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Jewish Pioneers and Patriots

by Lee M. Friedman

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TitleJewish Pioneers and Patriots
AuthorLee M. Friedman
PublisherVarda Books
Publication Date2002


In Jewish Pioneers and Patriots, Lee M. Friedman, already firmly established as an historian of American Jewry, has made a further contribution to the subject. He has unearthed an amazing store of fresh information about the connections of the Jews with America from the times even before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth right down to the first World War. Here one may read of the ever-recurring theory that Columbus himself was a Spanish Jew; of the part played by the Jews in the upbuilding of South America and the West Indies; of the conjectures of the Rev. John Eliot that the Indians were descendants of the "ten lost tribes of Israel." Here is the story behind the little-known fact that the city of Newport, Rhode Island, pays part of the salary of the rabbi who officiates in that town's historic synagogue, one of the loveliest eighteenth-century buildings in the country and now listed among the national shrines. Here is the amusing proof that many of the Campbell clan who boast of their Scottish ancestry are really descendants of David Campanell, a Jew who settled in Ipswich, Massachusetts, over two hundred years ago. Nearer our own day is the account of how the Jews came to be the leaders in the ready-made clothing industry and have thus been able to influence the American man's habits and style of dress during the past three-quarters of a century. All these items are, however, merely samples which for sheer interest might be duplicated many times from Mr. Friedman's rich collection. These thirty-one chapters will, of course, minister to Jewish pride in the United States; but it is equally important that they be read and pondered by non-Jews, who will find here a new basis for faith in the ideals of tolerance, good-will, and unity-in-diversity that have created modern America.

About the Author 

Lee M. Friedman ---


PREFACE, by A. S. W. Rosenbach

FOUR HUNDRED AND FIFTY YEARS: by way of Introduction


1. George Washington and Jews of His Day

2. Thomas Jefferson and Religious Liberty

3. Abraham Lincoln and Jewish Army Chaplains

4. Theodore Roosevelt and the Russian Treaty


5. Was Christopher Columbus a Jew?

6. The Martyrdom of Francisco Maldonado de Silva

7. Jews in the French Colonies

8. Cotton Mather's Ambition

9. Ararat — A City of Refuge for the Jews

10. The Dedication of Massachusetts' First Synagogue


11. Asser Levy van Swellem

12. Mr. Hays Speaks Out


13. The Ten Tribes Lost Again

14. Literary America Adopts a Jew

15. Jews in the First Old Farmers' Almanac

16. America's First Jewish Bookdealer


17. America's First Jewish Club

18. “The Campbells Are Coming”

19. Esther's Adventures in Quebec

20. Lady Rebecca

21. Medford's Jewish Street

22. A 'Forty-Niner

23. The Hilton-Seligman Affair


24. The Gideons

25. Pirates and Trinkets

26. Let There Be Light

27. Uniforms

28. Clothing


29. Asher Pollock, Private

30. General and Governor

31. The Warrior





A hundred years ago, in 1842, just three hundred and fifty years after the first Jew had landed on American soil, when John Tyler was President of the United States and the great Daniel Webster his Secretary of State, Boston was a growing city of 80,000, beginning to take on the ways of a metropolis. An English visitor of that day wrote:

The general aspect of the city, as you approach it by land or by sea, is imposing, for the rising slopes of the buildings, the numerous steeples of the churches, and the crowning dome of the lofty State House, which stands on the highest ridge of the city, is rendered strikingly prominent in every view of the picture and forms a most appropriate, beautiful elevation in the center of the whole.

In striking contrast to most American cities, Boston was becoming famous and excited envious comment for its clean streets, “well paved, well lighted, swept and drained free from mud and dust,” lined by stores or dwellings well built and carefully maintained with but few vacancies. Fed by a constant influx of eager youth drawn from neighboring small towns and surrounding farms, it was still a homogeneous community of alert and energetic Yankees. Its 1842 directory, politely segregating in a separate appendix its resident “people of color,” presented a long roster of names with a remarkable predominance of scriptural and markedly Hebrew-Christian names with a good New England twang. There were but few indicating foreign origin.

