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Who Knew?

by Karla Goldman

In early September 1654 a small group of Jewish travelers, fleeing Portuguese persecution in northern Brazil, disembarked in New Amsterdam (present-day New York). Although these refugees were not the first Jews to arrive in North America and only a few of them remained on the continent for very long, twentieth and twenty-first century American Jews have adopted them as the founding pioneers of their community.

Unlike earlier arrivals, these Jews were not male traders seeking their fortunes in the New World. In fact, we embrace this group of "twenty-three souls young and old," as our forebears precisely because it appears that the majority of them were women and children. This has signified to their successors that this group came not just to seek their fortunes, but to make a life.

Peter Stuyvesant, the colony's governor, recognized this distinction when he sought his superiors' permission to expel them. These destitute Jews constituted a threat to his desire for religious homogeneity because the presence of women and children gave them the ability to establish a meaningful community and home. New Amsterdam's records yield little information about the lives of the women in this group. Yet, without the women, Stuyvesant may not have reacted so negatively to the Jewish presence. And without the resulting Jewish resistance to Stuyvesant's attempted exclusions, the American struggle for religious freedom might have emerged quite differently.

As we contemplate the 350th anniversary of the arrival of those 23 children, women, and men, we must pay careful attention to the stories about these beginnings and the 350 years that have followed. Unless we take full measure of the ways that Jewish women have shaped both Jewish community and American society at large, the 350th commemorations will leave us with impoverished notions of whom we have been and whom we might become.

That has happened before. The last time American Jews took collective note of their beginnings was 50 years ago on the 300th anniversary of the New Amsterdam landing. At that time, a national campaign promoted the celebratory theme of "man's responsibilities and opportunities under freedom." The anniversary became a platform for Cold War sensibilities in a way that voided female accomplishments. Tercentenary narratives, celebrating the work of Jewish men in advancing America's panoply of blessings, seemed almost willfully to deny women any meaningful role, even in the dramas in which they had played principal parts.

Much has changed over the subsequent 50 years. Transformations in women's roles have been central to fundamental restructurings of society at large, and of American Judaism in particular. Now, women expect to be recognized for their public as well as their private roles. Historians, moreover, have been working for 25 years to reveal the fullness of women's historical contributions, both public and private. Yet, far too often, the story of American Jewish experience is still told with little reference to women's lives.

The stories we tell in this anniversary year will reveal more than our past; they will also illuminate who we have become. The Jewish Women's Archive encourages you to take advantage of our commitment to ensure that the stories we tell in 2004 and 2005 truly honor the richness of our history. Use the resources catalogued here and contact us as you formulate your own innovative celebrations. Join us in celebrating all of who we have been and aspire to be. Let's work together so that, 50 years from now, American Jews will be look back and see a community that truly did honor to its past, its present, and its future.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Who Knew?." (Viewed on December 21, 2014) <http://jwa.org/350years/history>.

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