From the time of its discovery, America has been a haven for Europe's oppressed and persecuted. In 1492, the same year that Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World, the Spanish Inquisition reached its apogee. Spain expelled its Jews, and, five years later, Portugal followed suit. The remnants of Iberian Jewry found refuge in the cities and towns of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East, and, in the first half of the seventeenth century, some of their descendants established communities in Dutch-ruled Brazil.
In 1654, Portugal recaptured Brazil and expelled its Jewish settlers. Most returned to Holland or moved to Protestant-ruled colonies in the Caribbean. A group of twenty-three Jewish refugees, including women and children, arrived in New Amsterdam hoping to settle and build a new home for themselves. In the years that followed, the growing Jewish community pressed the authorities to extend to them rights offered to other settlers, including the right to trade and travel, to stand guard, to own property, to establish a cemetery, to erect a house of worship, and to participate fully in the political process.
For Jews, the promise of America was deeply rooted in its commitment to religious liberty. George Washington's declaration in 1790 to the Newport Hebrew Congregation that this nation gives "to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance," provided the Jewish community with an early assurance of America's suitability as a haven.
References to Columbus's voyages and to his "discoveries" are recorded in a number of early Hebrew printed books as well as in other works by Jews related to navigation and exploration. For Jews forced to practice their faith in secret, the New World offered the prospect of practicing Judaism in the open. Other Jews saw in the newly discovered lands possibilities for economic opportunity and adventure, while some, like sixteenth-century scholar and geographer Abraham Farissol, may have seen the discovery of the New World as a harbinger of the messianic era.
Astronomical Tables for Columbus
These tables prepared by astronomer and rabbi, Abraham Zacuto, were published in 1496 by the last of the Jewish printers in Portugal, Abraham Orta, one year before the Jews were expelled. Christopher Columbus is reported to have used astronomical tables prepared by Zacuto on his journeys of exploration.
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The First Biography of Columbus in a Hebrew Book
The lower portion of the Latin commentary on the right-hand side of this page provides the first description of Christopher Columbus and his discoveries in a Hebrew book. The notation about Columbus is a digressive comment occasioned by the words "the end of the earth" in verse 4 of chapter 19 of the Psalms. The learned commentator was eager to inform the reader of the intrepid Genoese who had encountered "the ends of the earth."
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A "Map" of the New World in an Early Hebrew Book
In this pioneering work on geography, the shield-like figure is labeled "New Land" in Hebrew,. The author, Abraham Farissol, informs the reader of "the three areas of habitation, Asia, Africa and Europe . . . also of the far-off islands recently discovered by the Portuguese . . . of the River Sambatyon, and of unknown places where Jews reside, the borders of the Land of Israel and "Paradise on earth" and of the discovery of a New World, a fourth area of habitation" Some have interpreted Farissol's interest in the newly discovered lands as a sign of his belief in the imminence of messianic redemption.
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An Early View of Dutch Recife
The title page of this early work on Dutch Brazil includes an engraved map featuring a view of Recife. This book was published in Amsterdam in 1652--just two years before the Portuguese conquered Recife and its Jews were expelled.
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"To Bigotry, No Sanction"
For Jews, the promise of America was deeply rooted in its commitment to religious freedom. The correspondence in 1790 between Moses Seixas, on behalf of Newport's Hebrew Congregation, and George Washington, in which Washington wrote that the United States gives "to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance," affirmed this commitment. In an 1818 letter from Thomas Jefferson to Mordecai Manuel Noah, Jefferson noted that "more remains to be done, for altho' we are free by law, we are not so in practice." In the more than two hundred years that have followed Washington's letter, America's Jews have communicated often with their elected representatives, including presidents, to ensure that the promise of America was realized in practice.
The Hebrew Congregation of Newport Writes to George Washington
The Hebrew Congregation (Jeshuat Israel) in Newport, Rhode Island, presented this congratulatory address on behalf of "the children of the stock of Abraham" to President George Washington on August 17, 1790. The address, signed by Moses Seixas, marked the occasion of the president's visit to Newport. Seixas's text refers to past persecutions of the Jews and then lauds the new nation's commitment to religious liberty. He writes: "Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free citizens, we now . . . behold a government erected by the Majesty of the People--a government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance. …"
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President Washington Responds
President Washington sent a gracious reply in 1790 to the Newport Hebrew Congregation for their congratulatory message sent on August 17, 1790. This copy of Washington's outgoing correspondence records the president's words as they echo those of Moses Seixas: "It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it was the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving in all occasions their effectual support."
