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Old Jewish America


Colin points us to this piece on a declining Jewish cemetery in Curacao, threatened by the elements and the gigantic refinery built right next to it. As Colin notes for Latin America, there is a sizable Jewish history in the Americas that is often forgotten. This is also true in the United States, particularly in New York and Newport. In the latter, you can visit the Touro Synagogue, a still active synagogue which explains the history of 18th century Judaism in Rhode Island. The locations where you see an active colonial Jewish population are hardly coincidental. Basically, just follow the Dutch. There was a sizable Jewish population in New Amsterdam because of Dutch toleration. When the English took it over in 1664, rights for Jews, as well as for women and Africans, declined. Rhode Island is an exception to the Dutch trend, but then Rhode Island’s religious tolerance always made it unusual for the colonial world.

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  • The Dark Avenger

    Yes, I was surprised to find from my recent ‘filling in the gaps’ reading of Amurican history that the Puritans actually hanged a few Quakers in the 17th Century:

    in 1658, Plymouth Court ordered that any boat carrying Quakers to Sandwich be seized to prevent the religious heretics from landing. A year earlier, Quakers in Sandwich had established the first Friends’ Meeting in the New World. Magistrates in both Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies were alarmed by Quaker teachings that individuals could receive direct personal revelations from God. To protect orthodox Puritanism, the courts passed a series of laws forbidding residents from housing Quakers. Quakers themselves were threatened with whipping, arrest, imprisonment, banishment, or death. But driven by conscience, some Quakers repeatedly returned to Massachusetts to preach; four of them, including Mary Dyer, went to the gallows before a shocked King Charles ordered an end to the hanging of Quakers in 1661.

    • Something that should be said more in public discussions of American history is that the Puritans were fucking assholes.

      • Njorl

        William Penn, on the other hand, publicly affirmed the right of a woman to ride through the air on a broomstick if she so chose.

      • expatchad

        International assholes. That’s why they were here, away from civilization.

        But I was taught in elementary school that THEY WERE HEROES.

    • Marek

      There’s a statue of Mary Dyer at the State House. Just down from General Hooker.

      • Pestilence

        Ole ‘Fighting’ Joe would appreciate that, I’m sure :)

    • witless chum

      I’m always surprised by what people find surprising.

      • The Dark Avenger

        I find people who make fun of others unsurprising.

  • Penha

    Long time fan of LGM; first time commenter.
    As a descendent of the Curacao Sephardic Jewish community (father was born and raised in it, mom is American) I’m tickled to see Beth Haim suddenly getting press. Visiting the cemetery, which sits at the end of a long dirt path shooting off from the main “highway”, is a chilling experience. The roar of the refinery just over the stone wall completely dominates what otherwise would be a completely silent space.

    One thing that I’d like to mention about the Jewish community in the Dutch Caribbean and especially Curacao is the whole history of conversion/reversion and how that plays into modern “heritage tourism” rhetoric. As the story goes in my family and others like ours, Jewish families in early modern Iberia converted to Catholicism to avoid exile and lived for several generations as Conversos, only to then “rediscover” their Judaism once they found themselves in the relatively tolerant environment of the Dutch Caribbean, even though they weren’t circumcised (at the time) and likely had forgotten many of the rituals and traditions. Despite a completely separate history and a number of cultural idiosyncrasies which distinguished them sharply from other Jewish groups in Europe and (later) the USA, their story of resilience (not to mention the palatable tolerance of the Dutch) has been integrated into the itinerary for Western Jews seeking out “Jewish cultural heritage” experiences, downplaying the rather unique history. It doesn’t hurt that Curacao is also a sunny, warm Caribbean island with a robust and growing tourism industry and is therefore an attractive leisure destination for other reasons (neighboring Aruba is more developed/has better beaches, but the common conception is that Curacao has all the “history”).

    So, it’s just interesting to see how this history has, in some sense, been colonized by the larger narrative, along the same channels as the broader tourism industry. The community has been dwindling for years (I think it’s only in the few hundreds at the moment) and eventually the tourist sites will be all that’s left.

    • Lee

      The Curacao Jewish community provided the labor activist and anarchist Daniel De Leon to the world.

    • DrDick

      Heh. My parents met and married on Aruba (where I was conceived). My father occasionally talked about the Sephardic community when I was growing up.

  • snarkout

    A congratulatory letter from the Touro Synagogue was also the occasion for George Washington’s “Letter to the Jews of Newport”: The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.

