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Posts Tagged ‘New Orleans’

Jacob da Silva Solis – Advocate For Orthodox Judaism

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

Note: All quotes are taken from “The Early Jews of New Orleans” by Bertram Wallace Korn, American Jewish Historical Society, 1969, and “Jacob S. Solis: Traveling Advocate of American Judaism” by J. Solis-Cohen, Jr., American Jewish Historical Quarterly (1961-1978); Sep 1962-Jun 1963; 52, 1-4. The latter may be downloaded at no cost from http://www.ajhs.org/reference/adaje.cfm.

 

Jacob da Silva Solis was born into London’s Sephardic community on August 4, 1780. He referred to himself as Jacob S. Silva. Arriving in America on October 25, 1803, Jacob almost immediately affiliated with New York’s Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue (Shearith Israel). On April 24, 1811, he married Charity Hays, daughter of a Westchester County farmer. They had seven children, the eldest born in 1813 and the youngest in 1827.

 

Jacob S. Solis was an observant Jew.

 

In his brief career of less than fifty years, he left his imprint on several communities. In business at one time in Wilmington, Delaware, he ran an advertisement in the local newspaper which included the information “No business transacted on the 7th day.” [Solis-Cohen]

 

The Solises settled in Mt. Pleasant, New York. Jacob studied shechita so he could provide kosher meat for his family while they lived there.

 

[He] moved from Mt. Pleasant to Wilmington [DE] about 1814 and lived there approximately seven years. Together with his brother Daniel, he opened a wholesale dry goods store in Wilmington and, according to his daughter, also manufactured quill pens, used in transcribing deeds, mortgages, wills, and the like. [Solis-Cohen]

 

This Wilmington venture lasted about five or six years, after which Jacob returned to Mt. Pleasant. He apparently had not done very well in Wilmington, because in 1822 he applied to Congregation Mikveh Israel of Philadelphia for the relatively low paying position of congregational shochet, only to be informed that the position had already been filled.

 

In 1826 he was attempting to promote the establishment of an academy for Jewish boys and girls where farming, crafts and domestic skills would be taught in addition to the Jewish traditions; the school and its attendant workshops would be supported by prosperous, Jews because the institution was designed particularly for the benefit of Jewish orphans. Solis was obviously concerned with Jewish welfare and public service, but he was just as obviously in search of a way of supporting his growing family. [Korn]

 

The following item appeared in the June 7, 1826 issue of the newspaper Intelligencer:

 

SOCIETY FOR IMPROVING THE CONDITION OF THE JEWS

Jacob S. Solis, of Mt. Pleasant, Westchester County in this state, is forming an institution for educating Jewish Youths, and for teaching them trades, and mechanical arts, agriculture, etc. He intends to erect factories, under his own immediate inspection to be located in the same place, also to be an asylum for orphans of Israel. He intends soliciting assistance to forward the establishment. We understand his plan is generally approved of.

 

New Orleans

 

The trade school venture never materialized, and Jacob must have found himself in severe financial straits, because in either 1826 or 1827 he went to New Orleans without his family and opened a store. New Orleans at the time was a Jewish desert where intermarriage had become more the norm than the exception. Indeed, some of the “leaders” of the Jewish community were married to non-Jewish women.

 

Solis must have heard of the booming economy of the city and felt he had no choice but to go there.

 

[His] business in New Orleans prospered and he purchased two blocks of land as a speculation or investment. He also founded a synagogue in this community, baked his own matzot, prepared a lunar Jewish calendar, wrote an interesting constitution for the Congregation, which was printed, and copies of which are in the family archives and in various Jewish libraries. The name of this Congregation was Shaarai-Chasset [Gates of Mercy]. Its origin, according to family tradition, was due to the circumstance that, before the Passover in 1826, Solis found himself in New Orleans with no matzah to be had. He was forced to grind some meal and he, himself, prepared the unleavened cakes.

 

     This experience made him determine to bring about the establishment of a synagogue in New Orleans. According to the printed records, the synagogue was founded by Jacob S. Solis of the State of New York, December 20th, 1827. A booklet about the Congregation was printed in English and French by F. Delaup, Printer of the Congregation, 1828, giving the list of the donors to the Congregation, the constitution, and a Jewish calendar calculated from September 9, 1828, to August 16, 1852.

 

     The calendar has the following heading: Calendar of the Festivals and Lunar months of every year observed by the Israelites, commencing A.M. 5589 and ending in the year 5612, being a period of 24 years (Sept. 9th, 1828, and will end August 16th, in the year 1852) by Jacob S. Solis. [Solis-Cohen]

 

The booklet also gives the names of the officers for the year 1828, and Manis Jacobs is listed as president.

