Monday, August 20, 2018

Before Bagels On Broadway

During the 2016 election, a presidential candidate uttered the words, “New York values,” and was accused of referring pejoratively to New York Jews. Of course, he denied the allegation. There is no doubt, however, that New York is home to the largest Jewish community outside of the State of Israel, with a population well over one million. But, who was New York’s first Jew?

That man would be Jacob Barsimson. Historians teach that Barsimson was appointed by Jewish leaders in Amsterdam to travel to New Amsterdam (current day New York City) to determine its suitability as a haven for Jewish immigration, in the wake of the fall of Dutch Brazil. He left Amsterdam on July 8, 1654 and arrived in New Amsterdam on August 22, 1654, corresponding to the 9th of Elul. Since he traveled with papers identifying him with the Dutch West India Company, New Amsterdam governor, Peter Stuyvesant, raised no objections, despite his well-established anti-Semitism.

23 Jews from Recife, Brazil, arrived in New Amsterdam harbor in September. It was in Recife where the first synagogue was established in the Americas, Kahal Kadosh Zur Israel. The Recife Jews had fled Portugal’s inquisition and moved to Dutch Brazil, where religious freedom was protected. After immigrating to New Amsterdam, they succeeded in establishing the first Jewish community in (what would become) the United States. These 23 Jews actually came to New Amsterdam by accident (see this treat for the story). Stuyvesant tried to bar them, including Barsimson from New Amsterdam, but the owners of the colony, the Dutch East India Company, rejected his petition. Barsimson and Asser Levy, one of the 23 immigrants from Recife, led the nascent Jewish community of New York in obtaining religious freedoms. When in 1658 a charge was leveled against Barsimson, and he was ordered to appear before the court on Saturday, the judge brought no judgment against him since he was summoned to appear on his Sabbath.

It’s amazing how far New York Jews have come during the past 364 years.

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