Tuesday, June 20, 2023

The Foundations of American Judaism—the first century- rascals and exemplars Part 3 of American Jewish Heritage


The Foundations of American Judaism—the first century- rascals and exemplars

Part 3 of American Jewish Heritage

For the recording of this discussion go to:



The founding fathers were excited about opening the doors to all religions—yet, as much as they accepted Jews, they did not know how to digest them:




on the Jewish people as follows: II. Jews. . Their system was Deism; that is, the belief in one only God. But their ideas of him and of his attributes were degrading and injurious.  Their Ethics were not only imperfect, but often irreconcilable with the sound dictates of reason and morality, as they respect intercourse with those around us; and repulsive and anti-social, as respecting other nations. They needed reformation, therefore, in an eminent degree.  Elsewhere, Jefferson attacked Jewish theology .. which supposes the God of infinite justice to punish the sins of the fathers upon their children, unto the third and fourth generation,"




 Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 12 October 1813  Referring to an academic study on Judaism: He quotes:

To compare the morals of the old, with those of the new testament, …(he goes on to quote a scholar)

… Enfield, his epitomiser, concludes in these words. “‘Ethics were so little studied among the Jews, that, in their whole compilation called the Talmud, there is only one treatise on moral subjects.. … what a wretched depravity of sentiment & manners must have prevailed before such corrupt maxims could have obtained credit! it is impossible to collect from these writings a consistent series of moral Doctrine.’”


On the other hand:


1820 September 1. (Jefferson to Jacob De La Motta). "[De La Motta's Discourse Delivered at the Consecration of the Synagogue of the Hebrew Congregation, Mikva Israel: In the City of Savannah, Georgia ...] …he is happy in the restoration, of the Jews particularly, to their social rights, & hopes they will be seen taking their seats on the benches of science, as preparatory to their doing the same at the board of government."[4]


President John Adams would come to be one of the earliest supporters of Zionism, before Zionism:

  1808 letter criticizing ..,.Voltaire, “How is it possible [that he] should represent the Hebrews in such a contemptible light? They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this Earth. The Romans and their Empire were but a Bauble in comparison of the Jews. They have given religion to three quarters of the Globe and have influenced the affairs of Mankind more, and more happily, than any other Nation ancient or modern."

 In a correspondence to Mordecai Manuel Noah ( more later)

 In 1819, Noah sent Adams a copy of his …, Travels in England, France Spain and the Barbary States. …, "Farther I could find it in my heart to wish that you had been at the head of a hundred thousand Israelites . . . & marching with them into Judea & making a conquest of that country & restoring your nation to the dominion of it. For I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation."

President John Adams Embraces A Jewish Homeland (1819) (jewishvirtuallibrary.org)

 On the other hand, like so many of the Enlightened of his day, Judaism itself puzzled him:

I believe [that] . . . once restored to an independent government & no longer persecuted they [the Jews] would soon wear away some of the asperities and peculiarities of their character & possibly in time become liberal Unitarian christians for your Jehovah is our Jehovah & your God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob is our God.


 Americans still kept with them old world assumptions about Jews. Thus during the Civil War,

When General Grant tried to cut off supplies and funding to the rebel Confederacy, he tried to ban all peddlers from his area of control.


 In reference to Jewish traders Grant said: "they come in with their carpet sacks in spite of all that can be done to prevent it. The Jews seem to be a privileged class that can travel anywhere. They will land at any wood yard or landing on the river and make their way through the country. If not permitted to buy cotton themselves they will act as agents for someone else who will be at a military post with a Treasury permit to receive cotton and pay for it in Treasury notes, which the Jew will buy up at an agreed rate, paying gold


 So he declared:

Head Quarters 13th Army Corps,

Department of the Tennessee,

Oxford, Miss. Dec. 17, 1862.

I.. The Jews, as a class, violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department, and also Department orders, are hereby expelled from the Department.

II.. Within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order by Post Commanders, they will see that all of this class of people be furnished passes and required to leave, and any one returning after such notification will be arrested and held in confinement until an opportunity occurs of sending them out as prisoners, unless furnished with permit from Head Quarters.

General Order No. 11 (1862) - Wikipedia


It may well be that he was upset because his own father was in partnership with two Jews in the cotton business!

 In any event, it caused an uproar, Jewish officers threatened to resign, and it became a political football . President Lincoln ordered this immediately rescinded, and Grant soon ate his own words, apologizing that it was his aides fault for the wording. In later history, interestingly enough,  President, Grant became a friend to the Jewish community, and appointed the largest number of Jews to government position till his day!


