COVER STORY:American Jewry at 350

waltham, mass. | About 350 years ago, in 1654, a small vessel named the Ste. Catherine, or St. Catrina, sailed into the port of New Amsterdam.

Most of the ship’s passengers — “23 souls, big and little,” according to an account at the time — were bedraggled Jewish refugees from Recife, Brazil, who had been expelled when the Portuguese recaptured the South American colony from the Dutch.

The refugees were not the first Jews to arrive in North America. In 1585, a Jew named Joachim Gaunse served as the metallurgist and mining engineer for the ill-fated English colony on Roanoke Island. Thereafter, a small number of other Jews, mostly intrepid merchants bent on trade, made brief stops at American ports to conduct business.

However, the “big and little” refugees from Recife differed from the Jews who came before them. Though economically ruined, they sought to settle down and form a permanent Jewish community in North America, to “navigate and trade near and in New Netherland, and to live and reside there.”

Much can be learned from the experience of America’s earliest Jews. For one thing, they displayed political savvy in fighting for their rights and illustrated by personal example the principle that “all Israel is responsible for one another.”

Helped by their fellow Jews back in Amsterdam, among them “principal shareholders” in the Dutch West India Co. that controlled New Amsterdam — which later became known as New York — they succeeded in overcoming a series of legal and political obstacles, including fierce opposition from the colony’s anti-Jewish governor, Peter Stuyvesant.

Over Stuyvesant’s objections, they won the right to set down roots in New Amsterdam, specifically the right to “travel, trade, live and remain,” provided that “the poor among them shall not become a burden to the company or to the community, but be supported by their own nation.”

No less important a theme from 1654 is the fact that the Dutch authorities, forced to choose between their economic interests and their religious sensibilities, voted with their pocketbooks in allowing Jews to remain — a significant sign of modernity.

The Jews’ usefulness — the fact that they might help to enrich the colonies — proved far more important to the Dutch than the fact that they were not Christians. The Dutch West India Co. feared that a heavy-handed and restrictive colonial policy would diminish the population, discourage immigration and scare off investors.

New Amsterdam’s Jews also extended the boundaries of American religious pluralism.

Stuyvesant, an elder in the Dutch church and the son of a minister, sought to promote morality and social cohesion by enforcing Calvinist orthodoxy and clamping down on competing faiths. One of his many reasons for denying Jews rights was that, “Giving them liberty, we cannot refuse the Lutherans and Papists,” as Catholics were then known.

He understood that the decision about admitting Jews to New Amsterdam was, at the deepest level, a decision about the social and religious character of the young community.

Over his objections, the Dutch West India Co. extended limited rights to people of different religions. Its advice to Stuyvesant in 1663 became, in time, the policy that distinguished America from other countries around the world.

“Shut your eyes, at least [do] not force people’s consciences,” the company wrote, “but allow every one to have his own belief, as long as he behaves quietly and legally, gives no offense to his neighbor and does not oppose the government.”

Having received the right to settle, the most difficult challenge facing New Amsterdam’s nascent Jewish community — a challenge American Jews would confront time and again over the centuries — was how to preserve and maintain Judaism, particularly with their numbers being so small and Protestant pressure to conform so great.

From the earliest years of Jewish settlement, a range of responses to this challenge developed.

At one extreme stood Solomon Pietersen, a merchant from Amsterdam who came to town in 1654, just before the refugees from Recife, to seek his fortune. In 1656, Pietersen became the first known Jew on American soil to marry a Christian.

While it’s not clear that he personally converted, the daughter that resulted from the marriage, named Anna, was baptized in childhood. Like the descendants of many subsequent Jewish immigrants to America’s shores, she vanished into the Protestant mainstream.

Asser Levy stood at the opposite end of the spectrum. An Ashkenazi Jew from Vilnius who briefly had sojourned in Amsterdam and perhaps Brazil, he arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654 totally impoverished but deeply committed to maintaining his Jewish faith.

In 1655, he protested when Stuyvesant and local officials required Jewish males ages 16 to 60 to pay a special tax in lieu of guard duty.

Stuyvesant had cited “the disinclination and unwillingness” of local residents to serve as “fellow-soldiers” with the Jewish “nation,” and “to be on guard with them in the same guard-house.” Levy insisted, however, that as a manual laborer he should be able stand guard like everybody else.

Initially thwarted, Levy succeeded within two years in standing “watch and ward like other Burghers.” Thereupon he promptly petitioned for burgher rights, or citizenship. Again he was thwarted, but backed by wealthier Jewish merchants who had emigrated months before from Amsterdam and recalled the promises made to them by “the Worshipful Lords” of the Dutch West India Co., the decision was reversed and Jews’ rights to “burghership” were guaranteed.

Of course, local records still denominated Levy as “a Jew,” ensuring that this characteristic would define him. Nevertheless, he enjoyed considerable success as a butcher — “excused from killing hogs, as his religion does not allow him to do it” — merchant and real estate entrepreneur.

Among the Jews who immigrated to New Amsterdam in 1654, Levy was the only one who stayed, maintaining a home in the city until his death in 1682.

For long, lonely stretches as Dutch rule waned and the rest of the Jews departed for colonies with more sun and promise, Levy’s was the only Jewish family in town. The inventory of his estate suggests that he resolutely observed at least the principal rituals of his faith, including the Sabbath and Jewish dietary laws, within the precincts of his home.

Levy’s life epitomized both the hardships entailed in being a Jew in early colonial America and the possibilities of surmounting them.

Over the next 3 1/2 centuries, millions more Jews crossed the ocean to America. Like New Amsterdam’s first Jews, a large number came as refugees seeking a new home.

They also faced the same central challenge that New Amsterdam’s Jews did: to preserve Judaism in the face of pressures to assimilate. Even religious liberty was not something that they could ever take for granted. They remained ever-vigilant, perennially concerned lest their hard-won freedoms be lost.

To look back upon this history in this anniversary year is to recall the theme of human potential, the ability of American Jews — young and old, men and women alike — to change the course of history and transform a piece of the world.

American Jewish history, properly studied, is not just a record of events; it is the story of how people shaped events — establishing and maintaining communities, responding to challenges, working for change.

That, perhaps, is the greatest lesson that 350 years of American Jewish life teaches, the lesson that we, too, can make a difference, that the future is ours to create.

Jonathan Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and author of the recently published “American Judaism: A History’ (Yale University Press), from which some of this article is drawn.


By the numbers

350 years in America