Academic journal article American Jewish History

"Separated from Us as Far as West Is from East": Eighteenth-Century Ashkenazi Immigrants in the Atlantic World

Academic journal article American Jewish History

"Separated from Us as Far as West Is from East": Eighteenth-Century Ashkenazi Immigrants in the Atlantic World

Article excerpt

In 1758, Barnard Gratz wrote a letter to his London-based cousin Solomon Henry to discuss his brother's prospects. Gratz had just learned that his younger brother Michael was en route from the East Indies, where he had been a clerk or a servant to a merchant, to London. He proposed that Michael join him in Philadelphia where he could "keep a shop here in the Country," Gratz wrote, "or else [live] here at Mr David Franks's in my place where he would have as good a man for his Master as Possible ... & learn the business of this country by staying with him 2 or 3 years for wages in his store." (1) Barnard had arrived only four years earlier, at the age of seventeen. He had the good fortune to find employment as a clerk in Franks's counting house where he had learned vital skills. Now that Gratz was preparing to leave his employ, Franks and his London-based brother Moses, also a prominent and wealthy merchant, promised to invest in a joint venture with Barnard. The letter betrayed some of Gratz's concerns. "I should be glad to know [Michael's] reason for returning," he wrote. He worried that Michael's decision to abandon the East Indies suggested some sort of failure on his part, a lack of aptitude for the complex world of commerce perhaps. If that was the case, Michael could become a burden to Gratz. If Michael demonstrated "Honesty, Industry, Good nature & no pride," Barnard would assist him "with anything in my power ... as far as I am able & that is not a Great deal as I am Butt a poor f[e]llow my self." Admitting that his finances were still precarious posed a different problem for Barnard. His cousin Solomon Henry and at least one other London colleague had provided him with goods on credit, and he still owed them money. He did not want his cousin, who was also his business associate, to doubt his reliability or honesty, and he promised to remit payment soon. The letter sheds light on the circumstances that early Ashkenazim in the Atlantic world faced, their efforts to break into the vibrant yet risky commercial milieu, the networks they developed, and the complex dynamics that regulated them.

Over the past few decades, scholars have been investigating Jews' participation in the Atlantic world of trade and the ways in which their networks wove together families, commercial houses, colonies, and empires. The focus, however, has been on Sephardim. (2) While the early Ashkenazi presence in colonial America is well documented, scholarship looks at their arrival as the beginning of American Jewish history--the prelude to a much more substantial wave of Ashkenazi immigration in the nineteenth century. Studies highlight the ways they adapted to a new environment, established Jewish communities, and transformed their faith in the process. (3) But they do not place them in context of the Jewish Atlantic world. Ashkenazim began migrating to England and Holland toward the end of the seventeenth century and trickled into the American colonies. Like Sephardim, Ashkenazim created webs of connections that facilitated the flow of people, information, and trade goods. Only a few prominent eighteenth-century Ashkenazi merchants were able to break into maritime trade, but they, in concert with newly arriving Ashkenazim oriented themselves toward the hinterlands and continental trade.

During the early decades of the eighteenth century, a few Ashkenazi merchants flourished through the construction of kinship and ethnic networks that tied together multiple Atlantic world ports. A sense of obligation prompted them to give newcomers their first opportunities--family members, friends, and strangers who were drawn by news of others' success--and set them on the road to success. But the benefits were mutual: newcomers performed vital tasks in merchants' businesses and carried their merchandize into the hinterlands. This collaboration enabled established merchants to extend their enterprises beyond port cities and beyond the sphere of maritime trade networks and it enabled established families and newcomers to adapt to the changing commercial milieu orienting their enterprises within the continental arena. …

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