Sunday, May 14, 2023

How did Jews first step foot in what would become the United States of America- Part 1 for Jewish American Heritage Month


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  

Part I Colonies 

 May is Jewish American Heirtage Month so I post here the proclamation by Presdent Biden:

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.

Wikipedia commons

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 affectionate subjects.


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.

This reply, 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)

Apparently, Stuyvesant 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 colonies.

 To Be Continued

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