Jewish New York: The Early Years

Challenges and triumphs since 23 Jews landed in New Amsterdam in 1654.

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Stuyvesant's recalcitrance and the extreme cold of New Amster­dam's winters led the Sephardic Jews to depart for Amsterdam, London, or the Caribbean, where relatives were better established. By 1663, the Torah scroll had been returned to Amsterdam. In 1664 a large British fleet forced Stuyvesant to surrender without firing a shot, and all residents who remained in what was now New York were required to sign an oath of allegiance to the English crown.

The one Jewish name on the list was Asser Levy's. He seems to have maintained the only Jewish presence of record in British New York until he was joined in 168o by relatives from Amsterdam. Levy's death on February 1, 1681/82 and burial in the old cemetery unques­tionably led Sephardi Joseph Bueno de Mesquita to purchase a sepa­rate burying ground for his own family and for a growing group of Sephardim in the community.

Creating a Synagogue

The earliest mention of Jewish worship dates to 1682, but public worship was proscribed until a decade later. A map from 1695 shows a rented synagogue location on Beaver Street; five years later the syn­agogue had moved to a house owned by John Harpendinck, shoe­maker, on Mill Street. By 1728, probably inspired by the erection of a number of churches, the Jewish community purchased a plot adjacent to the Harpendinck house and built America's first synagogue.

The papers of Nathan Simson, a former president of the congrega­tion who moved back to England in 1722, show that in his day the Ashkenazim already outnumbered the Sephardim. The new syna­gogue, completed in 1730, set the tone for colonial American Jewry by continuing to use the Sephardic form of worship already in place since the arrival of its first lay reader, Saul Brown (né Pardo). Why? Because the community was too small to underwrite the building fund and relied heavily on donations from the wealthier Sephardic communities.

The incumbent hazzan [cantor], Moses Lopez da Fonseca, was the son of Curaçao's rabbi. That community sent the most generous contribu­tion to New York with the stipulation that even though New York was full of "Tedeschi" (Portuguese for "Germans"), the gift was pred­icated on New York's using the Sephardic ritual. Although Nathan Simson had referred to the congregation as Shearith Jacob ("Remnant of Jacob"), its official title became Shearith Israel.

Another factor may have favored the maintenance of Sephardic custom: In the small town that New York was, Jews lived among non­-Jews, and the latter found Jews and Jewish worship of some interest. Sephardic worship, led by a hazzan, must have been considered more dignified for non-Jewish observers than the unstructured babel that was Ashkenazic worship.

The congregation, recognizing that the Ashkenazim were more versed in halakhah (Jewish law), engaged them for such synagogue functions as shohet and bodek (kosher butcher and inspector), and mohel (circumciser). However, for the conduct of worship the New York congregation sought Sephardim who could chant in the Sephardic mode. They were greatly assisted by the appearance in 1761 of an English translation of the Sephardic prayerbook for the eve of the holidays, followed five years later by a more complete prayer-book for the year, both presumably the work of Isaac Pinto, an edu­cated layman.

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Abraham J. Peck

Abraham J. Peck teaches in the Department of History, University of Southern Maine.