Commentary Magazine


From the American Scene:
The Jewish Past in America

The three volumes of Memoirs of American Jews: 1775-1865, edited by Jacob Rader Marcus, cover the period from the beginning of the Revolution until the end of the Civil War. Some of the writers are well known, at least to students of American Jewish history; many are unknown except—if at all—to their descendants. Some of the memoirs are extracts from books and others from journals or reminiscences still in manuscript; a few are pieced together from letters, and one is an after-dinner speech as reported in a newspaper. Many show the rise of penniless immigrants to positions of importance, or at least of stability, in the general community; some show the rise of the children of immigrants to positions of importance in the professions—including the military; a few show the general decline in religious observance and religious studies and the steady assimilation of Jews into the Christian community. All this is hardly new; but the memoirs are valuable as source material and as evidence, and, in many cases, in themselves as stories of adventure or records of observation with an interest far from exclusively Jewish.

American Jewish history from 1775 to 1865 may really be divided into three periods: the first, in which the Jews of the British colonies of North America suddenly found themselves in the full light and blaze of the Revolution; the second, in which there was little immigration of Jews; and the third, a time of immigration, chiefly from Central Europe. Most of the memoirs here published belong to this last period, which, although it is the first in which Jews became fairly numerous in America, has not attracted as much attention as it merits from Jewish historians—partly because it lacked the simplification and enchantment of distance. This it is beginning to acquire.

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Of the earliest period, we have in Dr. Marcus’s collection the least material because Jews in this country were few then—in all about a thousand or so. Though neither David S. Franks (d. Philadelphia, 1793) nor Mordecai Sheftall (1735-1797), who tell us something of themselves, of their devotion to the American cause, and the tribulations they suffered because of this devotion, was particularly important among the great men of the American Revolution, the fact that they were free to become important at all is interesting and significant. According to tradition, Franks had been president of Shearith Israel of Montreal, but it is doubtful that he had anything to do with his fellow Jews after he became an officer in the Continental army. Sheftall remained a Jew and helped reorganize the Jewish congregation at Savannah after the Revolution.

It will be noted that among the memoir-writers who belong to the second period, and who were descendants of earlier immigrants, some—now that they were citizens with the same rights and almost the same opportunities as Christians—were no longer in trade as their parents or grandparents had been, and in this respect were like children of the later immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe. But if many of the later American Jews went into the learned professions, few in the full-blown idealism of the 19th century thought of a career in the army or navy. One may be, accordingly, somewhat surprised to find at the beginning of the last century American Jews who looked for just such a career: Alfred Mordecai (b. Warrenton, N. C., 1804), for example, went into the army; Uriah P. Levy (b. Philadelphia, 1792), the navy.

The careers of Levy in the navy and Mordecai in the army, it may be added on the basis of their memoirs, form an interesting contrast. Levy began his career as a cabin boy on a merchant vessel, Mordecai as a cadet at West Point. Levy met with antagonism in which anti-Semitism played a part; Mordecai apparently had no trouble at all in this respect. (In the end, solely from the standpoint of rank achieved, Commodore Levy was the more successful, but Major Mordecai left the army at the opening of the Civil War in order not to fight against his country or his native state.) Those who keep preaching the importance of good manners may find a lesson here. Mordecai’s father ran one of the best seminaries for girls in the South, and young Mordecai was instructed, no doubt, in those niceties of conduct which marked the well-bred man. It may be doubted that Levy, who had come up from the forecastle, was as well-bred or agreeable. He was also in favor of doing away with the use of the lash in the navy. His experiments with other methods of punishment, although well-intentioned—President Tyler found them so—were bound to arouse criticism, as any such change would in the conservatism of the armed forces. Mordecai’s achievements were strictly professional—in the field of ordnance, and such as any soldier could appreciate.

Among other writers of memoirs—in this collection—who belong to the second period are Mordecai Myers (1776-1781) and Mordecai M. Noah (1785-1851). Mordecai Myers, born in Newport, R. I., the son of a Hungarian Jew, was a merchant and auctioneer in New York and, for a while, a trustee of Shearith Israel of that city. When the War of 1812 broke out he was commissioned a captain in the United States army. As he wrote to his friend, Naphtali Phillips, the proprietor and editor of the New York National Advocate (Myers jokingly called it a “kasher” newspaper): “Sum must spill there blud and others there ink.” Myers was badly wounded at the battle of Chrysler’s Field (1813). After the war, he was in the State Assembly as a representative from New York City and, much later, was elected mayor of Schenectady, N. Y. He was married to a non-Jewess, a niece of the doctor who probably saved his life when he was wounded. That he was born a Jew seems to have been a skeleton in the closet of his family, and his memoirs, as we have them (for they were edited), do not mention any Jews as such and are of interest to us chiefly for details of the War of 1812 as it was fought in upper New York state.