 

The following incident gives some idea of the state of Yiddishkeit in New Orleans at the time. Solis had returned to New York in June of 1828 when he received copies of the Shaarai-Chasset constitution sent to him by synagogue president Manis Jacobs. He was stunned when he read the following stipulation in one of the by-laws: “No Israelite child shall be excluded either from the schools, from the temple or the burial ground on account of the religion of the mother.”

 

In other words, the constitution was saying that the child of a non-Jewish mother and Jewish father was to have the same rights as someone with a Jewish mother. This was unheard of, even in America, where intermarriage was all too common. In order to discourage intermarriage, it was common practice in all synagogues at this time to forbid a Jewish man married to a gentile woman burial in the synagogue’s cemetery and to not allow his children to attend the synagogue’s religious school. By the inclusion of this sentence Shaarai-Chasset was actually condoning intermarriage.

 

The reason Manis Jacobs had this clause included was because he himself was married to a French Catholic woman. Jacobs, the synagogue president, wanted the two children he had with his non-Jewish wife to be accepted as full-fledged Jews.

 

Jacobs, however, wanted even more than this. He felt that his ability to read and write Hebrew should qualify him to have the title “rabbi.” On official documents he always signed his name in English added to this his Hebrew name “Menachem” written in Hebrew letters. He even served as chazzan for the first High Holy Day services conducted in New Orleans.

 

     Jacob S. Solis died suddenly at Mt. Pleasant, New York, on December 29, 1829, at the age of forty-nine and is interred in the 21st Street Cemetery of Congregation Shearith Israel. After his death, his widow received a beautiful letter from the New Orleans Congregation which passed the following resolution.

 

     Resolved: that in consequence of the death of our much lamented fellow member, Jacob S. Solis, and in consideration of his many virtues and the effectual service rendered to this institution in its formation, the officers wear crepe on their left arm for the space of thirty days from the date of this meeting.

 

     His career emphasizes the saying of a Hebrew sage “A good name is better than great riches.” [Solis-Cohen]

 

 

 

   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.

Discovering Hope In New Orleans

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

This summer 17 Yeshiva University students participated in the Center for the Jewish Future’s New Orleans Service Mission. As part of the mission students had the opportunity to engage members of the community ravaged by Hurricane Katrina just five years ago learn about their current challenges and help rebuild.

 

New Orleans is a city of contradictions. Destruction, rebuilding. Desertion, returning. Neglect, attention. Government failure, individual action. Race divide, unity. A grounded city, a place some would believe is better left abandoned. Many of these concepts are hard to reconcile on a brief trip such as the CJF mission we recently completed. Still, there is something gripping about New Orleans, which we were able to discover in merely six days.

 

From the onset of the trip, many of us were unsure of what we would encounter. What we did experience, though, changed our lives forever. Putting faces to the homes, to the numbers, to the flood’s structural and awful devastation, took our understanding of present-day New Orleans to a new level. The personal accounts we heard and the sense of unity and hope we felt from New Orleans residents allowed us to feel motivated to sod a yard in 100-degree heat, paint a house as professionally as our unskilled selves were able, knock down a brick shed and even attempt to climb ladders in order to dry wall a home.

 

We met with the founders of Resurrection after Exoneration, an organization that helps those wrongfully accused and those transitioning out of jail and into society by making sure they have a place to live and teaching them job skills. We also met with Tracey Williams, a powerhouse in the community who is facilitating the rebuilding of the Treme neighborhood. Her colorful and hopeful houses have popped up across the neighborhood.

 

We heard from members of the Jewish community such as Neil Schneider, a representative of the Jewish Federation, to try to understand the implications that Katrina had on the smaller community. The stable Jewish infrastructure allowed the Jewish community to bounce back more quickly than the city at large. Still, the community basically halved; the number of Jews went from 11,000 to 6,000, and the number is only now slowly rising. The Jewish community that was forced to bury seven sacred Torah Scrolls from their completely ruined synagogue is only now able to build a new space of their own.

 

But there is a unique sense of unity in the New Orleans Jewish community; the Orthodox synagogue is currently housed in the Reform Temple because the synagogue was destroyed in the disaster. The time we spent with the members of the shul showed us that they all work very hard to stay true to their values and maintain their community. 

 

From our week in Louisiana, we learned the true danger of “bystander effect” — meaning that most people assume there is always someone else to pick up the pieces or to solve the problem. Most residents of the city believe that Katrina was a man-made disaster. The failure of the levees caused the flooding, not the hurricane itself. Our trip taught us the power of man, the danger of neglect, the importance of hope and our ability to be part of a rebuilding and to make a difference.

           

Rachel Daniels of Lincolnwood, Illinois is a junior at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women.

The Man Who Brought Judah Touro Back To Judaism

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008

Last month’s column sketched the life of Judah Touro (1775-1854), who became immensely wealthy after his move to New Orleans in 1802, using his fortune to support many causes and individuals. For years, however, Touro showed little or no interest in affiliating with anything Jewish in New Orleans.