Boston enterprise was building its neighboring territory into new industrial and manufacturing centers. It had just completed the Boston and Albany, or Western Railroad, as it was then called, so as to be a step ahead of other eastern cities in affording access to the Midwest into which the sons and money of New England were pouring, opening up that promising territory and spreading the seeds of its sturdy anti-slavery faith.

While visitors remarked that the commerce of Boston had ceased to be so extensive or so varied as that of New York, still its great merchants appeared “more substantially opulent, and their operations were on a larger and more comprehensive scale.” Its shipping overshadowed all its other commercial activities; and its fast clipper ships sailed the seven seas and made its Yankee traders famous throughout the world. Boston numbered twenty-nine banks, was the home of twenty-eight insurance companies and was not only a busy retail center but the wholesale market of New England and the West.

In 1842 New England had been, on the whole, almost untouched by the immigration which came to America during the post-Revolutionary era. The famines in Ireland, which were soon to send so many of its sons and daughters to settle in Boston, were still in the future. If you ventured on Boston streets you saw a crowd of men and women, rather above middle stature, pale and thin, well dressed, without foppery, remarkably neat, of a serious countenance, pursuing their unhurried way with dignity.

Jewish history in Boston began in 1649, when the prospect of a Jew settling in the nineteen-year-old town so alarmed its pious citizens that they offered a substantial bribe to induce Salomon Franco to depart. From that day, although Jews had made Boston their home, their number was small and, as they learned of better opportunities or greater hospitality elsewhere, they had deserted Boston. German Jewish immigration to America had never been attracted to New England.

In 1840 the Damascus ritual-murder accusation, and the attendant crass cruelty and persecution to which the Jews had been subjected, had not only stirred the Jewish communities of the world but had shocked all Christendom. As a repercussion to meetings held in New York and Philadelphia, calling American attention to these outrages against the Jews, there were reverberations in the missionary circles of Boston. A meeting was held on September 21, 1840, at the Clarendon Street Chapel, “to take into consideration the condition of the Jewish nation as respects both their present and future welfare,” and resolutions were unanimously passed. These, after piously expressing hopes and plans for the conversion of Jews to Christianity, culminated in a resolution to extend an invitation

to the suffering Jews of other nations, to come to this country, and would now particularly invite them to our city, where we presume they might do as well as in other cities in the world, though at present we have very few with us.

Although the resolutions were directed to be well advertised, evidently they attracted little Jewish attention. So, as we approach the year 1842, the number of Jews living in Boston was still small, many of them only recent new- comers, almost all of them young men and women then just beginning in a modest fashion to make a place for themselves in its busy community life.

From time immemorial Jewish communities date their beginning from the dates on which they established their first minyan, that coming together of at least ten men to join in the practice of their religion. In earlier days Boston Jews had gone to Newport, New York, or to Albany for a rabbi to officiate at marriages or burials, and often they journeyed to those cities to join their brethren in services for the high holidays. As early as 1703–4, Judge Sewall records in his dairy: “Joseph Frazon, the Jew, dyes at Mr. Majors . . . Satterday, is carried in Simson's coach to Bristow, from thence by water to Newport where there is a Jews-burying place.”

The Boston of 1842 was conspicuously a religious city. It had sixty-eight churches, one for every twelve hundred of its inhabitants. These were still the center of the social life of the people. When, in that year, Charles Dickens landed in Boston on a beautiful wintry Sunday morning, he writes:

I am afraid to say, by the way, how many offers of pews and seats in church for that morning were made to us, by formal note of invitation, before we had half finished our first dinner in America, but if I may by allowed to make a moderate guess, without going into nicer calculations, I should say that at least as many sittings were proffered us, as would have accommodated a score or two of grown families. The number of creeds and forms of religion to which the pleasure of our company was requested, was in very fair proportions.

Indeed, just at this time, Boston was the center of a new religious excitement which had gripped New England and western New York with such high emotionalism that one read almost daily reports of persons driven insane by the strain. With militant zeal, a sect called “Millerites” were prophesying the first resurrection and day of judgment to take place in April 1843. Already they were erecting a great Millerite Tabernacle in Boston which, in fact, was only finished in May 1844. In the meantime their leaders from time to time postponed the millennium to farther and future dates.

