Modern Jewish History - Maurice Harris


The entrance of the Jews into the Western Hemisphere began almost with the landing of Columbus at the newly discovered South America. Some were banished there as exiles, others fled to it as a refuge. Little groups of both these classes we find in Lima, Peru and Mexico. That story is told in the closing chapter of the preceding volume — History of the Mediaeval Jews.

Later some came voluntarily from countries that had established colonies in America; some came from Holland, bringing their rabbis and scholars with them. In Brazil we see them settling in Pernambuco. Others settled in Dutch and French Guiana and in the British West Indies such as Barbadoes and Jamaica.

Nor were their troubles always over when they set foot on the Western continent. The long arm of the Inquisition occasionally reached across the seas. But the Jews discovered that Holland was as tolerant as Portugal was oppressive, abroad as at home. Therefore, when Brazil passed from the Dutch to the Portuguese in 1654 the Jews resident there sought more hospitable settlements. So in this same year a small party of twenty-three Jews left Brazil and landed at New Amsterdam; for that was Dutch too. Peter Stuyvesant, Governor of the colony, following the "classic" precedent of bigotry, would have prevented their admittance. He therefore wrote to the directors of the Dutch West Indies Company in Amsterdam requesting that "none of the Jewish nation be permitted to infest New Netherlands." But the Home Government maintained the right of the Jews to settle, for it had already experienced the value of Jewish subjects both commercially and patriotically. This was the beginning of Jewish settlement in North America 268 years ago.

Early Settlements.

Among the first group of pioneers, one person stands out as distinctly as did Joseph among his brethren in the old Bible story. His name was Asser Levy. He first came into prominence by resisting the attempt to exclude Jews from the right and duty of defense of the colony; and insisted on his privilege to stand guard as a "burgher". His sterling character and general ability ultimately won for him the esteem alike of both Christian and Jew. He showed his liberality in lending money for the building of the first Lutheran Church in New York. The high repute of this pioneer Jew reached to the neigboring colonies.

Among others who distinguished themselves may be mentioned Dr. Nunez, a Marano, who escaped from the Portuguese Inquisition; Aaron Lopez of Newport, who established a community in Leicester, Massachusetts, and founded an academy there; Jacob Lombroso, a physician of the less tolerant Maryland colony.

But Puritan New England was too bigoted for the most part to admit the Jews! Hence their settlement there did not come till post-Colonial days. Yet it was while Puritanism was at fever heat and because of it, that England had readmitted the Jews. Many of these American colonies based their first constitutions largely on the Hebrew Pentateuch, — the colony of New Haven in 1638 and that of Massachusetts in 1641. But such ironic contradictions had always entered into the unique experience of Israel.

We must make an exception, however, in the case of the colony of Rhode Island, founded by the broad minded Roger Williams. So Jews settled in its chief town, Newport, then commercially a more important seaport than New York. In the 18th century some Jews found their way to the Carolinas amd to Pennsylvania. Others established a community in Savannah, Georgia. Isaac Minis was the first white child born in Georgia. Our brethren settled in Texas while it was still part of Mexico. Aaron Levy who established himself in Pennsylvania, founded the town of Aaronsburg, giving it a public square as well as donating the ground for a school and for a church.

By the time New Amsterdam became New York (1664), passing from the Dutch to the English, the number of its Jews had considerably increased. While there were at first some restrictions against Jews settled in the American colonies, against their engaging in retail trade, holding civil posts, and in some instances against their worshiping publicly, — such prohibitions were gradually removed through their dignified and determined stand. The English law with regard to that ran: "Admit all persons what religion soever, quietly to inhabit within the government." That meant the right of Jewish worship in public. They built their first synagogue in New York in 1729. The dedication of other synagogues and cemeteries later followed. As most of the early settlers were Sephardim (Spanish or Portuguese) the congregations they established were of that ritual. In 1729 they were permitted to take an oath without the addition of the words "on the true faith of a Christian."

Maryland most stubbornly resisted Jewish settlement and passed a law that whoever denied the Trinity should be put to death. It did not grant the Jew equal civic rights till 1825.

