by Victor Sharpe
As Jews are vilified in the universities and colleges for support of Israel, it is good to remember the major contributions Jews have made to this country, beginning in their early years on these welcoming shores.
When the subject of Jewish American contributions to American society and culture is discussed few ordinary Americans, and surprisingly few scholars, are aware Jews resided in North America long before America’s Revolution against British rule.
To understand why and when Jews first came to the Americas we need to understand the miseries and calamities that overtook them throughout Europe. In particular, we need to look back to the fifteenth century and the rise in the Iberian peninsula of the Catholic Inquisition.
In 1492, as the children’s poem goes, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. It was the same year that the 2,000 year old Jewish population of Spain was given the stark choice; convert to Catholicism or be expelled. Most chose to depart, some to Holland and eventually northern Europe; others to North Africa and the Ottoman lands in modern Turkey.
Some returned to the ancestral Jewish homeland in Ottoman occupied Palestine. Many perished at the hands of pirates or were sold into slavery. Those that could not bear to leave all that they and their ancestors had known for centuries reluctantly accepted the cross and became conversos – outwardly Christian, but secretly Jews. Their Christian neighbors however gave them a more insulting Spanish name, Marranos. The Kingdom of Portugal followed the policy of forced conversion or expulsion soon after.
We know that at least five of Christopher Columbus’s crew in his fleet were conversos, and there remains scholarly speculation that Columbus may have been one himself. Luis de Torres, a converso, a linguist, and great traveler in his own right served in the fleet along with two converso surgeons and two seamen. During the month of October 1492, Torres decided to remain behind and settled on an island in order to be free from the horrors of the Inquisition. He thus became the first Jew to settle in the New World.
Today we know that much of the discovery and charting of the New World was undertaken by secret Jews who knew each other and maintained strong trading links. Jewish mathematicians worked to assure the accuracy of the maps and charts necessary for nautical voyages in the Middle Ages. Among the most famous of the map makers was the Cresque family, and Abraham Cresque completed his greatest cartographic masterpiece in 1377, over a hundred years before the expulsion edict by the Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
In order to escape from the persecutions in Spain and Portugal, many Jews and conversos found their way to the Portuguese territories in Brazil. In 1502, Fernando de Loronha, a converso, was allowed by the Portuguese King Manoel to settle a part of Brazilian territory. Loronha was required to explore some 300 miles of coastline every year. He brought five shiploads of people to his new colony, many of them New Christians or conversos, who nevertheless secretly remained steadfast in their Jewish beliefs. But the Inquisition eventually followed them.
Many fled to Holland while others joined Spanish Jews and conversos in North America’s southwest. In 1520, Bernando Lopez de Mendizabel became Governor of the New Mexico territory. A converso, he fell afoul of the Inquisition when he was discovered changing his linen and bathing just prior to the Jewish Sabbath – a cause for imprisonment in which he died a pauper. His was the first instance in North America of the reach of the Catholic Inquisition.
The Portuguese territory in Brazil, to which many conversos had fled, was conquered by the Dutch who treated the Jews with respect and encouraged many Jewish families to sail from Holland to the new colony of Recife. However, the Catholic Portuguese returned and re-conquered Recife. Many of the conversos were sent back to Portugal for practicing Judaism and were burned at the stake.
Of those Jewish refugees who fled again from the re-imposed Inquisition, some twenty three eventually reached the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. Two Jews already had been allowed to live in New Amsterdam. They were Solomon Peterson, and Jacob Barsimson, a settler sent by the Dutch West India Company. When the 23 Jewish refugees arrived in the Dutch colony, penniless but well educated, they were resented by the Governor, Peter Stuyvesant.
More concerned with keeping potential competitors out of his colony, Stuyvesant was a bigot who particularly disdained Quakers, Baptists and Presbyterians. In 1655, the Jewish residents of New Amsterdam petitioned for the right to “stand guard” with all other citizens on the wall built against potential attacks on the colony. This same wall is now Wall Street in New York City. They also petitioned for a cemetery and were granted a tiny plot of land in 1656 on land that today is known as Chatham Square in New York City’s Chinatown. It is the oldest known Jewish cemetery in the United States and burials continued there from 1683 to 1831. Other Jewish communities were established in Newport, Philadelphia, Savannah and Charleston and were part of American life for 120 years prior to Independence and the Revolutionary War.
