Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The Jews of Early America as Independence Day Approaches ... It Was the Revolution That Brought Colonial Jews into the American Fold

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The Jews of Early America as Independence Day Approaches ... It Was the Revolution That Brought Colonial Jews into the American Fold

Article excerpt

In 1654, 23 men, women and children sailed into Dutch-occupied New York City, then known as New Amsterdam. Though eager for new residents, the sparsely populated colony did not roll out a welcome wagon.

"The Jews who have arrived here would nearly all like to remain," the city's director-general, Peter Stuyvesant, complained to his superiors in Holland, "but ... with their customary usury and deceitful trading with Christians ... [are] very repugnant ..."

Stuyvesant denied Jews all essential rights and strictly forbade them from practicing their religion, even in private.

Jewish shareholders in the Dutch West India Trading Company, the colony's creators, quickly intervened. Reminding company directors that the "Jewish nation" had "always striven [its] best for the Company ... [losing] immense and great capital in its shares and obligations," they asked that Jews be given "passage and residence" in the Dutch-occupied colonies "to travel, live and traffic there ... and enjoy liberty on condition of contributing like others ..."

Their efforts proved successful. While acknowledging that New Amsterdam might become "infected by people of the Jewish nation," the directors ordered Mr. Stuyvesant to allow the Jews to "live and remain" in the colony.

Encouraged by their treatment in North America, more Jews soon trickled in from Europe and the Caribbean. And they prospered, serving as shopkeepers, merchants and traders.

Then the British seized New York in 1664, and the Jews were again beset with difficulties. Most towns and provinces in British America denied them the right to vote or hold public office. British citizenship was limited to those in the colonies who professed "the true faith of Christ."

Still, colonial Jews had it pretty good; they weren't burned at the stake, forced to convert to Christianity, expelled or denied the right to worship openly as they were in parts of Europe.

In the 1730s, New York Jews, who had worshipped communally as early as the 1650s, constructed their own synagogue, Shearith Israel, near present-day Wall Street. Philadelphia Jews owned their Spruce Street Cemetery by 1740 and a short time later worshipped at Congregation Mikveh Israel.

As Jews branched out into other port cities, they went on to create congregations in Newport, Savannah and Charleston -- aided by co-religionists in Amsterdam, the colonies and the Caribbean who donated Torah scrolls, other sacred objects and money. Still, North American Jews had no rabbinical courts, nor -- until the 1840s -- any rabbis. They relied on chazzans -- cantors -- to lead them in prayer.

During the earliest waves of immigration, most Jews were Sephardim. Their ancestors had been expelled from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisitions, which began in the late Middle Ages and continued sporadically thereafter.

Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews later sailed in from central and Eastern Europe and came to outnumber the Sephardim. Still, until the late 1700s, all colonial Jews followed the customs and liturgies of the Spanish-Portuguese Jews, who remained socially and economically a notch above the others. …

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