A Revolutionary Torah

Shearith Israel scroll, with burn marks still on it, is centerpiece of New-York Historical Society’s reopening exhibit.

11/15/2011
Staff Writer
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In August 1776, George Washington and his troops retreated to Manhattan Island. The British had just routed his rebel army in Long Island, and Washington tried desperately to hold onto what little perch of New York he could. But by November, the British expelled his army from Manhattan, which the British occupied throughout the Revolutionary war.

During the occupation, thousands of rebel sympathizers fled the city, and for good reason: British troops ransacked the city, setting fire to homes, bridges and even New York’s only synagogue.  Many members of the congregation — Shearith Israel, founded in 1729 and the only synagogue in New York for nearly a century — fled the city, too.

But at least one remarkable artifact survives from the congregation’s tumultuous Revolutionary years: a Torah scroll that still has burn markings on it, and that is now on display at the New-York Historical Society. It is being shown in a mini-exhibit called “The Resilient City,” along with four cityscapes by contemporary artist Richard Hass, as part of the society’s three-year, $65 million reopening. 

“Because the Torah scroll touches on so much of American history, and of New York history, we decided to show it,” said Debra Schmidt Bach, a curator at the society. In addition to the scroll, prominently displayed on first floor, Shearith Israel — whose current synagogue, built in 1897, is adjacent to the museum — lent dozens of artifacts from its own collection for an exhibit on the society’s fourth floor titled “Treasures of Shearith Israel.”

“Most people, when they think of Jewish immigration to New York, they think of the late-19th century” when the vast majority of the today’s New York Jews arrived, said Louise Mirrer, the president and chief executive officer of the New-York Historical Society. “But [Jews] were here for a long time, and were an important part of the city. … In order to tell that story we tried to get whatever we could from Shearith Israel.”

Some of the artifacts in the fourth-floor exhibit are evidence of the congregation’s deep roots in New York — or rather, New Amsterdam. The first Jews ever to set foot in North America immigrated to Manhattan Island before it was even a British colony. 

In 1654, 23 Jews arrived in New Amsterdam, a Dutch colony, fleeing what is today Brazil. The Portuguese had just ousted the Dutch from their South American colony, and Jews were no longer welcomed there. Most went back to Amsterdam or to the British Caribbean colonies, but a handful went to what is now New York.

“The people who showed up [in New Amsterdam] in 1654 arrived there not by choice, but by accident,” said Noah Gelfand, a historian of early American Jewry who teaches at the University of Connecticut and Hunter College. Not only were Jews forced to flee Brazil once the Portuguese took over, he explained, but the Dutch governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, tried to expel them, too.

Stuyvesant had little success. New Amsterdam was essentially a commercial enterprise, and Jewish merchants played a small but significant role in the company that ran it, the Dutch West India Company. The company’s shareholders, several of them Jewish, ordered Stuyvesant to allow the 23 Jewish refugees to stay. 

“Peter Stuyvesant was basically told by his employers: ‘Back off,’” said Eli Faber, a leading historian of Colonial American Jewry. “But,” Faber added, “by 1660, those Jews disappear from the record [and] I feel there’s no conclusive way to explain why they left.”

Some may have left because of lingering ant-Semitism, but a more probable explanation, Faber speculates, is that business was not going well. Four major companies back in Amsterdam dominated Dutch trade, and they may have had a negative effect on the Jewish community’s chance for success. 

But there was at least one Jew who remained in the colony — Asher Levy — and the exhibit showcases a handwritten inventory from his shop. Dated from 1683 and written in fine cursive script, the list details many goods he bought and sold: beef, wheat, clothing, sugar; he even worked at times as a barber. “In those days, people didn’t specialize,” said Faber.

The Shearith Israel congregation that lives on today, however, probably dates to the early 18th century — despite the congregation’s claim to being connected to the original 23 Jews.  Scholars like Faber argue that there is simply no evidence that those first Jews stayed for long, and that a new wave of Jews from both Amsterdam and the British Caribbean colonies began arriving in the 1680s. 

There were around 100 Jews in Manhattan at the turn of the 18th century, and the first time the congregation’s name appears is in 1706. About 20 years later, the congregation built its first synagogue in Lower Manhattan, on today’s South William Street. To consecrate the occasion, it bought two Torah scrolls — one Sephardic, another Ashkenazi — since the community was split. And during the Revolution, the British attacked both scrolls, though it is the Ashkenazi one that is now on display.

“They set one on fire, and they slashed the other with a sword,” said Rabbi Hayyim Angel, the current rabbi at Temple Shearith Israel. Jewish law requires that desecrated holy texts be buried, but Angel and other scholars speculate that the community realized the historic value of the damaged scrolls and kept them instead. 

Of course, it is not entirely clear where the scrolls were kept during the seven years of the British occupation. Most of the Shearith Israel congregants fled the city, since they were rebel sympathizers; perhaps they took the scrolls with them. But another possibility is that that the British forces protected them. The British employed Hessian soldiers to help fight the war, and at least one of them in the city was Jewish, said Bach, the curator.

In any event, the pillage of the synagogue was probably not an anti-Semitic attack. “It was part and parcel of the vandalism that was going on throughout the city,” said Bach. Moreover, British commanders harshly punished the two British soldiers who attacked the synagogue. “One was lashed so severely he died from his wounds,” she added.

Shearith Israel keeps several artifacts from its long history on display at its current Upper West Side home, though most are kept in a storage facility. But this is the first time the burned scroll has been on display since 2004, when the congregation celebrated the 350th anniversary of the Jewish arrival in New York.

On the fourth-floor exhibit, several other prized possessions are on view. There is a circumcision registry that records male births from 1756 to 1787, and it shows how connected Jews were throughout the colonies and early states. The Shearith Israel mohel traveled to Connecticut and Rhode Island, the document makes clear, performing the Jewish rite.

Rare Judaica by the famed Colonial silversmith, Myer Myers, is also on display. He made his fame, and fortune, for non-Jewish colonials. But the congregation also commissioned him, and the exhibit features Sabbath candleholders and a Chanukah menorah by Myers. 

But items from the 19th Century can be seen as well: two portraits of Jews who fought in the War of 1812; relief aid pamphlets for Civil War soldiers, a campaign led by the congregation’s woman; even a book of poems by Emma Lazarus, a congregation member and revered writer whose poem, “The New Colossus,” adorns the Statue of Liberty.

It is her words — “Give me your tired, your poor, / your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” — that welcomed the hundreds of thousands of Jews fleeing Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th Century. Those Jews came to define American Jewish life for the next century, and continue to do so. But few realize that Lazarus, a Sephardic Jew, had roots that went back to Colonial New York and its first congregation, Shearith Israel.

“They have a phenomenal collection,” Bach said of the congregation, “and their history is really an incredible part of American history.”

“The Resilient City” and “Treasures of Shearith Israel” opened on Nov. 11 at the New-York Historical Society, and will be on view for about four months. The museum is located at 170 Central Park West. (212) 873-3400.
 

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