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Jefferson on Religious Pluralism
Jacob De La Motta, a native of Savannah, received a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania. De La Motta eventually returned to Savannah and established a successful medical practice. In 1818, he delivered a discourse on the dedication of Savannah's first synagogue in 1820. De La Motta sent a printed version of his 1820 discourse to Thomas Jefferson, who responded with comments on the true meaning of religious liberty in a pluralistic democracy: "The maxim of civil government being reversed in that of religion, where it's [sic] true
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Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) to Jacob De La Motta (1789-1845). Manuscript letter, September 1, 1820. Thomas Jefferson Papers. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (8)
Jacob De La Motta (1789-1845). Discourse, Delivered at the Consecration of the Synagogue of the Hebrew Congregation. Savannah: Russell & Edes, 1820. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (8A)
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Maryland's "Jew Bill"
Maryland's constitution, adopted in 1776, required that public office holders declare their belief in the Christian religion. Beginning in 1818, Jews and liberal Christians endeavored to amend this law through what became known as a "Jew Bill"--a bill that extended to Jews rights formerly reserved only for Christians. Displayed here are printed compilations of speeches in favor of the Jew Bill by H.M. Brackenridge and William Worthington. Brackenridge noted that his address in 1818 was "published by the Jews of Baltimore and widely circulated." In arguing for passage of the bill, Worthington cited George Washington's 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport to prove that religious freedom was one of the nation's core principles. After eight years of persistent advocacy, the Jew Bill was passed in 1826.
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William G.D. Worthington. Speech on the Maryland Test Act 1824. Baltimore, 1824: Printed by W. Wooddy. General Collections, Library of Congress (9)
H.M. Brackenridge (1786-1871). Speeches on the Jew Bill in the House of Delegates of Maryland by H.M. Brackenridge, Col. W.G.D. Worthington, and John S. Tyson, Esquire. Philadelphia: J. Dobson, 1829. General Collections, Library of Congress (10)
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Making a Community
The early Jewish settlers made considerable efforts to fulfill individual and communal religious obligations. They erected synagogues, published books, and created ritual objects--activities testifying to the deep pull of tradition as well as the powerful hold of community. The life of Abigail Franks, colonial Jewry's great letter writer, embodies the tension between adherence to Jewish traditions and full participation in society-at-large-- a tension that has characterized the Jewish encounter with America from the earliest days to the present.
New York in the Mid-Eighteenth Century
This early map of New York reflects the extraordinary diversity of the city in the eighteenth century and its hospitality to newcomers. The map provides locations for the houses of worship of Quakers, Lutherans, Catholics, Moravians, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Jews. Marked on this map is the Mill Street location of America's first synagogue, Shearith Israel (The Remnant of Israel). Though the congregation continues to this day, neither the original synagogue building nor the street on which it was located has survived.
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The Bay Psalm Book
Printed by Stephen Daye in 1640, the Bay Psalm Book is the first book printed in the English settlements of America. Displayed here is its preface, which includes five Hebrew words, three of which--the Hebrew words for psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs--are displayed on this page. This marks the first appearance of Hebrew in a work printed in what is now the United States.
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A Seventeenth-century Torah Scroll
This Torah scroll was most likely penned in Amsterdam, in the Spanish and Portuguese style, based on a seventeenth-century typographic font. When Jews returned to England, this variation of the Sephardic script was utilized by Torah scribes there as well as by the earliest American scribes. The leftmost column on display here includes the Hebrew verse from the Book of Leviticus, chapter 25, verse 10, "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof," which is inscribed on Philadelphia's Liberty Bell.
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Colonial Torah Ark Lintel
In colonial times, when synagogues were scarce, traditional Jews in cities without synagogues conducted prayer services in their homes. This hand-carved wooden lintel was affixed horizontally above the opening of Joseph Simon's personal Torah ark in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In the lintel's center is a depiction of the two tablets symbolizing the Decalogue (the ten commandments) and below it the Hebrew saying, "Know before Whom you are standing," a phrase that often appears in synagogues on the ark lintel or above the reader's lectern.