The Reverend Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia, the editor of the first successful American-Jewish periodical, The Occident and American Jewish Advocate who probably knew as much about Touro as anyone who was not a resident of New Orleans, said bluntly that “it was late in life when Mr. T. became impressed with the necessity of being an Israelite in more than in mere words.” This explicit statement is supported by the fact that it was not until about 1847, seven years before his death, that Touro began to do anything to perpetuate Jewish life in New Orleans. In that year he purchased an Episcopal church and set about making the multifarious and expensive arrangements for its conversion into a synagogue for the Sephardic congregation Nefutzoth Yehudah.1

In the last years of his life Touro davened regularly at Congregation Nefutzoth Yehudah and even became a strict Sabbath observer, as the following letter makes clear:

New Orleans, January 5th, 1852.
H. Bier, Esq.,
President,
Firemen’s Charitable Association:

Sir:

Having been made aware of the exhausted state of your treasury, and knowing the usefulness of fire departments, as exhibited on Saturday morning last, when through the activity of several companies, a considerable portion of my property was saved, I beg to present the enclosed one thousand dollars and hope that it may temporarily relieve the widows and orphans dependent on the association for support.

Saturday, on which the fire occurred, being my Sabbath, has prevented me from sending this until this morning.

Very respectfully,

J. Touro2

 

The man primarily responsible for Touro’s return to religious observance was Gershom Kursheedt (1817-1863). He also influenced Touro to leave large sums of money to a variety of Jewish causes both here and in Eretz Yisrael.

Kursheedt was the seventh child of Israel Baer and Sarah Abigail Seixas Kursheedt. Israel Baer Kursheedt was a learned Jew who had studied in the yeshiva of Rav Nosson Adler in Frankfurt, Germany, before coming to America in 1796. (For details of Israel Baer Kursheedt’s life see “America’s First Torah Scholar: Israel Baer Kursheedt,” The Jewish Press, February 7, 2007, page 1 – www.jewishpress.com/content.cfm?contentid=20616). His mother was Sarah Abigail (Sally) Seixas, the eldest daughter of Rev. Gershom Mendes Seixas, who served as chazzan of Congregation Shearith Israel for almost fifty years, for whom he was named.

“I have but one ambition in life,” Gershom wrote in a letter to his friend Isaac Leeser, “and that is to elevate the character of our people in the eyes of God and man.”3

Gershom moved to New Orleans in late 1839 or early 1840, going into business as a broker and becoming involved in the Jewish community. He joined Congregation Shanarai-Chasset (Gates of Mercy), the first synagogue established in New Orleans.

Some time during the late 1830s the congregation had discarded the Sephardic ritual and adopted the Ashkenazic, probably because of the large influx of German-born Jews, and the inability of any leader to conduct the Sephardic ritual. Kursheedt was one of the fifty-one members who signed the new by-laws of 1841 which, among other changes, noted that the services should be “in conformity with the rules and customs of the German Israelites,” and henceforth banned the membership of any man who had intermarried. When the Hebrew Benevolent Society of New Orleans was established in 1844, Gershom became its first treasurer.

Shortly after the High Holy Days of 1845, Kursheedt organized a new Sephardic congregation, called the Dispersed of Judah – Nefutzoth Yehudah; in the year and a half prior to its receipt of a charter from the state, Kursheedt succeeded in persuading forty men to join the congregation.4

 

Jewish Endeavors

Although Touro would not consider joining the Dispersed of Judah Congregation, he was somehow persuaded to accept the financial responsibility of providing it with a synagogue. How Gershom accomplished this is an “enigma wrapped in a mystery” – unless it was not Gershom who was the successful advocate, but Rezin Shepherd [a friend of Touro's, who had saved his life when Touro was wounded in battle in 1815]. It is surely more than a coincidence that Touro finally bestirred himself to do something concrete for the Jewish community of New Orleans at the very same time that Shepherd’s church had outgrown its building and was planning a new structure. Our best judgment is that Shepherd – according to Kursheedt, the one man who knew how to deal with Touro – told Touro of Christ Church’s plans and suggested that it would be a good idea for him to trade some desirable land that he owned in exchange for the church, and then to remodel the building into a synagogue. But, even so, it may have been Kursheedt who suggested the idea to Shepherd.5

Kursheedt, as president of the new congregation, had the headache of supervising the renovation of the church building so that it could serve as a synagogue. Touro, who was providing the funds, insisted on approving every detail. Often he could not make up his mind concerning what he wanted, and, even after making a decision, he would change his mind more than once. In December 1847 Gershom wrote to his close friend Isaac Leeser (for a sketch of Leeser’s life see “Isaac Leeser: Architect of Traditional Judaism in America,” The Jewish Press, June 22, 2007, page 1 – www.jewishpress.com/content.cfm?contentid=21906):

