06 January 2009

Early Jewish records: New York, Jamaica

American Jewish History, founded in 1892, is the official publication of the American Jewish Historical Society, the oldest national ethnic historical organization in the US and includes every aspect of the American Jewish experience. It is published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

The issue (Volume 91, Number 3-4) for September-December 2003 is available here. This is a free issue - full articles are available in HTML or PDF format. Two are of interest to Sephardic and Ashkenazi genealogists.

Leo Hershkowitz contributed Dutch Notarial Records Pertaining to Asser Levy, 1659-1692. Levy was an Ashkenazi Jew from Vilna who was one of earliest Jewish residents of New Amsterdam. Hershkowitz has accessed early records in which Levy appears and also unearthed family relationships. Read the complete article here
He is Professor of History at Queens College of The City University of New York; author and editor of works including, Wills of Early New York Jews (1704-1799) and (with Isidore Meyer) The Lee Max Friedman Collection of American Jewish Colonial Correspondence: Letters of the Franks Family (1733-1748). His annotated transcription of "Original Inventories of Early New York Jews (1682-1763)" appeared in the last volume of American Jewish History.


Among the voluminous records found in the Gemeente Archief (Municipal Archive) in Amsterdam are notarial archives, many of which relate to the New Amsterdam Jewish experience 350 years ago. Here can be found legal and business papers, as well as ones that contain such vital statistics as marriages, births, and deaths. While these records make the past more understandable and help to answer many questions, paradoxically they also raise new issues in their wake.

Letters, diaries, journals, and the like are largely absent for the earliest period of American Jewish history, the mid-seventeenth century. Merchants and entrepreneurs seem to have had little interest in commenting on their lives so that future generations could readily comprehend their motives and desires. Theabsence of such "windows" makes the Gemeente Archief notarial materials all the more important. They are a major link with what was. Published here are several documents selected from the Archief that pertain to Asser Levy, the first permanent Jewish inhabitant of New Amsterdam. Like Levy, a number of Jews arrived at that frontier settlement in 1654, but he is the only one to have remained, dying in 1682 in English New York. There are no other known prior deaths of Jews in the city. His career as merchant, land speculator, and butcher provided a cornerstone for a future Jewish presence.

Levy was born in or came from Vilna, then Poland, but after Cossack pogroms he went to Schwelm, near Dusseldorf, then Amsterdam and in 1654 to New Amsterdam. In 1660 he returned to Germany and then back to New Amsterdam again.

The author asks why he travelled to and from Schwelm and what he did there. Why did his contemporary Joseph d'Acosta travel frequently to Hamburg? What German archival records can provide information? Why did he do in Amsterdam and why did he spend his life there, when the other early Jewish residents moved on to other locations.

The next article, by Eli Faber, is Letters from Jamaica, 1719-1725, which includes letters from Diego Luis Gonsales, his son Abraham Gonsales, and Nathan Simson, along with information on 18th century commerce and history pertaining to Jamaica, New York and London. Read the complete article here.
He is Professor of History at The City University of New York (John Jay College of Criminal Justice; The University Graduate Center), and serves as editor of American Jewish History. He is the author of Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight, and currently is working on a history of the Jews of New York City during the 20th century.

Here's an excerpt:

The letters transcribed here were written by Diego Luis Gonsales (Gonzales) and his son, Abraham Gonsales, both of Jamaica, to Nathan Simson of New York andLondon. Informative about many commercial matters, they underscore the importance of transatlantic ties for Jewish settlers in England's New-World colonies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Jews who settled in colonial America aspired to careers as merchants whoparticipated in the international commerce that spanned the Atlantic basin. Such trade provided the economic basis for the small seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Jewish communities that developed in New York, Savannah, Philadelphia, Newport, and Charleston, with the most successful merchants often serving asleaders of the congregations that arose in those locations.

Success in commerce during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries depended upon participation in a transatlantic network of merchants connected by ties of religion and, when possible, family. This was true not only of Jewish merchants but also of businessmen who belonged to other contemporary ethnic and religious groups, notably Quakers and Huguenots. Such connections provided a large measure of trust and stability in an era in which commercial correspondents had no other means for ascertaining the reliability of their counterparts in the scattered, distant ports that spanned the Atlantic trading world, which ranged from Western Europe to Madeira, the Azores, Africa, the Caribbean, the North American mainland, and the coasts of Central and South America.

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