Colonial Period in the United States
More so than some of their counterparts in England’s Caribbean colonies, Jewish women in colonial North America occupied traditional positions and played traditional roles within the Jewish community as well as in the larger society. They could not serve in positions of leadership in either the Jewish or the general community, and they are not known to have had their own social organizations. Their primary occupation was that of homemaker, although, in an extension, several kept lodgings in which poorer Jewish individuals lived at the Jewish community’s expense.
Marriage, the central event in the life of a colonial Jewish woman, occurred for the first time at an average age of twenty-three; men were approximately seven to ten years older. The exceedingly small size of the Jewish population in colonial North America necessitated choosing marriage partners not only from among the local population but also from among the Jewish communities located elsewhere in North America, in the Caribbean, and in England. Marriage thereby created networks of personal ties that spanned the Atlantic world. Such networks bestowed commercial advantage on the Jewish merchants who resided in each location and comprised the upper ranks of each Jewish community. The small size of the Jewish population also probably accounts for the occasional marriages with non-Jews, although Jewish women appear to have entered into such marriages less frequently than Jewish men did.
Women who married men from other parts of the Atlantic world might well remain in their home communities with their new spouses, but they might just as likely move to their husbands’ communities, separated by great distances from their own parents, siblings, and friends. Participation by Jews in international commerce led to still other forms of family disruption and separation for colonial Jewish women. Merchant husbands traveled frequently and extensively, while sons were often posted to distant ports to act as commercial representatives for their families.
Families of means engaged private tutors for their daughters, but girls may have also attended the school maintained by the Jewish community, which taught secular as well as religious matter, although there is no direct evidence that they did. Evidence regarding the extent of literacy among them also is inadequate, but it appears from the wills of men who named their wives as their executrixes that many colonial Jewish women were quite literate and had been educated to the point of being capable of administering what in some cases were sizable estates.
Their presence as the executrixes of estates suggests, as well, that Jewish women had some experience in business matters, although few functioned as businesswomen in their own right. Although some owned land or kept lodging houses, and one in New York (Grace Levy Hays, 1690–1740) is known to have kept a retail store, the majority who were exposed to commercial affairs functioned primarily as ancillaries to their husbands, either by assisting them as clerks or by watching their businesses when they traveled. A comment by Abigail Franks of New York in a letter to her son in 1745 exemplifies the prevailing norm: “As to wath relates to buissness I have Soe little knowledge of It that I Leave the Explainat[io]n of it interely to y[ou]r Father....”
Jewish women in colonial America regularly received property and money in the form of bequests in the wills made by husbands, fathers, brothers, and other male relatives. Impoverished women also received funds, including dowries for marriage, through the communal allocations that were regularly made to the poor.
Orthodox practice prevailed within the walls of the synagogue, the community’s primary institution, so that colonial Jewish women sat apart in an upstairs gallery during services and participated in worship in only a passive manner. Nonetheless, they made voluntary financial contributions to the synagogue and, when they made wills, bequeathed funds to it as well as to the Jewish community in general.
In contrast to Jewish women in the mainland colonies, those in England’s Caribbean colonies had more visibility outside of the home. At Nevis, Esther Pinheiro owned several ships in her own right as well as in partnership with men as far away as Boston, and her ventures in international commerce spanned the Atlantic between 1710 and 1728. Jamaica’s Jewish population during the eighteenth century included a small number of women who paid annual trade taxes, indicating that they had their own businesses. Women there comprised approximately one-third of the Jewish individuals who applied for and became naturalized under the terms of the Act of Naturalization passed by Parliament in 1740. And in Barbados, women by the end of the century paid the finta, the annual assessment imposed on all members of the Jewish community, setting the stage for efforts by female rate payers in the early nineteenth century to obtain a voice in communal governance.
Congregation Nidhe Israel, Bridgetown, Barbados. Records. Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation, London; Daniels, Doris Groshen. “Colonial Jewry: Religion, Domestic and Social Relations.” American Jewish Historical Quarterly 66 (1976–77): 375–400; Hershkowitz, Leo, ed. Wills of Early New York Jews (1704–1799) (1967); Hershkowitz, Leo, and Isidore S. Meyer, eds. Letters of the Franks Family (1733–1748) (1968); Kingston Poll Tax Records (1792–1805). Jamaica Archives, Spanish Town, Jamaica; Kingston Vestry. Minutes (1744–1749, 1769–1770). Jamaica Archives, Spanish Town, Jamaica; Marcus, Jacob Rader. The American Jewish Woman, 1654–1980 (1981), and American Jewry—Documents—Eighteenth Century (1959), and The Colonial American Jew, 1492–1776, 3 vols. (1970); St. Catherine Poll Tax Records (1772–1774). Jamaica Archives, Spanish Town, Jamaica; Stern, Malcolm H. “The Function of Genealogy in American Jewish History.” In Essays in American Jewish History to Commemorate the Tenth Anniversary of the Founding of the American Jewish Archives under the Direction of Jacob Rader Marcus (1958).