Mr. Touro is the very impersonation of a snail, not to say of a crab whose progress (to use a paradox) is usually backward. My patience is well nigh exhausted with him and I am interrogated by so many concerning his intentions that it is not unusual for me to dodge a corner in order to avoid meeting certain parties who seem to think that I am making a mystery of the matter.6

Had he died in the 1820s or 1830s, Touro probably would have left substantial sums of money to many charitable organizations, but certainly not to Jewish organizations. Toward the end of his life, through the efforts of Kursheedt and Leeser, Touro returned to the religious practices of his ancestors, and Kursheedt was able to influence him to make generous bequests to a number of Jewish causes. It took considerable effort because Touro was a stubborn, difficult man who had trouble making up his mind. Nonetheless, Kursheedt had considerable success.

Touro’s gifts to orphans’ homes and other Christian welfare agencies in New Orleans, and for the construction of a new almshouse, totaled $120,000. Philanthropic institutions in Boston, to which his brother Abraham had been devoted, received $20,000. In Newport, Rhode Island, his old home, $10,000 was given to the Old Stone Mill Park, and $3,000 to the Redwood Library.

The Jews of New Orleans received a total of $108,000 – including property worth $48,000 to Dispersed of Judah, $40,000 in property (the Paulding estate) for a Jewish hospital (Touro Infirmary) in New Orleans, $5,000 for Shanarai-Chasset and $15,000 for local benevolent societies including the utopian effort to send assistance to the dwindling Jewish community in China.

An endowment of $10,000 was established for the Newport synagogue and cemetery. A total of $60,000 went toward the relief of the poor Jews of Palestine, $50,000 to be used at the discretion of the distinguished British Jewish leader, Sir Moses Montefiore. Congregations, religious schools, benevolent societies and Jewish hospitals in Boston, Hartford, New Haven, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Richmond, Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, Memphis, Louisville, Cincinnati, Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo and Albany received a total of $143,000.

There is no question that through his influence on Judah Touro, Gershom Kursheedt fulfilled his ambition “to elevate the character of our people in the eyes of God and man.” Jewry owes him a considerable debt of gratitude.

 

1 “A Reappraisal of Judah Touro” by Bertram W. Korn, The Jewish Quarterly Review, 45, 1955, page 572.

2 Ibid. pages 573-574.

3 The Seixas-Kursheedts and the Rise of Early American Jewry by Kenneth Libo and Abigail Kursheedt Hoffman, Bock Publishing Company, Inc., 2001, page 51.

4 The Early Jews of New Orleans by Bertram Wallace Korn, American Jewish Historical Society, Waltham, MA, 1969, page 248.

5 Ibid. page 249.

6 The Early Jews of New Orleans, page 250.

 

Dr. Yitzchok Levine recently retired after serving for forty years as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. “Glimpses Into American Jewish History” appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

Judah Touro: Legendary Philanthropist

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

“[Judah] Touro’s name will always be numbered among the foremost in the annals of American philanthropy. His charities knew neither race nor creed, and his public spirit was no less noteworthy.”[i]

Touro accumulated a huge fortune during his lifetime, dying a very wealthy man.

 Though he gave liberally to charitable objects during his entire life, the provisions of the will of Touro, who died unmarried, disposed of over half a million dollars in charity, an enormous sum in those days. These provisions were published throughout the United States and even in the journals and periodicals of many European countries. Among the larger bequests were $80,000 for founding the New Orleans Almshouse, liberal endowments for nearly all the Jewish congregations of the country, bequests to the Massachusetts Female Hospital, the Female Asylum, and the Boys’ Asylum of Boston, and one for the preservation of the old cemetery at Newport, and for the payment of the salary of the minister of the old synagogue in that city. A large sum was also left in trust to Sir Moses Montefiore for almshouses in Jerusalem. In addition to these, there were private bequests.[ii]

Judah Touro was born in Newport, Rhode Island on June 16, 1775. His father, Isaac, was the Dutch-born chazzan of Congregation Yeshuat Israel (later known as the Touro Synagogue); his mother, Reyna Hays, was born in America. Chazzan Touro sided with the British during the Revolutionary War and even received a stipend from them after the British captured Newport. When he relocated to New York City in 1780, which was at that time under British rule, he also benefited from British largesse. By the end of 1782 it became increasing clear that the British would lose the war, so Isaac Touro and his family emigrated to Jamaica. When Chazzan Touro passed away on December 8, 1783, his widow and four children returned to Boston, where they lived in the home of Mrs. Touro’s brother, Moses Michael Hays. Mrs. Touro passed away on September 28, 1787, leaving Judah an orphan at age 12.
 Of Touro’s youth in Boston, hardly anything is known. He probably received little formal education; years later, Gershom Kursheedt – who knew him very well – said that Touro’s “great misfortune was in his want of education.” This probably meant, at the very least, that Touro evinced no interest in cultural matters. Moses Michael Hays was a prosperous merchant and insurance broker; Judah and his younger brother Abraham seem to have been apprenticed in their uncle’s counting house at a fairly young age and to have learned there the ways of commerce which they followed for the rest of their lives.[iii]

In 1802 Judah Touro settled in News Orleans, Louisiana, a small town of about 10,000 inhabitants, which at that time was under the control of the French. With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 the region came under American rule.

