bear by Tomás de Torquemeda, the queen's confessor, was rewarded with success. The Inquisition was institutionalized in Seville.
That served as signal to many Marranos to seek refuge in Portugal and in Spain's far-flung empire. By the turn of the fifteenth century a royal edict prohibited them from settling in the new colonies. Marrano emigration was once again permitted after the death of Isabella but in 1518, when Charles became king, it was halted again. Four years thereafter a trickle of Marrano emigration to the colonies reappeared, this time strictly regulated by the royal administration. By the end of the sixteenth century Marranos developed an alternate route to escape the clutches of the Inquisition. They fled to the Netherlands which between 1565 and 1609 waged an often bitter struggle for independence from Spain and therefore welcomed these talented, frequently wealthy, Spanish dissidents.
By 1593 Amsterdam, the thriving capital city of the Netherlands, was well on its way to becoming the "new Jerusalem." Once free of the coercive religious edicts of Spain, many Marranos lost little time in reasserting, often with a special passion, their original Jewish faith. Under Dutch hegemony the Marranos began to trickle into New World Dutch colonies like Recife which had been wrested from the Portuguese in 1620. In the colonies there frequently occurred a reunification with their coreligionists who had earlier chosen a more direct route to Spanish America.
But even in the New World their new-found security often proved to be short-lived. In 1516 the Inquisition was established in the West Indies and soon after moved to the mainland where it began to take its toll. An auto da fé in Lima in 1639 claimed among its victims eleven Marranos. Many others met the same fate in the next decades.
Only a small proportion of Iberia's Jews, usually of high station, chose conversion and resettlement over suffering and living out their lives as a pariah group. The misfortunes visited upon these Jews gave rise to visions of redemption in which the New World came to play a prominent part. In 1650, for example, Menasseh Ben Israel, a prominent rabbi living in Amsterdam whose later negotiations with Oliver Cromwell gained unofficial access to England for Jews, saw the New World as a place where Jewish grievances and suffering would be redressed. In his work, The Hope of Israel, Ben Israel linked the Jews directly to the New World by accepting at face value the numerous stories then circulating that the Indians were, in fact, the ten lost tribes of Israel. For Jews, and some Christians as well, this could only mean that the biblical injunction which spoke of dispersing the Jews to the farthest corners of the earth had come to pass and that therefore the coming of the Messiah, or his second coming, was imminent. Indeed this was probably the background for the success Sabbatai Zevi, the false Messiah, gained in attracting a number of followers in the Netherlands in 1648. An incidental byplay of such imaginings was the awakening of an enthusiasm for a New World haven for the long-suffering Jewish people. Indeed, barely twenty-two years after the Dutch had established themselves in Bahia in 1620, Jewish settlers arrived to establish a community in Recife.
Technically speaking, Jews did not suffer the agonies of the Inquisition. These were reserved for professing Christians who had gone astray with such heresies as Judaizing, practicing Judaism in secret. Nevertheless, the stiff-necked resistance of Jews to voluntary conversion to Christianity became a continuous source of rancor. It was important to convert the Jews not only for theological reasons but for practical ones as well. The existence of a viable Jewish community in Spain was related in some measure to the high degree of recidivism among the Marranos. For Catholic zealots the expulsion of the Jews from Spain seemed a logical solution. At the same time there were more practical souls who were aware that such a drastic step would create as many problems as it solved. After all, these stubborn Jewish aliens had lived in Spain longer than anyone cared to remember. They had become so deeply rooted in the society that a precipitous attempt to remove them would result in considerable social and economic dislocation.
With the final expulsion of the Jews in January, 1492, Spain was fully free to chase after the specter of religious homogeneity. Within two months a royal decree expelling those Jews who refused to convert to Catholicism was promulgated. The date set for their departure, August 1, 1492, the ninth of Av on the Hebrew calendar, was a fateful one. It was also the anniversary date of the destruction of the temple. Attempts to soften the decree by Rabbi Abraham Senior, the chief Rabbi of Spain, and Isaac Abrabanel, the principal financial adviser to the royal court, failed to dissuade the Spanish authorities from the drastic course they had chosen.
As the date set for the expulsion drew near, forlorn bands of Jews, many with carts piled high with household goods, could be observed crowding the roads leading to the port of Cadiz in the southwestern section of Spain. The aged and infirm who could not be taken on such an uncertain venture, accompanied their families as far as their strength would carry them and then crawled to the side of the road to die on the soil of their beloved Spain. Others chose the option of converting to Catholicism, an act that had always been abhorrent to them. When the Jews caught their first glimpse of the sea, the traditional chanting stopped and a loud mournful invocation rent the air. Let the Lord part the sea and lead the children of Israel to a new Promised Land, as He had done during the exodus from Egypt.
But no such miracle occurred, at least no miracle that the 150,000 Jews about to be exiled could perceive. Painfully they resettled themselves in the Moslem states of North Africa. Some went to Palestine, others to Genoa, Salonika, and the more remote area of the Crimea. They could not know that on the day following their departure, Columbus, unable to use the port of Cadiz because it was too crowded with Jews, would set sail from the nearby port of Palos to discover the very haven for which they were praying.
Several thriving Jewish communities soon adorned the Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch possessions in the New World. It would be no exaggeration to claim that some measure of the administrative brilliance and the commercial profitability of Spanish New World rule should be attributed to them. Spain's loss became America's gain, a transaction which would be repeated several times during the waves of emigration from Europe in the next three centuries. Ultimately, too, it became the northern tier of colonies rather than those of Spanish America in which the long sought-for Jewish haven was founded.
It was first the tolerant rule of the Dutch in Recife which allowed the Jews to establish themselves but even then they were not totally secure from future wanderings. In 1654 the Dutch colony was retaken by the Portuguese and the Jewish settlers were compelled to flee. It was a small remnant of this dispersion which sailed into the New Amsterdam harbor on the September day in 1654.
The preponderance of Sephardic Jews in the colonies of North America was short-lived. Soon a trickle of Ashkenazic Jews, emanating from Central and Eastern Europe, appeared in the several Dutch, Swedish, and French-controlled colonies. One historian estimates that as early as 1695 the Jewish community of New York City was equally divided between Jews of Sephardic and Ashkenazic origin and the latter group was clearly in the majority by 1729, though the Sephardic religious ritual was maintained. The Ashkenazic preponderance may have been even clearer in Philadelphia and its satellite community of Easton. Some of the most noted colonial Jewish families including the Phillipses, Simonses, Gratzes, Hartzes, and the family of Haym Salomon were of Ashkenazic stock.
These later Jewish settlers were part of a great population movement which, between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, saw Jews move from Western to Eastern Europe, and then revert to the West again. The westward flow which was to continue for three centuries, not only populated America with Jews of eastern stock but did the same for Western Europe. Eastern Europe served as the great population reservoir for the less prolific Jewish communities of the Western world.
Basically the motivation of the Ashkenazic immigration was the same as that of the Sephardic Jews. Their position was equally tenuous and they suffered trials no less tormenting. Between 1095, the year of the calling of the First Crusade, and 1348, when the Black Death descended on Europe, Jewish life was endurable, not because Christians gave them quarter, but rather because of the uncanny ability of Jews to create a human, even protective environment, under the most abysmal conditions. There may even have existed a modicum of fulfillment within their strong families and rich communal life not to be found in the outside world. But such resources could hardly compensate for the insecurity of their existence. They lived at the sufferance of their Christian neighbors.
Excerpted from Zion in America by Henry L. Feingold. Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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