The Catholics had already established four places of worship in Boston. In such an atmosphere it is most probable that from time to time, as opportunity offered, the Boston Jews had been in the habit of coming together for sporadic religious observances. It is, therefore, not surprising that in the religious atmosphere of the day, in 1842, a little group of eighteen families of Boston Jews was moved to establish a Jewish congregation. Repeated in many other American cities from the Atlantic to the Pacific, what was done in Boston, with changed names and dates, is but the story of the founding of many another American synagogue. Thus, as immigrant Jews came to realize that they had at last found a home for themselves in this new land, they testified to their sense of permanence by establishing a temple for their most precious heritage.

In 1842, as the Jewish New Year approached, a meeting was held at 5 Wendell Street, on Fort Hill, to arrange for holiday services. This had been the home of the Oliver Wendell Holmes family and was then occupied by several families, one of which was Peter Spitz's, a cap maker. Amongst those assembled at Peter Spitz's were the propri- etor of the Railroad Hotel on Church Street, William Goldsmith; his assistant, Bernard Fox; Hyman Spitz, associated with Peter; Jacob Norton, a furrier and hat presser; Abraham F. Block, a manufacturer and dealer in soap; Isaac Wolf, a peddler; Charles Heineman, a peddler; and Moses Ehrlich, in the dry goods business on Washington Street, together with others whose names have not come down to us. They arranged both for services for the coming holidays and for continuing to come together for weekly religious services. Thus was organized Boston's first Jewish institution, originally called Oheb Shalom (which they translated “Friends of Peace”), to assume more formal organization the following February. Then Moses Ehrlich was chosen its first president and William Goldsmith, vice president. They were soon joined by others: Levi Ondkerk, dealer in laces (1843), Samuel Rosenberg, peddler (1843), Julius Bornstein, cap maker (1845), and Alexander Saroni, cap maker (1846).

In Bostones religious circles this organization, so important to these modest citizens, created not a ripple in the busy life of the city. Even as late as 1846, in the list of churches and ministers published in the Boston directory, they were ignored. The community was too excited over politics to have its attention distracted from the attack upon its favorite son. Daniel Webster, as Secretary of State, had just negotiated a treaty with Great Britain, which the foes of the administration claimed “had sold the United States down the river.” To give an opportunity to their Whig hero to justify himself and the new treaty and overwhelm his detractors, a committee of prominent leaders in the city, this holiday season, was engaging Faneuil Hall to tender him a public reception.

It is said that one Bernard Wurmsar, keeper of a variety store, who first came to Boston in 1846, temporarily acted as the first rabbi for the little group. Shortly thereafter they were able to secure Abraham Saling to act as rabbi. In default of better accommodations, Saling's house on Carver Street became the congregational headquarters.

How unpretentious was the small congregation may be gathered from a description contained in a letter published September 23, 1844, by the Reverend E. M. P. Wells of the Episcopal City Mission Chapel, in the Boston Mercantile Journal. He tells of his surprise in learning that there was a synagogue in Boston, when invited by “a son of Abraham” to accompany him there to witness the “feast of trumpets.” He found it “an upper room,” “not a comfortable or decent place for the performance of that service which thousands of years ago swelled through the arches of Solomon's Temple.” He reported that, “the service was performed with more solemnity, earnestness and apparent devotion than I have seen in a far better synagogue. I was surprised that so many (there were about forty present) could read the Hebrew so fluently and in most cases with a good degree of understanding, as apparent from their manner. Every man took a part in their service, and there was far more voice used than is often heard in the beautiful responsive service at Trinity or St. Pauls.” Told that there were no rich men among the members of this synagogue, the reverend gentleman appealed to his fellow Bostonians “if we cannot in some way aid them to a synagogue.” “Is there no one in Boston of whom the Jews shall hereafter say with gratitude, as they did of old, ‘He loveth our nation and hath built us a synagogue'?”