Corresponding struggles for civic rights and liberties were being made by our brethren who were settling in Canada. Time and again the Legislature there refused to admit Jews elected to its membership, because they declined to take an oath that violated their conscience. It was not until 1832 that that civic right was granted and they were admitted to the Canadian Parliament of Great Britain.

Judah Touro.

One of the families that took advantage of the tolerance of Rhode Island to settle in Newport, was that of Touro. Here was born Judah Touro in 1775. In 1802) ?> he settled in New Orleans which was still French territory; for it was not till the following year that the Louisiana Purchase went into effect. Opening a store here, his industry and genius rapidly won him prosperity. Soon his ships were on many seas and he acquired vast lands. But he showed his public spirit at the time of the defense of New Orleans by Andrew Jackson; he entered the ranks as a private soldier and was severely wounded. It was he, together with Amos Lawrence, who supplied the funds needed for the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument, each giving $10,000. A tablet telling of this munificent service was placed upon it, prepared by John Adams, Daniel Webster and other eminent Americans.

He aided in the emancipation of whatever negro slaves came under his supervision.

An instance of his wide reaching philanthropy was the purchase of a church mortgage about to be foreclosed and presenting it to the congregation. When he died his will provided half a million dollars for benevolent causes, which was an enormous sum in those days. It gave alms houses to New Orleans, aid to many Jewish congregations, contributed to hospitals and asylums and even provided homes for the poor in Jerusalem. His tombstone in Newport summarizes his character in this epitaph: "Inscribed in the book of philanthropy to be remembered forever."

A street and a park are named after him in Newport, his birthplace, and Longfellow has made memorable the cemetery (still maintained by his providing care) in his poem "The Jewish Cemetery at Newport":

'A hand unseen

Scattering its bounty like a summer rain

Still keeps their graves and their remembrance green'.

A further quotation gives us a glimpse of the checkered history of the Jew:

'The very names recorded here are strange,

Of foreign accent, and of different climes;

Alvares and Rivera interchange

With Abraham and Jacob of old times.

How came they here? What burst of Christian hate,

What persecution, merciless and blind,

Drove o'er the sea — that desert desolate —

These Ishmaels and Hagars of mankind?

They lived in narrow streets and lanes obscure,

Ghetto and Judenstrass, in mirk and mire;

Taught in the school of patience to endure

The life of anguish and the death of fire.'

The Revolutionary War.

The Jews in America had already showed their patriotism in volunteering their services in the French and Indian War. Then came the struggle with the mother country. In making their plea for independence it is notable that the public men of the colonies turned to the Hebrew Scriptures as authority for civic rights and liberties. Like the earlier Puritans, so now the Colonials were compared with oppressed Israel in Egypt, in their struggle for freedom.

When the colonies united in 1776 to wrest their independence from Great Britain, Jews were among those who worked, fought and died for its cause, giving to it money, supplies and men; though a few remained loyal to the royalists. Charleston raised a voluntary infantry corps, composed almost entirely of Jews. Among the distinguished patriots were Francis Salvador, of South Carolina, Major Benjamin Nones, of Philadelphia, distinguished for his bravery; Esther and David Hays of New York; also Rabbi Gershom Seixas, a trustee of King's college, now Columbia University, and the founder of a synagogue in Philadelphia. Of Jewish officers in the Revolutionary army, twenty-seven are specified, among them four lieutenant colonels, three majors and six captains. A chronicler writes:— "they were ever foremost in hazardous enterprise."

Patriotic Jews helped the cause in other ways, in supplying army needs and also in official service. Lieutenant Colonel David Franks in 1784 was sent on a peace mission to Europe and was later entrusted with confidential diplomatic tasks abroad. He was given a tract of land in recognition of his service in the Revolutionary War.

Haym Salomon in patriotically serving the colony's cause, suffered imprisonment by the enemy. He escaped and later was entrusted with the supervision of the finances of the colonies. When it was in dire straits he lent the Government $350,000. For this loan America is still his family's debtor.

When the victory came that ushered into being the United States, the Jew with his fellow countrymen hailed Washington as its first father and six different Jewish communities sent congratulatory addresses. In one of his replies he wrote:

"It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for happily the Government of the United States, w T hich gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. . . . May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig-tree and there shall be none to make him afraid."

