_1776-1985 _


Volume I

Jacob Rader Marcus







Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion




Copyright © 1989 by Jacob R. Marcus.

Published by Wayne State University Press, Detroit, Michigan 48201.

All material in this work, except as identified below, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 United States License. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/us/.

All material not licensed under a Creative Commons license is all rights reserved. Permission must be obtained from the copyright owner to use this material.




The publication of this volume in a freely accessible digital format has been made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mellon Foundation through their Humanities Open Book Program.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Marcus, Jacob Rader, 1896-

United States Jewry, 1776-1985 / Jacob Rader Marcus.

p. cm.

Bibliography: p.

Includes index.

ISBN 978-0-8143-4469-9 (paperback); 978-0-8143-4468-2 (ebook)

1. Jews—United States—History. 2. Judaism—United States—History.

3. United States—Ethnic relations. I. Title.

E184.J5M237 1989 973/04924—dc20



Wayne State University Press gratefully acknowledges The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives (AJA) for their many contributions to this volume, including the use and publication of a selection of photographs. To access these photographs and many other collections preserved at the AJA, please visit the AJA website at www.AmericanJewishArchives.org.

The Press also wishes to thank the Newport Historical Society for their generous permission to reprint material in this book.

"Interior of the Newport, RI synogog [sic] built in 1763" originally credited to Kerschner, Newport courtesy of the Collection of the Newport Historical Society.

Exhaustive efforts were made to obtain permission for use of material in this text. Any missed permissions resulted from a lack of information about the material, copyright holder, or both. If you are a copyright holder of such material, please contact WSUP at wsupressrights@wayne.edu.

http:/ / wsupress.wayne.edu/


My father, my mother, my brother, my wife, my daughter




—Henry F. Hedges,

A History of the Town of East-Hampton, N.Y.




II    THE EARLY REPUBLIC, 1776-1840    46





THE NEW ECONOMY, 1776-1840    167


1776-1840    220







1776-1840    453



XV    ACCEPTANCE OF THE JEW, 1776-1840    559

XVI    REFORM JUDAISM, 1776-1840    614












In the following chapter I make the statement that “American Jewish history is the record of the Jewish experience on American soil.” Even as there is a history of the Germans, the Irish, and the Scots in this country there is a history of American Jewry. These Children of Abraham lived in two worlds, the Jewish and the American. For 95 percent of his time the Jew is an American citizen; for the other 5 percent he is a Jew; his life in the general community, the Gentile world about him, absorbs him almost completely. Isaac M. Wise, the organizer of Reform Judaism, had this in mind when he once wrote: “The Israelites in America have no history because they have no interests apart from the people of the United States.” Though I shall not fail to deal in detail with the Jews as citizens, as an integral part of the larger American community, I am primarily interested in describing them as Jews. I stress the 5 percent, not the 95 percent. To that extent this work is strabismic.1

Jews are a small but significant group; they have had an impact on America, on its cultural, economic, political life since the day the first Jew landed on Roanoke Island in 1585. They merit a history. As yet there has been no full-bodied scientifically conceived, history of the Jew in the United States. To be sure there are many one-volume histories of the Jews or “Hebrews,” but very few are based primarily on research in the sources. As early as 1800 Gershom Seixas wrote a Hebrew oration touching on the beginnings of Jewish life on this continent. In 1861 Hazzan Jacques Judah Lyons of Shearith Israel, New York, began collecting documents preparatory to writing a history of American Jewry. Arnold Fis-chel, lecturer in that same Sephardic synagog, was also interested in studying the history of the Jews in this land; in 1859 he addressed the New York Historical Society on this subject. In 1888, Isaac Markens, a journalist, wrote The Hebrews in America but in 1910 when Gotthard



United States Jewry, 1776-1985

Deutsch wrote his History of the Jews he dismissed American Jewry in a few pages; compared to the Europeans Jews, Jewry here was not important. Peter Wiernik, a Yiddish newspaper editor, published the first full length History of the Jews in America (1912). The impulse of Lyons and Fis-chel to write about American Jewry was probably sparked by the nationalism that flourished in the days of the Civil War; in all probability Wier-nik’s book was written to help immigrant Jews from the Slavic lands identify with American Jewry, to teach them to appreciate what this land had to offer.2

For whom am I writing? For scholars and general readers who are curious and intelligent. The plan for these volumes is a simple one. The first unit seeks to justify in detail the reason for writing a multivolume work on American Jewry; the second unit treats of Jews in the early national period, 1775-1840; the third discusses the rise and dominance of the German Jews in America, 1841-1920. Concurrent with the Central European community there is another, the East European, 1852-1920, which is discussed in the fourth unit. These two groups, “Germans” and “Russians,” were distinct and separate yet all Jews, natives, Germans, Russians, Poles, Galicians, Rumanians, were inextricably united. Jews are responsible one for the other; this is Jewish tradition. Despite mutual hostility and suspicion the older emigres had no choice but to help the newcomers and the trans-Vistula newcomers viewed the established settlers as social exemplars and dispensers of charity. Unfortunately the Jews from Rumania and the Slavic lands are treated primarily as the objects of history, not the subjects of history, though, to be sure, in the next unit the East Europeans, concurrent with the Germans, are treated as subjects of history. The vast materials dealing with the “Russians” in the United States cannot be fully exploited by any one individual. One newspaper—the largest, the Forward—had eleven local and regional editions.3

American Jewish history from 1775 to 1920 is limned in depth in these four volumes but the last unit covering the period from 1921 to 1985 is sketched briefly. I have not attempted to do a full length study of American Jewry after 1920; the available source material is enormous. The xerographic machines can be a curse as well as a blessing! However I believe that I have sensed the important trends of these years, for I have been studying American Jewish history since 1916 when I first published an article for the Wheeling, West Virginia, Jewish Community Bulletin: “America: The Spiritual Center of Jewry.” I refer to the years, 1921-1945 as those of the Emerging American Jewish Community; the post-World War II years, 1946-1985, mark the beginnings of the Golden Age of Jewry on this continent. In the years between 1775-1920 Jews were completely “American” but ethnic differences were paramount in their lives; after 1921-1925 when the immigration acts went into force, when the



gates were closed to Jews, intra-Jewish ethnic hostility tended to disappear; a Jewish melting pot dissolved Europe’s disparate national loyalties; all Jewish natives now thought of themselves only as Americans; they were no longer Germans, Russians, Poles, Rumanians, Balkans.

It has just been noted that the sources for the twentieth century are insurmountable for one individual. To an extent this is true too of all the data from Revolutionary times on to 1921. A few statistics will point up this obvious fact. The National Archives houses but 1 percent of the records of the country’s government agencies; the United States authorities publish over 500,000 articles, books, and papers every year. A generation ago, a Chicago manufacturer of duplicating machinery reported that source materials accumulated at the rate of 500,000 pages a minute. No man can master more than an infinitesimal fraction even of the important documents for American Jewish history. The historian is faced with the prospect of digging a Panama Canal with a teaspoon. Nevertheless the historian copes. He ferrets out the basic trends and supporting data and succeeds like pollsters who can draw relatively reliable conclusions from a poll of a fraction of 1 percent of the population. In 1970 I addressed myself to the task of writing the history of America’s colonial Jews—about 500 families all told. It took three volumes to accomplish this task; now I propose to tell the story of 5,000,000 Jews in four volumes. It is obvious that I will have to select my material with great care, but at the same time I will have to make sure that no major event or trend has been slighted. The writing of any book on the whole of American history or on one of its ethnic groups is a daring venture.

My “style” is narrative, descriptive, but also interpretive and analytic. Illustrative data are always supplied, otherwise my conclusions would have no connotation. I wish to be faithful to experience and to fathom motives. In every forest there are trees that tower over all others; there have always been aggressive and innovative leaders in the Jewish community; I have not failed to give them their due. This history, like most general American histories, recounts the tribulations of immigrants. All newcomers who came to these shores have much in common: they struggled, they survived; yet no two ethnic groups are totally alike. There are great differences between the Irish and the Jews. Jews are different because they are Jews; they stand out like a sore thumb in Christian America where Sunday is the day of rest, where even the public schools savor of Christianity, and the municipalities erect Christmas trees.

Unlike all other general and Jewish historians I have set out deliberately to redress the balance where women are concerned. They are the majority; they cannot be ignored. Up till now they have been invisible in the various histories of American Jewry as they have been in general histories. Women have a story to tell; they were participants and shapers of

United States Jewry, 1776-1985


all that came to be. I am not resurrecting their history since it was never alive; it must be given life. This is no easy task; there is little that has been written about them; the cult of true womanhood required that women serve, that they be seen, but not heard.

There is one source I have failed to catalog in the bibliographical Key to these volumes, my “recall.” I became cognizant of Jewish life about me as early as 1902. At that time there were but 1,200,000 Jews in this country; now there are over 5,000,000. I have grown up with this Jewish community; I have observed it for almost 80 years and have served as the head of national and local organizations. Thousands of Civil War veterans were still alive when I was a lad; in later years I was a good friend of Mrs. Tom Clay, the daughter of Benjamin Gratz (1792-1884), one of Kentucky’s first Jewish settlers. I cannot help but be aware of what I saw; I require no documentation for the obvious; all this is grist for my mill; I am a trained historian. When approached to relate his experiences, an old Jewish immigrant once said: “By myself I’m a book!” I am tempted to say the same; I have been teaching Jewish history at the Hebrew Union College since 1920.

In order to evaluate my presentation the critical reader of these volumes may well ask: what is your approach, your philosophy of history? This is a fair question. My answer is that if one is committed to a specific philosophy of history he is already biased in the choice of his data. The facts must speak for themselves; I am committed to no philosophy; I am devoted to the critical method. I matriculated in the Hebrew Union College at the age of fifteen; practically all my teachers were German Ph.D’s; they taught me the method to which I still adhere. I believe there is such a thing as objective truth; one can describe an event as it actually was. The historian always wants to know what happened and why. There may be no pure objectivity in historical writing, but I have striven for it; no one, I fear, can jump out of his skin. It may be held against me, too, that I am not devoid of prejudice. This is true; I pride myself that I am not filiopietistic; I despise anti-Semites; I like Jews; I am convinced that they are an unusually gifted lot. Despite my attempt to approach all data dispassionately I am not entirely free of romanticism; the story of Jewish survival and achievement in this land fascinates me. But, I repeat, I am no exultant revisionist; no proud hagiographer. As a historian I seek to reflect reality through the mediation of my training, experience, and critical evaluation of sources. I am not on the side of the angels, I am on the side of Darwin’s apes; I believe in the inviolability of the method which I espouse. No historian can avoid a degree of present-mindness but I have consciously striven to be past-minded; history must be studied in its own setting; it is not necessarily a prologue to the present. The American Jews must be painted as they were and judged by the standards of their times.



The professional American historian may well ask: “Do you believe in conflict or consensus?” Even the most casual student of Jewry in this land realizes that conflict is constant; yet it is patent that though the Jews have ridden off in all directions since the seventeenth century intellectually, institutionally, affectively, consensus never failed to override most disparities. In crises Jews worked together; their ultimate goals were the same and always present; they emerged triumphant; Jews were, are, one.

Jews are a historic people but only too often they are devoid of a sense of history. They failed to preserve their records. For lack of adequate sources it is frequently impossible to come to definitive conclusions. Even “full” documentation leaves doubts about human motivation. Thus the conscientious historian is constrained to dot his paragraphs with “apparently,” “probably,” “maybe,” “it would seem.” I dislike hedging but I have no choice. When I am convinced that I am right in my thinking I do not hesitate to express myself unequivocally. Conviction is the precipitate of a lifetime of research. If in the pages that follow readers miss some of their “Jewish” heroes—now securely entrenched in the pages of some popular histories—it is not an accidental omission on my part. They have been excluded because there is no proof that they were Jews. Men named Myer, Emanuel, Simons, Kauffman, are not necessarily members of the Chosen People. There are many names which Jews and Gentiles shared in common; Moses was a comon surname borne by Christians in colonial America. Critical readers will certainly discover in later volumes of this work that Reform Jewry is dealt with in greater detail than the more numerous Orthodox and Conservatives Jewries. The reason is that congregational records for these latter two denominations are sparse; the Reformers—Central Europeans with some schooling—kept and preserved their minutes and are thus more easily described by the historian.

In at least one respect this history of the Jews in the United States is a marked departure from all others. Since the middle 1700’s the majority of Jews has always lived outside of New York; this was certainly true in the 1920’s when Jews were found in nearly 10,000 cities, towns, and hamlets. There were then 1,500,000 Jews in New York, 4,000,000 in the country at large. It is imperative to build from the bottom up, not from the top down; the balance between New York and its highly visible and articulate national leaders and institutions and the more numerous Jews in the hinterland must be maintained. Most national Jewish leaders lived in New York City; before the late twentieth century there were relatively few Jews of national stature in the towns of the interior. However, there were notable exceptions in Philadelphia, Washington, Cincinnati, Chicago; they were influential. Though I am not enamored of the Carlyleian thesis that a country’s heroes are very important in shaping the destiny of


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

a people there can be no question that many eminent American Jews have helped make history not only in the Jewish but in the larger general community. I am however committed to the thesis that the story of the Jew in this land lies not in the vertical eminence of the few but in the horizontal spread of the many.4

Is there a golden thread that runs through American Jewish history? Woodrow Wilson once told Simon Wolf, American Jewry’s dedicated Washington lobbyist, that general American history was “too large a stage; the play moves with too varied a plot for any spectator to see more than a typical incident here and there,” though he did admit that there were chief figures and main motives in the epic drama we know as America. Edward Channing disagreed with Wilson; he maintained that the central recurring theme in American history was the “victory of the forces of union over those of particularism.” Is it possible that the story of the Jew in this land is a series of unrelated histories? Definitely not. The leitmotif of Jewish history in this country is the constant attempt, the determination, to create and further a distinct community with its synagogs, its schools, its charities. It is as simple as that. In Jewry where there is no community there is no history. This work concerns itself primarily with Jewry as an organized collectivity.'

Much of the material in these four volumes is arranged topically. Such an approach is unfortunately bound to invite repetition. Each of these four volumes stands on its own two feet; I have not hesitated to use data cited in other volumes. In some instances repetition has been unavoidable; some facts, important in themselves, illuminate multiple facets of American Jewish life; Rabbi Isaac Leeser is an important figure in nineteenth-century Judaism, education, journalism. I have my own views on the use of the title “rabbi.” As early as the eighteenth century the community religious factotum was recognized by the Gentile community as a “rabbi.” For me a rabbi is the duly elected leader of a congregation; he is hired to conduct services and to preach. Often, here in the United States, he is a man who has no document authorizing him to officiate at religious services. In some instances—this we know—“rabbis” possess certificates issued by so-called rabbis who were themselves unauthorized practitioners. Leeser, Isaac M. Wise, Stephen S. Wise, three of the most prestigious religious leaders in Jewish America, were not trained and ordained in rabbinical seminaries. Often, too, the nineteenth-century non-diplomate was more learned than the twentieth-century graduate of a prestigious rabbinical college.6

No glossary has been appended to this work, for many Hebrew and Yiddish words are now English and are defined in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged. Unfailingly I give preference to the Webster spellings. Frequently I clarify immediately



the meaning of a foreign term employed in the text. The transliteration of Hebrew and Yiddish words employed is a modified form of the standard system used in the Jewish Encyclopedia and in the publications of the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research. Diacritical marks are omitted. I have not hesitated to use the mistransliterations of Hebrew and Yiddish phrases which were used by most founders of Jewish institutions. They have the right to spell, or misspell the names of their organizations as they see fit. Like other American Jewish historians I often transliterate Hebrew and Yiddish words scientifically though this type of transliteration was eschewed by most Jews. Using proper transliterations of the Hebrew is anachronistic, unhistorical, but all of us are guilty of this practice; it is a convention which we hesitate to discard in formal historical writing. Actually the pronunciation of some vowels and consonants in the synagog is at variance with the transliterations of the college trained Hebraist.

No formal bibliography has been appended to this volume. The Key to symbols, abbreviations, and short titles serves this purpose for it lists the basic works, magazines, articles, and manuscript sources used by the author. The Key rarely includes books or articles cited but once; these are described fully in the notes. Very frequently the notes include duplicate references. This is done to aid scholars because many of the works cited are difficult of access and are found in few libraries. Sources are often recorded which are at variance with the author’s views; these additional references are given solely to provide more literature for the subject under discussion; the author’s conclusions are given in the body of the text. Because I am frequently dependent on undocumented clippings I do not always cite page or column.

In any large work prepared over decades, one receives help from many individuals and institutions. It is now my privilege to thank those men and women who have responded to my appeals for help. My colleagues and staff in the American Jewish Archives have never failed me; I have leaned heavily on all of them, Fanny Zelcer and Kevin Proffitt archivists, Eleanor Lawhorn and Jacqueline Wilson secretaries. Abraham J. Peck, the administrative director, has worked closely with me every step of the way; his concern has touched me deeply. I am very grateful. Dr. Malcolm H. Stern, historian and genealogist, responded speedily to all my queries. The American Jewish Historical Society, the Cincinnati Historical Society, and the Cincinnati Public Library have also responded generously, patiently; they have been most helpful in according me aid and counsel. Dr. Herbert C. Zafren and his staff in the Hebrew Union College Library have been a tower of strength; there is probably no library in the country better equipped to aid scholars who work in the field of American Jewish history. Let me hasten to thank those who have worked closely with me in my study. Judith M. Daniels of the University of Cin-


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

cinnati, Rabbi Judith A. Bluestein, Rabbi Douglas Kohn, and Birgitta Mehdi have slaved to check my data, arrange my notes, and copyedit the text. Literally, their help has been invaluable. Etheljane Callner who has been with me for almost four decades has typed the manuscript and hovered over this work with the meticulosity and dedication that have always distinguished her. Her constant encouragement when the going was rough has meant more to me than I can voice in words. Mr. Aaron Levine, a retired corporation executive, has never failed me when I turned to him for counsel. Thank you, Aaron, for your advice and guidance. My dear friend Leonard N. Simons of Detroit, Michigan, the prominent civic worker and philanthropist, has always taken a deep interest in all my work, encouraging and sustaining me in my efforts. It is a privilege to enjoy his friendship and to express—in this formal fashion—both my gratitude and affection. And now I turn to my colleague and dear friend Stanley F. Chyet, Professor of American Jewish History on the Los Angeles campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Almost thirty years ago when he aided me with my Colonial American Jew, I wrote these words of thanks:

He has helped me in matters of style and content with all the devotion of a friend and a conscientious scholar. It is literally impossible for me to express all that I owe him. It is my fervent prayer that the disciples he raises will enrich him with that same courtesy, kindness and friendship he has always showered on me.

I am happy to repeat these words of thanks for all he has done to make this work possible.

And finally there are the many who at some time or another have aided me in the preparation of these volumes but whom, for a variety of reasons, I am regretfully obliged to leave unnamed. My most grateful thanks to them all.

Jacob R. Marcus

American Jewish Archives On the campus of the

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Cincinnati, Ohio



American Jewish history is the record of the Jewish experience on , American soil. That is clear enough, but what is not so clear is: What constitutes a Jew? There are several definitions. A common Gentile definition is: Anyone is a Jew about whom there is the slightest recollection of Jewish origin. According to Jewish canon law, the halakah, every child of a Jewish mother is a Jew. Most probably this decision, rooted in an ancient Hebraic tradition, reflects a matriarchal age when it was a wise son who knew his father. Arbitrarily, to be sure, the author of the present work on American Jewry has decided that any individual with one Jewish parent is a Jew, even if “born” and reared as a Christian. Thus, for the purposes of this work, Senator Barry Goldwater was the first major party Jewish candidate for the Presidency. It is only too true that Jewish history is often the story of a community which shines in the reflected glory of those Jews who ignore the community that gave them birth. If practitioners of Judaism only were to be included in a study of the American Jew then a substantial percentage of all would have to be excluded. Jews are an ethnos not a church.

As late as 1900 Jews in the United States constituted little more than 1 percent of the total population! Why then study American Jewish history? Jews are eager to know the history of their people; that is its own justification. Knowledge is identification, security. Jews wish to know how other Jews lived in this land, what they accomplished. They were and are part of the American polity; studying Jewry throws light on the larger general community. Almost untrammeled by European traditional hatreds and disabilities, America’s attitude toward its Jews savors of the unique. Here in the United States the “medieval” Jew of Eastern Europe was for the first time completely emancipated. What did egalite do for him, for America? Did this emancipation bear fruits of righteousness?



United States Jewry, 1776-1985

The Jews here are heirs of a great culture; their fathers wrote the Bible, both the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament and much of the New Testament. Jesus was born, lived, and died as a Jew. Islam, too, emerged from Judeo-Christian tradition. Sigmund Freud was a Jew and Karl Marx was the scion of a distinguished rabbinical family; today there are possibly more worshippers of Marx than there are of Jesus. Though Jews are small in numbers, they are not an obscure group or an unimportant part of general American history. They are significant in the areas of commerce and scholarship, and occasionally even in politics. There were three Jews in President Kennedy’s cabinet: Arthur Goldberg, Abraham Ribicoff, and Douglas Dillon. The clothing and cinema industries owe much to Jews. The development of nuclear energy was furthered in large measure by them; Abraham Selman Waksman, Jonas Salk, and Albert Sabin will long be remembered among the great scientists and benefactors of humanity. Today, Reform Judaism may well be the largest liberal religious movement in the world.

By the end of World War II—if not earlier—America was already playing an increasingly important role in World Jewish history. About 2,500,000 immigrants had poured into this country since the middle 1830’s; millions of dollars had been sent overseas to support poor and oppressed Jews, especially in Eastern Europe. American liberty is a commodity the Jews here have insisted on exporting ever since 1840 when they raised their voices in protest against the torture of Jews in Damascus. It was this American Jewry that influenced President Truman to look sympathetically upon the new Jewish state proclaimed in Palestine. Eddie Jacobson, the President’s onetime business partner, interceded with Truman at a critical moment when the President appeared resistant to Zionist importuning and amenable to the anti-Zionist pressures of his own State Department. Despite the unquestioned importance of the State of Israel, many maintain that the mainstream of Jewish history lies in the United States. Today, this Jewry is the greatest the world has ever known, certainly in size, wealth, and general culture. No Jewish group has ever been as free. American Jews exercise a significant measure of hegemony over World Jewry; they send billions to the State of Israel. American Jewry in the late twentieth century is potentially a great Jewish cultural center and is well on its way to a Golden Age of its own.

Why study American Jewish history? It is not without pragmatic value for the American Jew. History is not a science but a record of human behavior and human experience. What has happened may happen again. We can profit from the past. Even he who runs may read; Jews must fight not only to secure civil and political rights but also to hold onto them, else they risk losing them. Liberal Jews have learned that Reform Judaism cannot live on ideology alone; without ceremonial and rit-


Why Study American History

ual the Jewish collectivity cannot maintain itself. Individuals who depart from the norms accepted by the Jewish masses are pushed to the periphery and ultimately fall off into oblivion. A study of history brings perspective. It teaches us to assess what is happening, to sense the direction in which Jewry is moving. A perceptive community can then plan socially and, if successful, assert itself as the subject, not merely the object, of history.

Where the Jews Come From: Background

It may well be that historical prurience—curiosity—is the prime reason why we delve into the past experiences of American Jewry. How, when, why, did Jews come here? Where did they settle? What happened to them? Were the twenty-three who landed at New Amsterdam in 1654 the very first Jews in this country? Of course not! No Jew is ever the first Jew anywhere. There is always one before him. The twenty-three were probably met at the Battery by Jacob Barsimson; Solomon Pietersen, an assimilated Jew, had preceded Barsimson; Solomon Franco, a dubious bird of passage, had been in Boston as early as 1649. And before Franco? In 1585, thirty-five years before the Pilgrim Fathers landed, Joachim Gaunze, a Jewish mining expert, stepped off the gangplank at Roanoke Island.1

Let us go back to the beginning. In the beginning there was Arabia and the eastern Fertile Crescent. Then came Palestine and the rise and fall of several commonwealths: the ancient United Monarchy of David, the Divided Monarchy of Israel and Judah; finally there was the Hasmonean kingdom. There were the Ten Commandments, the prophets, the great struggle for freedom of conscience and worship in the days of the Macca-beans. The Romans, like the Russians and the Americans in the twentieth century, evinced an interest in the eastern Mediterranean; Jerusalem had fallen under Roman sway some generations before the Herodian Temple was razed in 70 C.E. After the fall of Jerusalem, a new Jewish center emerged in the Mesopotamian valley ruled by Zoroastrian Persia. A center? A center is a land or a region where Jews enjoy some degree of security and where rabbinic learning prospers. Centers always exert a large degree of hegemonic spiritual authority. The center is for World Jewry the government-in-exile of an epoch. It was in Persian-controlled and subsequently Muslim Arab-ruled Mesopotamia that the Jews produced a body of literature they called the Talmud. It became and remains authoritative for normative Jewish belief and practice, even more so than the Hebrew Bible. But by the eleventh century, because of political unrest and successful foreign invasions, Muslim Mesopotamia was already on the wane. With the decline of the Asian Arab states came the end of Jewry’s spiritual dominance by the rabbis and academies of the Middle East.


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

Now, for the first time in Jewish history, the Jews acquired noteworthy European credentials with the dawn of a Golden Age in Arab Spain. A Jewish community enjoys a Golden Age when among its leaders are men preeminent in general and Jewish studies. The classical example is Ismail ibn Nagrela—Samuel the Prince as he was called—in the principality of Granada. This eleventh-century polymath was a talmudist, mathematician, grammarian, philosopher, linguist, calligrapher, and poet. He became vizier of his country and personally directed its armies in time of war. Imagine Bernard Baruch, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Arthur Goldberg, or Bella Abzug writing a Hebrew poem or an essay on talmudic methodology. Unfortunately for the Jews of Spain the Arabs were crushed in the Christian Reconquest of the peninsula; new Christian states arose to supplant the Muslims. Their philosophy was simple and direct: only a good Christian could be a good subject; the Jews would have to go, and by the end of the fifteenth century they had gone. Associate Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo of the United States Supreme Court was one of the distinguished heirs of the ensuing Spanish-Portuguese diaspora.2

Uprooted, Sephardic (Spanish-Portuguese) Jewry now withered, but a new Jewish center rose on the plains of Poland. For the next 450 years the Law went forth from the academies of Poland and the Germanic lands. This was the age of the Ashkenazim (Northern European Jews). In the very flower of its youth, however, the Polish community was dealt a staggering blow. The oppressed Eastern Orthodox peasants of the Ukraine rose in revolt against their Polish Roman Catholic masters and the Jewish stewards dependent on the Polish landlords. Then Tatars, Swedes, and Russians invaded a weakened Poland, and again Jews died by the thousands. In desperation many turned to a Messiah who failed to deliver them: Shabbethai Zevi, the mystical savior of the magic year 1666. Two generations later, still seeking “escape,” many Jews in Eastern Europe turned to the Master of the Good Name, the Baal Shem Tov: Israel ben Eliezer, the founder of the latter-day Hasidic sect which in a variety of manifestations still flourishes throughout the Jewish world. Others, more realistic than the Hasidic mystics and the classical pietists, hoped to find their messianic age in a modern new world: Man, not God, was to be the new savior.

All this presupposes the death of medievalism, but the medieval past died hard, very hard. As late as 1761 a hungry moronic Jewish beggar wandered into an Alsatian church and ate a consecrated Host, for him a cracker, food. Unwittingly he had committed a sacrilege, a capital crime, but mercy prevailed and his sentence was commuted to hard labor for life in prison. Less than a generation later with the coming of the French Revolution he would not even have been arrested. Actually the French Revolution was the culmination of complex forces fermenting since at


Why Study American History

least the sixteenth century. Most important of all was the Commercial Revolution. World commerce flourished on Western Europe’s new oceanic highways to India and the Americas. European colonies and demands for new markets stimulated industry, manufactures, and a higher standard of living. France, Prussia, the Netherlands, England emerged on the North Atlantic littoral as new national states subject as much to burghers as to kings and barons. It was immaterial whether economic theoreticians talked of mercantilism, physiocratism, or capitalism, of controlled markets or free markets. They all had one goal in mind, power and wealth. The theocentric world of medievalism was dead. All would be well on earth as long as God remained in his Heavens and left men to manage their own affairs.

The new economic changes which ultimately would mean so much to the Jew were underpinned by rationalizing and humanitarian gestures and convictions. Philosophers talked and wrote of natural rights and natural religion, of Deism and Enlightenment, but they linked philosophy to reality when they declared that all men were entitled to life, liberty and property. It was in this crucial century, the years between 1650 and 1750, that a new Jewish center took shape in the mainly German-speaking lands of Central Europe, stretching all the way from Alsace to the borders of Poland. In the burgeoning world of international commerce and industry this Central European development was the first of the modern Jewish communities. The hated Jewish usurer of the early seventeenth century now became a respected banker. Economically, culturally, socially, the Jew started up the ladder. In 1743 a hunchbacked Yiddish-speaking student knocked at the gates of Berlin; a generation later he was a textile manufacturer and a recognized German stylist, aesthete, and philosopher, winner of a Berlin Academy of Science prize in competition with Immanuel Kant. This man was Moses Mendelssohn.

It is clear that most Jews would not think of leaving an ascendant and liberalizing Europe, but it is equally obvious that there would always be individuals willing to seek an ever larger measure of opportunity in the overseas colonies. European settlers were desperately needed there. Jews were encouraged to go by mercantilistically-minded governments and by wealthy Jews ever ready to sponsor the migration of impoverished coreligionists. In 1649, just one year after the treaty was signed at Muenster bringing to an end the fierce religious wars between Protestant and Catholic powers, a lonely Jew walked the streets of Boston. He, too, like Mendelssohn in Berlin, was symbolic of the future. In 1492 Spanish Jews had moved eastward after the expulsion; in 1648, with the Cossack massacres in Eastern Europe the stream of immigration turned westward until suspended by the enactment of the American Immigration Act of 1924. By the late seventeenth century there were already dozens of European settle-


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

ments in the Western World, and there was hardly one that did not shelter a handful of secret or professed Jews who had spilled over from Europe.

The First American Jews:

Mexico, South America, and the West Indies

The oldest colonies in the New World were those of the Spanish and Portuguese and they were closed to Jews as Jews. But as the historian, Kayserling, has pointed out: If Spanish Jewish history ended with the Inquisition, American Jewish history began with the Inquisition. The forced converts of the Iberian Peninsula fled to the colonies because the Holy Office of the Inquisition persisted in hounding them. Jewish blood, the Holy Office insisted, was predisposed to heresy. In the New World, the Iberians of Jewish ancestry, whom Christian Spain denigrated as Mar-ranos or Conversos or New Christians, hoped at least to survive as human beings, if they could not survive as practitioners of their own distinctive Judeo-Christian way of life. There were others of converso stock who had long since lost interest in Judaism but sailed for the New World colonies because they saw a bright economic future for themselves overseas. Columbus himself was probably no Jew, as some have maintained, although it is true that he was encouraged and given aid by converso capitalists. “Not jewels but Jews were the real financial basis of the first expedition of Columbus,” wrote a Johns Hopkins historian.3

According to the Jewish calendar, the expulsion from Spain took place on the Ninth of Ab, the anniversary of the fall of Jerusalem. The very next day Columbus set out on a voyage that would uncover a new land destined in the distant future to offer refuge to millions of Jews fleeing from European disabilities and pogroms. Pious Jews are fond of quoting the talmudic maxim: “Before God brings the disaster he provides the remedy” (Meg. 13b). Luis de Torres, Columbus’s interpreter, probably one of the first men over the side after sighting land, settled down in Cuba to become America’s first Jewish settler though if the Indians encountered here were, as some of the Spanish thought, remnants of the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel, de Torres was only a Jewish latecomer to North America.

By the late sixteenth century Spanish and Portuguese New Christians had scattered all the way from Cuba to the Philippines and on into China. What was their occupational distribution, their class differentiation? They were anything from beggars to governors, and in between one could find an assortment that included farmers, priests, merchants, and miners. An openly Jewish community life was of course impossible, but those who retained Jewish loyalties had cells and when they assembled furtively they


Why Study American History

practiced what came to be a distorted twilight version of Judaism. The largest of these “communities” were in Peru and in Mexico. Are they to be regarded as Jews? Yes, for they deemed themselves Children of Israel and were in constant touch with unconverted Jews who had wandered in from Europe. By the mid-seventeenth century crypto-Jewish Marranos had been driven deep underground; many had been pitilessly rooted out by the Holy Office. As early as 1528 one of the conquistadors who had fought with Cortez in Mexico was burnt at the stake as a judaizer. This was Hernando Alonso, a smith, who perished in Mexico City almost a hundred years before the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock. In January, 1639, the Inquisition cremated Dr. Francisco Maldonado de Silva in Lima, Peru. Although the father, a New Christian, had reared the son as a Roman Catholic, the young man somehow found his way back to Judaism and secretly practiced his new-old faith until betrayed by a sister whom he had attempted to convert. While rotting in prison, he managed to fashion a rope of comhusks and swung himself out of his cell to bring words of comfort to fellow prisoners. When many years before his execution a member of his family warned him to give up his Judaism, Maldonado de Silva answered that “even if he had a thousand lives he would gladly lose them in the service of the living God.” He was put to death because he denied Jesus. Less than a decade later Jesuit missionaries serving in the wilds of America were tortured and murdered by Indians. These priests affirmed Jesus. The traditions of these martyrs, both Christian and non-Christian, were destined to bring a glow of pride to unborn generations of Catholics and Jews.'

Not all of the New World was Spanish: Brazil, explored by the Portuguese with the aid of Jewish-born mariners and pioneers, soon became an important outpost. More so even than in the Spanish colonies, the Jews —New Christians—were among the Portuguese colony’s Pilgrim Fathers, and when the crowns of Spain and Portugal were united in 1580, crypto-Jews infiltrated every Christian settlement in Latin America. Whatever there was of Jewish life in Brazil necessarily remained subterranean until 1624 when the Protestant Dutch began their conquest of the northeastern tip of the bulge. In the next decade Recife (Pernambuco) fell under Dutch control and was soon sheltering a great Jewish community, the first to be legally recognized in the New World. In its heyday it numbered about a thousand souls. Jews arrived from every corner of Europe and, though the Protestant Church and the Christian merchants vociferously resented the newcomers, they established themselves firmly in the colony. Holland and her West India Company were resolved to obtain a return on their investment. The new Jewish settlement was metropolitan in character; there were synagogs, a cemetery, a rabbi, schools, kosher meat, confraternities—among them one that raised money for the needy


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

Jews of Palestine—and even Jewish-owned gambling houses, which were compelled to close on the Sabbath. There was no comparable Jewish life in North America until the second quarter of the nineteenth century.

That Brazilian community vanished in 1654 when the Portuguese reconquered the land, compelling Protestants and Jews to depart. The reconquest gave birth to a Brazilian Jewish Diaspora. Many returned to Europe, but some later came back to the New World. A few of the exiles turned to the French dependencies, finding a temporary haven on Martinique and Guadeloupe and a grudging refuge during the next century on Saint-Dominique. Colbert, the far-sighted mercantilist, sought to open the French islands to these industrious emigres. More permanent Jewish settlements were established during the 1650’s and the succeeding decades in the Dutch colonies of Surinam and Curasao and on English Barbados and Jamaica. Surinam and the Caribbean colonies were richer, more valuable, and consequently more important than the contemporary colonies on the North American mainland. To no small degree, the prosperity of the West Indies was built on sugar. That was the cash crop. Early Jewish settlers in Brazil may have helped bring sugar cane to the New World in the sixteenth century, and for the next three centuries they were tied up with the industry. Like their neighbors, they were slave owners and their mulatto children were occasionally reared as Jews. Some Jews owned plantations and sugar mills; others were merchant-shippers exporting Caribbean staples and South American specie. Directly or indirectly the Islanders tapped the Spanish South American trade. In exchange for local dyewoods, indigo, coffee, cacao, sugar, and molasses, Jewish shippers imported and sold Dutch and English manufactures and North American provisions. But most Jews, town dwellers, were petty tradesmen. Despite their many opportunities, life was not easy for these frontiersmen. This was particularly true on Jamaica. The Christian merchants and even some of the planters were often hostile. The steady traffic, the coming and going between Europe and the Islands, kept Continental prejudices fresh. The Jews constituted a substantial percentage of the urban whites; they stood out on Jews Street; Christian mercantile rivals berated them as “low-life thieves.” Jamaica saw anti- Jewish disabilities persist till the middle of the eighteenth century when the British authorities slowly bore down on the obstreperous Islanders. A world of mercantilism and imperial integration left scant room for prejudice against businessmen.

The Jews of Surinam and the Islands were not intimidated. They tended store and built their communities, patterned on Recife and Amsterdam. As recently as 1825, Curasao was the largest Jewish settlement in the Western Hemisphere. The Caribbean Islands were studded with congregations, numerous cemeteries, and pious associations which per-


Why Study American History

formed almost every conceivable social and philanthropic task. It was not uncommon to meet with knowledgeable Hebraists, for Caribbean wealth attracted immigrants of intellectual achievement; the Antilles were deemed an extension of Europe. The Spanish-Portuguese tradition of belles lettres—all but totally absent in the contemporary North American colonies—made itself felt, and it is not improbable that the well-to-do cultured Sephardic planter and businessman predisposed the conservative Britons toward the emancipation of English Jewry; Jews and pro-Jewish publicists stoutly maintained that, if given rights, the Jews in Britain herself could measure up to the colonials. The blend of general and Jewish learning is exemplified by the Haham, or rabbi, of Kingston, Jamaica, Joshua Hezekiah De Cordova. Here was the Sephardi at his best, a Latinist, linguist, student of the sciences, and adept in Bible and Talmud. It was the Haham De Cordova who wrote the first English work on Judaism to be published in the New World. Reason and Faith he called his defense of Judaism against Deists and atheists. The book was twice reprinted in the United States, for the first time in 1791.

Colonial North America


One of De Cordova’s grandnephews was a pioneer Texas newspaper publisher, a land promoter, who helped lay out the city of Waco. Today this unconverted Jew rests peacefully—one hopes—under a large stone cross erected by his pious Christian descendants. The Texan De Cordova is said to have owned more than a million acres of land in 1854. But just 200 years earlier the first Jews to settle in North America had barely owned the shirts on their backs. They were Brazilian refugees who had been taken captive by Spanish privateers as they fled from Recife. Twenty-three of them landed at Dutch New Amsterdam in late August or early September, 1654. The following spring saw Jewish merchants of substance arrive from Amsterdam. The first community was now established.5

These Jewish newcomers of 1654-1655 were not made very welcome by Peter Stuyvesant, the Calvinist director general of the colony. He wanted no infidel Jews; he wanted no Catholics; indeed he despised all non-Calvinist Protestants. “Giving them [the Jews] liberty, we cannot refuse the Lutherans and Papists,” the Governor wrote the West India Company in October, 1655. Less than a year earlier, in Amsterdam, the Sephardim had excommunicated Spinoza. Jews, too, despised and feared heretics and “troublemakers.” Stuyvesant denied the Jews almost every right and liberty. Hardly a country in all Europe was as restrictive as New


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

Netherland. David Ferera, found guilty of contempt, was fined 800 guilders, an enormous sum, and in addition was ordered to be scourged at the stake and then banished. This was bad, but the Quakers in the colony received even harsher treatment. One of them was tortured and nearly beaten to death.

But the Jews were not pacifists. Knowing full well their value, they fought vigorously for the right to carry on trade. A new age was in the making. Holland and England wanted Jews. Cromwell admitted them to London; the Dutch and the English competed for them on the wild Guiana Coast; Amsterdam Jewish merchants were stockholders in the Dutch West India Company, an enterprise never unconscious of the biblical verse deemed supportive of mercantilism: “In the multitude of people is the king’s honour, but in the want of people is the destruction of the prince” (Prov. 14:28). The company overrode the zealous Stuyvesant and by 1657 the Jews had won enough rights to survive in New Netherland. As soon as there were ten male adults, they conducted services. Within two years they owned a cemetery and started filling it, largely no doubt due to the tremendously high rate of infant mortality. The colony’s Jews traded on the Hudson and the Delaware, bought tobacco in Maryland, shipped products to Holland and the Caribbean, and, with or without permission, opened modest retail shops. Yet by 1663 the little community had begun to melt away. That year it returned its borrowed Scroll of the Law to the mother congregation in Amsterdam. Had Stuyvesant and his ungracious cohorts succeeded in killing the community? Not necessarily. The Jewish settlers left because there were greater opportunities in Surinam, Curacao, and in the English West Indies. At no time in the seventeenth century were there more than a couple of hundred Jews in the North American tidewater. Ten years after the Brazilian emigres landed at the Battery, Stuyvesant capitulated to the English and New Amsterdam became New York. The English now ruled the coast all the way from Maine to the Carolinas.

The Jewish community faded away, but individuals stayed on. Among them was a man named Asser Levy, a petty trader in Fort Orange and New Amsterdam. Levy was apparently too poor to pay the military exemption tax imposed on the Jews because, as the governor said, the trainbands were unwilling to serve with them. A tough, energetic man, always an aggressive personality, Levy refused to pay the tax and ultimately won the right to stand guard and be recognized as a burgher. Under the British he became a merchant, an importer, and an amateur attorney. Though not endowed with prophetic insight he opened a slaughterhouse quite appropriately on what is today Wall Street. In later years his influence extended even into New England, where he spread his sheltering wings over a Jewish peddler who had been tried and fined for


Why Study American History

“lascivious daliance and wanton profers to severall women.” The year he intervened for the amorous peddler, he sat on a jury trying a case in which Stuyvesant, the former director general, was the defendant. The jury found for the defendant, the very man who had once invited Levy to leave New Netherland. Later, when Levy’s estate was inventoried, the court listed goblets, a special lamp, and a spice box, all needed for the observance of the Sabbath. They also found two swords and a gun. All these items aptly characterize the man who would become the symbol of continuity. As a Jew and as a citizen, he had hewed out a home for himself on this remote North American frontier.6


For the last seventeen years of his life Levy lived under English rule. Jewish history in North America was now part of English history to 1776. American Jewry was to remain pitifully small, never more than one-tenth of one percent of the population into the nineteenth century, and never more than 1 percent of World Jewry till as late as 1850. Very few Jews set out for America; after all, Europe was then flourishing, an era of wealth and culture and political liberalization was opening. There were no savage Indians lurking in Berlin and London; Sephardic emigres in the southern colonies feared the Spanish threat in Florida, and, in any event, Iberian Jews practically stopped coming after 1720 since by then the Inquisition had become quiescent; the wars with the French were to drag on in the Americas from the 1680’s to the 1760’s. From what places, then, did the Jewish settlers come? Some straggled in from the Caribbean; most immigrants, however, were Central and East European villagers.7

Why did these Ashkenazim come? The teenager Michael Gratz was an adventurer. He had already been to distant India; now he would try his luck in America: “I must learn . . . how things are done in the world.” Some of the newcomers were fed up with the disabilities Europe persisted in imposing on Jews. As late as 1770, the Westphalian principality of Lippe Detmold issued this pronouncement:

All foreign beggars, collectors, [German] Jewish peddlers, Polish Jews, jugglers, bear trainers and tramps are forbidden access to this country under penalty of sentence to prison. All gypsies caught will be hanged and shot.8

Like his fellow Christian immigrant, the Jew came here primarily to improve himself economically, and often he succeeded. Young Jacob Franks, who landed here in the first decade of the eighteenth century, seems to have made both ends meet by teaching Hebrew. Before he died he was one of the country’s largest army purveyors and one of the most influential men in all of North America.


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

Who came? The rich? Did rich Americans flock to Alaska in the midnineteenth century? Jacob Franks’s brothers, already successful, stayed in London. Brother Jacob made good here and married the daughter of Moses Levy. Back in England the successful Levy clan had dispatched Moses to the colonies where he speedily built an economic empire of his own. His brothers, too, remained home. Frontier North America was simply not an inviting prospect for European Jews in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This country would play no important role in world history till the second half of the nineteenth century. Among those who came were Jewish remittance men, misfits never able to make a living anywhere, and Jewish indentured servants. A few “transports” were landed, criminals condemned to exile by the British for their misdeeds. Fifteen-year-old Feibel, the son of Jacob Joseph, the Dover “rabbi,” was sentenced to serve seven years in the colonies because he had stolen a handkerchief worth ten pennies. But Feibel was exceptional: the typical immigrant was a young unmarried man who came to these shores aided by relatives and fortified with cash or a modest stock of goods or a line of credit in London.

Where did they settle? They made their way in all sixteen British provinces from Quebec to West Florida, although there is no evidence of Jews in Maine, New Hampshire, and East Florida in the days before the Revolution. They were found in Montreal, Quebec, and Halifax, in the larger tidewater towns of the Atlantic coast, in Pensacola, Mobile, and Franco-Spanish New Orleans. Communities were established in Montreal, Newport, New York, Philadelphia, Lancaster, Charleston, and Savannah, but there was no guarantee of immediate speedy growth for any of them. New Amsterdam-New York, Newport, Charleston, and Savannah saw a “community” rise only to fall before a new conventicle rose on the vestiges of the past. Though New York was one of the smaller provinces numerically, it sheltered the mother synagog, but even so never counted more than 400 Jews, and that may be a liberal estimate. There were no Jewish settlements in the two largest provinces, Virginia and Massachusetts. The tobacco colony could not use capital-poor shopkeepers; the New England Jews apparently preferred Newport to the more competitive Boston. The Puritans were not particularly hospitable. The seven established North American communities served as regional and subregional centers for the Jews scattered in the backcountry. These Jewish frontiersmen were active as trader-outfitters and shopkeepers as far north as Mackinac and as far south as Augusta, Georgia.


If Jews were found almost anywhere, it was because they enjoyed immunities which enabled them to make a living. By 1657 the Dutch had


Why Study American History

granted the Jews privileges indispensable for carrying on business. After the English took over, they extended these rights, allowing Jews legally to practice crafts, to sell at retail, and to hold religious services. In these ameliorative grants the London government was exemplary, for by the year 1700 the Jews had been assimilated into the English economy. Yet certain disabilities still persisted on this side of the Atlantic: cemeteries and synagogs were not incorporated; Jews were taxed for the support of church establishments, and honorific offices were denied them, although they were allowed in some colonies to vote for provincial officials. (On a local level it is hard to imagine that the Jewish shopkeeper was denied the franchise. Would Easton, Pennsylvania, dare discriminate against Myer Hart, one of the original settlers and its leading shopkeeper?)

Back home the mercantile-minded British government was not happy with the lack of adequate naturalization laws embracing all non-Catholic aliens in the colonies. (Native-born Jews were deemed native-born Englishmen.) More liberal and far-visioned than the colonists, Parliament in 1740 passed an imperial Plantation Act that made it possible to naturalize any Jewish alien in the American colonies. Jews could now buy and sell anywhere in the Empire under the protection of the Acts of Trade and Navigation. In those days, however, naturalization did not open the way to public office; that was restricted to Christians, primarily Anglicans. Liberty is relative. In 1751 Pennsylvania proudly celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its charter of privileges by casting a bell in London that carried the Old Testament inscription: “Ye shall proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” The bell was brought to these shores in the Myrtilla owned by Levy and Franks, but David Franks, already a third-generation American, was excluded from some of the charter’s prerogatives because he would not “profess belief in Jesus Christ.” Rhode Island, Roger Williams’s soul child, disabled its Jews through sundry devices. Even after the enactment of the imperial Plantation Act, the Rhode Island colony refused to naturalize Aaron Lopez, destined within a decade to become Newport’s most eminent merchant. The province that would be willing to entrust its most delicate negotiations to his judgment—its stake in the future of the Newfoundland fisheries—was the province that had refused to naturalize him.

Jews were not deterred by what was in effect anti-Jewish legislation. Four of the seven towns in which Jews settled had church establishments with their discriminatory taxation. Sunday closing laws were annoying:

Henceforth let none on peril of their lives,

Attempt a journey or embrace their wives.

Jews often labored under special disadvantages. They had to padlock their shops on both Saturday and Sunday, for in prerevolutionary times most


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

were strict observers of the Saturday Sabbath. A Maryland merchant, Jacob Lumbrozo, was charged with blasphemy in the 1650’s because he had denied the divinity of Jesus. That, under the terms of the Toleration Act, was a capital crime, but he escaped punishment. Did he save his life by converting to Christianity? It was the first and last time that any Jew was charged with blasphemy. North American Jews made no public fight for political privilege as did their bellicose coreligionists on Jamaica. The Anglo-American Franks clan was among the proprietors of the new colony of Vandalia, yet assented to the proposal to grant immunities to Christians only; Francis Salvador in South Carolina’s rump Provincial Assembly was no more heroic. Very likely he offered no protest when Protestantism was declared the established religion of the new state, thus continuing the disabilities already traditional in the colony. Were the Jews unusually supine? They kept their mouths shut and accepted a secondary status because they were convinced that there was nothing that they could do to improve it; they realized that on the whole they lived in the freest country in the world. Here in the colonies there were no compulsory ghettos, no tough anti-Jewish guilds, no special jeopardy to Jewish life and limb, nothing analogous to the situation which in the 1770’s saw Baptists in Virginia jailed for their religious convictions.


Many of the Virginians who came to Williamsburg in 1759 to see Shy-lock’s story told in The Merchant of Venice, had probably never glimpsed a Jew—and probably did not know that the local physician, Dr. John de Sequeyra (Siccary), was a Jew. There were very few flesh and blood Jews then in Virginia because the province had no large towns; Jews were city folk and, for the most part, had not followed the plough for a thousand years. There were some Jewish demi-farmers in the colonies: for example the Hayses of Westchester, the clan that published the New York Times in the twentieth century. Down South the Jews were pioneers in the cultivation of grapes and were among the first entrepreneurs to further the silk industry in Georgia as well as the marketing of indigo in South Carolina. Francis Salvador grew indigo on his plantation in the Ninety Six District. This cultured English immigrant had come to the colonies to rebuild the family fortunes; the Salvadors had once owned 100,000 acres in the Carolina hinterland. In the new province of Georgia, the Sheftalls ran cattle in the pine barrens; they were ranchers as well as merchants. Mordecai Shef-tall’s brand was the 5S because he had five youngsters. Mordecai’s half brother Levi was also a rancher—the L diamond S—but made his money as a butcher. Despite the fact that Jews were kept out of the crafts in Europe, some artisans were always to be found in every land. In America, too, there were few trades which could not boast of at least one Jewish


Why Study American History

practitioner. Some Jews, like Myer Meyers, were silver and goldsmiths. Meyers was a fine craftsman, and his skill and taste are still reflected in his silver Torah ornaments and in the baptismal bowl he fashioned for a Presbyterian church. Some of the artisans were specialists, performing artists, who toured the provinces astonishing the yokels. Henry Hymes could balance nineteen wine glasses on his chin to a height of almost six feet. The gamut of men in the professions—no women—included congregational employees, interpreters, amateur attorneys, physicians, and surgeons. None was notable, though Dr. Sequeyra solemnly assured his patients that if they ate tomatoes they would never die. This is reported by no less a witness than Thomas Jefferson, who certainly lived to a ripe old age.9

The real metier of the Jew was and is business. In eighteenth-century America, the biggest business of all was army supply, and the Frankses were, as likely as not, at the top of the heap. In the intermittent War for the World that stretched from the Mississippi to Calcutta between 1689 and 1815, the Frankses supplied provisions for the American troops. It would be difficult to overestimate their importance in making possible the British conquest of Canada and the transallegheny West. Army supply was of course a gamble, but even more hazardous were privateering and lotteries, the “stock market” of that day. To lose money on lottery tickets or in privateering, one has to make it somewhere, and Jews made it— such as it was—primarily as shopkeepers selling hard, soft or dry goods in addition to wet goods: it was hardware, cloth, and liquor on which Jews founded their economy. Stocks were small, practically all sales were on a credit basis, and debts frequently had to be collected through the courts. It is interesting to note that not a single Jew is known to have made a living exclusively as a moneylender, pawnbroker, or old clothes dealer. In some towns, nearly 10 percent of the businessmen were Jews, which made for high visibility on Front Street. The local shopkeeper rarely dealt directly with the merchant-supplier in London or Bristol. He bought what he needed from his regional wholesaler. In the world of business there was no one higher than the merchant. The Frankses were exemplary merchants; they handled everything from enamel fountainpens to newly-built ships, but rarely tobacco, the most important of all the colonial commodities. Merchants, Jews among them, were retailers, wholesalers, commissionmen, bill brokers, maritime insurers, and manufacturers; in short, they were merchant capitalists. Their prime job was to export North American raw materials, provisions, and semi-finished goods in exchange for West Indian staples and British manufactures. They owned ships, warehouses, and wharves, and would not balk at smuggling when their economy demanded it. Diversification was the norm in order to minimize losses and enlarge opportunities.


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

Aaron Lopez offers a classical example of a great merchant-shipper. He was twenty-one when he came to Newport a Portuguese refugee (1752). Starting as a shopkeeper, he branched out in the coastal traffic and very slowly moved into the transoceanic trade, dispatching ships, lumber, and provisions to English and West Indian ports. Above all else a brilliant manipulator of credit, he was nonetheless highly respected for his integrity. Ten years after he landed, he was on the way to sizable wealth. In 1768 his fleet made thirty-seven coastal voyages; he owned or chartered about thirty ships. Employing the typical domestic or put-out system of that prefactory age, he assembled, manufactured, or processed meats, cheeses, fish, chocolate, rum, potash, and soap. The shoes he ordered made for his trade were worn as far west as Detroit and Michilimackinac; his prefabricated houses were erected in Central America, and he was one of the first Jewish garment manufacturers—specializing, of course, in the proletarian trade. A whaler and a candle manufacturer, he was a member of the United Company of Spermaceti Candlers, an unsuccessful cartel. He and his father-in-law, Jacob R. Rivera, were the largest, and for many years virtually the only, Jewish slave importers, persisting in what was at best an extremely hazardous business. By 1774 Lopez was the biggest taxpayer in Newport, a major American commercial center. Yet his death by accidental drowning in 1782 found him insolvent, an economic victim of the Revolutionary War.

Lopez played no part in the fur business. In the eighteenth century furs constituted less than 3 percent of North American exports to the mother country. The trade, however, was all important to the Canadian Jews and bulked large in the affairs of some of their New York and Pennsylvania coreligionists. The Gomezes of the 1720’s had a trading post near Newburgh, New York, and the building is still there, the oldest known Jewish structure in the colonies. The fur trade was not for delicate personalities. The Devil’s Dance Chamber was dangerous country:

For none that visit the Indian’s den,

Return again to the haunts of men;

The knife is their doom, oh sad is their lot;

Beware! beware of the blood-stained spot.

A great deal is known about the Pennsylvania Jewish fur traders. By sheer accident their papers have survived. Actually few of them were traders; instead, they were outfitters, capitalists like Simon, Trent, Levy & Company, who had opened a store at Fort Pitt in 1760 before the fortifications were even completed. Their field man was Levy Andrew Levy, who was captured by the Indians during the French and Indian War. One of the Nunezes of Georgia bought furs in Augusta, and in the wilds of the Old Southwest there was a Creek Indian by the name of Cohen, obviously a souvenir left behind by a Jewish entrepreneur.


Why Study American History

Fur trading, army supply, and land speculation were closely tied together: their common locale was the “heart of America,” the area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. After the French forces were driven out, British settlers and merchants, Jews among them, moved in to exploit the opportunity they believed awaited them in mining and in selling goods to the garrisons, the Indians, the Illinois habitants, and the onrushing English squatters. Notwithstanding the opposition of the British government many Americans—George Washington was one of them—were determined to establish massive colonies in the area and to peddle acreage to land hungry newcomers. To a greater or lesser degree, the Pennsylvania Jews took part in several such enterprises. They planned to establish colonies between the Monongahela and the Mississippi; one of the colonies included the site of present-day Chicago. All these designs failed, since their claims to millions of acres were never recognized by the new states and the United States Congress. The railroads of the mid-nineteenth century would be more successful in profiting from the huge grants made them by a generous national government. Yet though these early colonizing schemes came to grief, the large stocks of supplies they shipped in, the deals they made with the Indians and others, prepared the way for settlers and pushed back the frontier.

Socially, Jews belonged to one class, a broadly-conceived middle class. Very few were impoverished; only a handful were rich. With all the opportunities available in an America which still hugged the tidewater, why could they not all become rich? They were handicapped by the lack of market and credit information, banking facilities, and sound currencies. The risks on land and sea were numerous and incalculable. At one time or another many if not most Jewish merchants became bankrupt, but almost invariably they bounced back. The typical colonial Jew was a shopkeeper who never went hungry, owned a home and a Negro slave-servant or had a white maid whom he kept until she broke the dishes. Fie always paid his congregational dues if he had the money and if he was properly dunned. The career of Mordecai Gomez is typical of the successful merchants. When he passed away at New York City in 1750, this Sephardic aristocrat left behind him slaves, silverware, snuff mills, and a number of houses and lots. During a smallpox scare, the Provincial Assembly met in his summer home in Greenwich Village. He did not forget to leave a legacy for the synagog and, what was equally generous, set up an annuity for his mother-in-law.10

Did the Jews make a significant contribution to the colonial economy? It never occurred to Jewish businessmen to make a contribution; they wanted to make a living, to be left alone, and to enjoy the security of low visibility. Actually they were by no means unimportant purveyors of sorely needed goods in an agrarian economy remote from industrial


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

sources. In their own modest fashion, the wares of the Jewish shopkeeper served to maintain and raise the colonial standard of living. Through his religious association with fellow Jews, he ignored and transcended colonial barriers. By virtue of his intercolonial traffic, the Jewish shipper brought people and products together, disseminating goods and even ideas. In 1712 Joseph Addison wrote in the Spectator that the Jews

are become the instruments ... by which mankind are knit together in a general correspondence. They are like the pegs and nails in a great building which, though they are but little valued in themselves, are absolutely necessary to keep the whole frame together.

Thus the Jewish businessman contributed to the breakdown of geographic particularism and aided in the decomposition of parochialism. In a way, he too assisted in creating a common American culture uniting the colonies and preparing the way for the new nationalism which would culminate in the American Revolution/


Mordecai Gomez served four terms as the president of New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel. In his will he bequeathed the “Five Books of Moses and one pair of silver ornaments” to his son Isaac, named after a grandfather who had languished as a judaizer in an Inquisitional prison. It must be borne in mind constantly that for the colonial Jew Judaism was important; he would not have remained in colonial America despite its opportunities if he had not been permitted to practice his faith. To ensure that the religion would live and be passed on to his children, he established a synagog, a cemetery, a school, and a system of charities. These in effect, constituted a community which like the European counterpart upon which it was patterned, was in essence a compulsory one: “Join with us or we will ostracize and excise you. We won’t even bury you.” What choice did a newcomer have? Was he to convert and join the Christians?

Colonial Jewry’s leading businessmen were mostly immigrants with strong religious loyalties; they automatically brought their institutions and practices and folkways with them to North America. These immigrants dominated American Jewish life until the early nineteenth century and never forgot the European rock whence they were hewn. Their Judaism was of the traditional type; there was no other at the time. It was an indoctrinated compound of theology, practices, and religious exercises. The Jews believed in one God who had revealed himself to them alone and had covenanted with them to be their God if they would keep his rituals and adhere to his ethical commands. If they made atonement for sin through good works he would send them a Messiah in his own good time


Why Study American History

and restore them to the Promised Land where they would await the resurrection and the great day of judgment. Theology as such was something to accept and forget. The ongoing life cycle ceremonies were more real: circumcision, bar mitzvah (by which the thirteen-year-old boy became a man), marriage, burial, and mourning. The immigrant generation kept the dietary laws, saw to it that the women took their monthly ablutions in a mikveh, and were generally meticulous in celebrating the Sabbath and Holy Days.

The synagog began in a rented room, moved on to a house, and finally to a new building of its own. Synagogs for the living and cemeteries for the dead were almost coeval. There was a burial plot in New Amsterdam in 1656, but the oldest extant cemetery in the country is that of Newport (1678); New York’s Chatham Square graveyard dates from 1682. Two synagog buildings were erected by the Jews in colonial days: in 1730, fifty-six years before the Roman Catholic Church constructed a permanent sanctuary in New York City, the Jews dedicated their Mill Street synagog. Newport followed in 1763. During the Revolution, Montreal and Philadelphia consecrated new buildings of their own. The Newport sanctuary was one of the most beautiful of colonial structures, unique in Jewish history in that it was planned for Jews by an Episcopalian who turned to pagan antiquity for his design. Though the sole rite maintained in all colonial synagogs was the Spanish-Portuguese or Sephardic, every Jew, no matter of what background, was a welcome guest, and the Ashkenazic newcomers apparently found it easy enough to adjust to the unfamiliar liturgy. Except for a social club in Newport, the synagog of that day was the only Jewish organization in town. It was the community’s associative center serving a variety of purposes. The leadership, composed of a president (parnas) and a board (mahamad or junto) was entirely lay; the congregational employees were, in effect, hired hands: a beadle (shammash), a ritual slaughterer (shohet), and a hazzan, a precentor, who chaunted the worship service and taught the children. The mohel or circumciser was not part of the official family; very often he was a pious volunteer. No rabbi was ever employed by a North American synagog until the second quarter of the nineteenth century; no community believed that it could afford the luxury of a talmudic academician—in the unlikely event that such a dignitary would have been willing to settle on this far western frontier of European civilization. As it was, all the employees, shohet, shammash, and even hazzan, had to hustle on the side to make an extra pound. They could not live on their communal salaries.


The laymen may have had no money for a rabbi, but, despite the burden of double taxation in several towns, taxation by Jewish communal author-


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

ities and taxation by the established church, there was always money in the treasury for obras pias, pious works. The synagogal mahamad was a complete social welfare agency in itself. The aid given was in the form of money, food, fuel, clothes, medical attention, and sick care. The local respectable poor who had come down in the world, or had never gone up, were pensioned. Transients coming from all corners of the earth were courteously treated, fed, and more or less gently pushed onto the next leg of their often endless odyssey. Palestinian visitors and “messengers of the Merciful One” came here as early as 1759, but candidates for alms also came from Europe, Surinam, and the Caribbean Islands: such clients were never wanting. Here is the whole story in one laconic sentence: “To cash for lodging, boarding, doctering, and burying Solomon Solomons, £23, 8, 10.” Rehabilitation? The minutes of the New York congregation record pathology not cures. Any self-respecting Jew who wanted to peddle or start a business could always get an assortment of goods on credit. New York’s Shearith Israel lent Michael Judah enough money to open a shop in Norwalk, Connecticut. Theodore Dehone Judah, who planned the first railroad across the Sierras, was Michael’s great-grandson, but by that time the Connecticut Judahs had long been Christians.13

No matter how small a community, it was riven with dissension. Bitter hatreds plagued every Jewish settlement, for unhappy men, immigrants struggling to make a living, vented their frustrations on one another. Within a week or so after their landing in New Amsterdam—it was in September, 1654—two Jewish Pilgrim Fathers were confronting each other in the courts. During the next century one of the Nordens of Savannah found a unique way to revenge himself on fellow townsmen. His will reads: “Sheftalls need not come to my funeral.” But the potential for fragmentation was countered by the leadership, the synagogal board, which though, in every community, autocratic in intent, was permissive in practice. After all every Jew was needed, often desperately needed, for a minyan, a religious quorum. The colonial Jew readily understood this equation: no minyan, no services; no Judaism, no survival. Despite “Jewish Wars,” no congregation ever fell apart because of factionalism; in a final showdown, a truce was almost always patched up. Unity had been developing for a long time among the Jews here: the English language, the primary medium of communication, tied them all together, and the Sephardic minority took comfort in the thought that its rite had prevailed in all the congregations. Initial polarization between Sephardim and Ashkenazim was the norm, but then they began to intermarry; ultimately the colonial Jewish community was a melting pot of at least a dozen ethnic elements. Gershom Seixas, the Revolutionary War minister, half-Sephardi and half-Ashkenazi, married an Ashkenazi, and notwithstanding his love for Spanish meatballs learned to smack his lips over a German


Why Study American History

pudding, kugel. All the congregations leaned heavily on the mother synagog, Shearith Israel, in New York; the New Yorkers completely dominated American Jewish spiritual life. From Montreal to Savannah, the communities (kahals) kept in touch with one another through wandering mendicants, visits, gifts, letters, and an occasional exchange of pulpits by cantors (hazzanim).14

Relations with Jews in other lands were just as intimate. “Every Jew is responsible for his fellow Jew.” Diaspora Jews had learned to do without a hierarchy; religion and kinship cemented them firmly together. Shearith Israel was in constant touch with the Sephardim of Bevis Marks in London and with the Dutch and English Jews in the Antilles. The Jews here sought aid and gave aid. Aaron Lopez called upon the Surinamese to help build the Newport sanctuary, and when St. Eustatius in the Caribbean was devastated by a hurricane the New Yorkers helped the Jews there rebuild their shattered house of worship. These, to be sure, were the very people with whom the Jews of North America did business: the synagog followed trade and trade followed the synagog.1

Simon the Just, a Jewish high priest in pre-Christian times, once said: “The world stands on three pillars: the Teaching (Torah), worship, and deeds of loving kindness” (Abot 1:2). It is worth noting that Torah— learning, education—comes first in his scale of values. At all times the purpose of religious instruction was to condition the child to be spiritually, religiously, loyally Jewish, to enable him to establish a right relationship with his God. Ribbis, teachers, were already working at their jobs in New York during the seventeenth century; schools were opened no later than the early eighteenth century. By 1731, a London philanthropist, yearning to pile up merits in the world to come, had enabled the New York congregation to construct a separate school building. This school was sui generis; it was a charity, a private, and a communal school all in one; the children of poor families paid no tuition. The curriculum included Hebrew, the prayers, blessings, and translation of the Pentateuch. Girls, too, were admitted to the classes, but of course only the boys were prepared for bar mitzvah. For its time it was a good school: it succeeded in training young Seixas to serve as a competent precentor. By 1755 secular studies were introduced, the three R’s and Spanish, though the Spanish was soon dropped. There is every reason to believe that the general subjects taught were adequate to prepare the youngsters to go on as commercial clerks or as apprentices in the crafts at the age of thirteen. No record extant indicates that any effort was ever made to teach adults rabbinic lore, even though there was always a sprinkling of learned men, some of whom possessed Hebrew libraries. The prerevolutionary Jew produced virtually nothing of intellectual value except two English translations of the Sephardic liturgy, the first such publications in either Amer-


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

ica or England. This is nothing to boast about in an age of great rabbinic learning, a generation that gave birth to the Hasidic Master of the Good Name, to Elijah, the Majestic Genius of Vilna, and to Moses Mendelssohn. But then there were a mere five hundred Jewish families in all America, and most of the Jews here paid only lip service to Jewish culture. They surely enjoyed being Jews, but did the colonies enjoy them?


Did the colonies enjoy the Jews—take pleasure or pride in their presence? A better question would be: Did the typical American—not the elite— enjoy anyone in this sense? Protestants vilified nonconformist Protestants, and all of them, conformist or not, feared and hated Catholics; no church had much use for Jews. Anti-Jewish prejudice among Christians is as old as the Gospels; “Jew” was always a term of contempt; the Jew was almost invariably perceived as the great deicide, the “Christ-Killer,” guilty, as Increase Mather put it, of “the most prodigious murther that ever the sun beheld.” Judeophobia came to the colonies in the baggage of the first immigrants, and the Jew was to remain a second-class citizen in America until the dawn of the nineteenth century. A tightly contested election to the New York Provincial Assembly in 1737 even temporarily deprived Jews of the franchise. Assemblyman William Smith, Hebraist and lawyer, harangued his colleagues on Christ’s sufferings at Calvary. Men wept— and voted—as they listened to the impassioned oratory. In the next decade, Lawyer Smith was afraid to undertake a case against Oliver, brother of the provincial Chief Justice, James De Lancey. Oliver De Lancey and a number of his cronies had broken into the home of a Jew and threatened violence to his attractive wife. De Lancey was drunk, but drunk or sober he had a penchant for Jewish women. Phila, his wife, was the daughter of Jacob Franks; one of their sons, Oliver, Jr., raised as a Christian, became an adjutant general in the British Army.16


There is no record of Jews complaining of abuse at the hands of Gentiles. Relatively speaking they were well-treated, and they knew it, for they had the example of the far more vehement prejudice of the British West Indies. The Islands were more European in the traditional anti-Jewish sense; North America, for reasons that are not entirely clear, was emotionally more immune from Continental Judeophobia. It is true that someone saw fit to to break the windows of the Newport synagog, but it is equally true that a Barbados mob tore down the entire synagog.

Were Jews more accepted here in North America because of a common Judeo-Christian heritage, because they were the children of the Old


Why Study American History

Testament and were deemed Hebraists? There is little—if indeed any— proof that a common belief in the first thirty-nine books of the Bible made for better Jewish-Christian relations. The first Christian colonial emigres had been Hebraists in an England which sheltered no overt Jews, and their descendants who pursued or were pursued by Hebrew courses at Harvard and Yale would have been exposed to Hebraic subjects had there been not a single Jew in America. Hebraic studies were most intense in colonial New England where Jews were conspicuous by their absence. Learned and pious Christians were perhaps interested in Hebrew; how else would they understand the angels singing psalms in Heaven? They were not interested in Hebrews, Jews. No individual is of one piece. Ezra Stiles nourished a barely concealed contempt for the faith of “professed enemies to a crucified Jesus,” yet esteemed as a dear friend the visiting Palestinian rabbi, Haim Isaac Carigal. There can be no question that the Gentiles here learned to live with their Jewish neighbors; they even published the Jewish calendar in their almanacs. How does one account for their more or less gracious acceptance of the Jews in their midst? Actually the non-Jews had no choice. The decision had been unequivocally made for them in the imperial Plantation Act of 1740: “The increase of people is a means of advancing the wealth and strength of any nation or country.” The Jews were not too conspicuous; there was—fortunately—in North America no unitary religiocultural pattern to which the Jew had to conform or be damned. It may well be, however, that the prime motivation impelling non-Jewish settlers to accept Jews was their need of them. Jews were shopkeepers and extended credit. That was important. The story is altogether different with the cultured few (Gentiles) who were often associated with the power structure. Under the influence of Deism and the Enlightenment, many intellectuals had come to believe that religious prejudice was wrong. Truly tolerant and humanitarian, they encouraged Masonry which emphasized religioethical universalism and frowned on Christian credal provincialism. Jews, quick to sense the spiritual, social, and political import of Masonry, became ardent devotees of the movement. It was a passport to better things. Moses M. Hays, an American-born Jewish businessman, introduced into North America and the Islands a Masonic system which was later to be affiliated with the Scottish Rite.17

The colonial non-Jew accepted the Jew; this explains in large part why the Jew accepted America. A few immigrants, accustomed to an intensely Jewish environment, were unhappy here and left; most of them stayed on. They enjoyed a large measure of social tolerance, civil rights, and economic privilege. Feeling at one with their neighbors, they worked closely with them in business and philanthropy; they were active in all that furthered the social and cultural welfare of the general community.


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

They marched with the militia; endured Indian captivities, and did what they could to improve the streets, wharves, hospitals, and colleges. As far south as Charleston, Jewish entrepreneurs rallied to the support of liberal Rhode Island College; Newport Jews sent the new school thousands of feet of lumber and even contributed “chierfully” to the erection of a Baptist Meeting House. Aid for the First Baptist Church in Providence was not the first instance of Jewish interest in a Christian house of worship. As far back as 1711 seven New York Jews, the “rabbi” among them, contributed funds to complete the steeple on Trinity Church. No later than the 1770’s, a Union Society of Jews, Catholics, and Protestants emerged in Savannah for general philanthropic purposes, and in that same decade the Newport synagog raised $120 to help Thomas Allen support his blind wife and seven blind children—all this in a generation when the Jews were being massacred by the thousands on the steppes of the Ukraine. Something of an index to Jewish acceptance of non-Jewish norms in America, Anglicization of names was typical: Amschel became Answell, Hirsch (deer) became Hart, and the Spanish Pardo became Brown. There is a record of three men, however, who did not find it necessary to change their names to document their Americanization: Sam Moses, Solomon Abraham, and Isaac Cohen. All three were native-born Indians.''


Adopting English names is only one aspect of Americanization and superficial in a way. Secular education is much more significant. Every Jewish child in colonial times was given some schooling; most of them attended the primitive private schools that dotted the towns and villages. For Jews, of course, this was all atypical, for in the areas of mass settlement, in Central and Eastern Europe, they received little if any formal training in the three R’s. Because in Europe general education and Christianity were one indivisible whole, Jews eyed all non-Jewish cultural studies warily. In the colonies, however, wealthier American Jews sent their youngsters to the private schools patronized by the aristocracy. Admission was easy; there was no numerus clausus, no Jewish quota such as prevailed in the United States in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Jews and Christians mixed freely in those elite circles. The children studied art and painting and cultivated music: when they grew up, they joined the musical clubs and played in the quartets. Most colleges were open to Jews but few matriculated. They simply saw no reason to attend schools of higher learning, most of whose students were candidates for the Christian ministry. Theology, classics, mathematics? This education buttered no Jewish parsnips. Of course it was not a college-going generation even for Gentiles; nor was it a book-reading generation. For every


Why Study American History

William Byrd who read a book, there were many more George Washingtons who had no interest in books. So, in that age of Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, and young Thomas Jefferson, the Jews in America could boast of no cultural accomplishments. (The one exception was the Grammar of the Hebrew Tongue, published in 1735 by Harvard College. Its author was Judah Monis, a Harvard instructor who had become a Christian.) American Jewry was too small, too obscure, too ill-prepared to make a literary contribution of any significance.

