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Posts Tagged ‘Brazil’

Jews Settle In New York

Friday, July 1st, 2005

In 1654 the Portuguese recaptured the city of Recife, Brazil from the Dutch. This marked the end of the vibrant Jewish community that had flourished under the Dutch beginning in 1630. Those residents of Recife who were originally Marranos (Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity) fled for their lives, fearing the re-establishment of the Inquisition. The Jews of Recife who were not Marranos also chose to leave rather than live under a Portuguese government that would be anti-Jewish.

Arnold Wiznitzer writes, “Jews who had never been Christians before had the possibility of remaining in Brazil in 1654, but chose not to do so and all openly professing Jews left Brazil before April 26, 1654.”[1]

A total of 16 ships transported the Jewish and Dutch colonists from Recife. Some claim as many as 5,000 Jews left Recife at this time. Most of these Jews returned to Holland; some relocated to colonies in the Caribbean.

Twenty-three of the Jews aboard one of these ships eventually arrived in Nieuw Amsterdam (New Netherland/New York) on September 7, 1654. There are at least two versions of the story of how these Jews came to settle in Nieuw Amsterdam. One version is that the original ship was captured by pirates at one point. The Jews were subsequently taken aboard the French ship the St. Charles, and this ship brought them to Nieuw Amsterdam. According to Wiznitzer, there was no capture by pirates. Instead, the Jews were driven by adverse winds to Spanish-held Jamaica. From there they boarded the small French frigate, Sainte Catherine, which took them to New Amsterdam.[2]

No matter what the true tale of their journey is, the problems of these Jews were far from over when their ship docked. This band of twenty-three probably “consisted of four adult men, six adult women and thirteen young people and children.”[3] They had to have been exhausted from more than four months of arduous travel. In addition, they were penniless and could not pay the exorbitant passage fee that they had been forced to agree to. Indeed, shortly after they arrived, their personal possessions were put up for auction to satisfy the demands of the frigate`s captain. This auction did not raise sufficient funds to cover their fare. The captain, seeing that he would not collect all the money he demanded, finally gave up and sailed from Nieuw Amsterdam.

The troubles of this forlorn group were still not over, because Peter Stuyvesant, the dictatorial director-general of the colony, did not want them to stay. Since none of the group had passports, Stuyvesant, left to his own devices, might well have been successful in forcing them to leave.

When the Jews arrived, Stuyvesant sought permission from Amsterdam to keep them out altogether. The Jews, he explained, were “deceitful,” “very repugnant,” and “hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ.” He asked the directors of the Dutch West India Company to “require them in a friendly way to depart” lest they “infect and trouble this new colony.” He warned in a subsequent letter that “giving them liberty we cannot refuse the Lutherans and Papists.” Decisions made concerning the Jews, he understood, would serve as precedents and determine the colony`s religious character forever after.

Forced to choose between their economic interests and their religious sensibilities, the directors of the Dutch West India Company back in Amsterdam voted with their pocketbooks. They had received a carefully worded petition from the “merchants of the Portuguese [Jewish] Nation” in Amsterdam that listed a number of reasons why Jews in New Netherland should be permitted to stay there. One argument doubtless stood out among all the others: the fact that “many of the Jewish nation are principal shareholders.” Responding to Stuyvesant, the directors noted this fact and referred as well to the “considerable loss” that Jews had sustained in Brazil. They ordered Stuyvesant to permit Jews to “travel,” “trade,” “live,” and “remain” in New Netherland, “provided the poor among them shall not become a burden to the company or to the community, but be supported by their own nation.” After several more petitions, Jews secured the right to trade throughout the colony, serve guard duty, and own real estate. They also won the right to worship in the privacy of their own homes.[4]

All was not total gloom for this small band of Jewish refugees when they arrived, since hey actually found other Jews who had already settled in the colony.