The Constitution of the Federal Government now declared that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office of public trust under the United States." With Church and State now completely separated, the Jew in the republic has the same rights as the Gentile. For this provision was accordingly recognized in the separate laws of the different States of the Union.

Commodore Levy and Mordecai Noah.

Jews fought for their country in the war of 1812, notably Brigadier General Moses Bloomfield. Among others who served our country in this and in the Mexican War may be mentioned, Lieut. Henry Seeligson and General David De Leon, twice thanked by Congress for gallantry. The most distinguished was Uriah P. Levy, who began his naval career as a cabin boy. But alas, the prejudiced even in America could never forget that he was a Jew. He had fought his way in each step toward promotion through bitter religious bigotry. He was nobly jealous of the honor of his country and of his religion, and never allowed anyone to besmirch the one or ridicule the other. Occasionally he had to fight a duel in defense of his good name and that of his faith. As many as six different times he was court-martialed. This treatment made his checkered career not so dissimilar to that of Alfred Dreyfus of a later day. Like the latter he too was ultimately restored to his rank and completely vindicated, finally attaining the exalted position of Commodore. The esteem that he ultimately won, was shown on his visit to New York in 1834, when he was granted the freedom of the City. This epitaph occurs on his tombstone — "He was the father of the law which abolished corporal punishment in the navy."

An interesting figure of the early part of the 19th century was the versatile Mordecai Manuel Noah, an orphan boy starting with the humble trade of carver. He devoted his evenings to study and became a playwright, lawyer and statesman. Among the important positions he filled was that of Associate Judge of the New York Court of Special Sessions, High Sheriff and later, Surveyor of the Port of New York. As Consul to Tunis in 1813 he succeeded in rescuing some Americans from Algerian pirates in a manner that strengthened American prestige abroad.

Seeing the suffering of his brethren in Eastern Europe, he conceived the idea of a haven where their rights would be legally assured. So he will always be remembered for his romantic attempt to establish an American Zion on Grand Island, outside Buffalo. Though he purchased the land, which he named Ararat, dedicated it in 1825, and invited the Jews of the world to settle there, the project met no response and was abandoned. Yet, not relinquishing his ardor, he pleaded for the right of the Jews to demand settlement in Palestine. His discourse in 1844 delivered before a vast audience — an appeal to the Christians for this Jewish restoration — is the most remarkable of all his addresses. For in it he pointed out the duty of the Christian to help the Jew to acquire the Holy Land. If he lived today, he would see his dream in process of realization. In the midst of editing many journals, producing many popular plays and books and presiding as a judge, he contined a staunch pleader and worker for his co-religionists to the end of his life.


The Jew was making America his country. Enjoying its benefits, he was prepared to suffer in its cause. In all its great conflicts, he sent more than his quota of volunteers. David de Leon distinguished himself for his gallantry in the Mexican War; Alfred Mordecai, Major of Ordnance, aided it by scientific application of martial mechanism.

Many Jews responded to President Lincoln's call for recruits in 1861. That Lieut. Col Leopold Newman expressed desire to remain in front at the battle of Chancellorsville, where his foot was shattered, is one of many examples of dauntless bravery of Jewish soldiers. Leopold Blumenberg, of Baltimore, abandoned his business for the cause and became Major of a regiment he helped to organize. As Colonel, he was shot in the thigh at Antietam. Later, he was made Brevet-Brigadier General of the United States Volunteers.

Frederick Knefler enlisted as a private and became successively, Captain, Major, Colonel and Brigadier General. For meritorious service at Chickamauga he was promoted to the rank of Brevet-Major General. This is the highest rank attained by a Jew in the American Army.

Among a very long list of those who volunteered their services in the Civil War, special mention should be made of the following: Captain Frank Mayer, Captain Joseph B. Greenhut, a Gettysburg hero; Brevet Brigadier General Edward S. Salomon and Philip J. Joachimsen, founder of the Hebrew Sheltering Guardian Society. Lieutenant Colonel Israel Moses, surgeon; Captain Edward Wertheimer, Colonel Max Einstein, Captain and Brigadier Adjutant General Abraham Hart, Captain Nathan D. Menken, — all advanced for gallantry on the field. Sergeant Elias Leon Hyneman, shot on the field of battle, and Dr. Max E. Cohen, killed in heroic effort to save others.