Still let it be accounted a virtue that these immigrants were as receptive as they were to Gentile learning. Clearly, the Jews here were convinced that they and their religion were not threatened by such exposure. Actually, here, too, they had little choice: American culture engulfed them; they were outnumbered a thousand to one. To be sure, like the Pennsylvania Germans, the Moravian Brethren, and the Georgia Ebene-zer Lutherans, the Jews might have chosen to isolate themselves—but, in fact, they were not farmers and declined to live apart in a religioethnic enclave; they opted to live in the frontier world of North American opportunity. Portuguese, Spanish, and Yiddish began to disappear: the Gratzes stuck to Yiddish phrases and paragraphs, but stopped writing entire Yiddish letters; Seixas never could speak Portuguese. Not that the Jews meant to become secularists—certainly that was not their conscious intent—but they were governed by self-interest. Shopkeepers and merchants, they had to live and do business with their neighbors. Many of them had Christian partners. In order to survive, they naturally dressed, talked, and decorated their homes like typical English colonials. Culturally they were or rapidly became Anglo-Americans. They assimilated in order to survive and, after all, they liked what they were doing. The immigrant cantor of Charleston was buried under a tombstone that proudly pronounced him a doctor of divinity.

There was an ineluctable drift—however imperceptible it may have been—away from the traditional European Ashkenazic way of life. Stay away from America, Haym Salomon warned a relative: There is “little Jewishness” here, and in a way—a Polish way—Salomon was right. Here was neither ghetto nor rabbi nor talmudic study; classical Jewish legalities had no currency in this market. Here Jews began to make compromises, often unwittingly so, to be sure. They eased off in religious practices, on Sabbath observances, and on kosher foods. A few bold souls wandered into churches to listen to Christian preachers, and some even dared to peek into the New Testament. Those who read books enjoyed reading the English Deists, who, they could not fail to see, were knocking the props out from under Christianity. This straying from immemorial custom and prejudice was a shock to traditionalists, happy and secure in their stereotypes. Dr. Samuel Nunez had sacrificed his fortune when he fled


United States Jewry, 1 776-1985

Portugal to live as a Jew in England and the colonies. Out on the Georgia frontier, his sons ate and slept with Indians, blacks, and Christians and, apparently, cared not one whit for the ideals for which their father had been willing to brave the rack and the stake. It was a new generation, America was a new world.

Except for the land and its challenges, much here was on a small scale. In the villages, the towns, and even the cities—none of them huge —neighborly friendships, intimacies, and courtesies were common if not inevitable. An American portrait painter, Cosmo Alexander, who had been one of Gilbert Stuart’s teachers, struck up a friendship with Bernard Gratz. This Jewish merchant, one of Alexander’s creditors, went out of his way to help the artist free himself from a debtor’s prison and secured for him a letter of license that would permit him to straighten out his affairs. One of Gratz’s kinswomen married a Christian, a Schuyler of New York. In the free American society of that day, marriages between Jews and Gentiles could not be prevented. Trying to head off intermarriage was probably one of the motivations that induced the wealthy New York Frankses to ship two of their sons to London; two of their remaining three children did marry Christians: David married Margaret Evans; when, in later years Margaret gave birth to Rebecca, she opened the family Bible and dutifully recorded Becky’s birth “on Good Friday & Purim.” Thus, the Anglican wife of a Jewish merchant built her own little bridge between Judaism and Christianity.19

In larger towns, the rate of intermarriage was not inconsequential, but in the villages and hamlets the Jewish shopkeeper nearly always took a Christian wife and frequently ended up by joining the church. Levi Solomon, who peddled in and around Freehold, New Jersey, married three times, always out of the faith. He survived his wives and then saw to it that he was buried between two of them with a third at his feet; it is evident that he meant to make ample provision for himself in the Resurrection. Conversions to Judaism were rare, for the Jews fought off would-be proselytes. This fear was a hangover from the Old World past, for ever since early medieval days Jews who induced Christians or Muslims to adopt Judaism were subject to the death penalty. It is true that practically all of the Jews in America were committed to acculturation, but they were even more determined to avoid intermarriage and conversion. Outwardly the Jewish businessman was completely integrated into the life of the larger community; inwardly he was resolute in his loyalty to his religion and its values; he clung to his folkways and linguistic reminiscences, his group distinctiveness, and his moral ideals.20


Why Study American History


American Jewry began with a motley collection of twenty-three men, women, and children, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, all refugees, all poor. By 1775 may have been as many as 2,500 souls in the colonies in seven towns and a number of villages. With an apologetic bow to Crevecoeur, the question may be posed: “What then is an American Jew?” He was an Anglicized Central European immigrant, rough and ready, a venturesome individualist. He was not uprooted, not a crisis emigre like his late nineteenth-century East European spiritual descendant. There was no necessity for him to resign himself to extreme departures from his European norms, religiously or economically. He left an agricultural economy behind him and he came to an agricultural economy. There was no industrialism in the colonies to shatter his wonted religious habits. If he had been a peddler in Europe, he became a shopkeeper in America. Here he upgraded himself economically, politically, socially, and culturally. The smart or fortunate shopkeeper became a merchant importing from and exporting to England and the Caribbean, shipping supplies westward across the mountains, grandiosely reaching out for transallegheny colonies and wealth which were always to elude him. No one can deny that he was enterprising. “The Quakers and Jews are the men now a days,” complained Gerard G. Beekman enviously. '1

There was one area in which they were unquestionably successful. They transplanted the Jewish community and kept it alive, adapting an Old World culture to the Atlantic frontier. The new freedom was their greatest challenge, and they handled it well. While welcoming the new cultural opportunities, they shied away from radical change and continued to hold onto the past. They experienced little difficulty in maintaining a comfortable balance between European religious traditionalism and an American way of life, but it was a balance that varied with the whims of each individual. What is truly significant is their—implicit—conviction that here they were not in Galut, not in Exile. There was no wall of separation in their minds; America was home. These are the people who laid the foundations of America’s present-day Jewry of over five million. Their Jewish accomplishments can be summed up in a short sentence: They survived as Jews. It was quite an achievement.

An important question: What did their children build on the foundations these immigrants laid? After the Declaration of Independence, what happened to Jews and Judaism in the new United States of America?


THE EARLY REPUBLIC 1776-1840 The Jew and the American Revolution, 1775-1783


hen the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4,

VV 1776, there were at most some 2,500 Jews in this country out of a total population of about 2,500,000. One in every thousand inhabitants was a Jew; not even 1 percent of World Jewry then lived in North America. Most of the Jews in the new United States lived in Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Georgia. Certainly there were Jews in the other original thirteen states, but only a handful. On June 12, 1776, a few weeks before the Declaration of Independence, an immigrant Polish Jew left New York City to peddle his wares among the American troops stationed near the Canadian border. He carried with him a recommendation that he was “warmly attached to America.” Indeed the peddler—Haym Salomon—was a patriot. He had no way of knowing that the rebellious colony of Virginia would adopt a bill of rights which was to influence individuals and states everywhere for generations yet to come: “All men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights . . . enjoyment of life and liberty . . . happiness and safety.” This one Jew, Salomon, was “warmly attached to the revolutionary cause,” but what was the attitude of other Jews? There is reason to believe that virtually all the Jews in this country were at one in their love of the land, though they were not all necessarily willing to identify themselves as Whigs, or Continentals. Even the foreigners among them—and a very substantial number had been born abroad—seem to have thought of themselves as Americans.1


Most of the younger generation, practically all native-born, were strongly American in sympathy; they had grown up in the decade of the 1760’s,



The Early Republic

years of protest against the mother country. Like their fellow colonials, they too resented the tightening of imperial controls and could not reconcile themselves to the prospect that the days of “salutary neglect” were coming to a close. They had no inclination to support a British army and civil servants or to help pay Great Britain’s war debts despite the fact that the debt had been in large part incurred defending America against the French. Imposition of assessments was taxation without representation; the provincial assemblies—miniature parliaments, if you will—had not authorized them. Apparently most American Jews, like the non-Jews about them, wanted to be part of a loosely federated empire in which colonial autonomy would not be impaired and British control would be minimal. Now the Americans could afford to be truculent: the French had been expelled in the 1760’s, and British protection was no longer imperative. The Americans of the 1770’s chafed under the yoke of colonialism, of mercantilism, of the old navigation laws, and when the colonies bared their fangs, the Jews here joined most other colonials in the antiimperial nonimportation, nonexportation, nonconsumption boycotts. But rebellion? Like their neighbors, they hesitated to take that final step. On July 20, 1775, at the request of the Continental Congress, the Jews, too, met in their congregations and fasted and prayed to be spared the agony of war. Out on the Pennsylvania frontier, in Northumberland, Mrs. Aaron Levy and a nephew joined with the Presbyterians as they appealed to God for peace. Like hundreds of thousands of Americans the Jews were reluctant rebels. The war was not popular; it was not supported by the American masses. That is why it dragged on for nearly nine years. When again on May 17, 1776, Congress called on Americans to raise their voices in prayer and supplication, the Jews gathered in their synagogs: “Open to us the gates of mercy . . . And they shall beat their swords into plow-shares.” This was the entreaty of the anxious worshippers in New York’s Shearith Israel Congregation. The war was now a year old.2


The Neutrals

It is not easy to draw a line between Whigs and Loyalists; it was not easy to be neutral. In all probability, many Jews, like the non-Jewish population, tried to avoid identifying themselves with the Loyalists and the Whigs. The distinctions between the three groups were not always clear and sharp. Most businessmen—Whigs, too—cheated on the nonimportation laws, and Loyalists made their peace with Whigs. Some Jewish patriots kept their shops open in the tidewater towns even when they fell under British occupation. It was not a day when total war was waged; anti-imperial patriots traveled to the mother country and were not de-


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

tained by the British cruisers blockading the American ports. In 1777, in the middle of war, Isaiah Isaacs, one of Richmond’s most prominent businessmen, advertised that he would be taking a short trip to England and invited his customers to settle their accounts. Jewish merchants were not eager to be involved in the hostilities; they had to make a living; they dreaded what was after all a civil war. Jewish families were split apart by the conflict; there were Pintos, Hayses, Gomezes, and Frankses on both sides. Exile was a fearful alternative; it was not unusual for individuals to swing from one side to the other.3

Declaring in 1776 that Manuel Josephson was a “disaffected person” because he refused to join the anti-English boycotters, New York’s radical Whigs made him surrender four guns, a cutlass, and a bayonet in his possession. In 1790 the same man called on General Washington and on behalf of American Jewry congratulated him on his elevation to the presidency. After the British took New York in 1776, David Hays, of Westchester County, drove into town and signed an address of loyalty to the English. The following year he swore allegiance to the new United States; two years later the English and the Loyalists raided and destroyed his home; his wife and children were compelled to take refuge in the woods. Philip Moses—assuming that only one man bore that name—was a Newport Whig who served in the South Carolina militia; when Charlestown was captured by the British, he, like many of his Christian and Jewish neighbors, “took protection”—he swore allegiance to the British. It was that or go into exile. Perhaps he thought that the war was over. Later he changed his mind and did go to Whiggish Philadelphia; either he was fed up with the British or thought he could do better in the Continental capital. Levi Sheftall, a Georgia commissary officer, had fought valiantly with the troops and had been locked up by the British for seventy-three days as a “demed rebel.” In 1779 he was one of the two men, both Jews, who guided the Americans and their French allies as they set out to recapture Savannah. Levi lost a substantial fortune in the war, yet in the 1780’s he was condemned as a Tory, suffering amercement and loss of rights. Only years later was he exonerated.4

Jews as Loyalists

A substantial minority of America’s Jews remained loyal to the mother country when the final decision had to be made. Some were natives of England; they loved that country, “home” as they called it even here in America. It is not hard to understand why: after the return of the Jews to England in Cromwell’s time, they had been well received. Though Jews were treated as second-class citizens, England was still the freest country in Europe for them. As British subjects they could trade anywhere in the


The Early Republic

empire, from India west to the Mississippi. Individual Jews acquired great wealth; many were highly respected and moved in the best social circles in London and her suburbs. Here in the colonies the economic privileges of the Jews had been reinforced by the imperial naturalization act of 1740. On the whole, the political status of Jews in some of the colonies was not bad; there was even a prospect, in the 1770’s, that the home government would ultimately grant them the right to hold public offices hitherto denied them. The main difference between Jewish Whigs and Jewish Loyalists was this: the Whigs wanted equality now; the Loyalists were gradualists, they were willing to wait. It is not without its irony that none of the Whig provinces which adopted constitutions during the millennial year 1776 moved to “emancipate” Jews: only New York would do so—implicitly—in the spring of 1777.

A wealthy businessman like David Franks, scion of a distinguished Anglo-American family, resented the new British taxes as much as any radical Whig. He had no hesitation in signing a nonimportation agreement, which was a courageous act since, for a long generation, he had profited from British army supply contracts. Yet outright rebellion against the mother country was unthinkable to him. His fellow Loyalists felt safer in a mercantilist monarchy which upheld privilege than they did in an egalitarian state where bourgeois rivals could threaten their monopolies. Even poor Jews might be Loyalists; many could not allow themselves the luxury of exile; these petty shopkeepers and artisans had no choice but to take a loyalty oath if they wanted to remain and do business. When the Whigs came to power, the Loyalists were punished. David Franks was a notable victim. In 1775 he had been appointed by the Continental Congress and George Washington to provide for British and Loyalist prisoners. Washington approved of Franks; the two had done business together during the French and Indian War twenty years earlier. Franks was a member of a London purveyor syndicate headed by his brother Moses. Many years earlier Moses had returned “home”—to England—where ultimately he became the moving force in this politically powerful international business group. Despite the fact that he had been commissioned by the Continental Congress, David Franks’s position soon became untenable. Wealthy, cultured, he was identified with the prerevolutionary aristocracy. The radical Whigs harassed him as a Loyalist and finally expelled him in 1780; he took refuge in English-held New York. Whenever the Whigs were in the ascendancy, Loyalists were threatened; their lands were confiscated, individuals were beaten and murdered. Isaac Hart, of Newport, a pro-English merchant of distinction, fled to Long Island where, in a patriot attack on a Tory-held fort, he was bayonetted and clubbed to death. A number of Jewish “Tories” sought safety in Canada; some, like Franks, went back to England. One of the Rhode Island Harts,


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

though a Loyalist, made his way to pro-Whig Dutch St. Eustatius, but when the British seized the island they stripped him too of his possessions. It was a sad fate these exiled friends of England suffered.5

Jews as Whigs

When Jews could no longer put off deciding where they stood, most opted for the new republic. Later, when the Revolution proved successful, they bragged of their services—and their boasts can be substantiated. They were conservative Whigs, not radicals, and actually they had a great deal to gain from espousing the Whig cause. Nevertheless, the decision to throw in their lot with the rebels was not an easy one to make. They had property, warehouses, established businesses. Moses Seixas of Newport did not leave town when the English moved in. He remained, probably did business with them, and later, even when they no longer occupied Newport, he and some of his Jewish friends wrote a note secretly protesting their loyalty to the king. They were making every effort to salvage their holdings wherever the British were in power. The French occupied Newport when the English left; the French treasurer general was quartered in Seixas’s home. Apparently Seixas was working both sides of the street; Aaron Lopez, too. Lopez was Newport’s most eminent trader, one of the country’s outstanding merchant-shippers. He had a great deal to lose. In 1775 he did his best to maintain good relations with the British elite; he was determined to see his ships exempted from the British blockade. For a while he maneuvered successfully; for the English favored him and restored his ships when they were seized. He had Loyalist partners who helped him. Like many other Rhode Islanders, he paid scant attention to the Continental boycotts. It was rumored that he was selling supplies to the hated British. One of his ships sailed into Savannah harbor loaded with proscribed goods; Mordecai Sheftall’s Parochial Committee would not permit the vessel to discharge its cargo in September, 1775. The same ship with the same master, attempting to run a Lopez cargo from Jamaica, failed to escape the British blockade and was seized as a prize. A few months later, Lopez and a Gentile Loyalist partner leased a ship to the Continental Congress, which sent it on a secret mission to Europe. For merchant-shippers, economic survival—not political loyalty— was what preoccupied them during the Revolution. They reached out everywhere to make a profit and hold collapse at bay.6

Why was it so many Jews threw in their lot with the Whigs? The Whigs, never a majority party during the long years of the Revolution, were eager to recruit Jews. Minuscule in numbers though they were, the Children of Israel could not be dismissed as unimportant; they tended to be intelligent, literate, middle-class urban businessmen—an elite group in


The Early Republic

a way. Some had means, and nearly all were engaged in a highly strategic occupation, the distribution of consumer goods. Native-born American Jews were often fierce Continental partisans. The British “were a cursed proud nation,” wrote a young Jewish Whig activist. Benjamin Levy, scion of an old well-established American family, signed paper money for the government and served as a member of the prestigious Whig Continental Committee in Baltimore. Levy had spent years in Philadelphia where he became a friend of Robert Morris, and when Morris thought of fleeing the city in 1776 because of the approaching British, Levy offered him the hospitality of his home in Baltimore. Most of the Jewish householders were not natives but immigrants. They were not of English stock and owed no ancestral loyalty to the British. Immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, they had suffered disabilities in their homelands. Here in the English colonies the liberties they already enjoyed served only to whet their appetites. They were still second-class citizens under the crown; they had much to gain politically, economically, religiously, and even socially by joining the continentals. Many of them were influenced by the new doctrines of egalitarianism. Like the Catholics and the Protestant Dissenters, they hoped that a free and independent America would accord them all rights and immunities. Certainly they were influenced by the promise inherent in the Declaration of Independence. The equality offered them by the Whigs found its fulfillment in the new federal constitution of 1787, but—apart from New York in 1777—not in the organic statutes of the several states.7

When the English occupied New York City a number of Jews remained behind. Some were Loyalists; a few had been born in England; even some Whigs may have stayed on. Most of those who remained were probably neutrals, men determined to survive and to hold on to their shops no matter what happened. The wartime New York Jewish community, an amalgam of Hessian supply personnel, Whigs, Neutrals, and Loyalists from the city and the neighboring states, kept the synagog open, hired “rabbis,” and conducted services during the eight years of British occupation. Their common Judaism cemented the members of this motley group. The English authorities did not commandeer the shul, as they sometimes did Protestant churches, and when some British soldiers went on a rampage and vandalized the synagog their commanding officer punished them brutally. The greater part of the community left when the British occupation was imminent. They carried away with them some of the Scrolls of the Law and together with their rabbi moved to nearby Connecticut, staying as close to home as possible. Poor exiles! They found no peace in Connecticut, for the English forces raided the towns on Long Island Sound, plundering and burning. The heavy losses suffered by the Jews were somewhat ameliorated by gifts from the compassionate Aaron Lopez. These unfortunates were to remain in exile for almost a decade.8


United States Jewry, 1 776-1985

Savannah, Charlestown, Philadelphia, New York, and Newport were all occupied by the English forces for shorter or longer periods. Individuals in each of these towns—sometimes most of the community—fled. These people, Whigs, made great sacrifices. Many of them, severely injured economically, had to rebuild their fortunes after the Revolution. The coming of the British to Newport meant that Lopez had to decide where his loyalties lay: leaving his little commercial empire behind, he moved out with his family, retainers, and slaves; there were twenty-seven men, women, and children in his entourage. Rather curiously, the Newport Whigs had avoided harassing Lopez; but they did not spare Moses Michael Hays (1739-1805). Suspected of Loyalism, Hays was called in and catechized by the town’s patriots. He was indignant, for he had already sworn loyalty to the new republican order and was convinced that the war against the English was a just one. He was angry because the new test was not general but was imposed only upon suspects. He would not sign again, pointing out that the new regime locally and nationally had as yet done nothing for Jews. It was a government which ruled without the consent of the governed; he seemed to imply that it was as bad as the British. Among those who sat on the Rhode Island Committee of Enquiry was the speaker of the state’s House of Representatives, Metcalf Bowler. Before the year was up this distinguished Rhode Island politician became a secret paid agent of the British. After his manly defense, Hays’s Whig loyalty was never again questioned, and when the British seized the town, he, like Lopez, went into exile. In postwar days he was to become one of Boston’s notable businessmen.9

Hays was a patriot, but Mordecai Sheftall was a leader. In 1774 when many Georgians evinced little interest in the Revolution, Sheftall became the head of the Parochial Committee of Christ Church parish, the first de facto “American” government in the province. The Georgians were slow to rebel; they sent no delegates to the first Continental Congress in 1774. The Sheftalls were Georgia pioneers; Mordecai’s father had landed in the province in 1733 only a few weeks after Oglethorpe came ashore on the site of present-day Savannah. Knowing the part he had played in the revolt, the British imprisoned him when they captured Savannah in December, 1778. He and a son were to remain prisoners for about a year before they were finally released. Sir James Wright, the British governor who ruled the state till the war was over, knew full well that Sheftall was one of those reprehensible “liberty people.” Reporting back home to his superiors in London, the governor suggested that no Jew ever be allowed to settle in Georgia, “for these people, my lord, were found to a man to have been violent rebels and persecutors of the King’s loyal subjects.”10

The first Jewish pioneers to land in Savannah in July, 1733, had been financed, in part, by a London tycoon, Francis Salvador. In 1773 his


The Early Republic

namesake landed in Charlestown. This second Francis Salvador was to become one of the most prominent Jews of the Revolutionary period. After Joseph Salvador, Francis’s London uncle and father-in-law, had lost a fortune, he ceded some of his vast estates in South Carolina to young Francis to whom he was indebted. The tracts owned by Joseph Salvador were known as “the Jews’ land.” Pressed by the need to recoup his fortunes, Francis carved out a plantation for himself in the western hinterland of South Carolina, in Ninety-Six District, where he soon emerged as a Whig leader. It is not difficult to surmise what motivated him. Twenty years earlier his uncle Joseph, then one of the great financiers of the British Empire, had helped sponsor a naturalization act that would benefit Jews. The act became law—but it was only a matter of months before Parliament scuttled it after a wave of anti-Jewish hostility and scurrility. Uncle Joseph was hooted out of a London theatre. Who can doubt that the patrician Francis Salvador would never forget that back in London he was only a second-class citizen. His Gentile fellow Whigs were fighting for more power; he, a Jew, was fighting for elementary political rights. The rebel caucus sent him to North Carolina on a propaganda mission, apparently not a successful one, for the Loyalists were strong there. Accompanying him on this tour was his Christian steward, but the latter, like Salvador, was damned as a “Jew”—guilt by association, so often a useful political stratagem.1

Even so, to suffer obloquy as a Jew was not Salvador’s daily experience: because of his background as a member of the English gentry, Salvador was accepted almost immediately, so it would seem, in the best Carolina society. It was not long before he was invited to sit in the two rebel provincial congresses and in the first general assembly of the new State of South Carolina. By 1776 this attractive young man had become a member of important committees and thus a political figure of some significance. Salvador was the first unconverted Jew to serve in an American legislature, possibly the first anywhere in the world to sit in a non-Jewish legislative body. In 1776 the British mounted an attack on two fronts against South Carolina. The army and the fleet moved in from the east; the Indians and the Tories moved in from the west and began killing the settlers on the frontier. Salvador rode twenty-eight miles to rouse the militia. On the night of July 31-August 1, a punitive expedition which he had joined was ambushed; Salvador fell, shot and scalped by the Indians. He may well have been the first Jew to die in defense of the new United States. Today in Charleston’s City Hall Park there is a plaque dedicated to his memory:

Born an aristocrat, he became a democrat,

An Englishman, he cast his lot with America;

True to his ancient faith, he gave his life

For new hopes of human liberty and understanding.1 *


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

Jewish Soldiers in Colonial and Revolutionary Days

Salvador was not an enlisted soldier or a commissioned officer; he was a gentleman volunteer. No matter how carefully scholars check the service records, the muster rolls, and pension papers, they will never be able to determine how many Jews served in the militia or the Continental line. True, combing the lists of veterans would bring to light the names of Cohens, Levys, Moseses, and Solomons—but most of them would turn out to be Gentile, even if ancestrally Jewish. It is not easy to determine who are Jews; names are no positive criteria. Jews had been soldiers in the trainbands in Dutch New Amsterdam since the 1650’s; under the British there was never a time that they were not enlisted in the militia. This type of provincial service was compulsory, though not onerous in times of peace; a tour of duty was often brief. The obligation to serve could be evaded easily; purchasing substitutes was always tolerated. It is estimated that at most about 100 Jews were enlisted in the armed forces of the Continentals and the Loyalists. They served as infantrymen, army couriers, and quartermasters. Some of them, city-stationed militiamen, were never in a skirmish; other conscripts saw hard fighting. When one realizes that there were only about 500 Jewish adult males of military age in the country, the 100 or so who served constitute a respectable percentage when compared with the Gentiles in the army. It must be borne in mind constantly that the number of Americans fighting in the armed forces formed a pitifully small percentage of the population. Among the Jews who bore arms were a handful of French volunteers; one of them was a flamboyant native of Bordeaux, Benjamin Nones, a member of Count Casimir Pulaski’s Foreign Legion. One of the battles in which Nones saw action was the storming of the British redoubts before Savannah. With him in this futile assault on the English lines were several Charlestonians who boasted in later years that they had been a part of the Forlorn Hope.13

Jacob Pinto, of New Haven, could have taken pride in the fact that three of his sons had fought the British. Two were wounded repulsing the English and Loyalist invading forces; one was taken prisoner. All three had studied at Yale. William, the youngest, was a schoolteacher at Groton. His ability to write a fair hand led the president of Yale and the governor of the state to ask that he transcribe the Declaration of Independence. The Pintos were not “good” Jews; all three were the sons of a Christian mother, and they too reared Gentile families. Report has it that they had no religion; they were probably Deists or atheists. Abraham Solomon, another New England Jew who saw action, had an interesting career. This immigrant, who had lived in Marblehead and Boston, married a Christian in a ceremony performed by a Christian minister. There were


The Early Republic

no synagogs or Jewish worship services in Massachusetts until the fifth decade of the next century; whether Solomon lived as a Jew or as a Christian is unknown. His Gentile contemporaries, in any case, identified him as “Solomon, a Jew.” He was a soldier in the Continental Army in June, 1775, and appears to have taken part in the Battle of Bunker Hill. When he signed the payroll, he employed Hebrew script. After being mustered out of the army in the late 1770’s, Solomon farmed for a time, speculated in currency, and flirted with anti-Whig elements. On one occasion he was picked up by the police and questioned. James Warren, of Boston, once said that “fellows who would have cleaned my shoes five years ago have amassed fortunes and are riding in chariots.” Abraham Solomon, however, rode in no chariot. Judging from his record, Solomon could hardly have been an exemplary Jew.1 *

Joseph Smith merits more respect on this score. After enlisting in the Third Maryland Regiment at the age of twenty-three, Smith saw service in Pennsylvania, the Jerseys, and in the South. Wounded at Camden, South Carolina, he fell into British hands and remained a prisoner until he returned to Baltimore. In signing the company payroll, he made his mark. After the war, when he applied for a pension, it developed that Smith’s real name was Elias Pollock. He could write, but only Hebrew script. Why had he concealed his name? He may well have been a runaway debtor seeking to hide; he may have been an indentured servant or a Maryland “transport,” a criminal serving out his term in the colonies. Or, the simple answer may be that, fearing prejudice, he adopted the innocuous Anglo-Saxon “Smith” to conceal his Jewish origin. Elias Pollock still has Jewish progeny, but among his descendants are also a Catholic nun, a Baptist minister, a Mennonite, and several Mormons. Barrack Hays was a Loyalist belonging to a family which numbered many Whigs. The Hayses were Dutch old-timers, for they had come to New York no later than the 1720’s, and the clan is still flourishing today. Barrack (Barukh, the “Blessed One”) began his career in the New York militia as a Whig officer; then switched his loyalties and became an “officer of guides”—a chief of scouts?—for the British. After the war he fled to the safety of Canada. His New York-born son John Jacob Hays, who had accompanied his father to Canada, moved south of the border to the Illinois country where, as a United States civil servant, he carved out a career of some distinction in the first quarter of the next century.1

The historian Barnett A. Elzas has documented the presence in South Carolina of at least thirty-four Jewish Revolutionary War veterans, among them a few Georgia refugees. Most of these men served under Captain Richard Lushington whose outfit was known—erroneously, to be sure—as the “Jew Company.” One of the soldiers was dubbed the “bridegroom,” for he was called up to serve two days before he was to


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

have been married. The Jews in Lushington’s company formed no majority, but since most of them were King Street shopkeepers, all bunched together, they had been conscripted as a group. They saw action and gave a good account of themselves. Lushington certified after the battle of Beaufort in 1779 that one of the men, Jacob I. Cohen, had “in every respect conducted himself as a good soldier and a man of courage.” Five years later, as a member of the Richmond, Virginia, firm of Cohen & Isaacs, Cohen hired a frontiersman to survey the firm’s extensive holdings on the Licking River in distant Kentucky. That man was Daniel Boone. The Whig branch of the Gomez family bragged of its devotion and patriotism. An old family tradition has it that one of the elderly Gomezes wanted to organize a company to fight the British. When told he was too old, he replied that he could stop a bullet as well as a younger man. Like most self-glorifying family stories, this one, too, will not bear scrutiny— although it is true that Daniel Gomez, over eighty at the time, exiled himself from the New York home where he had spent most of his life.

Most significant in the study of Jews serving in the Continental armed forces is not the heroism of individuals, which can be documented, but their rise to commissioned ranks. Under the British, no Jew could become an officer unless he took an oath as a Christian. Under the Americans three men attained high office in the Continental Army: Mordecai Sheftall, a quartermaster for the Georgia line and militia, enjoyed the simulated grade of colonel; David S. Franks and Solomon Bush, staff officers, were lieutenant colonels. Colonel Bush became kin to Mordecai Sheftall when the latter’s son married Bush’s sister Nelly. Bush joined the army in the early days because he wanted to “revenge the rongs of my injured country.” Appointed a deputy adjutant general in the state militia at the age of twenty-five, he was ultimately commissioned a lieutenant colonel. Severely wounded in a battle near Philadelphia, he was carried to his father’s home in Chestnut Hill, but was betrayed to the British by a “vilain” in 1777. The English paroled him and, while receiving medical treatment from them, he discovered that a spy had infiltrated Washington’s headquarters. Bush lost little time in alerting his Whig comrades. In the postwar years, still a relatively young man, he studied medicine, served his country voluntarily in a diplomatic capacity, and became an eminent Mason, grand master of the order in Pennsylvania. Bush married out of the faith and drifted away from Judaism, to the chagrin of his Jewish contemporaries. Upon his death he was buried in a Quaker cemetery, yet in 1782 he had made a better than average contribution when Philadelphia Jewry started to build its own Mikveh Israel synagog. Apparently his army life, his Masonry, and his enhanced social position among Gentiles tended in later years to alienate him from his people, but in 1782 his father Mathias was still alive and active in the Jewish community. Was papa watching

57    The Early Republic

him? And if papa was such a good Jew why did he contribute nothing to the new building? '

Like Bush, Lt. Col. David S. Franks was also a native Pennsylvanian; unlike Bush, however, Franks joined with the Continentals in Canada where he had lived for years. A number of Canadian Jews were Whigs, sympathizing with the striving for autonomy more general south of the St. Lawrence Valley. As early as 1764, the Jews of Quebec Province had worked closely with the Protestant minority in its effort to secure some form of representative government. Unlike the older British colonies, the newly conquered province was permitted no legislative assembly. When resistance to the new imperial policy asserted itself in the south, a number of Canadian Jews leaned toward the boycotting provinces, even though, economically, it would have been more advantageous for them to collaborate with the English who marketed their furs in exchange for consumers’ goods. By living and working with the habitants in Quebec and Montreal, Franks had become fluent in French, which would stand him in good stead during the Revolution. Like a number of Canadian Jews, he could not have been unaware that the Quebec Act of 1774 reintroducing French civil law was a potential threat to the Jews: the French in preconquest days, had not even tolerated Jews in New France. The Canadian Jews were one with the Protestants in believing that they would fare better under English law. In May, 1775, just a few weeks after Lexington and Concord, Franks, then in Montreal, manifested his devotion to the American cause. Some Protestant radical had vandalized a bust of George III and hung a placard on it: “Behold the Pope of Canada and the English fool.” A French Canadian declared that the scoundrel who had done this ought to be hanged. Franks hearing the remark answered: “In England men are not hanged for such small offenses.” A fight ensued in which Franks rashly struck the remonstrant, which cost him a week’s incarceration.17

When the Americans briefly took Montreal that year from the English, Franks advanced money to the occupying forces and sold them supplies. Because the British looked upon him as a leader of sedition he was compelled to flee southward with the retreating troops and found himself with the Americans at Saratoga when Burgoyne surrendered to them. Later, in 1778, he served as a liaison officer on the staff of the Comte d’-Estaing, the head of the French naval contingent, and in 1779 was in Charlestown, South Carolina, as an aide-de-camp to General Benjamin Lincoln. On his return to the north, Franks became a member of General Benedict Arnold’s military family at West Point, though he was not involved in the general’s defection. There are other facets to Franks’s eleven-year career in the service of his country: he was also a high level courier in the diplomatic service, a vice-consul abroad, and finally an assis-


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

tant cashier in the Bank of the United States. He perished in the yellow fever epidemic of 1793.18

Franks—debonair, honest, affectionate, very eager to make a career in the public service—lived on the fringes of the conservative Whig establishment in Philadelphia, the dominant clique viewed with hostility by the radicals of that day. His friends were often in the highest circles, Jefferson, Franklin, John Adams. They liked and accepted him, although some thought him unstable and at times indiscreet. Certainly Franks was not a man of marked ability. His historical significance lies in the fact that, like Solomon Bush, he exemplified the social rise of politically disabled British subjects to a position of respect in the new, more egalitarian American state. For him, as for all Jews, the war had not been fought in vain. On occasion, Franks would call on Jefferson socially, and it was during one of these visits in 1793 that he sat down at the table with William Branch Giles, the Virginia congressman, John Trumbull, the artist of the Revolution, Jefferson, and a number of others. As dinner progressed, the conversation, which had already taken on an anti-religious tone, increased in acerbity. Giles poked fun at Trumbull’s New England Puritanism and, in true Deistic fashion, even ventured, with the tacit approval of the free-thinking Jefferson and the other guests, to criticize the character, conduct, and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Colonel Franks was the only one who put in a good word for Trumbull during this heated discussion. In an effort to put an end to a conversation which was both annoying and embarrassing, the distinguished artist turned to Secretary Jefferson and said: “Sir, this is a strange situation in which I find myself. In a country professing Christianity, and at a table with Christians, as I supposed, I find my religion and myself attacked with severe and almost irresistible wit and raillery, and not a person to aid in my defense but my friend Mr. Franks, who is himself a Jew.” '

Still another Franks was a patriot, a Moses Franks who is not to be confused with the London purveyor, David’s brother. (Actually there were several Moses Frankses and all of them may have been related.) This Moses Franks was in a position to be of service to the new Continental Army. In 1776 as Washington was preparing in Boston to move against New York, he requested Congress to send him $250,000 in hard currency to reoutfit the troops and pay off the clamoring militia whose time of service had already expired. The problem facing Washington and the Congress was not to raise the money—they had already done so—but to get it past the English and the hostile Loyalists. Shipping the specie by sea and slipping through the British blockade was too hazardous. It was at this juncture that John Hancock called upon “three gentlemen of character”—among them, the Whig Moses Franks, of Philadelphia—to cart the money secretly to Washington’s headquarters. It took them some


The Early Republic

two weeks to reach Boston, unfortunately too late to meet the needs of the militia, but the cash was used to satisfy the regulars. The total expense incurred in this trek north amounted to $238.

Army Supply

When the Canadian Franks, David S., first joined the invading Americans in Montreal in November, 1775, he served them as an army purveyor and advanced very substantial sums to the occupying forces. The government repaid him later—in depreciated paper. Army supply had been a traditional business for Jews in Europe ever since the seventeenth century. Solomon de Medina fed Marlborough’s troops on the continent to the Duke’s complete (financial!) satisfaction. A popular couplet of that day is eloquent evidence that Marlborough did not lose by the transaction:

A Jew and a general both joined a trade.

The Jew was a baker, the general sold bread.

Since the quartermaster department of the American Revolutionary armed forces was, to say the least, primitive and inadequate, the government turned to civilian purveyors for badly needed supplies. The importance of civilian army supplymen cannot be overemphasized in a country at war with all its ports blockaded. Many, if not most, contemporary Jewish merchants were purveyors on a small scale, offering the government provisions, clothing, gunpowder, and lead. Harassed by lack of funds, the authorities took their time settling accounts. Whether they were supplying the Whigs or the English, the problem confronting Jewish as well as other purveyors was not only to secure goods and provisions but to be repaid by the governments with whom they dealt. Some trusting Whig suppliers were never paid at all or in all but worthless Continental currency. When the chief contractor went unpaid, the agent and subagents suffered. They, too, had pledged their credit. These civilian army suppliers contended with a host of problems: the English were patrolling the oceanic shipping lanes; goods did not get through; privateers and guerrillas preyed on all transport; no adequate medium of exchange existed; people had to resort to barter; and, to make a difficult situation even more complicated, some commonwealths set up barriers against the export of goods and supplies to neighboring states. One merchant who was never reimbursed for his advances was the Canadian Levy Solomons, a brother-in-law of the ebullient David Salisbury Franks. Solomons, a Whig, served the American troops in Canada in 1775 and 1776, helping them establish hospitals and lending them money. When the Americans were forced to retreat, this zealous patriot provided the sick and wounded with transportation on their way to the frontier. The British, knowing where his loyal-


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

ties lay, seized his goods and furniture on July 4, 1776, and threw them into the street; his neighbors shunned him and refused him shelter.21

One of the most important suppliers to the armed forces was Mordecai Sheftall, of Savannah. Colonel Sheftall’s status was somewhat obscure, midway between that of a staff officer and a civilian purveyor. His was a big job, feeding the state and federal troops in Georgia. Inasmuch as the authorities did not unfailingly provide the necessary funds or goods, it was incumbent upon him to buy provisions, pay for them himself, and then try to collect later. Vouchers were frequently lost—after all, there was a war in progress! An indignant Sheftall, aware that he had made substantial sacrifices, appealed to the president of the Continental Congress: “I want nothing but justice, to be repaid my advances to the publick.” It was a voice crying in the wilderness. He did receive a partial payment in Continental paper, which was not very helpful. Twenty years later the family was still petitioning the authorities for full payment. Sheftall as Georgia quartermaster was assisted by his sixteen-year-old son, Sheftall Sheftall, who enjoyed the impressive title of assistant deputy commissary of issues. In 1780, as agent for the Continental Congress, young Sheftall was appointed flagmaster of a flag-of-truce ship, the Carolina Packett, which successfully carried out its mission of bringing supplies to General Moultrie and his men imprisoned in British-held Charlestown. '

Mention has been made of purveyors who served the British. Let it be kept in mind: at one time or another the British occupied every coastal town where Jewish communities had been established. Local businessmen inevitably sought the patronage of the occupying forces. Numbered too among the purveyors and quartermasters servicing the British armed forces were Jewish sutlers and supplymen who had accompanied the so-called Hessians, German mercenaries. Some of them remained in the United States after the war and became American citizens. Most notable in this group were the Marc (Mark, Marcus) brothers, Jacob and Philip, commissaries for the Third English-Waldeck Regiment. After the peace was signed, they settled in New York where they were admired as dry goods importers, merchants of distinction. We have already spoken of David Franks, of Philadelphia, who was the American agent of a powerful British consortium caring for English and Loyalist prisoners in American hands, unfortunates in need of food, clothing, and spending money. Taking care of these men and women was a challenging and, frequently, a thankless job. When, in December, 1778, the British authorities refused to pay the bills submitted, the suppliers found themselves faced with uncollectable unpaid expenditures for 500,000 rations. The actual subpurveyors, to whom contracts had been farmed out, were Whigs, some of them Jews, men Franks had known for years. One of his subcontractors was Joseph Simon of Lancaster, a former partner of William Henry in the firm


The Early Republic

of Simon & Henry, rifle manufacturers. During the war, Simon, on his own account, supplied arms to the new government. Out on the western frontier, in Pittsburgh, one of his companies furnished goods to the commissioner for Indian affairs whose job it was to pacify the natives. Simon’s son-in-law Michael Gratz and Michael’s brother Barnard provided the New Yorkers with Indian goods in the hope of keeping the Iroquois happy.23

All along the western frontier from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, the Indians had to be bought off; the new United States could not risk warring with the English on the east coast and with the turbulent Indians on the western frontier. During the Revolution, the Gratz brothers served as purchasing agents and purveyors for Virginia, the largest of the states. One of their tasks was to help George Rogers Clark defend Virginia in a wild backcountry extending from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Mississippi. It was Clark’s mission to safeguard Kentucky, to watch the Indians, to drive the British out of the West and to threaten Canada. The Gratzes shipped goods to Clark; they were among his prime suppliers. Other Jews, too, saw possibilities in government supply: Levy Marks, ne Lippman Schneider, the tailor, asked Congress to let him supervise the manufacture of clothing for the army, but Congress turned a deaf ear to him. New York’s well-known fur entrepreneur and merchant, Hayman Levy, manufactured garments, breeches and shirts, for his state. The actual work was done in the Philadelphia poorhouse.24

In the Carolinas and in Georgia, Jewish merchants were equally active in supplying the troops. The Continental forces everywhere were desperately eager for food and clothing. General Francis Marion, who did business with Mordecai Myers of Georgetown, South Carolina, paid off in indigo, a staple much sought after for dyeing cloth. Still farther south, in Georgia, the quartermaster work of the Sheftall brothers was supplemented by the Minises among others. Head of the Minis clan was the aged matriarch Abigail; her son Philip, reputedly the first white child born and reared in the colony, was also an army purveyor carrying on his business, it is probable, independently of mama. In 1779 when the allied French and American expeditionary force attempted to retake Savannah from the English and the Loyalists, Abigail came to the aid of the Whig invaders. She was a competent businesswoman. At that time nearly eighty, she ruled, one suspects, with an iron hand over five unmarried daughters and her son. Abigail’s Whig sympathies made it difficult for her to remain in Georgia after the Americans and French were defeated. She had no choice but exile in Charlestown. Fortunately for her the British liked her; she had friends in Loyalist circles, and her property escaped confiscation.25


United States Jewry, 1776-1985



Army supply during the War was only one facet of commercial life. For most Jewish merchants, sales to the government were minor; in short, they were primarily shopkeepers and merchants trying to sell the army some needed items. If a merchant was reluctant to deal with the Congress or the state or the troops, it was because of the likelihood of payment in a declining medium; the hardpressed government was simply not the most desirable of customers. To be sure, districts and regions controlled by Whigs constituted a sellers’ market; goods were scarce. In the towns occupied by the British, however, goods were plentiful; merchants could not be indifferent to the stability of the English pound. Jewish shopkeepers who had not gone into exile, Whigs or Loyalists, had no trouble carrying on trade; a number of them probably made money. Some goods were brought into Whig ports when privateers captured prizes. Privateers, armed merchant ships sailing under letters of marque and reprisal were licensed to prey on enemy shipping. It has been estimated that hundreds of such marauders set sail from Whig harbors scouring the seas looking for prizes; the cargoes lost by the British ran into the millions of pound sterling. Some of these American privateers were merchant-shippers engaged in exporting and importing goods; they were armed primarily for the purpose of protecting themselves from enemy seizure. Most privateers set out deliberately to seize vessels flying the British flag; they were heavily armed and carried large boarding crews; in a way they were licensed pirates.-'

Privateering was a form of speculation; ships were bought or chartered, shares were sold; and then, loaded with men and munitions, the vessels went on the hunt for British ships and cargoes. Jews, like others, speculated in privateers and were owners and bonders, since the government, observing the amenities of eighteenth-century civilization, demanded that these roving entrepreneurs supply a bond requiring them to behave with decency. The privateers included a number of French Jews; some were shipowners; one was master of a vessel; the French agent in Charleston was a Jew. These anti-British allies combined business and patriotism. On occasion, however, like other Americans, Jewish merchant-shippers suffered as much from their own privateers as from the enemy. The Lopez family referred to such American adventurers as “voracious pirates.” During the War, Aaron Lopez attempted to salvage some of his assets in British Jamaica by running a valuable cargo of goods through the British blockade to a safe port in New England. American privateers seized his schooner, Hope, and brought it into a Connecticut harbor where the Court of Admiralty for the state—in connivance with the pri-


The Early Republic

vateers, it would seem, deprived Lopez of his ship and cargo. Lopez appealed to the Continental Congress, which decided in his favor, but the costly war-protracted litigation continued for five years before he won a satisfactory judgment. Even then, it is not certain that Lopez was ever able to collect the judgment awarded him.27

Every privateer nursed the hope that he would make his fortune overnight. Indeed, one American crew in a small one-mast vessel captured prizes worth over $600,000. Impoverished Mordecai Sheftall decided to try his luck. He had just been released from British captivity and his capital was almost gone. He determined on a bold stroke to recoup his losses. Somehow managing to secure a twenty-ton sloop, the Hetty, he sold shares in her to put together some working capital, loaded her with thirty men, including a Negro slave, and armed her with eight guns, tomahawks, blunderbusses, and boarding pikes. Then the Hetty set sail on what was to be a most inglorious adventure. The English captured and scuttled her, but the persistent Sheftall had the vessel raised and reoutfitted. He tried his luck once more but never struck it rich, indeed it is questionable whether any of the Jewish merchants of that day made any “big money” lying in wait for British merchantmen. After a fashion, privateering was a form of blockade-running. Many American merchant ships—not privateers—got through the English naval barrier, for the enemy could not guard every cove and inlet of the long coast. Goods brought in were sold at huge profits, but even after the cargoes were landed there was still another hazard: Congress might seize the supplies landed and pay off in Continental dollars of very dubious value.28

One of the country’s large-scale blockade-runners was the firm of Isaac Moses & Company. Moses was the senior partner; his two associates were Samuel Myers and Moses Myers, who were not related. Moses and his partners, individually or as a company, were frequently involved in privateering and bonding. One of Moses’ partners in such ventures was Robert Morris; the Revolutionary notable, a notorious speculator, worked with other Jews, too, in risk transactions of this type. Isaac Moses and his partners were essentially merchant-shippers. Of necessity, therefore, they became blockade-runners during the War, daring ones. The firm maintained an Amsterdam purchasing office which shipped its goods to Dutch St. Eustatius in the Caribbean. From there the company’s ships made the run to an American port, trusting to fate that they could slip past the cordon set up by the English cruisers. Isaac Moses and his associates were devoted Whigs. Shortly after the War broke out in 1775, when the Americans set out to conquer Canada, the three partners voluntarily offered the Congress $20,000 hard currency in exchange for Continental paper which, as they might have foreseen, ultimately proved virtually worthless. If it was any consolation, they received the grateful thanks of John Hancock for their generous gift.29


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

Isaac Moses & Company operated on a large scale; Jonas Phillips, of Philadelphia, was a small-scale but enterprising merchant who sold almost anything from a needle to goloshoes and umbrelloes. One of his blockade-running letters, written in July, 1776, has been preserved. It was dispatched via Dutch St. Eustatius to an Amsterdam kinsman, a prominent Jewish merchant in that city. Enclosed in the letter was a broadside copy of the Declaration of Independence which had just been published. The Declaration may well have impressed Phillips. Congress had already decided on independence by July 2nd; Phillips closed his store and celebrated from the 3rd through the 7th. In his letter to Amsterdam, the Philadelphian did not discuss the revolt in any detail, merely remarking laconically that the Americans had 100,000 soldiers, the British 25,000 and a fleet. What was going to happen? Only God knew, but before the war was over England would be bankrupt! In an appendix to the letter, Phillips got down to business, asking for dry goods, clothing, notions, and medicines. The letter was written in Yiddish or Juedisch-Deutsch, no doubt with the expectation that, even if the British intercepted it, they would let it pass through because they could not make out its Hebrew script. That was a vain hope on Phillips’ part, for the ship which sailed from St. Eustatius was taken and the letter was impounded; the English censor held it upside down and decided it was a coded message. It remains today in the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane.30

Shopkeepers: The Importance of the Shopkeeper

It was imperative that the Americans carry on foreign trade because they needed consumers’ goods. Blockade-runners brought in rum, gin, sugar, tea, coffee, spices, cloth of various types and descriptions, blankets, drugs, medicines, notions. Obviously the goods that managed to get through sold at a large advance over sterling cost. In payment for goods received, the Americans shipped out foodstuffs, naval stores, and tobacco. Domestic, interstate commerce was by coastal shipping or by wagon transport. British cruisers and privateers always made the coastal traffic risky. There was considerable intercolonial trading in yard goods, clothing, tobacco, snuff, candles, salt, flour, flaxseed, hemp, hides, skins, and furs. Hauling goods over the unpaved country roads was difficult, especially in the winter when the mire made them almost impassable. Carters might often enough prove thievish; guerrillas abounded; enemy raids were frequent and brutal. Petty retailers had problems securing long-term credits; customers were slow in settling their debts; the perennial inflation was devastating. Philip Minis, acting in 1779 as a commission agent for former Governor William Houstoun of Georgia, sold five slaves, which brought over £416,666; $20,000 was the price asked for a pair of horses. Connect-


The Early Republic

icut shopkeeper Michael Judah of Norwalk, who had worked hard all his life, accumulated some savings only to see them practically wiped out by the galloping inflation. Another victim of the inflation was Eleazar Levy, a successful Canadian fur entrepreneur; on retirement he made his home in New York City; the English in Canada had treated him harshly. Levy invested his capital in a mortgage on West Point, the present-day military academy, but during the war the government took over his lands and deforested them in large part. He was never able to collect from the mortgagor who, apparently, would have been willing to settle his debt with almost worthless paper bills. Impoverished, Levy was compelled to turn to Shearith Israel; the congregation carried him on a pension for the rest of his life. 1

People could not do without goods. Jewish shopkeepers, present in most states of the new republic, attempted to answer the emphatic demand for necessities. The shopkeepers in the villages and towns, petty retailers, turned to regional suppliers, large-scale merchants in the distribution centers of Newport, New York, Philadelphia, Lancaster, Richmond, Charlestown, Georgetown, and Savannah. Somehow these retailers and the merchant-shippers, who were also wholesalers and manufacturers, managed to ferret out and procure goods even in the darkest of days. The equally important task of distributing the wares was undertaken by shopkeepers in the towns and in the backcountry. The commercial activities of small and large storekeepers were crucial in an agrarian economy where industry and manufacturing were minimal and the ports were closed by the British blockade. Farmers and townspeople had to have yard goods and tea; soldiers had to be supplied with uniforms, blankets, and shoes. This relatively successful job of helping to keep commodities flowing was the Jewish contribution to the war effort, modest though it was.32



Petitioning the constituent convention in September, 1787, at Philadelphia, Jonas Phillips said that “Jews have been true and faithful Whigs”; they had assisted the newly independent states with “their lives and fortunes.” There is much truth in what Phillips wrote. It may have been modestly, but Jewish merchants had helped support the new republic; they did business with the states and the Congress, both of them constantly in the market for wares. They sold goods to the army on credit, advanced funds, often at crucial moments; they bought loan office certificates (bonds of a sort), signed bills of credit, accepted certificates of indebtedness issued by quartermasters, commissary and purchasing agents,


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and served as quartermasters. Though a tiny minority in the population, these urban traders played a role by no means unimportant during the long decade when American finances were chaotic. The Jews were suppliers, bill brokers, moneylenders, shopkeepers, blockade-runners, and even “manufacturers” on a small scale. They were involved in such economic, financial undertakings, not because they were more ardent than other Whigs but because business was their metier. At times large sums were at stake. Simon Nathan, an English Jew who had come to the states by way of Jamaica and Havana, was at odds with Virginia for many years because, so he maintained, the state was evading its financial obligations to him. Nathan had presented drafts on Virginia drawn by George Rogers Clark; the funds had been used to pacify the West and expel the English. The bills in question amounted to over $50,000. It is clear in a personal memo that he prepared that Nathan’s financial and supply dealings with Virginia were extensive. Nathan insisted that he had bought the bills in Havana and New Orleans at par—not in devalued currency. This the governor and the Council of Virginia ultimately denied, insisting that the bills had been purchased at discount. Negotiations for payment dragged on for years, and at one stage Nathan’s attorney felt impelled to ask the Virginia Executive Council not to be prejudiced against his client because he was a Jew.33


In 1781, Jacob Hart contributed to a loan to help equip Lafayette’s troops, preparing then to advance on the British in Yorktown. It was a crucial campaign. When in 1780, a year of defeat, mutiny, and treason, a special fund was established to provision the troops, Isaac Moses pledged his credit for £3,000. Moses was the richest Jewish merchant among the exiles who had found a haven in Philadelphia. Haym Salomon, at the time a storekeeper in the town, was one of Philadelphia’s more obscure Jews, though—to his surprise no doubt—in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries he would be acclaimed as “the financier of the Revolution.” Who was Haym Salomon? Salomon or Solomon—there are a variety of spellings —was born to a poor family in Lissa, Poland, about the year 1740. There is every reason to believe that his education, both in Jewish and in secular subjects, was woefully inadequate. At an early age, so it appears, he left home and became a wanderer. He must have lived in many lands for he had a working knowledge of several European languages, among them French. Salomon learned a great deal about business and finance and the mysteries of bills of exchange. When he landed on these shores, probably no earlier than 1775, he brought very little money with him. There were at this time several other men who bore the name Haym Salomon, or another of its variants; it is not always possible to be sure that the historical data at hand refer to the Lissa-born “financier.” M


The Early Republic

One thing is sure: this man became an ardent Whig. In 1776 he was working as a sutler with the troops on the Canadian frontier, and when he returned to New York, then occupied by the British, he was arrested and imprisoned. Obviously he was on a proscription list. Tradition has it that he was a member of the radical vigilante-type Sons of Liberty— which is not farfetched. There is another tradition—this one quite without basis—that he was commissioned by Washington to burn down the king’s fleet and the town’s warehouses. Salomon might well have perished in jail had he not been rescued by Hessian mercenaries in great need of competent personnel who spoke English and were conversant with American methods of procuring supplies. Most probably it was Jewish purveyors among the Hessians who secured his release; the English commonly enough found it advantageous to enlist prisoners. Salomon went to work for the Hessians, primarily as a commissionaire for the officers. He also did business on his own account as a merchant, as a ship’s chandler, as a distiller, and as an interpreter. He was an enterprising man and here in New York he had an opportunity to exploit his talents. He made a small fortune. In 1777 while in New York working for the English mercenaries, Salomon married into a branch of the Franks family—the poor branch. He was then thirty-seven; his bride Rachel was fifteen. She had an older brother Isaac who was also a patriot. Apparently the two men had very little else in common, although there are intimations that as brothers-in-law they were not unfriendly despite their later business rivalry.''

Brother Isaac (1759-1822) had enlisted at the age of seventeen, equipping himself at his own expense when in 1776 he joined Colonel John Lasher’s regiment of volunteers. It was then that Franks heard read, for the first time, the Declaration of Independence, and, as he later wrote, “we all, as with one voice, declared that we would support and defend the same with our lives and fortunes.” After fighting in the Battle of Long Island, Franks retreated, only to be captured and imprisoned in New York by the British. Months later, he escaped to the safety of the Jersey shore, crossing the Hudson in a leaky skiff with one paddle. For the next four years he served in the quartermaster’s department and was finally commissioned as an ensign in the Seventh Massachusetts Regiment. All in all he had served his country as a soldier for seven years when he was finally separated from the service in 1782. He was now twenty-three, a seasoned veteran. Shortly after his resignation, he became a merchant and bill broker in Philadelphia and managed to save enough money to buy the Desh-ler home in Germantown. It had once been British headquarters. It was this same house that Washington rented at the time of the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic in 1793. In submitting his bill to the president, Franks did not hesitate to charge him for missing and broken kitchen


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

utensils and for cleaning the place after the presidential entourage had vacated the premises. In later years, Franks, now a militia lieutenant colonel, found it necessary to petition for a pension and to augment his income by serving as chief clerk of the state supreme court. Unlike his brother-in-law Salomon, Isaac Franks seems to have had no interest in Jews or Judaism. He married out of the faith in 1782 and reared a family whom he admonished to be good Christians. Like his two fellow colonels, David S. Franks and Solomon Bush, he was what later generations would call an assimilationist. Living in the open society of the new American republic, the three colonels saw no need to survive as loyal Jews.36

What the English did not know was that Isaac Franks’s brother-in-law, Haym Salomon, was an unofficial underground agent for the Whigs. He induced Hessians to desert and helped imprisoned French and American officers to escape. When someone betrayed Salomon, he fled, on August 11, 1778, leaving behind him his wife, an infant child, and the estate he had amassed. In Philadelphia where he now established himself, he struggled for some two years as a shopkeeper and bill broker before again achieving a degree of financial security. Like the many other bill brokers in town, several of them Jews, he bought and sold bills of exchange drawn on Americans and Europeans. He also handled all types of government paper and currencies, both Continental and state, lent money, and discounted notes. Here is where the real profit lay, for by late 1782 some moneylenders were demanding no less than 5 percent interest per month; others were charging even more. No later than 1781—possibly earlier— he was doing a great deal of business with the French. His linguistic skills were invaluable to him and may have been one of the chief sources of his relatively sudden affluence. Among his French clients were the resident French diplomat and the French army paymasters. Spain, like France, welcomed the colonial revolt against British imperialism, and the Spanish agent here in the United States was also his client.'1

By June, 1781, Salomon had become the broker for Robert Morris who had just assumed office as Superintendent of the Office of Finance. Salomon was already recognized as a skilled and reputable dealer. It is a tribute to him that he was selected by Morris out of a crowd of more than twenty brokers in the city. In his diary, where Salomon is mentioned more than 100 times, Morris always refers to him as Mr. Salomon. There is one exception: shortly after he begins employing him, he speaks of him as “the Jew broker.” This possibly pejorative adjective never occurs again in the diary when Salomon is mentioned. Morris had him sell bills of the French, Spanish, and Dutch and undertake a variety of other financial and fiscal tasks. Large amounts were involved. The proceeds of the sales were deposited in the Bank of North America and were then drawn on by Morris to meet governmental expenditures. In all probability the reason


The Early Republic

Morris picked Salomon to work for him was the imperative need to raise cash to outfit the troops who were to corner the English at Yorktown. Salomon was one of the first to hear of the victory over Cornwallis and to retail it in one of the taverns which served as his bourse. A Loyalist physician hearing Salomon’s report retorted sarcastically that if the British commander was in distress, Salomon was in even worse trouble, for as an unbeliever in Jesus Christ he was surely going to Hell. The crowd laughed at the Jew’s humiliation. The French volunteer who reported this incident, Pierre Etienne Du Ponceau, remarked: “The Jews were yet a hated and despised race”—but, as General Cornwallis would have been the first to agree, the last laugh was Salomon’s. “

Salomon was even more useful to Morris after the capture of the British army at Yorktown than before. The financial condition of the government became increasingly desperate; as Morris’s diary indicates, Salomon was constantly called in to help resolve recurring crises. Like Morris, he too worked heroically to maintain the credit of the nation. The entry in Morris’s diary for August 29, 1782, is especially eloquent: “I sent for Mr. Haym Salomon several times this day to assist me in raising money.” By July, 1782, at Salomon’s request, Morris permitted him to advertise that he was the country’s official broker. In his frequent advertisements from then on, Salomon informed his clients that he was the “Broker to the Office of Finance, to the Consul General of France, and to the Treasurer of the French Army.”39

Since Salomon’s reputation as a responsible bill broker was well-established as early as 1782, both here and abroad, notables in trouble, in need of cash, turned to him. Among them were members of the Continental Congress. By March, 1780, Continental currency in relation to silver had fallen forty to one; it is clear that necessitous delegates like James Madison and Edmund Randolph had to turn to moneylenders if they were to remain in Congress. Madison borrowed from Michael Gratz, of Philadelphia, and Jacob I.Cohen, of Cohen & Isaacs in Richmond. The Richmond firm carried Randolph, and he in turn permitted Madison to use his credit with Cohen & Isaacs. In the summer of 1782 Madison turned to Salomon and not in vain. Writing to Randolph, Madison said: “I have for some time past been a pensioner on the favor of Haym Salomon, a Jew broker.” That was in August; in September, Madison wrote again to Randolph about his connection with Salomon: “The kindness of our little friend in Front Street (Salomon) near the coffee-house is a fund which will preserve me from extremities, but I never resort to it without great mortification as he obstinately rejects all recompense.” Is it worth noting that Madison in his August letter refers to Salomon as a “Jew broker,” but in the next letter, a month later, Salomon has become “our little friend.” Randolph refers to his generous financial supplier, Cohen, of


United States Jewry, J 776-1985

Cohen & Isaacs as a “little Levite.” (Randolph obviously knew that, according to Deuteronomy 10, the Cohens as a priestly elite belonged to the tribe of Levi.) If we were to draw anthropological conclusions from the letters of Madison and Randolph we might assume that the Jews of the Revolutionary period were all small in stature, all “little” men. At all events quite apart from his consciousness of the courtesy and generosity of individual Jewish businessmen, Madison, one of the chief architects of the Constitution, was committed—and had always been committed—to equality before the law of all white men. For him, this was as mandatory in Virginia as in the federal polity.40

Toward the end of December, 1783, the Jews of Philadelphia protested against the anti-Jewish disabilities spelled out in the Pennsylvania constitution of 1776. As Jews they could not in good conscience take the requisite Christian test oath and thus could not hold public office. Haym Salomon was a member of the committee of Jews who expressed its vigorous dissent to the state Council of Censors. He could never forget that he had risked his life in the years 1776-1778 to help American prisoners and to further the cause of his country. He had no wish to remain a second-class citizen in Pennsylvania. The protest in which he joined was to no immediate avail; the test oath was not removed till 1790 when a new constitution was written. By that time Salomon was dead. The attempt to deny Jews political equality in Pennsylvania was in large part due to a vigorous campaign carried on by Christian bigots, among them the distinguished Lutheran minister, Henry Melchior Muehlenberg. This anti-Jewish prejudice cropped up again in 1784 when an attack was made on Jewish moneylenders. The leader in this Judeophobic sortie was Miers Fisher, a Quaker lawyer and former Tory exile. By attacking the Jews, Fisher may have thought to divert attention from his Loyalism during the late war. Fisher and his confederates pleaded with the Pennsylvania state legislature to charter a new bank which would reduce the current rate of interest and protect borrowers from the exactions of Jewish brokers. Salomon, it would seem, answered Fisher in Philadelphia’s Independent Gazetteer for March 13, 1784, signing himself. “A Jew Broker.” (The actual author of the reply was probably the editor of the paper, Colonel Eleazar Oswald). Salomon, not averse to fighting fire with fire, pointed out that Fisher was a typical Quaker, one of those sectarians notable for financial exploitation and treasonable conduct during the Revolution. Actually, Fisher and his friends were not primarily interested in attacking Jews or reducing the rate of interest or helping impecunious borrowers. They wanted to open a new bank so that they too could reap the lush profits enjoyed by the Bank of North America. Robert Morris and his associates, frightened at Fisher’s attack on their financial citadel and dreading the thought of a rival, made stock available in their closely held corporation. Nothing further was heard about a charter for a new bank.41


The Early Republic

During the period of his residence in Philadelphia, something less than seven years, Salomon served the community and himself as a merchant. It was not at all unusual for merchants of calibre to buy and sell bills of exchange on the United States and Europe. With one exception, there were no banks in the country, and businessmen employed these bills to pay their creditors and to collect from their debtors. Salomon never made large sums selling bills at a modest commission for the canny Morris. As a “banker,” he did better buying and selling the different government obligations and discounting notes. It was certainly lucrative to discount the bills of Cornwallis’s captured officers, interned in nearby Lancaster. He seems to have had no difficulty in selling English prisoners’ bills in British-held New York and even in London, and this at a time when there was no formal treaty of peace. He was a merchant in the traditional sense; he had a shop and a storage room where he stocked, stored, and sold dry goods; some wares were handled only on commission. The commodities he listed in his advertisements included dry goods, liquor, groceries, tobacco, hemp, indigo, and real estate.

The extent of his commercial reach was certainly not comparable to an Aaron Lopez’s, yet Salomon too was a merchant-shipper: he did business not only locally but in England, France, Holland, and Sweden. His goods were sent as freight on vessels owned by others, although at one time he had a share in the Sally which traded with Spain. It is not improbable that his ship was named for a daughter born at Philadelphia in 1779. Probably no broker or merchant in the country could match the volume of his advertising. He placed more than a thousand ads in American newspapers between the years 1781 and 1785; they appeared in English, French, German, and Dutch. He emphasized the goods he had on hand and the services he was prepared to offer. In 1784, he decided to move back to New York, his first American home and soon to become the national capital; Jewish exiles of substance, men like Isaac Moses and Hay-man Levy, were also returning to New York where they had their roots. Salomon knew or suspected that there would be a brighter future for him as a broker, as a merchant—and as a Jew—in the city on the Hudson. He bought a house on Wall Street, announced that he would carry on a brokerage and auction business, and chose as his partner a young native-born American, Jacob Mordecai, a man of education and culture; Salomon was well aware of his own inability to write a good English letter in a fair hand. The Wall Street store was opened but his final illness prevented him from leaving Philadelphia and taking charge.42

Salomon, an observant, devoted Jew, conducted no business on the Sabbath and Holy Days. Respectful of traditional rabbinic talmudic learning, he urged an uncle, a scholarly man, not to come here—there was no real “Jewishness” in this country, nothing analogous here to the fervent


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

piety and learning of Poland. If Salomon was not active in congregational life and politics, it was probably because he was deemed a newcomer and, even more probably, because he was unwilling to be saddled with congregational office. He was eager to build his estate during the war years, to provide for his young wife and their constantly growing family. When on one occasion he was elected to a minor office in the synagog, he paid the requisite fine and refused to serve. Yet in 1783 he accepted election to the synagogal board, possibly because he wanted to play a part in urging the Pennsylvania state authorities to modify their constitution which imposed a political disability on Jewish citizens. The following year, when the declining Jewish community in Philadelphia was torn by dissension, he intervened to bring the warring parties together. He was known as a generous man and was highly respected for his concern for others. This may explain why he did agree to serve as treasurer of the short-lived Travellers Aid Society (Ezrat Orchim), the first Jewish charity organization in the United States of which there is a record; it was an integral part of the philanthropic arm of Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel. By 1782, already affluent, Salomon became the largest contributor to Mikveh Israel’s building fund. He promised to pay one-quarter of the total cost and he did; his was probably American Jewry’s first matching grant. Salomon was hardly the richest Jew in town; the wealthy Isaac Moses was the second biggest giver; his gift was about a third as large as Salomon’s. As the most liberal donor, Salomon was accorded the honor of opening the doors of the sanctuary in the formal dedication ceremony. After his death, to commemorate his generosity, the congregation annually invoked God’s blessing upon him on Yom Kippur, the most sacred day of the Jewish year. Today, more than two hundred years later, that blessing is still intoned in the Philadelphia congregation.43

Once Salomon had means, he set out in 1782 to help his impoverished family. An importunate uncle who began making demands was sent a substantial gift. His mother received a valuable gold chain with the understanding that it was never to be sold; it was to be treasured as a prestige piece. A burial lot was bought for the family in Poland, and to make sure that his father would not be compelled to move on, the dutiful son purchased denization rights in the town where the family was then settled. But Salomon was concerned with more than material things. He believed in education if only because he had suffered its lack. He could not write a polished Yiddish letter. True, he could read the Hebrew prayers, but there is no reason to believe that he knew what the words meant. He wrote home that he was willing to subsidize any member of the family who showed an aptitude for rabbinic studies. Above all, he said that he wanted the younger generation back home given a good general education—which meant for him knowledge of the “Christian languages.” He


The Early Republu

was a simple, genial man as his personal letters make clear. Trying to serve as an amateur matchmaker, he kept pushing his unmarried friends to marry. During the last few years of his brief life stories of his generosity even reached Europe. Such reports are always exaggerated. A European worthy chose him to settle an American estate. People abroad venerated him as a nadiv, a noble benefactor/'

The evidence available indicates that our little friend on Front Street was a good citizen. When the Charlestown exiles, banished by the British, reached Philadelphia, their city of refuge, Salomon was one of those who contributed to their relief. Like many of his friends in Mikveh Israel, he too joined the Masons. It certainly must have meant something to him to belong to a fraternity preaching the gospel of humanity, equality, and the dignity of the individual. Surely he could never forget that he had come from Poland, a country where Jews were despised and frequently attacked. His parents and dear ones still lived there. Salomon was one of the chief supporters of a fund designed to finance a balloon ascension, looked upon as a civic obligation. In 1783, he was among the 800 Philadelphians who appealed to Congress to return from Princeton whither it had fled to escape the unpaid mutinous troops marching on the city. Signers, prominent citizens, promised financial help. Eight Jews of substance signed this petition, 1 percent of the total. These numbers may well serve to put American Jewry in perspective; the Jewish elite was still in the city awaiting the signing of the definitive peace treaty.45

Haym Salomon—Moses Hayyim, the son of Solomon—died on January 6, 1785, about forty-five years of age; he left behind him a twenty-three year old widow with three young children and a fourth on the way. One of the New York newspapers reported that he left a large estate. It did seem substantial, but much of it was in Continental currency and depreciated securities. The letters of administration show that in fact Salomon died insolvent. Some of his creditors were also his executors and made sure that their debts were satisfied. Nothing was left for the family; the widow was permitted to keep her household furnishings. Had he survived another five years when Hamilton’s fiscal program was adopted and the domestic debt funded at par, he would have done well. He had lived only ten years in America; the last five were, economically, the fruitful ones."

Some forty years after his death, Salomon’s posthumous son, Haym M. Salomon, born in 1785, examined his father’s papers and came to the conclusion that the United States government owed huge sums to his father’s estate. There is no way to know whether the son actually believed this or only pretended to believe it. As early as 1827 he began collecting evidence to substantiate his claims and sought data from former President James Madison. In 1846 he began appealing to Congress for reimburse-


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

ment and from then on made numerous attempts to induce the national legislature to acknowledge the debt and to compensate the heirs. Haym, Jr., contended, as did the family later, that the records of the Bank of North America reflected advances made by Haym Salomon to the government. The large sums deposited were not government funds; they were not the proceeds of bills made out to the United States by foreign powers, sold by Salomon, and deposited by him in the bank as the agent for Robert Morris, the Superintendent of Finance. The funds deposited were Salomon’s! The demands made by young Salomon and his descendants amounted to well over $800,000 to say nothing of accumulated interest. Incidentally, if the father had been able to lend the government such staggering sums, he would have been the richest man in the country —by far! Haym Salomon was the real financier of the American Revolution; it owes everything to him, not to Robert Morris: so the claim of his enthusiastic latter-day admirers. It was he who restored the country’s credit when it was on the verge of bankruptcy. It was he and, no one else, who negotiated the substantial loans with France and Holland. Millions! He was the paymaster of the French army; all monies of the French armed forces were disbursed by him. The French and Spanish agents in this country were dependent on him for support; the help he gave them enabled them to carry on their work. His aid to these foreign dignitaries was matched only by what he did for notable members of the Continental Congress, for James Madison, Edmund Randolph, James Wilson, Arthur Lee, Baron Steuben. Whatever profit he made on his various deals for the government was turned back to it. Louis XVI of France honored him with a title! In a later addition to the story, Louis XVI asked good Ben Franklin who would underwrite the French subsidies? “Haym Salomon,” answered Franklin. To which His Majesty responded that was all the assurance he needed.'

