How did Jews first step foot in what would become the United States of America- Part 1 for Jewish American Heritage Month
For the video of this discussion:
The enduring heritage of Jewish Americans
By proclamation of President Biden:
“This month, we celebrate the enduring heritage of Jewish
Americans, whose values, culture, and contributions have shaped our character
as a Nation. For generations, the story of the Jewish people — one of
resilience, faith, and hope in the face of adversity, prejudice and persecution
— has been woven into the fabric of our Nation’s story. It has driven us
forward in our ongoing march for justice, equality, and freedom as we recommit
to upholding the principles of our Nation’s founding and realizing the promise
of America for all Americans.”
PS It is also Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month, which is appropriate, when you consider that the rights of other minorities were built on the backs of the early Jewish settlers, among others.
To understand American Jewish heritage, one must understand
the Age of Exploration, the Protestant Reformation, the Revolutions in Europe
of the 1840’s, and the Russian counter-Revolution of the 1880’s. That’s what
brought us here.
Our history here begins with Jews who escaped from Spanish
and Portuguese territories to seek refuge in the new world, as it was called
then. This is the age of exploration, made possible by navigation instruments
designed by Jews and financed by Jews, such as Don Yitzhak Abarbanel. These
contributions, however, could not protect the Jews from expulsion, or
conversion and later inquisition.
It is to the Spanish that we can credit the invention of
“race” as a way to keep Conversos (ex-Jews)
and Moriscos( ex- Muslims) separate from old Christians, especially if the Jew or
Muslim in question was in a position of authority and needed to be kicked out
of the position. The new ticket to upward mobility was limpieza de sangre, purity of blood.
Our conversos went to Brazil and Portugal, where the
inquisition was weaker. However, the inquisition still pursued Jews in Lima,
Peru in 1639, where 63 Jews were killed in a massive auto de fe. Jews then
sought refuge with the Dutch , who had a colony in Pernambuco (Recife_, which
they entered in 1621. That colony grew with the leadership of a Rabbi and
Hazan, but in 1654 the Portuguese conquered Recife. Jews could have stayed, but
they feared the inquisition and decided to leave on 16 ships.
Some tried to stay, like Antonio Jose de Silva y Mendoza, who
was the greatest playwright of his time. But he was captured and executed in
1739. Most Jews did not want to take their chances and fled to Dutch Suriname,
which was then taken over by the British in 1665. But there the Jews were able
to retain their freedom and autonomy. At that time Samuel Nassi established a
Jewish homeland on the Surinam River in 1682.
Jews arrived in Jamaica
under the British in 1655 and they were tolerated there although they were
heavily taxed until 1700 and only obtained full rights in 1831.
What about North of the Rio Grande? How do we get through to
the shores of the future United States of America ?
The journey of the first Jews to America was not easy. They
came from Recife, Brazil, on a ship called the Saint Charles, which carried 23
Jewish passengers. They arrived in New Amsterdam, a Dutch colony, in 1654. The
governor, Peter Stuyvesant, Peg Leg Pete, did not welcome them. He thought they
were poor, indebted, and did not belong to the Dutch Reformed Church. He wanted
to send them back to Brazil.
Extract from a
certain letter from Director Peter
Stuyvesant to the Amsterdam Chamber, dated Manhattan, September 22, 1654.(
translated from Dutch)
The Jews who have arrived
would nearly all like to remain here, but learning that they (with their
customary usury and deceitful trading with the Christians) were very repugnant
to the inferior magistrates, as also to the people having the most affection
for you; the Deaconry also fearing that owing to their present indigence they
might become a charge in the coming winter, we have, for the benefit of this
weak and newly developing place and the land in general, deemed it useful to
require them in a friendly way to depart; praying also most seriously in this
connection, for ourselves as also for the general community of your worships,
that the deceitful race, - such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of
Christ, - be not allowed further to infect and trouble this new colony, to the
detraction of your worships and the dissatisfaction of your worships' most
THE EARLY HISTORY OF THE JEWS IN NEW YORK, 1654-1664. SOME NEW
MATTER ON THE SUBJECT Author(s): Samuel Oppenheim
However, the Jews had powerful allies in the Dutch West India
Company, which controlled the colony. The company's director was Jewish
himself, and he knew that Jews had suffered enough persecution in Europe. He
ordered Stuyvesant to let them stay and trade in the colony. Also, Jews were
too valuable for the company's business interests.
dated April 26, 1655, reads as follows(from the Dutch):
We would have liked to
effectuate and fulfill your wishes and
request that the new territories should no more be allowed to be infected by people of the Jewish nation, for we
foresee therefrom the same difficulties
which you fear, but after having further weighed and considered the matter, we
observe that this would be somewhat
unreasonable and unfair, especially because of the considerable loss
sustained by this nation, with others, in the taking of Brazil, as also
because of the large amount of capital which they still have invested in the shares of this company.
Therefore … we have finally (decided and resolved … that these people may
travel and trade to and in New Netherland . and live and remain there, provided
the poor among them shall not become a burden to the company or to the
community, but be supported by their own nation. You will now govern yourself accordingly.” ( op cit)
responded by complaining that, once you let the Jews in, you will have to let the Lutherans and the Papists in ,too!
What an irony that
one of the greatest public high schools in this country, is named after Peg Leg
Pete-Stuyvesant High School, The school alma mater to four Nobel Prize winners,
all Jewish. He must be turning over in his grave!
The Jews still faced many restrictions and challenges in New
Amsterdam. They could not practice their religion openly, own land, join the
militia, or work in certain professions. —retail trade, handicrafts, public office.
They had to pay a special tax to help build a wall against the Native
Americans, which later became Wall Street. They also could not trade with other