There he opened a store, and soon built up a thriving trade in New-England products. Later he became the owner of many ships and of valuable real estate, until he was numbered among the most prominent merchants of the place. After the territory had become part of the United States, Touro repeatedly exhibited his public spirit. During the defense of New Orleans by Andrew Jackson [during the War of 1812] he entered the ranks as a common soldier, and was severely wounded on Jan. 1, 1815, being given up for dead; but he was saved by the bravery and care of his friend Rezin Davis Shepherd, a young Virginian merchant, who had settled in the same city. Their friendship continued throughout their lives; and both of them amassed great fortunes.[iv]

Orthodox journalist Isaac Leeser wrote of Touro, “Mr. T. was not a man of brilliant mind; on the contrary, he was slow, and not given to bursts of enthusiasm, as little as he was fond of hazardous speculations; and he used to say that he could only be said to have saved a fortune by strict economy, while others had spent one by their liberal expenditures . he had no tastes for the wasteful outlay of means on enjoyments which he had no relish for. He [had] thus the best wines always by him, without drinking them himself; his table, whatever delicacies it bore, had only plain and simple food for him .”

Touro’s wealth was not secured through commercial genius, or through skyrocketing profits, but gradually, through unremitting attention to his work, and through strict economies in his personal life. Perhaps he was always haunted by the private fear of a repetition of the penury in which his early years had been spent, when first his family existed on the meager dole provided by the British army, and when later he himself had to live on his uncle’s charity.

Perhaps, too, it was his homeless childhood which led him to invest most of his savings in real estate. By 1812, he had already purchased a tract of land eighteen leagues below New Orleans. His earliest acquisition of a lot and building in the city itself which we have been able to discover in the notarial records took place in 1818. Property which he bought in 1821 was still among his holdings when he died. Confident in the future of New Orleans, he purchased lot after lot, virtually all in the commercial center of the city, paid cash, erected buildings, and collected rents.

He appears not to have mortgaged any of his property; hence he was unaffected by the periodic economic slumps and panics which at one time or another drove most of New Orleans’ businessmen into bankruptcy. Almost three-quarters of the assessed value of his estate was invested in these properties and buildings which he had bought and developed over the long years. He had indeed, as Leeser reported, “saved a fortune,” and it in turn increased in real value because the growth of New Orleans continued throughout the years. His net assets continued to increase, because he never retired from business activity.[v]

Judah Touro became a benefactor to all sorts of causes.

His charities knew neither race nor creed, and his public spirit was no less noteworthy. To Amos Lawrence and Judah Touro belongs the credit of supplying the funds for completing the Bunker Hill Monument, each subscribing $10,000 for the purpose. Another object of his generosity was his native city of Newport. In 1842 he improved the enclosures of the old Jewish cemetery immortalized by Longfellow; and it was his money which purchased the Old Stone Mill supposed to have been built by the Norsemen, Touro’s desire being that the historic landmark and the surrounding grounds might be saved for the town. The grounds in which the mill is situated are still known as Touro Park. [vi]

Interestingly, Judah Touro showed virtually no interest in anything Jewish during the first years of his residence in New Orleans:

Far from having been an avid leader and participant in Jewish life and Jewish causes in New Orleans from the earliest years of Jewish communal organization in the city, Touro appears on only two occasions prior to 1847 to have taken even the slightest interest in the life of his fellow Jews.

His first expression of interest was in 1828 when Jacob S. Solis of New York organized the first New Orleans congregation, “The Israelite Congregation of Shanarai-Chasset,” and Touro was listed (mistakenly as “J. Turo”) not as a member of the congregation, but as one of “the Israelite Donors, who are not members of the Congregation.”

The fact that Touro would not consent to join this first congregation in the city where he had probably been the first Jew to establish permanent residence is astonishing.[vii]

Yet, beginning in about 1845, Judah Touro became more and more involved in Jewish life and eventually became strictly Shomer Shabbos. Two men were responsible for this: Gershom Kursheedt and Isaac Leeser.

To be continued next month.