Naturally, Jews in the South no less patriotically took up the Confederate cause. Adolph Proskauer, of Mobile, was four times wounded. Yet he lived to serve in the Alabama legislature and was president of a congregation. Captain Levi Myers Harby, who had served under the United States flag in the War of 1812, in the Mexican and Seminole Wars, enrolled in the Confederate navy, where he was made a commodore. Dr. Mark Cohen, of Charleston, was one of three soldiers who volunteered to hurl aside explosive shells thrown into the Confederate ranks. They sacrificed their own lives, but saved their company.

Judah P. Benjamin rose step by step by sheer force of intellectual vigor until he became a United States Senator, as well as the greatest orator of his day. When the South seceded, he became Secretary of War and later Secretary of State of the Confederacy. With the downfall of the Confederate cause, he settled in England, continued his legal practice there and ended his remarkable career as leader of the English Bar.

South and Central America.

South America covers an area of nine million square miles — that is three times the area of the United States, yet it has but a population of eighty million, consisting of white, Indian and negro.

Jews have been drifting to this Western continent ever since the days of its first discovery. Jamaica was perhaps the earliest important Jewish settlement in Central or South America. In the palmy days of Jamaica when it was an important trade center, that is, in the latter half of the eighteenth century, the Jews there were both numerous and influential and we are told that "its entire foreign and inter-colonial trade was in Jewish hands." Unlike the Spanish, the English abolished instead of introducing Jewish disabilities. This was the first English possession that took this tolerant step. Completely enfranchised in 1831, they soon occupied civil and military posts. In 1848 eight of forty-seven members of the Colonial assembly were Jews which, out of regard for them, adjourned on Yom Kippur. At that time there were some 2,500 Jews in Jamaica, but their numbers declined with the decline of the Island following a natural law.

While the early settlers in South America as in the North, came first as refugees, many of the later settlers came in the voluntary spirit of the emigrant, who, with a touch of adventure and a sense of enterprise, seeks fortune in a new land. So thus all through the nineteenth century our brethren from the Continent have found their way across the Atlantic. But the latest group of these in the Eighties hieing from Russia, were also victims of persecution. This latter migration to South America from the land of the Slav, paralleled a similar movement of Jewish emigrants to North America which will be told in the next chapter.

Argentina, an enlightened and progressive country, has the largest Jewish population. It has been called the "melting pot of South America." Essentially a white man's land, it is the second country of Latin America; with a population of nine million, it could accommodate seventy-five million. Its capital, Buenos Aires, is the fourth American city in the Western Continent. The fact that among its many periodicals some are published in Yiddish and Russian, is suggestive of its cosmopolitan character. Of its 110,000 Jewish inhabitants, over half live in the capital — the rest in the agricultural colonies. Here every kind of occupation is followed by our brethren from banking to stock raising, and among them will be found every type of artisan from the blacksmith to the baker.

Although Brazil is much larger than the United States, and has a population of 20,000,000, but 5,000 of these are our own brethren. Yet the Jews were the first to transplant the sugar cane from the Island of Madeira. Naturally the largest number today are found in the capital, Rio de Janeiro. One city, Para, chose a Jewish Mayor. Some in the more sparsely settled centers marry out of the faith, and are lost altogether to Israel.

Chili has but 500 of our brethren. Some of these may be descendants of the early settlers who lived as Maranos in the dark days. Commercially they are prosperous, but religiously, there is much left to be desired. Without the stress of the old persecution, many, alas, live Maranos in spirit today. — that is, they do not reveal their Judaic identity. No synagogue has been reared by them and only on the Holy Days of New Year and Atonement, do they, by assembling in the homes of some private individuals, remember their spiritual obligations.

This, unfortunately, is the story of many of the Jewish settlements in South American countries when they are of small numbers. What can we expect of Colombia when it has but 80 Jewish souls? It has no synagogue, but it possesses a cemetery. What volumes condensed in that summary! Naught to keep alive the Jewish spark and only a place to decently inter it when extinct.

