“The First Jewish Americans: Freedom and Culture in the New World,” the new exhibit at the New-York Historical Society, details the background, contributions and history of an essential thread in the American fabric.
In some 170 maps, books, paintings, devotional items and historic objects, the show offers an overview of how the history of Jews and those of Jewish descent is woven into the national tapestry.
Early Jews in the New World fleeing religious persecution faced more of the same, starting with a Mexican Inquisition in the 16th century. The cause was a small, three-volume manuscript in the exhibit – the autobiography of Luis de Caravajal the Younger. Collector Leonard L. Milberg, who lent some of his personal collection to the exhibit, called it “possibly the most important Jewish document from the New World.”
The manuscript detailed Caravajal’s secret efforts to keep Judaism alive - but it was a death sentence for him and his extended family. The text resurfaced years later at auction; Milberg arranged for its return to Mexico after the NYHS show ends, in honor of the Jews who perished.
America’s first Jewish immigrants – 23 Spanish and Portuguese Jews – arrived in New York in 1654 (over Peter Stuyvesant’s veto). Maps show the location of their cemeteries in lower Manhattan well before the first synagogue, Shearith Israel, opened.
“Settlements were often cemented by organizing burial grounds; they worshiped in their own homes,” explained Debra Schmidt Bach, a curator of decorative arts. “Jews weren’t allowed to build a freestanding public synagogue – Shearith Israel, which ultimately moved to the upper west side – until the early 18th century.” One map shows the location of the oldest existing Jewish cemetery, on Chatham Square.
The walls are lined with portraits of leading Jewish New Yorkers (Alexander Hamilton may have been one), a Torah from Shearith Israel that was burned by British soldiers but saved for its historic value, prayer books, English and Hebrew grammars (Hebrew was taught at Columbia and Hamilton was fluent in it) and an early marriage contract.
A freestanding display showcases Torah filial ornaments known as “Rimonim.” They’re in silver and gilded brass. Donated by Shearith Israel, the finials are a delicate, yet intricate tour de force by Myer Myers, one of the premiere silversmiths of his time, according to Bach. Not as well known today as Paul Revere, Myers was a gifted artisan patronized by leaders in New York society, including Livingston’s and Cornell’s.
Other sections of the exhibit highlight Philadelphia’s Jews. Portraits, documents and memorabilia from the Gratz brothers show their support of the Patriot cause. Niece Rebecca Gratz, delicately painted by Sully, was an early activist who founded the Hebrew Women’s Benevolent Organization, the first such organization in America. American history buffs will see Haym Solomon’s bound red leather portfolio holding the promissory note that he issued to the U.S. via Ben Franklin, to finance the Revolution.
Publishing is particularly well represented, with the first English language newspaper for Jews, the first English translation of the bible, Hebrew grammar books, scientific texts, and scripts of plays that brought a Jewish New York sensibility to the stage years before Neil Simon. One work, “Gotham and the Gothamites, A Medley, ” by Samuel Judah, skewered thinly disguised New York personalities and sparked a libel suit.
The exhibit concludes with two diametrically opposite facets of Jews in the New World: a life-size portrait of Uriah P. Levy, the first Jewish Commodore in the Navy, who helped end flogging on U.S. ships. He purchased Monticello as a gift to the nation. On the other end of the spectrum are two peaceful landscapes of his native St.Thomas, painted by Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro.
The show, open until Feb. 26, is based primarily on loans from the private collection of Leonard L. Milberg, the Princeton University Jewish American collection (a gift of Mr. Milberg), Shearith Israel, and the archives of the New York Historical Society. “The First Jewish Americans: Freedom and Culture in the New World” brings to life a compelling, inspiring and sometimes surprising journey toward assimilation by one group of America’s earliest immigrants.