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October 23, 2014 / 29 Tishri, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘Aaron Lopez’

Bris Mila During Colonial Times

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2005

Since the time of Avraham Aveinu, Jews have observed the mitzva of having their sons circumcised on the eighth day after birth. During the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries, “New Christian” men living on the Iberian Peninsula and in other countries under the influence of the Inquisition could not maintain this tenet of Judaism. To do so was almost the equivalent of committing suicide, since anyone found circumcised by the Inquisitional authorities would most likely be burned at the stake. Indeed, it was common practice for those who managed to escape the Inquisition and arrive in America to have themselves and their sons mald shortly after their arrival. More often than not, these circumcisions were performed when the refugees reached adulthood, despite the risk and pain.

The proper observance of mila as well as the other precepts of Judaism requires the support of competent religious functionaries. Shochtim, mohellim, and Rabbonim are all needed if Jews are to live a truly Jewish life. “Most Jewish functionaries of the colonial era were laymen. While an occasional rabbi [hakham to the Sephardim] found his way to these shores, few remained. The Jewish communities were too small, and often too struggling to support professional clergy. As congregations became established and synagogues were built, the demand for ritual functionaries grew. The reader, or chazzan, who knew the ritual chants, became especially important.”[1]

While it is true that any observant Jewish man with the proper knowledge and skill can perform a bris, having one’s son circumcised in Colonial times was not easy for those who did not live in one of the few cities with “substantial” Jewish populations such as New York (with only about 300 Jews as late as 1790). Below is a description of the activities of an Eighteenth Century mohel, and what it took for one father to get his son circumcised.

Abraham Isaac Abrahams and the Bris of Josy Lopez

Aaron Lopez (1731 – 1783) was a Portuguese refugee from the Inquisition   who settled in Newport, RI, where he lived a completely observant life.  (See Aaron Lopez, Colonial American Merchant Prince, the Jewish Press, October 7, 2005, page 36.) We are not sure when Lopez’s son Joseph was born. It was probably in 1756, but it may have been earlier. In any case, at the time of his birth the small Jewish community of Newport did not have a mohel. “Sometime during the summer of 1756 Aaron wrote to Abraham Isaac Abrahams (1720-1796) of New York and urged that rarest of eighteenth-century Americans, a Jew of Lithuanian descent, to undertake Joseph’s circumcision. The Newporter may have previously favored others with that request, only to be disappointed; we do not know.”[2] Abrahams was “the best known circumciser in New York during the 1750′s. Like many fellow-Jews of his generation, Abrahams ‘doubled in brass,’ for he was a tobacconist, a distiller, a schoolteacher, a shopkeeper, and a synagogal precentor, as well as a mohel. Apparently he did a good job in performing the Abrahamitic rite, for his services were in constant demand. When summoned to add meritorious deeds to his credit by initiating young Israelites into the faith, he traveled into Westchester County, Long Island, to New Jersey, and to Connecticut. One of his trips to Long Island brought him to a prison where a Jewish debtor was incarcerated. The circumcision ceremony and the feast were held in the jail so that the father could participate.”[3]

“Abrahams traveled as far north as Rhode Island in the performance of his craft. It is doubtful that he was paid for performing this religious privilege. More likely he did so out of devotion. In June, 1756 – he was then thirty-six – he began to chronicle his work as a mohel in New York City. His first recorded circumcision was that of his own son, Isaac. Less than two months after Isaac Abrahams was circumcised, his father was called upon to make a trip to Newport, Rhode Island, at the invitation of a young businessman by the name of Aaron Lopez.”[4]

Abrahams replied on August 8, 1756 to Aaron Lopez’s request that he mal his son. He wrote:

           Mr. Aaron Lopez,
           S’r:

