By Rabbi Sam Yolen of Lebanon PA
Two years ago a lady walked into my office and said she had taken a DNA test. “The results” she said surprised,“I’m a few percentage points Jewish,” then a pause, “What does that mean?” We talked for a while and I found out more about her story. She grew up in the Dominican Republic and her grandfather was a deacon. We discussed her family history and I asked her about how she had made it to The United States. What we both did not expect wasthat after our first meeting we would be travelling on a journey into history and learning together about the earliest Jewish influence in the New World. Moreover, we would learn just how special our shared history of religiousfreedom is. Some of those insights are found below.
The first Jews that came to the Americas were by and large, refugees from Spain and Portugal. In 1492, the same year Columbus discovered America, Jews were kicked out of Spain and then Portugal. This was the result of Ferdinand and Isabella’s effort to solidify the power of the Spanish Crown and to reconquer the Iberian peninsula from the Andalusian Muslim influence – the beginning of The Spanish Inquisition. Estimates of the expelled Jewish refugee population range from a quarter million to half a million, and the newly formed Spanish Jewish diasporaspread everywhere. Jewish refugees went to England, to Morocco, to the Dutch Netherlands, to the far east, to the Middle East, and most importantly, to the newly discovered Americas. It’s important to note that while many Jews escaped persecution, many more were killed or forcibly converted. There are still Christian Spaniards today who light shabbat candles and practice derivatives of Jewish customs dated from this period.
As Columbus landed on the shores of America, so began the genesis story of the Jewish history of America. Columbus’s navigator was Jewish, and the physicians on his crew were “secret” Jews, unable to profess religion outwardly for fear of reprisal from the Spanish Inquisition. The first openly Jewish settlement was in the Dutch town of Recife in 1624, though it was assumed Jews had been active earlier. One clue is that when the Columbus family owned Jamaica through the 1500s, the Columbus family petitioned the Spanish Crown to keep the influence of The Inquisition far away, thereby saving the conversos, marranos, and secret Jews from religious persecution. Jews fleeing Spain did not want to keep records of their religious history, and much of what we know is circumspect, however this record changes with the eventual immigration to the United States of America, as America was founded on liberal philosophies like religious toleration.
In the States, the Oldest Jewish congregation was founded in New York City in 1654. The Spanish and Portuguese refugees from Brazil barely escaped the Inquisition again, this time fleeing the settlement of Recife in Brazil, as the fledgling Dutch colony surrendered to Spain. Those early Latin Jews fled to the United States with the promise of religious tolerance. With last names of synagogue presidents and rabbis like Gomez, Moreno, Pardo, Seixas,Lucena, Mendes and Angel, this community thrived as a beacon of hope to the distressed and persecuted Jews of the former Spanish crown, and also to the secret Jewish communities dotted across Islands in the Atlantic Ocean.Many such islands with Jewish populations were
the Indies, Puerto Rico, Hispanola, Tortuga, Curacao, Barbados, Grenada, Cuba and Jamaica. Even Mexico had a large budding Jewish population, with early immigration beginning in 1519, yet significant numbers arriving between1580 and 1640. While documentation is scarce because of the impact of the Inquisition, scholars find it curious that the first coins minted in Mexico city (in the 1530s) feature the Hebrew letter Aleph in place of where across would be.
Similar to the settlement of New York, the earliest Jewish communities of Pennsylvania were encouraged to move and trade by William Penn around the 1680s. William Penn thought that Native Americans would speak a dialect of the Bible, and being as Jews knew Hebrew, this would help develop the territory of Pennsylvania. The earliestJewish congregation was formally created in the 1740s known as “Mikveh Israel” in Philadelphia. Separate Jewish Native American traders banded together and, coordinated with some of the Jewish businessmen of New York City, purchased a cemetery plot. At this time, in the early 1700s, and following the aforesaid pattern, Jewish Spanishrefugees had settled among the whole Delaware valley.
Regionally, the earliest Jew known in Lancaster was a Spanish refugee and Native American trader known as Isaac Miranda, and he had a farm of over 200 acres on the susquehanna in Chester county. Isaac Miranda died in 1732, after he had converted to Christainity and left a family in the area.
It’s hard to believe that the earliest wave of Jewish immigration to the Americas was almost solely from Latin America. It is also difficult to reckon that this wave of refugees was lost to time. Now that the effects of the persecution of the Spanish Inquisition has been distilled from memory, and appears in only a few arcane studies, most people have forgotten it. While the American Journal of Human Genetics has discovered many historic surnames still in use by Latin Americans that denote Jewish ancestry, other than a few genetic markers and a vestigial last name, there are scant remaining clues of a historic and painful exodus. Coincidentally, in 2015, the government of Spain has agreed to give citizenship to anyone who could prove that their family was a refugee of the Spanish Inquisition, though progress on that bureaucratic paperwork seems to be edging along at a standstill, it still shows that the religious door to a historic lineage is open, albeit closing more every year.
As I admire the Latin influence on my town of Lebanon I wonder just how many centuries back in time our families extended to, and just how possible it was that we were neighbors in those far off lands. I also appreciate how unique a town like Lebanon is, to bring us back together again. Through this historical journey I am reminded of the poem on the Statue of Liberty, written by Emma Lazarus, herself the daughter of a Portuguese Spanish Jewish family whose father owned a sugar refining business. The poem, which greeted my ancestors arriving to Ellis Islandin America for the first time, is entitled, “The New Colossus,”
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse ofyour teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp besidethe golden door!”