Most committees on Revolutionary claims did recommend that the debt be honored but no bill was ever passed by Congress acknowledging as just the demands of the son or his descendants, though a later generation in 1893 would have been content with the striking of a gold medal as a tribute. Yet the myth has been accepted by committees of the House and Senate on Revolutionary claims and by a Committee on the Library. Indeed, for well over a century eminent Americans have euphorically rehearsed the achievements of Morris’ bill broker: William Seward, Presidents Taft, Wilson, Hoover, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. In an address in 1916, Taft said that Salomon was the Jew who stood by Morris and financed the Revolution. It is not surprising that so many notable American Gentiles believed the myth; the Jews can work magic with money! The Presidents, too, were never unmindful of the Jewish vote. In 1925, the secretary of the Federation of Polish Jews of America published a bro-


The Early Republic

chure in which he alleged that Washington had sent Salomon a message with an urgent request for money. The need was desperate. It was the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, when Salomon was in the synagog. Without hesitation he made an appeal for funds; he himself gave $240,000, and the other worshippers contributed the balance to make a total of $400,000! A year later Senator K. D. McKellar of Tennessee moved for an appropriation of $658,007.13 for the Salomon family. Senator McKellar was a well-known conservative in sympathy with the immigration quota laws passed during his term in the Senate. Had a twentieth-century Salomon, an immigrant Polish Jew, attempted to enter the country, he may very well have been denied permission under the quota laws of the 1920’s.48

Gaining new strength in the twentieth century, the Salomon myth has continued to flourish. The latest version maintains that Washington himself called Salomon in and asked him what reward he sought for his remarkable contribution to the country. Salomon wanted nothing, but when Washington persisted, he answered that he would be content if the arrangement of the thirteen stars on the American seal would be in the form of a six-pointed star, the Jewish Shield of David. This was done as anyone can see who examines the Jewish star on a one-dollar bill, above the eagle and the epluribus unuml When in 1975 a bicentennial commemorative stamp was issued by the postal service to honor Salomon, the fictional element was emphasized in the legend on the back of the stamp:


Businessman and broker Haym Salomon was responsible for raising most of the money needed to finance the American Revolution and later to save the new nation from collapse.

In the late twentieth century, the mythic Salomon is accepted as the real Salomon by practically everyone aware of him, even by the Dictionary of American Biography. A historian has said that old myths never die; they just become embodied in textbooks.49

Despite the fact that Salomon goes without mention in the index to William Graham Sumner’s two volume study of Morris, The Financier and the Finances of the American Revolution (1891), or in any of the standard American histories, he was a figure of some distinction. It is difficult to evaluate in detail what he did as a patriot and as Morris’ broker because some of the records of the Bank of North America were burnt by the British in the War of 1812 and many if not most of Salomon’s personal papers have not survived. Most of the claims of the son, Haym M. Salomon, cannot be substantiated or objectively evaluated. Haym Salomon’s achievements, in fact, need no myth to embellish them. He was the chief broker for Morris at a very important period in American history, for he


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

served as Morris’s agent in cashing bills from our allies; he disposed of all those which the Dutch and French sent here. Actually most of the money allocated by American allies was spent in Europe for supplies which were then shipped to this country. The Philadelphia broker rendered valuable service, through his sale of bills, in raising cash to help outfit the army in the decisive campaign that won the war. More importantly, he was constantly at Morris’s side in the post-Yorktown period when the finances of the country were threatened with collapse. “I sent for Salomon and desired him to try every way he could devise to raise money” (August 27, 1782). At times Salomon’s credit was better than that of the new republic’s. This man was something of an alchemist; he could turn paper into gold. He lent money to notables to help them carry on their work; in some instances, he sought no interest. There were brokers and businessmen who refused to lend money to needy congressmen; the lenders could employ their funds to better advantage at a time when usurious rates prevailed. As a Jew, Salomon was devoted to his people and to his family. His generosity in building his Philadelphia congregation’s first sanctuary has no parallel in American Jewish history until the rise of Harmon Hendricks and Judah Touro in the nineteenth century. He risked his life in New York as an American secret agent; he fought for political liberty and abolition of the discriminatory test oath in the state of his adoption. People have revered his memory to this day, although they have been influenced more by the myth than the reality. Even in his own time he was respected by his Gentile contemporaries. When he passed away a Philadelphia newspaper paid him this tribute: “He was remarkable for his skill and integrity in his profession and for his generous and humane deportment."

After Salomon’s burial, no money was left for a headstone; he lies in an unmarked grave in Philadelphia’s Spruce Street Cemetery. East European Jews in this country, frowned upon by earlier waves of Jewish immigrants, wanted a monument to enshrine his memory. They were caught up naturally enough in the Salomon myth. A monument to an eighteenth-century Polish Jewish patriot hero would document their early arrival on American shores; not all Polacks came after 1881! Polish Jews, too, are important; they, too, have made a contribution to the history of this country. These twentieth-century Polish Jewish devotees fostered the myth: Salomon was a friend of Kosciuszko and Pulaski! Attempts in the 1920’s to set up a memorial to honor him made no headway; some Jews were bitterly opposed to the project; there were old-line families who viewed Salomon’s achievements skeptically. How would the Gentiles respond to a monument to a Jew? In 1931 the Jewish historian Max J. Kohler punctured the myth in a brilliant essay, yet at the same time pointed out Salomon’s real accomplishments. Finally, in 1941,


The Early Republic

Chicago Jews did succeed in erecting an imposing sculptured memorial to Salomon, dedicated on the 150th anniversary of the ratification of America’s Bill of Rights. It portrays Washington eleven feet high, flanked by Robert Morris and Haym Salomon. Thus an American Jew, who has no gravestone to mark his resting place, is honored today by an impressive monument in one of the great cities of this country. Salomon merits this recognition for he was a man of ability, integrity, and courage, devoted to the land which gave him shelter and accepted him as one of its own. He was not a great man; he was a very good American; he was a Jew in the best sense of the term.51


A direct descendant of Salomon was the United States ambassador to Russia and France, William Christian Bullitt. The present-day genealogist is almost tempted to venture that a Christian must have the wisdom of a Solomon to know his Jewish ancestors. In the Collector, a magazine published by a manuscript dealer, a bill of exchange signed by Haym Salomon was offered for sale; the price asked was $3,500. If in his Counting-house-on-High Salomon has been privileged to learn of the fabulous value of but one of his signed documents, he is probably very puzzled, but nonetheless, gratified. Or maybe he is shaking his head dolorously at the thought that inflation—a phenomenon with which he was only too familiar—is still rampant in this country. •

Despite the fact that only one state had emancipated its Jews by the time that the provisional peace treaty was ratified by Congress, the Jews were elated. For them the Revolution meant more than separation from Great Britain. For the first time in Diaspora history they could hope to receive real equality in the political and economic spheres. For Jews, onetime British citizens of lesser quality and lesser opportunity, the Revolution was a social one. This explains the letter which Mordecai Sheftall wrote to a son, April, 1783:

Every real wisher to his country must feel him self happy to have lived to see this longe and bloody contest brot to so happy an issue. More especially as we have obtained our independence. . . . An intier new scene will open it self, and we have the world to begin againe.53



Political Gains in the States

Insufficient evidence is available to determine how the Jews reacted to the Declaration of Independence. Though Jonas Phillips sent a copy to a relative in Holland, he did so without comment. Implicitly the Declaration offered the Jews a great deal, certainly more than they had been granted under the British. Even so, until September, 1777, the Jews received nothing by way of more generous political rights from either the individual states or from the Confederation. All the states which had already adopted constitutions ignored the Jews—except that no one could hold high office who was not a Christian. In September, 1777, New York gave the Jews equality. The Whigs were then in exile from New York City, which was in the hands of the English; the state government could afford to be—somewhat—liberal. Originally the New Yorkers had considered offering rights to all men, not only to Jews, but also to Turks, infidels, and Catholics. They thought better of it: Jews were emancipated; Catholics were not. It was to be a long generation before Catholics achieved equality with others. New York Jews were pleased; a dynamic, urban, commercial group, they felt themselves entitled to recognition and on December 9, 1783, wrote the governor that they looked forward to living under a polity which had granted them “the inestimable blessings” of civil and religious liberty. They knew how much better off they were than Europe’s Jews. That same year Maria Theresa of Austria had declared that her Jewish subjects were a pest and their number would have to be reduced.1

In her Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations, published in 1784, Hannah Adams said that the Jews had been indulged in all the rights of citizens. That was true of New York alone; everywhere else at that time state governments were still controlled by elite middle-class and upper-class electors who represented but a fraction of the total popula-


Political Gains

tion. Most of them in the 1780’s had no intention of sharing power with the Jews, their bourgeois rivals. The majority of Americans, whether themselves enfranchised or not, whether radicals or conservatives, could not yet conceive of granting full rights to non-Christians; that would have been too much of a wrench; America was still very much a Christian country. For the Jew, as for millions of others, the Revolution began only after the signing of the peace treaty with the British. A true liberal in matters political, Jefferson in 1779 in his Ordinance of Religious Freedom set out to grant immunities to Jews, Catholics, Moslems, and all infidels. It was a propagandistic, Deistic piece of legislation. Jefferson wanted a complete separation of church and state, a goal which was not shared by his fellow-Virginians Patrick Henry, George Washington, and John Marshall. Jefferson, Madison, and their sympathizers were only too conscious of the fact that the decade of the 1770’s had seen Protestant dissenters, non-Anglicans, jailed in Virginia. Hence many evangelicals were as eager as the political radicals to divorce church and state. Jefferson’s Act for Establishing Religious Freedom finally passed the state legislature in 1786.2

One may assume that Jefferson’s victory in Virginia encouraged the Jews in other states to push for equality. Virginia was the largest and most populous state. Real progress was soon made; in four years, five states recognized their Jewish citizens, bestowing upon them all privileges and immunities: Georgia (1789), South Carolina (1790), Pennsylvania (1790), Delaware (1792), and Vermont (1793). There was probably not one Jewish family in Vermont when the state dismantled religious barriers in 1793; the Vermont lawgivers were thinking only of Christians when they made their sweeping proclamation of equality. Connecticut, too, when she granted rights to all in 1818, had as yet no Jewish community; rights only for Christians were envisaged there, but when in the 1840’s Jews established their first community in the state they met with no resistance.3

In other states it was well over three decades before the emancipation push was successful. As the Gentile masses increased their power politically, they were chary of emancipating Jews. Then, too, the excesses of the French Revolution frightened the Americans. Thirty-six years after Pennsylvania and South Carolina gave their Jews equality, Maryland finally permitted her Jewish citizens to hold office. That was in 1826. Twenty- five years earlier, Jefferson had appointed Reuben Etting the United States marshal for Maryland. In all likelihood, the President had made that appointment deliberately to shame the state for its political conservatism and to emphasize its bigotry. Maryland’s pro-Jewish emancipator, Thomas Kennedy (d. 1832), wrote:


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

I blush for Christians that they should forget The Golden Rule—their great Law-giver set.4

Conservative forces more sure of themselves had a chance to rally. The ballot frequently permitted committed Christians to document their prejudices against infidel Jews. Massachusetts accorded Jews complete rights only in 1833, Rhode Island, not until 1843, New Jersey, as late as 1844. Present at the New Jersey constituent convention that year was the Jewish journalist and politician David Naar, one of the authors of the state’s bill of rights. Naar, later mayor of Elizabethtown, fought against imprisonment for debt, worked to establish the first normal school in the state, and insisted that his fellow-Masons recognize blacks. Yet, where the Jews were concerned, the battle for political democracy in America was still to be won. Tidewater gentlemen in North Carolina surrendered power reluctantly. That state did not emancipate its Jews till 1868 and then probably only with the help of black freedman legislators during the Reconstruction era. Finally in 1876-1877—a good century after Jefferson’s Great Avowal, the Declaration of Independence—New Hampshire emancipated her Jews. There were probably not ten Jewish families in the entire state.

Political Gains Nationally


In 1777, the very year that New York made provision politically for her Jews, the Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation, though they would not come into force until 1781. Like the Declaration of Independence, the Articles said nothing about religious liberty—a very sensitive subject. In principle, all discriminatory religious legislation was retained. Yet it was the intention of the Congress to strengthen the national character of the new United States. All free inhabitants were to enjoy rights and immunities—a declaration which was not much more than a pious wish, for the Confederation Congress had very little authority over the individual states, still effectively sovereign. Like the British parliament when it enacted the Plantation Act of 1740 giving Jews and others extensive economic privileges, the Confederation was eager to unite the country. Emphasis was laid upon the privileges of trade and commerce. As an urban trading class, Jews would certainly be encouraged. A little less than ten years after the Articles of Confederation were written and adopted, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance (1787), legislating for the Northwest Territory and for the states that were yet to be organized north of the Ohio and west all the way to the Mississippi. This


Political Gains

law would become exemplary; it would be adapted to provide for all new commonwealths to the south as well as north of the Ohio. In brief, the Ordinance declared that no person was ever to be molested on account of his mode of worship or religious sentiments. This was tantamount to a guarantee of political equality in all new states. Many a new commonwealth would grant political rights to all citizens long before some of the original thirteen states had abolished religious disabilities. Let it be very clear: the new United States could not claim to be a pioneer in granting the Jews freedom of conscience and worship. Jews already enjoyed such freedom under the British and in many European lands. But freedom to worship as one sees fit is not true religious liberty if it serves as a disability to deprive Jews and other nonconformists of the franchise and the right to hold office. As late as 1787, eleven of the thirteen founding states still denied Jews political equality. Infidels and Jews in all those states, and even Catholics in some commonwealths, could not be full citizens because creedal considerations limited their political rights.6

The old colonial English concept of a tie between the province and religion still lingered on in the Confederation. The Continental Congress was in effect a Christian body. Its members tended to believe that religion, like morality and knowledge, was necessary to good government. When Massachusetts settlers from Granville settled Granville, Ohio, the log house they built served as a church as well as a city hall and a school. Granville was a Christian community. One may question, even given the Northwest Ordinance, whether Congress really wished to divorce the states from religion. The Confederation and Congress were always conscious of the religious mores of the individual pre-Revolutionary provinces. The unexpressed thought was constantly there: all Christians have a common religion; they must tolerate one another and work together. The notion that the states must actually encourage Christian morality is confirmed by the early blasphemy and Sunday laws of the Northwest Territory. The Christian world must rest on the first day of the week; fines were prescribed for those who in cursing invoked the name of God, Christ Jesus, and the Holy Ghost.7


The members of the Continental Congress still hankered after the fleshpots of a Christian paradise. This was not true of the men in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. To be sure, they were or had been reared as Christians, but they found it expedient to make a clean break between church and state. The Christian dissenters, the evangelicals, nonconformists who found themselves in rebellion against the established churches, unwittingly saved the day for the tiny Jewish minority. The threat of sectarian rivalries forced the country to adopt a nonsectarian


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

constitution. The need for separation between church and state was fortified by an old English tradition that went back to the seventeenth century, a tradition that valued toleration and religious freedom, even for Jews. When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention adopted a basic national statute on September 17, 1787, they were agreed—in Article VI—that no religious test was ever to be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States. Later, Article VI was reinforced by the first amendment, accepted by Congress in 1789 and adopted in 1791: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Thus, on the federal level, there was no religious test for Jews who sought office. It was a great advance—though Congress was not ready to establish a nonde-nominational Federal University and for diverse reasons rejected the proposal.8

It was in August, 1787, that the delegates to the convention resolved that there would be no religious test for federal office. Since the constitutional deliberations were held in secrecy, Philadelphia Jewry was not aware of this important decision. The Jews resented the political disability imposed upon them by the Pennsylvania state constitution of 1776. Later, in Congress, Madison sought to amend the new federal constitution to the end that no state be permitted to violate the religious rights of any citizen. The House supported him; the Senate, with the prerogatives and prejudices of the individual states in mind, refused to accept the amendment. Had Madison’s proposal passed, eleven of the original thirteen states would have been compelled to guarantee political equality to Jews, Catholics, Deists, atheists, and other non-Protestants. Still, though this goal had yet to be realized in the new republic, great advances had been made by the federal constitution. For virtually the first time in Diaspora history, Jews were fully free, fully equal in federal rights. The new constitution gave them a chance to develop psychically, affectively, to come closer to their neighbors. This federal constitution, influenced in part by the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom and possibly by New York’s 1777 organic statute as well, in turn influenced the states in a liberal direction. Just a few years after the constitution’s promulgation, Georgia, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Delaware changed their constitutions, eliminating test oaths and religious disabilities. In 1788, when the federal constitution was adopted, Richmond’s little congregation of Jews held a banquet and offered thirteen toasts. The thirteenth is most interesting: “May the Israelites throughout the world enjoy the same religious rights and political advantages as their American brethren.” American egalitarianism was now in potentia an export commodity.9

It may well be that the writers of the new constitutions in the years after 1789 were influenced by the French Revolution, which in turn had


Political Gains

not been untouched by American liberalism. The excesses of the French Revolution, however, were certainly resented by many Americans— which may explain why from 1793 to 1826 not one of the tidewater states moved to eliminate its political-religious disabilities. Political liberalism was in bad odor.10

By the turn of the century, the Jews of the United States realized that they stood on the threshold of a new world. Opportunity, real opportunity of a political and economic nature, was resident only in the American republic. The French Revolution, it was true, had brought freedom to Jews in France and Holland, but the situation elsewhere in Europe offered little comfort. America was the land of the future. Liberal charters had been offered Jews in some of the South American colonies in the seventeenth century, but those were privilegia benevolently handed down from above by calculating mercantilist administrators; here in North America, the privileges that the Jews enjoyed they possessed as of right together with all other citizens—immunities which all citizens had won by their own efforts and on their own authority. The Jew of the late eighteenth century believed that he belonged here; his coreligionists had by this time already been in the country for nearly one hundred and fifty years. If this land was free and independent, it was because they, few as they were, had helped make it so; they were proud of the fact that they had had a part in winning their own freedom. And how did they understand freedom? They were concerned with their dignity as human beings; they would accept no disabilities insofar as it lay in their power to reject them. They wanted all the rights advocated by egalitarians, but they never construed their wishes as reflective of the left. They wanted the privilegia of middle-class citizens, of the relatively few electors who exercised the franchise. That spelled opportunity. It was their good fortune that, on the whole, the delegates to the constitutional convention were conservatives. Had they been radicals, with their ears cocked to the prejudices of the masses, they might not have abolished the test oath for office. The masses were not sympathetic to the political aspirations of the Jews. Even in America, it may be said, the Jews were emancipated more from the top down than from the bottom up.11


As far as can be determined, the Jews were elated by the federal constitution. Benjamin Rush said that the new organic statute made worthy men of every religion equal before the law. The Jews were certainly in favor of a strong national government able to further economic life. The tariff barriers of the different states disconcerted them. Though always small in numbers, the Jews were not unimportant in the larger economy. Their sense of American nationalism was growing; many, if not most of them,


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

were native-born in that generation. They approved of the constitution for economic as well as political reasons. And when the people of Philadelphia, the country’s largest city, determined to celebrate the adoption of the constitution by a majority of the states, the Jews prepared to rejoice with them. The occasion was the Federal Parade of July 4, 1788, the greatest spectacle the country had yet seen. It was worth watching, for the gaping, delighted citizenry saw a sight probably never before witnessed on any continent:

The Rabbi of the Jews, locked in the arms of two ministers of the gospel, was a most delightful sight.

Surely the Messiah was just around the corner! After the parade was over, the Jews met together at a kosher table of their own with pickled salmon, bread, crackers, almonds, and raisins—but no hard liquor. Strangely enough Naphtali Phillips, who saw the show at age fifteen and described it eighty years later, did not think it worth mentioning that Jewish and Christian clergy had paraded together. Did he think it was perfectly natural for Jewish and Christian ministers to fraternize? Phillips described the parade in 1868; the preceding year Max Lilienthal had preached from the pulpit of a Unitarian church in Cincinnati. It was said to be the first time in the United States that a rabbi spoke in a church.1



As soon as the military phase of the Revolution erupted and the Continental Congress broke with the British, Jews began to seek appointment or election to office. It was not altogether unusual for them to be accorded rights, appointments, and offices even before the laws or constitutions of their respective states granted them equality. On occasion, popular toleration anticipated legal sanction. In emergency situations, Jews became leaders by popular acquiescence. In 1768, a mob protesting against an unpopular Maryland clergyman had been led by a Jew. It was assumed that, when the new regime was stabilized, Jews would be given equality by statute or by constitutional provision. Literate, urban businessmen, they were acceptable as officeholders. No one could question their capacity in an age of widespread illiteracy. This was certainly true in the South, in Georgia and in South Carolina, where Mordecai Sheftall and Francis Salvador exercised authority more than a decade before Jews were legally permitted to hold office in these states. It was not uncommon for individual “Israelites” to be sworn on the “Holy Evangels.” The Gentiles knew that they were Jews, but deemed their oaths valid. Judah Hays served as


Political Gains

fire warden in Boston as early as 1805. Over thirty years before the state constitution permitted a Jew to hold office, Moses M. Hays ran for the Massachusetts state senate. He was egregiously defeated; his successful opponent received 1,574 votes; Hays, one vote. The cynic is tempted to say that such unpopularity must have been deserved, yet a contemporary Christian memoirist praised him to the skies. Had he been elected, he could not of course in good conscience have taken the test oath. When in 1788 cousin Michael Hays, of Mount Pleasant, Westchester County, New York, took the oath as assessor, he had no problem since no disabilities were imposed on Jews in that state. Another Westchester Hays, Jacob, was to serve as High Constable in New York City for years. A Portuguese naturalist on a visit to Philadelphia in 1799 was rather startled to learn that a Jew could sit on a jury. Back home in Portugal, he knew, Jews were not openly tolerated; an auto-da-fe had taken place as recently as 1791. By the turn of the century Jews were not only serving as jurymen in some northern states, but were also practicing law as officers of the court in Pennsylvania (1799) and in New York (1802). In 1822 the ebullient Mordecai M. Noah was serving as sheriff in New York; before 1840, members of the New York Jewish community were to be found on the school board and on the board of health.' ’

More Jews may have held office in the South than in the North. Was this because of the large number of enslaved blacks? About the year 1820, when Charleston Jewry, the country’s greatest Jewish community, was still at its height, there were more blacks than whites in the state. Were competent literate whites at a premium, especially in the smaller communities of the South? A number of these Jewish officeseekers were Revolutionary War veterans. Baltimore’s Jewish aristocrats, the Ettings and the Cohens, were eager to serve in office, though not as placemen. Ben Etting was a member of the Baltimore school board; Uncle Solomon Etting was elected to the First Branch of the city council and became its president (1826-1827). It was just about then that Jacob I. Cohen, Jr., also became a member of the council. Years later Cohen, too, was elected president of the First Branch. One of Baltimore’s most respected citizens, he distinguished himself as a founder of the city’s public school system and as a commissioner of finance. Let it not be forgotten that not until 1826 were Jews exempt from the state’s Christian test oath. These two Jews were immediately elected to office. The patriarch of the Baltimore Cohen clan was a Virginian, Jacob I. Cohen (senior), of Richmond, appointed as early as 1795 to a committee to quarantine refugees fleeing from the yellow fever in Norfolk. His business partner, Isaiah Isaacs, another Virginia Jewish pioneer, was more active in politics. In 1780 when the religious test oath laws were still in force, he had run unsuccessfully for city council, but he was appointed clerk of the market. After the passage of Jefferson’s


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Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, Isaacs became a tax assessor and a member of Richmond’s town council. It is interesting that both men were more at home with the Hebrew than with the Latin script. After the turn of the century, the cultured Solomon Jacobs became an alderman and even acting mayor of the city. On occasion, he conducted services in the synagog serving as hazzan.14

After 1790, when a new South Carolina constitution wiping away the Christian test was adopted, Jews in the state assumed a variety of offices. Individuals served in the office of postmaster and as tax collector, as commissioner of schools, of streets, of markets, as attorneys, as clerks of the court, as prothonotary, as deputy sheriff, as coroner, constable, and magistrate, as commissioners of the hospital, the orphan asylum, roads, pilotage, workhouses, and police, as aldermen, as wardens, and as inten-dant (mayor). The Charleston-born Solomon Heydenfeldt went west to Alabama in 1837 where at the age of twenty-four he was elected a judge in Talapoosa County. A few years later at the time of the Gold Rush, he moved on to California and there became one of the most distinguished jurists on the Pacific Coast. Another Charlestonian, Abraham Seixas, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, was very eager for office. This New York transplant was a brother of Gershom, the “rabbi” of the New York congregation and for many years a trustee of Columbia College. Abraham was a magistrate and a warden of the workhouse in Charleston. Campaigning for office in the 1790’s, he resorted to verse. His sister Grace wrote poetry; he wrote doggerel as he pleaded with the electors to commit themselves:

The man I love, who will avow He is my friend or foe;

But he who comes with double face,

I do despise as being base.

In this particular election the good Charlestonians did commit themselves —Seixas ended up at the bottom of the list. In Georgia, the Jewish involvement in local politics is reflected in the activities of the Sheftall clan. By 1791 Col. Mordecai Sheftall had served in Savannah as tobacco inspector, warden, lumber measurer, and justice of the peace. His son, Sheftall Sheftall, was also to become a justice of the peace; Dr. Moses Sheftall, another of the colonel’s sons, was a port warden, an overseer of the poor, and a judge of the Inferior Court of Chatham County (1828). This family was in no sense atypical; quite a number of Jews held office in Savannah prior to 1840.15


Political Gains


In 1796, Dr. Levi Myers, of Georgetown, South Carolina, was elected to the state legislature. Actually he was not the first Jew to sit in that body, for Salvador had earlier been named to the first General Assembly by a rebel junta. From all indications Myers was no avid politician; he was interested in medicine and general culture; he was a Latinist and a student of literature. He had apprenticed as a medical aspirant in the office of Dr. David Ramsay, who in his day was a notable historian. Myers crossed the ocean to study medicine at Edinburgh (1785-1786), but took his degree in Glasgow (1787), probably because that school, unlike Edinburgh, did not require publication of a thesis. Years later, back home, he received an appointment as Apothecary General of the state. In 1822 he and his family were swept away in a gale that devastated the coast. Subsequently, several Jews were elected to both houses of the state legislature. In 1808 Jacob Henry represented Carteret County in the North Carolinia lower house—illegally, for all North Carolina legislators at the time and for the next sixty years were expected to take a Christian oath. In Georgia, to the South, Dr. Moses Sheftall, served in the state legislature. Family tradition has it that David Emanuel, governor of Georgia in 1801, was a Jew, though there is no substantial evidence to confirm this. Up North, in New York City, Mordecai Myers, an 1812 war veteran with a fine record, began in 1828 serving several terms in the state assembly. Much later, in the 1850’s, he became mayor of the city of Schenectady.16

Myers had once been very active in Congregation Shearith Israel, where he knew Samuel Judah, a pro-American Canadian, and his son, “Dr.” Bernard Samuel Judah, a “surgeon” and druggist. Dr. Judah had married a daughter of Aaron Hart, of Three Rivers, one of the great Que-becois Jewish entrepreneurs, a man who built a feudal estate and established a family still respected today throughout Canada. In 1798, Bernard S. Judah had a son who was named after the child’s paternal grandfather. Young Samuel (1798/1799-1869), a native of New York, after graduating from Rutgers in New Jersey in 1816, picked up stakes and moved west to Indiana, where he turned to law and by 1819 was already practicing in old Vincennes. Were the Brandons of that town, whose daughter he married in 1825, related to one of the numerous Jewish Brandons? Had they brought him out to Indiana? Or was he just another one of the many young men of his day who believed that his chances for a career were far better on the western frontier than in New Jersey? He was a brilliant young fellow; he knew the law and had a fine background in Latin, Greek, and the sciences; and his little two-story frame house not only sheltered his wife and their half-dozen or more children, but also a good sound library. When not yet thirty, Judah was already a successful lawyer enjoying a fine practice and pointing with pride to the best garden in


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town on his two and one-half acre lot. Of course he had sheep, cows, horses, and beehives, but he also had what few others had—asparagus and celery!

In politics he was a Jacksonian, one of the faction’s leaders indeed, for in 1824 this twenty-six-year-old lawyer had written the state Democratic platform. Three years later he was in the state legislature, and after Jackson’s landslide, in 1829, he became the United States District Attorney. Old Hickory took care of his friends. But Samuel wanted to be United States senator, and when the incumbent James Noble died, Judah campaigned vigorously for the office against a half-dozen rivals, including the shrewd, hard-hitting, hard-drinking Indian fighter, General John Tipton. Judah led on the first two ballots with thirty-six and thirty-nine votes; Tipton had only four, but on the seventh ballot the General came through with a majority. Inasmuch as the election for the six-year term was just one year off, Samuel once more took up the burden of a bitter campaign. This time, he was sure, he was going to win; the General’s friends were equally determined to head him off. One of them, a Doctor Woolverton, had the brilliant idea the following spring of making Judah the governor of the new Wisconsin Territory or of having him appointed judge. Nothing came of that. Judah wanted to be senator; he was convinced that he had earned the job; some of his friends even believed that Tipton had promised not to run against him. In any event Judah made his intentions quite clear in a letter to Tipton on May 30,1832:

I have determined to be a candidate ... I owe some thing to myself. . . some thing too is due to my own feelings, and some thing to the sacrifices I have made for the party.

It was during the second week of December, 1832, that the election for the full six-year term in the United States Senate took place in Indianapolis, but Judah was not among the candidates. What had happened? A letter sent under a fictitious name to the federal authorities claimed that the accounts of Dr. Woolverton—receiver of public moneys at the Vincennes Land Office—were not in order. Somehow or other this letter fell into the hands of the Doctor and his friends, and they believed the writer to be none other than the United States District Attorney himself, Samuel Judah. The report that Judah was the author of this letter may have been true—he was anything but a political lily—and Woolverton may have been guilty of misappropriating public funds; it may all have been a “frame-up” to crush Judah by smearing him with the epithet of an “informer,” but it worked; for the nonce Judah was dead politically and did not even offer himself as a candidate. Tipton was again elected, this time on the nineteenth ballot.


Political Gains

Did the fact that Judah was a Jew bring about his defeat in the senatorial elections and campaigns of 1831 and 1832? Did Judah admit being a Jew? This last we may take for granted, for in 1827 his father came out to see him, and Bernard S. Judah was a loyal member of Shearith Israel and closely tied to his Jewish kin. Before crossing New York State by stage and canal on his way westward, he called on his cousins the Solomons and Harts in Albany; in Cincinnati he paid his respects to the Jon-ases and also visited a young Jewish couple who had just married; he even agreed to carry back a packet of wedding cake to be delivered to the Peix-ottos in Philadelphia for distribution there to the hopeful young females. In spite of his somewhat Deistic leanings, the father was certainly a Jew and close to his son.

Were the Indiana legislators conscious of Judah’s Jewishness? Definitely. After Judah’s first election defeat in December, 1831, General Washington Johnston, of Vincennes, had written to Tipton:

A number of our citizens in this part of the country are highly gratified that you have succeeded over the Jew; in you they confide, hut not in him. He now says he did not care about the two years [as senator, 1831-1832] but the next six, which he intends being a candidate! May the Lord in his goodness prevent this.

Almost a year later, Thomas Fitzgerald, a Michigan politician who was one day to become a United States senator himself, wrote to encourage his friend Tipton before the election of December, 1832;

Situated as I am, I can form no satisfactory opinion with regard to politicks and am quite ignorant of what is going on in Indiana, except that you are to have several rivals for your office , and among the rest, Satn’l the Jew. Wonder if he will cry again if he is not elected, though I must say he bore his defeat very well last winter. But it wont do, “Sammy” cant be elected; he cant get so many votes as he had last winter.

In none of his letters—even during the most trying moments of this bitterly fought frontier election when chicanery and bribery were rife—did Tipton himself ever attack his opponent as a “Jew,” although he believed that Judah would stop at nothing to defeat him. The whole public campaign was, morever, singularly free of anti-Jewish prejudice. The references to Samuel as a Jew need not be regarded as sinister; they may very well have been more adjectival and descriptive than calumniatory. Jews were still novelties in Midwestern political life, but Judah always had a large following. A few years later, when he broke with Jackson on the question of internal improvements and joined the Whigs, he became one of the party’s leaders and enjoyed statewide support. In 1840—now back in the State Assembly—he was elected president of the Indiana Whig convention which helped nominate Harrison and carried the state for


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him. If there was anti-Jewish prejudice on the Indiana frontier, it seems not materially to have been responsible for Judah’s defeats; it certainly did not prevent him from becoming one of the great lawyers of the Middle West and a political power among antebellum Hoosiers.1


In one respect Jews were certainly no different than their Gentile fellow citizens. Ever since the 1780’s they, too, had sought federal office. Col. David S. Franks had enjoyed minor federal assignments in Europe after British recognition of American independence. It was particularly true that many wanted to feed at the national trough in the days after the war when the depression of the 1780’s made it difficult for thousands to make a living. Increasingly, Jews applied to the national government for appointments. Some Jews occupied minor posts in the customs service; others, like Moses Myers, filled important positions. In 1819, Myers, one of the leading businessmen in Norfolk, if not in all Virginia, was crushed financially in the panic that followed the War of 1812. As early as 1784 he had hoped to become the American consul in Amsterdam. At this time Isaac Moses, the senior partner in their firm of international importers and exporters, had appealed on his behalf pointing out that Myers had been grossly abused and robbed by the British when they seized the Dutch Caribbean Island of St. Eustatius in 1781. Myers was stationed there during the Revolution to help run cargoes from Amsterdam past the British cruisers. The desired appointment was not offered Myers, though his partner’s request was given a respectful hearing; the government was indebted to Isaac Moses in more ways than one. The classical example of the seeker after office was Lt. Col. Solomon Bush, who hoped, in vain, to become postmaster general in Washington’s cabinet. Many called but few were chosen; it was not until 1906 that Oscar Straus was invited to become Secretary of Commerce and Labor in the Theodore Roosevelt administration.18

But why had Moses Myers been so eager for a consulship? The reason Jews and others sought consular appointments was that the job, then prestigious, required relatively little time and offered many financial advantages to its holder, who was permitted to carry on his own trading activities. There was no question of a conflict of interest. Three of Benjamin Nones’ sons received consular appointments. Nones himself was an ardent and active Jeffersonian. One of his boys was consul in Venezuela, another went to Haiti, the third was a consular officer in Portugal. The Noneses were a family of great patriots; Benjamin had served with distinction in the Revolution; one of his sons had volunteered during the War of 1812; two others were in the navy; one of them even commanded a revenue cutter—no small achievement for a Jew. The Noneses knew


Political Gains

Mordecai Noah well; they were all originally Philadelphians, part of the relatively small Mikveh Israel Sephardic community. Noah had been appointed consul to Tunis and served there from 1813 to 1815 when he was recalled by Madison and Monroe. The government questioned the propriety of his expenditures in redeeming certain presumptive American prisoners; moreover as his superiors wrote, they felt that as a Jew he could not function effectively in a Moslem land. When in 1816 Noah published a book denouncing the President and his Secretary of State for bigotry, these two notables, embarrassed, attempted to exculpate themselves. Madison and Monroe appointed a South Carolina Jew, Moses M. Russell, as consul to Riga, but long before the Senate voted approval Russell was entertained in the White House, where the President and the Secretary explained why they recalled Noah. Russell was asked to take up the cudgels in their defense and to tell his Jewish friends the truth. Bigotry? They were happy to offer Russell a consular post because he was a Jew! Russell for his part offered no objection. Writing to Dr. M. Sheftall, he declared Noah guilty of “injudicious and foul conduct.”19

The job of consul, protecting American shippers and serving as an informative arm of the Department of State, was not always a bed of roses —as Nathan Levy found when serving as Commercial Agent and later as consul for his government on St. Thomas (1818-1836). Levy’s was one of the oldest and most respected of American Jewish families. His mother, Rachel, wife of the Baltimore patriot Benjamin Levy, had sought to secure an appointment for her son in the 1780’s when General Washington, a family friend, first became president. Many years later, in the Danish West Indies, Levy found himself exposed to constant attacks by fellow Americans who tried unsuccessfully to unseat “the Jew.” The Americans in the Islands, said one informant, were shocked because Levy was living with a black woman and was frequently seen promenading with her, arm in arm. Morris Goldsmith, of Charleston, never rose higher than a deputy United States marshal yet served notably in that post for almost twenty years during the early 1800’s. His record would indicate that he was a gentleman of intellect and courage. Goldsmith, a prominent Mason, was a founder and officer of the Reformed Society of Israelites and the editor of the Charleston Directory for 1831. In the 1820’s he was known for the intrepidity with which he took on the dangerous work of pursuing smugglers and pirates. '

For some of these civil servants, a government appointment was more than a meal ticket or an augmented source of income. They wanted to do a job; they were conscientious. This was certainly true of John Jacob Hays (1766/1770-1836), a native New Yorker and a cousin of Moses Michael Hays, of Boston; thus he was a member of a widespread clan which by this time had intermarried with the Gratzes, the Ettings, and the Myerses,


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scattering its children into numerous states of the growing republic. John had accompanied his Loyalist father Barrack Hays to Canada after the British withdrawal from New York. Flight was the better part of valor for this branch of the family. In Canada, John found Uncle Andrew Hays, one of the first English adventurers to settle there and, apparently, a founder of that country’s first synagog. Like many of the merchants and fur traders of that day, young John had canoed west to Mackinac—sometime in the late 1780’s—and it was during this period that he came near freezing to death close to the headwaters of the Red River of the North. Caught with two companions in a snowstorm out on the prairie, he and the others were buried under drifts for three days with only a few thin blankets and a limited supply of dried meat. Later he moved south again to the United States. By 1790, now a young man of about twenty, Hays had already settled in Cahokia on the Mississippi, not far from St. Louis. This was to be his home till his death in 1836. Living in Canada, he had learned to speak French fluently, which served him well in the old French settlements of Cahokia, Kaskaskia, and Vincennes. For some time he worked as an agent for the firm of Todd and Hay, but finally went into business for himself. He opened a shop in town, farmed extensively in the river bottoms, and annually went on an expedition up the Mississippi to trade with the Indians. He married a Franco-American Vincennes girl of good family and “good sense”—a Gentile—and the couple raised a Christian family of three girls. Like other frontiersmen, he went into politics and for many years was postmaster and sheriff in Cahokia, St. Clair County; by 1814 he was Collector of Internal Revenue for the Illinois Territory, and when business declined at home during the long depression years of 1815-1821, he sought a government appointment. In May 1820, he accepted the position of Indian Agent in the Indiana wilderness at Ft. Wayne, not a job to be sneezed at, for it paid $1,200 in hard cash, a lot of money in those days.

There is no question that Hays was a good man for the post: he knew the Indians, and—what was equally important—he knew the traders who fed them whiskey. The Miamis were dangerous enough when sober, even more so when drunk. It was his duty, so he believed, to see that the silver dollar annuities which he paid the Indians for their ceded lands did not roll into the hands of the ubiquitous and unconscionable traders. The whiskey-crazed Indians, numbering thousands, could easily wipe out the tiny Ft. Wayne settlement of eighteen or twenty cabins on the Maumee. Hays himself lived in the stockade, sharing it with Isaac McCoy, a Baptist preacher, missionary, and schoolteacher. This was still the wilderness with a vengeance. It took Hays over two weeks to reach Ft. Wayne from Cahokia; it took four weeks to make the trip to Cincinnati and back with the silver coin for the Indian payments. Hays as Indian Agent made every


Political Gains

effort to see that they were treated fairly and fought vigorously to keep down the whiskey-selling traffickers who preyed on them. That was the problem he faced. He made a determined effort to settle the Indians on the soil and was not without success. He saw to it that they built houses, planted corn, and raised cattle, hogs, and chickens. Some even churned butter. Fields were fenced and thousands of rails were cut for sale. His goal was to make them self-sufficient. Three years was all that the aging Hays could stand; he had left his family back in Cahokia; it took weeks to journey home to see his daughters; there was an interval of many months when he could not even return for a visit, and his rheumatism was torturing him. He had enough, and by June, 1823, his resignation was finally accepted and he was on his way back to the family. Surely he could console himself that he had conducted himself honestly and honorably, and had endeavored sincerely to help his charges attempt the transition from a seminomadic to an agricultural type of life.21

Jews in the Military


Jews, as we have noted, had served in the militia in Dutch New Nether-land and in the British colonies. After the United States came into being, Jews were commissioned as officers—a new departure. They now became more active in the militia organizations fighting Indians, putting down insurrections, or, when federalized, augmenting the regular army in the two wars with Great Britain. Reuben Etting served as an officer in a Baltimore outfit when the troops were called out during the Whiskey Insurrection of 1794-1795. Two years later, when war with France seemed imminent, his friends elected him captain of the city’s Independent Blues. But a Christian test oath was required of all Maryland officers. Either Etting took it with tongue in cheek or he assumed office without it. His election proved that he was popular, completely acceptable. While still captain of the Blues—an office which was as political and social as it was military—he was appointed United States marshal for the District of Maryland. In 1823 a group of young Baltimoreans came together to form the Marion Corps; the soldiers elected Benjamin I. Cohen their captain, which created a problem since the test oath and the attempt to modify it through the “Jew Bill” had by then become a bitterly contested issue. Capt. Cohen could not or would not take the discriminatory oath. His company refused to elect a commander in his stead. This Jewish captain-elect was a banker, a founder of what was later to become the stock exchange, and also a violinist, a botanist, and a horticulturalist, obviously a man of culture. His home was the first in town to enjoy the luxury of gaslight.22


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Jews in other states, too, flocked to the militia companies. One suspects that the prime motivation was social. The Reverend Isaac Leeser’s uncle, Zalma Rehine (pronounced Reinee), was a noncommissioned officer in Richmond’s Light Infantry Blues. Chapman Levy, of Camden, South Carolina, and Philip Phillips, another South Carolinian, were colonels. Levy was a planter and a politician whose reach included Alabama and Mississippi. Phillips, later an Alabama congressman, would become one of the country’s great lawyers. Third-generation Sheftalls and Min-ises were officers in the Georgia militia. Lt. Benjamin Sheftall had his hands full in 1788 scouting and preparing for Indian attacks. South Carolina Jews were officers in the militia units called up to fight the Seminoles in Florida (1836). In this decade of the 1830’s Texas fought for its independence, and Jews flocked to the colors. Leon Dyer, of Baltimore, was commissioned a major in the army of the Republic of Texas; two other Jews, also Southerners, served as surgeons. One of them, Moses Albert Levy, sported the title, Surgeon in Chief of the Volunteer Army of Texas.

Earlier, the War of 1812 had divided Jews as it had done many other Americans. Some would not serve; Federalists frowning on a new war with England formed peace societies. Others were hawks. All deemed themselves patriots. As businessmen, professionals, and planters, individuals of more than average culture, the pro-war advocates seemed to experience no difficulty in securing commissions. They were soldiers, surgeons, infantry officers, paymasters, and quartermasters. Dour Judah Touro, a staid businessman who had volunteered his services as a munitions carrier, was severely wounded in the Battle of New Orleans. Fortunately, he survived to amass a huge fortune, which was later divided among his friends and a host of Gentile and Jewish institutions. Perforce, he became one of the great philanthropists of antebellum America. During the War of 1812, Hazzan Seixas in New York was restrained in his public statements. Undoubtedly his congregation of traders and brokers was split between pro-war and anti-war advocates. All Jewish congregations frowned on clergymen who took sides publicly on political issues. It was a cleric’s job to chant the liturgy—not to criticize the government. Abraham A. Massias, an old militia devotee in New York and Charleston, became a professional soldier during the War of 1812. While in Georgia, with but eighty riflemen to back him up, he impeded the advance of 1,500 British regulars and made an orderly retreat with relatively light losses. He was to make a career in the army as a paymaster and retired with the rank of major, a high one in those days. An active Reform Jew, he specified in his will that his bequests to Congregation Beth Elohim were conditional on its loyalty to the new Reform movement in Judaism.- '

Farther north, in Maryland, quite a number of Baltimore Jews were called out to defend the city when the British attacked it in 1814 and


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bombarded Fort McHenry (the Star Fort). This was the attack which inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem adopted as the national anthem. Years later Colonel Mendes I. Cohen recalled his part in defending the Star Fort as a member of Captain Nicholson’s Artillery Fencibles, a rather fancy battery. After the British retired, Mr. Key came to the fort and showed the men there the poem he had written. Mendes I. Cohen recalled that the soldiers tried out various tunes to fit the words. Mendes owed his title as colonel to a gubernatorial appointment in the 1830’s. The highest rank held by a Jew during the war was borne by Bernard Hart, a division quartermaster in New York. He, too, was a major. Hart, a stockbroker, was the grandfather of the American writer, Bret Harte.25



Of the several Jews who served with distinction in the War of 1812, Mordecai Myers is one of the most appealing. He was born in 1776, in Newport, Rhode Island, where his family was engaged in commerce. His father, a Hungarian Jew with a gift for languages, was a butcher or shohet; his mother, was an Austrian. Among the tongues which the senior Myers knew was Hebrew, and this no doubt was the tie that bound him to Dr. Ezra Stiles, the well-known Christian Hebraist. When the father died, about six months after Mordecai’s birth, the widow Myers remained in Newport until the end of the war and then as a Loyalist migrated to Nova Scotia. For some reason or other in 1787 she returned to the United States, to New York, where young Mordecai was evidently given a Jewish education. Rabbi Seixas, no doubt, was his teacher and taught young Myers the rudiments at least of the Hebrew language. Some experience had made an ardent American patriot of this Newport lad; there was no trace in him of parental British loyalism. It may well be that he was strongly influenced by the teachings of Seixas, the patriot-rabbi of Shearith Israel in New York City. Although Myers lived to be about ninety-five years of age he never forgot the scene as Chancellor Livingston administered the oath of office to General George Washington. When only sixteen years of age, he had became a warm partisan of Jeffersonian democracy. Grimly he would recall in later days that when still a child he had once seen an unfortunate man, under the “mild and humane British laws,” standing in the pillory, cropped and branded for stealing a loaf of bread from a baker’s window. Adams’s four years in the presidency he referred to as a “despotic reign.” Myers had engaged actively in politics since his seventeenth year, but he had also found plenty of time during those early days to take an interest in the affairs of the Jewish congregation. Military training, however, was his hobby, and he made


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it his business to acquire an excellent military education. By the time the War of 1812 threatened he was already a battalion commander in the state militia, and three months before war actually broke out he was commissioned a captain in the United States Army, although he could have secured a higher rank had he permitted his friends to intervene for him. This he refused to do. There were three kinds of soldiers in 1812, he once wrote: those who joined “from motives of pride and love of military show and splendor,” those who were interested only in “employment and pay” and, finally, those who joined “from higher minded notions of national honor or patriotism.” His heroic and self-sacrificing career proved that he belonged to this last category.

During the winter and spring of 1812-1813 Myers was stationed with his troops at Williamsville near Buffalo. By this time he had become a seasoned veteran; he had fathomed the good and the bad in his men and his fellow officers; he had developed an infallible method for sobering up drunks; he had found to his dismay that some of his military associates naively believed that liquor was common property, and he had stood by more than once tracing the route of his men in the bitter lake-swept snows by the bloody marks they left as they plodded ahead, barefoot, with bleeding feet. Together with Major Zachary Taylor—later to become President—he had seconded his friend Major John Stonard as he was shot and fatally wounded by Dr. James C. Bronaugh. Some wrongs—or fancied wrongs—he knew could be wiped out only in blood; most duels, he declared, were stupid and silly, and he had no hesitation in helping pack the bullets with blood instead of lead when two of his acquaintances challenged each other for some petty reason. When one of the duelists fell, all covered with blood, his friends found it very difficult to convince him that he was not mortally wounded. One cold winter night O’Bryan, one of his bravest men, on duty near a graveyard, was reported to have seen the Devil. For fear that others might lose heart, Captain Myers spent two hours with O’Bryan at his post, to prove that the Devil—in this case at least—existed only in the soldier’s imagination. While at the Williamsville cantonment, where he was the commanding officer, he wrote in 1813 to his friend Naphtali Phillips, editor of the “kasher” National Advocate: “Sum must spill there blud and others there ink. ... It is a fine thing to abandon the persute of welth. I never ware hapy in persute of riches and now that I have abandoned it, I am much more contented."-'

Several months later, towards the end of October, two schooners loaded down with sick and disabled fighters went aground on a reef in Lake Ontario during a terrible gale. Myers, knowing that the storm was battering the boats to pieces, volunteered to General John Parker Boyd to go to the rescue of the men. The General thought that the situation was almost hopeless because of the storm, but permitted Myers to make the at-


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tempt. With thirty men to help him he made his way through the raging gale, boarded the doomed vessels, and carried off the dead and the living, making thirteen trips in all. It was a desperate venture, for the living had gotten at the liquor in the hospital stores and all of them were drunk. About two hundred persons were on board the boats; all were brought ashore, but nearly fifty had already died. The following month, on November 11, 1813, Myers was severely wounded during the sanguinary battle of Chrysler’s Field; twenty-three of his eighty-six men were killed. He was hospitalized for a time at the home of a Dr. Mann, and there he met the physician’s niece, Charlotte Bailey, of Plattsburgh, whom he married four months later, in March, 1814. After his separation from the service in the late summer of 1815, he returned to New York and went into the auction business. His marriage to Charlotte Bailey changed his life, in one respect at least. Prior to this time he had been active in the Jewish community; now he was less ardent though he never ceased to identify with his people. His Reminiscences, written at Schenectady in 1853, have been substantially “edited.” The editors were careful to see to it that nothing was written or printed that would betray Myers’s Jewish origin. By the time he had written these Reminiscences he had already served for five years in the New York State Assembly, had been twice elected Mayor of Schenectady, and had been honored with the office of Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Masons of the State of New York. About the year 1860, when he was in his mid-eighties, he was an unsuccessful candidate for Congress. In spite of his advanced years his patriotic ardor had not abated one whit, and in the decade before the Civil War this staunch defender of his country wrote: “Distraction to the brain that would conceive the idea of a separation of the Union, and palsied the hand that could break one link of this Heaven-wrought chain.” '


The two great wars in which the United States had engaged, the Revolution of 1775 and the War of 1812, had seen Jews play active parts. Patriotism in the modern state is typical of most citizens, especially in periods of crisis, and Jews proved no exception to this rule. But what was the attitude of the American Jew during peace time toward the military establishment? Very few Jews opted for long term service in the army, but there were a few like Massias. What motivated him and other coreligionists to take up soldiering as a career? Did any come into the army by way of West Point? These questions are not easily answered, but some light may be thrown on them by our study of a few men who entered the army as a profession.; *

As we know, Jews had been stationed at West Point ever since the Revolution, a generation before it became the national Military Academy.


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During the Revolution, Isaac Franks served in the quartermaster corps there, and his cousin, David Salisbury Franks, was one of Benedict Arnold’s aides when the General assumed command of this vital post in 1780. In his valuable Memoirs, General Joseph Gardner Swift, our first native American military engineer, described an interesting event in connection with Arnold’s flight from West Point. Swift had ample opportunity to learn the traditions of the Point for he was a graduate of the first class, the class of 1802, and was Inspector and Superintendent of the Academy from 1815 to 1818. He informs us that when Arnold fled from the fort to the shelter of the British Vulture, the coxswain of the barge that carried him to safety was a Corporal Levy. This noncommissioned officer had no inkling of what Arnold proposed to do until they reached the British ship and the Corporal was offered the position of sergeant major in the English army if he threw in his lot with the fugitive. Levy, according to our source, curtly told the General “that one coat was enough to wear.” The reply, we are told, made Arnold look like a dog with his tail between his legs. The English commander of the Vulture praised the Corporal for his loyalty to his country, fed the barge crew well, and permitted the men to return to the safety of their own lines. There is no evidence, beside the name, to prove that Levy was a Jew.29

West Point had of course not yet been established as a military academy, although Congress, even during the war, thought of using the retired veterans at the Point to teach in a proposed officers’ training camp. In a very desultory and unsatisfactory fashion, the training of officers was first undertaken at various posts about the year 1794, and it was not until 1802 that the Military Academy was formally created at the Point as the Corps of Engineers. The two were identical; the Academy was a military body, not an “institution.” The first class constituted under this new arrangement was composed of exactly two men, the above mentioned Joseph G. Swift and Simeon Magruder Levy (1774-1807). Levy was the son of Levi Andrew Levy, a well-known fur trader and land speculator. Cadet Levy—not to be identified with Corporal Levy—was a Jew despite his Scottish middle name, for his classmate Swift described him as a member of a “responsible Jew family of Baltimore and formerly a sergeant in Captain [Benjamin] Lockwood’s Company of Infantry and thence promoted to cadet for his merit and mathematics attainments.” His “merit,” apart from his knowledge of mathematics, lay in the service he had rendered as an Orderly Sergeant under Mad Anthony Wayne at the battle of Fallen Timbers on August 20, 1794. Lockwood, who had also participated in the battle, knew of Levy’s fine record and recommended him for a cadetship when the opportune moment arose. He was appointed from the ranks where he had been serving since age sixteen. He already had nine years of experience; here was a professional soldier, a man who liked


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his job. Exactly a month after the first class at West Point graduated—all two of them—the men at the Academy met and organized a society for promoting military science. The whole faculty—three, all told—joined the new organization together with seven other officers and cadets, including the recently commissioned Lt. Levy who was about to report for duty at Ft. Jackson, Georgia. Five years later he was dead, a victim of the yellow fever possibly.30

Two years before Levy died the Military Academy admitted as cadet into the First Regiment of Artillery, Samuel Noah, said to be a cousin of “Major” Mordecai M. Noah. Samuel had an even more adventurous career than his cousin, the distinguished newspaper man and consul to Tunis. After acting as judge advocate at West Point while still a student there, he was commissioned in 1807 and sent to Mississippi Territory where he spent his time studying Napoleon’s campaigns and chasing smugglers on the Florida frontier. Disgusted with slow promotion and eager for adventure, he resigned his commission in 1811 and joined a filibustering expedition of Americans and Mexicans fighting to free Texas and other parts of Mexico from the grip of Spanish despotism. Back of the mind of Noah and his American associates was no doubt the hope of ultimate union between Texas and the United States. After participating in the hazardous and romantic campaign of 1813, which resulted in the defeat of the royalist forces, Noah made a hurried trip to Washington to offer his services to the government then fighting the British. Refused a commission by President Madison—because he had been born in England?—Noah at once proceeded to New York where he earned golden opinions for himself in the task of training recruits and preparing the city for the expected siege by the British. This was the last episode of his military career, though he lived to be over ninety, passing away in poverty and obscurity in an Illinois village.31

The Military Academy in the days of Simeon M. Levy and Samuel Noah left much to be desired. It was a second-rate institution at best until the appointment in 1817 of a schoolmate of Noah’s as the new superintendent. This man was Brevet-Major Sylvanus Thayer, frequently referred to as the “Father of the Military Academy,” and it was to him that Alfred Mordecai (1804-1887) a handsome, auburn-haired, blue-eyed boy of fifteen, reported for duty in June, 1819. Alfred was one of the brilliant Mordecai boys and girls of Warrenton, the little North Carolina village where Mordecai p'ere presided over a successful “female academy.”

Jacob Mordecai was a better teacher than a businessman. One of his descendants said mockingly that due to the fact that Jacob’s mother was of Christian stock—she was a convert to Judaism—“his native business instinct would appear to have been dulled through having a mother of Gentile blood.” Mordecai had read much and was highly respected for his


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

learning; his children were nearly all exceptional. When they were but six or seven years of age he urged them to read, gave them books, and wrote them encouraging notes: “The advantages attendant on education will no doubt all conspire to impel you with ardor steadily to pursue this pleasant avocation.” The only real success of which the father could boast was the nonsectarian school he had established in Warrenton, North Carolina, a small town county seat. He ran it for ten years, sold it at a good price, moved North to a farm near Richmond, and then proceeded again to lose his money in bad ventures. His Warrenton school was deemed one of the best in the South. Mordecai taught; his children taught, and as the young ones grew up they were put to work; it was a cooperative family enterprise. It was primarily a boarding school although there were a few day students. The pedagogical approach in the school was modern. When it was opened in 1803 Mordecai announced that the instruction would be “adapted to the various dispositions and genius” of the pupils. “My object, not merely to impart words and exhibit things, but chiefly to inform the mind to the labor of thinking upon and understanding what is taught.” The curriculum was broad, for it included art, music, rhetoric, grammar, and English literature. The girls read the novels of Scott and Maria Edge-worth, the Arabian Nights, Virgil in Latin. History was taught: English, Grecian, and South American. Where there were no adequate textbooks, the teachers compiled compendia on geography and mythology. The public exams were a success; the students did well.32

Most of the Mordecai children were achievers. Moses and George were lawyers. The latter was one day to become the president of a bank, of a railroad, and of a paper mill. Four of the sisters taught in different towns; one of them wrote a history of Warrenton but it was never published. She called it “The History of Hastings.” Brother Solomon at the age of eleven was reading the Greek and Latin classics and the best in current English literature. His letters are those of a cultivated person. When sixteen Solomon was co-opted to teach in the family school; later he became a physician and practiced in Mobile. Samuel, another son, spent most of his life in Petersburg and Richmond; he was the purchasing agent for the school. Business was his vocation, but he always manifested literary interests. He collected a library, wrote well, and in 1856 published anonymously, Richmond in By-Gone Days', a second edition appeared in 1860 with his name on the title page. These are delightful reminiscences of early Richmond and include a number of stories about Jews, although they are never identified as such. One wonders why. Samuel Mordecai remained a Jew, unlike most of his siblings, but he was buried in an Episcopalian religious ceremony. This was probably at the suggestion of a Christian member of the family. Rachel, the oldest daughter, was probably the most brilliant of the lot. For a generation she carried on a corre-


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spondence with Maria Edgeworth writing about politics, botany, horticulture, and a host of other subjects. In English literature, Rachel was interested in Byron, Bulwer-Lytton, and the Americans, Irving and Cooper.33

Taught by his half-sister Rachel and his half-brother Solomon, Alfred Mordecai knew how to read by the age of four and grew up a very studious, learned youngster. Rising often before daylight, the lad of tender years would read and study by the light of the fire with which old Jenny was baking her bread at the large oven in the yard. He learned Latin, Greek, and French and was following the campaigns of Napoleon and the Battle of Waterloo before he was twelve—not that he was enthusiastic about war or soldiering as such. He interested himself in many fields of human knowledge and, though anything but a “sissy,” was by inclination and training a scholarly person; he much preferred Ivanhoe to a game of hopscotch. By 1819 his father had sold the Warrenton school, moved to a farm near Richmond, and suggested to his son that he go to West Point. No special reason is known as to why Jacob Mordecai should have wished Alfred to become an army officer. Outside of his own youthful experience, when as a member of a boys’ troop he had excitedly accompanied the delegates of the First Continental Congress into Philadelphia, the elder Mordecai had manifested no interest in matters military. But the army was an honorable career and as such, no doubt, appealed to the father, who recommended it to his son, a third generation American. United States Senator Nathaniel Macon secured the appointment, and the young Carolinian finished his first two years, second in his class; his last two, at the very top. By the end of the second year, though still a cadet, he was appointed acting Assistant Professor of Mathematics, a common procedure with brilliant students in those days since other teaching personnel was unavailable. After the second year the work was easier—his competitor for first place had withdrawn—and young Alfred found time to go visiting on Saturday night, to participate in buckwheat socials, to smoke an occasional “segar,” and to become active in the Cold Water Club, which on occasion tasted a drop of something even stronger. On a trip to Philadelphia during the summer of 1822, he visited brother Solomon, now attending physician at the Alms House, and we may be sure that his brother took him calling on his classmate, Dr. Isaac Hays. It was there at the home of Isaac’s parents, Samuel and Richea Gratz Hays, that Alfred for the first time saw Sarah Ann Hays, the girl he was to marry fourteen years later. When he graduated in 1823 he remained at the Military Academy, first as Assistant Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy and later as Assistant Professor of Engineering.

By 1832, still a man in his twenties, he was already a captain, assigned to the Ordnance Corps the very year it was created. He soon be-


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

came the outstanding ordnance expert in the United States Army. His achievements were recognized; he was put in charge of important arsenals, appointed to the Ordnance Board, and more than once sent to Europe to study armaments and military operations. By 1854, respected for his works on military law, ordnance, and munitions, he had risen to the rank of major. No antebellum Jew, it would seem, had risen higher in the regular army. Then came the Civil War which blighted his career. He was distraught, trapped in the valley of decision. Mordecai had to make a painful choice; he would not fight against the Union nor would he take up arms against the South, he would not wage war against his dear ones, his family in the South. He was himself essentially a Southerner and certainly no abolitionist, but he would not fight to preserve slavery even though slavery was constitutional. For him the only choice was to resign his commission, and he did so. At the age of fifty-seven he had to start life over again. Deprived during the Civil War of the means of a livelihood, he went down into Mexico and made an unsuccessful effort to help build a transcontinental railroad uniting the Gulf and the Pacific. Returning to Philadelphia, he went to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad Company as an executive of the corporation’s canal and coal divisions. Notwithstanding his acknowledged eminence in the field of ordnance, Mordecai displayed none of the bravura of the professional soldier. He was a learned cultured Southern gentleman with a love of literature, a student in uniform. A Jew? Not really in sentiment. A Christian, no. He appears to have had no denominational interests. Though not consciously an assimi-lationist, he was in the process of assimilating. Once, it seems, he fell in love with a Christian girl and would have married her had she accepted him. Other members of his family married out. It was something of an accident that he married a Jewish woman and that she brought him into the Gratz-Hays-Etting clan. His wife, Sarah Ann Hays, was committed to her inherited faith, but evidently could not prevail on her husband to allow the circumcision of their sons. Like some of the European Jewish Reformers, Major Mordecai looked upon this ancient custom, no doubt, as “a bloody barbaric rite.” In later years one of the sons, in deference to the wishes of his mother, submitted to circumcision. Even so, all of the sons married out; none of the three Mordecai daughters found husbands; they, at least, seem to have maintained their Jewish identity.34

Jews in the Navy: Assorted Naval Notables

Jews in the early national period were rarely tempted to seek a career in the army or navy. Both forces were small; advancement was slow. In past centuries Jews in Europe had normally avoided the armed forces, which nearly always encouraged loyalty to the Christian religion. Officers were


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expected to take a Christian oath of loyalty. The army and navy here in the United States held scant charm for the typical ambitious Jew unless he was possessed with a very strong desire for social recognition in the general community. Some Jews may have feared—justly—that they would experience prejudice in the army and naval establishments. One wonders why the Senate on December 10, 1814, refused to confirm Captain Mas-sias’s promotion to the grade of major. The prejudice against Jews in the navy was to persist well into the twentieth century. Nevertheless, there were always venturesome Jewish boys, all teenagers, eager to join the navy. Most of them who took the oath never advanced beyond the rank of midshipman even after many years of sea and shore duty. A heroic midshipman, Joseph Israel, was blown to bits in Tripoli’s harbor on September 4, 1804, when the attempt was made to burn the enemy fleet. Again, as in the case of Corporal Levy of West Point, there is no evidence that Israel was a Jew or of Jewish ancestry. Of Benjamin Nones’s numerous sons, Joseph B. Nones (1797-1887) sailed on the flag-of-truce John Adams when it carried America’s peace commissioners on their way to negotiate an end to the War of 1812 (1814). The following year Joseph served under Decatur in the war with the Barbary powers; he was twice wounded in the service of his country and fought two duels. Finally, in 1821, he resigned from the service still a midshipman. What is known of him suggests that he went out of his way to maintain low visibility as a Jew. Maybe that was his only recourse if he hoped to survive.35

A few Jews entered the navy and remained. They were pursers, surgeons, and officers who had set out—come hell or high water—to make careers for themselves. The lives of these few make interesting reading. One of these men who went down to the sea in ships was the South Carolinian Levy Myers Harby (1793-1870), a younger brother of Isaac, the journalist and religious reformer. Levy Harby’s tombstone in the Galveston Jewish cemetery carries this inscription:

And with my last breath

On the threshold of death

I proclaim my faith in Israel’s God.

Tradition would have it that he died with the Shema (“Hear O Israel”) on his lips. There is no question that he was a professing Jew though probably not a devout one, for there is no record that he was a member of the local congregation. Young Harby served as a privateer during the War of 1812 and by 1815 had entered the navy as a midshipman. His was an adventurous life; he was captured by the British, fought under Andrew Jackson against the Florida Indians, and sailed with a squadron sent in 1823 to suppress piracy in the West Indies. When he resigned in 1827 after twelve years in the navy, he had still not been advanced in rank. But


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that was not the end of the line for him. Years later he was an officer in the revenue cutter service, which had never been an integral part of the navy. As commander of a cutter, he put down a mutiny. He fought in the Texas War of Independence, and when his adopted state joined the Confederacy in 1861 he became an officer in the new navy of the South. It was then, a man of sixty-eight, that he took command of a fleet of gunboats that patrolled the mouth of the Sabine River.36

Toward the end of the War of 1812 or shortly thereafter, Solomon Etting of Baltimore was chairman of a local committee to build a steam warship. He was in touch with Robert Fulton; costs and details were discussed but not much was done. The city would have had to find $225,000 to build the vessel; that was too much for a town of about 50,000 souls, many of them slaves. Solomon’s nephew, Henry Etting (1799-1876), hewed out a career for himself in the United States Navy. His appointment as a midshipman came in 1818 but it was not long before he became a purser. There are Jews who do have a penchant for paper work. He finally retired in the early 1860’s with the rank of commander. Called back into service during the Civil War, he finally retired for the second time in 1871 with the relative rank of commodore. In a way here was a Jewish officer who had “made it.” It was not easy: in 1832, in August and September, Etting had been court-martialed in Boston for using improper language toward a fellow officer and for assaulting him; in a quarrel between the two, Etting’s opponent had threatened to cut off his head, beaten him with a rattan, knocked him down, and called him a “damned Jewish son-of-a-bitch.” Etting defended himself and wounded his assailant with a dirk. The court found Etting guilty and sentenced him to be reprimanded publicly by the Secretary of the Navy. In his plea before the court, Purser Etting found it necessary to defend himself as a Jew, for his opponent had drawn attention to the fact that Etting was a follower of the Jewish faith.

The becoming allusion of this gentleman to the religion which I profess, made with a view to operate on the minds of the members of this Court will, I feel assured, fail in its object, for I doubt not that with you gentlemen, as with every good Christian, it is esteemed as the sacred right of all men to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience; nor in the exercise of my religious duties or by an adherence to the faith of my fathers have I ever before been assailed.

Etting persisted; he remained in the service and, it is obvious, rose high in the ranks. In view of his defense of himself as a Jew, it is interesting to note that his funeral service, both at home and at the cemetery, was conducted by a naval chaplain, a Christian.'


Political Gains

In a communication to Willis G. Clark, editor of the Philadelphia Gazette (1840), Isaac Leeser wrote: “As citizens with equal rights, not as tolerated aliens, we demand of our fellow citizens to abate the causeless prejudice which so many entertain for us.” A man who would at that time have subscribed to this sentiment with a heartfelt and pious “Amen” was a native Philadelphian, then a commander in the United States Navy, holding the highest rank yet held in the navy by a Jewish seagoing officer. He was a man who had experienced more than his share of prejudice. Though despised and rejected by some of his fellow officers, he never failed to open his mouth and was certainly no sheep dumb before his shearers. By 1840 he had already been court-martialed five times and had appeared before a Court of Inquiry. Before he died in 1862 he was to be court-martialed and cashiered again, yet he would end his life as “Commodore” Uriah P. Levy, late commanding officer of the Mediterranean Squadron of the United States Navy.38

Levy, the son of a Philadelphia merchant, ran away from home in 1802 when he was ten and took a job as a cabin boy on a vessel engaged in the coastal trade. Two years later he returned to his parents, determined more than ever to be a sailor. Wisely they realized that he was not to be turned from his decision and apprenticed him at the age of fourteen to a well-known Philadelphia merchant and shipowner. His indentures required that he serve four years and by the time the period was up he had become an experienced practical seaman, having worked already as a mate on one of his employer’s ships. While the Jeffersonian embargo on trade with foreign countries was in force, Levy’s employer sent the lad for nine months to an excellent naval school where he learned the elements of navigation, and before he was even twenty years of age he had run the gamut in the merchant marine from cabin boy to captain. In 1811—at the age of nineteen—he became captain and one-third owner of the schooner George Washington. Through successful mercantile ventures and by saving his wages, he had accumulated enough money to enter upon this partnership. While on one of his trips, at Tortola in the Virgin Islands, his crew mutinied and ran away with his schooner, carrying off a cargo of fine Teneriffe wine and a chest full of Spanish dollars. This was only the beginning of his troubles in the fateful year 1812; he was seized by a British press-gang and served for about a month before his identity as a native American was established and he was released by Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane of the British Navy. The captain of the British sloop of war on which he had served was so impressed by the ability and intelligence of this young American that he offered him the rank of midshipman if he would enter the Crown’s service. Young Levy had no intention of serving anywhere save under his own flag, but at that moment he was doggedly set on finding and punishing the crew who had scuttled his


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schooner and fled with his cargo. The young captain was successful in his search for the men and brought them to justice in an American court. One of them was executed; another was saved from the noose only by the intervention of President Madison.

All this had occurred during the year the war began. About six months later Levy volunteered for service with the navy and in 1813 was given a post as assistant sailing master on the brig Argus. To this crew was given the perilous task of carrying William H. Crawford through the British blockade to his post as minister in France, and after it had accomplished this mission it began its devastating raids on enemy shipping in the English and Irish Channels. Before the Argus was shattered by the accurate fire of the British Pelican, it had destroyed twenty-one enemy ships, inflicted damage amounting to about $5,000,000, and raised the insurance rate for English ships in the Channel from two and a half to twenty-five percent. Levy, who had been appointed an Acting Lieutenant by Captain William Henry Allen and had participated in the historic raid, was in charge of a prize vessel the day the American brig was captured, but he, too, fell into enemy hands and languished in Dartmoor prison for sixteen months before returning home. His experiences apparently only whetted his desire to carve out a career for himself in the United States Navy; in February, 1816, he received an appointment as sailing master on the U.S. ship Franklin.

It was during this tour of duty, lasting for about two years, that the prejudice manifested itself which would plague him almost to the very end of his naval service. The trouble started at the Patriot’s Ball in Philadelphia in 1816 when a Mr. (Lieutenant?) Potter, resenting the fact that Levy—only a warrant officer—was dancing with a girl in whom Potter was interested, jostled him several times, and when the latter remonstrated, Potter called him “a damned Jew.” Levy challenged the officer and the two met in a field on the outskirts of the city. Refusing to answer Potter’s fire, Levy directed his shots into the air several times and was quite willing to accept the suggestion of the seconds that the affair be considered closed. This was unacceptable to Potter, who was determined to kill the challenger, and when the seconds requested Levy to return the fire, he did so, mortally wounding his opponent. The court acquitted Levy, but the incident exacerbated the prejudice of a number of the commissioned officers, not only because he had killed one of their corps, but also because he had let it be known that he aspired to officer’s rank. Before the year was out he quarreled with an officer on board ship; both were court-martialed and sentenced to be reprimanded.

In 1817, Sailing Master Levy received a commission as Lieutenant in the United States Navy. This only added fuel to the flame of resentment that was already burning, and when he reported for duty on the United


Political Gains

States, Captain Crane, the commander, refused to receive him and accepted him finally only at the stern request of Commodore Stewart. No fool, Levy at once sensed the tension and turned to the sympathetic Lieutenant, later Commodore, Thomas A. C. Jones, who gave him this advice: “Do your duty as an officer and a gentleman; be civil to all, however reserved you may be to any, and the first man to observe a different course towards you, call him to a strict and prompt account.” Apparently the new Lieutenant took this word of caution seriously. A quarrel on board ship in 1818 led to a second court-martial in which his fellow officers found him guilty, but Commodore Stewart refused to promulgate the findings of the court. The following year he was again court-martialed for denouncing an officer as a “coward,” “scoundrel,” and “poltroon,” because he had refused to meet the Jew on the field of honor. This time he was to be cashiered, dismissed in disgrace, and he actually remained suspended from duty for two years before President Monroe, refusing to accept the decision of the court, restored him to active duty in January, 1821. During the period of suspension, 1819-1820, the Lieutenant spent some time in Paris engaged in business, laying the foundation for a very substantial fortune, which made it possible for him later not only to publish his writings and to carry on his agitation against flogging in the navy, but also to employ eminent counsel to defend himself against the hostile clique determined to drive him out of the service. During the two years that he was absent from the navy Levy worked feverishly to counter the influence of those opposed to him; he was encouraged by the powerful Myers clan in Norfolk, by his cousin Major Noah, and by the sympathetic Mr. Homans, an important official in the Navy Department at Washington.

Less than nine months after his restoration to duty by Monroe, Levy was again court-martialed for denouncing a fellow officer who had refused to give him satisfaction. He varied the formula this time by calling his opponent a “damned rascal” and “no gentleman.” Though Levy was sentenced to be reprimanded, Commodore Bainbridge, obviously sympathetic to him, made the reprimand almost a ceremony of commendation and returned the unrepentant officer to his post on the Spark. It was at this trial that Levy made a poignant and moving remark: “to be a Jew as the world now stands is an act of faith that no Christian martyrdom can exceed.” Was Levy himself culpable? Might it not be assumed that a man who had been court-martialed four times in five years had no place in the navy? There is no question that he was proud and sensitive. Possibly he was unduly conscious of his want of formal education—for he had been serving before the mast ever since age ten. It is true he was no boor. He spoke French, some Spanish, wrote and published books and numerous articles in the press, and moved in the best Christian and Jewish social cir-


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cles in Philadelphia, New York, and Virginia. But he was very much a self-made man. His enemies said that he was quarrelsome and turbulent; these men, fellow officers, were determined to compel him to resign. There were other reasons why they opposed him: he was a Jew; he was tough; he was an interloper who had come up from the forecastle; he was a Democrat in an age when his fellow officers were Whigs and whatnots; he had made a fortune in business between voyages; and he was belligerently opposed to flogging in a day when that form of punishment was deemed essential to discipline.