 

[1] Touro, Judah, by Joseph Jacobs and L. H?hner, The Jewish Encyclopedia, Volume 12, Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 190-1906, pages 212-213. This article is available at http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=283&letter=T

2 Ibid.

3 The Early Jews of New Orleans by Bertram Wallace Korn, American Jewish Historical Society, Waltham, MA, 1969, page 76.

4 Touro, Judah, The Jewish Encyclopedia.

5 The Early Jews of New Orleans, pages 82-83.

6 Touro, Judah, The Jewish Encyclopedia.

7 “A Reappraisal of Judah Touro” by Bertram W. Korn, The Jewish Quarterly Review, 45, 1955, page 570.

Dr. Yitzchok Levine recently retired after serving for forty years as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. “Glimpses Into American Jewish History” appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

Kosher Tidbits from around the Web – November 3, 2008

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

I was surprised to read that Ashkelon Academic College requires that every item of food students wish to bring into their rooms be approved by an “approved rabbinic authority,” even if it is prepared at home.

And speaking of college campuses, University of Miami has a new on-campus glatt kosher restaurant, The Oasis.

If you find yourself in the Philadelphia area, you might want to check out Maccabeam Restaurant. The review I read said it “represents the best in Israeli cuisine.”

Tastes and Traditions, a new cookbook – and fundraiser – for the New Haven Jewish Community Center is available for purchase here.

Drake’s(R) Snack Cakes are celebrating 120 years of snacking. At one time, it was thought that Drakes were the only kosher snack cakes. Once under the Triangle K, today Drakes are certified kosher under the OU. Finally, The Times-Picayune has an interesting review of two of New Orleans kosher restaurants, Casablanca and Kosher Cajun New York Deli and Grocery.

Kosher Tidbits from around the Web – November 3, 2008

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

I was surprised to read that Ashkelon Academic College requires that every item of food students wish to bring into their rooms be approved by an “approved rabbinic authority,” even if it is prepared at home.

And speaking of college campuses, University of Miami has a new on-campus glatt kosher restaurant, The Oasis.

If you find yourself in the Philadelphia area, you might want to check out Maccabeam Restaurant. The review I read said it “represents the best in Israeli cuisine.”

Tastes and Traditions, a new cookbook – and fundraiser – for the New Haven Jewish Community Center is available for purchase here.

Drake’s(R) Snack Cakes are celebrating 120 years of snacking. At one time, it was thought that Drakes were the only kosher snack cakes. Once under the Triangle K, today Drakes are certified kosher under the OU.

Finally, The Times-Picayune has an interesting review of two of New Orleans kosher restaurants, Casablanca and Kosher Cajun New York Deli and Grocery.

Putting the Oy Back into ‘Ahoy’

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

  They did not sing “Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Manischewitz,” nor do they ever seem to appear in any of the Disney films about pirates in the Caribbean. The website piratesinfo.com carries not a single reference to them.

  And while September 19 has for a number of years now been designated International Talk Like a Pirate Day (there are even Internet courses available in pirate lingo), none of its initiators seems to have had Ladino (the language spoken by Jewish refugees expelled by the Spanish and Portuguese after the Reconquista) in mind.

  Swashbuckling buccaneers who took time to put on tefillin each morning? Better get used to the idea. Long overlooked, the history of Jewish piracy has been garnering increasing interest, with several serious books and articles telling its epic tales.

  Many Jewish pirates came from families of refugees who had been expelled by Spain and Portugal. They took to piracy as part of a strategy of revenge on the Iberian powers (though lining their pockets with Spanish doubloons was no doubt also a motive). Many of these pirates mixed traditional Jewish lifestyles with their exploits on the high seas.

* * * * *

  Jewish refugees from Portugal first settled in Jamaica in 1511, probably originally as sugar growers, and some took up piracy. The British, led by Admiral William Penn (the father of the William Penn who established Philadelphia), took over the island from the Spanish in 1655, reportedly with assistance from local Jews and Marranos (crypto-Jews), all of whom were allowed to remain.

  By 1720, as many as 20 percent of the residents of Kingston were Jews. Over time, Ashkenazi Jews arrived and their synagogues operated alongside the Sephardic ones (the congregations all merged in the 20th century). Jewish tombstones dating back to 1672 have been found there, with Portuguese, Hebrew and English inscriptions.

  Some Jews went into local Jamaican politics, and there were so many in the Jamaican parliament in the 19th century that it became the only parliament on earth that did not hold deliberations on Saturday. The Jewish community of Jamaica today numbers a couple hundred and calls itself the United Congregation of Israelites in Jamaica (UCIJA). The active synagogue there is built in Sephardic style and is one of the few left in the world with a sand floor. Naturally, its official website includes a page on the pirate ancestors of Jewish residents (ucija.org/pirates.htm).

