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America’s First Jews: Adapting to Life in the New World

America’s First Jews: Adapting to Life in the New World

Portrait of Rebecca Gratz by Thomas Sully

The First Jewish Americans: Freedom and Culture in the New World,” on exhibit at the New-York Historical Society until March 12, 2017, spans two-and-a-half centuries of the Jewish experience in the New World.

Drawing from artifacts, documents, and art objects primarily from the collections of Princeton University, Leonard L. Milberg, and the New-York Historical Society, the exhibition explores how Jewish immigrants adapted to their new homeland and remade themselves while helping to broaden freedom and culture in America for all.

Maps and documents show how the first wave of Jewish immigrants to the New World is inextricably linked to the expulsion of their great grandparents from the Iberian Peninsula by the Christian monarchs in 1492. Even after their expulsion, these conversos – converts to Christianity who secretly practiced Judaism – were tracked down in Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the New World by the Inquisition.

The rarest artifact in the exhibition, courtesy of the Mexican government, is the recently rediscovered memoir of Luis de Carvajal the Younger, who was burned at the stake in 1596 after the Inquisition found him guilty of Judaizing. His family and 120 other conversos he named at his trial met with the same fate

After Portuguese forces took Recife, Brazil, in 1654 from the Dutch, 23 of the city’s Jews set sail for North America and sought asylum in New Amsterdam (later renamed New York). Hoping to deny entry to “such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ,” Peter Stuyvesant, the director-general of the colony and an ardent adherent of the Dutch Reformed Church, wrote to the Dutch West India Company requesting that the Sephardic Jews be kept out. His superiors disagreed, allowing the newcomers to stay, provided they did not become a burden on society nor build a synagogue, among other restrictions.

The exhibit features a burned Torah scroll from the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States, New York City’s Congregation Shearith Israel (also known as The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue). It had been desecrated during the War of Independence by two renegade British soldiers.

During the colonial period, Jews were attracted to commerce and industry and clustered in cosmopolitan port cities such as Charleston, South Carolina, home to the largest Jewish community in North America until the 1830s. It was here that Reform Judaism emerged in 1824 at Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, whose sanctuary, damaged in an accidental fire, was reproduced from memory in a painting by the famed Jewish artist, Solomon Nunes Carvalho (1815-1897). The exhibit treats visitors to several other Carvalho paintings, portraits, and landscapes.

A pastel painting of Alexander Hamilton by James Sharples, circa 1796, draws attention to a description of the founding father’s familiarity with Jews and Judaism:

Hamilton’s mother married a Jewish merchant on St. Croix in the Danish West Indies, and she may have converted to Judaism to conform to Danish law. Hamilton attended a Jewish school and became fluent in Hebrew. Before he left for America, he worked in a trading firm that brought him in contact with Jewish merchants. After the Revolutionary War, Hamilton maintained close professional ties with Jews in New York, including Gershom Mendes Seixas, who headed Congregation Shearith Israel.  

In a section of the exhibit called “An American Judaism,” visitors learn that:

despite the enormous influx of immigrants from central Europe in the mid-19th century, many chose not to attend or affiliate with a synagogue…. In its attempt to adapt, American Judaism underwent a revolution of its own. Out of the crisis came innovation: new prayer books (some in English) … new styles of worship and belief, and the introduction of regular sermons delivered in both English and German.

On view are original editions of Minhag Amerika Tephiloth B’nei Yeshurun (1857), English and Hebrew prayer book by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, founder of the Reform Movement in America, and the competing, less traditional prayer book, in Hebrew and German, by Rabbi David Einhorn, the radical Reformer who “espoused proto-feminist and abolitionist ideals.”

The face of the exhibit is Rebecca Gratz, whose portrait by Thomas Sully is on the cover of the catalogue, “By Dawn’s Early Light,” which informs us that in 1838 she called together a cohort of her female friends from her congregation Kahal Kadosh Mikveh Israel (the oldest congregation in Philadelphia) to form the Hebrew Sunday School. For the first time in Jewish history, Jewish women led a religious school for both boys and girls.

Above all, this exhibit celebrates America’s first Jews, who laid the foundation for what has become the world’s most successful Jewish community since Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand issued their Edict of Expulsion against Jews on March 31, 1492, the same year Columbus set sail for the new world.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism's editor-at-large.
Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum

Aron Hirt-Manheimer

Published: 12/13/2016

Categories: Jewish Life, Arts & Culture, Jewish Life Around the World
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