The course of his long career saw him spared few epithets and accusations. Those who hated him called him a coward, a liar, a forger, and, by implication, a thief. His friends in the service, and they were more numerous than his detractors, denied the charges, and never throughout his entire career was he found guilty of any act of immorality, dishonor, or moral turpitude. His offenses were of a technical nature or due to immoderate speech. Some of his friends would have admitted that he was vain— and he was—or that he was unduly sensitive, but they would have insisted also that he was humane, courageous, a man of strong character. In 1822, he risked his life to save a family during a devastating gale that visited the Carolina coast. Even his enemies never impugned his patriotism. U. P. Levy was not a man to be canonized, but his grit elicits admiration. Because he was proud and independent and refused to compromise he made enemies. As Commodore Jones said in later years: “A brave and independent man like Captain Levy who will neither feign, fawn, or flatter [was bound to] encounter trials and tribulations in the service.” He was resented because, as one who had risen from the ranks, he took away a promotion which might have gone to a midshipman. But worst of all he was a Jew, an alien. Not that Levy felt any sense of inferiority on that score. On his mother’s side he was a Nunez, a descendant of the Dr. Nunez who had come to Georgia in 1733, a few months after Oglethorpe himself; he was a fifth generation American, grandson of Jonas Phillips and a cousin of Major M. M. Noah. The ancestors of Lieutenant Levy probably landed in the colonies long before the parents of some of the very men who affected to despise him.

That the highest authorities in Washington realized that the accusations made against him were petty, that he was exposed constantly to provocation, and that he was a man of energy and ability is documented by the fact that in 1822 he was placed in command of gunboat 158, The Revenge, and was assigned to the job with others in his squadron of routing out piracy and slave-running in the Gulf of Mexico. This was one of his more eventful voyages. In December, 1822, while cruising on the Spanish Main, he was attacked by a Spanish warship, the Voluntario, but remained cool during the crisis and prevented what otherwise might have


Political Gains

been a serious international incident. At the turn of the year 1823, he was poking through the islands and keys of the Gulf and the West Indies looking for the Lafitte brothers, the notorious smugglers, outlaws, and pirates. During this trip, in February, an unfortunate or incompetent pilot ran The Revenge onto a reef near Belize, British Honduras, and wrecked it. A Court of Inquiry held in June of that year exonerated Levy; no action was taken against him.

By June, 1823, he had already been court-martialed four times and in addition was facing a Court of Inquiry. It was this hounding of a man who happened to be a Jew that prompted a writer over a century later, in The American Mercury (1943), to refer to Levy as “The American Dreyfus.” But Levy’s was no Dreyfus Affair, though the two cases did have in common a bitter anti-Jewish prejudice. Almost every year seems to have brought a new problem to plague this officer who had long begun to believe “that man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). In December, 1824, while going out to rejoin the Cyane in the Mediterranean, he took passage on the North Carolina and ran into a situation very reminiscent of the one that had confronted him on the United States in 1818. The officers in the wardroom did not want to mess with him. Led by two marine officers, Carter and Randolph, they expressed their vigorous objection to the “damned Jew,” but were finally induced by Lieutenant, later Commodore, Isaac Mayo, to accept the transient. In 1825, he was serving on the Cyane at Rio when the news was brought that a Brazilian press-gang was making off with an American seaman and that an American naval officer, attempting to save the sailor, was under attack. Levy, among others, rushed to the scene of the scuffle and helped drive off the assailants, but was injured slightly in the attempt. Shortly after this fracas, the Brazilian Emperor, Dom Pedro I, visited the American squadron, complimented Levy on his zeal and bravery in rescuing a brother officer and a fellow seaman, a common man, and offered him command of a new sixty-gun frigate now being built for the Emperor in the United States. Don Pedro’s was an authentic offer and, as Levy pointed out, tempting to a junior Lieutenant who, surrounded by enemies, was being pursued in the service of his own country by narrow-minded prejudice. In later years, as he fought to save himself from being stricken off the rolls, he asked in bitterness of soul how many of his enemies would have rejected the Emperor’s invitation. The answer he gave the Brazilians in 1827 was that “he loved his own [American] service so well he had rather serve as a cabin boy in his own service than as a captain in any other service in the world”—brave words which he must have thought of with a rueful grimace as he faced his fifth court-martial that year in November. Two of his fellow officers had insulted him and he had challenged them to a duel. In the court-martial which followed, both of his opponents


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were chided for their provocative behavior; one of them was suspended for a year and Levy himself was again reprimanded.

In the 1830’s, already a man of wealth, he had ample opportunity to look after his business affairs during the long periods when he was without an assignment or a command. Because he so fervently admired Jefferson, he ordered a colossal bronze statue of the great statesman to be made by Pierre Jean David, of Angers, and then gave it to the United States (1834). Levy’s admiration for Jefferson lay in the Lieutenant’s profound respect for the Declaration of Independence. As one who had suffered bigotry and prejudice, he thought the Declaration of Independence particularly precious. Throughout the service he was known as an unflinching Democrat and in later years was said to have been one of the only officers of his grade who proudly boasted of his Democratic political affiliations. It was all the more regrettable, wrote Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft, a Democrat, that no ship could be found for this “gallant officer” without marring the “harmonious cooperation which is essential to the highest effectiveness.” Though the liberal Bancroft vigorously denied that religion was a factor in refusing Levy a ship, he did not believe that a rejected Jew would make an acceptable ship’s captain. While the House was debating what to do with Levy’s gift of the statue by David, he was on the high seas bound for Paris. There, like other good Americans, on the Fourth of July he joined General Lafayette and other distinguished guests to celebrate the anniversary of American independence, and when a toast to President Andrew Jackson was offered, Levy rose and proposed nine cheers. To his intense chagrin, the proposal was greeted with groans and hisses by the assembled Americans, although they gladly drank to “The King of the French.” Levy, scandalized by this insult to his country and its chief magistrate, promptly invited one of the offenders to meet him the next morning on the Champs Elysees. The anti-Jacksonian American, a glove merchant, refused to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by the naval officer, and a challenge to another of the demonstrators elicited a prompt apology in writing. Two years later Levy bought the house and grounds of Monticello, Jefferson’s old home; in his will, written in 1858, he offered it to the United States or to the State of Virginia on condition that it be used as an agricultural training farm for the orphaned children of warrant officers. Evidently he never forgot that he had come up from the crews’ quarters.

In 1837 Levy was commissioned a commander in the United States Navy. By this time he was something of an international celebrity in Jewish life. When in 1831 Francis Henry Goldsmid wrote The Arguments Advanced Against the Enfranchisement of the Jews [of England], Considered in a Series of Letters, he was careful to point out to the stubborn English, who still imposed a number of civil disabilities on the Jews of the realm, that


Political Gains

Levy, in the free United States, had succeeded in becoming an officer and commander of a naval vessel. How ironic it is to note, that two decades later Levy, fighting to remain in the service, held up the example of English emancipatory efforts as a rebuke to the Judeophobes who he believed were responsible for his removal from the naval rolls. The solid citizens of New York certainly did not share the prejudices of the navy elite. Fond of the wealthy seaman, whom they now recognized as one of their most prominent citizens, they accorded him the freedom of the city in February, 1834, “as a testimonial to his character, patriotism, and public spirit.” w

Four years later Levy was given his first important job when he was assigned to the command of the U.S. corvette Vandalia. He was soon to learn that with larger responsibilities came larger troubles. The ship was nothing to brag about; it was vermin-ridden; the hull was in disrepair, and the men and officers, many of them dissipated and insubordinate, were apparently the bad boys of the Gulf squadron. He forced one of his officers to take the pledge; another fell overboard drunk and was lost; a third went crazy from drink. Yet Levy kept the boat spic and span, and for a time it was the flagship of the squadron. A problem on any ship in any navy was discipline. Grog was a standard issue of the ration; drunkenness was common; violence was frequent, and the men were often kept under control only by the dread swish of the cat-o’-nine-tails: on a single day at this time the men on the U.S. ship Delaware received 2,500 lashes. Levy, very much concerned about the welfare of his men, about their morals and their health, personally supervised the care of sailors who were sick; on occasion, he would even send them delicacies from his own table. He was strongly opposed to the lash as a corrective measure, and while he did not dispense with it altogether, he used it most sparingly. He wrote and agitated in the press against this abuse and in his own crew substituted forms of punishment which he believed psychologically more effective. He perfected his own method of handling drunkards: when they were intoxicated, he tied them into their hammocks and then put them to work after they sobered up. He fortified their repentance by putting them on a ration of watered grog which they detested. A habitual drunkard would be punished by being compelled to wear a black bottle around his neck on which was painted: “Punished for drunkenness.” Men who were constantly fighting he compelled to drink a pot of salt water. A circular issued by an earlier Secretary of the Navy to the effect that badges of disgrace should be substituted for the lash met with his full approval, and when one of his cabin boys mimicked a midshipman, the Commander did not order the usual twelve lashes, but tied the lad to a gun, had his pants pulled down, and daubed his buttocks with a spot of pitch and a few parrot feathers to betoken his mocking tendencies.


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This last, as the commander was to find out to his sorrow, proved a grievous error on his part. The “law” did not specifically prescribe such a punishment. It would have been perfectly proper to lacerate the boy’s back with twelve strokes of the “cats”—but the bizarre new punishment devised was deemed “scandalous and cruel conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.” Aside from its other grievances, a certain clique among the officers resented Levy’s agitation against flogging and his exotic substitutes. He was trampling on the navy’s time-honored rules and regulations, substituting his own arbitrary will for the established provisions of the law. Yet he persisted in his reforms and believed—mistakenly—that he more than any other individual was responsible for the law which finally forbade flogging in the navy. His will specified that a full length statue of iron or bronze be erected over his grave and that it be inscribed: “Father of the law for the abolition of the barbarous practice of corporal punishment in the Navy of the United States.”

Levy was constantly under observation by men who were opposed to him or whose enmity he had incurred. They carefully treasured up every petty violation of the law and waited for the day of judgment. Always mindful that he was a Jew, they watched him closely to see what provision he would make for the religious care of his men, all of whom were at least nominal Christians. Since there was no chaplain on board the Vanda-lia, Levy himself undertook to provide for the religious edification of his men. All hands were required to be present at religious services every Sunday when he read a chapter both from the Old and New Testaments. Never, he asserted in later years, did he ever wound the Christian religious sensibilities of his officers and men—freedom of conscience was a right that he claimed and exercised for himself, and he insisted that this same freedom be accorded to others. “Remembering, always,” he said:

that the great mass of my fellow citizens were Christians, profoundly grateful to the Christian founders of our Republic for their justice and liberality to my long persecuted race; I have earnestly endeavored in all places and circumstances to act up to the wise and tolerant spirit of our political institutions. I have, therefore, been careful to treat every Christian, and especially every Christian under my command, with exemplary justice and ungrudging liberality.

Among those who watched every move that Levy made in 1839 on the Vandalia was a lieutenant whom he had been compelled to discipline. Three years later this officer preferred charges against him and raked up, among other incidents, the affair of the befeathered and bedaubed cabin boy. All this seems incredibly petty and silly today. It was no laughing matter in 1842, for the court-martial that tried the commander cashiered him from the service, and although President Tyler, the ultimate reviewing authority, returned the case to the court, asking for reconsideration


Political Gains

because of the excessive severity of the sentence, the officers refused to reverse their judgment. They were determined once and for all to get rid of Levy, but this time, too, they failed when the President modified the sentence to suspension for a period of twelve months. Two years later Levy was made captain, reaching the highest grade possible in the United States Navy of the antebellum period.40

But in 1839, still in command of his corvette, the apprehensive Levy probably had no inkling of the determined effort that would be made in a sixth and final court-martial to get rid of him. He was busy doing his job from day to day. On one occasion off the coast of Vera Cruz, it was his misfortune to scrape a French sloop-of-war and to inflict minor damage on one of its projecting spars. The French commanding officer poured out his abuse on the offending American. After Levy made his apologies for the damage done by his ship, he later returned and, in the presence of two of his midshipmen who spoke French, grimly demanded—and got—an apology from the French officer. If it had not been forthcoming, he would have challenged the offender to mortal combat. Years later the commander’s widow explained why her husband had made his demand of the vituperative Frenchman. Receiving Levy’s apology for the damage done his ship, that officer had sarcastically remarked: “What else would you expect of a vessel commanded by a Jew?” In 1847, Capt. Levy volunteered to take a vessel with grain to the starving Irish and informed the authorities that he would contribute his pay to the relief fund. The offer was rejected. It was during these years, as war was being waged with Mexico, that he pleaded in vain for an assignment. The next decade brought joy and despair: there was joy in 1853 when he married his niece Virginia Lopez, a native of Jamaica—at the time of the marriage, the captain was sixty, his bride of eighteen would survive him by sixty-three years. The despair came in 1855 when, together with many others, he was unceremoniously dropped by a Board of Fifteen. Levy was convinced that religious prejudice was the prime reason for his being stricken from the rolls, and his counsel stressed this charge in arguments before the Court of Inquiry in 1858. Whether the Board of Fifteen dropped him because he was a Jew is moot, though it is true that some of its members disliked him. Protesting his dismissal, Levy proceeded to hire two of the most eminent lawyers in the United States—he could afford the best— and won reinstatement. Was it helpful that he was a Democrat during a Democratic administration? That very year of 1858, after being given a ship of his own, he joined the Mediterranean squadron; in 1860 he served as the flag officer of the fleet, if only for a few months before his retirement. Horatio Alger, Jr., a Unitarian, moved in the best Jewish social circles in New York City as did Levy. It is not improbable that they knew each other. The Captain was certainly a candidate for the Luck and Pluck


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series for he had come up from genteel poverty to very substantial riches. His was a distinguished career. Luck? He made his own luck.

During World War II, some eighty years after his death, a destroyer escort, the U.S.S. Levy, was launched. Foreknowledge of what was yet to come would surely have pleased him no end. At the time of the Levy’s naming, there were over 5,000,000 Jews in the United States; the ship was a tribute not only to him but to the numerous, influential American Jewry of the 1940’s. By that time, too, there was a relatively large number of Jewish generals and admirals in the armed forces; it was a far cry from the America of 1860. Although, as far as we know, no synagogue-goer, Levy identified himself with his religious group in a dignified, self-respecting manner; he belonged to Shearith Israel of New York. His loyalty to the faith in which he had been bred did not prevent him from adorning his walls with an oil portrait of the infant Jesus and the Virgin Mother. In later years, on his last Mediterranean cruise, he brought home a wagonload of Palestinian soil for the pious Jews of New York; contingent on circumstances, his executors were instructed to set up an agricultural training school for Jewish and Christian orphans. In this instance, it would appear, he was influenced by the proposed “Institute” of M. E. Levy, no relative of his. Uriah Levy also left a modest bequest for the New York Jewish hospital. On the whole, he was not particularly generous to the Jewish community.

Levy was keenly conscious of the significance of the anti-Jewish prejudice which he encountered. Though certain that it was not characteristic of the American spirit, he was equally convinced that its existence should have been faced frankly by the Secretary of the Navy, denounced and treated with the contempt it deserved. Had Judeophobia been exposed as the vice of a few, religious intolerance might have been dealt a vital blow. The benefit of such action, he pointed out, would not have been made manifest merely in the protection of one individual American, the Jew Levy; it would have served to add stature to the government and to conserve the rights of all citizens. The problem, he said, was not whether a Jew should be tolerated in the navy; it was his realization that the honor of America as a land of promise, of religious liberty and tolerance, was at stake. If the Jew fell victim to religious intolerance and bigotry, he said, no religious group, Catholic or Protestant, would ever be safe. Levy was conscious that he was fighting an historic struggle in which the issue was larger than himself. That in the hour of decision the President of the United States, Congress, and a majority of the officers in the United States Navy sustained Levy, proves that antebellum America was not akin to the anti-Dreyfus France of 1894. The important fact to bear in mind is that the anti-Jewish snobs in the service were not successful in their intrigues. Levy was consistently, however slowly, advanced despite all


Political Gains

opposition; he ended his stormy career in a blaze of glory as a “Commodore” of the United States Navy.41

Political Gains: A Review


In 1860, as flag officer of the Mediterranean squadron, Captain Levy, the Jew, embodied in himself fulfillment of the promises inherent in the Declaration of Independence. But 1860 was not 1776. Prior to 1776, despite the 1740 English statute naturalizing foreigners in the colonies, the Jews had still remained second-class citizens. Naturalization conferred no political equality unless one was ready to take an oath “on the true faith of a Christian.” Under British rule, the Jews in the thirteen provinces had made no political demands; they were sure that their situation was better than that of any other Jewry in the world—and, in any case, complaints would probably have been of little avail to them. But, as events in the 1770’s demonstrated, once the Revolution started it became clear that the Jews had not really accepted their disabilities with equanimity. The Jews were certainly conscious that the new republic was denying them rights accorded others, and some of them were indignant. By 1777 they were fully aware that twelve of the thirteen states were denying them the right to hold high office.42

Moses Michael Hays told the Rhode Islanders bluntly that the Continental Congress and the states were ignoring Jews politically. This was in July, 1776, after the Declaration of Independence had been adopted. When, that same month, Jonas Phillips sent a copy of the printed Declaration to a relative in Holland, he made no comment about the future of the Jews in the newly independent country, but eleven years later this Revolutionary War militiaman communicated to the Constitutional Convention his indignation that Jews had bravely fought and bled for a liberty which was not granted them. Writing to George Washington in 1790, Charleston Jews emphasized their gratitude that the new privileges and immunities which by then they were enjoying had raised them from a state of political degradation. An obvious question is this: why had Jews in the last quarter of the century not united nationally, as an organized body, to fight for rights in all the states? They took no such action because in all likelihood they realized that Jews, pronounced individualists, could not work together as a group to secure political emancipation. A firm national organization of all the Jews in this land was never envisaged. Such unity in American Jewry was not even achieved as late as the turn of the twentieth century. Individual Jews, however, did fight for emancipation in the states of their residence—in Pennsylvania in 1783, in


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Maryland in 1797. These men fought because they resented discrimination; they fought because they had been influenced strongly by the libertarian teachings of the eighteenth century. When in 1803 Isaiah Isaacs, of Richmond, prepared to manumit some of his slaves, he wrote that he was “of opinion that all men are by nature equally free,” and the freedom that he had secured in the Virginia of 1786 he was willing to grant to others.1

What had American Jews gained by 1840? Why had they been emancipated? Who helped them? What had they gained in the early national period—freedom of conscience and the right to worship as Jews? No. These rights they had always enjoyed in the English colonies; indeed, these privileges were accorded them in most European lands, even in ruthless Frederician Prussia and in brutal Poland. Thus, are we to conclude that the Jews had “religious freedom” in the North American British colonies and in the United States? No. They could claim no genuine religious freedom because political rights were denied them as Jews. And when at last they were granted equality, what had they gained? On the federal level, the Jews had done well; the Constitution of 1787-1791 gave them formal equality—a great change: the thirteen English colonies were Protestant Christian, and Jews, consequently, had always been second-class citizens. That was no longer the case. Grateful, the Jews thanked George Washington in 1790; he had become the symbol of the new American egalitarianism though it may well be questioned whether the framers of the Constitution had deliberately set out to grant political equality to all whites regardless of their wealth and social status. But the Constitution was important; even Catholics were coming into their own. There was a Catholic general in the Revolution, a Catholic naval captain; two members of the Church signed the Constitution; priests were now permitted to celebrate the mass in public. For the first time in Diaspora history—at least since Emperor Caracalla’s edict of 212 C.E.—Jews were deemed part of the citizenry and accorded political equality. They were no longer to be a separate enclave, a corporate out-group with a specific charter or implied rights of its own. For the Jews the new Constitution was socially revolutionary giving them not only political and economic rights and opportunities, but also a new inner affective freedom.44

And the gains on the sub-federal, state level? On that level there was resistance to the granting of rights to the Chosen People; strong efforts were made to maintain the pre-Revolutionary status quo. America was a Protestant country, certainly a Christian one! Whether churched or not, most Americans believed in a trinitarian God; they wanted Christian chaplains and a national Thanksgiving celebration. They were determined to enforce Sunday laws, to accord tax exemption to churches, to further a nondenominational Christianity in public and in private schools. They believed in the Old and in the New Testament, in using tax-sup-


Political Gains

ported school buildings for Christian religious purposes. They punished people for anti- Christian blasphemy. Actually, the law recognized Christianity as the religion of the land. What political gains, then, had the Jews made on the state level by 1840? One must constantly bear in mind that not until 1937 were states forbidden by judicial construction to tamper with First Amendment rights. When Jefferson became president in 1801, only six of the original thirteen states had emancipated their Jews; by 1840, four of the original thirteen—Rhode Island, New Jersey, North Carolina, and New Hampshire—still refused to abolish statutes withholding from Jews the right to hold important state office. It was not until 1790, fourteen years after the Declaration of Independence, that Jews were accepted as full citizens in Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia—all of them sheltering Jewish communities. The original constitutions in these commonwealths had to be rewritten or modified by statute. And when Jews were completely enfranchised, what had they gained? From that time on, they began to receive local, county, and state offices, but not always on the highest level despite the fact that there were potential Jewish nominees of competence. Jews were not elected to Congress till the 1840’s, and those elected were invariably men without any interest in the religion of their ancestors. By the 1850’s most Jews going to Congress had some ties to Judaism. Holding office was important for the Children of Israel. Their dignity, their status, their emotional wellbeing were at stake. Office and its emoluments spelled an opportunity for a career; in the lower echelons, an opportunity for a livelihood. Like other citizens, Jews too were eager to feed at the public trough.45

Jewish emancipation—never a public preoccupation as in Europe— underwent its own complexities. Why were Jews emancipated? What prompted the Christian masses and their elected leaders to accept Jews politically? Actually the lawmakers had little choice. Deists and evangelical sectarians alike realized that there could be no political peace as long as there were established churches. Separation of church and state was imperative; the different religious sects all had to be tolerated. It was not liberalism—it was fear of confessional strife—that impelled the writers of the new national constitution, for the first time on this continent, to bar any church establishment, to set up a wall, officially at least, between church and state. After a fashion, therefore, the political emancipation of the Jews as such was fortuitous, accidental. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention were hardly concerned with the political rights of a few thousand exotic infidels but those states with Jewish communities were ultimately compelled to face the challenge of their Jewish neighbors and to acknowledge them as political peers. Acceptance of Jews was hastened because, though a small minority, they were not an unimportant urban commercial congeries; some were merchants, members of the busi-


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

ness elite. They were a literate group at a time when thousands among the farming masses were illiterate. Prior to 1801 and the ascendancy of Jefferson, many Jews, it may be assumed, favored the ruling clique, the Federalists. Jews wanted a strong central government able to protect their commercial interests; the national constitution upheld by the Federalists tolerated no disabilities, whereas the state constitutions were often discriminatory. There is also ample evidence that, by 1800, some Jews were Jeffersonians, politically and philosophically committed to egalitarianism. They, too, were mindful that the majority of the states had not yet emancipated them. Jefferson’s Virginia did not do away with religious disabilities till the promulgation of a new constitution in 1830. Even then, of the 41,618 who voted, 15,563 cast their ballots against this new organic statute.46

Who were the allies of the Jews? Who helped them gain rights and immunities? Certainly the typical observant churchgoer was not a conscious ally. He enjoyed his prejudices, which were reinforced weekly from the pulpits of most congregations. The separation of church and state for which most of the evangelicals opted was but a counsel of desperation; they were faced with the choice of mutual toleration or of constant civil strife. The Jews gained their liberties by stealing a ride on the coattails of the Christian dissenters. Intrinsically, many of the Protestants would never accept Jews as equals; today, two centuries later, they are still not completely reconciled. But most Protestants finally did accept the concept of the separation between church and state. The man in the street was flattered when Americans were praised abroad for their liberalism; he gloried when this country’s political contributions were magnified by patriotic orators. For many, toleration became a respectable tradition because it was part of the American ethos sanctioned by the Constitution itself, the most hallowed instrument in America’s holy of holies. But more than a decade before the Constitution was written, as early as 1776, the tradition of religious freedom was already so respectable, so strong, that even those states which retained the older disabilities paid lip service to it. Consistency was no virtue; hypocrisy no vice. The attitude towards Jews was determined by two disparate traditions, tolerance and antipathy. The anti-Jewish one was rooted in the gospel drama of the Jew as a villain; the post-Revolutionary tradition of tolerance—not too widespread to be sure —goes back to the Protestant England of Leonard Busher, Roger Williams, and Cromwell. Williams, a great liberal, preached both in England and America that religious practice was no concern of the state. Many years later, in 1714, the Deist John Toland had published his Reasons for Naturalizing the Jews in Great Britain and Ireland on the Same Foot with All Other Nations, Containing Also a Defence of the Jews Against All Vulgar Prejudice in All Countries. On the title page of his pamphlet, Toland printed a


Political Gains

verse from Malachi (2:10): “Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously everyone with his neighbour?”47

The golden thread of tolerance was to continue resplendently visible in the fabric of eighteenth-century Anglo-Saxon thought. Fortified by Deism, natural law, mercantilism, and the new colonial imperialism with its emphasis on commercial and industrial revolution, a new criterion for good citizenship made its appearance—taxability. Assuredly, Christian piety still remained a mark of good citizenship, but the merchant, the importer and exporter, the substantial ratepayer, assumed an increasing importance. Speculation in terrestrial wares engrossed men more than celestial salvation. Jews were now valued; they were imaginative entrepreneurs; they paid taxes. For these reasons they were encouraged to settle in the British colonies of the Caribbean and North America. This new tolerance, rationalized and ethically plated by the Enlightenment, had made itself felt in South Carolina by 1775. The rebel province was ready that year to accept a Jew as a delegate to a rump provincial assembly. The liberal political tradition now began to accelerate rapidly. The following year witnessed the adoption of the Virginia Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. Ten years later Jefferson’s statute for religious freedom was passed; a year later the Constitution was written; in 1789 the French Revolution, already much influenced by North American events, sent its own spirit westward across the Atlantic to deepen and strengthen the social content of liberalism. In 1796, in a treaty with Tripoli, the Senate declared that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion,” a radical statement which offers strong evidence that America was prepared to accept Jews politically.48

In one generation, liberalism in this country had been catapulted forward. In such an atmosphere, anti-Jewish disabilities were destined to disappear. Gentile liberals in every American state now aided the Jews in their fight for political rights. One Congressman, Richard M. Johnson, in his reports on the Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads insisted in 1829-1830 that the mail must go through on Sunday, that the church had no right to control the state. Two years later, David Moulton, a Gentile, and Mordecai Myers, a Jew, presented a report in the New York State Assembly opposing the support of chaplains from the public purse. If America’s anti-Jewish political disabilities were abolished in the century between 1777 and 1877, thanks are due primarily to Gentile Americans."


The tradition of tolerance—not evangelical in character—was to dominate the republic’s leadership for almost two generations. The goals of ac-


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

ceptance and equality were reflected in the thinking and actions of the early presidents. Notable Americans of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were dedicated to the concepts of equality, liberty, and justice—in principle at least, though on occasion they rejected individual Jews and showed no understanding of Judaism as a faith. They were not philo-Semites. To a considerable degree, the attitudes of the political leaders toward Jews were reflected in Washington’s correspondence. The constitutional recognition of the Jew as an equal before the law, he wrote, is a policy worthy of imitation among the enlightened nations of the earth. Here in America, he gladly acknowledged, Jews and Christians alike possess liberty of conscience and the immunities of citizenship; here we no longer speak of toleration; all citizens are equal. The President gloried in the mutual liberality of sentiment which, he wanted to believe, marked every political and religious denomination in the republic; this stands unparalleled in the history of nations! He and his secretaries were carried away by a passionate rhetoric, but their good will was real enough. Washington’s views on religious liberty and political equality were shared by Alexander Hamilton, the President’s aide-de-camp and later Secretary of the Treasury. It was Hamilton who drafted the charter of Columbia College in the 1780’s and saw to it that all clergymen were on its board, including Seixas, the local rabbi. On the anniversary of Washington’s birthday, the Venetian Jew, Lorenzo Da Ponte, one of Mozart’s librettists and then living in New York, eulogized the country’s first president:

Liberty, the best of heaven, then first dawned upon your skies,

And tyranny was crushed never to rise again.


John Adams, addressing himself more directly to the Jews in personal letters to Noah, expressed the hope in 1818 that the United States would annul every narrow idea in religion and government and that Jews would be admitted to privileges in every country of the world. A little more than a decade later, his son, John Quincy, reiterated his father’s wish that the European states would give full equality to the Jews of Europe. Jefferson, even more than John Adams, was concerned with absolute religious liberty and never lost sight of the need to emancipate politically not only an infidel like the Jew but the Moslem and the skeptic, too. This had been in his mind as early as 1776 when he set out to do away with religious tests in Virginia, at the time the most important state in the new republic. As president, Jefferson considered appointing a Jew to his cabinet, and years later, when he set out to establish a university in his native state, he made it clear that he would tolerate no compulsory readings in theology. Long before this, Hamilton had hoped that Columbia College would not com-


Political Gains

pel its students to study religious works to which they could not conscientiously subscribe. Religious freedom, wrote Jefferson to a Jewish correspondent in 1818, is the answer to religious dissension, and it is the glory of America that it was the first to proclaim this truth. Madison shared fully the views of his friend Jefferson. Writing to Jews in 1818 and 1820, Madison repeated what he had frequently preached, that every sect in this country was entitled to religious freedom. Here in the United States, he said, Jews have shown the world that the rights granted them have eventuated in good citizenship. Let this be an example, he intimated, to those European states who distrust and oppress their Jewish subjects. In 1840, Secretary of State John Forsyth, speaking for President Martin Van Buren, instructed the American minister at Constantinople to help the persecuted Jews of Damascus. It was an exceptionally strong statement, probably the most vigorous that any American administration ever issued on behalf of an oppressed Jewish group:

The President is of opinion that from no one can such generous endeavors proceed with so much propriety and effect as from the Representative of a friendly power whose institutions, political and civil, place upon the same footing the worshippers of God of every faith and form, acknowledging no distinction between the Mahomedan, the Jews, and the Christian.51

The Influence of American Liberal Traditions on the Status of European Jewries


Europeans were very much interested in the new American republic, its liberties and opportunities. Many of them became acquainted with it through Jefferson’s Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, which was translated into Italian and French and reprinted in the monumental Encyclopedic. In July, 1789, shortly after the storming of the Bastille, an American in Europe wrote George Washington a brief but enthusiastic note implying that the fall of this symbol of autocracy was due to the influence of the American Revolution. European intellectual and political leaders were fully aware that the American Revolution was a cataclysmic event— that, for the first time in Christian history, men were accorded the right to hold office without regard to their religious beliefs. Certainly the American Revolution with its promises of liberty and happiness to all men attracted the attention of Europe’s Jews, everywhere second-class citizens, often segregated, and almost always denied political and social recognition.

The Revolution of 1775-1776 on these shores would have a profound impact on the French. They, too, revolted against the ancien


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

regime and in a relatively short time emancipated their Jewish fellow citizens. Where Jews were concerned, indeed, the French moved with greater dispatch than their American exemplars. For most Americans the uprising against the English was primarily a political one, a reaching out for self-rule. The new North American republic still tolerated slavery, limited the suffrage, and more often than not blithely ignored disabilities imposed on Catholics, Jews, and nonbelievers. The adoption of the federal Constitution in 1788 was not the end but the beginning of a struggle for the political, spiritual, and emotional enfranchisement of all minorities in the United States. Nevertheless the Constitution had a profound influence on the French, for in the space of months they, too, rose up and followed the Americans in separating church and state. The Bills of Rights adopted by several states were exemplary for the French in 1789, and when the Jews demanded freedom in France, they cited America’s new national constitution. Because the French took these protestations of equality seriously, they had no choice but to emancipate their Jews in 1791. Unlike the American federal government which lacked the power to give Jews all rights in the individual states, the French National Assembly freed its Jews with one stroke. French Jewry was given full political equality before its American counterpart. Unlike the Revolution in America, the one in France was social in goal and content; it set out to emancipate the individual—the Jew, too—in every sense of the word. And, in turn, giving Jews all rights in France was to speed the unshackling of American Jewry. France, one of the world’s great empires, had a host of admirers in the United States after the Revolution of 1789. The French experience suggested to many an American that work remained to be done in this country; America’s emancipatory task was not yet finished. In 1791, only five of the original thirteen states had given their Jews full rights.52


France was not the only land influenced by the American Revolution. Like all other Europeans, the Germans, too, were aware of the momentous changes which had taken place on the North American continent. They followed the progress of the Revolutionary War with keen interest; after all, thousands of fellow Germans, mercenaries, were fighting for the English crown. Yet the Revolution as such would leave the German people in their numerous principalities relatively untouched. Perhaps the Jews were more impressed because, much more than their Gentile fellow citizens, they knew themselves to be an oppressed lot. For many of them, literate and intelligent, the disabilities they experienced were intolerable. It may not have been mere happenstance that, in 1783, Moses Mendelssohn published his Jerusalem advocating the separation of church and state.


Political Gains

New York’s constitution of 1777 had already moved to divorce the two; Jefferson’s Ordinance of Religious Freedom had been introduced in the Virginia legislature in 1779. The promise of America was obvious to German Jewry. In the very same year that Mendelssohn wrote his eloquent plea for freedom in all matters religious, an anonymous German Jew wrote a letter to the president of the Continental Congress asking for permission to establish a Jewish colony in the American hinterland. The letter was probably never dispatched; it was certainly a ploy to emphasize the deplorable status of the Jews in the German lands, but it does evidence a knowledge of better conditions here—and this as early as 1783. Several years later, in 1807, a member of the new Berlin banking family of Bleichroeder wrote to his parents from New York telling them that the Jews in this country filled important posts in the army and in the civil service. Young Bleichroeder noted this at a time when Prussian Jews would have to wait at least sixty years to be given all political rights.53

It was at the turn of the century and during the following decade that Napoleon, the testamentary legatee of the American and French Revolutions, effected emancipation of the Jews in most of Western and Central Europe. If only for a brief few years, Jews in Switzerland, western Germany, and northern Italy enjoyed political freedom. By 1812, the Prussians and other Germans, trying to rebuild their shattered states after the defeats by Napoleon, were ready to admit Jews into their armies. As justification for this radical act, they cited Jewish heroism on the field of battle in the United States. That same decade, in 1818, Noah reminded his auditors that American liberties had helped free Jews abroad. In 1821, David Ottensosser (d.1858), a Bavarian scholar, published a History of the Jews in which he stressed the many opportunities open to them in the United States. Ottensosser leaned heavily on Hannah Adams’s History. Though he wrote his book in German, the script he employed was the Hebrew, not the Roman one. Thus German and East European Jews who knew only the Hebrew alphabet could read and learn about the United States. The book was bound to have an influence.54

Even in distant North Africa, Jews learned of the freedom that their people had achieved in the United States. Around the year 1800, many American sailors were seized by Barbary pirates and ruthlessly sold into slavery or held for ransom. The situation became critical for American merchantmen in the summer of 1801 when the piratical Regency of Tripoli declared war on the United States. In discussing this subject years later, Mordecai Manuel Noah said that the Americans had to fight back to save their ships, to abolish tribute, to free American captives, and, above all, to make the flag respected everywhere. These were the motivations, so Noah believed, that prompted Jefferson to send a small fleet into the Mediterranean to wage war on Tripoli. While engaged in this activity the


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

armed schooner Enterprize, commanded by Lieutenant Andrew Sterett, seized the Paulina, a three-masted vessel, just after she had left Valetta in Malta with a cargo of goods. Commodore Richard V. Morris and his officers had no hesitation in ordering the capture of this ship for she was headed for Tripoli, a country at war with the United States; the captain of the Paulina was well aware that the Libyan port had been blockaded, if only by a paper blockade, and the cargo—so the Americans were reliably informed by a British consul—was owned for the most part by a Tripolitan subject. For these reasons the Enterprize seized the Paulina on January 17, 1803. The “enemy” Tripolitan merchant who owned the larger part of the cargo of raisins, figs, cheese, silk, etc., was a Jewish merchant in his twenties by the name of David Valenzin. Young David was held as a prisoner, his clothes and personal belongings were seized, his cargo was speedily confiscated and sold at auction. It was in all likelihood a forced sale, and the goods which he valued at seven to eight thousand dollars brought a net of something over two thousand dollars. The purchaser seems to have been a friend of the American consul at Malta, and one may well believe that the consul—who was no doubt in business himself—saw to it that the cargo was sold very cheaply.

Commodore Morris, who had ordered the seizure of this ship as a prize and the arrest of Valenzin, the captain, and some others on board soon discovered that neither the Maltese nor the Gibraltarian authorities would act as an admiralty court in this case. The Paulina was a Hapsburg vessel; its captain, a citizen of the German Empire. By June, the Commodore, using a face-saving device, had restored the ship to its owner, and because no English court of admiralty would try the case he had, perforce, to ship Valenzin, impoverished, depressed, destitute, still a prisoner and still untried, to the United States to stand trial. Some four months after his capture, Valenzin was brought to this country, but again there was no court to try him. The Commodore had bungled this matter as he had his whole expedition, and because of his general ineptitude and his Mediterranean failure, he was relieved of his command in June. That very month, the Secretary of the Navy freed Valenzin and offered to return him to the Mediterranean on a government vessel. No court was competent to hear the case because there was no boat, no cargo, no “corpus delicti,” to be presented in evidence. The Commodore and his eager men had arbitrarily taken action without submitting their prize to the decision of a properly constituted court. They could not legally justify the procedure to which they had had recourse. Valenzin, as it turned out, was what he had always said he was, a subject of the German Emperor, though he also carried Tripolitan papers. The family was originally Venetian, and therefore Austrian, but on the death of Valenzin’s mother, his father had moved to Tripoli and the sons had gone with him to live in that country as friendly


Political Gains

aliens under German protection. When the boys reached their majority, they moved to Egypt, to Alexandria and Rosetta, but had kept in touch with their father commercially; this last cargo had undoubtedly been destined for Tripoli. Morris and the American consular officers should have tried Valenzin before a competent court before seizing and selling his goods. They should have determined his citizenship before imprisoning him. They had no right to rob him of all his personal possessions and to keep him destitute for a period of over four months before taking him to the distant United States. It is very questionable if they were even justified in taking him as a prisoner to this country. The American authorities here realized that it was all “irregular” and “illegal” and were willing to compound the case by freeing the young man and sending him back home— without restoration of his property, to be sure. He was now given every encouragement to go back to the Mediterranean.

Valenzin planned to go back, but sometime toward the autumn he made up his mind to stay and fight it out. It was a resolution of desperation. It is not improbable that he was given some help by Rebecca Gratz’s brother-in-law, Reuben Etting, who was now United States marshal for Maryland. Etting was a man of political influence and may have intervened, for we know that he was in touch with the unfortunate young Venetian. Early in November, Valenzin appealed to the House of Representatives for redress. His petition was read in the House on the 10th, but the congressmen, if they had listened at all, proceeded to forget about the whole affair. At first, the papers which Valenzin depended upon to substantiate his claims could not even be found; as a matter of fact, there is reason to believe that the officers who were cognizant of all the details preferred to stay out of sight. If Valenzin’s petition were granted, they would get no prize money! When, finally, the papers were produced, they were found to be in Arabic, in a Barbary-Italian dialect, and who was there who could even read these documents? Some believed that Valenzin’s story of German citizenship was false; he was a Tripolitan and got what was coming to him. Strangely enough, the members of the Committee of Claims of the House, usually “hard-boiled,” believed this young man and were personally eager to help him, even with funds. All of this sympathy, however, was insufficient to allay the fears of the frightened young man, rejected and alone in a strange country. All that he owned in the world had been invested in that cargo and now it was gone; he had no clothes, no real friends, and ... he was cold. On January 20, 1804, despairing of a favorable decision, he committed suicide, stabbing himself to death.

Apparently his death made a difference; his petition was now given favorable consideration. A bill was introduced in Congress in March and passed less than two weeks later, indemnifying the people who had fed


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

him and then buried him, and ordering the residue of his estate—the $2,000 prize money—turned over to his heirs. We have no doubt that it was finally paid out to his older brother Moses in Alexandria. But how did they ever find Moses? They are unlikely to have advertised for him. Almost a year after the suicide—in December, 1804—General William Eaton, the former consul to Tunis, was at Cairo talking to a Jewish merchant whom he had just met, a fellow by the name of Leon Reubin, when he heard the name Moses Valenzin mentioned. Further inquiry—an official deposition—elicited the whole story of David Valenzin’s life in Europe and North Africa and the existence of a brother in Egypt. Eaton at once sent the deposition and other details to his friend Congressman John C. Smith who had been on the original Committee of Claims in Washington. At first, when Eaton told Reubin of the death of the young Venetian, Reubin wept; later, when the General told him that the United States would surrender what was left of the man’s property to his heirs, the Cairo Jew turned to a Jewish friend who stood nearby, raised his eyes to Heaven, “and laying both hands gravely to his breast he exclaimed in Arabic, ‘Great God! What an astonishing country that must be where the government takes so much pain to render justice to a Hebrew! Even at this distance to inform his heirs of cash in deposit which might so easily have been concealed.’ ” Thus it was that the Jews of Europe and the Mediterranean world were convinced that almost halcyonic conditions prevailed in the United States at a time when their coreligionists were being actively persecuted in Eastern Europe and subjected to severe disabilities in most of Central Europe, Asia, and North Africa. But knowledgeable Europeans could also have retorted in 1804 that less than half of the original thirteen states had emancipated their Jews.55


The secession of the thirteen North American provinces from British rule was in a way the beginning of the process of decolonization; the British Empire had begun to break up. The English intelligentsia was profoundly stirred by the radical political departures in the new United States, yet it moved very slowly and cautiously before making any domestic changes. The Reign of Terror and Napoleon frightened Parliament. Dissenters and Catholics, annoyed by the disabilities imposed on them, finally secured relief in 1828-1829. Members of the British elite, fully cognizant of the value of Jews as citizens, were willing to work toward parity, but reserved the right to set the pace. They had stumbled once before in 1753 when they passed their “Jew Bill,” a naturalization act. At that time the forces of reaction, hysterical in vehemence, had compelled Parliament to repeal the law only a few months after its passage. Americans in London kept telling the English that it was no mistake to emancipate their Jews; as


Political Gains

early as 1792 an American clergyman, preaching in the English capital, had reassured them. In 1829, the year the Roman Catholic Relief Act was passed, the Jews began to push for the right to hold office, to abolish the test oath. The Jews and their Gentile allies did not fail to cite American precedents, pointing out that the Israelites of the United States enjoyed equality in all matters political; they were not subject to discriminatory oaths. This was the argument they used, though in fact it was only partially true. In order to influence English public opinion, at least four pamphlets were published during the years 1829-1838 listing the various offices held by American Jews. Beginning with the year 1830 the fight to eliminate the anti-Jewish disabilities began in earnest. Thomas Babington Macaulay’s essay in defense of Jewish rights was published in the Edinburgh Review for January, 1831; in 1833, speaking in Parliament on behalf of Jews, he referred briefly to America’s grant of equal rights. The 1831 essay was later reprinted in French, Dutch, Rumanian, and Spanish versions in order to speed up the emancipation of Continental Jewry. A year later, in 1832, Canada opened all its offices to its Jewish citizens; the English campaign for freedom certainly helped. The rights accorded Jews in the United States undoubtedly influenced the English and the Canadians to grant immunities to their own Jews, but it was not until the early twentieth century that most disabilities were removed in Britain itself. One restriction remains in force: no Jew—and no Catholic—can ever hope to become sovereign of the United Kingdom.^




From our account of the political gains by Jews in the United States it is evident that after thirteen years the Children of Israel—together with many others—were accorded all rights on the federal level as soon as the Constitution went into force in 1789. By 1790, Jews had been granted political equality in the five states where established communities maintained themselves; Jewish communities existed in New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah. Newport? By 1800 the Jewish community there had vanished, the town itself began to decline during the Revolution. The important Jewish merchants whether Whigs or Loyalists, were dead or in exile. The long British occupation had been harmful; the wharves and docks neglected; the population in decline; the local industries, rum, molasses, and candles, were no more. There was no available capital. Now Providence overshadowed Newport; Boston was more attractive; New York was beginning to loom large. At a time when freedom and opportunity beckoned, Rhode Island remained politically conservative; the Jews were not to be emancipated there until nearly seventy years after the Declaration of Independence. Aaron Lopez, probably pre-Revolutionary Newport’s most notable merchant, had been drowned in Scott’s Pond in 1782. Had he lived, could he have saved the town? It is speculation, of course, but the man was so daring, so ingenious, that he certainly would have salvaged the community’s fortunes to some degree. Then again, had he survived the war, he might have been drawn to try his luck elsewhere.1

The change from British colonial rule to the condition of sovereign republic made a difference to everyone in America, particularly to Christians outside the pale of the established churches—and to Jews. Now no field of endeavor was legally closed to these erstwhile outsiders. Political offices and salaries were open to many; economic opportunities were eas-



The Traditional Economy

ier to exploit; men of ability had a chance to forge ahead. Psychologically, too, Jews were freer; now they could do what they wanted to do, and this circumstance spurred them on. Mordecai Noah, who began life as a carver’s apprentice and as a peddler of sundries from the workshop, rose in New York City to become Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall and a journalist sufficiently influential to annoy the tenants of the White House. To be sure, there were no opportunities without problems. It was no light matter making a livelihood in those years which knew numerous periods of panic and depression; more than one-third of the years from 1776 to 1840 experienced economic decline. The currency was not always stable; bankruptcies were frequent. Yet there were also rewards. Business took encouragement from a gradually strengthened central government which favored commerce and trade. Individual Jews were eminently successful. By grace of the directory, the affluent Jew was dubbed a “gentleman."-

Transports and Indentured Servants

“Gentlemen,” comfortably retired Jewish merchant-shippers or capitalists, were at the top of the Jewish socioeconomic ladder. At the bottom in pre-Revolutionary days had been indentured servants and “transports,” criminals. With the coming of independence, England could no longer dump her criminals on these shores; however, impoverished indentured servants and redemptionists, Jewish men and women seeking a new life in the new America, continued to come here. Sold to pay their passage, they had to serve three to four years. There is a story of an indentured servant in Philadelphia—Rachel was her name—who wept as she scrubbed the steps for her wealthy master, Samuel Chew. A passerby who asked her the cause of her distress was told that she wept because she was compelled to work on her Sabbath. The sympathetic inquirer, Aaron Levy, redeemed her and later married her. For years the portraits of this couple graced the walls of the Pennsylvania Historical Society. The story is not documented, but redemptions of Jews by fellow Jews were not uncommon. This very Aaron Levy did redeem a fellow-Jew, Isaac Solomon (Saliman), who was obligated to serve four years to pay off his passage, £19.10. When two bond servants arrived in Philadelphia harbor on the afternoon before the Day of Atonement in 1795, the congregation scurried around to raise the necessary funds to redeem them. Redemption was not invariable: in 1801, a husband and wife pleaded in vain with Shearith Israel to ransom them from service in a Gentile home. As late as 1818, Wolf Samuel had sold himself to pay for his passage to America, his land of opportunity. Writing back home, he boasted that he was working for a Jew worth a million, that he was overseer of ninety-four Negroes on a plantation, that he had only two years to serve, that he was given good food and


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

clothing—in short, he was living “just like a gentleman.” So far the fantasy. The reality? He was working in York, Pennsylvania, for Gentiles who treated him so harshly that in despair he ran away. The master offered a reward for his capture and return. Such runaway “servants,” Jews, are documented in the advertisements of the country’s newspapers. By 1830, however, this system of financing one’s passage had died. A plethora of immigrants made it cheaper for employers to hire help as needed; purchasers did not have to advance the passage money to the ship’s captain.3


After their term of service expired, indentured servants frequently turned to farming, but there is no record that Jewish bond servants became tillers of the soil. There were always some Jewish farmers on this continent, but their numbers were insignificant. Farming was not foreign to Jews from villages and hamlets in Central and Eastern Europe where, though rarely themselves working the soil, they had done business with peasants and yeomen. Here, too, as shopkeepers in small towns they found much of their trade coming from the farmers, for the United States was largely agricultural until well into the nineteenth century. As late as 1790, city and town dwellers numbered little more than 3 percent of the population. Some Jewish merchants in the colonial years and later in the early national period owned farms and ran cattle. These were ranchers with registered brands, yet essentially they were businessmen. Mathias Bush, of Chestnut Hill near Philadelphia, owned a small farm of twenty some acres. Once a tavern perched atop a hill with a beautiful view of the surrounding country, it was located on two main highways, had a large stone house, and a stone stable big enough to hold fifty horses; in addition, there were an orchard and a well fenced-in field. He tried to sell it and suggested that it would make a fine home for a gentleman. Farther west, in the Pennsylvania hinterland of the 1830’s, Secku Meylert (Mailert) farmed, speculated in land, and bought cattle to improve the breed. A decade earlier Jacob Mordecai, the educator, had purchased a farm near Richmond, Virginia, which he tilled with the aid of his slaves. It was his retirement project.4

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Hays clan farmed in Westchester County, New York, but they were active also as shopkeepers and politicians. They were yeomen, often with sizable holdings augmented by purchases from the confiscated estates of Loyalists. One of the Hayses, David (d.1812), was a tradesman of substance judging by the promissory notes his heirs had to collect. Most of his trading was undoubtedly done on credit, or do these notes imply that on occasion he


The Traditional Economy

was also a moneylender? David was a committed Jew who kept kosher, did his own slaughtering, and observed the holidays. One of his sons married out and lived as a Christian; a daughter also seemed inclined to defect, for the father threatened to cut her out of his will if she found a husband who was not of the “society.” Indeed, after his death she did marry a Gentile; her brother, who had already married a Christian, was not disinherited. Living in the country many miles from New York’s Shearith Israel, the Hayses were exposed to assimilation. Ben Hays, another member of the family, gave his neighbors land for a school. He was careful in harvesting his crops to leave something for the poor, following the injunctions of the Bible. In admiration for his sterling qualities his neighbors referred to Ben as “the best Christian in Westchester County."''

Jewish Farming Colonies

Throughout American history Jews encouraged other Jews to become horny-handed sons of the soil. As tradesmen living in an almost completely agrarian milieu, they were apparently overwhelmed with a sense of guilt because they used their brains more than their hands—and their Christian neighbors, distrusting all traders, never failed to reinforce the feeling of guilt. The apologete Noah, addressing a congregation of Jews in 1818—and well aware that there were a few Gentiles in the audience —harangued his fellow Jews on the need to leave the “crooked paths of traffic.” Waxing eloquent, he reminded his auditors that agriculture was the “cradle of virtue and the school of patriotism.” The creation of Jewish agricultural colonies in this country had been envisaged by Jews since the decade of the 1810’s. M. E. Levy and Mordecai Noah attempted without success to settle Jews on the land in the 1820’s. Isaac Leeser followed their plans with interest. Jews turned to farming only as a last resort during the long years of depression beginning with 1837; the immigrant Jews had to make a living. In the spring of that year a group came together as the Association Zeire Hazon (Tender Sheep as Jer. 50:45 has it.) They hoped to establish a colony out “West” somewhere. The president was the well-known Jewish printer and publisher Solomon H. Jackson; the secretary, who served a local congregation as clerk, was Thomas Washington Donovan, married to a granddaughter of Haym Salomon and probably a convert.6

Were the Tender Sheep influenced by contemporary utopian communities? They certainly knew of these secular and religious communistic and cooperative efforts but it is difficult to determine the impact, if any, of Robert Owen, St. Simon, Fourier, and Christian religious enthusiasts upon the Jews. Some of the men who established the Association had been farmers and mechanics in Central Europe. They hoped, too, to ere-


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

ate a congregation and thus maintain their group and religious identity. As a colony, they would be able to offer resistance to the assimilatory environment. The Tender Sheep were to be a cooperative, not a communistic, enterprise. It was their contention, part of their rationale, that farming would save them from vocations which did nothing to enhance the status of the Jew—peddling and possibly retailing in which haggling was a way of life. The Society died aborning; the New York congregations refused help. Class and other differences seriously impeded congregational cooperation in the city. Shearith Israel was Sephardic; many of its members were native-born; B’nai Jeshurun was Ashkenazic with a strong infusion of Englishmen; Anshe Chesed was a potpourri of Germans, Poles, and Hollanders. Driven by necessity rather than talk, the German immigrants in Anshe Chesed did finally establish a colony in Ulster County called Sholem or Sholom (“Peace”). They laid out a cemetery, created a congregation, the Keepers of the Covenant (Shomre ha-Brit) and went to work— but Sholem was not a success. The mortgages were foreclosed by 1841 and members started drifting back to New York, where some of them, men of culture, would make their mark in the Jewish community. American Jews were not destined to become farmers; farming was not their metier.7


The Sholem colony members who remained turned to crafts and trading —peddling no doubt. Cheap as land was, Jewish newcomers, lacking capital and agricultural experience, could not and would not, as individuals, take up farming. Living among Gentiles was no life for them. If they remained on the farm, isolated, it was practically impossible to raise a Jewish family. For a man without capital, one road was nearly always open. Like the last of the settlers at the Sholem colony, they could turn to peddling; there was always a Jewish supplier ready to give an immigrant a line of credit. Thus the aspiring new businessmen started out with a pack of notions, cloth, jewelry, and even an occasional gadget to attract customers. The whole world lay open before the peddler; he could peddle in the city or he could work in the backcountry, and that meant in almost every state of the Union. The frontier? The peddler went west, but he stayed behind the frontier; he needed customers, villages, farmsteads, a core town where he could replenish his stock of goods. Full of hope, he might start as a basket peddler and then after carrying a bundle on his back move up to a packhorse, to a team and wagon, or to a bateau on the bayous of the Mississippi. Sometimes a peddler joined forces with another plodder, a congenial sort; when a peddler saved a little, he brought over a brother and they teamed up together. In the year 1814, a Pittsfield, Mas-


The Traditional Economy

sachusetts man found a pair of tefillin (phylacteries) in a field. Had some pre-Columbian Jew wandered to America? No, a distraught peddler in desperation had lost them or thrown them away. Leeser scorned peddlers in 1836 as “itinerant traders.” This was before the German Jews began arriving in substantial numbers in the late 1830’s and during the recession were compelled, for lack of anything else to do, to turn to peddling. Were there many peddlers? There is really no way of knowing; many took out no licenses. What about the directories and the congregational marriage registers? There the humblest itinerant portrayed himself as a trader or merchant. Were any of them notably successful? Some fell but rose again; others never ceased peddling. It was often a miserable life and never a highly respected vocation; the peddler was close to the bottom of the social ladder. He was Cohen, Levy, not Mr. Cohen, Mr. Levy. The hazards he faced were many: wars, depressions, illness, robbery, murder.8

For many, peddling was only a start. Benjamin Franklin, then president of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, signed the peddler’s license of Solomon Raphael in 1787. After a number of years, Raphael had a shop, then a tavern, then a jewelry establishment of sorts. Between 1787 and 1796, he changed addresses four times—physical mobility and occupational change are intertwined. The 1790’s found him in Richmond, where he was arrested for stealing an indentured servant from her employer, Israel I. Cohen. Apparently domestic servants were at a premium. Later an auctioneer, Raphael called himself a merchant, and by the early nineteenth century he was a merchant of some means, for he owned a slave, Priscilla, whom he emancipated in the days of Jefferson’s presidency. Dr. B. J. Raphael, professor in a medical college in New York, who married into an assimilated Jewish family, was a grandson. Raphael’s record indicates the occupational and social mobility that typified many an American Jewish career. Raphael went up in the world, albeit slowly; his English letters tended to be gibberish and he was delinquent in congregational dues.9

Successful peddlers might and did become retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers, even bankers. Jacob Elsas (Elsass) is one among many paradigms. Back home in Wuerttemberg, young Elsas had gone to work at the age of eleven, slaving for a cattle dealer and helping his brother, a weaver, become a cattle dealer himself. Finally, he left for America with a group of other young men. In 1839, when he arrived in New York at the age of twenty-one, he had fifty cents in his pocket. Selling the gold ring he owned, he was able to reach Philadelphia where a trusting wholesaler outfitted him. He peddled jewelry and even saved a little to send home to his mother and eight other relatives. Moving west, he peddled in Kentucky and southern Ohio till he had enough to open a dry goods and clothing store in Portsmouth, Ohio, at the southern end of the canal link-


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

ing the Ohio and the Mississippi to the Great Lakes. Prospering, he married, moved on to Cincinnati, became a wholesaler, amassed a fortune, and turned to industry as a builder, a tanner, a brewer. Like other entrepreneurs, Elsas was not always successful in his undertakings, but he remained wealthy enough to send fourteen substitutes into the army during the Civil War; he himself was not subject to the draft. As a good citizen, he helped erect a monument to the men who had died in battle; he accepted an appointment as city park commissioner and became a patron of the Cincinnati music festival, the Saengerfest. Cincinnati Jewry respected him for his efforts to establish its large cemetery and esteemed him as a cobuilder of its “cathedral” synagog and a dedicated worker in its philanthropic associations.10

What did the pack peddler carry? Some yard goods, notions, cheap jewelry. The wagon peddler, however, had an extensive inventory of dry goods and clothing, and this is where the profit lay. Were these necessities? For the isolated farmer or villager they were. For the children in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, during the 1820’s, what was more important—a piece of cloth or a snuffbox that played Yankee Doodle? There is no question; in the hinterland the peddler was an important convenience merchant. Let there be no mistake; he purveyed goods, not ideas. His occupation was—so he hoped—a transitional one as he sought to understand America, its language, its mores. There are instances of newcomers with some means who entered peddling deliberately to learn the American way of life. Folklore would have every Jewish peddler mouthing a German accented American jargon. That may have been largely true, but he often ended his life wearing broadcloth, with a gold watch in his vest and a respectable balance in the bank. Above all, peddling was the royal road to Americanization. The German peddler Louis Stix invited a farmer’s daughter to a party and, when ready to go home, left her there. The next day he returned to the farm and papa went after him with a pitchfork. His Americanization process was speeded up!11


Peddlers had often begun life in Germany as artisans. The Central European states, agrarian until well into the nineteenth century, pushed Jews into the crafts; artisans were given privileges. Consequently few Jews from German-speaking territories landed here without some skills; they were not day laborers. Some emigres of the late 1830’s, landing during the depression, tried everything in order to eke out an existence. Ambitious and competent Jewish craftsmen, determined to improve themselves, soon turned to trade. How many skilled Jewish laborers kept to their craft is unknown. But this much is certain; there is hardly a skill


The Traditional Economy

which was not practiced by a Jew during the years 1776-1840. Philadelphia Jewry included craftsmen who produced combs, umbrellas, candles, saddles, watches, hats, trunks, shoes, brushes, cabinets, and embroidery. There was a furrier and a cap maker, a worker in leather, a bookbinder, a carver and a gilder. Tobacconists were found in many towns. Myer Derk-heim of Richmond (d. 1818), a soapmaker, augmented his slender income as the town lamplighter and as a circumciser for East Coast Jewry. His travels to perform the sacred task took him from Maine to South Carolina. His circumcision record, now hidden away in some library, is important, for it documents the residence of Jews—loyal Jews—in the most distant towns and villages. New York had a chocolate maker and a copperplate artisan as well as a coppersmith, Asher Myers, whose brother, Myer Myers, a notable craftsman, was president of the Gold and Silversmiths’ Society of New York in 1786. Some of his beautiful pieces are still in existence. Myers, with a most appealing cultural ecumenism, fashioned silver ritual pieces for synagogs and churches. Most of the goldsmiths and silversmiths did as he did and ran jewelry shops; at times Myer included groceries in the wares he offered for sale.12

The scholarly Baltimore polemicist, Joseph Simson, was an outstanding lapidary seal engraver. Isaiah Isaacs in neighboring Virginia, probably the first permanent settler there to profess Judaism openly, was a silversmith who had emigrated from England; he speedily turned to trade. Michael Levy, another Virginia craftsman, was a clock and watchmaker who worked in both Baltimore and Philadelphia; his son was “Commodore” Uriah P. Levy. Still another Virginia watchmaker and silversmith, known through a fascinating letter written by his wife, was Hyman Samuel, who first appeared on the American scene in Petersburg; later he would live in Richmond, Baltimore, Norfolk, and Charleston, too. Why he moved about so much is difficult to determine; he was a very skilled artisan, financially successful. His wife, a devout Jew, kept urging him to move to a large city where they could live among observant coreligionists. Out West, in Cincinnati, Joseph Jonas had no lust to roam. This English immigrant, Cincinnati’s first practicing Jew, did well as a watchmaker. An articulate leader of the Jewish community, Jonas ultimately became one of the city’s best known and respected citizens. One might think that immigrant Jewish craftsmen would stick to their trade. Artisans then had a relatively short working day in this country; by 1835 most skilled men did not put in more than ten hours on a shift. It was no fear of hard work that drew Jews away from artisanry. Hard labor, after all, was enjoined by Genesis 3:19: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” They were not lazy, but they were ambitious. They had made sacrifices to get here; they had dear ones at home in need of help. This is what impelled them to reach out when they saw opportunities to advance themselves.1'


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

Many Jewish craftsmen, maybe most of them, were artisan-shopkeepers. They did not identify themselves with “labor,” but preferred to view themselves as prospective merchants. This will explain why they took no interest in the labor movement. They were looking to the future, to affluence. Witness the career of Baltimore’s Jonas Friedenwald (1801-1893), the patriarch of a family which lent lustre to the city through his descendants, notable physicians and academicians. Friedenwald, who came from the same village in Hesse Darmstadt which had given birth to Jonas Phillips, landed on a wintery Thursday night in 1831/1832. He went down the side of the ship and walked across the frozen river in order to find lodging for his family before Friday night, the onset of the Sabbath. A committed traditionalist, he began his new life in Baltimore as an itinerant umbrella mender. Later he opened a grocery and added clothing to his stock. He gathered old iron, collected and sold used nails after he straightened them, and finally became the proprietor of a hardware store. It is almost no exaggeration to assert that every Jew in those early days was an Odysseus whose fortune changed many times before he found an economic niche into which he could settle permanently. Jacob Ezekiel (1812-1899) is an example, important only because he is typical. Ezekiel’s family was Dutch; he himself was a native Philadelphian who learned to dye clothes and later to make watercolors and indelible ink. He sought a trade that would provide for him adequately. His parents apprenticed him to a Christian bookbinder with the understanding that he was not to work on the Sabbath or on Jewish Holy Days. On those days he ate with relatives. By 1833, he was in Baltimore, in the bookbinding business, eating his meals with a Jewish pawnbroker. The following year found him in Richmond where he would remain for decades, turning there to dry goods, to clothing, to clerking. For thirty years he served the Sephardic congregation as clerk. For fun and companionship he had his comrades in the Richmond militia; back home in Philadelphia he had run with a fire hose company. Following the Civil War which left Richmond but a shadow of its former self, he and his family moved to Cincinnati where he served for another generation as secretary to the Board of Governors of the Hebrew Union College. His son, Moses, achieved considerable fame as one of the first American Jews to become a sculptor."

Jacob Ezekiel never became a rich man; Friedenwald made a small but tidy fortune when he retired before the Civil War to devote himself to the Jewish community; John Moss of Philadelphia (1771-1847) was an artisan destined to become a very successful capitalist. A contemporary Jew who was not fond of Moss said that he was all wrapped up in business. The statement was probably correct; his absorption in his career may well account—in part at least—for his rise in the world. Moss began as an engraver on glass; it is hardly to be doubted that he learned his trade in


The Traditional Economy

London whence he had come to America at the age of twenty-five. After working at his craft, he turned to dry goods; it took him over a decade to get that far. Before long he was to become a merchant-shipper. One of his ships, the Moss, was a 330-ton vessel; the carved figure on the prow was said to be a striking likeness of Mrs. Moss, the daughter of a Dutch Jew who had married a girl in the little western town of Harris’s Ferry (Harrisburg). Retiring at the age of fifty-two was merely a stage in a new career for Moss. Now he became a capitalist-entrepreneur advocating and furthering the use of anthracite coal both here and abroad; his investments were made in canals, turnpikes, banks, railroads, and insurance companies. Masonry recognized him as one of its devotees; though no Irishman, he was flattered by his election to the Hibernian Society. Tradition has it that this was his reward for once having helped an immigrant from the Emerald Isle. The St. George Society, concerned with men of English provenance, elected him a steward; the town’s Jacksonians sent him to Council. His concern for the community at large was reflected in his generosity to a hospital and an orphan society; the Merchant’s Exchange received two marble lions, replicas of those which graced the tomb of Pope Clement XIII. During the Damascus crisis of 1840, when the Jews of the Syrian city were accused of ritual murder, he served as chairman of Philadelphia’s Committee of Correspondence and helped the Jews join with other Jewish communities in a protest against the renewal of medieval bigotry.”

Diverse Occupations and Shopkeepers

Commercially, the postrevolutionary years were in one respect no different than the later decades. Jews found ways into the interstices of the economy in their effort to make a living. The political liberal Isaac Pinto, an accomplished linguist, “historian and philosopher,” served for a period in the mid-1780’s as the official interpreter not only for the Office of Foreign Affairs but for other executive departments and for the Congress. After the turn of the century, when Charleston was an important national depot, Jews were found among the interpreters, clerks, and auditors of the Customs House; they were inspectors of imports and accountants. In the early 1820’s Solomon Sacerdote (“priest,” Cohen?) owned a gambling house in New Orleans. Some Jews ran livery stables; others were appointed constables and police officers. America’s most famous Jewish guardian of the law was Jacob Hays, of the Westchester County New York Hays family. Hays defected from Jewry—he may not have become a formal convert—and raised a family of Christians, some of whom became notable figures in the commercial life of New York City; they include a president of a bank and of a railroad. Hays p'ere was New York


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

City’s High Constable for almost fifty years. The Common Council ordered his portrait painted and saw to it that it was hung; it was treasured in the City Hall collection. Councilmen and criminals alike respected this man. Relatively common were the inns, taverns, coffeehouses and boardinghouses run by Jews. In the 1790’s Moses Homburg, of Philadelphia, sold dry goods in his tavern; one of his claims to fame—if he has any— was that he was an ancestor of one of the Delaware Duponts. Levy Andrew Levy and his family ran a boardinghouse in Baltimore. Decades earlier he had been an Indian trader working out of Lancaster and Pittsburgh; during the French and Indian War the Indians had taken him captive, but had finally released him unharmed. Baltimore’s relatively small community included several boardinghouses kept by old-line settlers who catered to Gentiles; apparently it was a vocation of some dignity.1''

What goods stocked the shelves of the early American shopkeepers? It is literally true that there is almost nothing that they did not handle: dry goods, groceries, drugs, notions, music, stationery, books, hardware, candles, saddles, combs, brushes, umbrellas, hats and caps, shoes, jewelry, watches, clocks, beeswax, lottery tickets, tobacco, china, glassware, liquor, and clothing. Second-hand clothing was nearly always sold in special shops, primarily in the larger towns. By 1840, Chatham Street in New York was known for its used clothing establishments. Most retail shops were small—one room sufficed—just large enough to do business. Some were owned by women. Sally Etting, of Baltimore, probably did not operate out of a shop but out of her home. She got her supplies, tea primarily, from a member of the family in Philadelphia and no doubt offered her limited wares to friends and acquaintances. Mrs. Philip Benjamin, Judah P. Benjamin’s mother, ran a small dry goods store in Beaufort, South Carolina, not too far from the Georgia line. Later, so it would seem, the family sold fruit in Charleston. The Benjamins were very poor, but they did pay their synagog bill—which was substantial. Savannah’s Esther Sheftall had a small shop with an even smaller stock, but she was not dependent on sales; she had means. In small towns like Easton, merchants sold for cash or country produce, which included lumber and staves. Barter was not uncommon. An egregiously unsuccessful businessman, Lorenzo da Ponte ran a small shop in Sunbury, Pennsylvania. This man, famous today as Mozart’s librettist for the Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutte, hustled to make a living for his family; on occasion, he supplied grain to distillers. Once, when badly in need of goods which were at the time in short supply, he managed to replenish his shelves from the wholesalers of Reading, Pennsylvania; they confused the name da Ponte with Dupont, the munitions manufacturer, whose credit was excellent. The St. Louis pioneer businessman Joseph Philipson kept an account book which testifies to shelves well-stocked in 1807.


The Traditional Economy

Townspeople were offered an assortment: dry goods, notions, hardware, brandy, shoes. By 1839, Lewis Polock had already opened his place of business in Yerba Buena, a California village to be renamed San Francisco before another decade passed. Clothing and saddlery were very much in evidence.17

By 1840, there were Jewish retailers in almost every community of size all the way from New York to California. Running a shop and supplying the day-to-day necessities of urban dwellers, village neighbors, and farmers was the principal form of livelihood for many, if not most American Jews. The city directories are eloquent in their serried lists; the Jews were a nation of shopkeepers. They struggled; their capital was limited; there was always a heavy infusion of immigrants trying to keep their heads above water. American Jewry before 1840 belonged preponderantly to the lower middle class. The Jews as a whole were in no sense affluent. Numerically, the American Jewish population was inconsequential; for decades it was never to reach, let alone exceed, 1 percent of the total population. But their importance exceeds their numbers, for the Jews dwelt in urbanized areas which were disproportionately powerful in agrarian America. The handful of Jews in the towns and cities was to exercise considerable influence. There is not much difference between the shopkeepers of colonial and early republican days. They both sold hard, soft (dry) and wet goods. Trade in the two epochs is similar for the basic agricultural economy did not change. Shopkeepers in those days had little in common with the peddlers; the former carried larger stocks and sold on credit. The shopkeeper was a sedentary merchant; the people came to him; the peddler was itinerant; he came to the people; he had a small stock and he sold for cash.