I was out of town last Monday or shou’d answer’d your favour pr. post.  Am much oblig’d for your kind congratulations and wishes [on the birth of my son, Isaac].I take it as a great honour in your presenting me with the circumcising your son. Shou’d been glad it had been sooner on acc’t of my [ap]prentice being out of his time and gone and [this] will make it difficult for me to go just now. And another reason, my cousin Manuel [Emanuel Abrahams] and self have enter’d in the business of distilling and tobacco and manufacture. However, if I can possibly some in a little while hence, will gladly do it as nothing wou’d be more pleasure than to see my good friends att your place which I really long to do. In my next, will
be more particular as to my coming. Till then I am, with respect, s’r,

                                         Your very hum’le ser’t,
                                                   Abr’m I. Abrahams
My spouse joins her complim’ts to you, spouse, and family.[5]

“Abrahams was, however, no more particular in his next letter, dated two weeks later, August 25, and Aaron could not have been much encouraged by it. He was ‘sorry to tell’ Aaron that his business still detained him in New York, and he could not say when it might be possible for him to come. Perhaps Aaron would consider employing someone else: ‘Doctr Marks is releas’d out of goal [jail]. Beleive he wou’d willingly go if you was to write him. Think he gladly go.’

“Perhaps Aaron had little confidence in the erstwhile prisoner, who had probably been jailed for nothing more heinous than debt. Or perhaps ‘Doctor’ Marks was not as willing to go as Abrahams had assumed. It may even have happened that Marks did not remain out of jail long enough to set out for Newport. At all events, little Joseph remained uncircumcised until the following February, when Abrahams did at length find it possible to undertake the journey to Newport. The New Yorker then recorded in his registry of circumcisions:


                       3.     Sundy Febry 12: 1757
                         Moses Lopez’s son Aaron
                       4.     and Aaron Lopez his son
                         Joseph at Rhode Island.

He added in Hebrew, ‘Sunday 13th Shebat 5517 Aaron son of   Moses Lopez and on the same day Joseph son of Aaron Lopez.’ During the same visit Moses’ newborn son, named Aaron in good Sephardic fashion for his uncle, was circumcised   as well. Writing to the Newporters from Stamford, Connecticut, some weeks later on his way back to New York, the mohel asked to ‘have the pleasure of a few lines from you all with good news from all your good families.’ Abrahams must have felt warmly attached to his Newport host; on at least two further occasions he concluded business letters to Aaron with the request, ‘Pray kiss my dear boy Josy for my sake.’”[6]

Such were some of the difficulties encountered by Colonial Jews who wanted to initiate their sons into the covenant of Avraham. Despite these obstacles, they did their best to continue the religion of their ancestors and pass it on to their offspring. In a real sense they laid the foundations for those who came to the United States after them by showing that in the face of what appeared to be insurmountable obstacles, one could still maintain one’s Yiddishkeit.



[1] Two Jewish Functionaries in Colonial Pennsylvania, Malcolm H. Stein, American Jewish Historical Society, reproduced in the Jewish Experience in America, Ktav Publishing House, New York, 1969, pages 120-121.

[2] Lopez of Newport, Colonial American Merchant Prince, Stanley F. Chyet, Wayne State University Press, 1970, page 32.

[3] On Love, Marriage, Children And Death, Too Jacob R. Marcus, Society of Jewish Bibliophiles, 1965, pages 36 – 37.

[4] Early American Jewry, Volume 1, Jacob Rader Marcus, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1951, page 79.

[5] Lopez of Newport, page 32 and On Love, Marriage, Children And Death, Too, page 37.

[6] Lopez of Newport, pages 32 – 33.

Dr. Yitzchak Levine, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor in the department of Mathematical Sciences Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. He may be contacted at llevine@stevens-tech.edu.

Aaron Lopez, Colonial American Merchant Prince

Wednesday, October 5th, 2005
Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes are from Lopez of Newport, Colonial American Merchant Prince, Stanley F. Chyet, Wayne State University Press, 1970.