In 1844 the congregation received its first public recog- nition when it was granted by the city the privilege of establishing a cemetery in East Boston. A petition had been first presented to the City Council, April 29, 1844, asking that to them, as “Trustees of a religious society of the Israelitish denomination,” there might be appropriated, for the exclusive use of this society, a piece of ground of one hundred square feet in one corner of the East Boston City cemetery. There was opposition to the petition. Possibly the ancestors of George Appleby and of H. M. Pulham, Esq. felt called upon patriotically to defend the land of their birth. Who had ever heard of a Jewish burying ground in Massachusetts? The spirit of “Know-Nothingism” was still rife in Boston. Was there fear that, even from a cemetery located in suburban East Boston, Jewish corpses might disturb the sanctity of the soil old Puritan ancestors had cultivated? So the city fathers denied this petition. But the petitioners persisted and filed a second petition showing that they had themselves arranged to purchase a plot of land, asking the right to establish a cemetery there. On July 25th, the City Council was induced to allow the new petition. On the same day title was taken to a plot of land in East Boston for the burial ground.

In the following year (March 22, 1845), having officially forty members, the congregation obtained a charter from the state as a religious corporation calling itself, not Oheb Shalom, but Ohabei Shalom (Lovers of Peace), with authority “to hold and manage estate, real and personal, to an amount not exceeding ten thousand dollars which shall be applied to the payment of the debts of the corporation and to the support of public worship.”

As an offshoot of the Congregation, in 1847, were organized Boston's two earliest Jewish societies: The Hebrew Literary Society of Boston and The Ladies' Hebrew Benevolent Society. By 1854 they had as auxiliary societies The Brotherly Love Society and The Sisterly Love Society. So satisfactory was the progress of Ohabei Shalom that, in 1849, under the leadership of J. W. Ezekiel, lately come to Boston from Philadelphia, a group formed a second congregation for Polish Jews, Beth Israel. That year, under Rabbi P. Rosendale from New York, it held holiday services in a hall over the Boylston Market on Washington Street. They claimed a hundred members. Inasmuch as the best estimate is that there were probably not more than 125 Jewish families living in Boston in 1851, this number is obviously exaggerated. Beth Israel had only a very brief existence.

Up to 1851 Ohabei Shalom held its services in a large room in Washington Street. It was then estimated that there were at least a hundred and twenty-five Jewish families in Boston, “who, though mostly in moderate circumstances, are able to support themselves; and if we understood aright, there are few or none, either here or in other northern towns, who require charity for their support.”

By 1851, Ohabei Shalom, now grown to “eighty male members and their families,” felt itself sufficiently prosperous to invest $3,417.23 in the purchase of a plot of land on Warren (now Warrenton) Street and to plan the erection of what was to be, in the pious phrase of the day, Boston's first “Israelitish Synagogue.” Many of their Christian neighbors showed their interest in the project by generous subscriptions. This contribution by Christians to help a synagogue was not the first of its kind in America. In 1788, the congregation Mikveh Israel of Philadelphia had found itself in financial straits because “many of their number at the close of the late war returned to New York, Charleston and elsewhere, leaving their homes (which they had been exiled from and obliged to leave on account of their attachment to American measures), leaving the remaining few of their religion here, burthen'd with a considerable charge consequent from so great an undertaking.” An appeal by the congregation addressed to its “worthy fellow citizens of every Religious Denomination” was answered, amongst other subscribers, by Benjamin Franklin £5, David Rittenhouse (the famous astronomer) £2, and William Bradford (the printer) £3. Again in 1843, when the Jews of Montreal (a German and Polish congregation) proposed to erect a synagogue, Sir Charles Metcalf, Governor General of Canada, gave £10 towards the building.

On the other hand, when, in 1711, Trinity Church, New York, built a steeple, seven New York Jews contributed £5.12.3 out of a total of £312.13.7 then raised. Then, too, the story of Judah Touro, the philanthropist, coming to the rescue of a Christian Church by purchasing its building and permitting the congregation to occupy it rent free for years, is an oft-told tale of New Orleans' history.

A total fund exceeding $7,000 was thus raised by the little Boston group, and slowly they proceeded to the actual building of a Temple.

By spring, Samuel Jepson, the South Margin Street carpenter, had completed the building, and the modest wooden structure was ready for its congregation.

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