250 Years in America


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From the New-York Daily Tribune newspaper, April 23, 1905.



More of Them Here than Ever Before Lived in One Place—

Have Won Respect from Gentiles—To Celebrate Their Coming.

The 700,000 Jews in this city, together with about 700,000 more of their kinsfolk in other parts of the United States, are preparing to celebrate their first coming to this country, two and a half centuries ago. The occasion is to be one of rejoicing, for never in all their memorable history, even including the glorious days of King Solomon, have they prospered as they have here. Never since the dispersal of their race have they enjoyed greater liberty or won a higher degree of respect from those with whom they live.

For many reasons the coming festival will center in this city. It was here that the first actual Jewish settlement in this country was made. Here, too, the Jews founded their first religious society in the United States. Here they fought their first battles for commercial and civic freedom and won. Here they have increased in numbers faster than in any other community of either the Old or the New World, until at the present time New York contains more Jews than have ever before lived in one place. Jerusalem today has a population of about 50,000, of whom only one-half are Jews.

Accordingly, it would take twenty-eight Jerusalems all crowded together to become the home of as many Hebrews as have found an abode in New York. On an average one man in six met in this city nowadays is a Jew, and if the tide of immigration from Russia and Southeastern Europe continues as in the past the proportion of Hebrew citizens here will be still greater. In the twenty years prior to 1904 there arrived at Ellis Island 694,172 Jewish immigrants, of whom 504,181 remained here.

In this city also the Jew has amassed wealth faster than elsewhere. When the twenty-three Jews who formed the first Hebrew colony in this country landed in New Amsterdam in 1654 their baggage had to be sold at auction to pay their passage. In the year 1888 the Hebrew statistician Markens estimated that his people owned real estate in this city valued at $150,000,000, and that their wholesale trade alone amounted to $280,000,000 a year. At the present time it is estimated that the Jews here have increased their property holdings so that they represent an investment of $870,000,000, and their annual wholesale trade now is rated at $950,000,000.

In the minds of most Jews their prosperity and growth of power in this country are regarded as a rightful inheritance. As told by a writer in "The Jewish Encyclopedia," the Jews not only furnished the discoverer of America with important astronomical books and instruments which helped him to guide his ships through unknown seas, but they even bore most of the expense of his first and second voyages. The books, for example, which afforded him great aid were "De Luminaribus et Diebus Criticis," by Abraham Ibn Ezra, and the Latin "Perpetual Almanac," by Abraham Zacuto. The quadrant which Columbus used was the invention of Levi ben Gerson, and was called by him "Jacob's Staff."

Jewish money came to the assistance of the great navigator in two widely divergent ways. When Columbus was seeking the assistance of the Spanish Crown, to equip him with vessels and men for a journey which most sages of the time scoffed at, Luis de Santangel, Gabriel Sanchez and Juan Cabrero, all of them of Jewish descent, urged Queen Isabella to grant his request. Chief among these men was Santangel, a farmer of taxes, head of a commercial house in Valencia and the Chancellor of Aragon; and when the Queen became persuaded that Columbus should go, and said she would pawn her jewels to aid his quest, Santangel told her, according to "The Jewish Encyclopedia," to keep her gems, for he would advance the money out of his private treasury, without interest. The sum needed was $20,000, or what would amount to $160,000 at the present time. Six Jews accompanied Columbus on his first voyage. They were Luis de Torres, Alfonze de la Calle, Rodrigo and Gabriel Sanchez, Marco, the ship's surgeon, and Bernal, the ship's doctor. According to Jewish authorities, Torres was the first European to tread American soil, and it was he who first discovered that tobacco was used by the Indians.

Jewish wealth came to the aid of Columbus the second time, not as a voluntary loan, but as the result of persecution. Much of the money for his second voyage was raised by the sale of property and chattels confiscated from the Jews by King Ferdinand at the time he drove three hundred thousand of them out of Spain.