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Colonial Silversmith Myer Myers
Born in New York in 1723, Myer Myers was a skilled silver and goldsmith who created the first American examples of Jewish ceremonial objects. He served as president of New York's Congregation Shearith Israel three times and created silver rimonim (Torah finials) for synagogues in New York, Newport, and Philadelphia. Displayed here are the finials belonging to Newport's Touro Synagogue, which would have been placed over the handles of the scroll as adornment.
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The First Published Jewish Sermon
This, the first American Jewish sermon to be published, was preached at Newport's synagogue by an emissary from the Holy Land, Haim Isaac Karigal. The sermon was delivered on May 28, 1773, to celebrate Shavu'ot, one of the three Jewish pilgrimage festivals. The sermon, which was preached in Spanish interspersed with Hebrew, was translated into English by Abraham Lopez.
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A Mustard Pot Becomes an Etrog Holder
This silver mustard pot was transformed by New York's Gomez family into a Jewish ceremonial object when they used it to store the etrog (citron), a central component of the holiday of Sukkot, which celebrates the fall harvest.
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An Early Map of Newport, Rhode Island
This early hand-colored map of Newport, Rhode Island was produced in London in 1777. Referenced on the map are the houses of worship of the various religious groups present in Newport at the time, including Catholics, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers, and Jews.
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Newport's Jeshuat Israel (Touro) Synagogue
Designed by noted colonial architect Peter Harrison and opened in 1763, the Jeshuat Israel synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, renamed Touro Synagogue in the nineteenth century, is the oldest standing synagogue in the United States. On the occasion of its designation as a "National Historic Site" in 1946, President Harry S Truman wrote, "The setting apart of this historic shrine as a national monument is symbolic of our national tradition of freedom, which has inspired men and women of every creed, race, and ancestry to contribute their highest gifts to the development of our national culture."
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Seixas Family Circumcision Set
These circumcision implements belonged to members of the Seixas family, which traced its roots to Portugal and England before arriving in New York in the first half of the eighteenth century. The trunk and its implements were fashioned over time and crafted in different locales, reflecting both the migrations of the Seixas family and its adherence to one of Judaism's defining commandments: "every male among you shall be circumcised." (Genesis17:10).
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Reverend Seixas Preaches a Sermon
Gershom Mendes Seixas, the hazzan (leader of the synagogue service) of the Shearith Israel Congregation, New York, left the city because of the British occupation during the Revolutionary War and did not return until after its liberation. Seixas introduced the practice of delivering occasional sermons into the American synagogue service, adapting it from Protestant churches where it was a major component of the weekly church service.
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A Hebrew Grammar for Harvard Students
The first Hebrew grammar published in America, its title page shown here, was issued in 1735 specifically for "the … use of the students at Harvard-College at Cambridge, in New-England," for whom Hebrew was a required subject. On converting to Christianity, the grammar's author, Judah Monis, was appointed to the faculty of Harvard College. One thousand copies were printed, a large edition for an early eighteenth-century American publication.
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Haym Salomon's Ketubah
This ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) records the 1777 marriage of Haym Salomon and Rachel Franks in New York. Born in Poland, Haym Salomon arrived in New York in the mid-1750s. He was a prominent supporter of the American cause during the Revolutionary War, and, after the war, he became an important merchant and financier in Philadelphia.
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A Portrait of Abigail Franks
Colonial Jewry's great letter writer, Abigail Franks, embodied both a commitment to Jewish tradition and customs, as well as an independent spirit that sought a Judaism without "superstition" and "idle ceremonies." But the costs of America's open society were high. In this letter to her son Naphtali, she wrote of her shock and despair on learning of her daughter's secret marriage to a non-Jew: "Good God Wath a Shock it was when they Acquanted me She had Left the House and Had bin Married Six months I can hardly hold my Pen whilst I am writting it. … My Spirits Was for Some time Soe Depresst that it was a pain for me to Speak or See Any one."
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American School, New York. Abigail Franks(1696-1756), ca. 1740. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society, New York and Newton Centre, Massachusetts (24)
Abigail Franks (1696-1756) to Naphtali Franks (1715-1796). Letter, June 7, 1743 [written from "Flatt bush"]. Courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society, New York and Newton Centre, Massachusetts (25)
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First Hebrew Bible Printed in America
The first complete Hebrew Bible in America appeared in a two-volume edition published in Philadelphia in 1814 by Thomas Dobson, using text prepared by Jonathan (Jonas) Horwitz. Unlike the Amsterdam edition upon which it is based, this printing lacks vowel points. It is open to the first page of Bereshit (Genesis).
