It’s always nice to see an exhibit featuring the great contribution Jews have made to our country. It’s especially encouraging and validating when a secular institution like the New York Historical Society, one of America’s most preeminent institutions, dedicates a significant path-breaking exhibition examining the story of newcomers to the New World, both Jewish and of Jewish ancestry, who made their way to colonial America and engaged fully in the cultural, social, and political life of the young nation.
The First Jewish America: Freedom and Culture in the New World explores the origins of the Jewish Diaspora and paths to early Jewish life in American port cities. It examines our first synagogues and the birth of American Judaism in the 18th and early 19th centuries. It also focuses on prominent Jewish Americans who made an impact on early American life.
Founded in 1804, the NYHS, which covers general educational and informative history about New York City, New York State and the country, also has a children’s floor with interactive stations. It fosters research and presents history and issues surrounding the making and meaning of history through art exhibitions and public programs that reveal the dynamism of history and its influence on the world today.
This past spring, the NYHS featured an exhibition tracing the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany, called Anti-Semitism 1919-1939. At a time of continuing anti-Semitic attacks against Jewish communities in Europe and elsewhere, it examined the rise of a culture of hatred through the gradual and deliberate indoctrination of German citizens into active hatred of Jews through the ubiquitous words and propaganda images seen daily during the Nazi era.
The current exhibition, on view until March 12, is in its own right combating anti-Semitism by educating the public about the impact early Jewish settlers had on helping to establish this country. Displaying more than 170 objects, including rare early portraits, drawings, maps, books, documents, and ritual objects, it explores the arrival of Jewish immigrants to the New World; their integral role in the colonial port cities of New York, Philadelphia and Charleston; and the growth of a uniquely Jewish American tradition in the new republic.
The exhibition features a number of notable Jewish Americans, including Myer Myers, one of colonial America’s preeminent silversmiths, who designed rimonim (Torah finials) for early synagogues, a pair of which are on view, and Luis de Carvajal, a Mexican Inquisition victim whose long-lost manuscripts were recently rediscovered.
Another noteworthy individual featured is German-born Rabbi Isaac Leeser, considered the father of American Orthodox Judaism, who fought to retain tradition and settled in Philadelphia, where he became the chazzan of Congregation Mikveh Israel as well as a publisher, journalist, and educator. Leeser believed that a measured openness to innovation, coupled with traditional Jewish religious observance, was necessary for sustaining Jewish life at a time when Jews were free to choose how they wanted to be Jewish. He embraced powerful new technologies like the steam engine and the steam-powered printing press to carry his message across America, publishing the first major American Jewish newspaper. He helped found the American Jewish Publication Society, established the first American rabbinical school, produced a solo translation of the Chumash, and traveled the continent extensively. Several of his publications are on display.
European Jews fleeing persecution and seeking ports of refuge were propelled westward to the distant shores of New World colonies, which offered hope for a new beginning until the infamous Spanish Inquisition followed them across the ocean.
The exhibit powerfully illustrates this experience through the 1595 autobiography of Luis de Carvajal, a “converso” Jew in Mexico and the nephew of a prominent governor, who was tried by the Inquisition and denounced more than 120 other secretly practicing Jews (including members of his own family) before he was burned at the stake in 1596. The exhibition showcases, for the first time on public display, the manuscripts relating to Carvajal – considered the earliest extant Jewish books of the New World. These three documents include Carvajal’s autobiography (written under the pseudonym Joseph Lumbroso), Maimonides Thirteen Principles of Faith, the Ten Commandments, and a prayer manual. These exceptional documents underscore the long reach of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, which followed settlers of Jewish ancestry into the New World, forcing confessions and burning suspected “Judaizers” at the stake in horrific “autos-de-fé.”
The recently-rediscovered documents, which had gone missing from the National Archives of Mexico more than 75 years ago, are believed to be the only existing writings by a Jew in Mexico during the Spanish colonial period and are on view by special arrangement with the Mexican government before returning back to Mexico at the conclusion of this exhibition.
“The First Jewish Americans also explores the paths taken by Jews who for centuries fled persecution in Europe – beginning with the little-known but remarkable stories of their experience in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Brazil during the colonial period, and following their journey toward finding freedom and tolerance in the early American Republic,” says Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the NYHS. “We are grateful for the extraordinary collections of Leonard L. Milberg and the partnership of the Princeton University Library, which will allow us to convey to the New York public the fundamental importance of the Jewish people to early American history. We are deeply grateful to Mr. Milberg for his tenacity and hard work in securing the loan of recently recovered Jewish writings from Spanish Colonial Mexico, the earliest extant Jewish manuscripts from that time period.”
The Jewish community in the New World dispersed throughout the colonies in the Caribbean, creating a network built on trade, family, and religious connections. Items of these island communities and influences include a 1718 map of the Jewish settlement in Suriname, 18th century texts of religious services for the circumcision of slaves, and Jamaican legal documents from 1823 that argued for Jewish voting rights.
During the colonial period, Jews clustered in the cosmopolitan- and commercially-minded port cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, and, within each city, an elaborate communal infrastructure grew that supported all aspects of Jewish life. Shearith Israel, the first Jewish congregation in colonial North America, built its home in Lower Manhattan in 1730. The congregation has loaned significant objects to the exhibition, such as a Torah scroll that was burned by British soldiers during the Revolutionary War and Myers’ rare set of Torah bells (rimonim) from 1765 that he designed for Shearith Israel before the American Revolution. The New York-born Myers was an active member of Shearith Israel and served the congregation in many capacities, including as parnas (president) in 1759 and 1770. As the rimonim suggest, Myers was as dedicated to his craft as he was to the rites and rituals of Judaism. This set of Torah bells, constructed in the “stacked globe” style of Sephardic rimonim, is one of five surviving pairs made by Myers for congregations in New York, Philadelphia, and Newport.
Also on view are six oil portrait paintings, circa 1735, of the prominent Levy-Franks family of New York, also members of Shearith Israel.
The Philadelphia Jewish community grew during and after the Revolutionary War, with the city serving as a refuge for patriots fleeing British-occupied New York. Some Philadelphia Jews opposed Britain’s harsh restrictions on American trade by signing the Resolution of Non-Importation Made by the Citizens of Philadelphia in 1765 – one of the first official protests against British mercantile policy, which is on view in the exhibit. Also featured are portrait paintings of politically-active Philadelphia merchant Barnard Gratz, a signer of the resolution who supplied American militias, and of his niece Rebecca Gratz, who in 1819 established the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society, the first Jewish lay charity in the country.