The Jews of today are good fighters in the courts, and so were they at the very beginning of their history on Manhattan Island. The first Hebrew settlers who came here in a body numbered twenty-three, and they arrived aboard the St. Catarina, in September, 1654. They were refugees from the oppression of the Portuguese, and came originally from Brazil, by way of the West Indies, but they had no sooner landed than they started a series of lawsuits. Some of them said they had no money to pay their passage, and accordingly their baggage was seized, to be sold at auction, while at the same time the authorities ordered two of them imprisoned pending the payment of the money. To complicate matters still further, Asser Levy, who afterward distinguished himself as a fighter in the law courts for the rights of his people, brought suit against a woman member of the party for money which he said he had lent her at the beginning of the trip. Indeed, the quiet of New Amsterdam had not been broken by so much litigation since it had been founded, forty years before.

While these cases were still pending some more Jews landed. They were of more wealth than their predecessors, and it is believed they must have aided their poorer kinspeople, for the lawsuits seemed to have been settled out of court.

The New York Jews of the seventeenth century, like those of the twentieth century, generally succeeded in overcoming whatever obstacles blocked their progress. The first settlers, for instance, would doubtless have been promptly driven out had it not been for friendly kinspeople who owned stock in the Dutch West India Company. When Governor Stuyvesant saw more Jews coming in he took alarm and decided to evict them all. He wrote to the directors of the Dutch West India Company, accordingly, to obtain their permission, but, much to his disappointment, his request was rejected. The director told him that a large amount of Jewish money was invested in the shares of the company, and that such persecution of the New Amsterdam Jews would be exceedingly unwise. The directors also instructed the Governor to let the Jews "sail to and trade in New Netherlands and to live and remain there, provided the poor among them shall not become a burden to the company or the community, but be supported by their own nation."

The Jews stayed, but their oppression continued, as was shown in many ways. They wanted ground for a cemetery and asked simply for the right to purchase an appropriate piece of land. The Governor thought some time over this request, and at last refused it, saying that for the present they did not need a cemetery. Within a year, however, one of their number died, and Governor Stuyvesant permitted a Hebrew burial ground to be laid out in a district then outside the city, but now in the center of the lower East Side. When the Jews began preparations for the building of a synagogue they were also told that they could not have one. When they tried to sell goods at retail they learned that the directors of the company had refused them this right. When they wanted to buy real estate they were informed that this was against the law. All these privileges, however, they obtained later, after persistent fighting for them.

The refusal of the Dutch to let the Jews carry on a retail trade had a profound effect not only upon these people, but also on the commercial development of the whole city. As told by Max J. Kohler, the Hebrew historical writer, the first Hebrew merchants, became importers, and to this line of business they have ever since devoted so much attention that they now carry on most of the wholesale trade of New York. At the present time their stores and offices crowd Broadway for miles. More recently, too, they have forged far ahead in the retail business, most of the department stores in this city being now in the hands of Jews.

As the Dutch afterward found out, much to their chagrin, the foreign trade into which they drove the Jews proved to the latter far more lucrative than any other kind of business. The most profitable commerce carried on from this port at that time was with the West Indies and South America, with which the Jews were especially familiar, as most of them had come from those countries. They at once got in touch with Jewish relatives and acquaintances at Curacao, Surinam, St. Thomas, Jamaica and the Barbados, and it was not long before they had lines of ships running to those ports.

It was from a Jew that John Jacob Astor obtained his first lessons in the wholesale trade. His employer at one time was Hayman Levy, an importer of furs.

Had the wishes of the directors of the Dutch West India Company been carried out New York today might have had a real "Ghetto," instead of a semblance of one. It was the desire of these Hollanders to have all the Hebrew inhabitants of New Amsterdam live apart from the rest of the community, and one of their letters of instructions to Peter Stuyvesant contained these words:

"They (the Jews) may exercise in all quietness their religion within their houses, for which end they must without doubt endeavor to build their houses close together in a convenient place on one side or the other side of New Amsterdam—at their choice—as they have done here."

