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The Piece of New York Jewish History We Forget: 1654

The Piece of New York Jewish History We Forget: 1654

With all due respect to the Eldridge Street Synagogue, whose magnificent stained glass window by Kiki Smith is all the talk of town, the shul gets too much attention. It is one of the oldest surviving synagogues in Manhattan, dating to 1887, but its congregation is decidedly not. Last night, the New-York Historical Society hosted an intriguing panel that highlighted the one that was: Congregation Shearith Israel, the Sephardic shul whose 23 founding Jews came in 1654. That’s old.

To be fair, the synagogue housing the congregation today, now 70th Street and Central Park West, was built in 1896. But the history of its members two centuries older. And it serves as a reminder that Jewish history in America is far richer than the great wave of Eastern European Jews that arrived in New York beginning in 1880, or there-abouts. It is that Ashkenazi story which, numerically, defines American Jewry today. But as last night’s panel made clear that the story of Jews in America begins far before then.

The panelists–Jonathan Sarna, of Brandeis, Louise Mirrer, an scholar of New World Spanish Jewry and CEO of the New-York Historical Society, and the father-son leadership of today’s Shearith Synagogue, Rabbi Marc Engel the Elder, and Rabbi Hayyim Engel the Younger–laid down the history succinctly.

It goes like this: After Ferdinand and Isabella expelled Spain’s Jews in 1492, many fled to the more tolerant Dutch kingdom. The Dutch, being Protestant, were more tolerably toward Jews (it’s where Spinoza was born too, mind you), and by the 16th century, the Dutch were getting into the business of empire. The Dutch sent a colonizing mission to the New World, first to South America, and several Jewish merchants were on that mission.

They settled near Brazil, in the tiny country today known as Recife, but it did not take long for them to be expelled again. When the Catholic Portuguese arrived in the 1650s, the Dutch lost control and the ghosts of the Catholic Inquisition returned: the 23 Jews living in Recife went north, arriving in the Dutch’s northernmost colony, New Amsterdam. The year was 1654, which historians consider America’s first Jewish community.

But the Sephardic Jews in New Amsterdam were nearly expelled by the Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant. He sent his request asking as much to the ones who paid the bills–the Dutch East India Company, but they said, No.

Jews were not only integral to trade in the colony, and many of the Company’s board members were Jews too. The Company’s board wrote to Stuyvesant: "we observe that this would be somewhat unreasonable and unfair, especially because of the considerable loss sustained by this nation, with others, in the taking of Brazil."

The Jews stayed, and not long after the Dutch lost the colony to the British, in 1664, which renamed the city to New York, the Sephardic Jews founded Congregation Shearith Israel.

The end.

But a post-script! At the lecture last night, there was at least one interpretative wrinkle worth noting. Sarna emphasized the deeply religious nature of these early Sephardic Jews. The Dutch are remembered today as being more liberal than their Catholic Spanish neighbors–they were, after all, Protestants and early practitioners of New World capitalism.

But context is everything; religious belief was still fundamental to the Dutch and especially Dutch Jews. After all, Jews fled the Spanish Inquisition for Holland so they can practice their religion openly — not discard it. Sarna noted the deeply messianic strain of these Dutch Jews, and how they took that religiosity with them to the New World. His conclusion was meant to provoke: Sephardic Jews saw no contradiction with amassing vast amounts of wealth and being deeply pious. The settlers were, after all, extremely wealthy merchants who also believed deeply in God.

Here’s my own take: not long ago, say the before the 2008 financial meltdown, this interpretation was heard embraced with pride: historically, American Jews never saw a contradiction between material wealth and piety, so why feel bad about it now?

But last night, that note felt more discordant than comforting. In our new age of austerity, we’ve come to see there are trade-offs, in everything and always. You can’t have it both ways, and while money and God are not enemies, neither is the Gospel of Wealth a particularly inspiring contribution of Jewish thought.

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