  According to an article earlier this year in the Israeli weekly Bakihilot, municipal workers in Kingston recently uncovered a long forgotten pirate graveyard. Among the tombstones are those with Jewish stars and Hebrew inscriptions, together with pirate symbols such as the skull and crossbones.

  Similar Jewish pirate graves have been found near Bridgetown in the Barbados and in the old Jewish graveyard in Curacao. Jamaican-born Jewish historian Ed Kritzler claims that Jewish pirates once operated there, raiding the Spanish Main wearing tallis shawls. He’s just published a book titled Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean and conducts private tours of the “Jewish pirate coves” of Jamaica.

  Kritzler’s book includes the saga of one Moses Cohen Henriques, who participated in one of history’s largest sea heists against Spain. In 1628, Henriques sailed together with Dutch Admiral Piet Hein, of the Dutch West India Company, who hated Spain after having been held as a slave for four years on a Spanish galleon. They raided Spanish ships off Matanzas Bay in Cuba, commandeering large amounts of gold and silver.

  Henriques set up his own pirate “Treasure Island” on a deserted island off the Brazilian coast on which Jews could openly practice their religion. (He also served as adviser to Henry Morgan, perhaps the most famous pirate of all time; Errol Flynn played Morgan in the movie “Captain Blood.”) After the recapture of Brazil by Portugal in 1654, some of these Jews would sail off to set up a brand new Jewish community in a place called New Amsterdam, now known as New York.

  In many cases Jewish pirates collaborated with Holland, a friendly and welcoming state for Jews. One such pirate was Rabbi Samuel Pallache, a leader of the Moroccan Jewish community in Fez. Born in The Hague, he was son of a leading rabbi from Cordoba who ended up in Morocco. From there he was sent to Holland as envoy of the Moroccan sultan, who was seeking allies against Spain. He became a personal friend of Dutch Crown Prince Maurice, who commissioned him as a privateer, and served for years as a pirate under a Netherlands flag and with Dutch letters of marque. Rabbi Pallache recruited Marranos for his crews.

  In other cases Jewish pirates worked for the Ottomans. A Jewish pirate named Sinan, known to his Spanish prey as “The Great Jew,” was born in what is now Turkey and operated out of Algiers. He first served as second in command to the famous pirate Barbarossa. (No connection to the fictional Barbarossa of the Disney films.) Their pirate flag carried a six-pointed star called the Seal of Solomon by the Ottomans.

  Sinan led the force that defeated a Genoan navy hired by Spain to rid the Barbary Coast of corsairs. He then conquered Tripoli in Libya, and was eventually appointed supreme Ottoman naval commander. He is buried in a Jewish cemetery in Albania.

  A Jewish pirate named Yaakov Koriel commanded three pirate ships in the Caribbean. He later repented and ended up in Safed as one of the Kabbalah students of the Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria) and is buried near the Ari’s grave.

  A pirate named David Abrabanel, evidently from the same family as the famous Spanish rabbinic dynasty (which included Rabbi Isaac Abrabanel), joined British privateers after his family was butchered off the South American coast. He used the nom de guerre “Captain Davis” and commanded his own pirate vessel named The Jerusalem. According to at least one report, he was the person who discovered what is now called Easter Island.

  Several Jewish corsairs operated against Spanish ships off the coast of Chile. There are reports that their galleys were kosher and they abstained from raids on the Sabbath. A maritime museum in Chile today holds letters of communication among these pirates composed in Hebrew.

  One pirate leader was named Subatol Deul. On a trip up the coast he stumbled across a ship under the command of the pirate Henry Drake, son of Sir Francis Drake. They decided to create an alliance of anti-Spanish pirates, the “Black Flag Fraternity.”

  Deul and Drake reportedly buried treasure on an island near Coquimbo in 1645. A chapter in the book Piracy & Plunder: A Murderous Business, by Milton Meltzer, is devoted to Deul’s swashbuckling career.

  There also were Jewish corsairs based in Curacao next to Venezuela. The local Curacao rabbi once berated his community’s pirates when they thoughtlessly attacked a ship owned by a fellow Jew. At least it wasn’t done on the Sabbath.

  The history of Jewish pirates goes far back: Josephus mentions Jewish pirates operating in the seas off the Land of Israel in Roman times. There is a drawing of a pirate ship inside Jason’s Tomb in Jerusalem. The Hasmonean Hyrcanus accused Aristobulus, his brother, of “acts of piracy at sea.” In its last days, the Seleucid empire (the one fought by the Maccabees) was plagued by Jewish and Arab pirates.

  Pirates operated from coves along the Levantine coast for centuries, and my own city of Haifa was once known as The Little Malta because of its notorious pirates. (The local pirates these days seem to specialize mainly in computer software.)