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Mordecai M. Noah was a journalist but since journalism in those days—until James Gordon Bennett’s Herald—was more politics than news, he, like Myers, was also a politician. He became sheriff of New York City, surveyor of the port, and judge of a minor court. During the War of 1812 he had been appointed the American consul at Tunis. His experience there is best told in his own words:

. . . After the customary salutations and a few inquiries, Commodore Decatur invited me into the cabin, where, after being seated, he went to his escrutoire [sic] and from among a package of papers he handed me one, saying that it was a despatch from the Secretary of State [James Monroe], and requested me to use no ceremony, but to read it. It had the seal of the United States, which I broke, and, to my great surprise, read [that he was dismissed from the consular service because he was a Jew]. . . .

The receipt of this letter shocked me inexpressibly. . . . I cast my eye hastily on Commodore Decatur; I was satisfied at a glance that he knew not the contents of the letter. It was necessary that he should not, for . . . from my consulate, from the possession of power, respected and feared, I should in all probability [have] gone into a dungeon, neglected and unpitied, and for what? For carrying into effect the express orders of the government!

. . . I folded up the letter with apparent indifference and put it in my pocket, and then proceeded to relate to Commodore Decatur the nature of our dispute with Tunis, which was corroborated by the documents I had prepared and brought with me. . . .

What injury could my religion [“not known in Barbary”] create? I lived like other consuls; the flag of the United States was displayed on Sundays and Christian holidays. The Catholic priest, who came into my house to sprinkle holy water and pray, was received with deference and freely allowed to perform his pious purpose. The barefooted Franciscan, who came to beg, received alms in the name of Jesus Christ. The Greek bishop, who sent me a decorated branch of palm on Palm Sunday, received, in return, a customary donation. The poor Christian slaves, when they wanted’” a favour, came to me. The Jews alone asked nothing from me. Why then am I to be persecuted for my religion? Although no religious principles are known to the constitution, no peculiar worship connected with the government, yet I did not forget that I was representing a Christian nation. . . .”

The ex-consul returned to the United States and, remaining an ardent American, became an ardent Jew. He was a leader in the Jewish community of New York, launched a wild scheme to settle European Jews on a small island near Buffalo, and was an early Zionist.

Rebecca Gratz (1781-1869) is the subject of a memoir by her niece. During the antebellum period Rebecca Gratz was, as Dr. Marcus says in his introductory note, “probably the outstanding Jewess in the United States.” In 1838 she founded what is generally considered the first Jewish Sunday school in this country (modeled on Christian Sunday schools). It is generally supposed—by those who feed eagerly on such crumbs from the tables of the great—that she was the original of Rebecca in Scott’s Ivanhoe. But Scott is no longer read as religiously as he used to be and the gratitude of American Jews to the founder of the Jewish Sunday school has diminished: it has been said, not without truth, that a Sunday school may be good enough to teach a catechism but not a religion—certainly not Judaism.

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The steady stream of Jewish immigration from Central Europe that had been flowing to the United States ever since Colonial days received a great influx after the failure of the European revolutions of 1848 and the repressive measures that followed. (In speaking of the German Jews of this period, it is necessary to distinguish between Jews from Posen and others. The former, although Prussian by nationality, were in ritual and other respects still Polish, and were so regarded by other German Jews.) Men who had been ready to be imprisoned or to the for freedom were ready, in despair of any local change, to undertake the lesser hardships of emigration to a land where all they had fought for had long been assured. Even if the emigrants had not been actual participants in the protests, riots, and battles–indeed, few were—they must have compared their risks as immigrants with those that had been faced by the revolutionists. Many, too, lost their livelihood in the disorders and hard times of those days. These immigrants were by no means indifferent to liberty for all and equality for Jews. (“How happy I was when I reached the promised land of freedom, where the laws, at least, are the same for Jews as for non-Jews. At that time the stigma of inequality burned in me like a fiery coal, because I felt its stings and suffered its pangs,” writes Leopold Mayer.) But their first thought, of necessity, was to secure their daily bread.

