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December 1, 2015 / 19 Kislev, 5776
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Manuel Josephson: A Learned 18th-Century American Jew

Manuel Josephson

Manuel Josephson

In 1770 Josephson was involved in a personal feud that led to a public civil trial. He “disparaged eighty-four-year-old Joseph Simson, father of merchants Solomon and Sampson Simson, because the elder Simson’s prayer shawl was unkempt and because of his flawed speech and unseemly gestures. Sampson labeled Josephson a ‘dirty hog’ for teasing a man ‘old enough to be [his] grandfather.’ He also claimed Josephson had been a dishonest merchant both in Pensacola and in New York and belittled his lowly origins as a ‘shoeblack.’ At an ensuing trial, Josephson, responding through witness Solomon Hays, claimed the elders, ‘all of one Family,’ deadly plotters who ‘if it was not for the Christian Law … would kill many.’ The court found for the synagogue and against Josephson.”[iv]

In 1770 Manuel signed a non-importation agreement in which he agreed not to import goods from Britain. This agreement and others were attempts by colonial merchants to force the British to recognize the political rights of the colonists through the application of economic pressure. In reaction to the Stamp Act (1765) and the Townshend Acts (1767), colonial nonimportation associations were organized by Sons of Liberty and Whig merchants to boycott English goods. In each case, British merchants and manufacturers suffered curtailed trade with the colonies and exerted the anticipated pressure on Parliament. When the acts were subsequently repealed, the boycotts collapsed.

In 1776, when occupation of Manhattan by British troops was imminent, many Jews who supported the Revolution left the city for other locales. “Josephson arrived in Philadelphia as part of the New York contingent and set up shop as a merchant with a store at 144 High Street, later in about 1800 called Market Street. Aside from quickly becoming one of the leaders of Mikveh Israel, he was also held in very high esteem in the general community by Jews and non-Jews alike.

“Josephson was a very traditional and observant Jew. In 1784 he petitioned the board of Mikveh Israel asking that a ritual bathhouse (mikveh) be built for the women of the congregation, in order that they observe Jewish law. Accordingly, the mikveh was built in 1786, while Josephson was parnas of the congregation, and the board placed it under his supervision. Josephson was elected as parnas in 1785, and served through 1791. His most famous accomplishment, however, came in 1790.”[v]

Next month we will discuss Manuel’s petition and “his most famous accomplishment” in some detail.



[i] Early American Jewry – The Jews of New York, New England and Canada, 1649- 1794, Volume One, Jacob Marcus Rader, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1951, Philadelphia, pages 76 – 77.

[ii] Early American Jewry – The Jews of Pennsylvania and the South, 1655 – 1790, Volume Two, Jacob Marcus Rader, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1953, Philadelphia, pages 43 -44.

[iii] “American Responsa as a Source for the History of the Jews of America to 1850: and Hebrew Learning 1636 to 1850,” Israel Harold Sharfman, Thesis (D.H.L.) – Yeshiva University, 1955, pages 195-196.

[iv] City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York, Volume I, Haven of Liberty, New York Jews in the New World, 1654 – 1865 by Howard B. Rock, New York University Press, 2012, page 74.

[v] “Manuel Josephson (1729-1796)” – http://mikvehisraelhistory.com/2013/01/25/manuel-josephson-1729-1796/

About the Author: Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

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