These early years saw many unusual Jews, adventurers, such as

The notorious pirate ( Privateer) Jean Lafitte.

 The Dread Jewish Pirate Jean Lafitte - Tablet Magazine

 One Jewish pirate who has been proved to be genuine is Jean Lafitte. Jean was born in 1780 and died around 1823….

His  Journal de Jean Lafitte, Lafitte claims to have been born in Bordeaux, France, in 1780, the child of Sephardic Jewish parents whose converso grandmother and mother fled from Spain to France in 1765 after his maternal grandfather was executed by the Inquisition for “Judaizing”.

He was a French pirate and privateer who operated primarily in the Gulf of Mexico…

…Later, in return for a legal pardon, Lafitte and his fleet helped Andrew Jackson (later, president of the United States) defend New Orleans from the British. After Jackson secured victory, he paid tribute to the Lafitte brothers’ efforts and those of their fellow privateers.



The only Jewish Emperor in history! The only Emperor of the United States of America:

Emperor Joshua Abraham Norton I

 The son of English Jews, he came to San Francisco, California for the gold rush, with the benefit of family money of $40,000. He invested his money well, until he had one investment too many, and went bankrupt.


Not one to be too upset by the setback,  On September 17, 1859, he published the following notice in the San Francisco Bulletin: “At the peremptory request of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last nine years and ten months past of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States, and Protector of Mexico.” Applaud Emperor Norton I!

He soon issued his own coinage:

From internal affairs Norton proceeded to monetary issues of the States, printed banknotes with his portrait, and even collected taxed. The amazing thing was that the residents of San Francisco loved him dearly, and were willing to pay. When he toured the streets, in a fancy military jacket, with a shiny sword and peacock feathers hat, they used to salute him.

 America's Last Emperor: The Crazy Story of Joshua Norton - Museum of the Jewish People (anumuseum.org.il)

 It is said that 10,000 people lined up for his funeral. San Francisco has always been home to a quite a lot of interesting people!!!

 But, Jews took major part in building the institutions of this country:

 The first American Zionist , long before Herzl, father of Ararat:

 Mordecai Manuel Noah, journalist, playwright, politician, lawyer, court of appeals judge, New York Port surveyor, a major in the New York military and, foremost, an ardent utopian Zionist.

  Sheriff of New York City, fought Tammany Hall, editor of numerous newspapers, he was the chief spokesperson of the Jews, in press and speech, to the American public.

 Mordecai was the first-born son of Manuel Noah, an immigrant from Mannheim, Germany, who had served in the Revolutionary War, and Zipporah Phillips, daughter of Jonas Phillips and Rebecca Machado, whose father had served as hazzan of the Shearith Israel Congregation of New York… Noah stressed his Sefardi identity, for it gave him deeper roots in America and a more aristocratic status in the Jewish community. 

Four Founders - Emma Lazarus [Judaic Treasures] (jewishvirtuallibrary.org)

 Consul to Tunis, appointed, but soon removed by Secretary of State Monroe:

At the time of your appointment, as Consul to Tunis, it was not known that the religion which you profess would form an obstacle to the exercise of your Consular functions.

He did not take it lying down, but argued back: . This may hereafter produce the most injurious effects establishing a principle, which will go to annihilate the most sacred rights of the citizen.

He and Monroe would eventually be reconciled.


His most memorable act was to call for a Jewish homeland. He saw the opportunity to bring new immigrants to the young America, while also creating  a Jewish safe-haven.:

He purchased land on Grand Island ( just below the Niagra Falls), where he would establish a Jewish colony: Ararat ( the mountain in which the original Noah’s ark landed safely).

Here is the inauguration of Ararat

On September 15th, 1825, Ararat’s inauguration was held at a church in the nearby city of Buffalo; there were not enough boats to transport the crowds of people to the island for the ceremony. Noah led a jubilant procession, resplendent with prayers in Hebrew, loud music, singing, military troops, officers, clergymen, and fellow citizens. According to a New York City newspaper reporting on the event, Noah was “in black, wearing the judicial robes of crimson silk, trimmed with ermine and a richly embossed gold medal suspended from the neck” which historian Jonathan D. Sarna explains was lent by the local Park Theater.

Hundreds of people gathered to listen, including the Seneca Chief Red Jacket who arrived by boat (Noah believed that the Native Americans were one of the Lost Tribes).

