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October 26, 2016 / 24 Tishri, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘Jewish Life’

The Early Jewish Settlement Of Newport

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

In 1636 Roger Williams, after having been banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for what were considered radical religious views, settled at the tip of Narragansett Bay. He was joined by twelve other settlers at what he named Providence Plantation, due to his belief that God had sustained him and his followers.

This settlement became the colony of Rhode Island, which was unique in that it guaranteed freedom of religious practice to all. It is little wonder that the colony became a haven for Quakers, Baptists, Jews and other minorities who were prosecuted for their religious beliefs.

It seems Jews first settled in Newport in 1658, though some disagree with this date.

The date of the first arrival of the Jews in Newport has been variously given by different writers. Some give it as 1655, while others state it as 1656, 1657, or 1658. There is also a conflict as to the place [from] whence they came, although all seem to agree that the newcomers were originally from Holland.1

During the middle part of the 17th century the Dutch, acting through the Dutch West India Company, sent out several expeditions of Jews to settle in its possessions in South America. The most well known of these settlements was the one established at Recife, Brazil.2 In 1654 when the Portuguese wrested control of Brazil from the Dutch, the Jews who had been living in Brazil left. Some of these Jews found their way to Jamaica, where they settled.3

In 1655 Jamaica was captured by the British, and regular trade between it and Rhode Island was established. Jews who had fled Brazil most likely learned about the religious freedom permitted in this colony and decided to immigrate there.

Newport was a main port on the eastern coast of America during colonial times and hence an attractive place for Jews to settle. Indeed, Max J. Kohler wrote:

We must discard our present day view of Newport as an important fashionable summer resort, and permit our thoughts to carry us back to the period when, for some thirty years preceding our Revolutionary War, Newport was one of the principal cities in the American colonies. In commercial importance it must be put in the same category with Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Charleston, and it was not the most insignificant, even among these, for, as Edward Eggleston has well said, “he was thought a bold prophet who said then that ‘New York might one day equal Newport,’ for, about 1750, New York sent forth fewer ships than Newport, and not half as many as Boston.”4


The total number of Jews who initially settled in Newport was very small, probably no more that fifteen Spanish/Portuguese families. However, their numbers increased with the arrival on August 24, 1694 “of a number of Jewish families of wealth and respectability” from one of the West Indian Islands, most probably Curacao.

Jewish Life in Newport


The Jews who settled in Newport soon established the institutions necessary for the proper functioning of Jewish life. A minyan was organized shortly after their arrival in 1658, and services were conducted in private homes for the next 100 years. In 1677 land for a cemetery was purchased. This is the oldest known location of a Jewish cemetery in the United States.

With the arrival in Newport of the Lopez, Rivera, Polock, Hart and Hays families, all Jews, the city entered into an era of prosperity.

It was generally conceded that Newport had every advantage. Wealth had centered here, and was attracting capitalists from every part of the world. Between 1750 and 1760 some hundreds of wealthy Israelites, a most distinguished class of merchants, removed here from Spain, Portugal, Jamaica and other places, and entered largely into business.5 One of them, Mr. Aaron Lopez,6 owned a large fleet of vessels (rising thirty at one time) in the foreign trade, and many more in the coasting trade.

The manufacture of sperm oil and candles was introduced into Newport by the Jews, from Lisbon, between 1745 and 1750, and from that time to 1760 there were put in full operation seventeen factories for these articles alone; also twenty-two distilleries, four sugar refineries, five rope-works, and many large furniture factories, shipping immense quantities of furniture to New York, the West Indies, Surinam and many other places. In 1770 mention [was] made of eighteen West India vessels arriving here in one day.