The later immigrant from Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, if a Jew and penniless, had a choice: to peddle or become a sewing-machine operator. The earlier immigrant from Central Europe, as a rule, found no shop in which to work; as often as not, if not oftener, he had no trade. He was generally encouraged by fellow Jews who had come before him to turn to peddling, and generally did. “Our people in this country,” said a peddler to Isaac Mayer Wise, “may be divided into the following classes: (1) The basket peddler, he is as yet altogether dumb and homeless; (2) the trunk-carrier, who stammers some little English and hopes for better times; (3) the pack-carrier, who carries from 100 to 150 pounds upon his back, and indulges the thought that he will become a businessman some day. In addition to these, there is the aristocracy, which may be divided into three classes: (1) The wagon-baron, who peddles through the country with a one- or two-horse team; (2) the jewelry-count, who carries a stock of watches and jewelry in a small trunk, and is considered a rich man even now; (3) the store-prince, who has a shop and sells goods in it. At first one is the slave of the basket or the pack; then, the lackey of the horse, in order to become, finally, the servant of the shop.”

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There is a certain contempt, among men who work with their hands, for the peddler or the owner of a store, and he has been regarded as a parasite on the labors of the community—a favorite charge of German anti-Semites. The services of those who buy and sell are, of course, dependent upon those who grow and make; but, in supplying the needs of those who grow and make, they enable them to do so and also enable them to enjoy the fruits of the labor of others. As the late Hayim Greenberg said in one of his essays, “Any work which satisfies human needs or is socially useful is productive work.”

And in fact, this was recognized to a certain extent in the days of these memoirs. Leopold Mayer, who was never a peddler but a Hebrew teacher and finally a banker, said of the Jews in Chicago about 1850: “Some, loading their goods upon a wagon, others upon their shoulders, followed the honorable vocation of peddling. Honor to them! They were respected and liked by their customers, who every season awaited their arrival before laying in a stock of necessary goods. . . .” And Oscar S. Straus, whose own father had been a peddler, speaking of the Jewish peddlers in the South about the same time, had this to say: “The itinerant merchant . . . filled a real want, and his vocation was looked upon as quite dignified. . . . Then, too, the existence of slavery drew a distinct line of demarcation between the white and black races. This gave to the white visitor a status of equality that probably otherwise he would not enjoy to such a degree. Provided only, therefore, that the peddler proved himself an honorable, upright man, who conscientiously treated his customers with fairness and made no misrepresentations regarding his wares, he was treated as an honored guest by the plantation owners. . . . [He] usually stayed one night at the house of his customer and took his meals with the family. . . . Southern hospitality . . . permitted no pay for board and lodging, and only a small charge for feed for the horses. The peddler in turn usually made a gift to either the lady or her daughter.”

Peddling was hard work but it could also be very profitable. “I went by steamer with my goods to Natchez, Miss., bought a horse, and traveled the country—through Mississippi and Louisiana. . . . the country roads were bad, and we had to stand a good deal; the sales were small, but the profits were large,” wrote Haiman Philip Spitz. The year was 1841. “It was very easy in those days to sell goods [peddling out of Natchez]. There were no stores at every crossroad. There were stores only in the towns,” writes Henry Seesel. William Frank, peddling in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, for only one year (1840-41), managed to save $700 to pay the way of his parents, and his brother and sister, to America.

Many took to peddling because in that way they were their own masters: “My disposition,” wrote Julius Weis, “had always been to work for myself, rather than to be a clerk for anyone else, and I therefore declined to take a position in a store. . . .” Another advantage of peddling, for the pious Jew, was that he need not work on the Sabbath. Several of the oldest congregations today had their origin in a minyan (the number necessary for congregational services—at least ten adult Jews) of young peddlers who bought from the same wholesaler and met once a week in his store to pray on the Sabbath and buy on Sunday. Some, like Henry Stern, peddled to familiarize themselves “with the country, the people, the language.”

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The immigrant in this country a century ago settled, as a rule, in the North. There were several reasons for this. In the first place, the average immigrant had to depend for his livelihood on the work of his hands, and in the South he had the competition of slaves. Again, the ports at which almost all the immigrants landed were in the North, and few had money to travel farther; factories had been established in the North and here the immigrant could find work at once; and here, too, were earlier immigrants from his own country who might, if necessary, help him and were at least companions among strangers. Besides, the climate of the North was more like that of Western and Central Europe from which most of the immigrants were coming, and the South had a reputation for sickness.