In 1664 Britain acquired New Amsterdam in a bloodless exchange. England encouraged traders and adventurers, Jews and Christians alike, to set up trading posts in the wilderness and remote areas of New England. The territories were explored and towns grew where the trading posts first were established. In time political unrest between the American colonies and Great Britain resulted in the Revolution.
Families were torn asunder by conflicting loyalties to the American colonies or to the British Crown. Like their Christian neighbors, Jews suffered the same tragic rifts but most Jews were patriots and rallied in defense of the new United States of America.
The British attacked Newport in Rhode Island laying waste the harbor and burning down nearly five hundred homes. Aaron Lopez, who was a foreign born and naturalized Jewish landowner, had built Newport’s first synagogue in 1763. A fervent backer of the Revolution, he was forced to escape with his family to Leicester, Massachusetts. In one of his letters to friends, he spoke of, “sudden alarums and the cruel ravages of an enraged enemy.”
Another Jewish patriot, Gershom Seixas, the first American-born rabbi, could not bear to remain in New York and see the city occupied by the British. With his congregation, Rabbi Seixas left the city and escaped to Philadelphia. After the War of 1812, Gershom Seixas was elected by the New York State Legislature as a member of the first Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York.
Earlier, in 1733, the colony of Georgia was founded by James Oglethorpe who convinced the English King that the creation of his colony between Florida and the Carolinas would help keep the Spanish out. Soon after he received a charter from King George I, he welcomed new immigrants including Jewish colonists from England. Georgia wanted to establish wine growing as a major industry and one of the first Jewish colonists was Abraham de Lyon, an experienced vintner. The colony was plagued with malaria: fortunately, another Jewish immigrant was Samuel Nunez Ribiero, a doctor with experience in treating the dread disease. Oglethorpe praised Ribiero for ending the plague, which had already carried off twenty colonists.
Among the earliest settlers was Benjamin Sheftall, a Jewish Englishman who became one of the staunchest Revolutionaries. He and his son helped supply the Continental Army and were captured along with 186 American soldiers. The Sheftalls were interrogated but refused to divulge where American supplies were hidden and were thrown into prison and denounced by the British as “very great rebels.” This was the same language used by the British Crown to denounce the signers of the Constitution.
Another Jewish Englishman, Francis Salvador, arrived in the neighboring colony of South Carolina in 1773. He was elected to the first Provincial Congress of South Carolina and became a fighter for the Revolutionary cause. When the British governor refused to recognize the new Congress, the colonists began to arm themselves. In revenge, the British encouraged
Indian tribes to massacre colonists. Salvador raised a force of five hundred men and led several attacks against loyalists and their Indian allies. During one such attack he was badly wounded, unaware that the Declaration of Independence, which he had passionately urged, had been adopted. As he lay in the woods, he was discovered by Indians and scalped. Salvador was one of the first Jews to die defending the new American nation.
In 1772, a Jewish immigrant from Poland arrived in New York. He was Haym Salomon and soon became an ardent supporter of the American cause. He accompanied General Schuyler and his army to Lake George. In September 1776, he was arrested as a spy by the British — they believed him to be a member of the outlawed Sons of Liberty who planned to burn the British fleet with fire ships.
While in prison, he managed to help free several American and French soldiers and to convince Hessian mercenaries to desert the British forces. During the Revolutionary War Salomon did yeoman service in ensuring that finances kept flowing so that the fledgling nation remained solvent and its international credit viable. After the war, Salomon gave away much of his wealth to the poor of Philadelphia, among them a future President, James Madison. He eventually died from the effects of his time in a British prison nine years earlier.
In Chicago, a statue of George Washington, Robert Morris, and Haym Salomon stands. The inscription for Haym Salomon reads: “Haym Salomon, Gentleman, Scholar and Patriot. A banker whose only interest was the interest of his country.”
Victor Sharpe writes on Jewish history and the Islamist-Israel conflict. He is also the author of Volumes One and Two of Politicide: The attempted murder of the Jewish state.