We tend to think of the first Jews coming to America in the late 1800s, forced out of Eastern Europe by the pogroms, but Jews began emigrating to the Americas much earlier to seek religious freedom and economic opportunity. The first Jews settled permanently in New Amsterdam in 1654. By the time of the American Civil War, it is estimated there were 150,000 Jews living in America.
The first Jewish settlements in the New World were 17th-century offshoots of the Diaspora of Sephardic Jews, who traced their origins to Portugal and Spain, according to a Princeton University Library exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum. The exhibit, “By Dawn’s Early Light: Jewish Contributions to American Culture from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War,” on view February 13 through June 12, explores how, in the earliest days of the United States, Jews began to grapple with what it meant to be Jewish and American.
In response to the challenges of liberty, Jews adopted and adapted American cultural idioms to express themselves in new ways and, in the process, invented American Jewish culture. With more than 150 novels, poems, plays, newspapers, photographs, scientific treatises, religious works, and paintings produced by Jews in the early United States, the exhibition illuminates both the creativity of Jews in a new republic and the creation of a new Jewish culture.
“Living in an age when Jews are fully integrated into so much of America’s public and popular culture, it is difficult to imagine a time before they shone on the stage, screen, and printed page,” says curator Adam D. Mendelsohn in his catalog essay. Mendelsohn is director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and author of 2015 award-winning book “The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire” — or as a Wall Street Journal headline summed up the title: “Exiles’ Textiles Suit Gentile Styles.”
The materials for “Dawn’s Early Light” come largely from the Princeton University Library’s Leonard L. Milberg ’53 Jewish American Writers Collection, supplemented with materials from the Library Company of Philadelphia, American Jewish Historical Society, and Milberg’s personal collection. Milberg is chairman, and founder of Milberg Factors, a New York City-headquartered financial firm.
The books he began donating to the Princeton University Library in 1999 include works by Woody Allen, Hannah Arendt, Paul Auster, Saul Bellow, E.L. Doctorow, Jonathan Safran Foer, Allen Ginsburg, Joseph Heller, Lillian Hellman, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Dorothy Parker, Gary Schteyngart, Art Spiegelman, Wendy Wasserstein, C.K. Williams, and many others.
“This is a field in which a lot has been written,” Milberg said at the opening of his collection, “but there are still many questions to be answered.” Milberg’s prolific library gifts include collections of Irish theater and, in honor of poet and Professor Paul Muldoon, modern American and Irish poetry.
“I hope to demonstrate that America’s extraordinary and unique freedom of religion, speech, and movement — and also being a country offering economic opportunity and political participation to all — created an atmosphere which enabled Jews to thrive and consequently be able to contribute to America’s cultural life,” Milberg writes in the introduction to the exhibition catalog.
The Jews earliest to arrive in the New World settled in the Caribbean islands and South America. “Most of the newcomers were from German-speaking lands, but also from Russia, France, and England,” says Mendelsohn, the curator, a South Africa native. In distant outposts of British and Dutch empires, Jews could find more freedom than in Europe. Men and women could dream of prosperity, moving freely among port cities. Fashions, books, newspapers, ritual objects, kosher meat, and ideas traveled with them.
Without facing anti-Semitism, they developed strife of another kind: family feuds, business rivalries, and tensions between Sephardim (with roots in central Europe) and Ashkenazim (rooted in Eastern Europe).
Life for a Jewish artist in 18th-century America came with the same challenges as any other era. Isaac Mendes Belisario was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1795, but with his family he returned to England. He trained as an artist in London but worked as a stockbroker for much of his early career. Feeling a deep connection with the land of his birth, in the early 1830s he returned to a Jamaica that had newly extended full rights to Jews and began painting portraits and estate landscapes for clients full-time.
Hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes leveled cities, synagogues included, in the islands, and pleas to God to make it stop went unheeded. By the 1840s these Jews began migrating to North America, albeit retaining their Caribbean influence.
“As individuals, [Jews] were free to participate as full citizens in the hurly-burly of the new nation’s political and social life,” writes Mendelsohn. Although they were few in number, Jews in Colonial American attracted attention. The concept of the Promised Land in the Old Testament seemed like America itself. Although there was little in the way of cultural output among American Jews before the Revolutionary War, there were theologians who postulated that American Indians might be descended from one of the 10 lost tribes of Israelites. “Jewes in America, or, Probabilities that the Americans are of that Race,” written for the New England Missionary Society and published in 1650, makes such a case. In New England, however, Puritans largely abandoned the idea when they became better acquainted with their Indian neighbors.
In 1788 Presbyterian minister and scholar of Native American languages Jonathan Edwards Jr. wrote “Observations on the Language of the Muhhekaneew Indians,” drawing similarities between biblical Hebrew and Native American languages.
With the Jews came music. American Jews were composers and performers of classical music and opera. Henry Russell, who began life as Henry Levy, studied opera as a teenager in Italy before touring as America’s most popular balladeer. As the musical tastes of Jews evolved, Reform Judaism got its start when a Charleston synagogue installed an organ to accompany religious worship.