The South, however, was not altogether unattractive to the Jewish immigrant. The planters were the most important class in a Southern community; even successful lawyers and merchants tried to become planters. There was elbow room and profit, then, for the peddler or local storekeeper. The Yankees had found that out. The Southerners, too, were friendlier to strangers, and Jews, coming from the discrimination and unfriendliness of Europe, appreciated that more than did others. Aaron Hirsch recorded: “Everywhere [Mississippi] I was received kindly. The people did not see any strangers often. . . . I was out four weeks, but never did any planter charge me for board and lodging. They refused even small presents, saying I was a poor boy, a long distance from home, trying to make a living.” “People [in Mississippi and Louisiana] before the [Civil] War were entirely different from what they are now. You were welcome at all times and treated with cordiality at everyplace, if you looked anyway respectable; not as if you were a stranger, but as an old acquaintance, tho you may never have seen the parties before,” wrote Philip Sartorius.

Much as Jews—especially immigrants who had never seen a slave until they went south—might deplore slavery, or particular incidents in connection with it, those who settled in the South sooner or later had slaves just as their neighbors did. It was probably unavoidable in a Southern community because of the reluctance of white men and women to do for hire the usual work of slaves. “As a boy brought up in the South,” wrote Oscar S. Straus, “I never questioned the rights or wrongs of slavery. Its existence I regarded as [a] matter of course, as most other customs or institutions. The grown people of the South, whatever they thought about it, would not, except in rare instances, speak against it, and even then in the most guarded and private manner.” Louis Stix in Ohio did speak up (in 1846), but even there it was not liked. “Among my help [driving hogs] were some colored men. As we entered the dining room I was shown a separate table, which I declined. From this fact, I became known as an abolitionist, which was the actual truth, and which fact, when known, caused me the loss of a number of friends. . . .”

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The puritanic Jew is in these volumes: “I did not like city life [in New Orleans] in the style in which it was conducted at that time—too much fun and devilment for me,” wrote Haiman Spitz; and so is the profligate: “I had a partner with me, Sam Rothchild . . . he was a smart fellow. I knew the fellow made as high as [$]100 a day and go to bed penniless. The next place we stopped was the mouth of Red River, where Sam gambled all our money off and sold the boat and stock to another flatboat man for a negroe girl, took her to New Orleans and traded her off for tobacco.” So writes Philip Sartorius.

Here, too, is the Jew who denies that he is a Jew; the Jew who neither denies nor affirms but belongs to “all tastes and creeds”; and the much commoner instance, then and now, of the Jew who marries a Christian woman without becoming a Christian himself, and whose children are brought up as Christians or become Christians. August Bondi met two of the first sort in the army: “. . . To my knowledge there were three Jehudim in the Fifth K’s [Fifth Kansas Cavalry]: Marcus Wittenberg, Co. F; Simon Wolff, of Co. E; and myself. Some time in July I accosted Wittenberg, asked him if he was a Jehudi; he seemed at first not to understand, then I repeated my inquiry: ‘Are you a Jew?’ He answered: ‘I’m a Hungarian’. . . . A few days after news of his death reached the regiment, his chum . . . brought me some letters addressed to the deceased to interpret, as they were written in a language unknown to him. There were letters from his parents, written in Hebrew [Yiddish—C.R.], among others, informing him of the date of Rosh Hashono and Jom-Kipur. . . . The other Jehudi, Simon Wolff, would likewise not acknowledge being a Jehudi. He was sergeant of Co. E, and on the colonel’s staff. I let him alone. . . .” One of the second sort was Max Maratzek, “impresario.” “. . . I had scarcely attained the age of eighteen than I shaped my creed, my political belief, and my taste to suit everybody. In other words, I resolved to belong to all tastes and creeds, political or spiritual, in a general way, but to none in particular. Therefore, I believe in God, and endeavor to do my duty, without calling myself Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, member of the Greek Church, Lutheran, or Presbyterian.” It may be worth noting that he does not mention “Jew,” careful in his catholicity and pretended candor to avoid the very word.

The Rothschild who visited the United States just before the Civil War met Jews who had done very well in New Orleans: Judah P. Benjamin, and H. M. Hyams, lieutenant-governor of the state, and Edwin W. Moïse, speaker of the Louisiana House, all married to Christians without becoming Christians themselves or remaining Jews either. Louis A. Gratz when he arrived in this country “could barely memorize the English names and prices of my stock and I could not answer any other question.” He enlisted as a private in a Union regiment and in less than two years was a major, commanding the Sixth Kentucky Cavalry. After the war, he studied law and married a Christian girl of good family in Knoxville: “I thought it necessary to tie myself more closely to the people living in this town.”