In so far as their names have come down to us in the court records, four men: Abraham and David Israel, Moses Ambrosius (Lumbrozo), and Asser Levy; and two women, Judicq de Mereda and Rycke Nounes, and others making up the twenty-three, found in Nieuw Amsterdam two other Jews. One of these was Solomon Pietersen, of whom we seem to know no fact other than that he was designated to act as counsel for the new arrivals. The other was one Jacob bar Simson. He had come from Holland some two weeks before the arrival of those who came from Brazil. He bore with him a passport issued by the Dutch West India Company in July. Isolated Jews had preceded them in coming to what is now the United States. These scattered individuals left no mark on the American Jewish story. But Solomon Pietersen, Jacob bar Simson, and the twenty-three other Jews who came to Manhattan in 1654 may truly be called the “Jewish Pilgrim Fathers,” for their settlement on the North American continent became the nucleus of a congregation and of a community with historic continuity.[5]

It appears that the authors of the above quote regarding Solomon Pietersen are wrong, because according to Jonathan Sarna, we do know one more sad fact about him:

The most difficult challenge facing New Amsterdam`s nascent Jewish community – one that American Jews would confront time and again through the centuries – was how to preserve and maintain Judaism, particularly with their numbers being so small and Protestant pressure to conform so great. From the earliest years of Jewish settlement, a range of responses to this challenge developed. At one extreme stood Solomon Pietersen, a merchant from Amsterdam who came to town in 1654, just prior to the refugees from Recife, to seek his fortune. In 1656 he became the first known Jew on American soil to marry a Christian. While it is not clear that he personally converted, the daughter that resulted from the marriage, named Anna, was baptized in childhood.[6]

One of the first orders of business that the new arrivals attended to was the fulfillment of their religious obligations. Arnold Wiznitzer tells us:

The twenty-three were not ex-Marranos but in part Ashkenazic Jews from Germany and Italy, and in part, Sephardim born as Jews. Together with the boys above the age of thirteen among them, the Ashkenazim, Jacob Barsimson and Salomon Pietersen and probably with some others already present, they could have congregated as a minyan to conduct divine services on Rosh Hashanah, 5415 (Sept. 12, 1654), the first to be held on the island of Manhattan. Sephardim and Ashkenazim together formed Congregation Shearith Israel, the first Jewish congregation and the first Jewish community in New Amsterdam which, for valid reasons as we have shown above, included from its very foundation Ashkenazic and Sephardic members of the earlier Congregation Zur Israel of Recife.[7]

So began the first chapter of Jewish Jewry in what was to become the United States.

[1] The Exodus from Brazil and Arrival in New Amsterdam of the Jewish Pilgrim Fathers, 1654, Arnold Wiznitzer, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society 44, 1-4 (Available online at www.ajhs.org/reference/adaje.cfm). Reprinted in The Jewish Experience in America I: The Colonial Period, Ktav Publishing House, Inc, New York, 1969, page 32.

[2] An Old Faith in the New World, David and Tamar de Sola Pool, Columbia University Press, New York, 1955, page 8.

[3] The Jewish Experience in America I: The Colonial Period, Ktav Publishing House, Inc, New York, 1969, page 31.

[4] American Judaism: A History, Jonathan D. Sarna, Yale University Press 2004, pages 2 & 3.

[5] An Old Faith in the New World, David and Tamar de Sola Pool, Columbia University Press, New York, 1955, page 12.

[6] American Judaism: A History, Jonathan D. Sarna, Yale University Press 2004, page 8.

[7] The Jewish Experience in America I: The Colonial Period, Ktav Publishing House, Inc, New York, 1969, page 32.

Dr. Yitzchok Levine, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press whose “Glimpses Into American Jewish History” appears the first week of each month, is a professor in the department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. He can be contacted at llevine@stevens-tech.edu.

Recife – The First Jewish Community In The New World

Wednesday, June 1st, 2005

Many people know that on September 7, 1654, twenty-three Jews arrived in New Amsterdam (renamed New York after the Dutch left). Most are not, however, aware of the fact that these Jews came to America from Recife, Brazil. Recife, now the capital of the state of Pernambuco, is located on the northeastern shore of Brazil. It has a fascinating Jewish history of its own.

