New Israel/New England: Jews and Puritans in Early America

By Murphy, Andrew R. | American Jewish History, April 2013 | Go to article overview
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New Israel/New England: Jews and Puritans in Early America


Murphy, Andrew R., American Jewish History


New Israel/New England: Jews and Puritans in Early America. By Michael Hoberman. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011. xiv + 280 pp.

The Hebraic elements of the early New England experience--the Puritan appropriation of Hebraic themes and tropes in fashioning a collective mytbos--have long attracted scholarly attention, from the classic works of Perry Miller and Sacvan Bercovitch to a 2009 special issue of the journal Hebraic Political Studies. Such works plumbed the depths of early New Englanders' fascination with the biblical example of ancient Israel and explored the implications of that story for a very different covenanted people. But the Hebraism so artfully chronicled by these scholars tended to operate on a rather high level of abstraction, an ideological edifice invoked by elites and mediated by Puritans' own precoccupation with covenantalism, congregationalism, and law. What about the interplay between hegemonic New England Christianity and Jewish individuals and communities, encountered not simply in the Christian "Old Testament" but in concrete New England settings? How did New England Puritans understand (or fail to understand) their Jewish neighbors, to write them into (or out of) the story of their own covenanted communities? And what new light might be shed on early America by more closely examining these interactions?

Building on classic works by Jacob Rader Marcus, Jonathan Sarna, and William Pencak, Michael Hoberman's New Israel/New England takes up this complex set of questions. Hoberman offers a series of close-up explorations of the interactions between New England Puritans and their Jewish neighbors. Many of the names in New Israel/New England will be familiar--Isaac Touro, hazzan of Newport's Yeshuat Israel during the 1760s; Judah Monis, instructor of Hebrew at Harvard from the 1720s through the 1760s, and famous (or infamous) public Jewish convert to Christianity; Aaron Lopez, the wealthiest man in Newport during the 1770s--but Hoberman skillfully places each of them into the long history of Jewish life in early America and emphasizes the mutual interplay between Jew and Puritan that characterized these relationships.

New Israel/New England is an engaging and informative work with a number of important virtues. It is consistently transatlantic in its focus and adds a distinctly Jewish dimension to the recent burgeoning literature on transatlantic studies. One of the book's most impressive features lies in its constant attention to the links between the Jewish communities of London, Amsterdam, Portugal, Brazil, and North America. Many of the Jews examined by Hoberman arrived in America only after extended sojourns as itinerant scholars and merchants, and the transatlantic peregrinations of early modern Jews form a recurrent theme of his analysis.

A large part of this transatlantic focus emphasizes the growing importance of commercial virtues and relationships and the declining significance of theological differences or even church membership, particularly in the eighteenth century. Time and again, the Jewish merchants in these pages turn out to have complex personal histories closely intertwined with transatlantic commerce. Newport is clearly key to this story, and Hoberman rightly points out that "[o]nly the large-scale rejection of Hebraic legalism, as put into practice by such stalwart New Testament readers as Rhode Island's Roger Williams, would allow for the development of an actual Jewish community in New England" (40, emphasis in original). Even though by the 1770s the Jewish community there had virtually disappeared, Newport represented "a font of religious pluralism with no equivalent anywhere else in ... British North America outside perhaps of New York," whose "Jewish presence ... afforded an unprecedented occasion for the immediate descendants of New England Puritans to witness a living Judaism at firsthand" (162).

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