In his speech, Noah proclaimed himself as the “Judge of Israel,” established Ararat as a City of Refuge, and claimed that every Jew in the world must be taxed “three shekels of silver” in order to sustain Ararat. He also decreed that every four years the Paris Jewish consistory was to elect a Judge of Israel (after Noah served his term, of course). Mordecai Manuel Noah and the Jewish Colony Near Niagara Falls - Aish.com


The cornerstone for Ararat, now in the Buffalo History Museum Artifact Spotlight: The Ararat Stone - The Buffalo History Museum

His plan failed to catch fire with Jews in America, and in Europe, as in the Austro Hungarian empire, his announcement was kept hidden from publication. He soon turned to supporting colonies in the land of the Ottoman Empire that Europeans called Palestine.

 No story of the contribution of early American Jews would be complete without Uriah Phillips Levy,1792-1862.

 United States’ First Flag officer, and  then, highest ranking naval officer of his day.

 During his service in the U.S. Navy, Levy faced considerable antisemitism.[3] He reacted to slights and was court-martialed six times, and once demoted from the rank of Captain.[3] Twice, he was dismissed from the Navy, but reinstated. He defended his conduct in his handling of naval affairs before a Court of Inquiry and in 1855 was restored to his former position.

Later,[specify] Levy commanded the Mediterranean Squadron. As a squadron commander he was given the title of commodore, then the highest position in the U.S. Navy.

Levy was instrumental in abolishing flogging in the U.S. Navy, although his position was considered controversial at the time. He also helped gain the support of the U.S Congress in passing an anti-flogging bill in 1850.[6]

( Wikipedia)

 What was controversial about abolishing flogging?


Instead of flogging as a means of punishment, Levy used public humiliation to control unruly crewmen. The Navy favored the use of corporal punishment as a means of discipline and was determined to punish Levy for his failure to adhere to standard procedures.

In 1842, the naval court unanimously ruled that Levy be dismissed for his “cruel and scandalous” methods of punishment. However, when the verdict was forwarded to President John Tyler for review, the President lessened the sentence to one year’s suspension and personally criticized the court for the “extent of punishment” towards Levy. Uriah P. Levy - Friends of the Jewish Chapel (fojcusna.org)

 He made the US Navy the first in the world to abolish corporal punishment!


He restored Monticello as a national site.


  … one of the great characters in American Jewish history. He was pugnacious, determined, eccentric, confirmed in the righteousness of his causes, an able businessman who was quite wealthy, and an admirer of Thomas Jefferson. His admiration rested on Mr. Jefferson's well-deserved reputation as a champion of religious liberty — not toleration, but liberty.

 Uriah Phillips Levy | Thomas Jefferson's Monticello



 We need add, in passing-Levi Strauss- the father of the Jeans!



Judah P Benjamin- the first Jew elected to be a Senator without renouncing Judaism-a great honor==

A noted barrister who defended escaped slaves on their right against lawsuit by the ship owner that had brought them to the Americas—

and-on the other-the only Jew to hold cabinet rank- but on the wrong side of the Union—the Confederacy—Attorney General, Secretary of Treasury, Secretary of State.

PS- It has been well researched that the use of the slave “ Mammy” in raising the children of the plantation heads directly led to the inability of these same elites to run a  country. JP Benjamin had, it seems, no competition for the job!


These early Jews were for the most part, what author Stephen Birmingham titled: The Grandees: America’s Sephardic Elite. That paved the way for the German “ Yekes” who would shape America’s retail and financial system, and then Emma Lazarus “ wretched refuse”, the East European Jews, who would come to dominate America’s literature, media, and communications, and play power politics far above their weight in numbers.

 Eventually, this new country would soon discover a hitherto unknown secret:

 Mark Twain ( The American Sholom Aleichem)


On the Jews

"If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one quarter of one percent of the human race.  It suggests a nebulous puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way.  Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of.  He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk.

His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also very out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers.  He has made a marvelous fight in this world in all ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself and be excused for it.  The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, and have vanished.

The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmaties, of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert but aggressive mind.  All things are mortal but the Jews; all other forces pass, but he remains.  What is the secret of his immortality? "

- September 1897 (Quoted inThe National Jewish Post & Observer, June 6, 1984)


Next- The Wave of German Jews who bring with them new ideas about Judaism and take part in shaping the economy of the new world power.


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