Paraguay has 150 Jewish families. With two synagogues (one of them Portuguese) but with a single Rabbi, its religious spirit is kept alive but in a fitful way.

The record of the not quite 500 brethren in Venezuela is but a replica of other communities; nor is there a much different chronicle to give of our brethren in Panama, except to say that the older — that is, the native Jews, are the most important merchants; yet, Colon boasts of a synagogue which conducts services both on Friday evening and on Saturday. Panama City has two congregations and many philanthropic societies to take care of stranded Jews.

Central America being located nearer the tropics, contains but few Jewish men who are married. Those who are, send their children to the United States or to Europe to be educated; so there is no story of Jewish interest to be told of them. The unsettled condition of Mexico in recent years has not been favorable to Jewish activity; though there was a time when there were 15,000 Jews there.

The West Indies constitutes a chain of islands of which Cuba is the largest. At one time every island had Jewish settlers. But their numbers have dwindled during the last half century, partly due to unfavorable political conditions. Although a Jew was the first to set foot in Cuba over 400 years ago, there are but 1,000 there today. It was not until 1881 that they were legally permitted to reside there, and only since the close of the Spanish American War has a public Jewish service been allowed; yet, it was our brethren who largely developed its two great industries, sugar and tobacco in the early days. That Havana has a Y. M. H. A. today suggests the possibility that the Cuba of tomorrow may not have an unworthy Jewish story to tell.

The Dutch possession of Curacao was one of the first real Jewish communities in the Western hemisphere over 200 years ago. In 1654 many fled here from Brazil after the Portuguese had conquered it. It has a Reform as well as an Orthodox Synagogue. There were days when 2,000 of our brethren lived there. There are but 600 today, although these are persons of affluence and importance and the Queen of Holland appointed five Jews of the thirteen who make up the Colonial Council of Government.

A word should be said of our brethren in the United States, possessions of Latin America. While Jews are beginning to settle in Porto Rico — one being a Judge of the Supreme Court, and another the Assistant Attorney General — the acquisition is too recent for a history. America acquired the Virgin Islands from Denmark but five years ago, but the most important, St. Thomas, had about 500 Jewish souls there three quarters of a century ago who largely controlled its commerce.

No movement that has stirred Israel throughout the world but has touched South American Jewry at some point. Here and there one will meet Zionist Societies; at other places, local committees for participance in the "Jewish Congress" that was planned to be held here, but because of the war, was for a time abandoned, It was revived again in 1922.

South America is only at the beginning of its development. It has suffered under the backwardness of a Spanish regime which it has but recently shaken off. The awakening is yet to come! Probably our brethren may contribute their share in the upbuilding of new centers of civilization in this south-western hemisphere, and perhaps another great chapter in Jewish history will here be written.


Jews in America:—Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, "Jews in the American Revolution/ ' vols, iii, iv, vi, xii. "Jews in Diplomatic Correspondence of U. S." vol. xv. "Jews in Maryland" and "Commodore Levy". Am. Jew. Year Book, 5663. "Jews in Latin America." Am. Jewish Year Book, 5678.

For "Victims of Inquisition in Mexico and Peru" see History of the Jews in America, Chap, iii, Peter Wiernik, Jewish Press Pub Co., New York.

The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen, by Simon Wolf, edited by Louis Edward Levy, Brentano, 1895. It is a valuable document of painstaking research. It is the most complete answer to those who question Jewish patriotism. It contains long lists of names of Jews who have served their country in all the wars In which America has been engaged, and it is full of interesting data of Jewish prowess and exploits. We recommend it for those who desire fuller information of Jewish activity on the field of battle.

The Hebrews in America, Isaac Markens, New York.

Separation of Church and State:—The Constitution declared in 1887 — largely through the influence of Thomas Jefferson — that no religious test should be used as a qualification for public office. Later the first amendment was passed, declaring "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Individual States gradually adopted similar liberal provisions.

Uriah P. Levy, American Jewish Year Book, 5663. Gershom M. Seixas, Am. J. Y. Book, 5665.

Theme for Discussion:— Develop the subject — the better the Jew the better the American.