Brazil was originally under Portuguese rule, and Jews first arrived there some time after the year 1500. They were active in making Recife a prosperous center for the production of sugar in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Many if not all of the Jews who came to Recife before 1630 were “New Christians,” that is, Jews forced to convert to Christianity during the Inquisition. These Jews were also known as Marranos. They most likely came to the New World for two reasons. First, there were attractive economic opportunities in Brazil that were not available in Europe. Second, and at least as important to these Jews who secretly clung to the faith of their ancestors, is the fact that until 1580 the Inquisition was not as prevalent in Brazil as it was in countries that Spain controlled.

With the unification of Portugal and Spain in 1580, the Inquisition spread with full force to Portugal and to the areas controlled by it in the New World.

Though the Inquisition was never established in Brazil, it had its “familiars” in that country, who spied upon secret Jews, and, in case of detection, seized them and sent them to Lisbon to be tried by the tribunal there. On the other hand, a favorite method of punishment by the Inquisition of Lisbon was to transport convicted relapsed Jews to the colony of Brazil, it is said, twice every year. The earliest notice of Jews in the country refers to some who had been thus banished in 1548. In the same year, however, several Portuguese Jews transplanted sugar-cane from Madeira to Brazil, and Jews were connected with the sugar industry of the country for the following two centuries. During the twenty years following the arrival of the first Jewish settlers they were joined by many volunteer exiles of the same faith, until their prominence in trade became noticeable; and edicts were issued by Don Henrique, regent of Portugal, on June 20, 1567, and March 15, 1568, forbidding Marranos to settle in Brazil. This edict, however, was repealed for the sum of 1,700,000 crusados ($714,000) given by the Marranos of Lisbon and Brazil, and the privileges of residence and free commerce were granted to Neo-Christians by an edict of May 21, 1577.[1]

New Christian Jews, while forced to practice Christianity publicly, did whatever they could to maintain their Judaism secretly. They attended Catholic mass regularly and did their best to appear as “loyal” Christians to their neighbors. However, whenever possible, they clandestinely gathered to daven. In order to avoid the ever watchful eye of the Inquisition, the servants of New Christians often did not work on either Saturday or Sunday. The simple act of bathing on Fridays or wearing nicer clothes on Shabbos could be construed as “a lapse into Judaism,” possibly setting in motion an inquest certain to end badly for the accused. We should keep in mind that the simplest and safest thing for New Christians to do would have been to forsake Judaism entirely. Yet, despite the risk of barbaric punishments and even a horrible death, many tenaciously clung to as many Jewish practices as they could.

In 1630 the Dutch occupied Pernambuco. Holland had a tradition of granting Jews a good deal of religious freedom, and this same freedom was now extended to Recife and its environs. So promising was the position of the Jews in Brazil that Ephraim Sueiro, brother-in-law of Manasseh ben Israel, emigrated to that country in 1638, and was to have been followed by Manasseh himself, who dedicated the second part of his “Conciliador” to the community at Recife (1640). Two years later no less than 600 Jews from Amsterdam embarked for Recife. Included in this number were Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, a well-known Amsterdam rabbi, and scholar Moses Raphael d`Aguilar. They came to Brazil as spiritual leaders to assist the congregations of Kahal Kodesh Tzur Yisroel in Recife and Magen Abraham in Mauricia. By 1645, the Dutch Jewish population of Recife was about 1,500, approximately half of its European population.

Synagogue records show a well-organized Jewish community with a high level of participation by Jews as well as New Christians, who were finally able to openly return to the practice of Judaism. There was an elementary level Talmud Torah and an upper level yeshiva in which Gemara was taught. These records also indicate the existence of a tzedaka fund and an overseeing executive committee. The community was, not surprisingly, in general observant. Each adult male was required to stand guard on a regular basis. There are documents that show that Jews were exempt from doing guard duty on Shabbos. They were, however, required to hire gentiles who served in their stead.