As has just been indicated, the Jewish merchant princes were not merely the capitalists who furnished the wherewithal for this trade, but their enterprise created the trade itself, introduced the new arts and industries involved, and furnished the trade connections through their co-religionists in the different foreign ports with which the relations were formed.7

The Jews of Newport participated in the general life of the city and were viewed most favorably by their non-Jewish neighbors. One gentile writer wrote:

The Jews who settled in Newport were not only noted for their knowledge of mercantile and commercial affairs, but also for their industry, enterprise, and probity. They kept to their callings, took but little part in politics – at least there is no evidence that they gave much attention to the discussion of public questions – and they seem to have avoided both the marine and military service. They were neither good sailors nor good soldiers; nor do they appear to have been very fond of books. Moses Lopez and Jacob Joseph, it is true, were numbered among the founders of the Redwood Library, and in 1758 Jacob Rodriguez Riviera was a stockholder in that institution but this may be taken as one of many evidences of their desire to promote whatever promised to be a public benefit. Their business, with but few exceptions, they made a success, and in all things appertaining to their devotions they were exact.8

The American Revolution Leads to Decline


The residents of Newport, Jewish as well as gentile, flourished until the American Revolution. Rhode Island declared its independence from Britain two months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Given its large harbor and strategic location, Newport was a prime target of the British. The port was blockaded by the British fleet and Newport was soon under British control. This occupation was a devastating blow to the economy of the community. Many residents left rather than submit to British rule.

Almost all the prominent Jewish merchants fled the city, and Newport never regained its commercial prominence. By the early 1800s the Jewish community was essentially non-existent. During most of the 19th century almost no Jews resided in Newport, and the Touro Synagogue was used only on rare occasions. The descendents of Newport’s once flourishing Jewish community scattered throughout America. Sadly, many lost their Jewishness through intermarriage and assimilation.

This marked the end of a glorious chapter in America Jewish history. Indeed, in 1858 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his famous poem “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport” in which he wrote in part


Closed are the portals of their Synagogue,

No Psalms of David now the silence break,

No Rabbi reads the ancient Decalogue

In the grand dialect the Prophets spake.

Gone are the living, but the dead remain,

And not neglected; for a hand unseen,

Scattering its bounty, like a summer rain,

Still keeps their graves and their remembrance green.9


[1] “The First Settlement of the Jews in Newport: Some New Matter on the Subject” by Samuel Oppenheim, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society (1893-1961); 1937; 34, AJHS Journal.

2 See “Recife – The First Jewish Community in the New World,” The Jewish Press, June 3, 2005, page 32.

3 See Caribbean Jewish Communities in the 17th and 18th Centuries – Part I, The Jewish Press, October 4, 2006, page 28.

4 “The Jews in Newport by Max J. Kohler,” Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society (1893-1961); 1898; 6, AJHS Journal.

5 This number is most probably inflated, unless many of those who came left. Ezra Stiles wrote that he estimated there were about 30 Jewish families in Newport in 1760. (“Ezra Stiles and the Jews”by Reverend W. Willner, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society (1893-1961);1900; 8, AJHS Journal.)

6 For information about Aaron Lopez, see “Aaron Lopez, Colonial American Merchant Prince,” The Jewish Press, October 7, 2005, page 36.

7 Ibid.

8 Reminiscences of Newport by George Champlin Mason, published by Charles E. Hammett, Jr., 1884, page 54. This book may be downloaded at no cost from http://books.google.com

9 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Touro_Synagogue_Cemeter for the complete text of this beautiful poem.



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

Dr. Yitzchok Levine

Forward-Looking Photographs

Wednesday, October 24th, 2007

A Living Lens: Photographs of Jewish Life from the Pages of the Forward

Edited by Alana Newhouse

$39.95, W.W. Norton, 2007




         The smile is as unmistakable as the pointed white beard, long flowing side curls, black hat, robe and thick white socks. The rabbi, with his hands clasped behind his back, turns his head to his left and looks over his shoulder at the camera, as if amused to see a photographer present and curious why anyone would deem his presence a worthy photo op. The caption reads: “The grand rabbai of Satmar Hasidism, Joel Teitelbaum (right), standing at the railing of the deck of the Queen Mary at Pier 90 in New York. From the back of the photo: ‘This is the only picture taken of Teitelbaum on his journey from Israel.


         The photograph of the Satmar Rebbe is one of more than 500 photographs collected in Alana Newhouse’s A Living Lens: Photographs of Jewish Life from the Pages of the Forward. In the book’s introduction, Newhouse, arts and culture editor at the Forward, uses the paper’s filing cabinet as a symbol of its significance to Jewish history and journalism.