If in colonial and postrevolutionary cities and villages the shopkeeper was at the bottom of the mercantile ladder, the merchant-shipper was at the top. This important tradesman was a retailer, wholesaler, importer, exporter, a domestic-household industrialist, even a banker of sorts. He was the dominant figure in the world of commerce and shipping in colonial times and in the first few decades of the nineteenth century. His eyes were fixed on the North American littoral, on the Caribbean, on Europe, even on the Far East. His back was to the American West. Up to the 1840’s, the oceangoing enterpriser was still to play a very important role in the commerce of the tidewater country. The West was filling up, but the masses were still east of the mountains. By 1840 the important ports were


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Richmond, Norfolk, Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, and New Orleans. There were Jewish shippers of substance in several—but not all—of these towns; seven of these centers sheltered growing Jewish communities. American exports were cotton, tobacco, lumber, naval stores, indigo, rice, pig iron, furs, and provisions (Jewish merchants shipped kosher meat to the West Indies and to Surinam). Imports included woolen and cotton textiles, sugar, coffee, molasses, rum, and assorted consumers’ wares. From India and China came teas, silks, textiles, chinaware. For the shippers on the American coast, there were good times and bad times; up to 1807, there was prosperity in commerce and the carrying trade transporting provisions and raw materials. From 1807 to 1812 the Americans were faced with the problem of steering a course between the English and the French who were fighting in Europe for world empire. To avoid entanglements and harassments, the young American republic imposed embargoes in varying degrees; from 1812 to 1815, the country found itself at war with the English. Commerce here suffered, but merchants, with an ethics all their own, circumvented the laws and made an effort to supply their customers, even those in England. There were years when the lean and ill favored kine did eat up the fat kine; the occasional depression years between 1819 and 1840 were bad; but there were good years too. On the whole the years from 1815 to 1840 were at least tolerable commercially.18

By the 1830’s the domestic trade was becoming increasingly important, since settlers in large numbers had begun crossing the mountains into the Mississippi basin. Large sums were sunk into canals, turnpikes, steamboats, railroads, wilderness tracts, town lots, manufacturing, banking. Investors began turning their backs to the Atlantic and facing westward. The river and lake ports, steamboat towns, were growing; some of them were destined to survive. Important were Cleveland, Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, and New Orleans. The towns with a future shipped grain and provisions down the rivers to the plantations; foods and cotton were transshipped to the East Coast; cotton and tobacco in huge quantities reached European markets. Sensing opportunity in the new transal-legheny towns, Jews began moving west, establishing communities of their own. By 1840, one-third of all the towns with Jewish communities were west of the Alleghenies; nearly one-third of all America had settled in the valleys of the Mississippi and its tributaries. The Jews were slow to leave the eastern cities; they preferred the larger places where they could more easily develop communities and build religious enclaves of their own.19


The Traditional Economy


Although there were probably as many notable Jewish merchant-shippers in the early national period as there had been in colonial days, this type of commerce declined in relative importance. By the 1830’s, the sizable increase in the general population and the expansion across the mountains toward the Mississippi made domestic trade more valuable. Jewish merchants, adhering to their colonial pattern of foreign and domestic trade, continued to ship goods out of the Atlantic ports and later out of the Gulf ports. Newport was the only East Coast harbor to decline. After Lopez’s death, his family continued to trade with the Islands and with the English, but primarily by way of New York City; thus they were really jobbers, not merchant-shippers. The Mark brothers, Jacob and Philip, quondam purveyors for the Hessian troops in British-occupied New York, remained in town after the war as merchant-shippers importing dry goods from Amsterdam on their own brig. Samuel N. Judah, related by marriage to New York’s best Jewish families, engaged in the South American trade and then turned to banking. Hayman Levy, fur trader, army purveyor, merchant-shipper, Whig patriot, synagog president, continued his sizable mercantile activities for several years after the Revolution. Less than a decade after his death, his son Isaac sailed for Madras and Calcutta. He started out in January, 1798, and in July, still on board, celebrated the Fourth; it was not until the spring of 1799 that he returned home. Like Levy fils, Jews were beginning to move into the India trade. Solomon Simson (1738-1801) was trading with India in the 1780’s and with China, too. This Revolutionary War militiaman, candle manufacturer, and political liberal was an imaginative, successful businessman. The China trade lured many after the Empress of China sailed into New York’s harbor with a cargo in 1785. Philadelphia was particularly interested in a trade that promised to be lucrative. The second generation of Gratzes, as venturesome as their forebears but far more successful, tried their luck in the Far East. After the routes to China had been well established, the Baltimore Ettings became specialists in this Oriental traffic. Solomon Etting was one of the first men in town, if not the first, to subscribe heavily for shares in the Baltimore East India Company (1807). The family was active in this trade for a long generation. Ben Etting, Solomon’s nephew, made seven trips to Canton as a supercargo. In one trip, in 1832, he made the return voyage in the record time of 98 days with a cargo of shawls, satins, and 2,000 boxes of firecrackers (there were forty packs in each box).'11

Judging by the range of his interests and his successes, Solomon was the best business brain in the Etting family. Born in York, Pennsylvania, he married into the Simon and Gratz clan and moved on to Lancaster and to Philadelphia before finally settling in Baltimore, where one of his first


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

ventures was a hardware store. Not long thereafter, in the 1790’s, he turned to shipping, commerce, and banking. The account book of Rutter & Etting of Baltimore for the years 1796-1802 throws light on Etting’s career as a merchant-shipper. In ships of their own or freighting on those of others, Rutter & Etting dispatched cargoes to tidewater America, to Germany, to England, and to their favorite market, the Caribbean. Heavy exporters of flour, they bought and sold a variety of wares and food: tobacco, cigars, cotton, dry goods, India textiles, hides, whiskey, brandy, and marble, too. All was grist for their mill. It was their good fortune that a local bank gave them a generous line of credit. This was probably the Union Bank; the Ettings were stockholders. Etting helped establish the first water company in town, and as councilman in 1827-1828, represented the city when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was chartered. In 1830, as chairman of a committee of the Baltimore Infirmary, a local hospital attached to the university, he negotiated with the federal government, offering to admit seamen and others. His prices seem to have been reasonable; private patients were to pay $4 a week; those who died could be interred for $2, at most $3. When the city set out to expand its borders, it appointed Etting member of the committee charged with this task and later rewarded him by naming a street after him.21


Isaac Moses (1742-1818) was a large-scale merchant who left New York City when the British occupied it. Like many other Jews in that city, he made his headquarters in Philadelphia during the Revolution. There, as Isaac Moses & Company, he distinguished himself as one of America’s best known merchant-shippers and blockade-runners; like others, too, the firm was ruined when prices collapsed after the war and debtors ignored their obligations. At the time Isaac Moses & Company found itself insolvent, 1784-1785, the firm had already returned to New York. After the dissolution of the old company, Isaac Moses set out to recoup his fortune. A new firm under the name Isaac Moses & Sons rose speedily to prominence. As enterprising merchants they reached out wherever there was a prospect of profit; they, too, followed the China and East India trade. Moses and his sons were commissionmen, brokers, retailers, wholesalers. They were ready to deal in any commodity: foods, furs, mahogany, liquors, jewelry, furniture, and cotton of course. They acted for others and often on their own account. Money was dispatched abroad; thus, in a very small way, they functioned as bankers. Isaac Moses owned bank stocks and was a member of the New York Chamber of Commerce. While serving the firm as resident agent in Europe, Joshua, a son, attended the coronation of Napoleon I.22


The Traditional Economy

There had been at least two other partners in the original Revolutionary War firm of Isaac Moses & Company—Samuel Myers and Moses Myers. Because the firm was insolvent, many of its papers are extant: successful men leave no papers, bankrupts do, hence the availability of Moses Myers’s account books and correspondence files for the 1780’s and for the second decade of the new century when Myers was again bankrupt—in 1819 when the economy entered a depression that lasted for years. Moses Myers’s life story is limned here briefly in order to show the range and reach of an American merchant-shipper in the first decades of the 1800’s. He was typical in the multiplicity and variety of his commercial interests. Actually it is difficult to compare merchants of stature for no two were exactly alike; each was a personality sui generis; each had his own collection of customers and his own way of doing business. Moses Myers was the son of the Canadian trader Hyam Myers who had once served as the shohet for New York’s Shearith Israel. As a young man, Moses Myers enjoyed years of prosperity as a partner in the international firm of Isaac Moses & Company, but the firm’s postwar collapse left him no choice but to start life over again. By that time the two intimates, Samuel and Moses Myers, had lost faith in Isaac Moses, whether justly or not is difficult to say. The two Myerses, continuing their partnership, finally picked Norfolk as the seat of their new establishment; they believed the town had a future, but after a couple of years Samuel Myers went off on his own and soon became a rich merchant. Petersburg and Richmond were the scenes of his success; his way up the ladder was certainly eased by his marriage to a daughter of Moses Michael Hays of Boston.

Moses Myers, too, rose rapidly after his move to Norfolk. He married a Canadian widow with money; her husband had been captured by Indians during the French and Indian War and had barely escaped being burnt at the stake by his captors. Just four years after Myers settled in Norfolk, he built a beautiful Georgian mansion, still standing, distinguished by its Adam style interior and graced by Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Myers and his wife and a Sully portrait of their son John. Like his erstwhile partners, Isaac Moses in New York and Samuel Myers in Richmond, Moses Myers’s trading was characteristically diversified. His packet boats engaged in coastal shipping, plying the Bay between Baltimore and Norfolk, but he also traded extensively with the Islands and Europe. As a commission merchant, he served Stephen Girard of Pennsylvania. Myers bought and sold ships, retailed and wholesaled merchandise, sat on the board of a bank, and performed banking services for his clients, among them some of the outstanding planters of the Old Dominion. Throughout the years of war and peace, he handled prizes seized on the high seas, speculated in Washington real estate, served as an agent for the French, Dutch, and Danes, and sent his sons abroad to keep an eye on his com-


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

mercial interests. His exports before Jefferson’s imposition of an embargo were typical: tobacco, lumber, iron, naval stores, indigo, rice; he imported dry goods, sugar, rum, and coffee. Like many another, this firm, too, known for its dignity and integrity, went down in the panic year of 1819. All American shippers had been harassed beyond endurance. Trading with Europe was forbidden or restricted during the years of the Napo-leon-British war; the futile 1812-1815 struggle with the English dislocated overseas shipping; the postwar decline in prices—as the English swamped the markets with finished wares—disrupted trade and brought chaos in its wake.23

Merchant-shippers, the town’s elite, were burdened with responsibility, though favored with opportunities. The colonial hangover of deference to “gentlemen” brought obligations. Moses Myers as citizen became a president of the Lower Branch of the Common Council and enjoyed high rank in the local militia. In a way, all this was his due. Without means after his failure, he turned for relief to the government and became a customs collector and an agent of the Marine hospital. Before receiving this political plum, he had to surmount considerable opposition. As Congressman Stephen van Rensselaer said, opposition to Myers rose because he was one of the first honest men in that collectorship. Unfortunately for Myers, now an old man of almost eighty, Jackson came to power and replaced him. This Norfolk merchant had an unhappy life. Some of his children did not live beyond infancy; others grew up only to die young. One of his sons, a midshipman in the navy, perished at sea. His wife bore him twelve sons and daughters; only three married and—this is not altogether typical—they married Jews. His children were attractive and well educated, a superior lot. John, the oldest, was an active member of the firm. During the 1812 War he served on the staff of a Virginia general of militia. It was John who had organized the local voluntary fire department and served as its chief. In March, 1820, Commodore Barron, the unfortunate commander of the ill-fated Chesapeake, called on his friend John Myers to borrow his dueling pistols. At Bladensburg, outside of Washington, there followed the tragic encounter in which Stephen Decatur lost his life. Samuel, three years younger than John, graduated from William and Mary and became a lawyer. On hearing that a local man, Richard Bowen, had severely beaten his father with a cane, Samuel ran for his gun and shot Bowen to death. The family and his influential inlaws managed to save him from the gallows, but for many years he lived in voluntary exile in Pensacola and in Richmond. These two sons, John and Samuel, predeceased their father; Myer Myers (d.1877) survived all his siblings to recoup the family’s fortune. He was all business; while in Stockholm on a trip for the firm the father wrote and said apologetically that his letter “smells of the shop”—to which young Myer responded,


The Traditional Economy

“the shop and its odors are honorable.” Myer did not identify with Jews and Judaism but he never became a Christian; his wife, a bom Jew, converted to Christianity after her husband’s death. Her father Joseph Marx was a religious radical.24

When Moses Myers passed away, one of the local newspapers said that in his day he had been one of the most important merchant-shippers south of the Potomac. This may not be an exaggeration; the painter and dramatist William Dunlap, who visited Norfolk in 1820, wrote that Myers had been one of the outstanding merchants of Norfolk. Dunlap added that the family were “Jews, well informed, genteel, and uncommonly handsome in the younger part of the family.” Moses Myers’s loss of his fortune apparently did not lessen the confidence his friends reposed to him. That same year, Moses Elias Levy, who had been in the West Indies, brought his young son David to Norfolk and placed him there in the care of his trusted friend Myers. Young David remained in the city under the tutelage of this cultured gentleman till 1827 when he again rejoined his family in the territory of Florida which David would one day represent as its first United States senator. Moses Myers was a typical merchant-shipper in his all-embracing mercantile outreach. He had once been a partner of a firm that in 1775 advanced a very large sum in specie to Congress to help finance the Canada expedition despite the fact that Jews were still denied political equality in the new America. Even though his career ended in failure, it demonstrates that the tidewater merchant-shipper was still important in the American economy during the first third of the new century.25


We have just read that each large merchant-shipper was sui generis. This was certainly true of the Pragers of Philadelphia. In many respects they were not actually merchant-shippers. They had no vessels of their own nor did they charter ships, but they did ship goods abroad and they imported wares. What did they buy and what did they sell? Who were they? To a degree they were different from other American Jewish merchant-shippers. All the others maintained firms whose roots were here; not so the Pragers who are interesting because theirs was the only American Jewish firm based in Europe; these Philadelphians were a branch of a business originally established at Amsterdam in the 1740’s. Still another branch, the most important one in fact, was in London. During the Revolutionary War, in the years 1781-1783, there was also a short-lived segment of the firm in Ostend. Set up to bypass London which was at war with the United States and Holland, the Flemish branch made it possible for the Londoners to do business with the United States and the Continent. The London branch, established in 1762, was very important in the


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

late eighteenth century; it was run by Yehiel Prager, the most daring member of the family. Two of his brothers, Jacob and David, remained in Amsterdam. The firm name in London was Israel Levin Salomons—Yehiel Prager’s secular name. After his death in 1788 the London firm was continued under the name of I. L. Salomons’s Widow & Prager. Eight years later, Yehiel’s wife decided to close the business. The Amsterdam-London nexus had been broken in 1794-1795 when the French occupied Holland. The English would have no truck with the French, their traditional enemy. The London branch did some business in bills of exchange, though it did not specialize in that field; occasionally it even dabbled in securities and bullion. As an international firm in need of extensive financial services, it turned to bankers in Holland, Germany, and France, non-Jews for the most part. The Londoners, who enjoyed an excellent repute in the city, were primarily commission merchants exporting and importing wares and raw materials from North America, the West Indies, and the Far East. By the 1770’s, Yehiel Prager, eager to make a “killing,” had set out to become a dominant force in the diamond, drug (camphor and cassia), and Maryland tobacco trade, but was not notably successful in these monopolistic speculations. As had been true for Lopez of Newport, much of the business carried on by the Londoners depended on the liberal credit extended them by others.

In 1783 when the war with America was over, the Prager brothers sent three of their children to Philadelphia to establish a minor branch there. Philadelphia was chosen because at that time it was the country’s outstanding city—the de facto capital of the United States. There was another reason why this business pied-a-terre was set up; there was a real need to find jobs, opportunities, for the younger Pragers. The clan was numerous; the three brothers, two in Amsterdam and one in London, could boast of at least fifteen sons and ten daughters. Now that America was independent, the family thought there would be a better chance to carry on trade; bypassing England, raw materials from America could be shipped directly to Holland and other parts of the Continent. The name of the Philadelphia firm for the years 1783-1789, was Praegers, Liebart & Co. After 1789, the Philadelphia branch became known as Prager & Co. From 1783 on, three of the younger Pragers—Yehiel Jr., Meyer, Sr., and Meyer, Jr., sons of the two Amsterdam partners—ran the business here. Meyer Sr., was probably in charge up to 1787, when he transferred his activity to the London branch. Yehiel’s secular name was probably Michael; the two Meyers bore the secular name Mark. Michael was one of the founders of the Insurance Company of North America. Though the Philadelphians did some business on their own account, they functioned essentially as agents of the parent company, the partners in Amsterdam and London, and were substantial importers. Like all merchants, they bought


The Traditional Economy

and sold on commission and dealt in bills of exchange, a common medium of payment. Among the wares they handled were drugs, alum, copperas, lead for paints, pepper, stationery, steel, tin, sailcloth, shot, coffee, and indigo. For a time they were engaged in shipping back large quantities of Maryland tobacco; Yehiel, of London, in all probability employed them to help him comer the market in that commodity. They apparently carried on no China trade, although they were quick to report the return of the Empress of China in 1785 with her cargo of Oriental wares.

Men of culture, patrons of the theatre, well-educated, the Pragers wrote a good English letter. One of them, Mark (Meyer, Meyerke), was a social acquaintance of Washington and dined with him. He seems to have been a Deist; at all events, he disclaimed any interest in Judaism. Yehiel, Sr., in London had given the young men a letter of introduction to the Gratzes—distant kinsmen—but it is doubtful whether they had much, if any, contact with the Jewish community. There is reason to believe that the Amsterdam parents of the three Philadelphia Pragers would have wished their sons to associate with local Jews. Though not devout, the Amsterdam parents did maintain kosher homes, and when the three younger men sailed in 1783-1784 for Philadelphia they, too, carried their own kosher provisions. How many Jews in the United States refused after landing to identify with their people? The Pragers may have reflected a significant pattern.26

Merchants of Diverse Hue

The available details on the trading of the Pragers’s American branch shows how difficult it is to fit all merchant-shippers to the same procrus-tean bed. Very few Jewish businessmen were actually merchant- shippers of the scope represented by Isaac Moses and Moses Myers. On the other hand, many Jews did call themselves “merchants.” There was no guild, no police state, to hinder them. In the 1786 New York directory, most Jews listed described themselves as merchants, though many were no more than shopkeepers. The noun “merchants” appealed to them; it advertised a status proudly claimed by the smallest storekeeper and the wealthiest transoceanic shipper. In the course of time it would become the title of almost any retailer. A distinction must be made between the merchant and the merchant-shipper. On the whole, the former’s outreach was more limited, he had less capital or manipulated less credit. This period also saw the emergence of the Jewish trader who, neither shipper nor merchant in the colonial sense, was on his way to becoming a mercantile specialist. Even as late as 1840 many merchants—and of course Jews among them—were merchandisers ready to perform any commercial service which promised a profit. This they had in common with the trans-


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

oceanic shipper. Much like the shippers, exporters and importers, a substantial merchant sold at both retail and wholesale, offered banking services, bought or sold on commission, and occasionally even exported or imported a cargo of goods. Still, he was not primarily oriented to the transoceanic trade but was more a large shopkeeper concerned with domestic traffic. Internal commerce was assuming increasing importance as hundreds of thousands of settlers crossed the mountains and floated down the streams that fed the Mississippi. The line between the large-scale shipper and the merchant was often a thin one. More and more the typical Jewish businessman tended to be a storekeeper who sold hard, soft, and wet goods at retail in a local market. If he had a growing clientele, he employed clerks. Clerking offered an opportunity to learn a business and ultimately to achieve economic independence. Many Jews turned to clerking; by 1840, it was an alternative to peddling. The Rev. Isaac Leeser began his American career working as a clerk for an uncle in Richmond until his cultural and religious interests impelled him into the clergy—an unusual career switch, but Leeser was an extraordinary man.27

Abraham N. Cardozo clerked for Gentiles in a Virginia coal business in 1797. Later, so it seems, he became a merchant, for he left a very substantial estate. Jews demonstrated a tendency to reach out almost anywhere to make a dollar. There were merchants who sold powder and shot, liquors and wines. Selling groceries and hides in 1786, a New Yorker offered to rent out a storehouse and a dwelling. Naphtali Phillips began as a shopkeeper, but turned to journalism and politics; during the undeclared war with France, Benjamin S. Judah offered to buy cannon for the government; Judah Moses, of Richmond, tried to make a deal with the Prussian government bartering tobacco for textiles, porcelain, and hardware. Stationed in Philadelphia, Samuel Etting, a son of Solomon, kept in touch with the firm of Robert Garrett, of Baltimore. As a purchasing and sales agent, he had been trying to sell whiskey for the Baltimoreans; he suggested purchases, quoting prices on teas (eight different types), pepper, nutmeg, indigo, coffee, and French brandy. The New York importer Solomon Moses—still another member of the Gratz clan —offered his customers East Indian soft goods, Guatemalan and Louisiana indigo, and sugars. Later, as the Anglo-French wars made ocean trading difficult for Americans, he took up the auction and commission business.28

It is difficult to determine whether the metropolitan tidewater Jewish merchants were more specialized than businessmen in the hinterland. Certainly merchants in the inland cities, as in Richmond, tended to be generalists handling a wide assortment of wares if we are to judge from Marcus Elkan’s advertisement in the Virginia Gazette for October 11, 1787: dry goods, hose, shoes, hats, saddles, dishes, hardware, bar iron, powder and shot, wines and beer. He sold for cash, for country produce,


The Traditional Economy

or public securities. By the turn of the century, the largest mercantile establishment in Richmond appears to have been that of Cohen & Isaacs. Isaiah Isaacs (1747-1806), a silversmith, first married a Gentile; after her death, he found himself a wife in the well-known Hays family of New York. In the 1780’s, he and Jacob I. Cohen established a partnership with many interests: they owned a tavern, slaves, Dismal Swamp tracts, and other lands in several Virginia counties. Yet they were not primarily speculators in acreage; land warrants which they received from soldiers and others served simply as a medium of exchange, a sort of currency in the 1780’s. When the warrant box was full of this scrip, the partners sent it to their surveyor out on Virginia’s western frontier. That is how Daniel Boone came to lay out 10,000 acres for them on the Licking River in what is today the state of Kentucky. In submitting his bill, Boone warned them that if the messenger carrying the money was killed by “Indins,” the responsibility would be theirs.29

It was Isaiah Isaacs who gave the fledgling Richmond congregation, Beth Shalome, ground for the first cemetery; earlier, even before Beth Shalome’s founding, he had made a generous gift to the building fund for Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel. Cohen, then, not yet a partner and with his fortune still to be made, could spare little for the Philadelphia synagog. After their partnership was firmly established, Cohen spent much of his time in Philadelphia, probably as a resident buyer, and met there the widow Esther (Elizabeth) Mordecai, originally a convert to Judaism. Impoverished after the death of her husband, she was dependent, to a degree, on the largess of Mikveh Israel. What could a widow do in those days? Her three teenage boys, so it would appear, could help but little. Cohen wanted to marry her, but as a “cohen,” a priest, he was forbidden by Jewish law to marry a proselyte. He ignored the warnings of the congregation and with the moral support of some of the outstanding Jews in town —they signed his wedding certificate—espoused “Queen Esther,” as one of her admirers called her. In effect, Cohen thumbed his nose at the synagog authorities. Less than two decades later, he was elected president of that very congregation. His generosity to it documents his affection for Mikveh Israel, for he gave the synagog a Scroll of the Law, a manuscript parchment of the Book of Esther, a copper utensil to make unleavened bread for Passover, and a sum of money to endow the memorial prayer recited on the anniversary of Esther’s death.,,J


Cohen & Isaacs, like many other merchants of the 1780’s, assembled and sold almost any commodity, all under one roof, extended long-term credit, and accepted payment in almost any salable medium. Quite different was the approach characterising the trading activities of Joseph


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

Marx (1772-1840) who flourished in Richmond two or three decades after Cohen & Isaacs had passed its zenith. As merchants, Cohen & Isaacs had faced the eighteenth century; Marx faced the nineteenth. This newcomer represented a new, less parochial type of business. Working closely with Virginia’s elite, he emphasized finance, did business on a grand scale, and ultimately amassed very substantial wealth. Although some of his clients were ruined in the 1819 panic, he managed to survive; it was an achievement not to be dragged down with them. Marx, a German immigrant, came to Virginia in 1791, a year before Cohen & Isaacs finally dissolved their partnership. By the second decade of the new century the brilliant, thoughtful Marx had already made a place for himself. He worked closely with his son Samuel, a well educated young man with an M.A. degree. In later years, Samuel helped organize a canal company and served as the president of a bank. Another son, Frederick, studied abroad and returned to practice medicine. Here one can see the emergence of a pattern that was to become more prevalent as the decades passed: the first immigrant generation managed to survive and even made money; the children, highly acculturated, turned to the professions or continued with distinction the commercial successes of the parent. The papers of Joseph Marx have not yet been studied in detail; they merit analysis, for Marx was an important merchant who carried on a varied, extensive trade and served some of Virginia’s most notable citizens. Working closely with a brother in London, Marx and his son carried on a brisk import and export trade, even though their countinghouse in the piedmont was ninety miles from Chesapeake Bay. Speculating in land, Marx acquired large grants; he shipped grain to Europe for plantation owners, served as their factor, financed them, and worked closely with a local bank which he had helped establish. This immigrant had gone far; he became a cultured American, wrote an excellent English letter, and learned to think for himself, to evolve his own approach to traditional Judaism.31


The Marxes of Virginia were not country merchants; they traded on an international scale and in a sophisticated fashion. In the early nineteenth century, Charlottesville, Virginia, sheltered at least two shopkeepers, David Isaacs, a brother of Isaiah, and Isaac Raphael, a son of that Solomon Raphael (Raffald) who had started out as a peddler. Isaac Raphael’s wife was a fine musician known for her mastery of the piano and the organ. On occasion Raphael would serve as a banker for Jefferson in nearby Monticello. The Raphael store, under the name of Raphael & Wolfe, tended to be an outfitting enterprise, specializing in groceries and liquors for the nearby farmers and plantation owners. Wilmington, Delaware, in 1815 could boast of a Jewish merchant who emphasized his role as a


The Traditional Economy

wholesaler, advertising that he was prepared to send goods to village merchants at Philadelphia prices. There was no need, therefore, to make the trip to distant Philadelphia, he said, but do not come on a Saturday; that is my Sabbath and my business is closed. Still farther north in Easton, Pennsylvania, Michael Hart, the Indian trader—not a fur merchant—had succeeded in opening a shop in 1773 shortly before the Revolution. There his wife and his fifteen children enjoyed life on the profits of the store and a grist mill. Hart never acquired wealth, but he owned a stone house, kept a kosher table—he was his own shohet—collected some silverplate, had a servant (a slave), and by the first decade of the new century had bought a warehouse where he stored country produce, lumber, and hops which he bartered for almost anything a man or woman might wish: stockings, buttons, knives, hats, playing cards, iron pots, pepper, and whiskey—in hundreds of gallons. After his death in 1813, there was not enough cash laid by to support the widow and her numerous young ones. She moved to Philadelphia and opened a boardinghouse. These are the short and simple annals of a Pennsylvania country merchant.32

Some Jewish merchants in small towns like Wilmington or Charlottesville serviced outlying villages and farmers, shopkeepers and plantation owners throughout the county and even beyond. By 1840, there were Jewish stores in many county seats, often no more than villages. By the 1810’s, Jews had begun to settle in the Ohio backcountry. After wandering about in the young state, a Jewish peddler might well make his home in a village and invite the custom of his neighbors and the nearby farmers. Store buildings were often small, at times no more than log houses. Dry goods and liquor were important items in the small inventory. The shops might even double as saloons. Country produce was accepted in barter.33

Mercantile Specialists


Specialization set in, albeit slowly, in the course of the nineteenth century when the country became more populous. The shopkeepers in colonial days had been generalists. Indeed it is very much to be questioned whether the so-called fur traders of the eighteenth century were specialists limiting themselves to the buying and selling of furs; they seem rather, to have been merchants who accepted furs as a medium of payment; they would have preferred good paper money or specie. In the last third of the eighteenth century, it is true, Pennsylvania merchants such as the Simon-Gratz group were oriented towards the West. They did business across the mountains, anticipating the “Great Migration” of later


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

days. Their customers were the French on the Mississippi and the English to the east, on the lands between the Blue Ridge mountains and the Father of Waters. Though there were Jews in the early days who took out Indian traders’ licenses, some of them probably did not traffic directly with the Indians, but supplied the traders who did. As the nineteenth century approached, fewer Jews manifested any interest in this traffic; the Indians were rapidly pushed westward. Many town and country merchants were always ready to accept furs, skins, and hides in payment for goods. Savannah’s Mordecai Sheftall in his postbellum days was trafficking in deerskins and raccoon pelts. His brother Levi and the New York merchant Jacob Mark were in an allied trade, selling Indian goods to the government for distribution to its wards. It was said that Phineas Israel (Johnson) was trading with the Indians in Indiana about the year 1817, though by that time Indiana had already been admitted as a state and before very long the Indians would be removed by the national authorities.34

John Hays had originally settled in the French settlements of the Illinois country as a fur buyer before he turned to other gainful pursuits. Hays, reared in Montreal or Quebec, certainly knew his fellow Canadian, the fur trader Jacob Franks; there were fewer than 200 Jewish souls in all of Canada. The Jews met in Montreal’s synagog, if only on the Passover and the High Holy Days. By the 1790’s, Franks was stationed at Green Bay in what was later to become Wisconsin Territory. In all probability, he was distantly related to the distinguished eighteenth century Ameri-can-Jewish merchant family bearing his name. The recurrence of the given name Jacob would seem to imply descent from a common ancestor. Thus the Canadian Indian trader came from an Anglo-Jewish family whose members were scattered all the way from Green Bay and Mackinac to Canada, the East Coast of the United States, England, and the distant East Indies. The urge to make a living and to get ahead in a generation when virtually everywhere Jews suffered political and economic disabilities compelled them to seek out the hazardous peripheral areas in order to advance themselves. About the year 1789, one of the Franks girls, who had married an army officer, Capt. George Lawe, accompanied him on a mission leaving behind a number of children, among them a young boy of nine. This boy, John, was brought to Canada, by the Frankses, no doubt, and educated in Quebec; by the time he was seventeen or eighteen, he had made the trek to Mackinac and then south down Lake Michigan to Green Bay, where Uncle Jacob had already set up his trading post. Travelers who visited this outlying settlement described Franks and Lawe as Jews. According to rabbinical law, John was incontestably a Jew—even though he had been baptized as a Protestant at birth and was a member of the Episcopalian church. When John came to this village in 1795/1797 the only thing American about it was its location. The people were


The Traditional Economy

largely French, many of the traders English, and all were oriented in their sympathies to the lands of their provenance and their supplies: Canada and England. It was no whim that had brought Franks to Green Bay; the town was very strategically located: except for a short portage at Fort Winnebago, it was on a complete water route from Montreal and Europe to the Mississippi and New Orleans by way of the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers.35

Here it was that Jacob had settled, at first as an agent for others, but in a few years he was out hustling on his own account. He built the first saw and grist mill and the first blacksmithy in this part of the Old Northwest, and it was at this frontier outpost that John Lawe spent the rest of his life. He became a skilled Indian trader, learned the fur business, and like any other loyal Englishman—he had been born in old York—fought for his native land in the War of 1812. But after the war started, Uncle Jacob had gone back to the civilization of Mackinac and finally to Montreal itself to enjoy the fruits of his hard-earned labors. His stock of goods, his lands, and even an assortment of children he had begotten in the wilderness were turned over to John Lawe; Jacob was now ready to live on what he had and on what his nephew would send on to him. It was an excellent arrangement; Franks forwarded the supplies and marketed the furs, Indian mats, and feathers that came through. Jacob’s wife, Mary Solomons—one of Levi Solomons’s daughters—served as her husband’s clerk, keeping John in touch not only with the best prices but also with the latest murder trial at York (Toronto) and the state of the Queen’s health.36

The two decades before the War of 1812 were the halcyon days for Franks and Lawe; the coming of the Americans to Green Bay about 1816 only brought trouble. The soldiers in the local garrison, Fort Howard, took advantage of the Anglophile traders; John Jacob Astor, determined to win a monopoly of the fur trade through his American Fur Company, had Congress pass a law restricting traders’ licenses to American citizens; that made it difficult for Lawe to do business though it is true that he had served as a judge in the territory. Later, however, he was naturalized and received the coveted right to trade. But let there be no mistake; it was not the rudeness and the petty pilferings of the American troops that hamstrung the trade of Franks and Lawe; it was the disappearance of the frontier. As the settlers poured in, game became scarce; the Indians still had to live; they still needed whiskey, blankets, cloth, knives, traps, and guns, supplies they secured on credit against the furs they were going to bring in. In the meantime, Lawe and others were now compelled by circumstance to draw their supplies from the American Fur Company, a vast mercantile octopus which offered a liberal line of credit to the traders, but closed in on them when they fell behind in their payments. When there were no furs, the traders were in a desperate plight, besieged on the one


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

hand by the Indians, who had to have their food and supplies, and on the other hand by the American Fur Company, which had paid the traders modest prices for furs, charged them steep prices for their supplies, and was now demanding that its accounts be settled. On the whole, the American Fur Company had consistently made handsome profits; the traders grew progressively poorer unless they had other sources of income. By 1823, John Lawe claimed that he owed the company $10,000, a huge sum in those days. He was never to enjoy affluence. The company held mortgages on his lands. Some historians are of the opinion that he failed to take advantage of the opportunities which the Wisconsin frontier offered him.

His wife, Theresa Rankin, was the daughter of a Chippewa woman and an English trader. His eight children, who grew up in his rambling one-story house behind a nine-foot cedar picket stockade, probably spoke better French than English and were all Catholics and churchgoers. Mama saw to that and made sure that papa was given a Catholic burial. One of the sons married into the John Adams’s family. John Lawe was a devoted father, pathetically eager to educate his youngsters and to integrate them into the social and religious life of his friends and neighbors. If there had ever been anything “Jewish” about him, it had long since faded. The only Jewish reference in his correspondence was a sneering remark by his sister Rebecca Franks Kemble about their kinsman Henry Joseph, of Berthier: he has too much of the “Jew blood” in him, she said, to assist the Levys who were in distress. The few Jewish families in Canada were often feuding; it gave them an opportunity to vent their frustrations.

As a young man, John was lithe with a twenty-some inch waist line; in later years, he was huge, weighing about three hundred pounds. Although Uncle Jacob, toward the end of his widowed and impoverished life, bitterly denounced John as a scoundrel because he would not—probably he could not—aid him financially, the nephew was known to all as a man of generosity and integrity. One recorded incident shows that he had great physical vitality and courage, too. In 1845, one year before his death, John was sixty-five; he was at Lake Poygan as the annual Menominee Indian payment was being made. Constantly, for two nights and a day he was on the alert, and as the Indians collected their silver dollars, he and other traders stood there collecting their debts. When it was all over, he had $9,000 in silver, which he put in a locked chest and loaded onto his Mackinac bateau. Settling his huge bulk on the chest, he ordered his Scotch voyageur and his two Indian boatmen to climb in and then started for home. They kept going all that night with only an hour’s rest, shooting the rapids, plunging over Grand Chute Falls, a sheer drop of six feet; when the bow of the boat was cracked, they slapped a blanket against the sides to hold back the water, but always kept moving. Down they went


The Traditional Economy

by the light of the moon through the Kakaling Rapids, a drop of fifty feet in one mile, and when at dawn they reached the Lawe homestead, the Indian boatmen fell exhausted to the earth, but John and the voyageur carried the locked chest into the office where the trader now sat down at his desk ready for the day’s work. He had gone seventy miles since the onset of night, sped through five lakes, hurtled himself on top of his chest over three dangerous falls and thirty miles of treacherous rapids, all amidst the fitful shadows of the moon-streaked Wisconsin night.'7

As the frontier moved west, the fur traders moved, too. Throughout the 1830’s, there were always Jewish buyers looking for pelts and hides in the valleys of the Mississippi and the Missouri. Most of these men seem to have been small-scale buyers, some of them Germans who had learned the business back home in Europe where they had been in the cattle, hide, and wool trades. Among them was one large-scale buyer interested in purchasing furs for the European market, primarily for the Leipzig fairs which attracted merchants from all parts of Europe, especially from Poland and Russia. The buyer was Martin William Oppenheim who had come to this country in 1835. His name suggests that he was a Jew. In 1836, Ramsay Crooks, the head of the American Fur Company after As-tor withdrew, received a letter from this immigrant asking for a job. Oppenheim was no uncouth German village yokel ready to take the first job that turned up. He was a skilled fur expert who had learned the business from his father in Germany and had rounded out his training in London and in the United States. He was a valuable man; he had experience in the Russian markets and knew the ins and outs of the Leipzig fairs. His knowledge of the German market, so he believed and said, could be very useful to the American Fur Company. Ramsey Crooks thought otherwise; he wrote Oppenheim that he had all the help the business required. It would be interesting to know why Crooks refused to employ him. It is likely that Crooks meant what he said—he had all the help he needed. Agents of his sprawling company were found everywhere, in Canton, China, in London, in Leipzig. Perhaps he distrusted the young man’s motives; he was too good; he knew too much. The German may have been interested in penetrating the American company. This much is known: Oppenheim later worked for a rival German organization, a competitor of the American Fur Company.

Crooks was bent on controlling the American supply and the London sale of furs. The one thing he and his associates feared was a direct connection between Leipzig and the American fur traders which would block his efforts to establish a monopoly. That this German and other competitors were not spectres conjured up by Crooks is demonstrated by a letter sent him in 1839 by Pierre Chouteau, Jr. This season, the latter wrote, there is not a town on the Mississippi and Missouri that has not been


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

infested with buyers of furs and skins, Poles, Germans, Jews, Yankees. Agents from New York and Detroit show themselves at every corner and watch every wagon that pulls into St. Louis; it is hard to get skins. What Chouteau did not know was that some of the Poles and Germans he saw were also Jews. In 1845 a sumptuary law of the autocratic Czar Nicholas I forbade Russian Jews to use fisher pelts; the decree shook the American market.38


At best buying and selling furs was not much of a business in the early nineteenth century. The Jewish part in it was small; this is equally true of the slave trade. Slowly slavery became very important in this country with the invention of the cotton gin, the development of cotton planting, and the improvement in weaving machinery. Where the traffic in blacks was concerned, Jews were always on the periphery. Few Jews planted tobacco, cotton, or sugar; they were not employers of mass slave labor. Jews in all parts of the country, particularly in the South, frequently purchased blacks to serve as domestic servants. Personality conflicts were common; slaves were sensitive human beings; tragedy was inevitable when estates were settled, and slaves were treated as chattel. Solomon Jacobs of Richmond was widely known as a kind master; his personal letters and his tombstone testify to this. In his love letters to his wife he described in detail how the servants were faring; for him they were members of the family, but after his death his wife sold them; they were mean to her, she said. With very few exceptions, brokers, commission merchants, and shopkeepers deemed slaves an article of commerce. Captain Abraham M. Seixas, the Charleston shopkeeper who kept a supply of men’s and women’s furnishings, bonds, notes, and slaves, wrote verse praising the virtues of the blacks he offered for sale. Back in colonial days Lopez and his father-in-law Rivera had carried on an import of slaves from the West African coast; it was a trade which Rivera continued into the 1780’s, just a few years before his death. The Monsanto brothers in Natchez and New Orleans were slave traders on a modest scale; they had other interests. Living under the Spanish crown on the Lower Mississippi in the days before “Louisiana” became American, Jews were officially not tolerated; they had been expelled from Spain in 1492. Even so, everyone knew that the Monsantos were Jews; it was an open secret and the authorities made no effort to harass them. In later decades, a number of Jewish merchants throughout the South specialized in slave trading. It is estimated that 3 out of the 74 slave traders in Richmond were Jews, 4 out of 44 in Charleston, and 1 out of 12 in Memphis. The largest among the traders was the Davis clan of Petersburg and Richmond. The family began as peddlers and then specialized in this particular commodity. The sales of


The Traditional Economy

all Jewish traders lumped together did not equal that of the one Gentile firm dominant in the business. If Jews in larger numbers were absent from this traffic, it was not necessarily because of scruples; there is little or no evidence to this effect. Most Jews lacked the capital to pursue what was after all, a hazardous, speculative business.Vi



Slave dealers were specialists; so were the dry goods men who now made their appearance and limited themselves to the sale of soft goods. The 1830’s already found a few entrepreneurs of this type in Philadelphia, a metropolis; the larger the city, the more likelihood that businessmen would limit themselves to specific branches of commerce and trade; they could appeal to a wider clientele. One of the most notable owners of dry goods emporia at this time was Lyon J. Levy, who enjoyed presidential patronage. He sold French and English dry goods, Irish linens, children’s embroidered robes, silks, shawls, boy’s clothing, and mourning attire. Advertising that he carried the latest Paris styles, Levy, it is quite clear, catered to the carriage trade. His place of business was magnificent; indeed there were not many merchants of his calibre in those days. Stores such as his were very probably precursors of the department stores which would emerge in later decades. The part that Jews played in post-Civil War days in the transition from large dry goods magazines to the department stores is yet to be determined. Department stores owned by Jews did not begin to appear on the scene until the last quarter of the century.40

The conspicuous specialists among the Jews were the auctioneers, the brokers, and the commission merchants, commissionaires, if you will. Brokers were men who for a fee negotiated transactions, contracts, between buyers and sellers. Auctioneers sold parcels of goods to the highest bidder. The wares at times were their own, not those of others who had authorized their sale on a fee basis. This was a good business; auctioneers were licensed by the government; the appointment more often than not was a political plum. In the early nineteenth century several Jews were found among the privileged few in New York City. One of the city’s auctioneers in the 1830’s was Aaron Levy (1771-1852), the well-known militia votary and land speculator. He owned an art gallery where he auctioned off old masters. The appointment was his reward for enthusiastic support of the Jacksonian Democrats. Among those fortunate enough to be licensed in an earlier day was Levy’s father-in-law, Isaac Moses, the merchant-shipper; Captain Mordecai Myers, the 1812 War veteran, Benjamin Seixas, the stockbroker, Ephraim Hart, the land speculator, and young Raphael Moses of South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia. Raphael


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

Moses, grandiloquent Southern orator, lawyer, and politician, started life as an auctioneer. Before he became one of Georgia’s notables, he was a bookkeeper, a peddler of watches, the owner of a “cheap cash store,” a dry goods merchant, a speculator in stocks, secretary of a pioneer railroad company, and even a banker for a short period. When he finally decided to go into law, he studied for six weeks and passed the bar examination. Auctioneering was a common method of doing business wholesale in the generation before and after the year 1800. It could provide a very respectable living; one firm in New York paid a tax of $1,000 on its auction sales; in 1796 Jacob Jacobs of Charleston, an auctioneer, left an estate that included ten slaves, horses, carriages, notes and bonds. Jonas Phillips of Philadelphia, one of the unlucky aspirants for a license, protested against this monopoly—it was unconstitutional, he insisted. For him a legal circumvention was justified. He advertised heavily that he would send carriages to meet prospective buyers and drive them to a ferry boat which would land them across the Schuylkill, outside the city limits, where he would auction off the wares entrusted to him.41

David Lopez, Jr., and his brother Aaron, members of Newport’s numerous Lopez family, had moved south to Charleston after the Revolution when that city rose to prominence; there they became auctioneers and commission merchants with a warehouse of their own. In a limited sense they were brokers. The word broker is a term that has no specific denotation. After the Revolution, the term and the calling became popular among Jews. Brokers made their appearance, sometimes in relatively large numbers, in all the towns of the country, from Boston south to New Orleans. In a way they were variants of the colonial merchants and merchant-shippers, for brokers were ready to consider any kind of mercantile or financial deal. Unlike their colonial forebears, they had no fixed clientele, no established trade routes, no substantial traffic in raw materials or imports. They were particularly in evidence at Philadelphia, for some twenty-five years the de facto when it was not the de jure capital of the country. Men turned to this type of commerce for, requiring little capital, it was primarily a job of working for others; the rewards of the brokers lay in the commissions they charged. Indeed most merchants and merchant-shippers were happy to function as commissionmen or brokers. Samuel Myers, of Petersburg, and Moses Myers, of Norfolk, handled chores for Stephen Girard; Solomon Jacobs, of Richmond, bought tobacco for the Rothschilds; the wealthy Harmon Hendricks, of New York, did not disdain a chance to sell goods for a London correspondent. On occasion, a broker would employ a client to dispose of wares; the client who thus became the consignee was always willing to make a commission.

The Dutch immigrant Lazarus Barnett, scarcely a year in this country, found himself a partner and announced that he would do business as a


The Traditional Economy

broker. An analysis of his accounts demonstrates that he sold at auction, operated as a wholesaler, and disposed of consignments on commission; all the transactions were on short- or long-term credit. Barnett’s firm specialized in dry goods and gin. Curiously, despite the substantial amount of business the firm did, Barnett—and possibly his partner too—suffered bankruptcy in less than a year. To escape imprisonment for debt, Barnett fled to London. No two brokers operated in the same fashion, since they were dependent on fortuitous commissions and adventitious commercial opportunities. What all did “brokers” do? They served as employment bureaus, as suppliers and vendors of goods; they provided information on domestic and foreign markets. They bought and sold shares in turnpikes, canals, railroads, and manufactories; they dealt in bills of exchange, bought and sold real estate, often farm lands; they chartered, purchased, and disposed of ships, solicited freight, made remittances abroad, lent money. There was no merchandise which was not grist for the broker’s mill.42


One of the most famous commission merchants in the United States was distinguished not for his buying and selling but for his charities. More or less accidentally he became American Jewry’s outstanding antebellum philanthropist; Judah Touro (d. 1854) was bom in Newport, Rhode Island, on April 28, 1775. Dr. Hunter, who attended Mrs. Touro, charged forty-two shillings for the delivery. The father, Isaac Touro, hazzan of the Newport community, was a Loyalist and died an exile in Jamaica in 1783. Mrs. Touro’s brother, Moses M. Hays, assumed the burden of supporting the widow and rearing the three surviving children. The two sons, Judah and Abraham, were trained in the business; both were to do well. After Judah had served as a supercargo to the Mediterranean he returned to New England but soon, in 1801, left for the Franco-Spanish town of New Orleans. Not improbably, as he sailed south, he may have stopped off at other towns to see what they had to offer him. Why he left Boston is not known. There is a tradition that he had fallen in love with one of his cousins and that his suit was not viewed with favor by his uncle. This may have been true, but the woman—so it is believed—upon whom he had fastened his affections was six years older and probably sickly; she died shortly after he arrived in New Orleans. Touro may well have been looking for opportunity and saw it in the Mississippi River port where he spent his remaining years. After Touro was wounded in 1815 at the Battle of New Orleans, his Gentile friend, Rezin Davis Shepherd, brought him home and nursed him back to health. It was this man Shepherd, who became Touro’s residuary legatee. Touro never married; indeed in New Orleans he apparently never displayed any interest in women; he was a strange, difficult person.43


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

Not very much is known about the nature of Touro’s mercantile activities. The extant notarial records have not been adequately researched; they are bound to throw more light on his beginnings and his rise to wealth. He may have started as a shopkeeper selling New England goods like soap, candles, and codfish. There is reason to believe that he was essentially an agent buying and selling for others. What may be typical of his activities was a consignment from Christopher C. Champlin of Newport, who shipped Touro a cargo of Swedish iron and American-made bricks. Touro set out to sell the goods—which had come to a very bad market—and then loaded Champlin’s chartered vessel with bales of cotton for Liverpool. When Touro hit his stride he probably ceased functioning as a shopkeeper, but in no sense was he ever one of the town’s important merchandisers. He had a small office with but one clerk. Nor was he a merchant-shipper, although in 1849 he sent a vessel of his own, the Judah Touro, with a cargo around the Horn to California. The voyage took over 200 days—quite a venture for a man of seventy-four, a commissionaire normally very cautious in his dealings. How then did he acquire the fortune—hundreds of thousands of dollars in stocks, bonds, mortgages—which he left on his death in 1854? He invested in shipping; the commission business was lucrative and entailed little expense, though he did have to maintain warehouse facilities to store consignments for which he had no customers. As a freight agent, he dispatched goods as far east as Calcutta. Even all this may not explain his wealth. The answer may be simpler. Touro inherited two very large estates, one from his brother Abraham and one from his sister Rebecca. (The Rev. Theodore Clapp said that Touro gave his sister’s estate to charity but there is no available evidence to support the preacher’s statement.) Touro built commercial buildings, avoided litigation, and invested his surplus funds in local real estate. (During the fifty-two years of his life in New Orleans, the city grew from about 10,000 in population to a metropolis of well over 150,000. It became a boomtown, one of the most important ports in all America; he, perforce, grew with it. The town helped make him rich, even though Touro was no daring speculator. A bachelor with few expenses, he was frugal. One is tempted to say that he saved a fortune.44

For most of his half-century in New Orleans, Touro avoided Jews. When he first came to town, very few of his coreligionists lived there. New Orleans was Spanish and Catholic; the Code Noir was thought to be still in force, blacks were kept down, Jews were kept out. Technically, this Sephardi was returning to Spanish territory as a Marrano, a Christian of Jewish ancestry. Actually, no one bothered him; although it had not been made public Louisiana was already a French dependency. Napoleonic New Orleans soon became a fast-growing town attracting all sorts of unattractive adventurers, but Touro would have nothing to do with


The Traditional Economy

them. Jewish newcomers began pouring in only after the city became American in 1803. Touro avoided them, too, it appears. They were not his equal; he was shy, unsociable. Perhaps he evinced little interest in local Jewry because he had come from Boston, where in his childhood there were probably not a half-dozen Jewish families and where Uncle Moses Hays associated with Christians. When New Orleans’s Congregation Gates of Mercy was organized in 1828, Touro gave the synagog a donation, but would not join it. This notable Louisianian became a philanthropist relatively late; he was not prepared to cope affectively with his older sibling, Abraham, one of America’s outstanding Jewish philanthropists. (Abraham’s only rival in philanthropy was Harmon Hendricks.) Touro’s brother was initially the wealthier of the two; he had a shipyard at Medford, Massachusetts, was an officer in a turnpike corporation, and owned stock in toll bridge companies and canals. His chief business was maritime insurance; he was both an underwriter and an insurer.45

Abraham Touro was generous; he built a wall around the Newport Jewish cemetery where his mother lay buried; it was, after all, the burying ground of the synagog his father had served. By 1819, the New Englander had lent money to Sephardic Shearith Israel in New York on condition that the interest be employed to bury indigent Jews, to succor the poor, and educate impoverished children in the ancient Palestinian homeland. In his will, Abraham made a most generous bequest to Shearith Israel and, at the same time, left substantial sums to maintain the Newport synagog even though the Jewish community there had ceased to exist; money was also set aside to pave the street leading to the Newport Jewish cemetery. This same final testament made very liberal provision for three of Boston’s outstanding philanthropic institutions; Abraham’s was the first such substantial gift from an American Jew for non-Jewish charitable purposes. His Jewish bequests were limited to Shearith Israel of New York, to the defunct congregation in Newport, and to the Jewish poor in Palestine. Because of his munificence to Jews and others, Richmond’s Beth Shalome sought Abraham’s help in building its new synagog. Disturbed by his own losses in the depression years of 1819-1821, he warned the Richmond suppliants not to “ride a free horse to death,” but he would contribute his “mite.” Why did his will ignore the Sephardic congregations in Philadelphia, Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah? There can be no question of Abraham’s devotion to Jewry. In 1816, he had gone to the Boston town clerk and had made a formal statement that he was a Jew. The intent here was to comply with amended Article XI of the 1780 state constitution; Abraham refused to pay taxes to a local church.46

Judah Touro died in 1854. After his death, mythical stories began to circulate retailing the Louisiana Touro’s quiet but extensive generosity during his lifetime. There was the account of a gift to a drunkard who


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

had come down in the world, of magnificent help for an impoverished widow left helpless with a brood of children. There seems to be little substance to these reports. Such myths tend to cluster around all deemed notable in their postmortem years. It does seem true that Judah Touro rallied to the help of a destitute fellow-worker who had once clerked with him in Boston. Whatever the reason, Judah did not want to compete with his more attractive brother as a philanthropist, but when Abraham died in 1822, Judah began to demonstrate a desire to help people, in a modest fashion, to be sure. Thus when his sister Rebecca passed away in 1833 and there was no one left in the blood line, the “timid shrinking old man” must have bethought himself. When Leeser and Touro met in New Orleans, the merchant told the Philadelphia cleric that he was “a friend to religion.” He once, in 1819, owned a pew in an Episcopal church— whatever that signifies—but he was no Christian. Touro supported Presbyterians, Catholics, and Unitarians. His gifts to them were generous but when the Jewish newcomers turned to him, they seem to have been given a mere pittance. He spent thousands aiding the town’s Presbyterian congregation led by Parson Theodore Clapp, a liberal; when Clapp’s church was about to be dispossessed in 1822 for lack of means, Touro bought the building at an auction and permitted the congregation to remain at a most modest rental. He could have torn the building down and erected a business structure that would have paid off handsomely. Because of his affection for Clapp, he subsidized him over the years. In 1850 or 1851, the parson’s church burnt down, but Touro provided another sanctuary rent free. He was fully aware of the fact that the established Christian community—Roman Catholic—would under no circumstance help these Protestant heretics.*’’

Touro was reputed to have established a Free Library in Parson Clapp’s church. The library, an institution of no consequence, was probably named after him with the hope that he would support it, but there is no evidence that he did. When many in Mobile were burnt out in a devastating fire, he did respond to their cry for help. That was in 1839, and from that time on his charities became more numerous. He rebuilt the wall around the Jewish cemetery in Newport, helped refurbish the Rhode Island town’s Redwood Library, and endowed an annual gold medal award at the University of Louisiana (now Tulane). As late as the 1940’s, these gold medals were given for excellence in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Ancient History. Touro’s most notable gift was made in 1839 when Amos Lawrence, merchant and philanthropist, said that he would give a $10,000 matching gift to complete Boston’s Bunker Hill Monument. Though the cornerstone had been laid in 1825, the memorial to the men who had fallen in battle at Bunker Hill was still unfinished. Touro matched Lawrence’s gift. There is some reason to believe that he may


The Traditional Economy

have answered Lawrence’s appeal because he thought himself born with this country. The battle of Bunker Hill was fought on the 17th of June; Touro thought that he was born on the 16th. He was wrong if the account book of his accoucheur is accepted: Judah was born on April 28, 1775, a few days after the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord. Most probably Touro confused the two anniversaries. When the monument in Boston was finally dedicated and a banquet was held in Faneuil Hall, these lines praising Lawrence and Touro were read:

Christian and Jew, they carry out one plan,

For though of different faith, each is in heart a man.48

In 1824 Judah Touro had made a generous grant to the new Mikveh Israel synagog of the Sephardim in Philadelphia. Living though he did in Christian New Orleans, he never forgot that he was a Sephardi. That may explain his disinclination to identify himself more closely with New Orleans’s Congregation Gates of Mercy, most of whose members were Ashkenazim and of humble origin. By 1847, however, the seventy-two-year-old New Orleans pioneer had begun to think “Jewishly.” Did he want to make his peace with his “Jewish” God? In 1845 a congregation to be governed by the Sephardic rite had been founded in town; it called itself The Dispersed of Judah (Nefutsot Yehudah), a name which could well have served a double purpose. The name was a compliment to old Touro; taken from Isaiah 11:12, a verse messianic in character, it voiced the hope for an ultimate return. Two years later Touro bought an Episcopal church for the new Dispersed of Judah, renovated it, added a school-house, and himself started going to services. It was only with reluctance that he had joined the new congregation, but once he made up his mind he became a “good Jew,” observing the Sabbath meticulously.

Savannah Jews documented Touro’s entry into the ranks of Jewish leadership by asking him in a letter for funds to hire a minister. When Leeser came down from Philadelphia to dedicate the New Orleans synagog in 1850, Moses N. Nathan came up from the Caribbean to serve as hazzan. Touro paid most of Nathan’s salary, but when the congregation refused to carry its share of the load, Touro reduced his gift and Nathan left. In the early 1850’s Touro increased his giving; he helped the struggling Ashkenazic Gates of Mercy, supported the Hebrew Foreign Mission Society in its effort to aid the Chinese Jews, and established an infirmary for his fellow citizens who were constantly facing yellow fever epidemics. The Touro Infirmary charged for its services. The local Hebrew Benevolent Society sent some clients there, though the Infirmary was not intended to be a Jewish charity. After Touro’s death, when the Infirmary was bequeathed to the Jewish community, it was continued as a pay hospital, treating slaves among others, and later became a hospice for indigent and sick Jews, for widows and orphans.49


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

The gifts that the New Orleans philanthropist made prior to his death were a foreshadowing of his will. This instrument, dated January 6, 1854, distributed a very large estate. Generous gifts were made to numerous relatives and friends, Jews and non-Jews. Substantial bequests amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars were given to Jewish and Christian institutions. Like his late brother he was concerned with the old Newport cemetery and synagog and saw to it that there were ample funds for both. It was his hope that the Jewish community there would one day be reestablished. And it was. A large sum given for the poor of Palestine was to be administered by England’s Moses Montefiore. Bequests too were made for the Chinese Jews. Over $140,000 was given to American Jewish schools, congregations, and confraternities in twenty different towns. The bulk of the testamentary gifts was willed to Christian communal institutions, Protestant and Catholic, in Boston, Newport, and New Orleans. Included among them were six orphan asylums and an almshouse.50

If Touro was a “good” Jew during the last seven years of his life, who or what was responsible for the change? No one can dredge up an indisputable answer. This much is known: Gershom Kursheedt directly and Leeser indirectly worked on the vacillating Touro without letup. Touro could always have left everything to his Christian friend Shepherd and to distant Jewish relatives. It was Kursheedt, a most ardent Jew, who finally induced the aged merchant to leave substantial sums to Jewish institutions. Touro’s experiences with his own Sephardic Dispersed of Judah may well have soured him. Kursheedt, grandson of Seixas and son of I. B. Kursheedt, was a New Orleans businessman, communal leader and journalist. Reflecting Leeser’s hopes, Kursheedt sought money to finance the founding of a structured American Jewish community with a seminary and a publication society. Leeser long before, in 1841, appealed to America’s congregations to meet in conference and organize themselves to establish national religious and cultural institutions, but his was a voice crying in the wilderness. Fortunately, Shepherd, sympathetic to Jews, was on the sidelines coaching Kursheedt. Touro’s was a simple mind: Jewish congregations and institutions had to be helped—as long as they were Orthodox. Kursheedt hammered away at Touro for about a decade, presenting Jewish lists to the old man, who made the final decision. Shepherd, the Gentile, helped Touro decide which Christian institutions and societies merited bequests. In the long run, Touro was right, though he was never to realize how wise he was. American Jewry in the 1850’s would never have found it possible to organize nationally to build the re-ligiocultural schools and associations which would, in effect, have established a total, integrated Jewish community ruled by a national Jewish board of ministers and laymen. Touro patched up Jewry in every impor-


The Traditional Economy

tant town; he did the same more or less for the Christians. He wanted to help Jews, and he wanted to be a good citizen and serve the larger public, though his gifts were in no sense motivated by a desire to win public acclaim; he was anything but vain.51

Touro never set out to become a philanthropist; it was not in him. A captious Jew in New York wrote Leeser: what choice did Touro have?— he had no close friends; he wasn’t really much of a philanthropist. But the New Yorker was wrong; Touro turned out to be very much of a philanthropist, a truly important historical figure because of his generosity. By the 1850’s, the Germans who had been streaming in had set up a host of congregations, societies, and welfare agencies, but few of them were well established. The masses of immigrant Jews were poor. Despite their growing affluence, many of the newcomers were not habitually charitable; they had sweated too hard to make a dollar. Touro’s money put numerous organizations on a firm basis; his substantial gifts helped Jewish communities throughout the country entrench themselves. He set an example for American Jewry and for the country as a whole through his nonsectarian benevolence. Cumberland’s Benevolent Hebrew of 1795 was reborn on American soil.52

Gentiles were very much impressed by his gifts. Longfellow certainly knew what the Touro brothers had done to keep fresh the memory of their Rhode Island home; in the poem “Jewish Cemetery at Newport,” he wrote:

Gone are the living, but the dead remain And not neglected; for a hand unseen Scattering its bounty, like a summer rain,

Still keeps their graves and their remembrance green.

The last testament of the New Orleans recluse was translated into a number of European languages and published in Italy, Germany, and France as well as England. Jews overseas were impressed. Touro’s gifts to Jerusalem touched them. American Jews were no longer uncouth frontiersmen; they were brethren of the House of Israel. Touro was no Jewish George Peabody. The wealthy Peabody set out to establish a host of institutions in this country to raise America’s cultural niveau. Peabody had a dream of the infinite horizons that could be envisioned through the furtherance of the arts and sciences, through education and the humanities. All this was beyond the ken of the New Orleans merchant. Touro was an unusually modest, retiring man thrust posthumously onto the stage of Jewish and American history. He was no strong-willed notable of heroic stature, but myth made him the ideal American Jew, the generous citizen, the committed religionist.


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

The Monument

Touro was given a public funeral in Newport and buried in the old syna-gogal cemetery. The bells of the churches in town tolled and the shops closed. Eight rabbis were present at the graveside where the preachers painted a moral. In New Orleans while his memory was still green, it was proposed to erect a monument to him, but the enthusiasm soon evaporated and nothing was done. Six years later the proposal was taken up again, and the rabbi of Gates of Mercy, James K. Gutheim, still Orthodox in his views, made no objection, though the Second Commandment had for millennia been deemed to forbid Jews to make graven images or likenesses (Exodus 20:4). Isaac M. Wise, Max Lilienthal, the radical Reformer, David Einhorn and the world traveler, I. J. Benjamin, all objected to this break with tradition. The whole subject was finally referred to important scholars in Europe; their opinions all indicated that there would be no objection to an obelisk, but a statue was completely unacceptable. In the meantime, the Civil War broke out in 1861 and the matter was forgotten. Touro’s legacies are his monument—more eternal than bronze. There is no question that the inscription on his tombstone is apt: “The last of his name, he inscribed it in the book of philanthropy to be remembered forever.”''’

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In 1776 there were five Jewish communities with congregations in the United States: Newport, R.I., New York City, Philadelphia, Charleston, S.C., and Savannah.




No man is of one piece; no man is of one epoch. Touro, born in 1775, belongs to the colonial past; his death in 1854 documents his antebellum modernity. He was a commission merchant and a shipper; more importantly, he was an investor in urban real estate. The population explosion in New Orleans and the city’s rise as the great port of the Mississippi Basin poured money into his coffers. All he had to do was to sit on his haunches and watch his unearned increment make him a rich man. The pre-Revolutionary merchant could not master or administer the manifold varieties of business in a land where the population doubled frequently. By the end of the eighteenth century, mercantile specialists had become an imperative necessity. The successful revolt against Great Britain ushered in a commercial revolution, a new economy: extensive land speculation, banking, buying and selling of stocks, bonds, government obligations; building “rapid” transportation; expanding international trade—as far as China—unhampered by English navigation laws; introducing maritime, life, and fire insurance; developing large-scale cotton planting and even turning to industry. The new commercial fields were serviced by a swiftly growing body of professional administrators, lawyers preeminent among them. The new economy was sparked in large part by the New West. It would not be long before the transallegheny trade would be more important than the transocean traffic. Beyond the tidewater, new opportunities beckoned; thousands moved westward, impelled by land speculation. First came the farmers, then the hamlet builders and peddlers, and finally the shopkeepers, who dreamt of fast growing towns and substantial wealth. The changing economy was concerned not only with the masses who tilled the ground, but with the towns and their potential. Jews, too, played their part in all these revolutionary changes—a modest role, to be sure, befitting their modest numbers.



United States Jewry, 1776-1985


By the late eighteenth century, many land speculators looked to the West. No longer could Great Britain hinder the westward thrust. This push across the mountains towards the ever retreating horizon was not new. Jews had always been a part of it. As early as 1702, a London Jewish businessman was among the proprietors of West New Jersey; for all such early proprietors, as for later investors, land was a commodity from which they hoped to profit. By 1708, a South Carolina businessman owned a 1,000-acre parcel. Isaac Levy, of the eighteenth-century Levy-Franks family, had large holdings in the Catskills and in the Georgia Sea Islands. From the 1760’s on, the London and Philadelphia Frankses together with their satellites, the Simon-Gratz clan of Lancaster and Philadelphia, were involved both directly and indirectly in the huge colonial enterprises of “Indiana,” the Grand Ohio, Vandalia, and the Illinois-Wabash companies. Millions of acres were at stake. In the end, none of these colonies was established, since the wary English would tolerate no settlement beyond the tidewater and the range of their cannon. Like the British, the new United States, too, would not recognize Indian titles to huge grants, and the apprehensive states insisted that the western lands become part of the national domain; the pre-Revolutionary Jewish speculators lost their sizable investments.1

The proclamation of an America republic in 1776 did not in any sense lower the land speculation fever; if anything, it raised it. Operating within the framework of the states and territories, enterprisers could hope to secure good titles. That was important. Lobbying for grants shifted from imperial London to the national and state capitals. The Yazoo land rascals were given 25,000,000 acres by state legislators before the sale was revoked. While speculators planned and intrigued, often successfully, to secure large wilderness parcels, urban real estate promoters bought and sold town and city lots. Jews had been freeholders in New Netherland ever since the 1660’s when Asser Levy made a purchase in Albany despite the barriers erected by the pious Peter Stuyvesant. Wherever Jews dwelt —and in all periods—they bought homes for their own use, purchases generally not prompted by speculation. In 1805, Bernard Hart, of New York City, was dickering with John Jacob Astor for some town lots and getting the worst of the bargain, but Hart was not averse also to large-scale purchases. His South Carolina holdings totaled more than 60,000 acres. Isaac Moses, Hart’s contemporary and fellow Shearith Israel member—they both were presidents of the congregation—owned lots, houses, a warehouse, and half of a wharf. The total Moses holdings were valued at about $135,000. Some of his lands had been the attainted property of the Loyalist De Lanceys, kin to the Jewish Frankses. Moses Lopez and


The New Economy

Mordecai Myers, both of New York City, ran land offices; they were professional realtors, buying, selling, exchanging properties, and remitting taxes to distant western states. Charleston’s Mordecai Cohen (d.1848) was reputed to be one of the largest owners of real estate in the city. Having made his fortune in business as a cotton factor for plantation owners, he retired at forty-six in order to devote his time to good works. Because of his wealth and integrity, a railroad put him on its board; the city made him a commissioner of markets. His favorite charity was the local, non-Jewish orphan asylum on which he showered money and devotion. David Judah, of Richmond, was one of that Virginia town’s early urban developers.

All through this period, Jewish merchants dreamt of town and country settlements across the Alleghenies as far west as the Mississippi and as far south as Florida. They never gave up the hope that land speculation would make them rich. Lt. Col. Aaron Levy pushed his town development in Warren County, New York; it was called Mt. Levy; Isaac Franks, together with Dr. Benjamin Rush and others, owned a Pennsylvania tract of 18,400 acres; David Franks, the former British army purveyor, died possessed of large parcels of land in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Illinois country. His cousin Moses Levy, a “Philadelphia lawyer”—one of the best—was partner in a land company interested in developing the Ohio country, and the merchant-shipping Myerses of Norfolk owned 5,000 acres in the new state of Illinois. Some speculators nursed inflated visions of what their petty holdings would do for them. The French immigrant, Benjamin Nones—in and out of a variety of vocations—owned a few western Pennsylvania acres in 1786. Nostalgically, he called it Bayonne; his rabbi Jacob R. Cohen, was the proud possessor of 301 acres in the neighborhood of Pittsburgh; this was to be the future city of Cohens-burg. David Nathans in 1817, fathered the hamlet of Nathansville. The site of present-day Wilkinsburg, in the same area, was once called Jews’ Town or the Jews’ Land.3


One entrepreneur succeeded in establishing a town that has lasted. This was Aaron Levy (1742(?)-1815), merchant, small-scale army purveyor, and Revolutionary War militiaman. As a land agent for others, he looms large, buying as he did hundreds of thousands of acres for Robert Morris and Supreme Court Justice James Wilson. On his own, Levy attempted to develop Levyburg, Levy’s Delight, and Levy’s Grove. His one success, if it may be deemed such, was Aaronsburgh 0ews’ Town) in Centre County, Pennsylvania, laid out in 1786. One part of town was called Aaron’s Square; another, which bore his wife’s name, was called Rachel’s Way. In order to attract buyers, he sold lots by lottery and set aside land


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

for schools, churches, and cemeteries. The Salem Evangelical (Lutheran) Church was given a lot and a communion set; the German Reformed Church was treated equally well. Levy bore no grudge against the Reformed sectarians because they had remonstrated successfully in Philadelphia when Mikveh Israel prepared to build a synagog near their church. Levy hoped that his town, in the center of the state, would become the capital but it never succeeded even in becoming the county seat; he was further disappointed when the east-west highway failed to run through Aaronsburg. Nevertheless, this settlement founded by and named after a Jew is the first to survive to the present day, if only as a village.4


Having no children, Aaron Levy made Simon Gratz, son of Michael, his heir. Levy transferred his lands, over 100,000 acres, to this scion of the family. Levy was close to the Gratzes. Whether they liked it or not, the Gratzes had been in the land business for almost two generations, ever since the 1760’s when they first bought a 9,000-acre tract in New York’s Mohawk Valley. This was the beginning of their involvement with the West, an involvement which would continue till Simon’s brother Benjamin died in the 1880’s. Even before the Revolution, the aspiring firm of B. & M. Gratz—Barnard and Michael—thought big; two companies, in which they were partners, once claimed a total of some 60,000,000 acres in the Illinois and Wabash country. They worked closely with their kinsman Joseph Simon, the dean of the Pennsylvania Jewish fur entrepreneurs. Through a partner of his—one of many—Simon was interested in the site of the city of Louisville.5 The Gratz brothers, of Philadelphia, and Cohen & Isaacs of Richmond, had substantial holdings in Kentucky, once part of Virginia, whose lands then had extended westward to the Mississippi. These firms had acquired acreage by buying up land warrants issued to Revolutionary War veterans in lieu of cash. Henry Hart, of New York State, a brother of Aaron Hart, the Canadian “seigneur,” was in the business of buying and selling such warrants in his part of the country. He owned a farm, grist mill, and potash works.6 In the late eighteenth century, Isaiah Isaacs, Jacob Mordecai, and other Virginians were given by Governor Patrick Henry a patent to over 12,000 acres in the Dismal Swamp. One wonders what they thought they could do with those wetlands. Through the purchase of scrip, the Gratzes, too, came into possession of large parcels. As merchants, they bought and sold land and warrants on their own account, in partnership with others, or on a commission basis. In the years 1783-1785 they had patented over 100,000 acres in their own name; together with partners, they controlled another parcel of over 320,000 acres. The family holdings were largely centered in southwest Virginia and the upper Ohio basin, areas once Vir-


The New Economy

ginian but later to become part of Kentucky and, following the Old Dominion’s secession, of West Virginia. When Michael died in 1811, he himself owned large plots in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky, among other places.7

The prepossession—mania?—of speculating Americans to acquire large parcels of land and to settle them must be taken into account if one is to understand Mordecai Noah’s attempt to establish a Jewish colony on Grand Island in the Niagara River. Despite his ancillary motives, he was but one of hundreds who were moving to open the West in the hope of making a fortune in a hurry. Like all other speculators, the Gratzes of the first and second generation had high hopes. They gave their name to various land parcels, post offices, railroad stops, and hamlets in Pennsylvania and Kentucky. In the 1940’s, a post office in Kentucky and a town in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, were still named after them. Did the Gratzes after two generations reap the benefit of all their purchases and surveys? The younger Gratzes may have sold off their acreage at a substantial profit. It remains to be determined how fortunate they really were; their firm was bankrupt in 1826.8


Much of the speculation in gargantuan tracts was concentrated in Virginia lands because of the state’s enormous size, but Jews, like others, were willing to invest anywhere if they could make a profit. Thus individuals turned to the Old South and the New Southwest. By the 1830’s, Texas attracted their attention. It was said that the Jewish banking firm of J. L. & S. Joseph was tied in with Samuel Swartwout, who proposed to buy millions of acres in Texas and neighboring Mexico. Swartwout, an intimate friend of Aaron Burr and involved in his schemes, was, as it turned out, a crooked politician. There was a great deal of public discussion, especially in that decade, about freeing Texas and, incidentally, making its enormous acreage available to American businessmen. This agitation had the support of the Josephs and Mordecai Noah of the Evening Star. Farther to the east, Richmond’s Joseph Marx invested heavily in the Ala-bama-Mississippi lands of the Chickasaws; Col. Mordecai Sheftall, of Savannah, owned a 2,000-acre plot in Camden County, Georgia, near the Florida border. As soon as Florida became part of the United States (1813-1819), venturesome Jewish businessmen began buying large tracts as investments.

In all likelihood, the largest Jewish speculator was Michael Lazarus, of Charleston, scion of a notable family. Grandfather Lazarus had been a founder of Congregation Beth Elohim; Michael’s father, Mark, was a heroic veteran of the attack on British-held Savannah in 1779. Michael himself was the vice president of America’s first liberal synagog; brother


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

Joshua married into the English Yates-Samuel family from which Sir Herbert Samuel, later High Commissioner for Palestine, would emerge. When in 1844 the governor of South Carolina called on the citizens of the state to celebrate Thanksgiving by offering up their devotions to Jesus Christ, Michael Lazarus chaired the public meeting called by Jewish citizens to protest this disregard of their sensibilities. Lazarus, a politician and entrepreneur, was one of the first Jews to inaugurate steamboat traffic on the Savannah River, thereby opening up markets to the settlers in Georgia and in the South Carolina outback. By 1820, he had purchased over 156,000 acres north of present-day Miami, land for which he paid one dollar an acre. This was sheer speculation. He could not have imagined in his wildest dreams that Miami would one day rise in South Florida, a city with well over 250,000 Jews. When Lazarus acquired his acres, there were in all the United States fewer than 5,000 Israelites.9

Very few of the Jews who hazarded their cash and credit were themselves interested in settling on the soil. Moses Elias Levy was a notable exception; he was a pioneer Florida planter and colonizer. In 1835, one of his plantations was raided by the Indians and had to be abandoned. Anticipating his son David, Moses Levy was active in politics too. Eager to further his own views, he ventured into journalism, occasionally writing under the pseudonym “Yulee” which his sons were to adopt as their family name. He had trouble with his two boys; they were very frequently in conflict with him. He was weird in his outlook; no one who has read his writings can doubt that. About the year 1818 he brought his sons to the United States; one was sent to Harvard; the other, David, who in later years would become a representative and senator from Florida, went to live with the Myerses, the Norfolk merchant-shippers, but instead of “minding the store” he buried his nose in books. Neither David Levy Yulee nor his brother was to evince any interest whatsoever in Jews or Judaism. Their sister Rahma married Jonathan Da Costa, of St. Thomas, and became the mother of two notable Americans, Dr. Jacob Mendez Da Costa, the physician, and Charles Da Costa, a member of the New York bar. Both of these younger Da Costas, like their uncles, lived as Christians. Moses E. Levy managed to salvage his investments; most Jewish speculators holding large parcels do not seem to have been so successful. Their capital and credit were often limited; they could not make the necessary improvements—good roads, for instance; they were delinquent in taxes; they overextended themselves. Depressions were frequent; loans were called in. Nevertheless, together with others, they did help open frontier areas wherever they lay, on the Ohio in the 1760’s and in the Florida wilderness during the 1820’s.10


The New Economy

Planters and Plantations

M. E. Levy was exceptional among Jewish land speculators in that he was a planter, indeed one of Florida’s pioneer large-scale cultivators. He owned farms on both the east and the west coast of the peninsula. Jewish dirt farmers were rare in the country; even rarer were Jewish plantation owners in the South. It is difficult to determine how many Jews did choose farming as a way of life because of a desire to return to the soil. Very likely some Jewish plantation owners (there were some) turned to the land because it promised them a degree of social status, political leverage. Such planters wanted to upgrade themselves. If Jews were rarely found on the soil, it was due to lack of interest, the fear of isolation and social rejection, a want of capital. If we include Salvador, who had been killed by Indians at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, there were probably not more than twenty large- and middle-scale Jewish planters in the South in the period from 1776 to 1840. Considering the relatively small percentage of plantations and substantial farms in the South and the miniscule number of Jews in that region, we may venture to guess that the percentage of Jewish planters would probably compare favorably with that of the non-Jews.