The life story of the Rabbi Aboab is most interesting.

Rabbi Aboab da Fonseca was born in Portugal in 1605 into a family of New Christians. After settling in Amsterdam he returned to Judaism and eventually became a rabbi and a friend of Menashe Ben Israel. (When Rabbi) Aboab joined the Amsterdam Jews in Recife as their hakham, (he became) the first American rabbi.

He continued for 13 years as the spiritual mainstay of the community. After the repulse of the Portuguese attack on the city in 1646, (Rabbi) Aboab composed a thanksgiving narrative hymn… the first known Hebrew composition in the New World that has been preserved.

While in Recife, Rabbi Aboab also wrote his Hebrew grammar, Melekhet ha-Dikduk, still unpublished, and a treatise on the Thirteen Articles of Faith, now untraceable. After the Portuguese victory in 1654, (Rabbi) Aboab and other Jews returned to Amsterdam, where he became a prominent leader of the local Jewish community.[2]

Held in high esteem by his former Amsterdam congregants, (Rabbi) Aboab was reappointed as hocham in the synagogue and made teacher in the city`s talmud torah, principal of its yeshiva and member of the city`s bet din, or rabbinic court. He died in 1693 at the age of 88, having served the Jewish community of Amsterdam for 50 years after his return from Recife.[3]

The bereavement of their spiritual guide was so keenly felt by Amsterdam Jewry that for many years the name of Rabbi Aboab and the date of his death were incorporated in the engraved border of all marriage contracts issued by the community.[4]*

During the twenty-four years that Recife was under Dutch rule the Jews developed a vibrant community. Recife became the first place in the New World where Judaism was practiced openly. Its members were doctors, lawyers, peddlers, and merchants. Many Jews prospered in the tobacco, precious gems, wood, and sugar trades. It even had a street called the Rua dos Judeos (Street of the Jews) on which the synagogue Tzur Yisroel was located. Indeed, in 1999 archeological investigation located the exact site of the synagogue when its bor and mikvah were found. The site has been restored and is now a featured tourist attraction of the Recife community.

Everything changed in 1654 when Portugal reconquered Brazil. Fearing the reenactment of the Inquisition, the Jews of Recife either returned to Holland or fled to Dutch, French, or English colonies in the Caribbean. Jews mainly of Sephardic descent (collectively known as “La Nacion”) had recently established small but flourishing economic enclaves in Parimaribo, Barbados, Curacao, Jamaica, Hispaniola and Cayenne.

A total of sixteen ships transported both Jewish and Dutch colonists from Recife. Fifteen arrived safely; however, the sixteenth was captured by Spanish pirates only to be overtaken by the St. Charles, a French privateer. After much negotiating, the master of the St. Charles agreed to bring a group of twenty-three Jewish men, women and children from the captured ship to New Amsterdam for 900 guilders in advance and 1,600 on arrival.[5]

These twenty-three refugees arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654. They, together with at least two other Jews who had arrived not long before, were the founders of the Jewish Community of New York.

*After finishing this article I discovered that Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca was apparently a follower of Shabbtai Tzvi. (See www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view. jsp?artid=344&letter=A#810, The Sabbatean Prophets by Matt Goldish page 33, and Sabbatai Sevi by Gershom Scholem, pages 520-522.) To put it mildly, I was shocked, given the greatness of Rabbi Aboab. However, it made me realize how strong the messianic movement in the 17th century must have been to gain adherents of Rabbi Aboab`s caliber.

[1] www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=990&letter=S

[2] www.bh.org.il/Communities/Synagogue/Recife.asp

[3] www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/Fonseca.html

[4] http://www.bh.org.il/Communities/Synagogue/Recife.asp

[5] www.cjh.org/about/Forward/view_Forward.cfm?Forwardid=13

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/recife-the-first-jewish-community-in-the-new-world/2005/06/01/

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