According to the terms of the capitulation protocol of January 26, 1654, Portugal decreed that Jewish and Dutch settlers had three months to leave Brazil. Approximately 150 Jewish families of Portuguese descent fled the Brazilian city of Recife, in the state of Pernambuco. By September, twenty-three of these refugees had established the first community of Jews in New Amsterdam.
Known as Sephardim (Jews of Spanish-Portuguese extraction), theirs was a complex saga. In December 1496, King Manuel I of Portugal decreed that all Jews leave Portugal by October 1497, causing many to flee to Holland where a climate of acceptance prevailed. From there, some migrated to Pernambuco, a colony of the Dutch West India Company in modern-day Brazil. The community flourished until the Dutch eventually surrendered Pernambuco to the Portuguese and the Sephardim were again forced to flee.
After being driven ashore in Jamaica by Spanish ships, twenty-three members of the community, along with a group of Dutch Calvinists, made their way to New Netherland (New York)—another colony run by the Dutch West India Company. Peter Stuyvesant governor of New Netherland, feared that the indigent newcomers would burden the colony but when he motioned to eject the Jewish newcomers the Company refused his petition (many of the company’s shareholders were Jewish).
Shearith Israel Cemetery dates from the 1600s and contains the tombstone of Benjamin Bueno de Mesquita, a member of both the Recife, Brazil, and New Amsterdam Jewish communities.
The immigrants settled in the colony and soon formed Congregation Shearith Israel although the first synagogue was not built until 1730. Their community maintained traditions of Iberian origin and contributed richly to the growth of the colony. Around 1734 Isaac Mendes Seixas, born in Portugal, arrived in New York from London. His son, Benjamin Mendes Seixas, was one of the founders of the New York Stock Exchange.
By the time of the Revolutionary War, it is estimated that there were several hundred Portuguese (from every small town of the Azores Islands, Madeira, and the Portuguese mainland), both Christians and Jews, in the colonies. A number fought in the Revolution, including Jacob and Solomon Pinto, Jewish brothers who settled in New Haven in the 1750s. About fifteen percent of the enlisted personnel on board the first warship to fly the Stars and Stripes, the Bonhomme Richard, captained by John Paul Jones, were Portuguese.
While Hebrew was the language of prayer for the Congregation Shearith Israel (popularly known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue), Sephardic rites of worship were used during its first decades. Synagogue accounts were kept in Portuguese. By the middle of the 1700s, however, both Portuguese and Spanish gave way to English. Nevertheless, the group’s unique synagogue architecture, liturgical music, and lifestyle remained strong.
Amongst the nearly thirty million immigrants who poured into the U.S. between 1880 and 1925 were some 30,000 Sephardim. Many settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. During that same period nearly two million Ashkenazim—Jews mainly of Russian, German, and Polish descent with different religious and cultural traditions—also arrived in the U.S. Another wave of both Sephardic and Ashkenazi peoples emigrated at the time of World War II.
During the twentieth century both groups saw their old world languages and many of their folkways blend into the English-speaking American mainstream. Nevertheless, when the congregation assembles in the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue at 70th and Central Park West in New York it represents an unbroken line from the from the community that originated in 1654.
- See the online exhibition The Portuguese in the United States, developed by the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress.
- Search on the term immigrants or lower east side in the collection The Life of a City: Early Films of New York, 1898-1906 to see images of individuals who emigrated to the U.S. at the turn of the nineteenth century. See, for example, Emigrants Landing at Ellis Island or New York City “Ghetto” Fish Market, both from 1903.
- See the Immigrant Arrivals: A Guide To Published Sources from the Library’s Local History and Genealogy Reading Room. The Reading Room’s homepage also includes a link to JewishGen®, Inc. External, an Internet source connecting researchers of Jewish genealogy.
- See the online exhibition From Haven to Home marking 350 years of Jewish life in America. For example, Haven contains images that reflect Sephardic life in colonial times. A timeline beginning in 1492 presents both a chronology and illustrations of world events, American, and American-Jewish events.
- Early Virginia Religious Petitions: A Collaborative Project between The Library of Congress and The Library of Virginia presents petitions submitted to the Virginia legislature between 1774 and 1802 from more than eighty counties and cities. The petitions, from Christian churches, concern such topics as the historic debate over the separation of church and state championed by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, and the rights of dissenters such as Quakers and Baptists.
- The Yiddish theater developed as a uniquely American form in the Eastern European Jewish immigrant community in New York City during the early twentieth century. See Yiddish-Language Playscripts, a section of American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920, for unpublished manuscripts like Moishe the Fiddler: a Beadle and Musician (Moyshe der fidler: a shames un a klezmer) or Green Millionaire, a vehicle for Boris Thomashefsky, a driving force in Yiddish theater and director of the Anglo-Jewish theater unit of the Federal Theater. Also see the special presentation on Yiddish playscripts.
- The online exhibition Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, demonstrates that many of the colonies were settled by men and women of deep religious convictions who had crossed the Atlantic Ocean to practice their faiths freely. Part Two of the section America as a Religious Refuge: The Seventeenth Century contains information on the founding of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. Between the 1820s and 1880s the Congregation Shearith Israel assumed trusteeship of the Touro Synagogue.
- Search across American Memory on the term Portuguese or Brazilian for a assortment of information ranging from gunboats to embroidery stitches, including a 1767 Portuguese dance manual, and a piece of 1914 sheet music entitled “Bregeiro.”
- Also learn more about the holdings of The Hebraic Section of the Library of Congress.