In the 1820’s and 1830’s, Polish-born Mordecai Cohen, of Charleston, owned at least two plantations, later turned over to his two sons. Had he bought them as an investment or had he acquired them in the course of business and held on to them? His sons made the plantation a way of life. Cohen, who ran the farms himself for a brief period, was primarily an urban businessman, as was Nathans, another planter who served at one time as president of the Charleston congregation. In many respects Chapman Levy (1787-1850) was outstanding among the Jewish planters; he was typically “Southern.” Admitted to the bar at the age of nineteen, he practiced law successfully, took the oath as a militia officer during the War of 1812, accepted a commission as colonel on the governor’s staff, served in both houses of the state legislature, and gloried in his belligerent Unionist views during the parlous days of Nullification. Levy, known and respected in Washington, moved west like many other South Carolinians to the new cotton lands of Mississippi where he ran a plantation, apparently one of substantial size. What part did his plantations play in providing him with a social and political background? The available sources betray no Jewish interest on his part; his sister and daughter both married out."


United States Jewry, 1776-1985


Some, if not most, Jewish planters were also successful businessmen or lawyers—which is what makes so unlikely any dedication to the role of dirt farmers. Whether farmers, lawyers, or traders, they were influenced by and participated in the new economy as it made its way in Charleston and other large towns. By the 1830’s, Jews in the South Carolina metropolis were already moving into the field of insurance. Individuals were directors of companies. In this same decade, Hyman Gratz, of Philadelphia, assumed the presidency of the Pennsylvania Company for Insurance on Lives and Granting Annuities; in 1818, he had gone on the board of this the first corporation to deal exclusively in life insurance. Hyman’s brother Joseph was a director of the Atlantic Insurance Company in the 1820’s. Jews had begun buying shares in the Pennsylvania Company as early as 1809 when it first opened its subscription lists. The interest of Jewish traders in the new insurance corporations goes back at least to 1792 with the organization of the Insurance Company of North America, the first marine insurance firm in the United States to offer its stock on the open market. Michael Prager was one of the original founders. A portrait presumed his once hung in the company’s rooms in Philadelphia, but it is a fake—a copy of a portrait of a marquis which now adorns the walls of the Louvre. An enterprising artist had provided a series of portraits of the founding fathers of this venerable company; six of them were not authentic or were questionable. Corporate instant respectability! Michael was reputedly an Irishman from County Cork. For the Philadelphia shippers of the 1790’s, much of the insurance on their export cargoes had to be underwritten in London or even in Amsterdam, a cumbersome affair and a great nuisance. It was obvious why Michael in the American branch of Prager freres would want American underwriters. Michael’s purchase of shares in the new enterprise was very probably a personal venture rather than a Prager company investment.1*

In the early 1800’s, Judah Touro’s older brother Abraham was engaged in marine and fire insurance in Boston and environs. For the most part he was an agent—not an insurer—securing underwriters for only the limited amounts for which they assumed responsibility. Occasionally Abraham ventured and became an insurer also. If a company was established, the company as a collectivity would be responsible, not the individual insurer; losses could be shared, reduced, which is how maritime insurance companies came to be established in Massachusetts in the last decade of the eighteenth century. One of the pioneers in this new corporate approach was Abraham Touro’s uncle, Moses Michael Hays (1739-1805). Like many other Jews who grew up in the British colonies, Hays began as an artisan, a watchmaker; this made possible his acceptance as a


The New Economy

freeman in New York City. He moved on to Newport, then in its heyday, opened a shop with a partner, failed, and started over again in 1772. His was a typical store, offering its customers groceries, hardware, textiles, and hard liquor. With the British occupation of the town he moved on; by 1781 he had decided to settle in Boston where he remained for the rest of his life. Turning speedily to fire and maritime insurance, he himself became one of the organizers of companies in this field. As a pioneer in underwriting marine and fire insurance and furthering the establishment of companies in this new sphere of business, Hays was in reality no specialist. It is very much to be doubted whether prior to 1840 there was any Jewish businessman who devoted himself exclusively to selling insurance. Hays was a colonial tradesman who suffered bankruptcy in 1772, but then adjusted himself enthusiastically and profitably to the post-revolutionary economic challenges.'3

When he made a new start in Boston in the front room of a coffeehouse on State Street, he became another American Jewish omnibus businessman, a broker. The multiplicity of his proffers and doings is fascinating. He supplied foreign and domestic intelligence in the areas of commerce; apparently he was well acquainted with market conditions in England, France, Spain, Portugal, and South America. When Paul Revere needed iron for his foundry, Hays sent him to Providence with a note of introduction to Brown & Benson, guaranteeing any purchase Revere might make. Hays also sold insurance, discounted notes, lent money, and bought and sold real estate, bills of exchange, and ships too. Indeed, he was an honorary member of the Boston Marine Society in 1789. In the role of a dealer quick to turn an honest penny at anything, he secured freight for China and encouraged the establishment of a bank. As a New England merchant—and he was that, too—he bought and sold fish, whale oil, salt, candles. He had an office on the Long Wharf and traded with the West Indies and the Gulf ports. Hays was thus something of a new man, a colonial merchant redivivus with a vision that reached as far as the China sea.

In chronicling this man’s life, it is a pleasure to point out that he died a man of wealth. It is no pleasure for the historian nourished on Horatio Alger pap to inter his heroes in the bankruptcy courts. Hays, a native American of good stock, was accepted socially in the better Christian circles; if there were Jews in town—there must have been some newcomers —there is no record that he associated with them, though religiously he was no defector, but a dignified, loyal Jew possessing even a Jewish library, mostly in Hebrew—liturgical works no doubt. Hays was a good citizen: he furthered the local theatre, bought shares in the Boston Athenaeum, contributed to Harvard, and stood out as one of the country’s important Masons. The inventory of his holdings testifies eloquently to his

17 6

United States Jewry, 1776-1985

involvement in the new economy; he owned lands, bank stocks, shares in turnpikes and toll bridges. In an ethically-tinged letter sent in 1796 to his son Judah about to set sail for France, the father urged him to maintain the principles of rectitude and honor at all times. His personal letters to his grandchildren manifest an understanding of their psyche; like a child himself he enters into their very special world, embracing it and them with kindliness, affection, and insight.' ‘


Moses Michael Hays was the first customer of the second bank to be established in the United States (1784), the Bank of Massachusetts. He realized its importance, and if not one of the prime sponsors, he was among the businessmen who helped bring it to birth and solicited subscriptions for it. Jews were interested in the first three banks established in this country in the early 1780’s, for they bought stock in all three. As the broker who handled much of Morris’s official financial transactions, Haym Salomon was a substantial customer of the Philadelphia Bank of North America. Though constituting only about 1 percent of New York’s population, the Jews bought about 2.5 percent of the stock of that city’s first bank; they were interested, but they were small fry. They were still licking the financial wounds incurred in their exile from British-held New York and the postwar depression. It is odd that Isaac Moses was able to buy four shares and yet be bankrupt the following year. It may well be that, as he struggled to survive in the bad years that followed the Revolution, he was eager to fortify his credit at the bank.15

As urban businessmen, the Jews had much to gain from establishing and supporting banks: financial transactions in the colonial period, juggling bills of exchange, evaluating American and foreign currencies posed many problems. The establishment of banks, it was hoped, would solve many difficulties; financial independence must follow political independence. Despite the break with England, the United States continued to turn to that country for financial aid. By the 1820’s, the Rothschilds— already a legend in the United States—were doing business in this country; by 1840, they had agents in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. In three of these cities their agents were Jews, J. L. & S. Joseph & Company in New York, Robert and Isaac Phillips in Philadelphia, and the Cohen brothers in Baltimore. It was the politically influential Cohens who helped the Rothschilds receive the appointment as agents for the Department of State in 1835. After 1837, August Belmont became the Rothschild’s chief agent in the United States, particularly in the decade of the 1840’s. Even before coming here, he had worked for these international bankers at Frankfort on the Main and Naples. It was the con-


The New Economy

sensus of Belmont’s contemporaries that he was a good banker; he survived the panic of the 1830’s to become rich and influential.16

Like many others, the New York Josephs and the Philadelphia Phillipses went down in the 1837 crash. No one knows the extent of the losses of the Joseph brothers; estimates run from $2,000,000 to $6,000,000. They dragged down others; Europeans were affected, since the Josephs had connections abroad. There were at least four partners in J. L. & S. Joseph & Company: Joseph Lazarus Joseph (1797-1858), Solomon I. (or L.) Joseph (1799-1860), Jacob Levy, Jr., a Jamaican who was also a director in a local bank, and M. Henriques. Levy was a kinsmen; Henriques, so it appears, was also related. The two Josephs were from Richmond. As teenagers they barely escaped with their lives on December 26, 1811, when a theatre fire took a heavy toll. It was then that the two brothers swore solemnly that they would observe that anniversary as a special Purim—as a holiday of salvation—fasting all day to the eve and ending with a frolic. They would never again go to a theatre, so they said. After they grew up, they moved on to Philadelphia and then to New York, the scene of their labors and misfortunes. There, as Sephardim, they joined Shearith Israel. Both brothers made good marriages; the one tied himself to notable London families distinguished for their wealth and communal prestige; the other to the New York Harts, Seixases, and Hendrickses. It is questionable how important such marriages and connections were, but one can hardly doubt that they were helpful. The Josephs were involved in New York City real estate urban subdivisions; they had borrowed heavily, and when their loans were called in, they lost everything; at least there were no assets. Contemporaries in their posteventum criticisms maintained that they were not competent bankers.1

As bankers, the Baltimore Cohens were more successful. These German immigrants began life modestly; two brothers, Jacob I. and Israel I., came to the new United States sometime in the 1770’s. Jacob was the Cohen of Richmond’s Cohen & Isaacs; Israel, also a Richmondian, opened a small store in the effort to make a living for his wife and numerous children. (He had fathered ten children in fourteen years, nine boys and one girl.) After his death in 1803 his widow and the children moved north to Baltimore; there they were to become the most respected Jewish family in town. The sons, able men, made their way, first as grocers, then as lottery agents. From lotteries they moved into domestic banking, although they did have some international connections. By 1834, Jacob I. Cohen, Jr., the head of the company, had become a member of a local organization dedicated to the commercial furtherance of the city. When the great depression struck three years later, the Cohen bank paid off in specie; it had survived—no mean achievement.18


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

The Cohens made their money in the lottery business, the great American pastime in colonial and early republican days. It was a popular Jewish business; selling tickets augmented the income of many a Jewish tradesman. Buying tickets often helped the purchaser combine good citizenship with profit, for the sale of tickets provided the cash needed to support charities, build wharves, advance cultural organizations, and help churches and synagogs, too. In 1808, Mikveh Israel, always in financial distress, sponsored a lottery offering a grand prize of $10,000. In Wilmington, Delaware, J. S. & D. Solis advertised the lotteries which it favored. Like the Cohens and about 200 others, the Solises also had a lottery office in metropolitan Philadelphia. Cohen’s Lottery and Exchange Office was one of the largest businesses of its genre in the United States. One of the drawings it ran in 1817 offered a grand prize of $100,000—an enormous sum in those days. Individual tickets sold at $50. The Cohens published a paper of their own, Cohen’s Gazette and Lottery Register, a business publication listing and describing lotteries, stocks, bank notes; there was even an occasional news item. The company did a mail order business and offered a variety of services to the public in the branches which it had opened in the country’s major cities. In 1831 it moved into stockbroking and banking. The intense competition in lotteries and the burdensome regulations impelled the Cohens to divest themselves of their lottery interests; the business was no longer as profitable as it had once been.19

The Josephs and the Phillips brothers were among the better known Jewish private bankers in the North. (There were certainly others, but historians have yet to trace their records, if any have survived.) The Cohens of Baltimore stood out in Maryland; in New Orleans the Hermanns were important. When the Josephs and their banking associates closed their doors, they helped drag down the Hermanns. The “domino theory” that the collapse of one involved others certainly applied to many in 1837. For what it is worth, rumor had it that when the New Orleans house was stricken in the panic of 1837, its losses amounted to $10,000,000. After his arrival in America about the year 1804, Samuel, the head of the Hermann family here in the United States, settled down in New Orleans, married a Catholic girl, opened a shop, and gradually increased the scope of his trading. He trafficked in slaves, dealt in real estate and stocks, advanced money to the planters on their crops, moved into the export business, and with ships of his own extended his reach to Europe, the West Indies and Mexico. Somewhat like Hays in Boston, he was in effect a merchant banker but, unlike the former, lived in grand style. For one of his parties in the prosperous 1830’s, he sent out 350 invitations. Three of his Christian-reared sons helped him in the business; they were directors of banks, gaslighting companies, marine and fire insurance companies. Two of the Hermann granddaughters made brilliant


The New Economy

marriages. One became the wife of Senator Francis Gifford Newlands, of Nevada; the other married Chauncey M. Depew of New York, the railroad president, United States senator, and famed raconteur. "

In North Carolina, Aaron, one of the Rhode Island Riveras, was cashier of the Bank of Fear in Wilmington. North Carolina—sandwiched in between the far more developed Virginia and South Carolina —was not an important state in the first half of the nineteenth century, nor did it shelter a Jewish community. One of Aaron Rivera’s neighbors in this most populous town in the state was Aaron Lazarus, an able merchant capitalist, more successful than Rivera whose own career was in no sense notable. In South Carolina—Charleston, primarily, but also in Georgetown, Cheraw, Columbia, and Hamburg on the Savannah—Jews served as presidents, directors, and cashiers of banks, especially in the early decades of the 1800’s when Charleston was one of the country’s most prosperous towns and sheltered a sizable and wealthy Jewish community. In Virginia, as in other states before the establishment of banks, individual merchants offered their clients banking services; it was not uncommon for merchants to discount bills of exchange. Indeed, in a primitive fashion they served as banks of deposit and discount. The more affluent Jewish businessmen in the state were early invited to become administrators and officers in the banks or branches that were opening in a number of towns, in Norfolk, Petersburg, and Richmond.21

It was almost inevitable that Solomon Etting, one of the leading citizens of Baltimore since the 1790’s, would be interested in banking. In that decade he was one of the organizers of the Union Bank, in which he and his family held stock. This was an institution favored by the Jews. Like their colonial predecessors, Jewish merchants were strongly dependent upon long-term credits. Solomon’s kinsmen, the Gratzes of Philadelphia, were tied in with the Philadelphia banks. Simon Gratz was a prime organizer of the Schuylkill Bank; brother Hyman was to become a director of the prestigious Girard Bank. By the 1790’s, even the conservative Rhode Islanders saw fit to charter the Bank of Rhode Island; Moses Seixas, subsequently Grand Master of the state’s Masons, was appointed cashier of the new institution. He and his son, a teller, ran the bank five days a week but never on the Sabbath. On that day these observant Jews refrained from labor; they turned their keys over to a Gentile lad, who in turn gave them to a non-Jewish clerk, thus the religious amenities were served. For his labors the boy was rewarded with delicacies, unleavened bread on Passover and “Haman’s ears”—bonbons in this case—on Purim.22

Throughout the early years of the century, New York sheltered Jewish private bankers but these men played no role of any consequence in the economic life of the community. In this city and in other towns too,


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

individual Jews were moneylenders and mortgage dealers. Thus, in effect, they were in banking. A petty capitalist of this type probably appeared in the local directories as a “gentleman.” Jewish banking talent had a better chance to display itself in smaller towns; Jews were never to play an important part in New York City’s larger banks; their role was limited to private banking, although on occasion an individual might be appointed a director or even president of a commercial bank. In the late 1830’s when the Josephs’s offices were about to be padlocked and when August Belmont first made his bow, a new financial figure appeared on New York’s business stage: Philip Speyer, who began his career in this country as an importer of consumer goods, though even then he dealt in bills of exchange. With the new decade of the 1840’s, the firm began to turn to foreign and domestic exchange and brokerage in all its branches. It is obvious that the New York Jews of 1840 with a population of a paltry few thousand in a community of 300,000 represented no real financial power. There were a number of wealthy men, but they were not the city’s financial elite; the economic fortresses had been manned for generations by Gentiles. The Hendrickses of course had money, but it is very much to be doubted whether they were comparable to the town’s tycoons.

In its essential form, pawnbroking both here and abroad was, is, banking. The Jew is the stereotyped pawnbroker in literature and folklore, so it is curious that not many Jews were active in that field during the early nineteenth century. The reasons for this avoidance are not clear. If they were deterred, was it the stigma attached to the enterprise? Pawnbrokers were often suspected of being fences. Yet Jews did not avoid the second-hand clothing trade, dealing in renovated garments. The denizens of Chatham Street in New York were not admired. However, the need for money or credit is universal. The impoverished resorted to the pawnbroker; the merchants and merchant-shippers manipulated their suppliers or turned to the banks; they were grateful for the ferment of the market revolution, for an institution established to supply them with funds in an orderly fashion. Jews were on the whole adept in finances, although during this period they were not invited to exercise their talents. They were familiar with the techniques of exchange; they had respect for capital; they had commercial relations with fellow Jews in foreign markets; economics was for them no dismal science. As early as 1839, E. Levy, to judge from his name, a Jew, living in the Ohio River town of Madison, Indiana, wrote a twenty-four page brochure offering a new method to establish a stable currency. He entitled his essay, The Republican Bank or the Present System of Banking. Later, as the depression persisted, he sent a copy to President Tyler. Throughout the country Jews were given modest jobs in the state banks, and even in the national bank. Haym Salomon’s son Ezekiel served as cashier in the New Orleans branch of the rechartered


The New Economy

Bank of the United States; Col. David S. Franks was assistant cashier in the main office of the prestigious national bank. This was a political appointment for a man who merited consideration because of his army service and his need for a job. When commercial banking became a vital part of the American economy in the late nineteenth and throughout the twentieth century, Jews found it very difficult to secure a foothold in this important financial institution. It was increasingly difficult even to maintain the banks that they had already established. The closing decades of the twentieth century found them still excluded from the executive suites of great American banks.24

Jews and the Stock Exchange

Private bankers were always interested in the buying and selling of stocks and bonds, an important source of income for them. The Josephs were members of the New York Stock Exchange. Security dealers among the Jews made their appearance no later than the Revolution; stocks and obligations of various sorts were commodities which these brokers handled. Moses Cohen, of Philadelphia, advertised in 1782 that he not only bought and sold houses, farms, lots, carriages, and ships but also bills of exchange and Continental and state certificates—and this in addition to an employment bureau. By 1784, there were several such Jewish brokers in the city; by the 1790’s, the national assumption of the war-incurred public debt led to increased speculation in government paper. It would take decades before brokers would leave off dealing in merchandise in its multifarious forms and begin limiting themselves to securities. As they emancipated themselves from the British, American businessmen floundered about for years before fashioning instrumentalities to regulate financial dealings. Among the devices they adopted was the stock exchange where securities could be traded in an orderly manner. Thus it was that an association of dealers met together in 1791 at Philadelphia, the financial capital of the country, to establish a trading center for securities. Embryonic exchanges had already existed for decades in the larger cities of the country. The following year a group of over twenty New York curb brokers—three of them Jews—gathered together in a hotel and set down the terms on which they would buy and sell “public stock.” This was the beginning of a formal stockbrokers association in New York; in 1817 it called itself the New York Stock and Exchange Board. Then, of the twenty-eight members, two were Jews. By the early nineteenth century, people were investing in government securities, in the stocks of banks, in insurance and transportation companies; the first railroad stock was listed in 1830. There had always been Jews on the exchange and by 1824 they were exercising authority as officers. Jewish


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

membership in the nineteenth century was never large, particularly in view of the fact that the city ultimately sheltered thousands of Jewish businessmen.25

One of the brokers who helped organize the loose confederation of New York security traders in 1792 was Ephraim Hart (1747-1825), a native of Fuerth in Franconia, who came here in the early 1770’s. A number of his fellow countrymen had already settled in New York and other colonies; one of them may have encouraged him to emigrate. Hart sided with the Continentals during the Revolution, went into exile, and was present in 1782 at the dedication of Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel. He gave no gift to the building fund; probably he had very little but later, as he prospered, he would be generous to his New York congregation, Shearith Israel. When the war was over, he returned to New York and soon prospered as a stockbroker, a real estate speculator, a moneylender, and a dry goods dealer. His marriage into the Noah family linked him with well established Jewish families, the Phillipses and the Seixases. By 1794, a man of some means, he was elected president of the congregation; he had come up in the world in the space of a decade.26

Ephraim Hart was on the 1792 stock exchange. A fellow member of Shearith Israel, bearing the same family name, was Bernard Hart (1763/ 1764-1855). It is not known whether the two were related; Hart is one of the commonest Jewish surnames in the eighteenth-century British colonies. Bernard Hart, London-born, first went to Canada and did business there for a time before making his home in New York City. After he moved south of the border, he may have served briefly as a resident agent for the Canadian merchant Aaron Hart of Three Rivers. There is every reason to believe that he continued to trade and to travel in Canada, where in 1799 he married or had a liaison with a non-Jew, Catherine Brett; their son Henry was the father of the American writer Bret Harte. After Hart’s removal to New York, he married a daughter of Benjamin Seixas. Thus like Ephraim Hart he was accepted into the tight little social circle that ruled the local Jewish community. By 1808, Bernard, too, was president of the synagog.

In 1795, during a yellow fever epidemic, he worked day and night helping the sick and the dying. In common with many other American Jews, enjoying the camaraderie of militia service, he enlisted early and by the time of the second war with England was a divisional quartermaster with the rank of major. Very much the social animal, he joined the English ethnic organization, St. George Society. He was the “Father” of the Friary and president of the House of Lords or Under the Rose, a business association that met daily in a Wall Street tavern; as in the Newport Jewish club of 1761 and similar organizations, the amount of liquor permitted a member at a single sitting was limited. From 1831 to 1853, Hart


The New Economy

served the reconstituted stock exchange as its secretary in an honorary capacity. Like other affluent Jewish businessmen in the city, he dealt in securities, real estate, and insurance. His economic interests were wide and diverse, for he remained a traditional merchant, buying and selling for others on commission, speculating in real estate, auctioning off job lots, and providing insurance for those who turned to him. One of his many sons was Emanuel B. Hart, a merchant, broker, and realtor like the father, but also a politician who went to Congress in 1851, the first of the New York Jews to serve in the national legislature. In Baltimore, the wealthy Cohens loomed large on the local stock exchange. They were among the founders; one of the brothers, Benjamin, was to serve as president. They were so influential that they were not fined for non-attendance on the Jewish Holy Days; brokers were expected to be present daily when the list of stocks was read and the bidding began.


Among the stocks which the brokers traded were those issued by companies operating turnpikes, toll bridges, canals, and railroads. Jewish businessmen in the cities and small towns were advocating better roads even before the break with England; shopkeepers at both ends of a proposed turnpike knew they would be well served. Thus the handful of Jews in Lancaster wanted to be linked to Philadelphia; merchants who belonged to the metropolis’s Mikveh Israel wanted to freight consumer wares to Joseph Simon and to expedite the return of country produce. When the Philadelphia-Lancaster Turnpike Company was finally organized in 1792, shares were bought by at least five Jews, including Simon, who twenty years earlier had sought to tie the two towns together by a King’s highway or “publick road.” A great step forward was made that same decade of the 1790’s when canals were dug. By the 1830’s the populated areas of the United States were being rapidly linked together through a system of canals tying the Mississippi to the East Coast. The participation of Jews in canal investments and administration was impressive. Abraham Touro of New England was the largest shareholder in one canal and vice president of another; Jacob Gratz, of Philadelphia, was president of the Union Canal linking the Susquehanna to the Delaware River, the Bay, and the ocean; other Pennsylvania Jewish enterprisers were directors of a canal that joined Pennsylvania to New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia. In the Old Dominion, one of the Richmond Marxes was in 1835 an organizer of the James River and Kanawha Canal Company, which penetrated nearly 200 miles into the West. In Georgia, Col. M. Myers, a state legislator, was director of a similar waterway that set out to link together three of the most important rivers in the state. These men who hazarded their


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

fortunes on this type of transportation were courageous, astute speculators. Antebellum Savannah numbered several Jews who, respected members of the general community, were distinguished for their leadership in commerce and law; among them were Col. M. Myers, Solomon Cohen, and Isaac Minis. The first sailing ship to use an auxiliary engine in making its way across the Atlantic in 1819, the Savannah, was owned by the Savannah Steamship Company whose incorporators included Minis. It took time before steamships were accepted on the ocean and inland highways. Jews were not numerous among the firms which pioneered this form of transportation. A notable exception was the capitalist and speculator Michael Lazarus, of Charleston. "

Canals offered advantages over the turnpikes, but in many respects the railroads were far superior to the canals as carriers of men and goods. Railroads were faster, could be used at night, and could move forward in almost any weather. As early as 1825, Richmond’s Jewish merchants, among others, petitioned for a canal and railroad to carry coal from a nearby mine to the James River. That was before the steam locomotive had been perfected; the cars on this railroad were to employ mule power. Baltimore was well aware that same decade that New York and Pennsylvania, through their system of canals and portage railroads, were tapping the resources of the West and leaving Baltimore far behind commercially. This fear and the need for economic survival impelled the Baltimoreans in 1829 to start building a trunk line west to the Ohio. Thus was the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad born. On July 4, 1828, Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, broke ground for the new road. That same year Solomon Etting was elected a director, representing the city of Baltimore; several years later Jacob I. Cohen, Jr., was put on the board. In 1830 when the B. & O. first began transporting passengers, horse power was used. Cohen, an aggressive capitalist, was active as director and vice president of another railroad which set out to link Baltimore with Washington to the south and with New York to the north. ¦’'

Aaron Lazarus, one of the three notable sons of Sergeant Major Mark Lazarus, was among the first directors of a railroad that moved north across the state of North Carolina connecting with one that kept moving north to Petersburg and Richmond, thus tying the two states closely together. Another road tying the state capital Raleigh to the Wilmington & Weldon—on whose governing board Aaron Lazarus sat—was the Gaston & Raleigh. Its president was George Washington Mordecai, son of Jacob, the former Warrenton schoolmaster. Rails for this line were imported from England by George’s brother Samuel, then a merchant in Petersburg. Like Baltimore and Wilmington, Charleston—justly concerned about its economic future—was determined to maintain its hold on and


The New Economy

divert the products of the South Carolina backcountry eastward rather than down the Savannah River to the rival Georgia port at its mouth. Michael Lazarus met this threat by dispatching his steamboats south to the Savannah and then up the river. But railroads can go where ships cannot. The Charlestonians built a railroad across the state westward to Hamburg on the Savannah. The road when finally completed in 1833 was the longest one in the world; the first steam locomotive built in the United States was used to make the run. Jewish participation in the building of the line has not been documented, but Jews used it. The town of Hamburg had but one bank and a Jew was on its board, and when the Hamburg Volunteers sailed south to do battle with the Seminoles, they included the warrior S. Hyams. Young Philip Phillips, the lawyer, made the trip over the road that same year bringing his sixteen-year-old bride to her new home in Mobile. After the newlyweds crossed the river to Augusta, Georgia, it took them seven days by stagecoach to reach Montgomery on the Alabama River where they could take a steamboat to Mobile.30

The early national period—the years from 1775 to 1840—was marked by a revolution in transportation as the tidewater towns were linked together and the transappalachian lands penetrated. Men like Abraham Touro, the Cohens of Baltimore, the three Lazarus brothers, and George Washington Mordecai were not engineers or technicians; they were administrators or promoters, investors, financiers, entrepreneurs, representing local businessmen trying to advance the communities in which they lived. If their towns prospered, they too would prosper. Obviously the tiny Jewish settlements could play no vital role in these epoch-making innovations, although there is ample evidence that imaginative businessmen realized the economic significance of rapid transportation. They were eager to stimulate the economy and further their own well-being by shipping wares from the towns in which they lived and collecting the products of the hinterland. They were constantly aware that the improvement of travel and transport would mean immigrants, new towns, new Jewish communities which they would certainly welcome. It is worth noting that every inland Jewish community was organized after the beginning of the transport revolution.



In the late 1840’s Joshua Lazarus, in the role of an industrialist, brought gaslight to Charleston but in general Jews were not pioneers in American industry. The new post-colonial government established corporate forms of business structure; new industries were pioneered with the hope that


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

Americans would emancipate themselves from England and the Continent and thus be in a better position to compete with merchants abroad. The United States began to make advances in labor-saving devices; power machines were developed. Industry was harnessed to steam; transportation by turnpike, canal, and railroad stimulated trade and agriculture and urbanized the East, creating new markets for the West. Finished wares began to pour out of the cisallegheny factories—machinery, implements, clocks and watches, foodstuffs, and liquor. With this came mass distribution in domestic and transoceanic markets. By 1840, what part did Jews play in this economic upheaval?31

Jewish artisans had been common in colonial times. These craftsmen were also found everywhere among the few “transports” who have been identified as Jews. The trades they practiced were diverse. Even in industry, such as it was, the Jews were not missing. Large-scale candlemaking in factories of a sort was a favorite Jewish industry. Jews played an important part in the manufacture of this commodity and in the short-lived cartel that the manufacturers set up in 1761. Though American industry became an economic factor of some significance after the War of 1812, its growth was gradual. As late as 1840 more cloth was made in homes than in factories. By and large Jews did not turn to industry; they had no industrial tradition and no skills. Under the European guild system, Jews had found it very difficult to secure expert training; they rarely had capital for hazardous new enterprises. American Jews seemed to have preferred speculation in land, in stocks; basically they were conservative. Thus we find no Jews in the making of arms, textiles, or machinery, even though there were dozens of small cotton and woolen mills. (But one “Jewish” name does appear among all these cloth factory owners—Moses Judah, who, despite his doubly Jewish name, was a Gentile.) Textile mills had been built in the South ever since the 1780’s, but Jews apparently evinced no interest, and this in a day when cotton was king. In their investments in the new economy, they tended to opt for transportation securities. ’¦

There is some evidence that during this early national period there were a number of small-scale industrialists. Like Aaron Lopez, the Newport merchant-shipper, they manufactured a variety of wares and commodities by the put-out, the home, the domestic system. Some no doubt had small factories. David G. Seixas, one of the New York hazzan’s several sons, manufactured sealing wax, printers’ ink, and enamel-coated visiting cards. He opened a brewery, pioneered in making crockery, and experimented with daguerreotype photography. There is no question that he was a skillful technician; it is equally true that he was egregiously unsuccessful in everything he undertook. Another clergyman’s son, Abraham H. Cohen—his father was the hazzan at Mikveh Israel—manufactured seltzer water and proposed organizing a mineral water company. He


The New Economy

wanted to sell stock in his enterprise; his Hygeia Fountain was to be an urban spa (1807-1808). Samples of his wares were sent to President Jefferson, but the scholarly Virginian refused to lend his name. Cohen was successful, however, in securing a recommendation for his product from Benjamin Rush, the eminent practitioner of medicine. George David Rosengarten, who had come from Germany in the 1820’s, became a manufacturing pharmacist; the firm he founded, Rosengarten & Sons, was highly respected in the industry. It still existed in the late twentieth century as part of Merck & Company. Another pharmacist and scientist of sorts was Lewis Feuchtwanger, a learned German who not only imported but manufactured metallurgical products. He invented an alloy which he called American Silver Composition. During the panic of 1837, when small coins were scarce, he crafted tokens made up of his “silver”; they were used in his own business and by other firms on the East Coast and in Cincinnati."

The Dyers in Baltimore were meat packers, but not for the Jewish trade. In the larger communities, a small number of Jews were active in the kosher meat industry preparing their products for local consumption and for foreign export. During colonial days the export of kosher foodstuffs, beef, cheeses, poultry, sausages, had been a steady source of income to shippers doing business with the Islands, South America, and even the East Indies. Planters growing sugar cane in the Islands had no pastures for grazing. These exports in a diminishing degree continued, replete with a kashrut certificate to satisfy the scrupulous. Intensive studies of the occupational activities of antebellum Jewish businessmen may well reveal that some were engaged in industry. This is certainly a field for research that merits cultivating. Many small enterprises are already known. Jews made pens and quills, manufactured paper, and ran tanyards, sawmills, and grist mills. Others had factories in which they produced oil, silk, chocolate, starch, hair powder, copal varnish, harness, and brogans for sale to humble laborers and slaves. Obviously the line between artisan and manufacturer was still a very narrow one.34


The Gratzes and their associates had been shipping kosher meat into the Caribbean since 1767. This enterprising family sent a young member, Benjamin (1792-1884), to look after their interests in Kentucky. A university graduate with an M.A. degree, Benjamin was a lawyer and had served as a cavalry officer in the War of 1812. Lexington, where he settled, was before long to recognize him as one of its most respected citizens. Gratz helped establish a bank and was involved in the building of a macadamized highway and a railroad to the Ohio River. The Lexington & Ohio Railroad, which he would guide later as president, did not reach


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

its destination, the river at Cincinnati, but the goal indicates Gratz’s enterprise in the attempt to compete with Louisville, which had overshadowed Lexington with the coming of the steamboat. Lexington had no navigable river. Gratz and his partner were manufacturers of hemp rope and bagging used in the baling of cotton. At the time Gratz and other manufacturers produced millions of pounds of the product; it was the town’s prime industry. When this nonagenarian passed away, a young girl paid tribute to him in the following verse:

How beautiful appears

The memory of a noble life like thine.

Whose countless virtues round so many years

Like clustered jewels shine.35

Gratz was probably the only Jew in the hemp rope and cloth industry; there were more Jews in the garment industry, but here there is a problem of definition. Who is a clothing “manufacturer”? If a man makes a garment for a customer, he is a merchant tailor but if, through home industry he makes garments to be sold off the rack, he ranks as a manufacturer. Unfortunately, the term clothier does not inform the researcher whether he is dealing with a tailor or an industrialist. Jewish merchant tailors were certainly not uncommon. In fact, quite a number were to be found in the colonies no later than the second half of the eighteenth century when Isaac Nunez Cardozo—ancestor of a line of American notables —advertised in Newport that he was a “tailor from New York.” Why not “from London,” where he had learned his trade? Cardozo’s ad appeared in 1774, only a year before Lexington and Concord; the English were anything but popular in America. In the early nineteenth century, Jews began to make their presence felt in the old clothes industry in New York City. They bought and sold, cleaned and renovated the garments they purchased from the gentry. Chatham Street was a center for this traffic. As a contemporary said ironically: “We Gentiles take our religion of the Jews second hand, why not our clothes.” Jews had been manufacturing cheap garments for sailors, slaves, and other laborers since Lopez’s time in pre-Revolutionary days. During the war for independence, Hay-man Levy had made garments for the troops; no machine-made garments, of course, were to make their appearance until the 1840’s and 1850’s when sewing machines were perfected. Apparently it was not until the late 1830’s, at the earliest, that some Jews began manufacturing clothing for the growing market. They still employed the put-out system and depended on town and country women. By 1840, the city directories contained frequent entries of Jews in the clothing trade, but there is no way to determine whether these merchant tailors and clothiers were primarily craftsmen or manufacturers. By 1841, eighty-six factories—small ones no


The New Economy

doubt—were making garments in Cincinnati; clothing was the largest industry in the city. It is probable that some Jews were manufacturers; some were certainly wholesalers; others were retailers. This much is certain: by 1842, a Jew, A. Tentler, had copyrighted a work, New System of Measuring and Cutting Ladies’ Dresses, Cloaks, Collars, Caps, Yokes, etc.36


The evidence now available indicates that as late as 1840 not many Jews had become clothing manufacturers, but there is ample evidence that Jews were interested in the production and distribution of hard liquor. Jewish distillers had made their appearance in the colonies no later than 1739. The Hebraically-learned Mordecai M. Mordecai had made an effort in 1775 to eke out a living distilling whiskey on the western Pennsylvania frontier; his stills were on Sukes Run near Pittsburgh. Mordecai functioned as a small-scale manufacturer as did his neighbors in the Mo-nongahela Valley who were to rebel later in the Whiskey Insurrection of the 1790’s. Jews made their appearance as distillers in 1807 at Easton, in 1817 at Richmond, and in the 1820’s at Philadelphia and Cincinnati. Manuel Judah, the Richmond distiller—he called himself a merchant— was the bondsman when Sophia Wolfe was appointed administratrix of the estate of her late husband, Benjamin Wolfe. Judah went her bond for $50,000. When she was appointed guardian of her seven sons and one daughter, Judah again went security for her. Sophia’s sons established here in the United States and in Europe a liquor business that became one of the largest in the world. One of Sophia’s sons, James, was probably the first Jewish lawyer in Virginia; Nathaniel (1810-1865), another son, was a politician and lawyer living in Louisville where he was recognized as one of Kentucky’s outstanding criminal lawyers and entrepreneurs. He was president of the Louisville Water Company. After helping secure the acquittal of an accused murderer, he was compelled with his fellow counsel to go underground for a brief period to escape the anger of an outraged mob; it was said that the jury had been bribed. The mob satisfied itself with burning him and Senator John J. Crittenden in effigy. Two other brothers, Udolpho and Joel, moved on to New York where they went into business as partners and on their own; they were in the wine, gin, and hard liquor trade with a distillery of their own. In the 1840’s, Udolpho became an international whiskey manufacturer shipping his products all over the world from a warehouse in Germany. A contemporary said that he spent more than a million dollars advertising in American newspapers. Intermarriage seems to have been the rule in this family though several were members of Shearith Israel in the 1830’s.37


United States Jewry, 1776-1985


During the Revolution and in later decades, a number of Jews evinced interest in the mining and production of iron, though they remained very much on the fringes of the industry. New York’s Sampson and Solomon Simson were substantial merchant-shippers, whalers, and cartel candle manufacturers. Sampson’s brother Solomon (d.1801), early protagonist of a government mint and president of the radical Democratic Society, was an incorporator of the Associated Manufacturing Iron Company of the City and County of New York in 1786. This company, seemingly, never went beyond the planning stage. In any case, Jews were far more interested in copper than in iron. Asher Myers, brother of Myer Myers, the silversmith, was a coppersmith and brazier. In the 1790’s, the quondam Hessian troop purveyors, the Jacob Mark(s) Company, were very active in the copper trade; Jacob Mark controlled the output of a copper mine in New Jersey and was active in both the ferrous and non-ferrous metal trade. Haym M. Salomon went into the copperplating business but accomplished nothing; he was no technician and from all indications was not a competent businessman. (This may explain why he was so eager to cash in on a reputed unpaid loan owed his patriot father.)38

The Hendrickses, of New York, were merchants who made a name for themselves as industrialists specializing in copper. Uriah Hendricks (d. 1798), the founder of the family on this side of the Atlantic, was a merchant and ironmonger. All the Jewish shopkeepers in this country from the earliest days stocked “hard” goods on their shelves. The Hendricks family for decades remained general importers and exporters, carrying on trade with Europe and the West Indies by freighting their goods. The family business expanded under a son Harmon (1775-1858), who had begun to work with his father when only a youngster. At an early stage they began importing bar iron, pig iron, and copper products. They were suppliers and commission agents for Paul Revere’s copper firm. After his father’s death, Harmon Hendricks continued the transoceanic trade, importing consumer goods of all types and exporting tobacco, iron, cotton, molasses, pearl ash, logwood, and sugar. In this country he did business through a network of agents. More and more Harmon turned his attention to the copper trade, which offered rich opportunities, since the metal was used in stills, soap boilers, kitchen utensils, and as sheathing for ships. A foundry was purchased for reconverting old copper, and it was not long before Hendricks was recognized as America’s largest copper importer though he was not averse to dealing in brass, tin, and lead as well.

Harmon, deciding to lay more emphasis on his copper trade, induced his brother-in-law Solomon I. Isaacs to go into business with him. Isaacs, a fifth-generation American, might well be called an aristocrat; his great grandfather had served in 1691 as a militiaman in King Williams’ War.


The New Economy

The new firm established in 1814, carried the name Solomon I. Isaacs & Soho Copper Works. The war with England was still going on and copper was in demand for the building of ships. Thus Isaacs and Hendricks, his junior partner, became refiners and manufacturers. Later Harmon was to become the dominant partner; his children were the sole owners. Harmon died a very wealthy man, but it is by no means certain that he made most of his money in the metal business. He had inherited substantial wealth and increased his legacy as a merchant-shipper. When he needed funds on short-term loans, he could always turn to Jacob Levy, Jr., the banker. Hendricks reached out in many directions; he discounted notes, invested in banks—he was a director of one—and bought government bonds, stocks, and mortgages. He put his money into canals, turnpikes, bridges, ferryboats, steamship lines, and insurance companies, into industry and real estate. During the War of 1812, Hendricks subscribed most liberally—$60,000—to the national war loans. Father Uriah had made his peace, one way or another, with the British in New York; the son was an ardent patriot. Harmon and his generation processed copper to build sailing ships and steamers; his son, the third generation in the business, supplied and helped finance Mathias Baldwin, who built locomotives used both here and abroad. In a day when business ethics often left much to be desired, Harmon certainly maintained his integrity. When a correspondent in London hinted that he lend himself to smuggling, he refused the suggestion. For generations the family members were known and respected for their devotion to the traditions of their fathers; they did no business on the Sabbath, closed their mill on that day, and kept a kosher kitchen. When they traveled, they were ready to live on bread and rice if kosher food was not available.39


The purchase by Isaacs and Hendricks of a copper rolling mill in 1814 was in a way an industrial declaration of independence from Great Britain. It would not be long before America attempted to emancipate herself culturally as well from the onetime mother country. Literary magazines were beginning to make their appearance in America; important publishing houses would soon rise. Jewish publishers played their part in the drive to provide books for the American reading public. At first they reprinted books that had already come off the presses in England; later they began publishing books by Americans for Americans. Once more Jews were to become “a people of the book.” With the exception of the candle manufacturing of the 1760’s and copper processing in the early nineteenth century, publishing was one of the few major industries in which American Jews were to play a part. The works which Jewish printers, booksellers, and publishers produced and sold were, with rare exceptions,


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

of general rather than Jewish interest. Benjamin Gomez (1769-1828), a brother-in-law of Harmon Hendricks, was the country’s first Jewish publisher. In the early 1790’s, Gomez ran a book shop, sold stationery, and bound books. He advertised that he would sell at wholesale or retail but this pretentious gesture was typical of many retailers; actually their inventories were usually small. Beginning in the early 1790’s, Gomez published more than twenty works either singly or jointly with Naphtali Judah. One of his “Jewish” publications was David Levi’s answer to the invitation John Priestley had given the Jews to hold an amicable discussion of the evidences of Christianity. That same year, 1794, Priestley’s original appeal to the Jews was also reprinted by Gomez, who was clearly no innovator; both books had already appeared in England. During the years 1792-1802, Gomez published the following works, among others: Female Policy Detected or the Arts of a Designing Woman Laid Open, Goethe’s the Sorrows of Werter [sic], an abridged Robinson Crusoe, the New Testament, the Book of Common Prayer, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Montesquieu’s The Spirit of Laws, and Fielding’s Tom Jones. Obviously he was much less interested in furthering American literature than in printing staples that would find a ready market. In later years, B. Gomez, Bookseller and Stationer, would also handle groceries and tobacco; apparently book publishing was not a lucrative business. Significant is the fact that this eighteenth century Orthodox Jew had no scruples selling Christian religious literature.40

One of Gomez’s kinsmen was Naphtali Judah (1774-1855); he too had married a sister of Harmon Hendricks though the latter, who disliked Judah, did not brag of that relationship. Paper, stationery, had its attraction for Jews. At one time Judah owned a small interest in a paper mill; David Nunez Carvalho, the father of the artist and explorer, Solomon Nunez Carvalho, was a paper manufacturer in Baltimore, if only for a brief period. Judah, like his brother-in-law Gomez, was a shopkeeper, and a stationer-cum-publisher. Neither man had a press of his own; each made contracts with local printers to reprint standard works. There was no problem of foreign copyright; it was simply ignored. Beginning in 1795, Judah reprinted over thirty works, among them the poems of Joel Bar-low, Webster’s American Spelling-book, dramas of the German playwright August F. F. von Kotzebue, David Levi’s Defence of the Old Testament (a-gainst the strictures of Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason), and Seixas’s Discourse, a sermon delivered in the synagog on a “day of humiliation” when open war with the French appeared imminent in 1798. As a political radical, Judah had no hesitation in publishing for the Democratic Society and the Society of Tammany; he was a member of both organizations; nor did his leftist political views deter him from serving as president of New York’s conservative Shearith Israel. This was true, too, of other contem-


The New Economy

porary New Yorkers. Membership in a congregation did not necessarily imply a theological commitment; it was more frequently a form of social and ethnic identification. Both Gomez and Judah were concerned primarily, if not solely, with the general market, though it is always possible that reprinting David Levi’s apologetic works may have been prompted by Jewish loyalties. They had an eye on a market that numbered millions, not on the at most 1,000 adult Jewish readers in all of North America. Judah’s list was more America-directed than Gomez’s. Was this intentional?41

Naphtali Phillips, one of Jonas Phillips’s numerous sons—his wife gave birth to over twenty children—followed in his father’s footsteps as a merchant, but turned to publishing, journalism, and politics. He was the owner of the National Advocate (1813-ca.l820), the first general newspaper to be owned by a Jew. Phillips’ nephew Noah edited this paper for several years and on occasion published a work on his own. Another Jewish printer and publisher, not without distinction, was the convert David Aaron Borrenstein, of Princeton, N.J. He had been converted to Christianity in London and trained as a printer in the press established by the London Society for Promoting Christianity, the organization in which the proselyte Joseph Samuel Christian Frederick Frey (ne Levy) was active. Borrenstein was or became a man of learning and culture. Frey had immigrated to America where he set up societies to convert American Jews and may have encouraged Borrenstein to come here. This was no later than 1823, for by that year Borrenstein had already published an Aramaic grammar in New York City. The following year a number of works began to appear at the press which he had established in Princeton; among them were a Greek tragedy by Aeschylus and a German New Testament, which he peddled among Pennsylvania’s “Dutch” farmers. Notable among the books he printed were Paradise Lost and a volume of poetry. Sometime in the 1830’s he went back to England where he issued the complete works of Robert Burns. It is not unlikely that he left Princeton because he had been detected in a fraud and had been suspended by his church. Men like Frey and Borrenstein, who came to the United States fleeing from trouble, if not poverty, were unfortunates to whom the fates had been unkind. Some of the converts who fled to these shores were men of outstanding ability. Overeager to make a career here, individuals among them not infrequently sailed close to the wind.42

On occasion, a Jewish shopkeeper or would-be entrepreneur, looking for a quick profit, issued a volume he thought would find a ready sale. One can hardly call these men publishers. There is every reason to believe that Solomon Henry Jackson (d. 1847) was the first printer and publisher determined to issue Jewish books. Jackson, an English Jew of good education in both Jewish and general fields, came to the United States in the


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

late eighteenth century. Settling in Pike County, Pennsylvania, in the Po-conos, he married the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. Was he a convert to Christianity? Is his later ardent and constant preoccupation with Jewish religious institutions to be explained as an unending effort to expiate guilt? This much is known: when his wife died he took his five children to New York City and reared them as Jews. All of them seemed to have taken Jewish mates, including his daughter Lydia (Eliza), married to Dr. Thomas Washington Donovan, an Irishman and an Orthodox Jew. Was he originally a convert? In 1823, Jackson began publishing The Jew, a monthly anti-missionary periodical; in 1826, he translated and printed a Sephardic English and Hebrew prayer book; eleven years later came an edition of the Passover Haggadah. The latter two religious works had never been printed in this country. Jackson also experimented with interlinear texts to the prayers and the Pentateuch. In the course of time he became the “Jewish” printer par excellence turning out constitutions, tickets, notices, wedding certificates, and dedication programs. Jackson was very active in New York synagogs; he taught the readers, clerks, and others how to keep their records and conduct sessions along orderly lines. Thus he was an early Americanizer. This deliberate approach to Americanization did not wait for the Jewish settlement houses in the ghettos of the nineteenth-century metropolises; it began no later than 1782 when the new Philadelphia synagog constitution laid down the basic rules of parliamentary procedure. The Central and East European emigres of the late eighteenth century were called to order!43

Unlike B. Gomez and N. Judah, Jackson was not a bookseller or stationer; he was a printer-publisher. Benjamin Levy (1786-1860), of New Orleans, was all these and a bookbinder to boot. This Louisianian was one of the Newport Levys, a son of Simeon (d. 1825), who had moved to New York and taught for a time in the Jewish parochial school. It was in New York that Benjamin Levy first began as a stationer before moving south to the Crescent City where he continued in the same line from 1811 on. An enterprising bookseller, he sold novels, literary annuals, classics, plays, works on politics, geographies, and a number of the better known European reviews and quarterlies. Six years after he opened his store in New Orleans books began appearing with his own imprint. Ultimately more than 130 were published during the years 1817-1841. His publications included works in English and French and one in Spanish. Levy was essentially interested in providing special works for tradesmen and lawyers—legal treatises, commercial manuals, business guides, almanacs, and street directories. In 1822, he began to issue the New Orleans Price-Current and Commercial Intelligencer, a weekly business journal. His paper, in a way, was a precursor of the Wall Street Journal so popular a century and a half later. Benjamin was one of the country’s first Jewish pub-


The New Economy

lishers with a press of his own; he, like Jackson, certainly had his own print shop. Benjamin’s son Alexander, who was to carry on the business for a time, began to publish in 1840. To increase his sales Benjamin Levy serviced libraries and carried on a mail-order business, which not only included many neighboring states, but reached out to clients in the Caribbean and South America. His sources in the North supplied him with works from those cultural centers. Successful, Levy was invited to sit on the board of a bank, but when the country was engulfed in the crisis of 1837, he too, like thousands of others, was dragged down. His relation to the struggling Jewish community? Like many other Jews, he had married out; his children were Christians; he evinced no Jewish interests, though he did maintain good relations with his siblings.44

Benjamin Levy was a publishing enterpriser of imagination and some distinction. Abraham Hart (1810-1885) was far more important; he was America’s outstanding Jewish publisher in the days before the Civil War. This energetic and venturesome marketer went into the business in 1829 when Americans were beginning to read books published by Americans; it was a long generation after the Gomez-Judah pair had first entered the field. By the 1820’s Philadelphia was already a publishing center, the second largest one in the world for English books—ranking right after London. Hart’s father, owner of a small dry goods and grocery shop, died a young man, leaving a widow and several little children; Abraham, all of thirteen, was called upon to help support the family by opening a stationery and book store. Only three years later, he so impressed an enterprising auctioneer that he dispatched young Hart to Boston with a letter of credit for $5,000 and complete authority to buy what books he saw fit. His outstanding ability attracted a leading Philadelphia publishing firm, Carey & Lea; they gave him a job and before long, in 1829, established a separate company for a member of the family with the nineteen-year-old Hart as partner; the new firm was known as Carey & Hart. By 1834, it had a branch in Baltimore. That same year, Carey & Hart published David Crockett’s ghost-written autobiography, a most successful work; it was followed by another best-seller about the frontiersman after his death in the Alamo. The enterprise which was to characterize the young adventurer is reflected in the speed and daring with which he exploited his opportunities. In 1836, Hart received an advance copy of the first English edition of Bulwer-Lytton’s Rienzi. Splitting the book into twelve parts, he distributed the fascicles to twelve different printers. The book was ready the next morning; that afternoon, with 500 copies already bound, he sent the lot by stagecoach to New York where they appeared a day before the edition produced by his competitor, Harper & Brothers.45

In 1845, Hart paid royalties to Carlyle and others for works which his firm had reprinted. This was unusual in those days when the loose


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

copyright laws made pirating of foreign publications so easy and profitable. Carlyle was grateful for the courtesy. For reasons of his own, however, Hart was not in sympathy with the copyright laws of that day. By 1849, now in a firm of his own, Hart was recognized as one of America’s most prominent publishers. In the course of his career with Carey and subsequently by himself, he issued many notable works, among them literary annuals which included the writings of Poe, Emerson, and Longfellow. Hart published a volume of Longfellow’s poems and a poetical collection which the poet had edited. Other notables whose books he printed or reissued were Frederick Marryat, Thackeray, Macaulay, and Disraeli. Carey & Hart published hundreds of books and carried even more titles. Their catalogues listed juveniles, medical works in English and French, and translations from the German and French. Their widely distributed house organ was the Quarterly Literary Gazette. In Philadelphia’s Jewish community, no man was more influential than Hart. From the 1840’s on, there was no layman more devoted to Jewish causes or more active in the town’s Jewish institutions. He helped establish the first Jewish Publication Society—there were to be two later rebirths—served as president of Mikveh Israel for over thirty years, and played an important part in many of the town’s Jewish charities and cultural organizations. National recognition brought him the presidency of the Board of Delegates of American Israelites and the chairmanship of the governing council of Maimonides College. In 1854, giving up the book business, he turned to investments in mining and buttonhole machinery. Upon his retirement, publishers and booksellers honored him with a banquet in Philadelphia. The last years of his life saw him overtaken by financial reverses though he remained one of the city’s most respected citizens.46

The New Professionals


In a sense, Hart typified the affluent American Jewish businessmen who were confronted by the new economy; it is worth noting that this capitalist put his money into mining and machines. Some Jews were beginning to leave their shops—the traditional strongholds—and to venture into the new forms of trade and commerce rising out of the commercial and industrial revolution of the early nineteenth century. The new economy brought in its wake—and ultimately in its van—a cadre of men capable of satisfying its needs for leadership in the areas of industry, culture, justice, communal service, and medicine: the new professionals, the managers, the officials, the administrators, the lawyers, doctors, and engineers. As the sciences slowly began to make their impact, there was a call for


The New Economy

professionals who were willing to meet the higher standards demanded by a more enlightened citizenry. The corps of trained men increased in size, with the native-born and immigrants, too, supplying recruits to this growing body which was ultimately to exercise great influence in all the activities of the larger urban communities. By the end of the first decade of the century, Jews had begun to appear as civil servants, naval officers, interpreters, journalists, editors, economists, educators, druggists, dentists, lawyers, and physicians as well as politicians of high and low degree. The variety is beguiling. Interesting is the sudden appearance of engineers; the early graduates of West Point were all engineers. Charleston brought forth David Lopez, a builder with architectural sensibilities reflected not only in Beth Elohim’s Greek Doric sanctuary, but also in a Presbyterian church and in a Moorish style bank. Among the professionals who now make their bow are actors and dramatists, playwrights and theatre managers. At least four of the Phillips clan were in the theatre; Jews were also portraitists and miniature painters. Nothing comparable had been known in Revolutionary Jewry—and all these changes in sixty-five years!47


With the new industry and expanding markets both here and abroad came the need for knowledgeable administrators. Skillful lawyers now took over; many corporations found them indispensable. It has been pointed out above that Benjamin Gratz and George W. Mordecai managed railroads; both were lawyers. Lawyers were now cherished; this had not always been the case. The previous century had manifested considerable prejudice against them. As late as 1786, the citizens of Braintree, Massachusetts, had suggested that restrictions be imposed on lawyers because their conduct tended more to the town’s destruction than to its preservation. Even in the early nineteenth century, few Jews were active in the profession. In some states they could not practice because, as officers of the court, they would have been required to take a Christian oath. One of the country’s early Jewish practitioners was Joshua Montefiore (1762-1843), an uncle of the English philanthropist Moses Montefiore. By 1770 Jews in Great Britain had been permitted to practice as attorneys and solicitors, though not as barristers before 1833. Joshua, an adventurer, tried in vain to practice law in English Jamaica. After the English there refused to admit him to the bar, he returned home in 1792 to join an expedition which established a colony on the West African coast. These idealists wanted to prove that a colony in a tropical land could prosper without slave labor. After the failure of the venture, Montefiore joined the British army, but the early nineteenth century found him in the United States (ca. 1803). Here he reprinted some of the legal manuals which he had prepared in England and also published new


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

works on commercial law. Clearly he was competent. Though we lack absolute proof that he practiced law here, it is reasonable to assume that he did. He had some means because he was the beneficiary of his nephew’s largesse; he was a remittance man. Finally at the age of seventy-three, he settled down in St. Albans, Vermont, and married a young Christian woman who bore him at least eight children. They were reared as Christians; but he remained Jewish and, before he passed away, wrote out a translation of the Hebrew burial service which was recited at his funeral.48

Not surprisingly, Jewish lawyers in the South first made their appearance in Charleston, for decades the most important town south of Philadelphia. In 1793, three years after the South Carolina Jews were emancipated, Moses Myers, of Georgetown, was admitted to the bar. It was not long before others began practicing law in Charleston, Georgetown, Camden, and very probably in other interior towns. One of the most colorful of the Charleston practitioners was Abraham Moise, scion of a family which had fled Santo Domingo because of the servile revolts of 1791. After his admission to the bar in 1822, Moise made a name for himself in both the Jewish and general communities; he became a justice of the peace, enjoyed a lucrative legal practice, and served as one of the leaders of the religiously left-wing Reformed Society of Israelites. In the outback, in Camden on the Wateree River, Chapman Levy was recognized as one of the town’s leading citizens; he was a soldier, planter, state legislator, and politician. Several Charlestonians were in later decades to be acclaimed as successful legal practitioners; some of them even attained national recognition. One, Solomon Heydenfeldt, was elected to the California supreme court; Judah P. Benjamin became Secretary of State in Jefferson Davis’s Confederate government (1862-1865); still another, Philip Phillips, was in postbellum days to stand out as one of the country’s most respected lawyers.49

By 1840, there was a sprinkling of Jewish lawyers in all the commonwealths of the South. When one of the younger Sheftalls apprenticed himself to a Gentile attorney in 1810 to learn the art and mystery of the profession, he stipulated that he was to be free on the Sabbath and all Jewish Holy Days, and that he was to eat out. Undoubtedly he kept kosher and ate his meals with the family. George Washington Mordecai was not the first of his family to take the bar examination; he had been preceded by an older brother, Moses, who had studied and practiced in Raleigh. In 1807, as a young man reading Blackstone at home, Moses, with tongue in cheek, told sister Rachel that during a storm a hailstone came rolling down the chimney and extinguished his candle. When he “reenlightened” himself, he searched for it and found it. It was larger than a turkey’s egg, he said, and he kept it in warm water till the next


The New Economy

day. Rachel suggested with equal mock seriousness that the entire incident be reported to Thomas Jefferson, the scientist. The disability incorporated in the North Carolina constitution, which closed offices to professing Jews, did not deter these two Mordecai brothers from practicing law. Both married Christians; at least three Mordecai children converted to Christianity.50

Jews in Virginia began turning to the law in the early nineteenth century, due perhaps to the fact that they settled in rather late in this colony which had but few towns of size. Jews were normally an urban trading people, but the younger generation would not be denied; some of them had no desire to be businessmen. The merchant Moses Myers sent a son to William and Mary; after graduation, the youngster studied law in Richmond. There, in the capital, Myers’s former partner, Samuel Myers, educated his three sons as professionals. Two were in the law; one became a physician. By the 1810’s there were at least four attorneys in the state, three of them in Richmond. One of these three, Gustavus Adolphus Myers (1801-1869), became a notable practitioner. It was said that he had the largest practice in the state with clients as far away as Baltimore and New York. After the Civil War when Jefferson Davis was released by the federal authorities, Myers was one of the men who supplied bond for him. Myers’s importance as a lawyer is reflected in the roster of his honors and offices: election to the state legislature, president of the Richmond City Council and of a company that published a local newspaper, director of a railroad and an insurance company, presiding officer of two of the best clubs in town, membership in the Virginia Historical Society. He was also the author or adapter of a play frequently performed both here and in England. Though he and his older brother both married out of the faith, he was quite active in the religious and communal life of local Jewry; he represented it on important state occasions; he was Richmond’s Israelite renomme. After all, noblesse oblige.51

It was not until 1802 that a Jew, Sampson Simson, was admitted to the bar in New York City. A generation later, in 1840, less than five had taken the bar examination. This is surprising, for lawyers come with business, with commerce and industry. The answer may be simple: in proportion to their numbers there, there were not many truly wealthy Jewish businessmen in New York; when important sums were at stake, they preferred distinguished Gentile practitioners, men of competence and political influence, like Alexander Hamilton. Christians preferred their own counsellors; the city had no outstanding Jewish lawyer to whom Jews might turn if they wanted the best. Simson (1781-1857), had read law in the office of Aaron Burr. He did not have to practice his profession; he was descended from a wealthy family with roots in the city going back for almost a century. An observant Jew, he devoted himself for a while to


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

the Jewish and general communities before retiring to his estate in Westchester. He enjoyed Masonry, marched as a captain with the militia, tinkered with prison reform, and interested himself in agricultural machinery; he had large holdings in Yonkers. His sturdy Orthodoxy went hand in hand with devotion to the Jews in the land of their fathers, Palestine. Not long before he died, he bestirred himself and brought about the establishment of the first Jewish hospital in New York, the later Mount Sinai.52

New York may not have been able to brag of its Jewish counsellors, because for decades it was overshadowed by Philadelphia. In that generation, the “Philadelphia lawyer” was reputed to be the sharpest and best. The first three “Jewish” lawyers in Pennsylvania, the Levy brothers, were Christians, baptized or halakically Gentile because of their Gentile mother. Two of them were admitted to practice in 1778. Moses, the oldest of the three, was competent and highly regarded; his career was a notable one; the other two created no stir in the legal world, though Samson Levy’s sharpness brought him some success. He was widely known in his day for the malapropisms which amused all privileged to hear them. One example: “I maintain, may it please this honorable court, that in every well regulated society justice is to be dispensed with throughout the land.” As befitted its commercial importance and possibly because of the appeal of its university law school, Philadelphia by 1840 had trained a number of Jewish lawyers, about twelve, if the Levys are included. Several of the graduates during these early decades were members of the extended Si-mon-Gratz-Etting family and of the prolific Phillips clan. Most of these youngsters who studied law at the University of Pennsylvania were members of notable families. What motivated them in those early years of the republic to prepare themselves for the bar? The desire to enter industry? In no sense. They were wrapped up in politics; they nursed hopes of winning an office, attaining status, gaining power. One of Jonas Phillips’s sons, Zalegman (1779-1839), was the first professing Jew in the state to practice law. He matriculated at the university at sixteen, passed the bar exam at twenty, and entered what proved to be a lucrative practice in the field of criminal law. Two of his sons were also attorneys; one of them, Henry Mayer Phillips, went to Congress. '


Prejudice in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was not directed against lawyers alone; physicians, too, were often looked upon with suspicion or disdain. A traveler making his way through Pennsylvania in 1690 said that the province was healthy and hoped that it would never have occasion to use lawyers or physicians. As late as 1780, Jacob Prager of Amsterdam, one of the chief partners of the international firm of Pragers, had his doubts about medicine as a profession: “It is indeed a miserable calling,


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but one can never know.” There were Jewish physicians in colonial America as early as 1655 when Dr. Jacob (John) Lumbrozo documented his presence in Maryland by presenting a bill, apparently for medical services. Out on the Illinois frontier a Jew is known to have practiced medicine in 1782 during the days of the Revolution. This was “Doctor” Isaac Levy, of Cahokia who will long be remembered, not for his medical skill of which we know nothing, nor for his activity as a purveyor to the Virginia forces during the war, but for his droll encounter with Monsieur Buteau. This Frenchman, being sued by the good doctor for 400 livres, offered the defense that he had not been cured. The court ruled, therefore, that Levy attend Buteau until a cure had been effected, but Buteau was enjoined to pay heed to the instructions of his physician. Buteau followed the doctor’s prescription, but in his own original way: he took the sixty-seven prescribed pills in two days, instead of seven, because as a clever fellow he figured he would get well that much quicker. So he said: To which Levy replied that, had he indeed taken all the pills in two days, he would not have been here to tell the tale. Result: judgment in the suit was awarded Dr. Isaac Levy of Cahokia.54

There were several Jewish physicians in colonial North America; with very few exceptions they appear to have been medical craftsmen, though some may have been genuinely competent. The postrevolutionary period seems to have worked a change in the attitude toward physicians. Medical standards were raised; people turned to physicians of repute, and some Jews, too, sensed that there were opportunities in this area for their children. In the early 1790’s, the Canadian Aaron Hart asked a New York friend Eleazar Levy about educating his fifteen-year-old son Benjamin, who aspired to become a physician. Levy’s answer was that he could become a doctor with or without Latin—that is, he could go to a university or he could apprentice himself to a practitioner and learn to be a doctor, surgeon, and apothecary. Benjamin Hart never practiced medicine; his father, Canada’s most notable Jewish merchant, may have dissuaded him. The son did, however, become a notable Montreal merchant, a lieutenant colonel in the Crown’s armed forces during the War of 1812, and one of the founders of the city’s general hospital; apparently he never lost his interest in medicine. By the early nineteenth century, a number of college-trained Jewish physicians had already begun serving in large towns, all the way from New York to New Orleans. Even before Texas took up arms against Mexico, a German-trained Jewish physician was ministering to the wants of the settlers in the old Spanish mission town of Nacogdoches. Later he moved east to Natchez, but finally returned to his European fatherland. When Texans fought for independence in the decade of the 1830’s, two Jewish surgeons served the insurgents as volunteers; like many other volunteers, they were young men in their twenties looking for adventure.'”


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

Before 1840, New Orleans had its share of Jewish physicians, itinerants, quacks, and well-trained professionals, two of whom were university men. Dr. Solomon Mordecai, of the North Carolina Mordecais, hung out his shield in Mobile; Moses Sheftall, of Savannah, had studied with Dr. Benjamin Rush in Philadelphia, but never finished his work at the University of Pennsylvania. Like several other medical practitioners of his day, he was not content to minister to his patients, but was eager to volunteer as a surgeon during the War of 1812 and later to help organize the Georgia Medical Society. Politically ambitious, as were other members of his clan, he sat on the bench as a country judge and served as a state legislator. South Carolina’s first native-born resident physician with a college degree was Levi Myers, of Georgetown and Charleston, who began to make the rounds of his patients in the late eighteenth century. Long before him, about the year 1745, Dr. John de Sequeyra (1712-1795), a graduate of the University of Leyden, had practiced medicine in Williamsburg, then the capital of the province of Virginia. In a manuscript still extant he described the diseases prevalent in the province. In the South Carolina capital, Columbia, Mordecai Hendricks De Leon (1791-1848) was recognized as an outstanding citizen and as one of the region’s leading physicians. It was due in part to his efforts that an insane asylum was established in the town and he served it for years as its chief physician. Three members of this family practiced medicine; two had studied at the University of Pennsylvania. During the 1830’s De Leon served as mayor of Columbia; he was a politician and something of a writer. His leadership and literary qualities were reflected in his three sons, all of whom became notable figures in the United States during the second half of the century. Tradition has it that Abraham, his father, gave the local Jewish benevolent society the ground for its cemetery. This confraternity was the core around which the local Jewish community was built in the 1820’s.56

Baltimore, Maryland, sheltered Dr. Jonathan Horwitz for years. Though he may have been well trained—he, too, was an alumnus of the university in Philadelphia—there is every reason to believe that he was not a successful physician. College training was no guarantee of a lucrative practice. What the father lacked, the son possessed. The son, Dr. Jonathan Phineas Horwitz, became one of the country’s notable medical administrators. The most attractive personality in the medical field among Maryland’s Jews was Dr. Joshua I. Cohen (1801-1870), still another member of the prestigious Baltimore Cohens. Cohen belongs to a generation when men of culture, Jews among them, reached out to acquire encyclopedic knowledge, but one wonders how sound was the scholarship of these would-be Renaissance men. It is a historical curiosity that the first professing Jew to take a medical degree in an English university was an American-born Jew, Joseph Hart Myers (1758-1823), son of Naphtali


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Hart Myers, a New York merchant and president of the local congregation. The father returned to England when Joseph was still a youngster; the son studied at many medical schools, but finally took his degree at Edinburgh. His published thesis was on diabetes, a disease that has always interested Jewish physicians. Maimonides described it in the twelfth century, and Jewish scholars today continue to study this malady with which many Jews still have to cope. Isaac Abrahams, who took his B.A. degree at Kings’ College (Columbia) in 1774, soon turned to medicine. The best known of the New York Jewish doctors was a brilliant Sephardi, Daniel Levi Maduro Peixotto (1800-1843), whose career will be described in a later chapter together with that of Isaac Hays (1796-1870), a Philadelphian of scientific quality, who in his writings foreshadowed the new physician and the new medicine of the late nineteenth century.'7

As in law and in commerce, so in medicine, too, Philadelphia led the country for decades. Because the medical school in Philadelphia may well have been the best, Jewish students found their way there from other states; there were no quotas for Jews in that generation. In 1834, about four decades after Nassy’s return to his South American homeland, Dr. Manly Emanuel, a well-trained London physician, settled in Delaware County south of Philadelphia. There he served as a justice of the peace and as president both of the school board and the county medical society. Later he moved to nearby Philadelphia where he became highly respected for his ability and his devotion to his faith; he was scrupulously observant. His career was atypical in that this graduate of an excellent London school was willing to live in a village and practice for years in a rural community. This was true, too, of Dr. Levi Myers, of Georgetown, South Carolina. Coastal Georgetown was a rice planting center 90 percent of whose inhabitants were blacks, slaves; at the most, the whites could not have numbered more than a thousand. It may well be that the prime source of Myers’s income was the sale of drugs, since he also ran an apothecary. Charleston during this period had at least one Jewish dentist; Philadelphia, three.58

Reflections on Jews in the American Economy


Characteristically the Jewish physicians turned avidly to politics, to Masonry, and to non-professional challenges in both the general and the Jewish communities. One of the reasons they did so is that very few physicians in the United States then found medical practice remunerative. How many of the doctors, Jews among them, were really devoted to medicine as a science? More to the point, most Jews had been emanci-


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

pated during their own lifetimes; as a long submerged group, they were trying to make a place for themselves socially and culturally; each wanted to be somebody. Because they were seeking to express themselves, they spread themselves thin. Jonas Phillips was just beginning to sense the new economy through his children when he died in 1803. He himself, emigre from a German village, had played several roles here on the American stage. He was a shohet, a clerk, an auctioneer, a blockade runner, a merchant. One of his sons was a physician, another a journalist, a third a lawyer, a fourth an actor, playwright and theatre manager. America was indeed a new world. With the exception of unlicensed and itinerant doctors, Jewish physicians tended to remain in one town; they had to do so to build up a practice. Shopkeepers and so-called merchants were much more mobile, following the will-o’-the-wisp called opportunity: when they failed to make a living in one community, they moved on to fresh pastures. Because some Jewish Philadelphians thought that Baltimore had a future, they moved there; by the second decade of the nineteenth century about one-half of the town’s Jews had come from the City of Brotherly Love. Some of these Baltimoreans had a history of moving about: Mordecai M. Mordecai had labored previously in Lancaster, Pittsburgh, and Richmond; Michel De Young, a Dutch immigrant, ran a jewelry shop and a horn comb factory in Baltimore before traveling north to New York City; later, he shifted his residence to Texas and he may also have lived in New Orleans. One of his last stops was Cincinnati, but he had already left it when he died, his eyes set on California. His sons Charles and Michel founded the San Francisco Chronicle.59

A brief summary of two generations of the Gratzes may be informative, for it will show that some occupational changes were a response to the challenge of the new economic order. The Gratz brothers, Barnard and Michael, had come to the colonies in the 1750’s. They started out as clerks in London and Philadelphia; brother Michael, when still a youngster, had even tried his luck for a while in India. Here in America they adventured in coastal shipments, but when the French were expelled after 1763 and their defeat in the Seven Years’ War, the Gratzes turned to the Indian trade. The next and obvious step was to start speculating in land, given their hope that the transallegheny country would become the haven and asylum for the poor and oppressed of Europe. But wherever they turned they never forgot that they were merchants. Despite their involvement in the fur trade, they were not specialists; they were interested in any and every aspect of trade which promised a profit. During the Revolution, they helped outfit a military expedition against the British and the Indians in the Northwest; when necessary, they even engaged in banking procedures, advancing money, discounting notes, drafts, and bills of exchange. The brothers had a series of partners, mostly Gentiles, with


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whom they worked closely as they kept their eyes on the Ohio-Missis-sippi River trade. By the 1790’s, both brothers had fallen sick, and Michael’s sons began to take over.60

Michael had five sons; sometimes they worked in concert, often for themselves; at times there were bitter intrafamily hostilities. These Gratzes were merchants, commission agents, land speculators, merchant-shippers, importers and exporters of wares from East India and China, traders to South America; one brother was a cloth manufacturer. In the early nineteenth century, some of the brothers were doing business on a large scale; in 1802, for instance, they advertised that they had 50,000 pounds of black pepper for sale—an indication of the quantities which they bought and sold. During the War of 1812, they gathered saltpeter from Mammoth Cave to be used in the making of gunpowder. They shipped tobacco, hemp, and Kentucky whiskey down the Ohio and Mississippi to New Orleans, where they picked up a cargo of cotton for export. The sons operated on a far larger scale than the original firm of B. and M. Gratz, and when hard times came, they were so extended that they found it impossible to survive. They were bankrupt in 1826. They had staggered through the long bad years that followed the 1819 depression; they had survived the embargoes of the earlier Jefferson administration, the war with Great Britain, and the postbellum panic, but all to no avail. Some of these Philadelphians were compelled to give up their beautiful home, but, like many other merchants of the day, they fell only to rise again. These able men recouped their losses in the new fields of insurance and transportation. When Simon, the oldest of the brothers, passed away in 1839, he was very wealthy, leaving a beautiful home and grounds, fine furniture, silver and linen, three horses, carriages. His portfolio of stocks was a diversified one with emphasis on transportation securities: turnpikes, a bridge company, a railroad. There was real estate, a coal business. The entire estate exceeded a quarter of a million dollars. Nothing was left to his siblings, not even to the immaculate Rebecca.61

Simon and his brother Hyman had built a large, wealthy, influential firm before they became insolvent. Bankruptcy threatened many merchants for there were constant hazards to be faced: fires, cholera, typhus, yellow fever, failures of clients, wars and embargoes, piratical privateers, overstocked markets, inflation—and, worst of all, “bad luck.” No one was exempt from financial calamity. In the middle of the eighteenth century, the Gomezes and the Frankses had been the wealthiest, and most powerful families in the New York congregation. In 1796, Moses Gomez, Jr., had suffered reverses which made it necessary for him to retrench. It is to be doubted that his financial decline resulted from the Tory sympathies he had held twenty years earlier; in matters of this sort, the patriots had very short memories once the war was over. Three, possibly four, genera-


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

tions of Gomezes had lived and died in New York. Moses, Jr., was a cultured gentleman who wrote and spoke an impeccable English, yet now he was constrained literally to take a back seat, a cheaper one in the synagog. Among the congregation’s leaders whom he addressed was the parnas, the president, a former German commissary officer who had served the British during the War. Undoubtedly this man, only a few years in America, spoke a broken English and wrote an even worse letter.62

When the bottom fell out of the price of tobacco, Solomon Jacobs, of Richmond, wrote rather facetiously to his wife, then visiting her parents: Can’t you introduce the fashion of sneezing, smoking, and chewing among the ladies; it would help out. There were more serious hazards than falling prices: in 1788 Abraham Nathan, of Charleston, a merchant, was killed by the captain of his ship, a partner. The years from 1776 to 1840 saw eight depressions; twenty-six of the sixty-four years were bad ones. Jewish businessmen suffered; much of their trade was on a credit basis; and since they could not collect, they could not pay their suppliers. Because most were men of modest resources, they were always vulnerable. Jacob Mordecai was bankrupt in 1786; James Monroe was one of his creditors, lucky if he ever received five shillings on the pound. Benjamin Nones was twice bankrupt. Petty businessmen had no bed of roses. Haym Salomon, once the most generous Jew in the United States and acclaimed abroad as a “princely philanthropist,” did not leave enough for a grave marker.'1

Baltimore had no congregation for decades because the elite would not join with the newcomers. The newcomers were too poor or too thrifty to establish a synagog on their own. Even in the West with all of its presumptive opportunities, the race was not always to the pioneer. In early Cincinnati of the 1820’s, one half of all Jewish burials were impoverished clients; one quarter of the congregation was unassessed, too poor to pay dues. In order to survive, men did what they could. Isaac Nunez Cardozo, of Easton, was a tailor, a teacher of mathematics, surveying, and navigation, a peddler of ague and fever powders, and once more a tailor. When the New Yorker, Philip Hone, congratulated a Philadelphia Jewish merchant on the signing of the treaty of peace with the British after the War of 1812, the businessman answered lugubriously: “Thank you, thank you, Mr. Hone, but I wish I had not bought them calicoes.” Wartime high cost goods could not be sold except at a loss. The sufferings which were the lot of many Jewish settlers here probably deterred others in Central Europe from emigrating. A Jewish immigrant in Carbondale, Pennsylvania, wrote back home to a nephew in Germany, a prospective immigrant: “You cannot make headway here unless as a German you will have to unlearn much and learn much.” It was the misfortune of the Central European Jewish emigrants that they started coming here in the late


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1830’s just as the country was about to enter its most serious economic depression. An interesting and illuminating history of American Jews might well be the record of their financial failures.'

