The early years of American Jewish History: Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society and the Minute Books of Congregation Shearith Israel.

Author:Rock, Howard B.

In 1892, in an event of great import, many of America's most prominent Jewish leaders and scholars, along with a few Christian historians, formed the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS). Their intent was to tell the story of American Jews with the same precision with which historians described American history. At the time the study of American Jewish history was rare and anecdotal; there were no figures that could be called "American Jewish historians." The society's objective was to provide both primary materials and firsthand interpretations of the American Jewish experience.1

The society was formed in the midst of the vast Eastern European immigration at the end of the nineteenth century but it was composed primarily of German Jews whose fathers or grandfathers had immigrated to the United States a half-century earlier. These German Jews were alarmed at the entry of hundreds of thousands of new Jewish immigrants, perceiving them as "noisy" and "unclean and unsophisticated." Both New York's [the] Jewish Messenger and Cincinnati's [the] American Israelite held this view. The Messenger cautioned against the admission of Russian Jewish peasantry into the United States and even advocated restricting their admission, though by the 1880s the newspaper accepted the "inevitable" and organized meetings to aid the immigrants. Even so, the Messenger continued to express concern about the radicalism of these newcomers and the nature of their synagogues. To demonstrate a different side to American Jewry, the Messenger's editor, Abram Samuel Isaacs, sought to publish biographies of distinguished American Jews. This ultimately led scholar Cyrus Adler and Reform Jewish leader Bernhard Felsenthal to urge that Jewish scholars "collect and sift all the materials concerning the history of the Jews and of Judaism in America" in a "scientific manner," and that the project be undertaken by men who "know what a scientific method is." An article in the North American Review, stating that the Jews were a "parasitic race" that had contributed little to America, particularly during the Civil War, gave further impetus to the movement. Thus, the communal leaders formed the American Jewish Historical Society in order to record and describe the contributions of Jews in the United States. As Harvard historian Charles Gross stated:

If we can show dearly ... what the Jews of this country have done, what they have contributed as citizens of the Republic, we shall accomplish a great work. We shall add not merely to the history of the United States, we shall add greatly to the welfare of the Jews in America. The object of this Society should be to reveal the past of the Jews of this country, the past in all directions, but particular attention should be paid to what the Jews have accomplished as citizens of the United States.... They have been ready to offer up life and fortune ... [and they have been] patriots in time of war and philanthropists in time of peace. (2) The society chose for its first president Oscar S. Straus, "a man sufficiently prominent and interested to head the new institution." Born in Germany and raised in Georgia, Straus moved to New York City after the Civil War where he received a law degree. His was a distinguished family: his brother was co-owner of Macy's Department Store and his grandson would become a founder of the publishing company Farrar, Straus and Giroux. From 1887 to 1889 and from 1898 to 1899, Strauss served as the United States' Minister to the Ottoman Empire. The highpoint of his career came when President Theodore Roosevelt selected him to be the U.S Secretary of Commerce and Labor, thus making him the first Jewish U. S. Cabinet member. Straus became president of the AJHS between his two assignments to the Ottoman Empire. (3)

One of the AJHS's vice presidents was Paul Leicester Ford, a descendant of John Quincy Adams and a prominent American biographer of Jefferson, Franklin and Washington. The corresponding secretary, Dr. Adler, the most important member of the society, had served as a distinguished professor at Johns Hopkins University and then as the librarian at the Smithsonian Institute where he taught Semitic languages and wrote articles on comparative religion, Assyriology and Semitic philology. He would later become president of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America but he was at the Smithsonian when the AJHS was founded. Dr. Herbert Friedenwald, the AJHS's Recording Secretary, who had also earned his doctorate at Johns Hopkins, was a historian of early America, specializing in the Continental Congress. He became the first superintendent of the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress, a position he held at the founding of the AJHS. American Semitics scholar Dr. Richard Gottheil served as the society's treasurer. The executive board included Semitic-language scholar Dr. Morris Jastrow of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Mayer Sulzberger who ultimately gave his prized library in Judaica to the Jewish Theological Seminary; lawyer and historian N. Taylor Phillips; Simon Wolf, annalist of American Jewish soldiers in the Civil War, and immigration attorney and author/historian Max Kohler, who wrote on Haym Salomon, Rebecca Franks, and the Dreyfuss Affair. (4)