  The fact that some Jews seemed to have taken so easily to the pirate lifestyle may have been due in part to other skills developed by Jews over the centuries. Cartography, for example, was considered a Jewish specialty in the 15th and 16th centuries, and Christopher Columbus is believed to have consulted the work of a Jewish cartographer, one Abraham Cresque of Mallorca, who produced the Catalan Atlas in 1375. Portuguese Jewish cartographers and scientists contributed to Vasco Da Gama’s voyage of discovery to the Cape of Good Hope in 1497. Jews also worked on ships as navigators.

* * * * *

  Perhaps the most important Jewish pirate of all was the Caribbean pirate Jean Lafitte, a familiar name to many American schoolchildren. He and his men, pirates trained in cannon fire, came to the aid of General (later President) Andrew Jackson and played a critical role in winning the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. A Jean Lafitte National Historic Park stands today on the outskirts of the city.

  What is still largely unknown is that Lafitte was a Jew, born either in Western France or in what is now Haiti. A while back my friend Edward Bernard Glick, a retired professor of political science living in Oregon, published an article in the Jerusalem Post (July 14, 2006) on Lafitte’s Jewish origins and it stirred up a storm of interest. Parts of Rabbi I. Harold Sharfman’s book Jews on the Frontier also discuss Lafitte’s life.

  According to Glick, “[Lafitte] was a Sephardi Jew, as was his first wife, who was born in the Danish Virgin Islands. In his prime, Lafitte ran not just one pirate sloop but a whole fleet of them simultaneously. He even bought a blacksmith shop in New Orleans, which he used as a front for fencing pirate loot. And he was one of the few buccaneers who didn’t die in battle, in prison or on the gallows.”

  Glick claims the British tried to recruit Lafitte to guide them through the swamps to ambush the Americans, but Lafitte instead showed General “Old Hickory” Jackson Britain’s battle plans to attack New Orleans. The rest is history.

  Years before the Battle of New Orleans, Louisiana Governor William C. C. Claiborne placed a reward of $500 on Lafitte’s head. Lafitte retaliated by putting a $5,000 bounty on the head of the governor. Neither collected.

  Lafitte later commanded his own “kingdom” named Campeche on the island of Galveston, Texas, then nominally under Spanish rule. Some of Lafitte’s trading activities were conducted by Jao de la Porta, a Portuguese Jew from Spanish Texas. Among their clients was Jim Bowie, made famous at the Alamo and also for the special knife.

* * * * *

  Mention of Jewish pirates can pop up in some unexpected places. Just before Rosh Hashanah this year, the liberal Huffington Post website carried a post by humorist Andy Borowitz “reporting” that the group of Somali pirates who had just hijacked a ship full of Ukrainians in the Gulf of Aden was calling a halt to the piracy in honor of the Jewish High Holidays.

 Wrote Borowitz: ” ‘To all of our Jewish friends, we say a hearty Shana Tova,’ said pirate spokesman Sugule, moments before the pirates hoisted a Star of David flag over the captured ship. Sugule took pains to indicate that while the pirates were taking a Rosh Hashanah break from their usual plundering and pillaging schedule, they were doing so only out of respect for Jewish pirates and not because they are Jewish themselves. ‘None of us Somali pirates are Jewish,’ he said. ‘Except for Abe in accounting, who’s half.’ “

 And there are others who are getting into the spirit of things. The Bangitout.com Jewish humor website listed a set of halachic challenges for Jewish pirates, including the following:

  If you have a hook instead of a hand, on which arm do you put tefillin?
   Does your treasure map show how far the eruv extends?
   How long do you wait, after capturing a plundered ship, to put up a mezuzah in the captain’s cabin?
   Should you cover your eye patch with your hand when you say the Shema?
   Can you wear a leather boot over your peg leg on Yom Kippur?
   Are you able to carry on the plank on Shabbos? If your parrot is on your shoulder, is that carrying?

  Personally, I think the biggest challenge to Jewish pirates occurs at Purim. After walking around all year decked out like that, what could they possibly dress up as? Accountants?

  In a way, the legacy of Jewish pirates is alive and well in Israel today. One of the most outstanding examples of the Jewish state’s derring-do was when it stole five gunboats out of the port of Cherbourg in France – ships that had already been paid for by Israel but that France, as punishment for Israel’s Six-Day War victory, was refusing to deliver.

  Israeli agents operating through a front corporation seized the ships on December 25, 1969 and sailed them to Haifa. The details of that piracy are engagingly told in The Boats of Cherbourg (1997) by Abraham Rabinovich.

  So let’s swab the decks, count our doubloons and grant the Jewish pirates their proper place in history. In other words, it’s time to put the oy back into “ahoy.”

  Steven Plaut, a professor at Haifa University, is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at steveneplaut@yahoo.com.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/front-page/putting-the-oy-back-into-ahoy/2008/10/15/

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