One cannot fully appreciate the life and accomplishments of Aaron Lopez (1731-1782) unless one is familiar with the history of the Inquisition. “The story of the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Span is well known.  Not so well known is what happened five years later in the neighboring country of Portugal. Of those Jews who chose to flee Spain in 1492, large numbers went to Morocco, Italy and to the Ottoman Empire.  But, the greatest number, perhaps half of the total went to Portugal. King Jo?o II, of Portugal, allowed them to enter.  He was preparing for war against the Moors, and he needed the taxes collected from these Jews to finance that war.

“Permanent residence was granted only to 630 wealthy families who were allowed to establish themselves in several parts of the country upon payment of 100 cruzados.  Others were allowed to settle for only eight months upon payment of eight cruzados for each adult.  The king then bound himself to provide shipping so that they could leave.   One hundred thousand refugees may have entered under these conditions.  At the end of eight months, however, the king saw to it that little shipping was available and few could leave.  Those left behind were declared forfeit of their liberty and were declared slaves of the king.”[1]

The situation of the Jews continued to deteriorate. Pressure was exerted upon them to convert to Christianity. Those who did not were told that they had to leave Portugal. However, in the end, the vast majority of Jews were not allowed to leave, and any who had not undergone conversion were forcibly converted. “Holy water was sprinkled on them and they were declared to be Christians. King Manoel (the successor to King Jo?o II) then informed the Catholic Kings of Spain, ‘There are no more Jews in Portugal.’”[2]

“If any of these New Christians, as the Portuguese contemptuously designated them, thought to find security in their new status, events proved them frighteningly mistaken.” Even two centuries later those ‘of the Jewish race’ in Lisbon still had occasion to dread the threat of
persecution. A day of wrath dawned for one of their number on October 19, 1739, some 203 years after the establishment of the Inquisition in Portugal.”  On that day, Antonio Jos? da Silva, one of Portugal’s outstanding poets and dramatists, was garroted (strangled) and burned in an auto da f? (the burning of a heretic). The “crime” that led to his death was his heresy for secretly “observing the Mosaic laws.”[3]

Despite the obvious dangers that New Christians who secretly practiced Judaism were subjected to, hundreds of years after their forced conversion in 1497 one could still find families tenaciously clinging to the faith of their fathers and willing to risk their lives for Judaism. “Among the New Christians in Lisbon at the time (of Dom Antonio’s execution) was the family of Diego Jos?Lopez, born and twice-married in Portugal.” Dom Diego “remained a loyal Jew, outwardly devout Catholic professions notwithstanding.”

Duarte (Edward) Lopez was born into this well-to-do family in 1731. “Raised to practice Judaism only in secret, while maintaining outward conformity with Catholicism to all appearances, Lopez reached maturity, married and had a baby daughter before deciding to leave Portugal for a new, openly Jewish life in British North America, where he joined his older brother Moses. Moses Lopez, who had himself left Portugal in his teens, had come of age in New York City before establishing himself in Newport, Rhode Island, in the early 1740s.”[4]

“Arriving in Newport (on October 13, 1752) the Lopezes lost no time in availing themselves of their new freedom.” Duarte had himself circumcised at the age of 21. He and his wife Anna “were remarried, with the traditional Jewish ceremony. His name was changed to Aaron, and hers to Abigail. Their daughter’s name (Catherine) they changed to Sarah.”[5]  “With the help of his brother Moses (Aaron) set himself up in business. By 1760, his efforts to engage in the wholesale commodities trade had also proved successful. His business activities grew widely over the next 15 years to include whaling and a few ventures in the slave trade, as well as the export of Newport manufactures such as furniture, axes, plank and board, flour, barrel staves and salt fish.”[6] The Lopezes lived as strictly observant Jews, and Aaron played a key role in the establishment and development of what eventually became known as the Touro Synagogue. He laid the first corner stone[7] and served more than once as parnas (president) of the congregation.  He frequently donated money for the upkeep of the synagogue and in 1770 presented one of the five beautiful candelabra that are suspended from its ceiling.[8]

