Scenes from the September re-enactment of the first Jews to arrive in America. Actors dressed in period clothing sailed to South Street Seaport to kick off the yearlong celebration of Celebrate 350: Jewish Life in America.
Photos by Michael Datikash
In September of 1654, 23 Jewish refugees arrived in New Amsterdam on the Ste. Catherine from Recife, Brazil. Fleeing persecution, they hoped to make a living and practice their religion among 800 Dutch settlers. Three hundred and fifty years later, the Jewish mayor of New York City’s eight million people stood at the South Street Seaport and kicked off a day of speeches, concerts, and theater to celebrate the arrival of the first Jewish community in North America. We’ve certainly come a long way.
“It matters to teens to help them know more of the history of their people and their own community,” said Alice Herman, executive director of the steering committee of Celebrate 350: Jewish Life in America. “Many people have no idea that the Jewish community dates back as far as 1654 and that Jews were founders of this country.” While many Jewish teenagers may not judge this year’s commemoration as overwhelmingly exciting, the remarkable story of American Jewry deserves to be studied and celebrated. After all, there is a clear link between the 13 young people estimated by historian Arnold Wiznitzer to have traveled on the Ste. Catherine and the hundreds of thousands of Jewish young people alive today. By struggling, persevering, and keeping the faith, those first 23 Jews laid the foundation for the populous Jewish communities now spread across North America.
At first it wasn’t easy. Over the fierce objections of the Dutch governor of New York City, Peter Stuyvesant, the Jews earned the right from the Dutch West India Company to travel, trade, and remain in New Amsterdam. The West India Company “voted with their pocketbooks” in making this decision, according to Jonathan Sarna, a Brandeis professor and resident scholar for Celebrate 350. “Most Jews were involved in one way or another in commerce,” he explained in an e-mail message. While the West India Company wanted to economically stimulate the colony, it was an important step in protecting religious tolerance. In 1663 the company wrote to Stuyvesant, “Shut your eyes … allow everyone to have his own belief, as long as he behaves quietly and legally.”
The British conquered New Amsterdam in 1664 and renamed it New York. They continued to tolerate Jews, a policy that contributed to steady Jewish immigration from Europe and the West Indies to the colonies. Jews organized themselves into communities in New York City, Philadelphia, Newport, R.I., Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga. By the time of the American Revolution, 1,500 to 2,500 Jews lived in the colonies. After massive immigration from Central and Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries about 3.5 million Jews lived in the United States — 1.4 million of them in New York City. Today, 1.4 million of America’s 5.6 millions Jews live in New York City, Long Island and Westchester County.
While these population statistics are telling and impressive, the Jewish community has traditionally viewed “counting its people” with caution. More important than the number of people is the spirit and fervor of American Jewry. Jews have risen from Lower East Side tenements to key positions in American society. For instance, according to the Web site jbuff.com, 85 percent of Jewish high school graduates attend college compared to 40 percent nationally and about 25 percent of Ivy Leaguers are Jewish. According to the site, 10 percent of the Senate and 6 percent of the House of Representatives is Jewish whereas 2 percent of the American population is Jewish, so proportionately Jews have 10 times more representation in the Senate and three times more representation in the House.
Jews have also assumed prominent roles in the media and the entertainment industry. From the bagel to words like “kvetch” to American support of Israel, Jews have made their mark on this country. They have simultaneously strived to define themselves religiously, culturally, and politically. The process that began 350 years ago continues in full force today.
The events organized for this year’s 350th anniversary started in September and range from concerts to lectures to film screenings on the American Jewish experience. Some dates worth noting: On Nov. 3, a lecture on Yiddish drama will take place at the 92nd Street Y. The Jewish Museum, cosponsored by Shearith Israel, will host a Sephardic family festival on Nov. 21 to celebrate the contributions of Sephardic Jews to American Jewish culture. Sephardic Jews were among the first to arrive in this country. On Dec. 8, visitors to the 92nd Street Y can take in the “Music and Dance of the Jewish Wedding — Bukharan” concert followed by its Moroccan equivalent on Feb. 3. For those who would like more information on these programs and others, Celebrate 350: Jewish Life in America 1654-2004 maintains a helpful Web site at www.celebrate350.org.
“To study the history of American Judaism is … to be reminded anew of the theme of human potential,” Sarna writes in the introduction to “American Judaism: A History.” So let’s celebrate our past, our thorny and storied struggles to define ourselves. Let’s celebrate who we are now. And most of all, let’s celebrate the future of American Jewry — looking forward to another 350 years.
Solomon Schechter High School
New York in Manhattan.