Poverty breeds crime? Both words are relative terms. Most Jews in this period were not poverty-stricken, though many were indeed poor. If there had been no poor there would have been no need for the charities. Synagogs had been helping the needy since the earliest days; the very first known constitution of an American synagog made provision for local and itinerant suppliants (1706/1728). Some Jews who fell into the clutches of the law can hardly be deemed criminals. More than once some of Richmond’s solid Jewish citizens were arrested and fined for betting on faro in a local tavern (1805-1808); they were, it seems, chronic gamblers. It was only meet that the foreman of the grand jury that investigated gambling should be a Mr. R. Gamble. The early national period apparently nourished a generation of litigants. Jews were constantly bringing suits; court action was a common method, almost a prevalent one, to collect debts. Many people were not able to meet their obligations or refused to do so until forced by the law and the bailiff. Litigation was often occasioned by intrafamily disputes; they were long and bitter, for money was involved. The traditional idyllic picture of intra-Jewish familial and communal harmony was often mocked by the harshness of reality. The knowledgeable researcher hastens to utter a caveat; litigation has high visibility, whereas successful businessmen and harmonious Jewish communities have little history; they luxuriate in invisibility.

Some Jews were irresponsible businessmen; others were sharp, on occasion unscrupulous. Bankrupt Jews frequently left town in order to avoid imprisonment for debt; if jailed, they and their families would languish for lack of support. Lt. Col. Isaacs Franks once went into hiding in order to avoid his debtors. A Charleston merchant was fined for violating the federal trading regulations during the decade of the Jefferson embargo. Individual shopkeepers and merchants turned out to be crooks; they absconded with goods. One luckless creature ran off, leaving his wife, children, and debts to be taken care of by his father-in-law, an impoverished Revolutionary War veteran. Christians were prone to suspect Jews of fraudulent bankruptcies, but it is instructive that a list containing the names of thousands of bankrupts revealed no Jews.

Jewish criminals did exist in 1816. A New York merchant-shipper with a fine reputation was arrested for scuttling a ship and attempting to collect the insurance; his cargo was carefully boxed with rubbish. A Baltimorean was charged with receiving stolen goods, but was found innocent. There seems to have been no question about the guilt of another Baltimore Jew, Emanuel Semon, accused of beating two fellow Jews, one of them a woman. He was fined $1. In 1818, a peddler was said to have as-


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

saulted and stabbed the wife of one of the town’s Jews; he moved on to New York, arranged for the conversion of his Christian wife, and ended his life in that city as a clothier. Two other residents of Baltimore were hauled into court on the charge that they threatened to take the life of a coreligionist, one Mr. Maurice Cohen. No distinction accrued to the American Jewish community from a visit to these shores by one William Jones. Mr. Jones turned out to be Isaac Solomon, an English crook with an international reputation; he was known in the trade as Ikey Solomon. Reportedly he was the original of Fagin in Dickens’s Oliver Twist. Back home he had been a notorious fence. Escaping custody after an arrest, he fled to America bringing with him his not inconsiderable talents. He was an educated man. As Mr. William Jones, a jeweler, he forged bank notes, negotiated fraudulent debentures, and discounted worthless English stocks. Obviously Solomon was an entrepreneur at home in the new economy. He ended up in Australia as a transport, but his criminal background did not deter him from joining the Hobart congregation.66

UPPER, MIDDLE, AND LOWER CLASS JEWS The Rich and the Comfortable

Jewish crooks were not numerous. A nineteenth century Christian magistrate in New York City said that Jews were rarely arraigned in his court, even for petty crimes, despite the fact that the number of poor Israelites in the city was proportionately great. The reason for this is simple: when in dire straits, the Jewish poor could always turn to their confraternities or to a congregation for relief; they did not have to steal in order to survive. The apprehensive Jewish community responded to appeals unless the suppliant was known to be an incorrigible criminal—which is why Moses Levy let a Jewish thief be hanged in New York City in 1727. Tradesmen who failed in business did not fall into crime, but usually made some sort of respectable comeback; it was not too long before most of them were again members of the extended middle class in which most Jews were to be found. When in the 1780’s the British civil servants and the Loyalists left the country or lost their property, a new politically powerful Whig group took over. Jews were not even on the periphery of this powerful minority which accorded its intimates enviable economic advantages. But the young republic did open roads to Jews; individuals forged ahead financially through their investments in the new transportation media. Every town had one or two who did rise to the top, temporarily at least. Thus rich Jews are found all the way from New Orleans to Boston. New Orleans had the Hermanns and Judah Touro; Charleston had Mordecai Cohen and the Lazarus brothers. Cohen, a Polish newcomer, lent his gold and silver plate to help entertain Lafayette when he visited the city in


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1825. The Myers-Hays-Marx clan of Richmond had solid wealth. The bond required when the estate of Joseph Marx was probated was for $350,000; a similar amount was posted when Samuel Myers died; the bond for his sister-in-law Slowey Hays was $120,000. Hers was the largest estate left by a woman in Virginia. It is reasonable to assume that much of her wealth and that of Samuel Myers, who married Judith Hays, came as an inheritance from Moses M. Hays, of Boston. In Baltimore, the Ettings and especially the Cohens were possessors of substantial, if not great, wealth; in Philadelphia, John Moss was recognized as an enterprising capitalist of means; the Gratzes, after their fall in the 1820’s, rose once more to riches and influence. The home they had vacated in 1826 after their insolvency is a measure of their earlier affluence: it was 28 feet wide, 56 feet deep; the folding doors were of mahogany and the mantels were of marble. There was a separate bathhouse as well as a cistern, a good-sized stable, and a carriage house.67

In addition to Moses M. Hays and his son Judah, Boston counted Abraham Touro among its most substantial investors. To the south, New York City always had several rich businessmen since the generation of Nathan Simson, who in the mid-1700’s returned “home” to England with a large fortune. The eighteenth-century Jewish elite in Manhattan included the Gomezes, the Simsons, and the Frankses. Some Gomezes had gone down; others had survived. In 1791, the estate of A. Moses Gomez was paying more personal and real estate taxes than the total paid by all other Jewish taxpayers. Others in the 1780’s who had achieved affluence were the firms of Jacob and Philip Marks, the Hendrickses, and Isaac Moses. In Revolutionary days, the Markses, Germans, had been British supplymen, and Uriah Hendricks had remained in New York and made his peace with the British occupiers; Isaac Moses was, by contrast, an exile and an ardent Continental patriot. Most Jews in the American metropolis were in the middle or lower brackets. Among them were Benjamin Seixas and Simon Nathan; Seixas was on the way up; Nathan, on the way down. New Yorkers in the 1840’s eagerly read Moses Yale Beach’s The Wealth of New York. It is a grossly inaccurate twenty-five cent chapbook of little worth, but it does indicate who were then considered to be the very wealthy. As early as 1820, New York was already more populous than Philadelphia; by 1830, it was America’s leading port; by 1840, it was ten times larger than Charleston. August Belmont had arrived in 1837, and it would not be long before he was numbered among the country’s leading bankers; a number of Judah women are acclaimed, but little is known of them; Aaron Gomez, a son-in-law of Harmon Hendricks, is included in the Beach pamphlet, as is also a David Hart from the New Orleans family of that name. One suspects that the wealth of a Judah, a Hart, and a Gomez was inherited. The total Hendricks’s fortune


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

was rated at over $1,000,000—which does seems a reasonable guess. According to the author, not one of the Jews whom he listed had less than $100,000. Why he ignored Bernard Hart, who was still alive, is puzzling. The answer may be that Hart was not as wealthy as some of his contemporaries thought he was.68

Very rich Jews were rare before 1840, though a substantial number of people in every town had more than enough for their needs, and many may be deemed affluent. Judah P. Benjamin owned a large sugar plantation in Louisiana, but it is very questionable if his was a successful enterprise; it was the fees he earned as one of the country’s great lawyers which provided him with a large income. The South Carolina and Mississippi planter Chapman Levy ran his plantations with about thirty slaves; his income, which permitted him to engage actively in politics, probably came from his practice as a lawyer rather than from profits as a farmer. Mordecai Sheftall’s unmarried daughter Esther had a small shop, but in her will she left several slaves, ranch acreage, some jewels, and Passover China (1828). The Georgia Sheftall clan and its neighbors the Minises enjoyed a comfortable income; that seems beyond doubt. Esther’s father Mordecai, the Revolutionary War quartermaster (d. 1798), left a well-furnished home with pictures, china, linens, and silver as well as a cow and a horse in the stable, and this was but a portion of his estate. The court appointed Sheftall to appraise the estate of Abigail Minis and her son Philip, who had predeceased her. The old lady left a fine home and slaves both on her farm and in the city; Philip, in addition to a well-equipped home with its ample supply of silver plate (collateral!), was the owner of a store whose inventory included hardware, dry goods, and groceries. Though by 1820 Charleston in neighboring South Carolina was no longer to be counted among the great American cities, many of its Jewish citizens had wealth which they had acquired or inherited. Three families had households of twenty or more slaves; one of the Jews in Georgetown also had twenty or more black bondsmen, and this was true, too, of a Jew in the Barnwell District, in the backcountry bordering on Georgia. Jacob Jacobs, of Charleston, seems to have been a typical Charleston businessman, if any businessman can be said to be typical. His will testifies that he owned houses, silver plate, a stable, horses, carriages, and at least ten slaves. Listed as personal property were notes, silver and gold jewelry, bonds, and deeds for land in Georgia.69

Richmond’s Marcus Elkan is a good example of a local businessman who was “well fixed.” At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the heyday of his career as a merchant, the Shenandoah Valley was the largest producer of wheat in the United States. He ran a general store, where he stocked a wide variety of goods. His beautifully furnished home was adorned with pictures of Shakespeare and the British statesmen William


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Pitt and Henry Fox. His library, fortunately listed in his will, documents his intelligence and good taste. The estate was appraised at about $10,000, but was probably worth much more. In an extant taxlist of Richmond citizens for the year 1788, 10 of the 360 taxpayers were Jews. All but one of the Jewish householders had a domestic servant (a slave); one of them had three. Most of the Jews in town were in the middle-class or lower-middle-class bracket. Not a single one is likely to have been affluent at this early date. The Jewish community would not write its constitution for another year; it was just getting organized. By the turn of the century, a decade later, several had already attained a degree of affluence; two or three were on the road to wealth.

How did the middle-class Jew live in Pennsylvania? Mathias Bush may serve as an illustration. This merchant, a partner at times of the Si-mon-Gratz group, lived in Montgomery County not too far from Philadelphia, on a small farm in a beautiful home tastefully furnished with pictures, mirrors, a silver service, and a small library. By 1825, Philadelphia sheltered dozens of Jewish businessmen: merchants, shopkeepers, grocers, brokers, professional men, artisans. Some, if not many, made an excellent living. The firm of R. & I. Phillips was listed in 1820 as merchants; before long it would become the Philadelphia agent of the English Rothschilds. One of the largest, and certainly the most beautiful, dry goods stores in town was that of Lyon J. Levy. This Levy and the Phillipses, too, were men of substance. There were many others of whom we know, and probably many of whom there is little or no record. As late as 1836, Isaac Leeser referred to Philadelphia as the country’s largest Jewish community —the New Yorkers would have disputed that statement.70

The Middle Class and the Lower Middle Class

Most American Jews belonged to the middle class or the lower middle class. They were in business; by extension they were all in one rather inclusive economic group. Despite their common economic interests, sharp social distinctions were made. Was there no “common sort”? There was always a lower class—an underclass, we might say today—but among Jews it was very small, and unfortunately its members had no visibility; they left no wills; they had nothing to leave. Jewish indentured servants were shipped here as late as 1819. How many? There is no way of knowing. They served their time or ran away. In either case, they were absorbed by Jewry or by the anonymous Gentile masses; they have no history. Thanks to the numerous directories, it is possible to describe the occupational distribution of America’s Jews, since most of them lived in urban centers and the directories listed their vocations. Regrettably, the mere recording of names and vocations is no index to wealth, to class, to


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

status within the extensive middle-class group which embraced most of them. Even the term merchant is not always helpful; it was beginning, by the early nineteenth century, to lose its significance as a synonym for an elite trader; from now on, the term merely indicated that the proud possessor was a buyer and seller of wares. Yet the listings are useful; they indicate how Jews made a living and make it possible for certain conclusions to be drawn. Most Jews were not poor in the sense of being poverty-stricken; a Jewish proletariat was virtually nonexistent. The few Jewish charity records before the late 1830’s reveal that relatively few clients applied for help.71

A study of New Yorkers listed in the directories for the third decade of the century reveals that of 306 identified Jews, 127 called themselves merchants. This did not include the craftsmen, brokers, stationers, lottery agents, clerks, boardinghouse keepers, druggists, two lawyers, and a civil servant. It is clear, however, that almost everyone was a businessman, at least in the directories. After 1830, analyses of the records indicate the appearance of specialists: a comedian, a dyer, a brewer, a quill manufacturer, a coalyard owner, a liquor dealer. A few may be classed as industrialists, but they may well have been no more than modest artisans. A study limited to the membership of Shearith Israel in the 1830’s reveals two police officers, druggists, a shoe polish manufacturer, liquor dealers, various civil servants, a lithographer, a pencil maker, a professor who taught languages, and two clothiers, whatever that term meant at the time. Congregation Anshe Chesed of New York hired a carpenter in 1836 to make repairs in the synagog. His name was Friedsheim. Was he the ancestor of Michael Friedsam, president of B. Altman & Company, who left large sums for charity and education and a collection of old masters to the Metropolitan Museum? At the other end of the country a study of New Orleans Jewry for this same period shows that here too most Jews were in business. They were in clothing, dry goods, brokerage; watchmakers predominated among the artisans, although in general there were but few skilled craftsmen. A cigar manufacturer was probably a cigarmaker working in a small shop with one or two journeymen. Among those gainfully employed New Orleans Jews at this time were also a distiller, a bank manager, a handful of physicians and attorneys.72

It is easier to pinpoint the occupation of Charleston’s Jews. Practically every businessman in town has been identified by Elzas in his works on South Carolina. The Charleston directory for 1803 lists 96 householders. Artisans were rare; 57 Jews were shopkeepers, 4 of them were women. It is curious that only 7 called themselves merchants but then all those Charleston tradesmen had been born in the mid-eighteenth century when the term “merchant” was almost sacrosanct and they showed respect for this venerable noun. Auctioneers (wholesalers) were numerous;


The New Economy

there were also four brokers. Among the others, rarely more than one in each category, there was a scrivener, a lumber measurer, a cigarmaker, a turnkey, a fruiterer, a tailor, a horsetrader, and a tobacco manufacturer, the latter someone who made snuff and chewing tobacco. All told, of the 96 listed, 85 were merchandisers. The publisher of the directory, Isaac El-izer, had once been postmaster in a remote South Carolina village; later in 1813 at Charleston, he was to be a notary public and a justice of the peace. His father had been a Newport merchant shipper and slave importer who died impoverished. By 1840, the new economy had already made itself felt in Charleston. The Jews there included at least one individual who was a railroad director, an insurance investor, a builder, an educator, an artist, a civil servant, a doctor, a dentist, and a lawyer.73

Baltimore in 1800 was a large city with but very few Jews, possibly eighty souls. There were a few merchants, some boardinghouse keepers, a tobacco manufacturer, a maker of shoe polish, a broker, a hardware store owner, a grocer, a distiller, a captain of the watch, and a policeman. Most of these people were in modest circumstances. By 1820 immigrants had begun to filter in: peddlers, owners of second-hand stores, a clothier, a taverner, a commission merchant, a pawnbroker, a real estate speculator, a furniture dealer, and manufacturers—one made chemicals, another made paper. As was true of practically all the Jewish industrialists in every town, their manufactories were small enterprises. Artisans now made their appearance: watchmakers, locksmiths, a jeweler, a butcher, a comb-maker, a painter, a glazer, a quillmaker. There was also a pharmacist and a dentist. The upper middle class comprised only two families, the Ettings and the Cohens, merchant and lottery entrepreneurs; in the lower middle class, some peddlers. In 1820, the 11 native-born and immigrant householders had a total of 24 servants; 15 free blacks; 9 slaves. Not one of the immigrant families had a servant; they were still struggling. In the decade that ended in 1830, there were not many occupational variations; the census records a grocer, a pawnbroker, a musician, and a physician. The recent immigrants however were now coming up in the world; of the 24 immigrant households, 10 had black servants, most of them hired personnel, not slaves. The typically Jewish pattern of vocational distribution reflected in the directories of New York, New Orleans, and Baltimore and other records is reflected also in Richmond where by 1819 most Jewish tradesmen called themselves merchants. All told, 21 were listed by occupation; 14 described themselves as merchants, but the 7 remaining also earned their livelihood through different forms of trade; included were a druggist, a lottery salesman, a grocer, a tobacconist, a hatter, and two stores specializing in shoes.74

The push westward brought with it the rise of Jewish communities across the mountains. This Drang nach Westen is documented in the birth


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

of confraternities or congregations in Columbia, South Carolina, in Richmond, Virginia, and in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. By 1825, Cincinnati, to be known as the Queen City of the West, had a tiny Jewish community, with a merchant, a tailor, an auctioneer, a watchmaker, a distiller, and a grocer. By 1830, the directories had begun to describe some of Cincinnati’s Jewish businessmen as clothiers—probably retailers who kept a stock of ready-to-wear garments. By 1840, the diversity in Cincinnati’s mercantile activities became even more marked though Jews, on the whole, were slow to seek new fields of endeavor. Thus local Jews were clothiers, dry goods shopowners, jewelry and watch repairmen, grocers, cigar and liquor dealers, and boardinghouse keepers. Clerks and young peddlers were then arriving in numbers; wholesalers began to take on more sizable proportions. It is not improbable that some of the fourteen clothiers were small-scale garment manufacturers. With the exception of Charleston and Savannah, all American Jewish communities, including New York, were influenced by Philadelphia, the country’s preeminent city for decades. The economic life of Philadelphia Jewry differs little from that of the smaller towns, which in a sense were patterned on the Pennsylvania metropolis. There was, of course, much more variety within the traditional categories. Before 1800, there had been several brokers to meet the financial challenges of a new state. In addition to the shopkeepers, who were most numerous, there were innkeepers catering to a non-Jewish clientele, a trunkmaker, an embroiderer, a shoemaker, and a saddler. The Philadelphia Directory and Strangers’ Guide for 1825 discloses that in a selective list of over eighty Jews, half were tradesmen. Among them were second-hand clothes dealers, an importer of watches, an accountant, an interpreter, a shopkeeper who specialized in music, an owner of a wallpaper warehouse. Among the professionals and artisans, in addition to lawyers and physicians, were a cabinetmaker, a carver and gilder, a furrier, a dentist, a maker of scales, and a manufacturer of quill cutting knives. Frances Solomons, widow, was recorded as an umbrella maker. Merchants predominated. With access to the ocean, many continued as importers; in 1827, there were 25 Jewish importers out of a total of about 1,300 in the city.75

Jews, Geography, the New Economy, and the Class Structure

When the Revolution began in the mid-1770’s, there were five Jewish communities in which the majority of the Jews pursued a modest livelihood, Newport, New York, Philadelphia, Savannah, and Charleston. There was also a minuscule settlement in Lancaster which served as a jumping-off point for the Western traders. After the War, Newport de-


The New Economy

dined rapidly, while Richmond, Baltimore, and Norfolk made a bid for recognition as arenas for Jewish businessmen. Richmond became important in the 1780’s, because Virginia was the new republic’s largest state. The town was on the James River, which provided transport to the Chesapeake Bay and the ocean. Able businessmen saw an opportunity to exploit the region’s grain and tobacco trade. Norfolk, however, never developed a community in that generation; Jewishly it was a one-man town; maybe that is why it failed to grow and, by the same token, that may be the reason Newport did not survive Aaron Lopez. Richmond had a congregation even before Norfolk’s Moses Myers achieved his success. In general, Jews go where there is an established community, which may explain why Boston was bypassed for Newport in the late colonial decades. By 1840, Baltimore was a metropolis of over 100,000. Two wealthy Sephardic families enjoyed high visibility there, but a growing, if still anonymous, group of Ashkenazic newcomers was on the rise and would before long become the real core around which a community would agglomerate. Baltimore grew as a Jewish community because the town’s fathers, with the Jewish elite at their head, saw the necessity of facing westward. The clipper could not compete with the Conestoga wagon. Important though the foreign trade was, it would have to make way for the commercial promise of the West. American Jews began facing the mountains and the inland river highways. Challenges—new opportunities—were envisaged in the cis-Mississippi lands. By the 1830’s Jews were already headed across the Alleghenies establishing bridgeheads which were soon to emerge as important inland Jewish communities. Following the turnpikes, rivers, and canals, the Jews created religious fellowships of their own in Albany on the upper Hudson, Syracuse on the Erie Canal, Cleveland on Lake Erie, Cincinnati and Louisville on the Ohio, St. Louis and New Orleans on the Mississippi. Cincinnati and Louisville commanded the resources of the Ohio Valley. Cincinnati in particular, was strategically located, as it was tied to the South through its river and to the Great Lakes and the East through its canal. New Orleans now became the entrepot for much of the Mississippi Valley; St. Louis would blossom when the push to the West took on new life. The transal-legheny Jewish towns were not to make their presence felt significantly till the decade of the 1840’s. Central European Jewish newcomers were yet to come, and, when they did, had to struggle for years till they made their mark.

It is difficult even to estimate what proportion of the country’s Jews lived across the mountains. There were said by 1840 to be 15,000 Jews in the United States, and one may guess—and it is only a guess—that a third at most were living in the Mississippi Basin. Perspective must always be retained; the Jewish tidewater communities would never be bypassed. As


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

early as 1830, it was patent that New York was the city of the future; it siphoned off the trade of the West and controlled much of the commerce of the coastal South. New York sold the South’s cotton and supplied its wares; New York was the South’s factor. Philadelphia was losing out to the city at the mouth of the Hudson; Baltimore was still in a state of becoming; Charleston, declining in relative importance, remained—small as it was—an important commercial city and Southern Jewry’s cultural center. As late as 1850, the ambitious Isaac M. Wise, then of Albany, was flattered when invited to serve as the minister of Charleston’s Beth Elohim. New communities would soon rise in the Old Southwest as virgin cotton lands were ploughed in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Charleston’s Jewish brains planted themselves on the Gulf as trade was channeled to Mobile and New Orleans. The region offered good soil, new towns, new opportunities.76

One suspects that the outstanding Jewish businessmen in the South were relatively more influential in their towns than the wealthy Jews of the North. Ben Gratz in Lexington was certainly more important in his town than any of the Gratzes in Philadelphia. Why did brilliant Jews stand out in the South? The Jews in the North, heavily outnumbered by their peers, could not compete effectively in cultural and commercial terms. In the South, however, there were towns where the blacks, slaves, outnumbered the whites; Jews were needed there because fewer able whites turned to commerce. As the Gentile elite of the region became engrossed in politics and in the nursing of social status, competent Jews moved into the economic vacuum. Unfortunately for them and for their ambitions, they were never able to become leaders in the larger community; they lacked status; the real power lay in the countryside, in the hands of the latifundia lords and their yeomen satellites. Were there any appreciable differences in the economic and occupational activities of the Jews in the South when compared with those of the North? Did the Jews living south of the line with its free trade, low tariff needs, tobacco, cotton, rice, and sugar culture, differ perceptibly in their economic pursuits from the Jews in the North, in a grain-growing, high tariff, incipient industrial economy? No. The products were different, but the economic activity was the same; essentially the Jews of both the North and the South were tradesmen buying and distributing consumer wares.77

And the New Economy? The Northern Jews embraced its brokerage aspects enthusiastically. This genre of commerce was nothing new. In one form or another, Jews had been commission merchants in pre-Revolu-tionary days; they had been commercial go-betweens in Europe for centuries. In the South, the Jews crawled into the interstices of the civil service and into the administrative areas of corporate business; as whites, they made a place for themselves because of the blacks and the region’s racial


The New Economy

imbalance. In 1840, more than 50 percent of the population in the South was slave. Some Jews—probably not too many—eagerly welcomed the new challenges of the nineteenth century but every town had its Jewish commercial boosters, who lent their names and talents to any activity that would further commerce and trade. The Baltimore Cohens are exemplary in this respect. The tradition of support for the economy was not absent even in colonial days, for an earlier Sampson Simson (1725-1773) was one of the pillars of New York’s Chamber of Commerce in the middle of the eighteenth century. Newport’s Jews between 1768 and 1775 were among those who sought paved streets; they contributed to the building of a college and a Baptist church a decade before the Revolution. Jewish merchants in Philadelphia and Lancaster joined others in urging the construction of good roads to further interurban traffic. But tiny American Jewry as a whole did not integrate itself into the fermenting agricultural, technological, transportation, and industrial revolutions. This must be reemphasized. Occupationally the Jews as a body remained in their preindustrial rut; they liked it.78

As noted in preceding pages, Jews were in general not part of the plantation economy; they were not much interested in machinery, textiles, large-scale transportation, or heavy industry. Wealthy merchants were not typical of the Jewish body politic. The shopkeepers—who were more typical—lacked the means to engage in speculative ventures; the old-line native-born who had some capital tended to be very cautious speculators. They followed traditional paths; unlike the New Englanders, they did not shift to industry. Maybe they simply failed to sense the future. The America of 1776-1840 was still a merchants’ world for most people, and the Jews saw no need for a radical departure. They stuck to trade, merchandise; they entrenched themselves behind their counters; this was their fortress, their metier. The United States had experienced a political bouleversement in 1776, but the commercial and financial changes that followed on its heels were as yet not drastic, so Jews continued to do business at the old stands and in the old fashion. To be sure, they now had more freedom to move in any direction commercially, as the spirit moved them. Remaining rooted in the past, they adapted themselves only slowly to the changes in the economy; they nibbled at banking, transportation, insurance; they served as federal clerks, consuls, and marshals, urban administrators, as officers in the army and navy, as physicians, surgeons, lawyers, politicians—but the rank and file remained in trade. History must reflect the activities not of the few, but of the many.

Socially the Jews were in every class and in one class. Despite the political power that Aaron Lopez and the Franks clan wielded in colonial days, despite their social acceptance in some quarters because of their wealth and connections, they had never really beem deemed gentry. They


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

had always been “Jews.” In the new republic, however, the Jews began to appear as “gentlemen,” in the directories at least. In contrast with most other Americans, Jews were not found among the mass of farmers scrabbling for a living; they were not found among the frontiersmen. Many were artisans—more than is usually assumed—but most Jews were businessmen, merchants. Actually the so-called merchants were most often retailers with modest inventories, but “merchant” meant status. As recently as the early 1900’s, Aaron Marcus, of Farmington, West Virginia, a village of less than 1,000, forbade his son, Jacob, to run around town in overalls. “Remember,” he said, “I am a merchant.” Jews as a whole were part of an extended and comprehensive middle class group which included a Harmon Hendricks and a Chapman Levy at the top and an umbrella mender, Jonas Friedenwald, at the bottom.79

What, If Anything, Did Jews Do for the Economy?

After 1776, the Americans set out to make their own way, to emancipate themselves from Britain in the world of commerce and trade. Independence forced the country to turn to manufacturing; at war with the English, Americans found their supplies cut off; and they had no choice but to establish their own industry, to find new sources of supply for finished goods. Yet many Americans, and Jews among them, faced economic independence with a degree of reluctance, for England had a wide assortment of wares, her prices were right, the goods were of acceptable quality, and ample credit was available. Commercial independence was a luxury which many could not afford. During the crucial transition period from dependence to industrial emancipation, individual merchants and merchant-shippers in towns from Boston to New Orleans supplied the goods imperatively needed. There were Jews among them. Jewish businessmen of substance provided useful services and, like their peers, extended their commerce to Europe, the Caribbean, South America, and even to the Far East. Adhering to a pattern already nearly two centuries old in this country, they imported foreign commodities, stocked the shelves of the town and country merchants, gave them credit, and channeled rural products into the towns and foreign markets. By 1840, the country’s five Jewish coastal communities had grown to at least sixteen on the coast, in the piedmont, and on the canals, lakes, and streams as far west as St. Louis. The shopkeepers in all these settlements were dependent on their suppliers. Some of the wholesalers were Jewish. As purveyors to the masses, the wholesalers and the storekeepers rendered a very important service.

What part did the typical petty Jewish tradesmen play in the new economy, in the national market revolution, in the burgeoning early


The New Economy

nineteenth-century world of technology and more rapid transportation? Very little. Coming as they did from the ghettos and villages of Central and East Europe, these men had few skills and very little capital to ease their entrance into an economy essentially foreign to them. As we have pointed out above in some detail, there were exceptions; individuals did pioneer in some fields; they were buyers and sellers of securities, bankers of high and low degree, patrons of the new forms of transportation and insurance, furtherers of transallegheny commerce. There were even a few in industry. But, as a body, Jews were not in the vanguard of the new economy. The typical Jewish trader remained a distributor of goods. Women? There was not a community which lacked at least one woman who “girded her loins and ate not the bread of idleness.” These women ran shops or fancy goods stores as well as boardinghouses; they even bought, sold, and built buildings. The matriarch Abigail Minis ran a little town and country empire of her own. America, to be sure, was in no sense an egalitarian society for women; practically all the shopkeepers in the towns and cities were men.80

The Germans call the science of economics, “national economy”—an apt term, more descriptive than the English “economics.” National economy deals with the life of the nation as a totality. The constitution of 1788 made such an economy possible; the commerce of all the states was now to be tied and held together by a unifying force, a central organization, the United States government, which envisaged and reflected the needs and hopes of all the states in the Union. Because they were to be found everywhere and had common commercial interests, Jews favored and furthered this national economy. They were eager to extend their mercantile horizons to embrace not only the United States, but ultimately all the lands that bordered on the seven seas. As a body, the Jews owed economic allegiance to no one state or region, but to the country as a whole. They were not captives of sectionalists, of New England manufacturers, of farmers in the West, or of planters in the South. Concerned with their own interests, which they identified with those of the nation itself, Jews wanted to trade with all groups; their loyalties to a larger America superseded regional loyalties. In a way, through the commercial services they rendered, they helped cement the country and its disparate regions together. And what were these “services”? Distribution of goods to every corner of the land. This was the job which American Jews undertook with some gusto and performed with rather notable success.



Introdu ction


In the generation of the early republic, most Jews believed in the Jewish religion; at any rate, membership in a synagog was the norm. There appeared to have been no question in their minds: no one could be a Jew without Judaism; Judaism and the Jewish people were one. For Christians, it is Christ who is all important; for Jews, it is Jews who are all important. Religion in those days was the synthesis, the golden thread of Jewish history; it was the past and the present, the core and the spirit of the community. But what was the community? The community was unity; it was concept and reality, the totality of agencies and activities, folkways and practices, beliefs and worship, all these religiously motivated. It included everyone who identified with the Jewish group, whether willingly or reluctantly. Jews did not join the group, they were born into it and identified completely with one another. In spite of their constant and bitter intramural feuds, they stuck together. Most probably they were afraid to be alone; they could never be sure of the Gentiles, not even on these shores. The community nourished synagogs, Jewish philanthropies, schools; it integrated newcomers and gave both the native-born and the foreign-born that unity and cohesion which made for a strong sense of loyalty. The sentiment of kinship embraced Jews everywhere; virtually all Jews held to the concept of Kelal Yisrael, the Oneness of the Jewish people.

Religion as such, however, is expressed primarily in a synagog. Back in biblical times, Jacob, the patriarch, had made a covenant with God: If God would give him bread to eat and a garment to wear, he in turn would set up a Beth Elohim, a house of God (Gen. 28:20-22). Jews first had to make a living, then they organized societies and built sanctuaries. They




had had communities, synagogs, back in their ancestral Europe; obviously they would establish them here. They wanted a place, a building, a room, where they could meet, talk, pray, weep. The synagog was the prime instrumentality of Jewish survival. Their Christian neighbors had built churches and expected the Jews to do likewise; all decent people had houses of worship. When the Declaration of Independence was adopted in July, 1776, there were five synagogs in the new United States—in Newport, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Savannah. These five all followed the Spanish-Portuguese liturgical rite which had been employed since the first settlement in North America was established in the mid-1600’s. The Sephardic ritual was accepted as the standard American liturgy. In 1781, during the War, a congregation was also established in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, American Jewry’s westernmost outpost. Lancaster was an interior town deemed safe from the British. Refugees from the seacoast assembled here. They probably met in the home of Joseph Simon, who owned two Torah scrolls and their usual ornaments. It is doubtful that the chaplain whom Simon employed knew the Sephardic chaunts. Lancaster was a patriarchal congregation, dominated by one man, the Ashkenazi Simon—who was later to become a member of Sephardic Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia. During the Revolution, about fifteen men gathered together for worship here, but the Lancaster conventicle is unlikely to have survived the 1780’s. It is not improbable that, wherever and whenever backcountry shopkeepers could muster a prayer quorum of ten adult males over thirteen years of age, they would hold worship services.'

It was in 1786, that some of Charleston, South Carolina, Ashkenazim established a synagog-community of their own, quite possibly the first such congregation in this country. They may have resorted to their own German or Polish rite, but it is by no means improbable that they, too, continued to use the Sephardic prayer books. It was not unusual in the Western Hemisphere for the “Germans”—the Ashkenazim—of the Caribbean islands and Surinam to adopt the Spanish-Portugese liturgy. The divisiveness that separated the two groups was ethnic, never creedal. Later, however, Ashkenazic congregations did rely on prayer books reflecting their own German or Polish style. Why did an Ashkenazic congregation come into being in Charleston? It is very probable that there was a quarrel and a resultant secession in the original congregation. The details of the controversy are unknown; there are very few extant sources, but this we know: one group survived and continued to employ the Spanish-Portuguese liturgy. The second “German” group to organize in America met at Philadelphia in 1795. The Revolutionary ethos encouraged dissent. In 1787, German Catholics going off on their own had established a schismatic congregation to the dismay of Bishop Carroll of


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

Baltimore. A generation earlier, when Philadelphia’s Jews were in the throes of an organizational ferment, they, too, may already have envisaged an Ashkenazic service. In any case, positive evidence is lacking that the 1795 German conventicle survived in Philadelphia, but by 1800 the city had a new Ashkenazic group that was destined to persevere. Obviously these newcomers felt that they would be more comfortable with their own non-Sephardic ritual and a compatible membership. “Minor” differences and nuances are always important. If by 1801 they had a cemetery, it may be assumed that the organization was created a year earlier. Philadelphia, then the country’s outstanding city, was the first to harbor two ritually diverse congregations. The longstanding colonial American tradition of a single synagog-community was shattered; from now on there would be multiple Jewish religious communities, each one autonomous. In short, the American Protestant tradition would now become the American Jewish tradition. A formal organization of these Philadelphia Germans was effected in 1802; they called themselves the Hebrew German Society, Rodeph Shalom, the Pursuer of Peace, and set out to unite the dissident Ashkenazim in town—hence, the “pursuit” of peace. This urge to peace, the desire for unity, has remained a recurrent motif in American Jewry down to the present day.2

Originally Rodeph Shalom was a sick-care and burial society. When a man took sick, two members sat up with him every night; if he had died away from home, messengers were sent to bring the body back if the distance was less than eighty miles. By 1810, the conventicle became a full congregation with a constitution of its own; two years later, it was chartered by the state. For a time its reader, probably a volunteer, was Wolfe Benjamin, a native Englishman. Back in London, as a distiller, he had come into conflict with the British excise authorities and had left for Philadelphia. He was respected as a generous and learned man. A later reader was the omnibus factotum Jacob Lippman, sometimes known as Rabbi Jacky (Jackey, Jakey). From 1819 to 1834, Lippman served as reader, beadle, circumciser, and probably as collector, too. On the pittance he received—$50 a year—he could not survive and so augmented his salary from the profits of a second-hand clothing store. Rodeph Shalom finally increased his salary to $150 a year. The members stinted on the hazzan’s salary, but when they received an appeal for help from a new Ashkenazic confraternity in Richmond, they responded generously. It was many years before the congregants had a building of their own; in the meantime, they rented quarters. Over the door of one of the hired halls, they piously painted the Hebrew text of Genesis 28:17, which the Authorized Version translates: “How dreadful is this place! This is none other than the House of God.” When the Central Europeans arrived in larger numbers, they joined Rodeph Shalom; the congregation grew and



as the members prospered some moved over to the more prestigious Mik-veh Israel and became “Sephardim.” By 1840, a third Jewish congregation had arisen in the city, Beth Israel. This new Ashkenazic group looked askance at the acculturated Sephardim of Mikveh Israel and even at the well-settled Ashkenazim of Rodeph Shalom. Like most immigrant conventicles, it was to the right of the town’s established congregations, whose Orthodoxy seemed somehow inauthentic.3

It was not uncommon for Jews in their initial form of organization to establish a sick-care and burial society. This is what happened in Philadelphia when the founders of Rodeph Shalom decided to withdraw from Mikveh Israel, and apparently the same process recurred in Columbia, South Carolina. In 1826, a handful of men created a Hebrew Burial Society, which speedily became a Hebrew Benevolent Society, a mutual-benefit, sick-care, burial, and charitable organization. There can be no question that the members joined together for worship services on occasion, although it is difficult to determine whether these Central Europeans used a Sephardic or an Ashkenazic prayer book. In 1819, Cincinnati’s Jews, Ashkenazim, had begun to hold services; two years later they bought a cemetery to bury a resident who, dying, had requested Jewish burial. An older settler in town, he had married out and had reared a Christian family. By 1824, the English, Dutch, and German Jews in the city had organized themselves formally; there were twenty households; in 1832 they had over thirty. Thinking of building a synagog of their own —the first beyond the Alleghenies—they sent letters of appeal throughout the United States, the Islands, and even to England. Here in this western boomtown, they bragged, they were building a congregation where a few years before naught had been heard “but the howling of wild beasts and the more hideous cry of savage man.” The appeal was written by Joseph Jonas, the congregation’s romantic founder. The new congregation, he pointed out, had a rented room, two Scrolls of the Law, and a volunteer shohet. The cemetery was filling up; the members had already buried four people, two of them poor strangers. One of those buried had been brought up by steamboat from Louisville. If only they had a building of their own, they could draw members from New Orleans! Writing to Sephardic congregations, they reminded them that Ashkenazim were of the “same family and faith.” Jonas and his brother had each married a daughter of the Sephardi Gershom Seixas. There was no congregation within 500 miles of Cincinnati—help us stop intermarriage, they pleaded. It took over a decade to get enough money to construct their own synagog; fifty-two Cincinnati Gentiles each gave $25, which mounted up to a substantial sum and helped make possible in 1836 the dedication of the first Jewish sanctuary west of the mountains.4


United States Jewry, 1776-1985


The same year—1825—that Joseph Jonas sent out his appeal for funds the Ashkenazim of New York were determined to establish a group of their own. The Ashkenazic congregations soon to rise in the United States were breakaways from older Sephardic synagogs, or pioneer conventicles in the hinterland, or secessions from recently established Ashkenazic congregations. The English and Central European immigrants coming into a new town obviously preferred their familiar Ashkenazic rite to the standard American Sephardic ritual. Whether in New York, Philadelphia, or Richmond, they wanted a synagog life of their own. The motivations for secession are reflected in the history of Bnai Jeshurun of New York, the first non-Sephardic congregation in that city. Though the Central and East Europeans—Ashkenazim—had constituted the majority of New York Jewry since 1720 at the latest, the eighteenth-century non-Iberian newcomers were speedily Sephardized. Their descendants supplied Shearith Israel’s members and leaders throughout this period. By the 1820’s, however, a substantial number of newcomers in town felt strong enough to push for autonomy. These Jews were English, Dutch, Germans, and Poles. (Many of the latter may well have originated in the Prussian provinces which had once been part of Poland; the Germans would never forgive them for having been born east of the Neisse River.) The nineteenth-century immigrants may have believed that they were being snubbed by the older families in Shearith Israel—just as the East Europeans who came to New York in the late nineteenth century were convinced that the acculturated “Germans” looked down on them. By 1822, the German element in Shearith Israel had already established a charity of its own, the Hebrew Benevolent Society. These Central Europeans became more belligerent as they gathered strength. The struggle was ethnic, liturgical, a fight for power between the old-timers and the ambitious newcomers. The new arrivals, many of them English-born, were men of education. Some had means; others aspired to leadership. Rivalries between the Spanish-Portuguese and the Central European Jews were nothing new; such ethnic and social hostilities surely inspired the establishment of exclusionary Sephardic cemeteries in New York during the seventeenth century and in Charleston during the eighteenth.

By 1825, the New York non-Sephardim were ready to begin their thrust. That year the dissidents established in Shearith Israel an educational group of their own, the Hebra Hinuch Nearim, a Society for Educating the Youth. Along with the hevrah came a series of demands. The non-Sephardim sought a separate service in the synagog, although they were willing to continue the use of the Sephardic rite, and they wanted cheaper offerings, their own voluntary lay reader, more democracy in the conduct of the board, and better educational facilities. Back in the 1600’s,



in Holland, the Amsterdam Spanish-Portuguese had allowed incoming Germans to use their synagog for services of their own, but the latter-day New Amsterdam-New Yorkers were too apprehensive to tolerate this push for autonomy, for an Ashkenazic liturgy within the venerable Sephardic synagog. These intimations of Jacksonian democracy, as they may well have been, were not well received at Shearith Israel. Bear in mind that the decade of the 1820’s was one of ferment; much of Europe was unhappy in the Age of Metternich; the South Americans were in revolt against Spain. One suspects that the Shearith Israel newcomers were goading the establishment. The congregational leaders responded by setting out to control the admission of newcomers. The break soon followed. In 1825, a new congregation was established, the first Ashkenazic one in the city; it called itself Bnai Jeshurun, the Children of Jeshurun. To justify their secession, they gave their reasons; the United States allows everyone to worship according to the dictates of his conscience; the synagog is too far downtown; it is too small for the Holy Day crowds; the newcomers have a right to their own ritual; they want a more intense form of Judaism. The secessionists seem to have insinuated that the older congregation was slipping religiously. One suspects, too, that Shearith Israel was quite willing to let the protestants go. In the 1730’s, the Sephardim had needed the Ashkenazim; now, in the 1820’s the Sephardic elite knew that it could survive without the Ashkenazic newcomers. Indeed the Shearith Israel leaders gave the secessionists their blessing; the rich Harmon Hendricks helped finance them; Noah and other Sephardim encouraged them. Who can question that some of the Shearith Israel members muttered the old blessing under their breath: “Blessed be He who hath freed me from this responsibility.” This is the conge when a father tells his thirteen-year-old son he is now a man, religiously, and is expected to take care of himself.6

The Sons of Jeshurun bought a Negro church, refurbished it, introduced their own rite, and then sent letters all over the Atlantic world asking for money. This procedure, witnessed already in the Cincinnati request for funds, goes back to the 1730’s. Like the Cincinnatians, whose appeal the New Yorkers had undoubtedly read, they reminded the Sephardim that all Jews were kinsmen; to the Ashkenazim to whom they turned they emphasized that they were refugees fleeing from European persecution. The dedication address, given in 1827, was delivered by the twenty-three-year-old Henry Hendricks, a member of Shearith Israel. The new congregation could not refuse this request by their wealthy patron, Harmon Hendricks; after all it was a secured loan from him that had made possible the purchase of the church. In the course of time, Bnai Jeshurun became one of the largest synagogs in the country. The rise of this congregation and of other Ashkenazic synagogs was a premonitory


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

warning that Sephardic rule was approaching its end. Ultimately, later in the nineteenth century, and in the twentieth especially, the city’s Ashkenazic Jewry was to become the most influential Jewish body in the world.7

Bnai Jeshurun broke the (Ashkenazic) ice. The next fifteen years saw four new congregations established in New York City; three were to survive. Why did different Ashkenazic synagogs arise? Were the liturgical variations that important? For some, yes, they were—but, actually, the causes for proliferation and secession were frequently very personal in nature. New congregations were established because people wanted to be with their very own fellow countrymen. Personal idiosyncrasies and complaints played their part in inciting breakaways; intramural quarrels, prejudices, imagined slights, social ambitions, the desire for office all played an important part in the establishment of new congregations. A man resigned from Bnai Jeshurun in 1835 because of a minor restriction and then set out to establish a new congregation; he succeeded, though it was only three months before the new congregation closed its doors. Earlier in 1828, Anshe Chesed, The Merciful Men, had come into being. Shearith Israel helped the Merciful Men get on its feet, but would not permit it to worship in its building. The Merciful Men was a motley group at first —Germans, Poles, and Dutch—but, when the Central Europeans began to arrive in numbers, the Germans dominated. By 1840, Anshe Chesed had purchased and renovated a Quaker church down on the Lower East Side; two decades later, overtaking Bnai Jeshurun numerically, it became the largest Jewish congregation in the United States. Bnai Jeshurun itself was to experience two or three secessions: in 1839, some Germans and Poles left the mother Ashkenazic synagog and founded the Gates of Righteousness, Shaarey Zedek; that same year a group of Jews opened The Gates of Heaven, Shaarey Hashamayim. An immigrant had no trouble finding a place to worship where he could truly be with his own.8


New York was a city with a religious tradition. There had always been a congregation there, and it was expected that newcomers would rally around the synagog. The New Orleans Jews faced a different situation: A substantial number came there but found no synagog and wanted none. New Orleans was a “wide open” town—an “emporium of wine, women and segars,” a young Charlestonian once called it. The Jews acculturated speedily, were accepted by the Catholic elite, intermarried, and reared Christian families. They themselves remained Jews; there was no compulsion to embrace Christianity. The Jews there who did take the Jewish religion seriously—and there were always some—were moved by Jacob S. Solis to organize themselves as a congregation. This man, London-born in 1780, had come to the United States about the year 1803. His business



career was a checkered one; there is no reason to believe that he was successful. Opening a store in Wilmington, Delaware, he settled down for a while at least and then moved to Westchester County, New York, where he attempted unsuccessfully in 1826 to establish an academy for Jewish children who were to be taught agriculture, domestic skills, and crafts.

Solis was above all an ardent Jew and, arriving in New Orleans in 1827, set out to establish a synagog. In this effort, he was successful; Congregation Gates of Mercy, Shanarai-Chasset, was the work of his hands. Sephardic at first, it later adopted the Ashkenazic rite—which is not surprising, since practically all the early members were of non-Iberian origin. The new synagog published a constitution in 1828, one adapted to its needs in this town. The board was to raise money to build a temple or an “institute,” the latter word reflecting the new European pedagogy with which Solis was very probably familiar. The poor were to be helped; the children were to be educated. The traditional requirement that the individual’s Jewish descent be traced through the mother was disregarded; a child of even one Jewish parent was recognized as a Jew for purposes of education or burial. Christian wives were to receive a Jewish burial; so were prostitutes, adultresses, and suicides, and special sections in the cemetery were reserved for them. During those days of rampant yellow fever epidemics, the congregation was very much concerned with burials; the entire board was expected to attend all funerals. A cemetery had been purchased in March, 1828, a month after the congregation’s founding. When the Gates of Mercy was established in 1828, there were 28 founding members; 33 other Jews in town gave it donations, but refused to join; 11 Gentiles made generous subscriptions. To teach the Jews when to celebrate their Holy Days, Solis and his friends attached a calendar to the constitution which they published. This was true home missionary activity. Since the constitution was intended to build a viable Jewish community, its sponsors had no hesitation in disregarding Jewish laws which would have precluded unity and organization. For a generation, Gates of Mercy, the first synagog on the Gulf, was the only one in town. For the short time that Solis remained in town, he served as the synagog’s spiritual leader, then returned to his home in New York, and by 1829 was dead. In a letter to his widow a number of the New Orleans congregants spoke of him as a brother to all men, a father to the orphans, an aid to the poor, a helper for the sick, a companion to the afflicted.9

Solis, a devoted volunteer, was succeeded by others determined to keep the congregation alive. Manis Jacobs, his successor, president and acting-rabbi, was a native Hollander. When he died in 1839 his Catholic wife attempted to slip a crucifix into his coffin. During the 1830’s and later, Alfred J. Marks served as secretary and lay rabbi, possibly even as circumciser, though there is some evidence that his own children were


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

left uncircumcised. The congregation gave him some sort of salary, but he made his living chiefly as an official in the customshouse, as a stage manager, and as an actor. Because he had at times played the part of Row-ley in the School for Scandal, he was known to his friends as Rowley or Roley Marks. He especially enjoyed his role as a volunteer in the Washington Fire Company, No. 4. A German traveler who attended his services in 1842 was shocked. Marks observed no dietary laws; indeed in all New Orleans there were only four families which attempted to keep kosher and only two which kept the Sabbath. New Orleans Jewry was anything but observant; the assimilatory influences were almost overwhelming. Most boys in New Orleans were not circumcised; many youngsters could read no Hebrew; Purim was not observed because Marks was too busy; even the High Holy Day services were poorly attended. Some immigrants wandered up the Mississippi from New Orleans and settled in Natchez, an old Spanish town which at one time had sheltered a handful of Marranos. Ashkenazic newcomers, coming later, bought a cemetery and probably met together as a prayer union.'1

Baltimore was not New Orleans; there was less emphasis on wine, women, and good food. Here, too, Jews were late to organize because relatively few of them found their way to the city at first. Baltimore was a metropolis but it was slow to attract Jews; the older coastal towns, so it seemed, had more to offer. By 1829, with about thirty families, Baltimoreans were ready to establish a congregation of their own. To be sure the local Jews could have fashioned a community earlier had the elite old-timers been willing to help; for social reasons these pioneers kept aloof and worshipped by themselves. One may assume occasional prayer services were held in the early 1820’s, for there were enough newcomers in town and there was always a need for special devotions. By 1829, the Dutch, Germans, Bohemians, and Poles had united to establish an Ashkenazic conventicle—Nitgy Israel (Nidhe Israel), the Scattered Ones of Israel; later, the worshippers called themselves the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. In January, 1830, they were chartered and immediately published a constitution of their own in English, not German. Unlike their coreligionists in distant New Orleans, they made no compromise with intermarriage, but hewed to the line. Before the decade was over, about the year 1838, another small synagog opened in a different part of town—the Fell’s Point Hebrew Congregation. By 1840, about 100 families had settled in Baltimore, all of them nominally traditional. That year Abraham Rice (Reiss?), an ordained German rabbi, came in to serve the Scattered Israelites. He, the first ordained rabbi to serve a congregation in Baltimore, was an ardent follower of the Law. Baltimoreans of a later generation maintained that he had helped keep Baltimore “Jewish,” though in his own eyes his success seemed quite limited. The times were



against him. He is said to have been the first ordained rabbi to officiate in this country.11

Authentic tradition has it that Baltimore Jews were among the first to settle in Louisville at the Falls of the Ohio. Once a man reached the Ohio, the whole West was open to him on the river highways. Jews are known to have already settled in town by the 1820’s. About the year 1830 there was a cemetery, in answer to an urgent need, women dying in childbirth and high infant mortality. Louisville, by the 1830’s, seems to have established a mutual-aid and burial society, which certainly helped stem the forces of assimilation. Attempts during this decade to organize a synagog were unsuccessful until 1836 when a congregation was established that would one day become Adath Israel, The Community of Israel. Anyone who went around the Falls at Louisville could float down the Ohio into the Mississippi. Poling up the Mississippi would bring a traveler to St. Louis, an old French settlement important because the Mississippi tributary, the Missouri, opened up the western country all the way to the Rocky Mountains. Jews were doing business in St. Louis by the first decade of the new century. This city, like Louisville, set out to build a congregation in the 1830’s; prayer quorums began to meet and about the year 1837 a permanent religious society was founded—the later United Hebrew Congregation, called “United” because of the congeries of Jews it tied together.'-1

The West—of that generation—was being infiltrated also from the Gulf and from the Atlantic coastal towns. Charleston’s eager young men were to be found in Columbia, South Carolina, and in all the states of the Old Southwest; Jewish adventurers from Philadelphia and Baltimore crossed the mountains to the Ohio; New York’s Jewish argonauts sailed up the Hudson to Albany and then moved west on the Erie Canal. Albany, rather surprisingly, had had Jewish settlers or visitors as early as the 1660’s under Dutch rule, but had to wait thirteen years after the Erie was opened before German immigrants decided to remain in the city and established a congregation. In 1838, Congregation Beth El was founded; eight years later it hired the young Bohemian emigre Isaac Mayer Wise to minister to it. Wise in later years—by then he had gone on to Cincinnati —organized the American Jewish Reform movement. Settlers and peddlers moving west on the Canal planted themselves in Syracuse and held services. The town sheltered a number of itinerant merchants who returned to it periodically to replenish their packs and wagons at a wholesale house owned by Jews. Congregation Keneseth Shalom, the Society of Concord, opened its doors in 1839. The constant emphasis on peace and concord is not accidental. American Jewry was a melting pot fusing together Jews from a half-dozen different European lands and a dozen different German principalities. Among them were Alsatians from West-


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

ern Europe and Russians from Eastern Europe. If they were to pray together, peace and concord were imperative. It was a short steamboat trip from the western terminal of the Erie Canal to Cleveland, a city with a future since it could reach out to all the Great Lakes and to the Atlantic, while through the Ohio Canal the whole West lay open before it. Thus it was that a congregation was established in Cleveland in 1839, though individual Jews had lived in the city or its immediate neighborhood since the 1820’s. A small body of Bavarian Jews from the village of Unsleben had settled there in the late 1830’s and was soon joined by others. A part-time reader and shohet was hired for $50 a year to serve the Israelite Society, a mutual-aid association. The West was building up.1

When Jews establish communities, they go where opportunity beckons. Thus it is not surprising that the community of Easton was reborn in 1839—decades after the passing of colonial Jewish Easton. Jews returned there because the town took on a new lease of life when it became a junction point for three canals. The new Jewish settlers, Germans, wrote their synagogal constitution in that language, but used the Hebrew script; some Jews could not or would not write the Gothic cursive. A few immigrants who knew the Latin alphabet preferred the Hebrew cursive when they wrote English. Dues were not high in the reborn congregation, $1.50 a year, payable in installments. These Jews were simple, humble shopkeepers. One of the businessmen in town was known to retire to the back of his store to recite his daily prayers; another, losing part of a finger, saw to its proper Jewish burial; the Resurrection was always to be kept in mind. The Easton ritual was Ashkenazic, but the worshippers had no hesitation about employing Sephardic melodies for some of their hymns. Leeser visited them in 1856 and was surprised to find them still using German as the language of instruction in their synagogal school. The Germans, he reminded them, were oppressors of Jews. What he perhaps overlooked was how helpful the German language was in business around Easton; German farmers worked the land in many places in that region.1'

Individual Jews were often pioneers, bold ones. Nevertheless, many new arrivals stayed within the sound of familiar Hebrew prayers; they were Jews who wanted to be with Jews; they needed that comfort, that security. Most of the newcomers stayed east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. That is why a few had settled in Easton. Some of these Germans, however, wandered west into the Virginia piedmont, to Richmond, where there had been a congregation since the late 1780’s. It may well be indeed that Sephardic Beth Shalome received them kindly. In any event, caution and economic need impelled new settlers to remain under the umbrella of an older group, even when they were numerically strong enough to introduce a service more to their own liking. By 1839, however, the Central European newcomers had organized a mutual-aid welfare and burial



society, a new fraternity calling itself Hebrah Ahabat Yisrael, the Love of Israel Association. The new congregation which soon emerged from it received the name Congregation Beth Ahabah, the House of Love (1840-41).15

It is strange to reflect that Virginia, the oldest of the states, was one of the last to foster a Jewish congregation, and even then not until the Revolution was past. It is stranger still that the Jews were slow to penetrate New England, one of the oldest North American areas of settlement. Newport’s colonial Salvation of Israel was dead by the turn of the century. New Jewish communities were to develop but slowly in New England when the Jews began to leave the perimeter of New York. There can be no question that the New York Jewish exiles of 1776, living for years in Connecticut during the Revolution, conducted services at least for the Holy Days. Their rabbi, Seixas, was with them from 1776 to 1780. It would take time for Jewish communities to make their appearance in Connecticut; the political climate was not too wholesome, but by 1840 there is a probability that New Haven Jewry was praying together. Out of this group would later come the congregation Mishkan Israel, Israel’s Tabernacle. It is also very likely that ten adult males had by that time found one another in Boston and united in prayer. Some 200 years after the first Jew had landed in the city, Boston saw the beginning of a rebirth of New England Jewry. In the distant Midwest, across the Appalachians, newcomers who settled in Cincinnati had no choice but to affiliate with Bnai Israel, The Sons of Israel, the town’s Jewish spiritual entrepot ever since 1824. But, by 1840, or so, the Germans felt strong enough to secede from the older English-style Ashkenazic synagog and to establish one of their own—B’nai Yeshurun, the Sons of Jeshurun."


By 1840, whenever the Central Europeans—Ashkenazim—were numerous enough, they began organizing their own prayer groups in the metropolitan centers and in the hinterland. It bears repeating: the social motivation was dominant in synagogal secessions. The Ashkenazic newcomers wanted their pronunciation, or mispronunication, of the Hebrew; they wanted their theologically inconsequential, liturgical variations; they wanted to be with their own. The newcomers generally spoke German; the old-line citizens of the Sephardic rite spoke English. Such tensions and divisions did not typify the Jews alone. German and Irish Catholics scorned one another, ethnic Catholics wanted their own language, their own traditional way of life reflected in their own religious and communal affairs. Despite the fact that most Jews in the United States were of Central European origin, the differences that separated them were keenly felt. The older congregations were not happy with the newcomers; the recent


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

arrivals were uncomfortable in the presence of their acculturated fellow Jews. The distinctions were cultural and socioeconomic. The new settlers were religiously more intense, more observant; they wanted a completely European-type service untouched by any American character. Thus it was that multiple congregations sprang up in Philadelphia, New York, Richmond, and Cincinnati. It was the Jewish version of the Protestant, the American tradition—proliferation, a multiplicity of congregations if not of denominations. One may hazard a guess that by the end of this period there were at least 25 Jewish congregations and prayer groups in the country; most were Ashkenazic; as many as 7 may have been Sephardic. The Ashkenazim ruled the hinterland as far west as the left bank of the Mississippi, St. Louis. Memberships were invariably small, but this was true of the Christian churches, too. The monopolistic Sephardic synagog-community of the colonial and early national decades was dead by 1840. The European style consolidated, authoritative community had no place here; every American synagog was an autonomous entity making its own rules and doing that which was right in its own eyes. Yet the different congregations in the cities remained friendly; separatism tended to dissipate hostilities.17

The Sephardim


Despite the fact that there were at least twenty some Ashkenazic socioreligious fellowships and at the most only seven Sephardic, the latter were dominant during this period religiously, culturally, and socially. They had high visibility inasmuch as their members were the leading tidewater Jews of New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, Savannah, and the Virginia piedmont at Richmond. These Jews were all aware of the differences between the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim: the liturgy, the pronunciation of the Hebrew, the terms used to designate the reading desk and the ark in the synagog; the resort to Spanish-Portuguese as a semi-sacred tongue, all these marked some of the divisions. Most of those who considered themselves Sephardim, the old-timers, were actually not of Iberian stock, but were of Ashkenazic background, descendants of earlier Ashkenazic settlers who had accepted the Sephardic worship style as the American style. The Ashkephardim,as they may be called, were middle-class Jews with an ethos of their own; they looked down on the newcomers. The distinctions between the old and the new were, after all, not so much religious or ethnic, as they were social and, to a degree, economic. The native-born deemed themselves important; they had prestige, status. The roots of the older settlers went back, in some instances, to the 1650’s in



New York City; their rite had long been the standard one in America. Yet these old-timers were doomed to decline in the face of much larger numbers of Ashkenazic immgrants. Sephardic Newport began to disappear when the port lost its importance during and after the Revolution; very few Jews were left in town in the 1790’s. Actually Newport Jewry had never numbered even 200 souls. The remaining few who clung to the town after the War were siphoned off to Boston, New York, and Charleston, the new cities of opportunity. Moses Seixas, the cashier of the Bank of Rhode Island, elected to remain; he functioned also as the community’s circumciser. The congregation did not even own a proper ram’s horn to sound the call to prayer on the High Holy Days. All told, the Newport congregation had lasted but one generation.18


Obviously New York was the oldest congregation in the country; the second oldest was Savannah. Newport very probably had a prayer quorum in the 1670’s for a very brief period, there may have been enough Jews in Charleston in the 1690’s to meet together for an occasional service, but the Georgia Jewish colonists who arrived as a body in 1733 set themselves up without delay as a congregation. Savannah Jewry, however, seems to have had no capacity to stay alive for any length of time; because of the colony’s economic and political problems, the Jewish community did not grow. A permanent group was finally established in 1790 although there is reason to believe that it was preceded by at least two rebirths of the 1733 congregation. The Georgians took on new life in 1790, because the constitution of 1789 accorded them equality. The newly established syna-gog-community, like the Philadelphia synagog, called itself the Hope of Israel, Mickve (Mikveh) Israel. The two communities were probably mindful of the seventeenth-century Curasao group of the same name. The North Americans leaned heavily on the Islands all through the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Baltimore’s Scattered Israelites, Nidhe Yisrael, certainly took the name from the then much more important Barbados synagog. Savannah Jews had had a cemetery since Oglethorpe’s day; Mordecai Sheftall gave them another one in 1773. For fifty years at least, Mickve Israel struggled to survive after its turn-of-the-cen-tury rebirth. It was only with difficulty that the members could pay the rent on the room where from time to time they met for services. The few dollars needed had to be borrowed from a burial confraternity which had been established in the late eighteenth century: Meshibat Nefesh, Restoration of the Soul. Occasionally they hired a part-time beadle and a shohet, but there was no full-time paid reader all through this period. Devoted ardent Jews like the De La Mottas, Emanuel and Jacob, volunteered to conduct services as they commuted between Charleston and


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

Savannah. As late as 1800, there were times when ten adults could not be gathered for a religious quorum. They did buy lottery tickets for the synagog in the hope of winning a substantial prize and improving their financial position. It was also good public relations to buy lotteries for the benefit of the local poorhouse or hospital.