The first issue of the AJHS's official journal, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society (PAJHS), the precursor of American Jewish History, opened with Straus's inaugural address as president of the society. Straus declared that the object of the new society was "not sectarian, but American--to throw an additional ray of light upon the discovery, colonization and history of our country. He said that American history revealed "a new world, full of new opportunities ... dedicated to liberty and man," and that history was "prospective and retrospective," looking backward to guide the future. In American history "every nation, race and creed which contributed towards building up this great continent and country should, from motives of patriotism," gather up its records to better show the forces that had made "our national and political existence." Unfortunately, many "so-called historians," whose "convictions" were shaped by "the deep-rooted prejudices of the day," had produced "perversions" of early American history. The AJHS would correct this picture, broadening the history of the United States by including "actors and forces that have been overlooked, or, for other reasons, have escaped the searching eye of the historian." (5)

The PAJHS followed its publication of Straus's presidential address with articles on the settlement of Jews in Georgia, the establishment of Kahal Kadosh Mikveh Israel of Philadelphia, the beginning of New York's Jewish history and two pieces on Philadelphia by American Orientalist Morris Jastrow. Adler, Kohler, Friedenwald and Phillips all published articles in the PAJHS. These were often collections of primary sources, in some cases with analysis. The publication of memoirs, minutes, correspondence and other invaluable items also opened up the early American Jewish world to fresh interpretation.

Of the first twenty-five annual issues of the PAJHS, none was more important than that of 1913, since it contained copies of the minutes of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York covering the years from 1727 to 1786. The city's prominent Jewish citizens had founded the congregation, which rented a house on Mill Street for religious services, early in the eighteenth century under the name Shearith Jacob Synagogue. The members reorganized the congregation in 1728 as Shearith Israel (still an active synagogue) and erected the first synagogue building in the thirteen original colonies, also on Mill Street, in 1730. The congregation's minutes open a door onto the communal, religious, social and economic lives of this community. While the complete story demands many other records and manuscripts, the publication in the PAJHS of "The Earliest Extant Minute Books of the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, 1728-1786" and "From the 2nd Volume of Minute Books of the Congn: Shearith Israel in New York" marked a signal moment in American Jewish history. Both the historian and the public could view the most important documents of a maturing early American Jewish community. (6)

The Early Years: 1728-1740

For the New York Colony, the decade prior to the 1730s was an era of "relative prosperity and growing proliferation of commercial interest groups." By the mid-1720s imports to the city reached as high as 85,000 [pounds sterling] while exports generally totaled between 20,000 [pounds sterling] and 38,000 [pounds sterling]. New York City's population had grown by more than 40 percent since the early decades of the eighteenth century and by 1730 was nearing 8,500, rising to about 10,000 by the end of the decade. (About 12 percent of the population was black, many of them enslaved). Historian Leo Hershkowitz described New York in the mid eighteenth century:

The city, a brawling town barely removed from the frontier, yet with pretensions to commercial and urbane greatness, was divided into seven wards ... The residential district did not extend much beyond Wall Street [the northern border of Dutch New Amsterdam], and was a mixture of warehouses, stores, small stone Dutch-gabled houses, wooden frame and black and red brick houses, a well as a number of new Georgian mansions. Pavements or cobbled streets were almost non-existent, Water supply and sanitation were not very adequate and police and fire protection primitive. Street vendors, including Indians selling farm produce, were much in evidence as were a multitude of craftsmen, artisans, bondsmen, indentured servants and slaves. There were cries of hawkers, the color of British uniforms, swaggering sailors, fulsome merchants and ... taverns, brawls and bawdy women. New Yorkers...

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