In order for Jewish identity to continue in this culture, pedagogical materials were developed to teach the Hebrew language and Jewish history that fathers had traditionally passed down to their children. Judah Monis, an Italian Jew who taught Hebrew at Harvard, wrote “A Grammar of the Hebrew Tongue” the year he converted to Christianity.
American Jews had little tradition of writing fiction and secular poetry at the dawn of the 19th century, even less so for women. Over the next five decades, authors began to experiment with genres and styles and the Jewish reading public expanded. Some of the new writing was for and by women. With new pressures on Jewish life, female writers could help female readers understand the world in which they were living. Male editors and publishers were interested in this poetry and prose that would entertain and edify American Jews, leading to an American Jewish literary revolution.
“Despite gender norms that severely circumscribed their opportunities in the public realm, several Jewish women played roles of outsized significance within the antebellum Jewish community,” says Mendelsohn. “In Philadelphia, many key initiatives that were later emulated elsewhere — Sunday schools, benevolent societies, sermons in the synagogue — bore the fingerprints of Rebecca Gratz (her painting by Thomas Sully is on the cover of the catalog).” Penina Moise, one of the first and most prolific female Jewish poets in antebellum American, opened new avenues for artistic endeavor, Mendelsohn adds.
“The two fields in which early American Jews were in the forefront were theater and publishing,” writes Milberg. “Jews were active in every aspect of the theater — opposing Protestant moral objections, building new theaters, acting, playwriting, criticism, and patronage.”
Jews participated in the political dialogue in this country as early as the 1700s. They vocalized their views in public but often turned to print. Jews played a prominent role in newspaper publishing, writing and editing works of general interest. But as the Jewish population grew dramatically and the steam-powered press made mass printing cheaper, publications related to Judaism and Jewish culture increased in number. And as Jews began turning away from the synagogue, some religious leaders used the Jewish press as a way to reach them.
It became a continuing struggle for religious leaders to keep Jews in the synagogue as they began affiliating with non-Jews. Even as Jewish immigrants began to arrive in increasing numbers, they were less inclined to be religious and were marrying outside of their faith in significant numbers. As Reform Judaism grew, services and prayer books were offered in English.
In 1818 Thomas Jefferson wrote that American Jews should pursue education as the most powerful antidote against prejudice. Areas of medicine and science opened to ambitious and inquisitive Jewish men — and they achieved renown in areas of innovation.
“The expanding network of steamboats and railroads allowed Jews to disperse throughout the continent,” says Mendelsohn. Though they arrived at the Atlantic port cities, they flocked westward for opportunity, and by the Civil War many Jews had found their way to California. They even traveled beyond America’s shores and produced maps and writing about their experiences so they could better understand and present the worlds they encountered.
“Jews joined in the California Gold Rush, but also tried their luck as peddlers and merchants in towns and villages across the continent,” says Mendelsohn. “As Jewish leader and newspaper editor Isaac Leeser wrote in 1843, ‘the country is fast filling up with Jews. The wandering sons of Israel are seeking homes and freedom.’ According to one estimate, by 1860 Jews lived in one thousand different cities and towns in the United States.”
When Charleston was the cultural center of American Jewry, two artists emerged from families with Sephardic ancestry. The first, Theodore Sidney Moise, was a self-taught portrait painter who developed a clientele among the rich and the powerful. He married an ardent Catholic, raised a Christian family, and threw his support behind the Confederacy when the South seceded. The other, Solomon Nunes Carvalho, was a daguerreotypist, photographing, sketching, and painting the western landscape and its inhabitants. He remained an Orthodox, despite persuasions from his father, and became a passionate Republican. The pairing of paintings by these two divergent artists shows the freedom available to Jews in antebellum America.
Jews were also subjects and muse. Rebecca Jackson Noah, a 17-year-old Ashkenazi Jew, married a 42-year-old Jew of Sephardic ancestry and had seven children in 15 years. She had her portrait painted by Jacob Hart Lazarus, student of Henry Inman and uncle of poet Emma Lazarus. Nearby is a discourse her husband delivered, proclaiming that Jews should consider agriculture, the importance of education, and religious fidelity.
Noah, one of the leading figures of the American Jewish community at the time, argued that the beliefs, customs, symbols, and tribal system of American Indians revealed their biblical heritage. If Native Americans were Jews, Noah maintained, Jews could say they were the first Americans.
America was never perfect, says Milberg; one of the last of his purchases was an 1850 anti-Semitic Mother Goose. But anti-Semitism “did not prevent Noah from being a successful newspaper man, a leading playwright, a lawyer, a judge, the American Counsel in Tunis, a prison reformer, the recipient of a letter from Thomas Jefferson, and one of the founders of New York University and the New York Museum of Natural History.”
By Dawn’s Early Light, Princeton University Art Museum. Through Sunday, June 12. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. Free. 609-258-3788 or www.artmuseum.princeton.edu.