Why the Savannah congregation did not advance is not easy to divine. Georgia became a boom state as the new cotton lands were cultivated. There is some evidence that the little community was riven by cliques; there was friction between the natives and the incoming aliens. There are indications that a rival group held a service of its own; the congregation threatened to expel the dissidents if they did not hasten to make amends. Of course when the state called on Mickve Israel along with the other religious societies in Georgia to hold public services of thanks or supplication, the Jews complied. A cultured member like Dr. Moses Shef-tall would then make a formal address. There had been talk of building a synagog ever since the 1790’s, but this goal was not reached till 1820. Nearly ninety years passed before the first sanctuary was erected. The dedication was a grand affair; the Masons participated, and Dr. Jacob De La Motta made the important address, printed copies of which were sent to Jefferson and Madison. Nine years later, Mickve Israel was gutted by fire and was not rebuilt until 1838. The dedication took place in 1843, when Leeser was brought down from Philadelphia. Why wait five years? How typical was this struggle to stay alive? Most Jewish congregations found it very difficult to balance the budget. Why? Impecuniosity? Thrift? Indifference? Dissension?19


Jewish Savannah was a satellite of Charleston, which, despite the fact that the South Carolina metropolis had by the 1830’s lost its economic preeminence, still sheltered the South’s most important Jewish community. Its Jews had wealth, status, and culture; they were highly respected by all other Jewish communities. The first organized Jewish congregation had made its appearance about the year 1749; incorporation came in 1791, a year after a new state constitution enfranchised Jews. The new synagogal charter emphasized not only religion and education, but also the determination of local Jewry to support its poor. Beth Elohim assured the State Assembly that the Jewish community would never be a charity burden. The tone certainly seems apologetic, but the concept of Jewish integration into an overwhelmingly Gentile society was, after all, something very new and precarious in 1791. After living in rented rooms for almost half a century, the congregation renovated a building. The beautiful rebuilt structure, the Old Synagogue, as the Charlestonians called it, sheltered the largest Jewish congregation in the country for some four de-



cades. Charleston Jews prospered when the city became a shipping and cotton center. Beth Elohim was ardently Sephardic, though there is some evidence that the original synagog owed its establishment to “Germans.” Ultimately the Germans and the Portuguese united, a fusion eased by the probability that both congregations originally employed the Sephardic rite, and had been ethnically rather than liturgically disparate. The Jews of the city were seldom without a minister and refused to be satisfied with second best. One of their hazzanim served for twenty years till his death in 1805. After his passing, his wife continued to receive his salary and the use of the parsonage until a successor was appointed; then she was given a pension. In the meantime, Beth Elohim wrote to the mother Sephardic congregation in London and asked the leaders there to send over a man of merit and classical education who would reflect honor on the congregation. It was concerned with its image in the general community. The Londoners, eager to help, sent a man who was totally unfit—and when Beth Elohim shipped him back, the English were furious. '

Two new constitutions adopted in 1820 and 1836 reflect some of the problems and challenges of a large city community. Would-be proselytes were not to be encouraged; converts were to be admitted only after careful scrutiny of their religious credentials; Jewish blacks could not become members; prostitutes and bordello madams were accepted only after they had repented and demonstrated an ability to lead respectable lives. The congregation suffered a great loss when the synagog burnt down in 1838; the new one, built in 1841, is still standing; it is the oldest Jewish sanctuary in continuous use in this country, since Newport’s Salvation of Israel was not revived until the 1890’s. In 1840, Charleston was shattered by a schism and a secession. Beth Elohim introduced some very minor reforms, though it remained Sephardic in liturgy. The traditionalists—a substantial number—seceded calling themselves Shearith Israel, taking as their model New York’s rock-ribbed Sephardic congregation. Thus Charleston now had two Sephardic communities at war with each other. The split hurt Beth Elohim, diminishing its resources radically.*’

South Carolina’s second largest Jewish community maintained itself in Columbia. A congregation organized in 1846 also bore the name Shearith Israel. If indeed it patterned itself on the Charleston secessionists and the New Yorkers, then it, too, must have adopted the Sephardic liturgy. Columbia’s Jews had a Hebrew Benevolent Society as early as 1826. Very probably its prime purpose was to serve as a sick-care and burial organization. Undoubtedly, religious services were also conducted. The name employed was borrowed from a similar confraternity which had been established in Charleston in 1784. This latter society, still in existence, is the oldest Jewish association of its kind in this country. Georgetown on the coast north of Charleston may very well have had enough


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

Jews to constitute a religious quorum, but no evidence that they met for prayer has yet surfaced. Some of them were members ot Beth Elohim. Georgetown’s Jewry was thoroughly acculturated and may have feared that the establishment of a congregation there would emphasize Jewish disparateness in so overwhelmingly Christian a community. This much is certain: the assimilatory influences in the South have always been stronger than in the North. Wilmington, North Carolina, was to have no formal organized congregation till a later decade, though services were conducted on the High Holy Days in the early 1820’s by voluntary readers, men and women. There is every reason to believe that much of the reading was in English from the Sephardic prayer book. The few Jews in Norfolk, Virginia, found it necessary to buy a cemetery in 1820, and there is a strong probability that they met occasionally for services. The Myers family included several adults who could have counted for a quorum, and Scrolls of the Law were available.22


It is puzzling why coastal Norfolk, which had an excellent harbor, did not develop into a viable Jewish community whereas Richmond, an inland town, did (and no later than 1789). Richmond thus became the country’s westernmost Jewish outpost. The group’s constitution was short as befitted a small new community. Worthy of comment is the limitation of membership to free men, a prohibition directed in all likelihood against white bondsmen, Jews, of course. Among the founding members were only one or two Jews of even remote Iberian origin. Why then did the group, the House of Peace, Beth Shalome, adopt the Spanish-Portu-guese rite? All the members had probably lived in coastal towns where the minhag Sefarad, the Sephardic worship style, was standard; they all did business with men who belonged to “Iberian” congregations. Beth Shalome employed professional readers, but when there was no incumbent, or if the occasion required it, able men in the congregation were invited to speak. Thus Mordecai addressed his compatriots on Rosh Hashanah of 1824, and at times Solomon Jacobs, among others, was asked to preach and to conduct services. The young Ashkenazi immigrant Isaac Leeser, who occasionally helped the reader, learned the traditional Spanish-Jewish chaunts and was thus able to respond to an invitation from Mikveh Israel of Philadelphia to serve as hazzan.23

Baltimore’s first Jewish settlers—a handful at best—had come there before the revolt against the British. They were Philadelphians with roots in Mikveh Israel. Indeed Baltimore’s Jewish elite retained membership in the Philadelphia synagog for decades. Inasmuch as there was occasional need for services, the Ettings and Cohens—and perhaps the Levys—may well have joined together to constitute a prayer quorum. Services were



held in one of the homes. In 1827, the Ettings gave up their seats and severed their connection with Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia. In those prerailroad days, they could not run to Philadelphia every time they wished to intone the commemorative Kaddish prayer for their dead. There is some evidence, too, that both Sephardic families observed the dietary laws. Solomon Etting was a trained shohet; the Cohens owned a book dealing with the rules of kashrut. These are indicia, not proofs to be sure, that the families were concerned with tradition. As we have already observed, had these cultured Jews been willing to join with the European newcomers, there would have been no difficulty in setting up an all-inclusive synagog based on America’s traditional Spanish-Portuguese min-hag. This the old-timers refused to do, though such fusions had been successfully effected long before this in New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Savannah. The Baltimore Sephardim felt no need to co-opt the incoming Germans; they had a minyan of their own and at least one cemetery. A formal Sephardic congregation established in the 1850’s, proved to be shortlived. *


Despite the many difficulties which Philadelphia’s Hope of Israel, Mikveh Israel, confronted, it was an important Sephardic congregation. In the 1830’s and 1840’s under Hazzan Leeser, it was destined to exercise a great deal of influence. There is evidence that the Jews in town had organized themselves as early as the 1730’s; during the next decade they certainly held services, but, like most other synagog-communities, they grew very slowly. There would be no genuinely substantial inflow of immigrants to the United States till the end of the fourth decade of the nineteenth century. This much is certain: when the Philadelphians and the assembled exiles from British-occupied territory built the town’s first synagog building during the Revolution, the liturgy was Sephardic for the simple reason that the exiles who flocked to the city during the Revolution had come from Sephardic communities. The refugees made the new synagog possible; they determined the liturgy that was adopted. The exiles were often men of affluence, substantial merchants and importers. The congregation was always to remain Sephardic—like Shearith Israel in New York —and ardently so, though in the nineteenth century the members of authentic Iberian descent could nearly always be counted on the fingers of one hand. Only 14 of the 61 subscribers to the new building in 1782 were descended from Jews who originally came from Spain and Portugal. In 1782, when the old-timers and exiles foregathered, Philadelphia sheltered the country’s largest Jewry. The well-to-do subscribed liberally; valuable Scrolls of the Law were presented or lent to the congregation, and Captain Abraham M. Seixas gave Mikveh Israel a silver cup to be used


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

for the Saturday night havdalah service. The women sewed mantles to adorn the Scrolls, made curtains for the ark, and a beautiful silk cloth cover for the reading desk. Parliamentary rules of order were laid down for the conduct of meetings. This was an aspect of Americanization; an attempt to put the best foot forward in this, the capital city of the new republic.25

With the coming of peace and the postwar depression, Mikveh Israel found itself in trouble. The membership declined when the war refugees left. These former exiles, often men of influence, returned to their original homes, but even before they left they asked to be reimbursed for the sums they had so generously advanced. The congregation could not or would not pay its debts; internal quarrels exacerbated conditions. There was a substantial mortgage, but very little money to pay the interest. At times there were not enough funds to pay salaries; in the early 1790’s, the congregation had less than a dozen paying members. Mikveh Israel had appealed for aid to liberals among the Gentiles; a lottery was licensed and tickets were sold; by the second decade of the new century, the congregation had gotten out of debt and was finally able to meet its obligations. It was a long, hard pull. New members came in, albeit slowly, for the not infrequent financial depressions made it difficult for many to make a living.26

The synagogal functionaries had been receiving salaries since the 1750’s; some of them were only part-time workers; salaries were low. In 1776, one man served as reader, teacher, and shohet. The war brought great changes; the congregation blossomed, and in 1780 Gershom Seixas, in exile in Connecticut, was invited to become the minister. He was a dignified, cultured American gentleman. There could be no question about that; with him came, or was reinforced, the Sephardic ritual. Unfortunately for the Philadelphians, when Shearith Israel of New York was taken over in 1783 by its returning Whigs, they recalled Seixas. Philadelphia, in a quandary, employed the next best man, Jacob Raphael Cohen, an anglicized native of North Africa, who had served the Montreal congregation. There in Canada from 1778 to 1781, he had performed the duties of an omnibus synagogal servant, but after quarreling with his congregants—they were a tough lot—he moved on to British-held New York whose Jewish Loyalists appointed him their hazzan. When Seixas returned to Shearith Israel’s Mill Street Synagogue in New York, the Philadelphians took Cohen. His life at Mikveh Israel was no bed of roses; he suffered in the early 1800’s, for the Jeffersonian embargoes proved ruinous for his congregants. After Cohen’s death in 1811, the congregation hired other hazzanim when it could find them. During the years when no minister was available, volunteer readers served the office. Among those whom it hired were Emanuel Nunez Carvalho (in



1815-1817) and Abraham Israel Keys (in 1824-1828). Carvalho, a man of some education and culture, had dared to oppose his board in Charleston but he left many friends in that city. After he died that Carolina congregation memorialized him in its prayers for his services to the community. Carvalho was London trained; Jacob R. Cohen, too, had benefited from a stay in that city, and the Rev. Mr. Abraham Israel Keys had also probably come from the English capital. English polish and culture were much valued on these shores. Keys had been induced to leave a Barbados congregation to take the Philadelphia post. He was very popular, probably the most beloved minister Mikveh Israel had in the first half of the century. True he was no intellectual; for some, that lack was a virtue. A good teacher, he chanted well, limited himself to his liturgical chores, and maintained excellent social relations with the members. All this the board appreciated.27

It was during Keys’s tenure in office that a new synagog was built. The 1782 building was now over forty years old; though the congregation had fewer than 100 members, it was financially sound. In addition to what it itself raised for the new structure, monies came in from other American congregations, from the Caribbean and from London. Important, too, was the sale of tickets for the dedication; 600 were sold. Christians in particular were eager to witness this spectacle, the dedication of an Egyptian-style Jewish “temple.” The program of dedication, which took place on January 21, 1825, was an elaborate one. Keys was assisted by the hazzan from New York; both men wore robes. There was a well trained Jewish choir of male and female voices—unusual, since tradition required the segregation of women from men in the sanctuary ritual. One pious Jew tried unsuccessfully to restrict the women singers to the gallery. Keys had also labored to teach the congregants to sing in unison; it was imperative that the audience be impressed, for it included a number of Gentile notables, justices of the Supreme Court and the bishop of the Episcopal Church.28


By 1840, five different synagog-communities maintained themselves in New York City; four were Ashkenazic; one was Sephardic. The city on the Hudson now sheltered the largest Jewry in the country; its preeminence has continued down to the present day. The Sephardic congregation, Shearith Israel, is the mother synagog of North America. Though not the largest congregation it was certainly the most prestigious, with its roots reaching back into the 1650’s. It could have bragged that its religious community was well over a century older than that of the Catholics, who had no sanctuary in the city until the 1780’s. In 1784 and 1801, legislative acts passed by the state authorities brought new status to Shear-


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

ith Israel; it was now a chartered, recognized religious organization—a status unknown to the colonial synagog. It was during this period that the trustees and members experimented with new constitutions. Not improbably, the new organic documents reflected conflicting liberal, Jeffersonian, and Federalist biases. Postrevolutionary Shearith Israel included British Loyalists, Hessian sutlers, and returning Whig exiles. They learned to live together, but there is no reason to believe it was all smooth sailing. The 1780’s and 1790’s heard talk of a bill of rights; the 1790 congregational statute breathed the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution. Solomon Simson, the synagog president in 1790, was a radical Whig and Jeffersonian Democrat. But even the 1790 libertarian document rejected for membership a “bound or hired servant” —a prohibition shared with the Southern congregations, Richmond and Charleston. A new constitution adopted in 1805 contained no magniloquent preamble making its bow to an egalitarian philosophy. Obviously the men who wrote this document felt no need to emphasize their political beliefs; they were now concerned solely with details that would help them administer the synagog effectively. Like Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel, the New York congregation experienced many difficult years financially. The Napoleonic wars disrupted economic life; the salaries of the congregation appointees were not always paid on time. The friends of the late hazzan Gershom Seixas complained that not enough was done for his widow. Seven of the hazzan’s children were still teenagers. To defend itself, the board published a pamphlet retailing all that had been done for her. For four years after his death she received his full salary; after that she had been given a pension of sorts. What was important, too, as she was reminded, the congregation had erected a marble monument over her husband’s grave and it was reciting memorial prayers for him annually. Her answer is not recorded, but who can doubt that she was tempted to answer she could not feed her brood with a marble monument.29

For years there were only about fifty members and not all of them paid dues. The community was not growing rapidly although there were always a few emigres arriving at the docks. Immigration was not heavy; many Europeans opted to remain at home and take advantage of Europe’s expanding political and economic opportunities. Yet, despite the very slow growth, Shearith Israel realized that it could no longer remain in the tiny building near the tip of Manhattan Island. The Mill Street sanctuary, a mere thirty-five by thirty-five feet in size, was heated by an iron stove and lit by flickering candles. The congregants were moving northward away from the old neighborhood; for some, the walk on the Sabbath was simply too much. Ultimately, the synagog was torn down, but instead of seeking a new site, the sanctuary was rebuilt on the old lot. The rich helped supply the needed funds; Harmon Hendricks and the two Touro



brothers were very generous. Other American Jews and West Indians were solicited. The New Yorkers might well have built without these outside gifts, but a tradition had been set: when a synagog is built, every Jew must help. The dedication ceremony pattern had also already been seen at Philadelphia in 1782. English language prayers were emphasized; Christian notables were invited. The women in the gallery had a grandstand view of what was going on below; there was no longer a lattice to distort their vision as they followed the ceremonies in the specially printed twenty-one page program. All Hebrew prayers were translated into English, even the acrostic hymn written for the occasion by the learned Abraham Dov Pique.30

The climax of the dedication was an eloquent address by Mordecai Manuel Noah; the printed edition is forty-seven pages long, but it still reads well. The rebuilt Mill Street Synagogue could not for long solve the congregation’s spatial and geographic problems. The last service was held downtown in 1833; the following year Shearith Israel moved into new quarters—including a sanctuary and a parsonage—on Crosby Street. The new temple was fitted out with gaslight. This time the dedicatory exercises lasted two days and featured a beautiful musical service. Because it was the Pentecostal (late Spring) season, the synagog was decorated with flowers. Among the notables was the High Constable, Jacob Hays, a born Jew, but no affiliate. Four other policemen were present; it was imperative that order be preserved. Once more Shearith Israel called on Noah to deliver the dedicatory discourse. In 1818, the Major had inveighed against liturgical reforms; now, in 1834, he had come to recognize the need for some changes. Noah and other Jews in that audience could not ignore the advancing nineteenth century with its threat to tradition. '

Seixas had been succeeded in 1816 by Moses Levy Maduro Peixotto, a native of Curasao. Peixotto, originally a merchant, was a fine, cultured gentleman of the old Sephardic school. He knew very little English, however, and found it difficult to preach in that language—a distinct disadvantage in view of the state occasions when the hazzan was expected to address his congregation in the vernacular. After Peixotto’s death in 1828, he was succeeded by Gershom Seixas’s nephew, Isaac Benjamin Seixas. Like Peixotto, Isaac B. Seixas had been a businessman for years and had turned to the clerical office as a last resort; he had a large family to support. For many years, the new hazzan had lived in Richmond, where he engaged in business and at the same time served as a volunteer reader. He had played his part as a good citizen in Virginia, for he was enrolled in the militia during the War of 1812 and joined others in the effort to bring a railroad into the city. It is possible that, even while he lived in Richmond, Beth Shalome paid for his services; in New York he was a salaried professional living in the parsonage. Shearith Israel kept him busy


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

for he was also in charge of the congregation’s day school. In hiring Seixas, the board had uttered a special caveat; he was to introduce no profane melodies or any used in Christian churches. It would be interesting to know what prompted the congregational authorities to issue that warning. The learned Eleazar S. Lazarus, grandfather of the poetess Emma Lazarus, followed Seixas in 1839 and chaunted the services till Jacques Judah Lyons was appointed. When called to New York, Lyons had been serving in Richmond. His parents were native Americans, but the new hazzan had been born in Surinam. Young Lyons had officiated in that Dutch colony till he accepted the call to Virginia’s capital. The New Yorkers liked Lyons, a charming, courteous gentleman, dignified and religiously observant. Lyons, who had pronounced literary interests, left a diary—certainly a most valuable document—but the family destroyed it on his death in 1877: the clergy must not keep diaries!32

The Structure and Administration



The Synagog

The “synagog” was a socioreligious institution housed in a building— often not more than a rented room, though sooner or later a house was leased or a building purchased. When a growing community began to reach out it bought and renovated a church and finally erected a sanctuary from the ground up. Up to about 1800 most synagogs had fewer than fifty members, but this is no gauge of synagogal use. It is a good guess, if a conservative one, that many more individuals visited the sanctuaries on the Holy Days. Charleston in the first decade of the nineteenth century was exceptionally large; by 1802, it had about 125 contributors. The country’s new Ashkenazic conventicles began modestly; Baltimore’s Scattered Israelites had forty-eight members in 1837 almost a decade after it was organized. The typical synagog was a hall with chairs, benches, or pews, a reading desk in the center, and an ark housing the manuscript Pentateuchal Scrolls of the Law. Most congregations also owned scrolls of the Book of Esther. Until the second quarter of the new century, manuscript scrolls were imported from Europe; there were no artisan scribes at work in this country. Other sancta were prayer shawls, phylacteries, prayer books, copper kettles, utensils to bake unleavened bread, and a ram’s horn to trumpet the high point of the service during the Days of Awe in the fall. For the autumnal Festival of Booths, the congregants joyfully recited blessings over a citron and branches of the palm, the willow,



and the myrtle. The women graced the balcony; in some buildings, they had their own separate entrance. The first seats in the balcony overlooking the downstairs floor were reserved for matrons; girls were enjoined to use the back seats. This was deemed proper; the girls would not distract the men or be distracted themselves.

Essentially the Sephardim and the Ashkenazim had much in common. Any Jew could wander into any synagog, pick up a prayer book, and participate in the service with good conscience. Yet it is equally true that no two services were exactly alike. The synagog, an autonomous institution, was completely independent; there was no hierarchy to compel uniformity; any congregation could do what it chose. Until the rise of the secessionist Ashkenazic conventicles, the Sephardic synagogs in each town set out to exercise authoritarian control over every Jew. It was held forbidden to establish rival synagogs, and congregations even attempted through explicit threats to compel every Jew in town to contribute. Even after the turn of the century, despite genuflections in the direction of democracy, every effort was made to impose compulsory membership. The effort was only a continuation of the monolithic Jewish community which prevailed in some European lands. There the state supported and enforced the dictates of the Jewish communal leaders, but in this country, where church and state were separated, the secular authorities left all synagogs to their own devices. The synagog monopoly was maintained in Philadelphia to 1800, in Charleston to 1824, in New York to 1825, in Richmond to 1839, in Savannah until the second half of the nineteenth century. After the first secession, there was no integrated local Jewry; coercion was no longer possible. From now on, there were multiple syna-gog-communities; institutional atomization became normal; affiliation was entirely voluntary. The synagog itself was part of a complex. It included not only the prayer auditorium but also quarters for some of the paid officiants. There was a school room that might well serve as a meeting hall. Most congregations had a bathhouse (mikveh) for the monthly ritual ablutions of the women. Rodeph Shalom used the Delaware River to immerse proselytes on conversion. A leafy booth was erected in the synagog yard—and in private homes, too—for the harvest festival Suc-coth, Booths.33

The Cemetery

Often the cemetery was a community’s first purchase and institution; indeed the need for a cemetery might well trigger the establishment of a synagog-community. Every congregation had its own cemetery; members would not join unless guaranteed a final resting place. This Eternal Home, Bet Olam, as the Jews called it, was imperative owing to the high


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

mortality rate of lying-in women and infants. Epidemics and children’s diseases were constant and devastating. Most cemeteries also had a tiny Purification Chapel, where bodies were prepared for burial. This hut might also serve as a “watchhouse” where a guard could warn off body snatchers and vandals. Jewish cemeteries were frequently vandalized; the tombstones were defaced or carried off; garbage was thrown onto the cemetery lots. In the eighteenth century, tombstones with their inscriptions were expensively imported from Europe; poor people often had no headstones. By 1682, New York City had two burial plots; the second, the Chatham Square Cemetery, is still extant. Three new cemeteries had to be purchased in the first half of the next century as the congregation struggled against the encroachments of a growing metropolis. In 1827, Shearith Israel’s burial society Love and Truth, established in 1802 by Hazzan Seixas, published a compendium of the burial service and the ritual for mourning. Bnai Jeshurun had its own burial ground in 1826. Philadelphia had one in 1740—before there was an organized religious community; the few Jews in neighboring Easton used the Michael Hart family plot. In 1786, long before the Baltimore Jews were ready to join together as a community, they purchased a cemetery plot. The two affluent families had their own private burial grounds while the Scattered Israelites Congregation, like all communities, offered its members the benefits of Jewish burial. '

Richmond had two Eternal Homes. The first was a gift of Isaiah Isaacs in 1791, but it was not long before it was covered over to raise the area to street level. It is one of the tragedies of mortality that older cemeteries are frequently neglected. In 1816-1817, Richmond’s city council gave the Jews a new cemetery plot, a courtesy accorded all churches by the Common Hall. Lots for a cemetery were frequently granted by town promoters in order to further settlement; Jews were seldom forgotten. Still much influenced by a mercantilistic philosophy, town officials looked upon Jews as desirable citizens. This second Richmond plot was secured through the good offices of Benjamin Wolfe, a member of the city council; Wolfe was the first man to be interred in the new burial ground. Cincinnati was compelled to buy a cemetery in 1821, when a dying Jew, ostensibly a Christian, asked for Jewish burial. Savannah had at least two cemeteries by 1773, the later the gift of Mordecai Sheftall, the earlier a plot given the first Jewish immigrants by Colonel Oglethorpe in 1733. New Orleans’s Jewish burial ground was purchased when Congregation Gates of Mercy was founded in 1828.

The first communal cemetery in Charleston was laid out in 1762, more than a decade after a formal community was established, but unquestionably there were earlier cemeteries; Jews had settled there in the 1690’s. By 1800, at least three known cemeteries were maintained in



Charleston and one in nearby Georgetown. One of the three in Charleston was restricted to “Portuguese” Jews—bloodline Iberians, who did not want to be buried with those they regarded as fraudulent Sephardim, people of Central European rather than Iberian origin. Charleston’s Beth Elohim, as conservative and as cautious as New York’s Shearith Israel, scrupulously adhered to tradition where burials were concerned. Despite the fact that a Jewish woman had married a Christian, she was given a traditional burial when her time came; she had not forfeited her birthright, declared the congregational fathers in 1841; two years later, however, when David Lopez’s Christian wife died, there was no place for her. Her grieving husband bought an adjoining lot and buried her next to the Jewish cemetery. Jewish burial was a privilege reserved for Jews in good standing. Transgressors were interred on the grounds—but off to the side; others were denied any access to the cemetery proper. Thus a separate section was reserved for suicides, prostitutes, adultresses, and intermarried individuals. Frequently, intermarried Jews were completely excluded from consecrated grounds; they were seen as having betrayed their fellow Jews. In towns where there was no organized community, Jews patronized the local Protestant cemetery; often they established private family plots wherever they lived. Most of these family resting places have long since disappeared; Baltimore is a notable exception. What happens when a family petitions for the interment of a parent who had not supported the local community? The communal authorities bury him, but demand a substantial punitive fee. The death of Robert Phillips, a wealthy Philadelphian, led Mikveh Israel to assess the estate $200, and when the executors balked, the congregation and the family locked horns. In the final compromise settlement, Mikveh Israel received $100.35

Some congregations handled burial themselves, though they may have delegated the work to a committee. This seems to have been the custom in Shearith Israel during the seventeenth and most of the next century. In other towns, semi-autonomous organizations were set up to deal specifically with the dying and the dead. Most members, busy in their shops, were only too happy to delegate the onerous task of making provision for those who needed ritual cleansing and burial. The oldest society concerned with this task was established at Charleston in 1784; it was a mutual-aid sick-care and burial association. A year later, Shearith Israel founded a similar organization, which called itself, as did the Charlestonian model, the Hebrew Benevolent Society. Like all fraternities of this nature, the New York group met together socially at an annual dinner. Historians are happy that the menu for the 1789 meeting has been preserved. The guests were served goose, duck, turkey, beef, and cranberries. Tobacco, too, was distributed; the potables were beer and porter. For reasons unknown, this association was short-lived, but was succeeded in

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1802 by the Love and Truth Association or the Fellowship of True Love, Hebra Hased Va Amet.36

These burial congeries had been part of the administrative apparatus of the synagog since the late eighteenth century. They are historically important because, together with an occasional immigrants’ aid society, they marked the rise of communal social-welfare agencies. Socially they are important, because they gave the individual an opportunity to express himself, to find himself in a small intimate group. The members in these burial associations developed a sense of “community” of their own. To govern themselves, they appointed officers and set down a series of regulations and rules of conduct. Violators were fined. In one society a man who refused to sit up with the dead was fined eight shillings; insulting the elected head of this hevrah cost the sinner only one shilling (insults were cheap, it would seem). In 1801, an overeager Charlestonian, one Solomon Moses, insisted on helping the hevrah prepare a corpse for burial. When Simon Hart, the head of the society, rejected his proffer, Moses punched him. Whereupon the indignant congregation made Moses apologize publicly and fined him heavily. The injured Mr. Hart brought a civil suit in the courts against the belligerent Mr. Moses, who was again fined, but because he had already made his peace with Beth Elohim, the amercement was a modest $1. One sometimes suspects that the centrifu-gality inherent in semi-autonomous burial congeries was a reaction to the centripetality of an authoritarian synagog board and president. Congregations were in a dilemma; they needed burial societies, but realized that they might well present a threat to congregational control. In tight little communities, individuals were constantly in a state of rebellion; they were individualists; they resented authority—an everpresent malaise (if that is what it is) in the world of Jewry.3'


Clearly and not surprisingly, all Jewish congregations and religious societies wanted to adopt rules and regulations for their guidance. Under British rule, synagogs had never been chartered, never been accorded official recognition, but as soon as the Jews received equality in the new constitutions of the original thirteen states, they proceeded to charter their synagogs and to write constitutions. Constitutions, of course, had probably been promulgated as early as the seventeenth century; the oldest extant organic statute of a synagog dates back to 1706. Indeed, governing rules for Jewish organizations are nothing new; European Jews had been writing takkanot (regulations) in Hebrew and Yiddish for centuries. Here in this country, Americanism was reflected in the titles of the officers: president, vice president, treasurer, secretary, clerk. More significant is the constant incorporation of the standard parliamentary rules of order in



these documents. This demand for restraint, decorum, orderliness in debate is characteristically American. With typical cultural lag, however, many congregational documents persist in speaking of the parnas (president) and the gabbai (treasurer).u

There could be no organization without records of some sort. Constitutions and bylaws are found everywhere; then came board minutes and, occasionally, the records of a special body called the trustees who were concerned with the temporalities. Charleston is exemplary in that it kept records of births, circumcisions, marriages, deaths, legacies, and offerings. Unfortunately many of Beth Elohim’s important papers were destroyed when the South Carolina state capital was gutted by flames during the Civil War; the congregation’s records had been sent there for safekeeping! Extant documents of the early Ashkenazic congregations reflected the simplicity of their administrative efforts. Notes were sometimes written in phonetic English. In some congregations, bilingual announcements and publications—German and English—persisted for decades. New York’s Anshe Chesed, honoring the prohibition against writing on the Sabbath, had a book where slips could be inserted to record the Saturday gifts of generous donors called to the Torah. Such procedures on the Sabbath were common. Baltimore’s Ashkenazi pioneers jotted down all donations made by grateful parishioners or strangers. Identification was simple: the tall man living at Myer’s house; the man with the Polish cap. The oldest extant printed constitution, dated 1805, was published by Shearith Israel of New York City. From that time on, printed constitutions were common in American Jewish communities. By 1824, indeed, Shearith Israel had begun printing committee reports, and as the administrative apparatus developed, more printed reports of various types were submitted by the officers to boards and congregations. This, too, may well reflect democratic influences. Most congregations had much in common, structurally and ideologically. On occasion, these basic congregational documents reflected the impact of the environment on an Orthodoxy beginning to come to terms with a permissive America. Time ameliorated tradition, though, not as yet to any marked degree.39

Congregational bylaws, rules, regulations, and minutes not infrequently betray the anxieties and problems confronting the synagog leaders and the members. Christian concepts of decorum and devotion were making their impress. Infants, for example, were to be left at home. In Easton, all members were expected to be present at the service in the house of mourning—otherwise there would be no prayer quorum. No one in Savannah was to be called to the reading of the Scroll wearing boots; the streets and roads of the city and countryside were muddy; soiled footgear would offer insult to Jewry’s divine Law. Marriages and intermarriages were problems of constant concern. A married couple seeking


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

seats in Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel was rejected. Why? They had been married by a Christian minister. Let them repent—be married Jewishly— and a place in the synagog would be available. Anshe Chesed in the late 1830’s was very much involved in matters touching on marriage. In the United States, culturally Europe’s western “frontier,” anything could happen. The congregation urged individuals not to perform unauthorized marriages; some candidates for marriages may have left a wife back home. In one instance the congregation tried to induce a runaway husband to return. In 1836, Anshe Chesed required all members to secure board permission before they were married. Intermarriage was nearly always frowned upon; violators lost their synagogal membership. When, however, a man and his sweetheart said that they had been betrothed back in Bavaria, their request to be married was readily granted by Anshe Chesed: the congregants knew that “back home” pharaonic laws limited the number of Jewish marriages. Charleston’s fascinating constitutions for 1820 and 1836 are most revealing. Defaulters in dues were segregated in special seats—true mourners’ benches! The intermarried were rigorously excluded; Sabbath violators were not tolerated; would-be proselytes were viewed with suspicion; blacks were excluded from membership; prostitutes and madams must live down their past; rival congregations in town were forbidden.40

Important as they are, constitutions are but a faint reflection of an institution manned by vibrant human beings. Most congregations had two kinds of members, first-class and others. The word second-class is never used. A full member is called a yahid, an outstanding special person; occasionally he is called an elector; the others may be designated seatholders, congregators, and even resident aliens. To be sure, the non-yehidim had fewer rights, but no member was ever denied religious honors. The yahid, of course, took preference; he paid more. When congregations first started, they made it easy for almost any Jew to join and to hold office. They needed bodies! There was an inverse ratio between the paucity of members and the fullness of democracy. Even so, no matter how desperate congregations were to enroll members, they balked at including indentured servants or black freedmen. These prohibitions may very well have reflected contemporary practices in Christian churches. The very congregation that would pay lip service to Jeffersonian principles would make no exceptions in this area. After a group had been firmly established, there was a tendency to tighten the rules of admission. With the Gentiles in mind constantly, the Jews never faltered in their desire to project an image of utter respectability. One was not automatically admitted because he was a Jew willing to pay the admission fee and the usual dues. Some synagogs began to insist on proof of citizenship and to impose residential requirements in an attempt to keep out itinerants suspected of



dubious antecedents and to prevent a take-over by undesirables; the ballot can become a Trojan horse. Congregations, nearly always apprehensive, did not permit members to join other synagogs; there are occasional exceptions. Intermarried men were nearly always denied admission, but occasionally a subterfuge was employed; the out-marriage was ignored, and the member was called to the Torah as a “single” man. In its early days, Anshe Chesed was prepared to expel a member who apprenticed a son to a Gentile artisan without making provisions for Sabbath and Holy Day observance by the youngster. In all congregations, members, regardless of status, had the right to participate in the services and to enjoy at all times the ministrations of the reader, the beadle, the teacher, and the shohet. There are, of course, special occasions when every Jew is privileged in the synagog services, when he is a bridegroom, the parent of a newborn child, or father of a son about to become an adult religiously (bar mitzvah). He was honored, too, when his wife first came to services after lying-in. All these standard traditional privilegia (hiyyuvim) were honored in practically all sanctuaries.41


The most influential man in the congregation was the president, the par-nas. He was the boss; this is a European tradition that was honored in the full sense of the word here, both in the colonial regime and in the new republic. Even today the word parnas carries the connotation of an authoritarian personality. Nothing was deemed outside his jurisdiction: the worship ritual, the personnel, the distribution of honors, the preservation of decorum, the bestowal of charity, the care of the sick, itinerants, the imposition of fines, the supervision of marriages and burials, the preservation of the dietary laws, the baking of unleavened bread for the Passover, the arrangement of intercessory and Thanksgiving services requested by the state or national government. Still, his authority was never absolute. He was limited by the board and ultimately by the franchises of the membership. This was the United States; the concepts and practices of democracy and majority rule were never forgotten, never totally ignored. In a typical congregation, the board numbered between five and seven men. The Charleston congregation in 1820 had a board of twenty-five and an executive committee of seven. In the 1836 constitution written after a traumatic schism caused by the departure of the Reformers, the board of five was elected for life in a deliberate attempt to frustrate a liberal takeover. Rodeph Shalom’s board met occasionally in the home of a member or even in a more congenial place, a rathskeller.

It was also the board which appointed special committees. In those early years of the nineteenth century, there were relatively few committees, but a cemetery committee was a necessity. Burgeoning Charleston


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had an endowment committee—which was most unusual. When a problem of religious law arose in a community it was not uncustomary to appoint a “court” of three learned men (beth din) in order to come up with an answer that would not violate Jewish tradition. It was imperative in a voluntaristic organization like the synagog that no pressures he exerted if they could be avoided. The members of the board were usually elected by the congregants; on rare occasions, resort was had to an indirect form of appointment. To a degree, boards were self-perpetuating. Attempts were made to limit tenure, but some officers served for many years. It was not unusual to rise to power through the hierarchy of offices. One started as a “Bridegroom of the Law” or as a “Bridegroom of Genesis”—that is, as worshippers honored with the opportunity to close the final weekly cycle of Pentateuchal readings in Deuteronomy and begin the new cycle with the first chapter of Genesis. From this office, one rose to the top as a board member, or as secretary, treasurer, and president. Not all men were eager to wield the presidential gavel. Being a congregational boss was time-consuming; after all, a man had to make a living. Aggravation and frustration were often the lot of every presiding officer. There were deficits to be met, especially in time of war when depression struck and the president had to hustle not only to keep the congregation alive, but also to feed his own family. Few presidents were spared insults; board conflicts were frequent; then, too, there were auxiliary confraternities and frustrated personnel to be pacified. Congregants posed problems. The men and women patronizing the synagog were often immigrants—newcomers, more often than not an unhappy lot—which may well be an understatement.42


One of the irritating problems that confronted every board was how to work amicably with the paid functionaries. Some of them—the beadle, for example—were appointed by the board; the hazzan was elected by the congregation. Small synagogs, just organized or with few members, made do with volunteers. When a synagog was affluent enough to hire someone part-time or full-time, the one and same hireling might function as beadle, slaughterer, and reader. Congregations of size and a modicum of wealth employed several men, a teacher, a beadle, a hazzan, and a collector of dues. The one man who was never a congregational appointee was the circumciser (mohel). Some circumcisers were volunteers, initiating youngsters into Judaism in order to earn the reward for a good deed; it was a labor of love for them. Generally, however, most circumcisers were professionals who were remunerated by the father. Congregational officiants often served as circumcisers, augmenting their scanty incomes by engaging in this meritorious ritual. Seixas, who was also a mohel, traveled as far north as Canada in his capacity as circumciser, though most of



his service as a mohel was limited to his own parish. Thus he circumcised one of the sons of Isaac Moses, the notable merchant. Because the child was sickly, the hazzan had to make several trips to attend it. His expenses caring for the infant were heavy, but the father finally reimbursed him for all his labors. An older contemporary of Seixas, Abraham I. Abrahams, had been a popular circumciser in New York in pre-Revolutionary days. Abrahams, a petty businessman and parochial schoolteacher, went as far north as Massachusetts to carry on his sacred work of initiating infants into the covenant. The mohel book of Barnard Jacobs records that he traveled all over eastern Pennsylvania in the line of duty. Like Abrahams, Jacobs was a shopkeeper; so was Myer Derkheim, whose circumcision record book attests to his religious services in England and in many American states. Some youngsters had to wait years before the mohel came; circumcisers rarely found their way into the hinterland.43


The teacher in the early American Jewish community was sometimes called the “rabbi,” a variant form of the Yiddish word “rebbe,” or teacher. Paying due deference to other vowels, he was on occasion known as the rubi and the ribbi, but he was not a rabbi in the modern or conventional sense. There would be no officiating ordained rabbi, a diplomate and fully authoritative spiritual leader of a congregation, in this country until the end of the fourth decade of the nineteenth century. The rebbe, in any case, was not really to be counted among the congregational servants; he was a part-time appointee whose job it was to teach the children of the poor. For this service the congregation paid him a modest salary and on occasion gave him quarters and some perquisites. All others who attended his semi-communal school—and many did—were “pay” students, their families paid for their tuition. Jewish education was not free or compulsory. It was the rebbe’s job to prepare a boy for bar mitzvah and to teach the basic blessings and ceremonies. Together with the hazzan, he might also be assigned the task of watching the children during the services and making sure that they behaved. In Shearith Israel, it was not the rebbe or the beadle who kept an eye on the youngsters segregated in a corner; Hazzan Seixas, perched on his “high place,” the reading desk, was expected to keep them under control.44


The beadle was the communal servant par excellence. What was he called on to do? What was he not called on to do? He attended all services, kept the sanctuary clean, made and lit the candles used for illumination and for ritual purposes, kept the Eternal Light burning, and made sure that the


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

doors were securely locked. In some congregations, it was he who kept the books which recorded the donations of the congregants. He was expected to attend all weddings, funerals, and circumcisions and to do whatever the parnas told him to do.45

The shohet, the ritual slaughterer, was a source of headaches for the parnas and his board. One suspects that there was a tradition among these shohets to take no guff from anyone; they were an independent lot. It was the shohet’s job to provide kosher meat for the Jews in town, to work with the dispensers, the butchers, making sure that they were not guilty of any ritual violations. This was important since most butchers who sold the meat were Christians; some of them were prone to cheat by substituting non-kosher for kosher products.

The hazzan was the chief officiant in every early American synagog. Consequently, he received the highest salary; the shohet and beadle were always paid less. One can hardly question that the hazzan was paid more than the typical non-college-educated evangelical minister, but he received considerably less than notable Boston or Philadelphia Christian clergymen. Seixas, with a large family, found it difficult to make both ends meet and did not hesitate to haggle with his board about his pay. Salaries varied; twenty years later the hazzan at Anshe Chesed received but $100 a year, though very probably it was then a part-time job. The cantor or hazzan really functioned as the rabbi, for he was elected by the congregation to serve as its spiritual head. On occasion, even Christians referred to him as the “rabbi”; he was equated by them and by the state with ministers of the gospel. Because Christians accepted the hazzan as an important religious figure, his status was constantly on the rise. One can well understand, therefore, why the Rev. Mr. Leeser, of Philadelphia, was resentful that Mikveh Israel’s constitution did not permit him to attend congregational meetings. He was angry to be denied a privilege accorded every thirteen-year-old boy who had been called to the Torah. In addition to a salary, the hazzan was given housing, fuel, unleavened bread for Passover, and a variety of other perquisites. Additional income was derived from marriages, funerals, circumcisions, and from teaching in the congregation’s all-day school. On occasion, the hazzan could augment his income by certifying overseas shipments of kosher meat. Congregants who loved and respected their rabbi gave him gifts, and Christian friends were also generous.46

What did the board and members expect of their hazzan? They asked that he be a kind, affable man, that he be dignified, a good teacher, and an educated gentleman who could hold his own in good Christian society. Charleston, in particular, was insistent on these qualities. By the 1830’s, under the impact of Protestant examples, some congregations began requiring their ministers to preach in English and to address themselves to



moral themes. By 1836, Charleston’s Beth Elohim was ready to listen to its hazzan every Saturday or whenever he chose to preach. This, undoubtedly, was the answer to local dissidents, who had seceded to form a group of their own where the sermon was stressed; the conservative leaders of Beth Elohim could not evade history. By the 1840’s, in Philadelphia, Ro-deph Shalom—German newcomers for the most part—encouraged preaching. If discourses were then delivered in that synagog, the language was most probably German.47

The Functioning Congregation:

Meetings and Budgets

American Jewish congregations met at least once a year to attack their problems. Some held quarterly meetings; others met semi-annually. There were synagogs where a few determined individuals could force the authorities to call a special meeting of all members; there were towns, too, where the board could hinder protestants if they sought to ventilate their complaints. Most boards met regularly, at least once a month; there was rarely a dearth of issues. The basic problem, a constant and recurrent one, was the need to balance the budget. Frequent financial panics frightened and impoverished members. Money was needed to pay salaries, to repair the sanctuary, to help the poor. The standard sources of income in all congregations were initiation fees, dues, the purchase and rental of seats. The seating problem was always a ticklish one, because seating indicated status, there was always a place set aside for the poor and for visiting Gentiles. The galleries where the women sat were the subject of not infrequent discussion; matrons and girls vied for the front seats; they wanted to see and to be seen. Another source of income was the offerings made when a man was called to the reading of the Torah. He was expected to make a gift and he did, but such donations were not invariably profit, for in many congregations it was permissible to deduct the amount offered from the dues pledged. This was a face-saving device for the typical middle-class householder; money was scarce; a man could thus be generous at no cost. Some congregations set a minimum voluntary offering, but smart alecks offered less than the minimum in order to harass the board. The Shearith Israel secessionists who established Bnai Jeshurun reduced the minimum. Was this a democratic gesture? Was the Shearith Israel minimum too high? Bnai Jeshurun offered a special bargain rate of three blessings for a shilling.48

Additional income came from burial fees and special imposts on nonmembers who required the services of the congregation or its officiants. Money came in through gifts, legacies, annual postmortem blessings. Beth Elohim was exceptional in that it had a well-established endowment


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

fund. Philadelphia, which had need for the services of an attorney, permitted him to balance his statement for legal fees against his synagogal bills; almost $400 was involved in this interchange. If a man could not pay his pledges, he would appeal for an abatement; indebtedness to the congregation was a problem with which the board frequently had to cope. Another source of income—one not always easy to evaluate—was the imposition of fines. Men were fined, for example, because they refused to accept congregational office. Fines of this nature were imposed in the London synagogs also; Isaac D’Israeli, the English author, refused to accept an appointment to the board of London’s Sephardic Bevis Marks and he resigned in 1813 when the customary fine was demanded. D’-Israeli, himself never a convert to Christianity, attended the ceremonies which marked the opening of a liberal synagog, but in 1817 permitted or encouraged the conversion of his son Benjamin, the later Lord Beaconsfield. Fines were exacted for doing business on the Sabbath, for disorderly conduct, for insulting the honorary officers. One congregation imposed penalties as high as $250—an enormous sum in a day when a rabbi’s annual salary was often less than $1,000. In 1805, sixty-seven fines were imposed by Beth Elohim and presumably collected.49

The Baltimore Hebrew Congregation had an interesting system of alerting its members when they threatened to break the peace. The Scattered Israelites had three cards of different colors, red, white, and blue, which they handed out. The white was a warning: Please behave! The red and blue were fines: one for 25 cents; the other, for 50 cents. In different communities, there were monetary penalties for leaving a meeting without permission of the parnas, for talking during the service, for singing louder than the cantor, for chewing tobacco and spitting on the floor, for bringing children under five to the sanctuary, for removing one’s prayer shawl before the services were over, for assembling in front of the synagog after the last hymn had been sung. There is no way to determine whether fines added up to an appreciable source of congregational income. The records of such penalties have, for the most part, been destroyed. In the first decade of the new century, Charleston’s Beth Elohim probably enjoyed the largest congregational income in the country, £800; its most generous giver paid about £50 a year. By 1840, New York’s Shearith Israel had a budget of about $6,000; in 1839, Bnai Jeshurun spent $4,000; Anshe Chesed, thirteen years old in 1841, was spending only $1,000; ten years later, when its membership was swollen by the incoming Central Europeans, these Men of Love had a budget of $5,500. The substantial expenditures of the Ashkenazic congregations indicate that they were moving ahead.'



The Services

The ultimate goal of a congregation—possibly not always a conscious one —was to guarantee that Jews and Judaism would survive; its immediate purpose was to make provision for worship. There were three rites in the United States, the Spanish-Portuguese or Sephardic, the German, and the Polish; the latter two Ashkenazic. But no matter what the liturgical style, there were variations in every synagog, whose rite in turn, was invariably modified somewhat with the advent of a new hazzan. Improvisation was the order of the day. Often the petty differences within any specific rite represented regional or local differences which the congregants brought with them from Europe. These minutiae were deemed sacrosanct; the pettier the liturgical deviations, the more opportunity they offered for congregational squabbles. In 1761, on hearing that a congregation was to be established in Philadelphia, Jacob Henry implied that it would founder on the rock of finding an acceptable common liturgy. What is it going to be, he said sarcastically, Sephardic, German, Polish or Quaker? He invoked the Quakers because their ministers served “without fee or reward.” After publishing a few English translations of liturgical material in the 1760’s, the Jews here finally issued an edition of the Sephardic prayers in 1826; Hebrew and English faced each other on opposite pages.

Ashkenazic prayer books were printed in 1848. Despite what had become a traditional religiocultural lag in America, it was difficult to continue ignoring the Central European majority; these provincials, after all, already had at least seventy-five Ashkenazic synagogs and conventicles in the country. Services were held on late Friday afternoons, on Saturdays, and on the holidays; occasionally a quorum was rounded up for special occasions. Rarely, if ever, were offerings made in English; intoning the gifts, when the Scroll was read, the cantor sang in Hebrew, Spanish-Portuguese, German, or in all probability, Juedisch-Deutsch or Yiddish. When either the national or state governments urged citizens, Jews among them, to assemble in their houses of worship to supplicate the Holy One Blessed Be He or to thank Him, the Children of Israel hastened to respond. They would gather to offer thanksgiving in victory and and to mourn when war, fire, or disease threatened. The Passover seder, the festival of freedom, was an occasion which few missed. It is noteworthy, too, that the seder liturgy, the Haggadah (the Telling of the Exodus from Egypt) was a common one for all Jews, both Sephardim and Ashkenazim. The New Year and the Day of Atonement were celebrated with solemnity; the giving of the Law (the Teaching) was commemorated on Pentecost; Jews, even intermarried ones, sat in booths during the autumnal festival of Tabernacles; Hanukkah was not yet equated with Christmas and its gift giving, although Jews lit their silver candelabra. The most


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

joyous holiday was Purim, celebrated as a sort of carnival in the weeks before Spring; the day was spent in drinking, gift giving, and games.51

There were no permanent choirs, though almost invariably choral groups were organized for dedication exercises, if only to impress the large number of Christian visitors. An effort made in 1818 to organize a choir in Shearith Israel met with strong opposition—it was an innovation that smacked of Protestantism and Jewish Reform. The year 1818 saw Hamburg Jews revolt—mildly, to be sure—against tradition; more radical religious dissenters had been raising their voices in Germany for well over a decade, and the New Yorkers knew what was going on in Europe. In some congregations, there were men and women who wanted a choir of male and female voices. By this time, a Jew in Philadelphia was arranging a Hebrew hymn for voice and piano accompaniment. Synagogs did enjoy and approve of congregational singing; maybe that is one of the reasons many rejected the introduction of a choir; the people in the benches wanted to participate themselves. Congregational—rather than pulpit or choral—domination of the service was a Jewish tradition centuries old. It was this desire to retain the worshippers’ centrality in the service that induced some Jews to think of preaching as an intrusion. Only one congregation in all America heard discourses with some regularity in the early and middle 1830’s, Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia.52

American Judaism: Practice and Problems

Like most Jews everywhere, American Israelites believed that they were duty bound to observe God’s law as propounded in the Hebrew Bible and as interpreted by the rabbis for the past 2,000 years. In their own fashion most American Jews here who identified with their people believed that the Law merited obedience. By far the majority was traditional in avowal, if not in practice. In 1825, writing to Brother Ben in Lexington, Rebecca Gratz said that their brothers in Philadelphia were very attentive in synagog matters. The women’s gallery was as well filled as the men’s section downstairs. “We all go Friday evening as well as on Saturday morning.” In the various congregations, those in authority made efforts to enforce observance, and denunciations of religious transgression were not uncommon. In 1782 Mordecai M. Mordecai, of Philadelphia, denounced Ezekiel Levy for having shaved on the Sabbath. The “fundamentalism” exhibited by Mordecai did not prevent him, when it suited him, from disregarding the Law. In the late 1830’s, Anshe Chesed, still rigorous in observance, debarred men from membership for working on the Sabbath. The Philadelphian Moses Nathans accused a Mr. Bromat of writing in a coffeehouse on the Sabbath in 1783. Less than a decade later, the same zealous Mr. Nathans married a Gentile in a non-Jewish ceremony. Nathans, after



two years, turned to the congregation and asked that his wife and the couple’s two circumcised infants be converted. The congregation was sympathetic and wrote to religious authorities in Europe asking for guidance. The Philadelphians pointed out that Nathans had at all times lived a Jewish life in the traditional sense. Indeed, there were ardent Jews in every town.53

Shearith Israel’s members tended to follow the letter of the Law. In 1794, they refused to convert the Gentile wife of a member. Undoubtedly the congregation was influenced by a regulation enacted in 1763 denying conversion to any non-Jew—which was supererogation with a vengeance since there is nothing in Jewish Law to forbid proselytization. It is likely that New York’s Jews in the 1760’s and in the 1790’s assumed so conservative a stance because they feared public reaction if they converted a Christian to Judaism; they were insecure, still responsive to Old World memories. Adhering to rabbinic precepts, Savannah refused to bury the son of a Jew born of a Christian mother, the Philadelphians denied interment to the child of a Jewish woman and a Christian husband. Despite the many evidences of recusancy, most American Jews were loyal to their faith. In 1844, Mrs. Judith Pettigrew was buried in a special section of Philadelphia’s Jewish cemetery because she had married a Christian. She was the daughter of Myer Hart, of Easton, who had been one of the founders of that village. Sixty-two years after her marriage, it was held against her that her husband was a Christian. A black woman who worked for a Mr. Marks, of Philadelphia, was a meticulous observer of Jewish traditions. When she died, he asked permission to bury her in the congregation’s cemetery. After this request was denied, Marks and a number of friends buried her, nevertheless, but off to the side. One of Philadelphia’s notable Jews, Hyman Gratz, was censured in 1827 by Mikveh Israel for bringing some Christian women visitors up to the holy ark and showing them a Scroll of the Law. In his will Gratz left his estate to found a Jewish college in Philadelphia, a legacy which in 1893 made possible the establishment of present-day Gratz College. In matters religious, nineteenth-century American Jewry was still conservative. *

Since most Jews accepted traditional religious practices, in principle at least, it is well to ask: what was the nature of their compliance? Most Jews respected the Sabbath and what it stood for, even if they were less than scrupulous in its observance. Others—a minority, to be sure—attended Sabbath services during the year and recited the prayers mechanically, noisily, and joyously. Parents wanted their sons to be bar mitzvah at thirteen. Some members of Shearith Israel wore no praying shawl (tallith) at service; the congregation insisted, however, that it be worn if a member hoped to be honored when the Law was read. This was in 1825 when American Jewry in general was dismayed by the rise of the Reformed


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Society of Israelites in Charleston. When in doubt about proper practice, congregations consulted knowledgeable Jews like Israel Baer Kursheedt or turned for guidance to European rabbinical authorities. Congregations distributed liturgical honors—for instance standing by as the Law was read—not merely to solicit offerings, but, at least equally, to encourage and reward the pious and the observant. Many a traveler refused to begin journeys on the Sabbath and, if on the road, made every effort to reach lodgings before sundown on Friday night. In January, 1826, two young Ettings, of the Philadelphia-Baltimore clan, were caught in a storm about twenty miles outside of Baltimore. Night had fallen, the Sabbath was setting in, and they refused to go any farther. The boys stopped the stage, got out on the road, went through their Hebrew prayers, and lit the Sabbath candles. They observed the day of rest in a nearby home, but the storm was so severe they had to get out and tie the house to a tree to prevent it from blowing away. After it was all over, Henry, a young naval officer, thought it all a huge joke. The only evil effect he experienced was a bad cold—which he survived to become a disbursing officer in the navy (years later he retired with the relative rank of commodore). Jonas Phillips, the well-known Philadelphia merchant, paid a fine rather than be sworn on the Sabbath in court.M

With rare exception, Jews prepared and employed the standard Aramaic contract when entering into marriage. According to biblical law, a man was bound to marry a brother’s childless widow. The traditional symbolic ceremony (halitsah) which released the brother from marrying his bereaved sister-in-law was observed in some congregations, and the widow was free to marry whomever she wished. Efforts were made, not always effectively, to ensure that a Cohen, a man of priestly descent, did not marry a divorcee or a proselyte. Most congregations in the large towns succeeded in building a mikveh (pool) to be used by the women for their monthly ritual ablutions. Manuel Josephson, of Philadelphia, insisted successfully on the establishment of such a bathhouse in 1784. This merchant, respected as a Jewish communal leader and admired for his scholastic attainments, was among the city’s most cultured Jews in Jewish and secular studies. When pleading for a mikveh he reminded his coreligionists, a year after the war with England, that because they were now blessed with freedom it was their duty to thank their Father in Heaven by following his injunctions scrupulously. If a mikveh is not built, God will punish us; our fellow Jews will not associate with us; all the curses of the Bible will descend upon us! Our women must be induced to a strict compliance! May God have mercy upon us and send his redeemer to Zion speedily! Town Jews wrote their families in the villages alerting them to the coming Holy Days, since printed Jewish calendars were rare. When David Hays, of Westchester County, New York, wrote to his brother



Michael in 1784, he urged him to recite the anniversary memorial prayer for their mother and to fast on the Day of Atonement. Accompanying the note and the necessary dates of all the Holy Days was a gift of some kosher meat.56

In 1798, on a long voyage from New York to Madras, India, two Jews observed the Passover “with strictness . . . God send we may spend the next one in New York.” Wherever there were Jews, they made an effort to provide themselves with matzo, unleavened Passover bread. Samuel Mordecai in Richmond or Petersburg made sure to send the family in Warrenton, North Carolina, a supply of unleavened bread for the holiday. Sheftall Sheftall, a Revolutionary War officer when only a teenager, always fasted on the eve of Passover according to a widely followed medieval custom. In the cities, congregants supervised the baking of matzo whether it was done by Jews or Christians. In some places, it was the synagog that distributed it, controlled the prices, and made sure that the impoverished received their allotment. The Newport synagog reportedly had a built-in oven for the baking of matzo for the congregants. Free matzo counted as one of the perquisites of congregational functionaries. Christians were impressed by the Jewish observance of the Passover. “A Protestant,” writing to the press in 1784, complained that Christians neglected the coeval Good Friday. Jews, ardent in their observance of the Passover, were setting Christians an example by staying away from their shops during the paschal holiday.'-

The Hebrew Bible describes which animals—cattle, fowl, fish—are permitted for food and which are forbidden. Cattle and fowl, if eaten by observant Jews, must be slaughtered, examined, and prepared according to prescribed rules and regulations laid down in rabbinic law. The maintenance of these laws of kashrut occasioned communal leaders much concern. They were determined that these injunctions, divinely ordained in Sacred Writ, be honored. Why were the leaders so insistent on kashrut? Here in America, one goes to synagog once or twice a week at best, but one eats twenty-one times a week at least. Jews sensed that, if a man made sacrifices to observe the dietary laws and set himself apart, he was committed to tradition and would remain a Jew. Adherence to the kosher code is instant identification; it becomes an ingrained habit, a deterrent against defection; it ties Jews to one another. In actual practice, it may be deemed more important than adherence to other traditional beliefs and dogmas; it is even more important than an occasional visit to the synagog. Jews believed, in a far more subtle sense than the materialist L. A. Feuerbach, that man is what he eats. (Der Mensch ist was er isst.) In short, as long as a man ate kosher he would remain a Jew. This is why communities were so determined to provide kosher food and to require people to keep a kosher kitchen. While visiting a spa, Rebecca Gratz was offered fried


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oysters. Her hostess, recalling that the food was forbidden, hastened to apologize, saying to Rebecca, “My memory is bad.” “Mine is better,” answered Rebecca, “the fish is so good here that I have no temptation to forget it is the only thing on the table to be eaten.” Rebecca, one of the best educated Jewish women in all America, enjoyed being Jewish.58

Providing kosher meat and enforcing the laws of kashrut was practically an insoluble problem. Communities were looking for competent, dependable shohets. It was the job of the slaughterers to kill the animal ritually; Christian butchers, licensed by a congregation, cut and distributed the meat. A butcher in New York who compensated the shohet was willing to pay for the privilege of handling kosher meats because he had a built-in Jewish-clientele and received a good price for the product he sold. In order to make sure that there was kosher meat which the poor of the community could afford to buy, Harmon Hendricks, the philanthropist, made a contribution. He sought to encourage the eating of lamb which was cheaper. The experiment failed, for the people preferred the more expensive veal to the cheaper lamb. The problem facing the community was that some butchers would cheat and affix kosher seals fraudulently to forbidden carcasses. When cheats were caught, as some were in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they were punished by the municipal authorities. Respecting the needs and sensitivities of the Jews, the local government in New York City between 1796 and 1813 was willing to help them and, if necessary, pass requisite ordinances. Typical of the cheating is the case of the butcher Caleb Vanderberg. When caught in a fraud, he said it was all a joke, but he failed to see the humor of it all when the Common Council deprived him of his license in 1805.59

The problem of kosher meat control was only exacerbated by the fact that there were laymen competent to perform shehitah. Most of these private shohets slaughtered meat for themselves and their friends exclusively; they were honorable men. Notables like Solomon Etting, Ephraim Hart, and Mordecai Sheftall were versed in the art. Etting was an outstanding Baltimore merchant; Hart, a prominent New York businessman; Sheftall, one of Georgia’s leading citizens. Another who took care of his own needs was Benjamin Etting Hays, of Mt. Pleasant, New York, whom the Christians called Uncle Ben. A pious Jew, he observed biblical laws by leaving some fruit and grain for the poor on his trees and in his fields. Men like Hays and Sheftall created no problem for anyone, but when a shohet went into business for himself and tied himself to a Christian butcher, there was no congregational control—no positive assurance that the product was ritually truly kosher. Kosher food can become a big business; the prospect of gain always carries with it the possibility of fraud. Congregational leaders believed that consumers had to be protected and



in 1813 the Common Council of New York gave Shearith Israel the authority to license shohets and butchers. Victory? The ordinance raised a storm in the congregation; eminent members believed that their political and religious rights were being violated; and within a few days the offending ordinance was revoked. For lack of a better reason, the historian can only assume that behind this attack on sound legislation stood bitter intramural hostilities. Was there a fight for synagogal control between the officers and the power elite which had hitherto dominated? The attempt then to control kashrut—in New York at least—failed.60

New York’s kashrut problems were multiplied when, in the 1820’s, new congregations were established; each synagog had its own shohet; now with multiple slaughterers and a plethora of butchers, control of distribution was completely out of the question. There was no single overall community, no administrative apparatus, no city or state legislation to restrain cheating. Indeed the problem of kashrut supervision has plagued New York Jewry down to the present day. What was true of New York was, to a degree, true of all towns; it was never easy anywhere to guarantee the supply of kosher meat. As people became less exacting, more permissive in these matters, and as their sense of guilt increased, they began to insist that the officiating minister, at least, must be meticulous in his observance of the dietary laws. The hazzan must be the vicarious (observant) Jew in town. There could be no leeway where the paid functionaries were concerned. Thus in, 1809, the teacher and assistant hazzan Emanuel N. Carvalho was accused of eating in the home of a member whose kitchen was not kosher. Lobster had been served! Carvalho was tried, but emerged triumphant from the inquisition; he proved that his black servant was present to make sure that the food served his master was truly kosher.


Kashrut in the home was, is, the concern of the woman. Though women were restricted to the galleries in the synagog, it is not necessary to interpret this segregation as abasement; women were highly respected and cherished. It is worthy of note that, when New York’s Mill Street Synagogue was rebuilt in 1817, the grille or wall which had once hidden the women’s galleries was not restored. Even the effort to reserve the front seats in the galleries to married women was not altogether successful. Leeser, in his preface to Grace Aguilar’s Spirit of Judaism, was primarily concerned that women devote themselves to religion, to belief, to piety. Thus they would have a profound influence on their children and, together with men, further the Kingdom of Heaven. In the contemporary Christian churches, women were co-workers with men in every organization, in the missionary, reform, and welfare societies. Men and women


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

worked shoulder to shoulder as equals. Nothing comparable was evident in the synagogs of that day. Rebecca Gratz was annoyed that some of her sophisticated contemporaries, women too, believed Judaism to be the concern of rabbis and women alone, no one else. Piety, true religiosity among women, was common. Rebecca sensed and felt the presence of God; she was prepared to submit to his will no matter what befell her; she was firm in her beliefs. When Mrs. T. Biddle, her hostess on one occasion, attempted to convert her, Rebecca answered that she was happy in her Jewish faith and could not sympathize with Mrs. Biddle’s wish that she accept Christianity. Deborah Moses, the daughter of Hazzan Jacob R. Cohen, of Philadelphia, was exemplary in her piety. Knowing that she was about to die, she laid out her shrouds and gave money to the poor; “charity, righteousness delivereth from death” (Prov. 10:2). “God bless her memory,” said her son, Major Raphael J. Moses, the Confederate firebrand, “I know she has gone to her reward and feel that she still lives and loves us.” When her will was opened, her grieving children read her last words: “Mourn not beyond the hour sanctified by nature and true grief. The tears which spring from the heart are the only dews the grave should be moistened with. The dead receive sufficient honor in being called to face their God.”61

Following a practice that assumed increasing importance in later generations, Hazzan Seixas wrote the Hebrew of “Our God,” Elohenu as Elo-ketiu. The divine name is ineffable, it is too holy ever to be pronounced as written. London’s chief rabbi wrote the word God, “G-d.” The desire of most worshippers was to continue the old way of life without substantial modification. Their conservative approach was reinforced by the constant arrival of immigrants wedded to orthodoxy. Most newcomers were meticulously observant; certainly initially. Malcolm Stern, the genealogist and historian, has maintained that most Jews identified with a congregation. This was true, he believes, even of the intermarried. Whether Jews joined a synagog or not most of them did savor Judaism, the religion of their fathers. Anti-Jewish prejudice, never absent, served only to intensify their loyalties. American Jewry and Judaism, an extension of Orthodox Europe, constituted the western frontier of an Atlantic basin community. For some of America’s Gentile literati, Europe reached as far west as the Blue Ridge Mountains; for American Jewry, by 1840, it extended to the mouth of the Missouri River; a Bohemian immigrant would feel completely at home in a St. Louis prayer group. •


Kashrut and other religious practices created problems for Jewish leaders and traditional conformists inasmuch as no two individuals walked quite the same religious path. The American ethos, which allowed every man



and woman freedom in all matters religious, served to encourage rugged Jewish individualists. Other problems, too, confronted Jews in the United States; they were no longer living in an ethnic enclave, but in an integrated non-corporative world where Christians outnumbered them about a thousand to one. Jews were thus compelled to reevaluate their conduct and their religious mores. Because of Gentile concepts of behavior in the sanctuary, Jews reexamined their traditional notions of decorum and found them wanting. By Christian standards, Jewish services were indecorous. Disturbed by the mote in the eyes of the Jews, some Christians failed to see the beam in their own eye; tobacco spitting in some churches was by no means uncommon. Still from the vantage point of Western culture, Jewish services came somewhat as a shock. What, then, were these exotics doing when they worshipped? They walked about or carried on conversations with their neighbors, especially when the Law and the Prophets were being read in the original Hebrew. Children ran about; members quarreled with the beadle and even insulted the officers. Young Emanuel B. Hart of Shearith Israel, then twenty-three, was assisting a stranger during the service. Because this was deemed misbehavior, Hart was publicly reprimanded by the parnas. The young man responded by threatening to knock the president down. Hart in later years became a colonel in the militia and went to Washington as a congressman.63

Coshman Pollack, a Savannah, Georgia, Revolutionary War veteran, was another to take offense in the synagog. Infuriated because his wife was denied what he deemed a proper seat, Pollack refused to pay dues. The synagog retaliated by denying him religious honors. When the exiles in Philadelphia were organizing a synagog, in 1782, they were enjoined to behave with decency during worship and unanimously agreed to do so. That same year Abraham Levy, accused of starting a riot in the house of God, was fined fifty pounds of wax. The wax of course was used by the beadle to make candles. Years later in this same congregation, the beadle climbed up to the women’s gallery and ordered the young girls to vacate the front seats which they had unlawfully occupied; young women leaning over the banister would only distract the men at their devotions. A brother of one of the girls told the shammash that, if he ever did it again, he would drag him down the stairs. As befitted a cultured American whose roots went back in this country for almost a century, Seixas in Philadelphia and in New York had always insisted on decorum during the services. In 1784, after returning to the city on the Hudson, he appealed to his congregants to behave, to desist from chatting while the prayers were read, to keep their children under control. Reproached by one of the congregational bosses, the scholarly Eleazar Lazarus responded in verse:


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

When we go to the theatre we pay our money to be amused.

But when we go to shul we pay our money to be abused.

Emma Lazarus, his granddaughter, wrote more sophisticated poetry.64

Like a repetitive phrase on a broken record, constitutions inveterately addressed themselves to the need for orderly conduct in the house of God. The New York worshippers in 1790 were admonished to behave; they would be fined and, if necessary, taken to court—this in the oldest and most respected Jewish congregation in the country. Actually, of course, some worshippers were uncouth. A Mr. Phillips came to services and made such a nuisance of himself that a constable had to haul him off to jail. In all probability, to use the vernacular of the 1790’s, he was obnubilated—under the influence. Mrs. Phillips pleaded with Shearith Israel to arrange for his release; she promised “in future to keep him from going to synagog.” The constitution of 1805 was precise in telling the worshippers what was expected of them. They were not to outsing the cantor; no umbrellas or canes were to be brought to one’s seat unless one were lame; garments were to be deposited on the free seats near the door. No one was to go out during the service, and when departing, members were to leave in an orderly fashion, not flock out en masse. The constant harping of the bylaws on good behavior was a call to Americanization or, more correctly, to an acceptance of prevailing church mores. Decorum was very important to the self-conscious Jewish leaders of that day. America was slowly crowding out Europe and its thousand-years-old synagogal amenities. Determined to force the congregants into an American mold, the synagog leaders appealed to them or threatened them with fines and expulsion. Order and dignity must be preserved. Lay leaders, ministers, Sephardic and Ashkenazic constitutions reiterated this refrain.

What were the causes of the “disorder” which the synagog strove to control? After a service of four to five hours the worshippers became restless—tired, bored. There were numerous blessings, memorial offerings, auctioning off of honors; all this took time. Many, however, felt that the sale of privileges was needed if the synagog was to survive. Yet there were others who pleaded for a lessening or even the abolition of the blessings, which, indeed, were not required by Jewish canon law. Some pointed out, and this was true, that the income derived from the hawking of blessings was not significant. Decorum picked up when Gentiles were present; the Jews were then on their best behavior. This was particularly true when synagogs were dedicated, and the non-Jewish public was invited to the services. Knowing that the Gentiles might be shocked, Jews conducted themselves so as to command the respect of the visitors. Most congregants were respected businessmen; they were certainly intelligent. Why then did they not “behave”? They prayed as they had always prayed, both here and in Europe. The liturgy was structured, but their



conduct was not; informality was traditional; Jews were at home in the house of God, which was also a house of assembly. Because God was loved, they were ready to do battle for him, and because they were human beings beset with problems, they were more than ready to do battle with one another. Factions brought their quarrels into the synagog. What better place was there to meet and fight? Angry with fellow Jews, some vented their rage on God and stayed away from His house. At times when men were feuding it was difficult to assemble a prayer quorum. As the environment overwhelmed them, they became aware that their Old World decorum was not American. The struggle between the two cultures was thus joined, but no service of that age was completely decorous by the standards of contemporary urban middle-class Christians. Though often bored, Jews loved the service; it was part of them. It would be a generation before any, even the native-born, would become Protestantized enough to “behave."'


Misbehavior does not necessarily indicate hostility or indifference to religion. On December 13, 1790, Manuel Josephson, president of Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel, called on President Washington and delivered a letter of greeting from American Jewry. Three years later, however, the minister of the same congregation was instructed by the board not to mention Josephson’s name or accept any offerings from him. What happened? Just another intracongregational quarrel. His response to a congregational request that he submit some financial accounts and return a sho-far was that “the whole congregation might be damn’d.” Squabbles in God’s house were almost as traditional as the liturgy itself; one sometimes suspects that these quarrels testified to a rugged spiritual health. Apathy and non-observance of the Law were often non-ideological. Though there is evidence that some Jews did not affiliate with the local synagog, most were content to remain Jews and to practice some sort of Judaism; they were committed at least in principle. Religiously, the Gentiles about them provided scant inspiration. The last years of the eighteenth and the first two decades of the nineteenth century were bad years for the churches. It has been estimated that around the year 1800 less than 7 percent of all Americans were members of Christian denominations. Thousands of New York Gentiles protested when ministers threatened to prohibit excursions up the Hudson on the Lord’s Day. It was reported in 1815 that there were people in remote reaches of the Mississippi Valley who had never seen a Bible. In effect, speaking in church language, most Christians were then really Gentiles.66

The Revolution had disrupted lives and thinking; Deism, rationalism, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution had all turned individuals


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away from Orthodoxy. Franklin, Jefferson, Madison and other notables were not sympathetic to organized religion. Pessimists clucked that Christianity was on its last legs. Some Jews, too, thought Judaism about to expire; a South Carolina sophisticate prophesied in 1833 that Orthodoxy would not last another fifty ears. Certainly in the early years of the century, the prospects for Judaism appeared anything but rosy. Synagog attendance was minimal. In 1807-1808, Jacob R. Cohen, the Philadelphia hazzan, had a contract requiring him to conduct services even when there was no quorum. In 1827, the officers of Cohen’s congregation were warned that they would be fined if they did not come to services at least once a month. In 1825, times are recorded in New York’s metropolitan synagog when only three householders made their appearance. Some Jews came to service but once a year; members were derelict in paying dues; one even ventured to palm off $15 in counterfeit bills when the collector called on him. New York’s frustrated board threatened to read the list of the delinquents publicly at the Sabbath service. In dealing with dues defaulters, some synagogs simply bided their time. Thus, in one congregation when a bereaved father turned to the synagog and asked it to bury a child, the leaders blandly suggested that he pay all his past debts as well as the modest burial fee. He paid.67


Some of the challenges facing American Jewry in those early days indicate that pessimistic American attitudes toward religion were affecting Jewry adversely. Some Jews were not interested in teaching their children Hebrew, even though they knew that it was the language in which God spoke to Moses. For many there was no passion for Jewish education; it was enough that their sons could chant the bar mitzvah portion in Hebrew. Some congregations went for years without a professional reader; no qualified rabbi was brought over from Europe, for no need for a tal-mudic expert was felt here; there was little interest in the study of the standard Hebrew codes. Few, if any, rejected the principle of the immutability and the sanctity of the Sabbath, but for business reasons most Jews violated it in practice. Savannah Jewry made an effort to compel all Jews to close their stores on that day and when a member refused to do so and even kept open on the second day of the Jewish New Year, he was denounced from the pulpit. But, despite his contumacy, he remained a member. Congregations were always eager to help members observe the dietary laws. In 1786 when Lion Jonas, a New York furrier, violated the Sabbath and insulted the parnas and the board, he was fined, denied syna-gogal honors, and denounced publicly from the reading desk. Years later, in 1809, when he was old and impoverished, the community took him out of an almshouse because he refused to eat forbidden food, and made



sure that he was given kosher victuals. Though he was a good-for-nothing the congregation took care of him because he wanted to live a Jewish life.68

Notwithstanding the fact that dietary laws are prescribed in the Bible, many violated them with impunity. Like neglect of the Sabbath, this was a real departure from Old World patterns. Social control, which still operated to a large degree in town, broke down completely when Jews were on the road. A European Christian visiting North America as early as 1748 reported that Jews traveling on business did not keep kosher. Levy Andrew Levy, a Fort Pitt trader, refused to eat bacon but relished barbecued turtle. It was so good it just had to be kosher. Yet he loved Jewish tradition: “For a family to be remote from our [Jewish] society is shocking,” he once said. A dear friend writing to Leeser in 1831 said that everybody in Charleston ate forbidden foods and had no qualms about it. In a history of the Jews published in this country in 1840, the author reported that Jews were not religiously observant. Expediency, not the Law, determined the attitude of many Jews towards the most sacred commands.69

The refusal of some Jewish sophisticates to circumcise their infant sons brought problems. If the child died was it to be given a Jewish burial? An influential, wealthy elite member was able to bring pressure to bear and induce the minister and synagogal leader to provide interment according to Jewish custom, although it was obvious that the dead did not merit traditional burial. In Savannah, on one occasion, when the congregants were asked to inter the circumcised son of a Christian mother, the members acting as a committee of the whole made their decision not by consulting the codes but by voting. America superseded Judea; a democratic vote, not the rabbinic code, was decisive. The refusal to accept circumcision was apparently so common in Philadelphia that in 1822 the city-wide Hebrew Society for the Visitation of the Sick refused to admit members who had not circumcised their sons. As one might have expected there was no consistency in legislating about the uncircumcised. Referring to the Jews of America, the learned Israel B. Kursheedt said that Jews here were wont to do what was right in their own eyes. Where the Sabbath, circumcision, and intermarriage were concerned, congregations had to make concessions in order to hold their members. They did so reluctantly in New Orleans. In Baltimore, the intermarried were allowed to remain in the congregation, but were denied the franchise.70

To be sure, constitutions must not be taken too seriously. The Baltimore congregation numbered among its founders a Bohemian Jewish peddler whose Quaker wife continued to practice her faith. This man was active in the Jewish community. The solution to intermarriage was conversion to Judaism; some congregations went along with petitioners for


United States Jewry, 1776-1985

admission into the fold though Jewry in general did not encourage prose-lytization. Every congregation, every husband, every father had to come to grips with this problem, one that has confronted Jews ever since biblical days. Solomon Lyons, a prominent businessman in Philadelphia, had more than one Christian mistress. When one of them bore him a son, he arranged for circumcision, saw to it that the mother was converted, and then married her. He was an observant Jew, an active member of Mikveh Israel, and a generous contributor to Jewish causes. Determined to keep his children Jewish he left specific instructions that they be reared as Jews but a daughter grew up to marry a non-Jew. What was Jacob Mordecai to do when his sons and a daughter began marrying out? Mourn for them as if they were dead? He loved them! Despite the fact that most affiliated Jews were Orthodox, they made their peace with intermarriage, even though the rate of out-marriages was not low. Only on the rarest of occasions did a congregation ask a Jew to divorce his non-Jewish wife, and there is no record of compliance even in these instances. 1

Apathy and Change

Certainly there was laxity in the observance of many basic Jewish practices. In his sermons, Isaac Leeser dwelt on this subject without letup. Some of his attacks no doubt are the professional jeremiads which characterize all preachers, but, though a discount must be taken, there was much indifference—what Leeser called infidelity. There were cultured families whose children, native-born of course, ignored religious prohibitions by traveling on the holidays. These young men and women, completely American, had no desire to conform to ancient Jewish patterns. Jacob Mordecai, himself an ardent Jew, seems somehow to have ignored the Jewish education of his offspring. When Jacob I. Cohen, of Richmond and Philadelphia, contracted a forbidden marriage, he deliberately ignored an express prohibition of the Bible, and the best Jews gave him moral support. They all knew they were violating the Law, but they went ahead anyhow. Yet they were all totally committed to Judaism—of this there can be no doubt—though what they did would never have been tolerated in Germany and Poland among observant Jews. It is evident that there was disregard of age-old observance of laws and customs on the part of many. This permissiveness—really gross neglect—was widespread even among people who deemed themselves good Jews. At Petersburg, Virginia, in 1791, if we are to accept the testimony of a contemporary Jewish woman, the shohet himself bought and ate non-kosher meat; worshippers wore no prayer shawl in the synagog; the holidays were not celebrated; and no shop was closed on the Sabbath.72



What was it that moved men and women in those days to ignore the religious folkways in violation of biblical, rabbinical, and congregational injunctions? There were several answers and this multiplicity induces historians to believe that they cannot fully account for the derelictions. Social control was not absolute; there was much indifference. When Philip Minis marched into a cafe and shot down a man who had insulted him as a Jew, Slowey Hays intimated that Philip and his sister had not been given a good Jewish training by their parents; their papa and mama were not ardent Jews. There were Israelites—how many we do not know— who rejected Judaism; there were Jewish atheists, freethinkers. When a Jewish infidel was blown up in his chemistry laboratory on a Saturday, it was suggested that God must have punished him for working on the divinely appointed day of rest. Most Jews who neglected the jots and tittles of the Law were not