America’s Long Jewish History

Jonathan D. Sarna—

New Amsterdam, part of the remote Dutch colony of New Netherland in present-day New York State, was among the New World’s most diverse and pluralistic towns. A French Jesuit missionary in 1643 reported that “eighteen different languages” were spoken by local inhabitants of different sects or nations. In addition to the legally protected Calvinist faith, he encountered Catholics, English Puritans, Lutherans, and Anabaptists. A large supplementary influx of dissenting Protestants (including Lutherans, Quakers, and Anabaptists) subsequently arrived from Europe. Then, on a late summer day in September 1654, a small French frigate named the Ste. Catherine sailed into the port. Most of the ship’s passengers—“twenty-three souls, big and little”—were bedraggled Jewish refugees from Recife, Brazil. Having been expelled from Recife when the Portuguese recaptured the colony from the Dutch, they were now seeking a new home.

The refugees were not the first Jews to arrive in North America. Back in 1585, a Jew named Joachim Gaunse served as the metallurgist and mining engineer for the ill-fated English colony on Roanoke Island. He conducted soil experiments in Carolina, returned to England a year later, and in 1589 was indicted as a Jew for blasphemy. Thereafter a small number of other Jews, mostly intrepid merchants bent on trade, made brief stops at American ports to conduct business. One of them, Solomon Franco, agent for a Dutch Jewish merchant, arrived in Boston in 1649. A “stranger” unable to post the necessary bond, he was duly warned out of town and sailed off as soon as he could. In 1654 itself, several Jews came to New Amsterdam from Holland and Germany, also presumably to trade. The “big and little” refugees from Recife, however, differed from the Jews who came before them. Though economically ruined, they sought to settle down and form a permanent Jewish community in North America, to “navigate and trade near and in New Netherland, and to live and reside there.”

By the time these Jewish refugees arrived, the clergy of the dominant Dutch Reformed Church already felt deeply agitated, fearing that their legal prerogatives as the colony’s only recognized faith were being usurped. Peter Stuyvesant, the dictatorial director-general of New Netherland and himself an elder of the Reformed Church and the son of a minister, sympathized with them. His mission was to establish order among the citizenry, to combat “drinking to excess, quarreling, fighting and smiting.” He sought to promote morality and social cohesion by enforcing Calvinist orthodoxy while rooting out nonconformity. When Lutherans petitioned for permission to call for a minister and organize a congregation, he was relieved that his superiors in Amsterdam turned them down. He forced them to worship in private; some were even subjected to fines and imprisonment.

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 homes, which seems to have been more than the Lutherans were permitted to do.

Just as Stuyvesant had feared, the economic considerations that underlay these decisions regarding the Jews soon determined policy for members of the colony’s other minority faiths. “We doubt very much whether we can proceed against rigorously without diminishing the population and stopping immigration which must be favored at a so tender stage of the country’s existence,” the directors admonished in 1663 after Stuyvesant banished a Quaker from the colony and spoke out against “sectarians.” “You may therefore shut your eyes, at least not force people’s consciences, but allow every one to have his own belief, as long as he behaves quietly and legally, gives no offense to his neighbor and does not oppose the government.”

Expedience thus became the watchword in cosmopolitan New Amsterdam, though it stood in constant tension with the established Dutch church. The priority of economics proved fortunate for the refugee Jews and the small group of immigrants from Holland who joined them. They benefited from their ties to powerful merchants of the “Hebrew Nation” back in Amsterdam and drew sustenance from the struggles of other minority faiths in the colony whose efforts were linked to their own. New Amsterdam’s Jews, like those of Trieste, Bordeaux, Amsterdam, London, and the Caribbean, were port Jews; they lived in societies that placed a premium on commerce and trade. This helps to explain the extraordinary privileges that they came to enjoy and the many “modern” features that distinguished their lives from those of the far more traditional Jews in Germany and Eastern Europe. Everywhere, the rights that port Jews battled hardest to obtain were civil and economic rights, not religious ones. Public worship, while desirable and available to Jews in cities like Recife and Amsterdam, was not, they knew, an absolute religious requirement. Granted the right to settle and trade openly, the Jews of New Amsterdam conceded to worship in private, just as enterprising religious dissenters did throughout Early Modern Europe.

From American Judaism by Jonathan D. Sarna published by Yale University Press in 2019. Reproduced with permission.

Jonathan D. Sarna is University Professor and Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and Chief Historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History.

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