Sunday, June 12, 2011

America's First Jewish Settlers, Part I: Jews from Spain and Portugal

In September, 1654, on a warm sunny day, a ship known as the St. Catherine unloaded a group of refugees from Recife, Brazil onto the soil of Dutch-ruled New Amsterdam, the current New York City. Among these new immigrants, four men, six women and thirteen children were different from their shipmates: They were self-professing Jews. (Though this group of twenty-three is generally touted as the "first" Jews on American soil, in fact a handful of their co-religionists had preceded then, mostly Jewish traders from Dutch Brazil and the West Indies.)

This first group of Jews was not initially welcome on New York soil. Peter Stuyvesant, then governor or New Amsterdam protested to the Dutch West India Company that the new arrivals were a "deceitful race" whose "abominable religion worshipped at the feet of Mammon." Though permitted to remain, these Jews were not accorded any rights and could not build their own synagogue. This changed with the British conquest of 1664, the British governor decreeing that no legal disabilities should be visited upon a person "for differing in judgement in matters of religion." As per the ancient stereotype that has haunted Jews for millenia, British authorities valued Jews for their mercantile skills.

The story of the twenty-three Recife refugees and those that followed from the Dutch colonies and eventually Holland begins in the Iberian Peninsula, in Spain and Portugal, in the early 1400s.

Before that time, Jews had thrived for more than a thousand years of Muslim-Jewish co-existence in the Iberian peninsula. But this peace was shattered in the late 1300s when the Christians re-took Spain. Hundreds of Jews were slaughtered in anti-Jewish riots and thousands--later known as conversos--were forced to convert to Christianity. But even the threat of death could not stamp out the persistence of the Jewish faith. Some brave Jews, probably just a handful, remained openly Jewish, while among the conversos, many--the number is unknown-- continued to privately observe their faith. In 1492, the same year that Christopher Columbus set sail for "India," King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella formally expelled "all Jews and Jewesses of whatever age they might be" from their kingdom.

Spanish Jews then joined their co-religionists in Portugal, many of the conversos, relegating their faith to the "underground," passing their customs through the generations, privately observing Jewish rituals. But by 1497, these "Crypto-Jews" were likewise expelled by Portugal.

Among the hundreds of thousands expelled from Portugal, many of the exiled Jews fled into the welcoming arms of the Dutch, who valued the Jewish people--as per the age-old stereotype-- for their mercantile expertise, if not their religious practices. There, in tolerant Holland, these conversos built their own synagogue and, restored to their faith, "re-learned Judaism," some remarrying their spouses in Jewish ceremonies, others undergoing circumcision. Over time, as individual European countries began to "clamp" down on their own Jewish populations, Amsterdam became a mecca for still other fleeing Jews.

Among the Iberian Jews who sought refuge with the Dutch, a small group of settled in the Dutch "New World" colonies, such as Brazil. But that era was short-lived; on August 6, 1661, the Dutch surrendered Brazil to the Portuguese, once again forcing Jews to flee. Some settled in England, others in the Dutch settlements of Curacao and Cayenne, which promised religious tolerance.

But one group--the group of twenty-three--chose to head north to New Amsterdam. They, and the Jews of Spanish and Portuguese ancestry who later fled Europe came to be known as "Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation"--and later, as Sephardic Jews.

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