         While conducting a reporter’s version of dumpster diving, Newhouse discovered a letter then Vice President Harry Truman wrote in February 1945 to his friend, former fellow soldier, and short-lived business partner Edward Jacobson. “Sixty years later I found a copy of the letter in a folder at the back of a metal filing cabinet drawer,” writes Newhouse. “The note, written by one of the most powerful men of the last century, had been filed under ‘Jacobson.'”


         As Newhouse explains, Jacobson is said to have influenced (at least in part) President Truman’s decision to recognize the State of Israel in 1948, though “one might fairly assume ‘Truman’ would trump ‘Jacobson’ in any filing system. But the metal cabinet in which I found that note is part of the archives of perhaps the most famous Jewish newspaper in the world. And to its staff and readers, the buck stopped at ‘Jacobson.'”



Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt (bearded), pictured with other cantors. According to the photo caption, Rosenblatt turned down a $100,000 offer from Warner Brothers to play Al Jolson’s father in The Jazz Singer, “because he believed it would demean his sacred calling. Nevertheless, he agreed to play a small part as himself, singing a Yiddish art song, for which he received star billing.” Image courtesy: W. W. Norton.



       The Forward‘s photo archive dates all the way back to the newspaper’s inception in the late 19th century. The book also collects more contemporary photographs, from pop singer Madonna at the Kabbalah Center’s 2003 release party for The 72 Names of God: Technology for the Soul to a flooded synagogue in New Orleans, a “Bark Mitzvah” (a canine Bar Mitzvah) and a chassid from New Square holding a fish reputed to have spoken and to have been possessed by the soul of a Canadian chassid.



        In one photograph (image one), a young man wearing a bowtie and suit with a drawing board over his knees sits on the right side of the photograph, happily engrossed in the moment. His bored-looking model, whose intense stare and wide eyes are only rivaled by the lion-shaped knockers on the door behind him, uncomfortably crosses his legs and locks his fingers together tightly, trying to hold his pose. The setting is regal, with a Roman bust in the corner between two handsome doors, and the artist has made himself right at home with a half smirk on his face. Perhaps the artist, Elias Grossman, who worked for the Forverts (the Yiddish Forward), smiles because he is aware of the mischief he is unraveling. His drawing of the sitter Benito Mussolini would later become an etching and appear in the New York Herald Tribune with the caption, “What Price Mussolini?” Upon publication, Grossman fled the fascist Italian ruler’s wrath.



Forverts employee, Elias Grossman sketches Benito Mussolini. Image courtesy: W. W. Norton.



         In Living Lens, Grossman’s photo sits on a double page spread beside another picture of a Jewish artist, sculptor Carl J. Longuet standing at a 1933 exhibit in Paris beside a bust he created of his great-grandfather Karl Marx. If one offers Marx’s receding hairline to Longuet and imagines him growing a bushy moustache and beard, the resemblance is apparent, particularly in the brows. (Incidentally, Marx was at one point a London correspondent for the Herald Tribune, so the two photographs are distantly related.)



Israel Rokeach, founder of the kosher food company which bears his name. Image courtesy: W. W. Norton.



         Another photograph (image two) portrays Israel Rokeach, who founded the kosher food company that bears his name. Rokeach wears a large black yarmulke and long white sideburns and beard. He sits writing with a pencil at his desk, surrounded by a phone and stacks of papers. A large framed canvas (the head of the portrait is cropped out of the image, but it might depict Rokeach himself) hangs over his chair. The photograph, which is catalogued in the section “From a Series on ‘Industry,'” illustrates how Jewish immigrants brought their traditional attire and appearances to a new country and managed to cling steadfastly to the old, even as they achieved a great deal of success with the new.


         Image Three captures Henrietta Szold (1860-1945), the founder of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Szold was a very accomplished woman, who taught three languages (French, German and Latin), history, mathematics and science at the Baltimore-based Misses Adams’ girls’ school for 15 years. Having studied Hebrew and the Talmud with her father, she taught at his synagogue in Baltimore. Somehow, she also managed to find the time to organize a night class for newly arrived Eastern European immigrants in American history and culture and to help start Hebras Zion, which might have been America’s first Zionist organization.



Henrietta Szold, former president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Image courtesy: W. W. Norton.