Yet there is no evidence that the Jews all lived together in those days any more than they do now. Consequently, the city today has no quarter which may be strictly called a "Ghetto." There is a constant shifting of the Jewish population on the East Side, and as fast as possible the more prosperous members of that community move uptown, settling in Lexington and Madison Avenues and in Harlem, both east and west of Fifth Avenue. At the present time the wealthiest Jews have homes in the most aristocratic districts, and many of the houses in "Millionaires' Walk" opposite Central Park are owned by them.

For the reason that many of the first Jewish settlers of this city had been accustomed in Spain and Portugal to observe their religious rites in secret, the command to "exercise their religion within their houses" was not such a hardship to them as might be supposed. In Spain the Inquisition brought out the fact that numbers of Hebrews had publicly professed Christianity and attended the Catholic Church regularly, who in secret still worshipped God in their own way. At any rate, the Jews did not make the same fight for the privilege of erecting a synagogue as they did for other rights, which sooner or later they obtained. The first reference to a public house of worship for Hebrews was in 1695, more than forty years after their first settlement. A map of the town made by Chaplain John Miller in that year showed a synagogue on the south side of Beaver Street near Mill Street (now South William Street), with an accompanying note that Saul Brown was its rabbi, and that the congregation consisted of twenty families. From this congregation originated the religious organization which is known today as Shearith Israel, or the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation of the City of New York. It now has a home in a marble synagogue in Central Park West. The rabbi of this congregation, the Rev. Dr. H. Pereira Mendes, himself descended from Spanish Jews, is one of the prime movers in the plan for the coming anniversary celebration, in regard to which he said yesterday to a Tribune reporter:

"The pages of history record few passages more interesting than those which tell of grit and integrity, and certainly the first Hebrews in New York showed both. They were Sephardic Hebrews, cultured sons of cultured sires, and doubtless superior in refinement to the doughty Hollanders, who did not like their coming. For centuries in Spain they had produced philosophers, physicians, grammarians, poets and merchant princes.

"New York's first Jews manfully stood for their rights against Stuyvesant, rights which the authorities in Holland supported. They met for worship in a private house next to a mill, then in a frame building, then in a real synagogue in Mill Street. They formed a congregation which exists today, known as the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation. The migrations of their synagogue since it was first established in Mill Street have been to Crosby Street, then to 19th Street, and finally to 70th Street and Central Park West.

"About 1824 the English and German Jews began to come, and they have been followed by Hungarians, Austrians, Russians and Poles, and have hundreds of synagogues, while the Sephardic Hebrews have only the one.

"The growth of the Jewish community has been wonderful, and truly New York Hebrews have good reason to rejoice at the developments of the last two hundred and fifty years."

The growth of most of the Jewish congregations in size and wealth has kept pace with the commercial progress of their members. The splendid Temple Emanu-El, in 5th Avenue, for example, is the outgrowth of a humble association, organized only sixty years ago.

The first meetings were held in a room of a private dwelling house at Grand and Clinton Streets. The seats for the first year were sold for $7 for men and $3 for women. In Temple Emanu-El pews are valued on an average at $300, and the building and ground represent an outlay of about $700,000.

photo: New-York's Greatest Synagogue. Interior of Temple Emanu-El, at 5th Avenue and 43rd Street, whose congregation sixty years ago met in one room of an East Side dwelling house.


Interior view of Congregation Emanu-El.

Jews are to be found among the founders of the New York Stock Exchange in 1782. Of the nineteen men who entered into an agreement to buy and sell stocks only to each other, two were Jews, and two more were admitted to the association a short time later.

When the Revolutionary War broke out the Jews helped the patriots both with men and money. Haym Solomon furnished funds for the Continental army when it looked as if its defeat was inevitable. After New York was taken by the British he was thrown into the Provost Prison, which later was the old Hall of Records, and condemned to death. He only effected his escape by bribing the jailers with a large sum of gold. It is recorded that he advanced money to many prominent men in these critical times, and it was of Solomon that James Madison wrote to his friend, Edmund Randolph, as follows:

"The kindness of our little friend in Front St., near the coffee house, is a fund that will preserve me from extremities, but I never resort thither without great mortification, as he obstinately rejects all recompense."