  • DrDick

    While it seems incongruous now, the center of Jewish (mostly Sephardic) settlement in the US in the 18th and 19th centuries was Charleston, SC. It is only with the new waves of Ashkenazi immigrants from central and eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century that it shifts north.

    New genetic evidence also indicates a high proportion of Marranos (Spanish Jews who converted to Christianity) among the settlers of northern New Mexico. Their families had immigrated to Mexico to escape the scrutiny of the Inquisition and then moved to the northern frontier when the Inquisition came to Mexico. Many families still retain remnant Jewish traditions.

    • Lee

      NYC didn’t really become the Jewish capital of the United States until the great waive of Eastern European Jewish immigrants from the 1880s onward. Before that, the German Jews had a tendency to prefer the mid-West, the West, and Kentucky. Ohio had one of the largest Jewish populations in mid-19th century America.

      Eastern European Jews tended to prefer staying in New York or if not NYC, living in the established big cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore. LA was the only real “pioneer” destination that attracted a lot of Eastern European Jews.

      • John

        Yes, my ancestors were Ashkenazi Jews from Germany who came over in the mid-19th century and settled in the lower mid-West and, eventually, the middle South – my grandparents were born and grew up in Nashville. It’s a very different experience from either the turn of the century Eastern European one or the earlier Sephardic one.

        • DrDick

          There were large numbers in Texas as well. A friend in graduate school was a Dallas Jew and I had always assumed that, like most Jews in Dallas, his family had moved there in the 1920s and 1930s from the Midwest and Northeast. Came to find out that they had emigrated from Germany to Mexico in 1848 and moved north to the Rio Grande, where they became ranchers. The family still lives there and one of his uncles runs the ranch, though mostly they grow vegetables and fruit these days.

          • The Dark Avenger

            The aftermath of the attempts in 1848 at reform and revolution in Europe sent many Germans to America, including H. L. Mencken’s grandparents, AFAIK.

            • DrDick

              And my father’s ancestors.

    • I wish I had a link to provide, but I once heard an excellent CBC radio documentary on “hidden” jews in the South. They were Jewish at home with the shades drawn, but not in public.

      • DrDick

        One of the major sources on the Second Seminole War was written by Meyer Cohen, an officer in the South Carolina militia who fought there.

        • expatchad

          Irish in that part of the south ??!!

  • efgoldman

    How far we’ve come. Rhode Island now happily calls itself “The Most Catholic State in the Union.” We’re the last New England State without same sex marriage, and the Bishop thinks he’s at least as important as the Governor.
    Oh, and by the way, I’ve learned not to look for Passover and High Holy Day specials, in Stop & Shop’s weekly circular, at my local store (Lincoln, RI).

    • Supposedly, Massachusetts has recently passed Rhode Island for most Catholic state. I look forward to some real soul-searching here…

      • efgoldman

        Supposedly, Massachusetts has recently passed Rhode Island for most Catholic state.

        But I doubt that any MA politicians will proudly announce it.

      • Lee

        I wonder what the Puritans would make of this? It’d probably send them into fits.

        • expatchad

          Epileptic Puritans? What an image!

      • expatchad

        Do Catholics have souls?

    • UberMitch

      This is what happens when you let the micks in. They should have stopped my ancestors at the Massachusetts border.

      • efgoldman

        This is what happens when you let the micks in.

        In RI, its the Portugese and French Canadians, even though it seems now that the state is a satrapy of Italy.

  • Lee

    The first Jews in New Amsterdam where twenty-three refugees from Dutch Brazil, who left after the Portugese reconquest.

    Stuyvesent really didn’t want to let them in but his superiors at the Dutch West Indies Company made him because many investors in the company were Jews. Stuyvesent got New Amsterdam in order but he was a bigotted prick.

  • Njorl

    I must admit, I thought the Leonard Cohen video below went with this entry.

  • Sly

    The Touro Synagogue has an annual recitation of the 1790 letters between Moses Seixas and George Washington, the latter of which I think gives a more succinct defense of state secularism than Jefferon’s letter to the Danbury Baptists.

    • Lee

      Snarkout quoted a bit of it above. Its one of the most awesome letters written in American history.

  • Jim Lynch

    An old chestnut I never get tired of repeating: It’s a fact that Wyatt Earp converted to Judaism to insure that he would rest in peace alongside his longtime companion (wife?) in a Jewish cemetery. In turn, that has led some historians to contend the famous incident should therefore be referred to as ‘the gunfight at the oy vey corral’.

    • Lee

      Second wife, Josephine Marcus Earp.

    • expatchad


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