         Szold, who is pictured as a firm, serious woman in the Forward photograph, though she allows a bit of a smile to invade her face, worked for 23 years at Jewish Publication Society (JPS), and later traveled to (then) Palestine in 1909. Upon returning to New York, she immersed herself in American Zionist activism, ultimately forming the Hadassah Chapter of the Daughters of Zion (1912), which became simply Hadassah in 1914 – named for Queen Esther, identified in the Megillah as Hadassah. A 1920 trip back to Palestine saw Szold fundraising for what would become the Hadassah Medical Organization. She would later die at the Jerusalem-based Hadassah-Hebrew University Hospital she helped create.


         Living Lens presents a treasure trove of images that capture moments and figures fundamental to the American Jewish experience and the Jewish experience at large. The images capture the sacred and the secular side by side. A full page photograph of Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, mixing flour for matzos in Jerusalem in 1925, sits beside another full page photograph of folksinger Isa Kremer aiming her pool cue as the world champion of billiards, Jack Schaefer looks on. Many other images in the book attest to the Forward‘s Socialist youth, from protests to members of the Workmen’s Circle. There was only room in this column to highlight a few of the photographs in the book, but it ought to be clear that it is a must-read for anyone interested in the intersection of photography, journalism and the American Jewish experience.


         Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.


         I graciously acknowledge the comprehensive biographies on Encyclopedia Britannica ( http://www.britannica.com/), which I used to research this article.

Menachem Wecker

Jewish Women Artists Talk About Their Work (Part One)

Wednesday, March 21st, 2007

Words Within

A National Juried Exhibition of

The Jewish Women Artist’s Network

February 12 – March 28, 2007

Columbia/Barnard University

Kraft Center for Jewish Life

606 West 115th Street, New York



         On Sunday, February 18, I attended an opening at the Kraft Center for Jewish Life (also known as the Columbia/Barnard Hillel) for the exhibit Words Within. At the opening, Vivian Mann and Maya Katz spoke about the exhibit, which is organized by the Jewish Women Artist’s Network, juried by Laura Kruger, and co-chaired by Fay Grajower and Simone Soltan. My friend Miriam Weiler, a student at Barnard, was instrumental in pulling the exhibit together and promoting it on the Columbia/Barnard side.


         Over the next column or two, I will gather together a smorgasbord of voices of the 61 Jewish women artists who are creating exciting new works that grapple with Jewish issues and texts, both contemporary and ancient. The exhibit is traveling next to the Robin-Frankel Gallery at the Boston University Hillel from April 12 until June 30, 2007.



The Theory


         In the opening to the catalog, Fay Grajower and Simone Soltan explain that to People of the Book, “words have long played an important role.” They found the submissions they received “organically evolved into identifiable categories”: interpreting Jewish text; memory and history; Judaism and women; Jewish tradition, nature and spirituality; Judaism and identity; Judaism and present day challenges; and family and life cycle.


         Laura Kruger, curator at the Hebrew Union College Museum, expanded the discussion to not only the condition of Jewish women artists, but of Jewish art in general. “From the very inception of Judaism and the embrace of monotheism, Hebrew tradition has limited production of many images in art,” she wrote, citing the prohibition in the Ten Commandments to make graven images. But however much idols were restricted, Kruger found a balancing act in the Torah’s encouragement of Jews to engage in hiddur mitzvah, which she called “the positive act of enhancing prayer by beautifying ritual and ceremonial objects for the visual glorification of G-d.”


         Within this beautification, Jews engaged in a variety of art works that used calligraphy, micrography, stained glass, weaving, and paper cuts of Hebrew words and phrases, which “became the sustaining cultural identifier of the Jewish people.” To Kruger, the artists of Words Within embrace the “basic theme of Judaism, extolling texts and words and their interpretations.”


From Hegel To Carob Trees


         In their comments at the opening, Drs. Mann and Katz outlined a more academic template for viewing and contextualizing the works. Mann cited 18th century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who claimed there was no such thing as Jewish art. What Hegel would have thought of contemporary Jewish artists’ work, like that of Words Within, is up for discussion, but Mann said she found it “very fulfilling to look at pieces with great textual components,” which held women’s voices as the “main ingredient.” Mann cited the example of the prophetess Devorah, who composed her own Jewish texts (the Song of Devorah). “There are many instances where women spoke by their deeds.”



Maya Katz (left) speaks, as Vivian Mann looks on at the exhibit opening.

