Friday, March 18, 2011

The fun of historical fiction: "creating" colonial Jewish New York

A native New Yorker, nearing completion of a historical novel about a Jewish family during the American Revolution, I had to "invent" colonial New York, which, unlike Philadelphia, has not been maintained or commemorated. Back then, at the beginning of the revolution, most New Yorkers resided in the sliver we now refer to as "Wall Street," meaning an area, not just the street. Uptown--north of 14th street-- the wealthy maintained their weekend "country" estates.

In researching colonial New York, I started with what little information I could garner, beginning with the natural landscape, albeit altered by landfill, but then, as now,  the confluence of the Hudson (then the "North") and East Rivers. I spent many an hour tracing the shoreline at the island's tip, examining the slant of the sun, the light on the water. I bought a collection of historical maps, spent many delightful hours in the New York Historical Society.

Modern New York is a "grid" city,  streets sliced by avenues, simple to navigate.  (Consider, by contrast, the  nightmare of Washington D.C.!!!) . But there are faint traces of colonial New York, way downtown, in the winding, narrow streets, now shadowed by tall buildings, law firms and investment houses that have not moved to the midtown.

My favorite street? Mill Street, the opening scene of my novel, then the site of the city's only synagogue, Temple Temple Shearith Israel. 

In colonial American, Jews were allowed to worship openly, there being at least one synagogue  in each "big" city.  But Jews could not hold public office, were barred from certain trades.  As was customary throughout their history, Jews became bankers, merchants, money lenders, "Shylocks."   Accumulating vast fortunes, most of these wealthy Jews supported the rebel cause when conciliation with the British failed.

Newspapers back then, to my vast disappointment, were no more than a series of published ads (horses for sale, even wives for sale), rather than actual news. But I did find some diaries in the historical society, documenting such eruptions as occurred on July 7, 1777, when broadsides announced that Congress had just passed the Declaration of Independence. New Yorkers, in typical spirit, marched down to Bowling Green, chanting revolutionary slogans, bursting through the gates of the iron-wrought fences that hugged a gilded statute of King George III.  "Off with his head," they shouted. And meant it: the toppled head was melted into bullets for New York's  meager defense. (The city was invaded in September 1776  and, vulnerable through many waterways, easily conquered by the all-powerful Royal Navy)

Here's some snippets from my book, describing colonial New York.  The date is March 9, 1976. Those who haven't fled wonder if the British will really invade the mostly-Loyalist city.  Half the city's population has already fled, the remainder waited.... (Forgive the formatting, I'm new to this.)

"As British sails enveloped New York Harbor and breezes stirred bare trees, a group of men lingered on the steps of Temple Shearith Israel, arguing about the fate of the colonies. Their wives and children, awaiting them, shivered in the adjoining cemetery, the sinewy branches of a willow tree slapping the lopsided tombstones, grazing the dead grass. Many of the congregants had fled to Connecticut, Philadelphia and Long Island. But the remainder insisted that British ships, which came and went, were like parents who were casting a watchful eye on their irascible children, but would never take a hand to them...."

And, a little later in that first chapter, as the realization of imminent attack dawns on the book's heroine, a description, derived in part from the historical society, of the boarded-up shops, the closed-down pubs.