When Solomon died it was found that he had $160,000 worth of certificates of the Loan Office of the government Treasury.

Most of the Jews that have fought in the various wars which this country has had came from New York. In the Revolution there were 45 American Jews; in the War of 1812, 43; in the Mexican War, 57; in the Civil War, 7,038, and in the Spanish-American War, 2,000.

New York seems to have an ever-increasing attraction for the Jew. One hundred years ago only one Jew in six settled here. In 1880 about half the Jewish immigrants became New Yorkers, whereas at the present time five out of six make this city their home.

Most of the Jews in this city have come here in the last twenty years. There have been several successive waves of immigration, each bringing in a greater number. Until 1812 the Spanish and Portuguese Jews predominated, and at the end of that period there were not more than 500 of them. Then came the English and German Jews, the latter driven out by the Napoleonic and other wars, and coming mostly from the small southern towns of the German States. By 1882 the German Jews vastly surpassed all others, both in numbers and wealth. Then came the repressive May Laws in Russia, exiling a great army which has New York as its abiding place. The Russian Jewish element now outnumbers all others.

New York Jews have attained distinction, not only in business and the professions, but also in society, politics, education and music. The first Jewish lawyer was Sampson Simpson, admitted to the bar in 1802. At the present time about one-third the lawyers of the city are Jews. Italian opera was introduced into New York by Lorenzo da Ponte, a Jewish professor of Italian at Columbia College, and it so happens that grand opera today is produced in the city under the management of Heinrich Conried, a Jew. "Home, Sweet Home" was the inspiration of John Howard Payne, whose mother was a Jewess. The "Beau Brummel" of New York society at one time was Henry Carroll Marks, better known by some as "Dandy" Marks, whose father was a Jew. One of the Delancey family married a Jewess, and this city is still talking about the engagement of a prominent member of the Stokes family to a young woman of the Ghetto.

New York Jews have held many important posts in the national, State and city governments. The Minister to Turkey at one time was Oscar Straus, of this city. Among the members of the Constitutional Convention of 1894 were Edward Lauterbach, Louis Marshall, Joseph J. Green, Jacob Marks, Aaron Herzberg, and M. Warley Platzek. The nomination for Mayor on the Tammany ticket was offered Nathan Straus in the same year, but Mr. Straus declined to run, a wise decision, as Tammany was beaten. New York is represented in Congress by several Jews, and among the Hebrews whom this city has sent to Washington are Jefferson M. Levy, Henry M. Goldfogle and Montague Lessler. The president of the Board of Aldermen under Mayor Van Wyck was Randolph Guggenheimer. The president of Manhattan Borough under Mayor Low was Jacob A. Cantor. Three Senate districts of the city are represented at Albany by Jews, Nathaniel E. Eisberg, Martin Saxe and Jacob Marks. Among the Jews who have been elevated to the bench are W. N. Cohen, David Leventritt, Samuel Greenbaum and Alfred Steckler. The Attorney General of the State is Julius M. Mayer.

A majority of the managers of theaters in this city are Jews, and the writers of many of the popular songs, as well as the operatic music, of the day are Jews. Among Jewish playwrights David Belasco has won especial distinction.

In philanthropy the Jews have been liberal, not only to their own people, but to outside projects of an educational or eleemosynary nature. Benefactions to Jewish charitable institutions for 1904 amounted to $8,000,000. The expenditures of the United Hebrew Charities last year were $228,000, and the society considered the needs of 10,000 applicants, representing 43,000 individuals. Jews have erected scores of hospitals and homes for orphans, widows, their sick and their helpless kinfolk. The Mount Sinai Hospital alone cost $2,500,000.

Adolph Lewisohn and Joseph Pulitzer have given large sums to Columbia University. Annie Nathan Meyer was one of the founders of Barnard College.




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