Photo by Menachem Wecker


         Mann also found memory to be a large part of the exhibit, though she said she finds the “new” Judaica, in general, to lag behind in creativity.


         Katz’s remarks focused on specific texts. Unlike Mann, she found that “women did not have an active role in the writing of traditional Jewish texts.” The important discussion, then, is “the role of women in elucidating and interpreting male written texts.” As an example, Katz addressed the Talmudic story from Bava Metzia where Rabbi Eliezer tries in vain to rally nature to support his position in a debate with the rabbis. He instructed a carob tree, a stream and the very walls of the study hall to miraculously testify to his position, and they all did. Each time, the rabbis assured him that the Torah was not in the heavens, but quite grounded in the world and in “nuts-and-bolts” processes like majority rules. Even a heavenly Bat Kol (literally daughter voice) could not protect Rabbi Eliezer’s argument, which led G-d to “smile” and say, “My children have defeated me.”


         In the story of Rabbi Eliezer, Katz found the Talmud to be less “impressed with the original authorial voice” than with “the interpretive dialectic instead.” Extending that lesson to the exhibit, she added, “Words don’t compete with images; they generate the images, they exist for the images and they co-exist with the images.”


Turning Back The Biblical Clock


         Fay Grajower’s “reset the clock” is a mixed media collage with ink on layered paper, with an accompanying poem. The palette is mostly yellow, purple and black, with some blue, white and red. Floral patterning occupies two of the paper’s corners, and with the exception of a watch face in the lower right corner, the work evokes a cubist still life. The poem is worth quoting in full, because it is almost a painting itself:


reset the clock

there is no chronology

to the



yet traditionally

we learn


relate stories

in some order

a beginning and an end

seder – order


flies right by

when did something happen?

time – order


if we could only

reset the clock


Fay Grajower’s “reset the clock.”


         In an interview, Grajower, who calls herself “an artist who is female and Jewish” but chooses not to “market” or label herself specifically, explained that her inspiration for the piece derives from the “Talmudic idiomatic expression, ayn mukdam u’m’uchar ba’Torah [there is no earlier or later in the Torah].” The commentator Rashi invokes this phrase, in part, to explain the question: which came first, the Golden Calf or the revelation at Sinai.


         Grajower says the piece also is influenced by her “upbringing, learning and life style,” though she is careful to speak about her own work and not Jewish art in general. “Just as my artwork is influenced by my heritage, so is my participation in the Jewish community at large influenced by my perceptions as an artist and my involvement in the greater world community influenced by my being Jewish and an artist.”


Sibling Rivalry: Jacob And Esau


         In response to my question whether she identifies herself as a Jewish artist, a Jewish woman artist or a woman artist, Yona Verwer assured me she identified as all three, as well as “a Dutch-American artist and a New York artist.”


         I met Verwer at the Makor Gallery at the 92nd Street Y, where we were both artists-in-residence two years ago. At Makor, she showed works about amulets, which she called “The Kabbala of Bling.” Verwer has also painted a series of abstract works on the Urim vTumim and, as an artist-in-residence at the SAR school in Riverdale, she is painting a large-scale installation based on the seven days of Creation.




Yona Verwer’s “Sibling Rivalry: Jacob And Esau



      Verwer’s painting, “Sibling Rivalry,” shows Jacob and Esau glaring at each other. One (presumably Esau) is covered in earth tones: reds, browns and yellows (he was after all, a “red man” and a man of the field), while the tent dweller (Jacob) is lit with cold blues. To Verwer, Jacob and Esau fought (and their descendents follow suit), despite “the brother’s similarities,” which she commemorates with grid work in the background of the painting that joins the figures together.        


      “Whether it’s the Jewish or non-Jewish art world – it’s still pretty much a boys’ club,” Verwer said in response to my questions about the challenges of painting as a Jewish woman. But she is not discouraged and in “Sibling Rivalry” managed to create the kind of Jewish art she says she likes best: one that “grabs you by the throat; that bounces off the walls.”


         Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. His painting, “The Windows of Heaven” will be on exhibit at the JCC of Greater Baltimore as part of an exhibit opening March 25.

Menachem Wecker

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/jewish-women-artists-talk-about-their-work-part-one/2007/03/21/

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