"They continued, their legs in unison, along their path, turning onto a wide avenue.  They passed Broad Street’s once-busy shops, now boarded and abandoned, peering through the shattered windows of the Tarrytown Pub, a once-thriving public house where men would argue drunkenly about business and war.  The patrons were few, the room dark, save for the soupy light of a single candle that spiraled, in silvery threads, from a small glass.
Rebecca looked at her father’s profile, summoning her courage. “Your wife is hurt,” she said.
“My wife is dead,” Aaron replied, looking ahead.
Sarah is very much alive.”
He sighed, bowing his head. “’Honor thy Father.’”   
Rebecca ignored what now seemed a tired truism, stamped out by revolutionary thought. “Why did you marry her?” she asked.
He turned to look at her. “That question is inappropriate.”
“Not as long as you leave Sarah’s well-being to me,” Rebecca countered.
As her father’s face stung with shame, Rebecca felt suddenly uneasy, like a ship accidentally unmoored.
 “Your mother was a beautiful rose, whose stems pricked my fingers,” Aaron Gomez said, unable to meet his daughter’s prying gaze. “Sometimes a man just wants a daisy. ”
“Even daisies need sunshine,” Rebecca replied.
Up the East River, through the fog, she could make out the outlines of the East Ward docks, where merchant ships slumbered between stormy travels to Canada, the West Indies, and the East.  Further upriver, prostitutes mingled with bawdy sailors stinking of whiskey and the poor made their homes in the seaweed that spread beneath the mildewed docks. Though this part of the city was forbidden to proper women, three years earlier she and her mother had delivered freshly baked bread to hungry lips, performing the mitzvahs—the acts of charity-- required by Jewish law. Soon after, a wild fire had ravaged her mother’s brow and scabs crusted on her face. When Dr. Isaacs pounded his heavy boots against the groaning stairway, unable to meet the family’s gaze, Rebecca knew she would never see her mother again.
The lawn around Fort George, once green and lush, was scarred with muddy footprints. Once, fashionable couples—men in white wigs, ruffled shirts and velvet coats, women with high hair and sparkling gowns— would strut arm –in- arm along the now-empty esplanade, chatting in exotic tongues. But now, black threads, still tethered to uprooted tree trunks, spread in tangles across the yellow grass. Cannons glared out of circles in the brick walls of the Grand Battery, the fort originally built by the Dutch to protect the vulnerable tip of New York.
Cupping a hand above her eyes to block a sudden burst of sunlight, Rebecca shuddered. Something was missing. The British flag. She imagined a daring rebel yanking out this symbol of British sovereignty that had flaunted the city for as long as she could remember.
Now a different flag flapped its bravado.
Rebecca counted the horizontal red stripes. Thirteen. One for each colony. In the corner, a cluster of stars.
They continued their silent stroll, stopping at Bowling Green. Rebecca peered through the iron bars that hugged the gilded statue, a depiction of King George III barreling forward on his horse, his conquering sword piercing the air. Erected ten years earlier by supplicant New Yorkers grateful for the Stamp Act’s repeal, the statue portrayed King George III as a Roman emperor, fearless as Caesar himself.
They were nearing the tip of the harbor, where the Hudson and the East Rivers melded, flowing towards the Atlantic Ocean.  As a small child, Rebecca would watch the salty breezes unfurl the sails of merchant ships, propelling them in an easy glide, trailed by white-trimmed waves. Mesmerized, she would watch the ships fade into dots, gliding over the horizon’s edge.  She would imagine their sudden fall, as though from a cliff.
The sun, half-covered by a cloud, sprinkled light across the water’s glassy surface.  Rebecca stepped to the edge of the shore. She watched the inky water curl into waves, slapping pebbles with white foam, crashing  black rocks that jutted through the sand. Bubbles drained from the pebbles as the waves receded, returning the water to its source.
 “Let’s see what the Asia is up to today,” Aaron remarked, his hand shading his eyes as the sun emerged from a dark cloud. “If I’m not mistaken, it might be floating closer.” He dropped his hand, shook his head. “God only knows what others lie in wait beyond the horizon.”
 “The British mean us no harm,” Rebecca said, suddenly alarmed. “Or do they?”
Aaron Gomez said nothing, his eyes grazing the water, worriedly.
Rebecca followed his gaze, recalling her childhood fascination with the harbor. Though she understood now that ships do not drop off the horizon, that the earth is round, the harbor still filled her with child-like wonder and the waters still seemed to ripple toward eternity. Britain existed in its own sphere, far beyond the horizon, three thousand miles from the colonies. Rebellions might be squelched, but change was untamable.  Only one-third of the colonists were British-born.  The remainder sprang from fresh soil, hybrid plants shedding their parents’ features.  Americans weaved their own fabrics, made their own soap, baked their bread with corn, not flour, even shortened the vowels of the common language. Separation was inevitable.
But war?
Rebecca searched her father’s profile for a clue, but his gaze remained stuck, inscrutably, on the glassy water. “Father, speak to me,” she urged. “The British… Do they, or do they not, mean us harm?”
Aaron’s head slowly spiraled toward her, as though he had forgotten her presence. He sighed heavily, searching her face.  “I cannot decide whether to talk to you like a child or an adult,” he said.
 Rebecca laughed. “I think that decision has already been made.”
Aaron Gomez turned away, frowning at the sea, as though the force of his gaze was enough to hold back the approach of British ships. “I don’t enjoy having to tell you this,” he said, his head slowly turning towards Rebecca. The wind blew back his hair, threads of gray and black.
“Just tell me,” Rebecca said impatiently.
 “Alright,” he said, resignedly. “British ships will soon arrive here in droves.”
“But why?”
Her father bulged his eyes, befuddled by her naïveté. “To attack us, of course.”
“Attack New York?”

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