For Aaron and his family, “The Sabbath was to be taken seriously; ‘It being Friday and late in the day I shall not have time to enlarge.’ His shop would be closed on the Sabbath (and on Sunday as well); no ship of his would depart Newport on a Saturday.  He would not conduct business on the Jewish Festivals either. ‘When I was a[t] Newport least (sic) April,’ an out-of-town client told him, ‘it happened to be on holy days and could not see you.’ Obviously it was Passover which had made Aaron inaccessible. On one occasion Aaron is known to have secured 250 pounds of matsah, unleavened Passover bread, from New York – not such a large order when one considers the size of his m?nage. Even the outbreak of the Revolution and flight from Newport could not persuade the Lopezes to forgo observance of the Passover.”

“Some of the cheese Aaron sold, it is worth noting, was ‘coushir’ (kosher), fit for use on the tables of God-fearing Jews and often shipped to their communities in the Southern colonies and the Caribbean. Not at all infrequently, as it happened, kosher provisions – ‘Jew beef’ and tongues, as well as cheese – were on sale in his shop and included in cargoes to the West Indies. A cargo might even contain so rare a delicacy as ‘chorisas’ (haroses)”[9]

“With the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1776, Lopez began to suffer a dramatic downturn in his business, along with most colonial merchants. As the British took Savannah in 1778, Lopez evacuated his family to Leicester, Massachusetts, where he set up a retail shop and a modest commodities trade via overland routes through Salem, Boston and Providence. Over the course of the next four years, he became a key supplier to the American forces, providing such necessities as flour and leather breeches.”In 1782, while on the way to Newport with his family, Aaron Lopez accidentally drowned in Scott’s pond in Smithfield, Rhode Island, while watering his horse. He left behind his grieving (second) wife Sarah, devoted father-in-law and business partner Jacob Rodriguez Rivera, and 15 surviving children. “What sort of a Jew was Aaron? He lived in the world of eighteenth-century American Sephardic orthodoxy and simultaneously in the world of the eighteenth-century Gentile milieu. He belonged as much to the one as to the other, and he appears to have been conscious of no inevitable conflict between the two. ‘All who knew him agree,’ wrote a Massachusetts journalist shortly after Aaron’s death, ‘that he was, in the fullest import of the words, a good citizen and an honest man.’ Nearly all we know or can surmise of Aaron’s life lends substance to this observation.”

Ezras Stiles believed “him to have been ‘without a single enemy and the most universally beloved by an extensive acquaintance of any man I have ever knew.’ Aaron’s ‘beneficence to his fam[ily] and connexions, to his nation [the Jews], and to all the world is almost without parallel.’ Such was the buenafama of Aaron Lopez.”

[1] THE FORCED CONVERSION OF THE JEWS OF PORTUGAL, Arthur Benveniste,
<http://www.cryptojews.com/Portugal.html>http://www.cryptojews.com/Portugal.html

[2] Ibid.

[3]
<http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=714&letter=S>http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=714&letter=S

[4] http://www.cjh.org/academic/findingaids/AJHS/nhprc/AaronLopez.html

[5] The Story of the Jews of Newport (1658 – 1908), Morris A. Gutstein, Bloch Publishing Co., 1936, page 67.

[6]
http://www.cjh.org/academic/findingaids/AJHS/nhprc/AaronLopez.html>http://www.cjh.org/academic/findingaids/AJHS/nhprc/AaronLopez.html

[7] The Story of the Jews of Newport, page 92.

[8]  History of Touro Synagogue by Rabbi Dr. Theodore Lewis, Bulletin of the Newport Historical Society, Number 159, Summer 1975, page 284.

[9] Ibid.,  page 134.

Dr. Yitzchak Levine, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor in the department of Mathematical Sciences Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. He may be contacted at llevine@stevens-tech.edu.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/magazine/glimpses-ajh/aaron-lopez-colonial-american-merchant-prince/2005/10/05/

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