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The writer of memoirs cannot tell us about himself without telling us something of the world about him. We go down “stoney” King Street in Charleston, South Carolina, with Joseph Lyons in 1833 and notice, as he does, the smell of coal smoke “very perceptible”; in Philadelphia, that year, we admire with him the brick houses: “Many of them have the doors painted of pure white, and all the brass work on them silverplated. The steps are of white marble, and the small, iron balustrades of blackened iron work. . . . The window panes [are] of a large plate glass, as it is called.” We ride the stage in 1817 from Warrenton, North Carolina, to Richmond, Virginia, with Alfred Mordecai, then thirteen years of age, and his father, their “baggage secured to a rack behind with leather straps. As the journey was made partly at night, we had a small cord tied to our trunk and passed into our hands, that we might know if the trunk was cut off.” In New York in 1819, we gaze with Alfred at his uncle’s fireplace, “faced with blue Dutch tiles, containing a Scripture story . . . ;” and years afterwards, at West Point, hear “the shout, almost of derision, which greeted, at even our military mess, the first announcement of Gen’l Jackson as a candidate for the presidency.”

Fellow Jews, we go with Henry Cohen in Philadelphia in 1845 to “Abraham Hart, who . . . kept open house on the eve of Purim. . . . [Henry Cohen] dressed as an Eastern Pilgrim, and of course masked, which was the custome [sic] in those days.” Leopold Mayer, visiting Dr. Leo Merzbacher’s “Reform” congregation in Christie Street, New York (1850), notices that the men are divided into two groups, “one class composed of those with hats, the other of those with caps.” Across the continent, in San Francisco, we watch with Toby Rosenthal’s eyes of a painter (about 1865) “the herds of cattle . . . driven to town by the lasso-swinging buckaroos. . . . These mounted horsemen still wore their old costume: a flat sombrero with a wide ribbon and colored tassels, a short but richly embroidered jacket, a colorful band around the waist, leather trousers reaching to the knee, and, with all this, huge, mediaeval spurs with little bells. . . .”

Far to the south, “At Cerro Gordo [during the Mexican War]. . . . Step by step we . . . pull our guns up by ropes, forty or fifty men, attached with one hand to the rope, and with the other hand getting a hold on some grass cactus or any other old thing, so as to keep a footing and not to roll down again, with gun and all, and the Mexicans continually firing on us, from above” (Jacob Hirschhorn). At St. Louis in 1855, “the graveled river bank piled high with a mass of merchandise: bales of cotton, hogsheads of sugar and molasses, stacks of wood, and great stores to be transported to the military posts and new settlements up the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers. . . . A line of low wooden buildings, mostly with flaring signs of groceries, or cheap restaurants, formed the background. . . .” The “business part” of St. Paul as also seen by Amelia Ullman: “. . . one or two good-sized brick buildings and a collection of rough, unpainted, frame shanties . . . only a few persons upon the street [for it was Sunday] and most of these were tall, erect, wild-looking creatures, wrapped up in colored blankets and having feathers braided in their long black hair.”

Here are those who saw “Shelley plain,” as August Bondi saw John Brown wearing a plush cap and with a cavalry saber and “a very large revolver”; as Major Raphael J. Moses saw the Confederate generals, Jeb Stuart and his banjo player thrumming and singing, “Come jine the cavalry,” Pickett, who led the charge at Gettysburg, with ‘his hair in long ringlets, and Lee, “calm as a summer cloud”; and as Simon Wolf saw Lincoln, tall, gaunt, and solemn, “his clothes hanging loosely, eyes beaming. . . .” Heyman Herzberg went through the battle lines of Confederate and Union armies twice; and, for another example of adventure, Lewis Leon fought as a private in a North Carolina regiment, drinking “coffee” made of parched corn, living on crackers with worms in them and mule meat, trying to sleep in spite of the owls hooting in the swamps all around, seeing “The Yankees . . . poorly buried . . . several heads, hands, and feet sticking out of the ground, where the rain had washed the dirt off them.”

But, for the most part, here are the private campaigns men have waged for their livelihood, obscure griefs that only a handful have known, and small triumphs. However, these are the coral whose skeletons helped build the foundations of our society; and to lift their memoirs from obscurity and publish them, as Dr. Marcus has done, is a great service to our understanding of the Jews in this country and the tides in which they had their being.

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