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Portrait of Uriah Phillips Levy
An officer in the United States Navy, Uriah P. Levy fought in the War of 1812 and rose to the rank of flag officer of the Mediterranean squadron. He was a vigorous campaigner against flogging as punishment in the Navy. In 1836, he purchased "Monticello," Thomas Jefferson's home, and, with his nephew, was instrumental in preserving it as a national monument.
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An Illuminated American Ketubah
One of the earliest known examples of an American illuminated marriage contract, this ketubah celebrates the wedding of Meir Meyerstone and Rebekah De Meza on November 7, 1819. The two witnesses are well known in the annals of American Jewish history. Ephraim Hart (1747-1825) was a wealthy stockbroker who came to New York from Bavaria shortly before the Revolution. He served at Congregation Shearith Israel in New York in various capacities, including president. The second witness, Moses Levi Maduro Peixotto (1767-1828), a member of a distinguished Sephardi family, was a merchant who led the synagogue service of Shearith Israel from 1816-1828.
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Charleston's Beth Elohim Synagogue
Painter and printmaker John Rubens Smith drew this pencil sketch of the first Beth Elohim synagogue building in Charleston, South Carolina, which was consecrated in 1794. The exterior of the synagogue, which resembled a church in the Georgian style, reflected the community's efforts to blend into the surrounding environment. The building burned to the ground in 1838.
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Interior of Beth Elohim Synagogue
Solomon Carvalho's painting from memory of the interior of the Beth Elohim Synagogue shows an interior that conforms to the Sephardic tradition, with men's seating on the ground floor facing the reader's desk in the center and accommodations for women located in the upstairs gallery. American Reform Judaism traces its origins to the Beth Elohim congregation, when a group of synagogue members withdrew from the synagogue in 1825 and established the Reformed Society of Israelites, which survived for about thirteen years.
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Bird's Eye View of Charleston
This 1872 map of Charleston reflects a nineteenth-century trend in American mapmaking that featured "bird's-eye" views prepared for towns and cities across the nation. The map shows the location of Charleston's "Sinagogue" (no. 45) and the Hebrew Orphan Asylum (no. 85), which was incorporated in 1802 as the first American Jewish orphan care agency.
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First Published Work by an American Jewish Woman
Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Penina Moise became a widely published author and poet. A deeply religious woman, she composed hymns for use in prayer service as well as this book of poetry, which includes poems on biblical themes and on contemporary Jewish life. Few copies survive of Moise's collection of verse entitled Fancy's Sketch Book, which was the first book by a Jewish woman in the United States.
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A Portion of the People
Isaac Harby of Charleston protested the removal of Mordecai Manuel Noah from his post as consul to Tunis because he was a Jew, arguing in a letter to Secretary of State James Monroe, Harby writes: "It is upon the principle, not of toleration . . . but upon the principle of equal inalienable, constitutional Rights, that we see Jews appointed to offices, that we see them elected in our State Representation, & that, in proportion as their talents and their influence can bear them through, we see their mingling in the honours of their country. They are by no means to be considered a Religious sect, tolerated by the government; they constituted a portion of the people."
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"… For Altho' We Are Free by the Law, We Are Not So in Practice"
Mordecai Manuel Noah was the first Jew born in the United States to reach national prominence. In his letter to Noah dated May 28, 1818, former President Thomas Jefferson sheds light on the nature of democracy, the frailty of human character, the power of the human spirit, and his own faith in humankind. Jefferson cautions, however, that: "More remains to be done, for altho’ we are free by the law, we are not so in practice."
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Portrait of Mordecai Manuel Noah
This portrait of Mordecai Manuel Noah appears as the frontispiece of a work describing his brief but eventful tenure as Consul to the Kingdom of Tunis. Noah was removed from this position allegedly because, in the words of Secretary of State James Monroe, his religion was "an obstacle to the exercise of [his] Consular function." The firing caused outrage among Jews and non-Jews alike.
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An Early American Zionist Treatise
In this work, Mordecai Manuel Noah proclaimed his faith that the Jews would return and rebuild their ancient homeland. Noah called on America to take the lead in this endeavor.
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Noah Attacked on the Steps
This curious broadside depicts Noah being attacked by Elijah J. Roberts, a former business associate, on the steps of a theater. A placard on the theater reads: "THE JEW, 1 Act of the HYPOCRITE, End with the farce of THE LIAR"--which seems more critical of Noah than of his attacker.
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