Writing Home: A Letter from an Early American Jew
We know little about Rebecca Samuel, the author of the featured document in this guide, outside of what her letters provide for us: a slice of her life as a Jewish woman in early America. In this letter, originally written in Yiddish in the 1790s to her parents in Hamburg, Germany, Samuel describes her life in Petersburg, Virginia. She vividly portrays the challenges of keeping a Jewish household, her wishes for her children, and her excitement about the prospect of moving to Charleston, South Carolina. This Go & Learn guide uses Rebecca Samuel’s captivating letter as a centerpiece for interactive sessions about Jewish immigration and the development of the Jewish community in America.
- Jewish immigrants to early America had more freedom than they did in Europe, but life was difficult and they still faced various forms of discrimination.
- Jews in early America were ultimately accepted, in large part due to their business contributions.
- Where did Jews who immigrated to early America come from and why did they leave their countries of origin?
- What can we infer about the experience of Jews in early America from Rebecca Samuel’s letter to her parents?
- How does Rebecca Samuel feel about America?
Introduction: Origins of the American Jewish Community
The first American Jewish community began in September 1654, when the ship the Sainte Catherine docked in New Amsterdam. Among the passengers were 23 Jews—a group of men, women, and children—who had started their journey in Brazil. Along the way, the ship was attacked by pirates, and all of the worldly goods that the emigrants had brought with them were taken. Nonetheless, the travelers were hopeful as they reached the shores of what we now call New York.
These first arrivals were Sephardic Jews, Jews whose families were originally from Spain and had fled from the Inquisition, which forced all non-Catholics to convert or leave by August 1492. Some Sephardic Jews fled to countries across Europe and the Mediterranean, while others settled in Portugal until 1580, when Portugal and Spain were united under one rulership, and again the Jews were forced to leave.
Holland, in northern Europe, was a haven of tolerance for the Jews, as well as a booming center of business. In 1630, Holland took over the Portuguese colony of Brazil, and many Dutch citizens moved to the new colony or traveled back and forth to do business there. The Dutch Sephardi Jews were at a real advantage in this trade because they knew both the Dutch and Portuguese languages. A thriving Jewish life existed in Brazil, with synagogues, a rabbi, a Jewish school, and approximately 5000 Jews at the community’s height. But in 1653, Portugal regained control of Brazil, and the province’s remaining Jews took flight once again.
Some of the Brazilian Jews returned to Amsterdam and others found homes across the West Indies, but 23 found their way to a small Dutch outpost in North America, trusting that New Amsterdam would match the tolerance of its namesake. When they arrived, however, the Governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, believed the Jews would “infect and trouble this new colony,” and he ordered them to leave on the next boat. The Jewish community protested, confident in their status as upright Dutch citizens. Prominent Jews in Amsterdam wrote a letter on their behalf to the Dutch West India Company, stating their case. Months later, the answer came in the form of a letter to Governor Stuyvesant, saying that barring the Jews from New Amsterdam would be “unreasonable and unfair.” The letter did require, however, that in order for the Jews to stay, they would have to look after their own people and not depend on any charity from Christians.
Life was not easy for these first Jewish settlers. Governor Stuyvesant was still unhappy about the presence of Jews in the colony. He forbid them to trade along the upper Hudson River and refused to let them enter the militia (a task all other free men engaged in). But both Jewish assertiveness and practical realities overtook Stuyvesant’s discriminatory principles; Jewish men fought for the right to greater trade, the Dutch West India Company overruled Stuyvesant’s restrictions, and as necessity required more able-bodied men to fight the Native Americans, Jews were soon allowed to take on that role as well.
Jews continued to arrive in the newly British colony throughout the 1600s and 1700s. These were both Sephardim and, increasingly, also Ashkenazim (Jews of Central and Eastern European descent). In some regions of America, they met certain restrictions because of their religion, especially in the devout Puritan areas, such as Massachusetts, where Jews were not allowed to settle or build synagogues until the 1800s. In other regions, Jews were welcomed, built synagogues, and had thriving communities. Records date the first congregation to 1693 at the latest, in New York; in 1730, this congregation built the earliest North American synagogue. The oldest synagogue that still exists is the Touro Synagogue, in Newport, Rhode Island, built in 1763.
Overall, Jews enjoyed much more freedom in the new country than they had in Europe. Jews in America could own land, engage in any type of business, employ Christians, and mix socially with Jews or non-Jews, and they had access to the same legal system as Christians. Though they were sometimes received coldly, Jews in early America were ultimately accepted, in large part because of their commercial roles. Jewish business networks spanned from Europe to ports throughout the New World, and the first significant Jewish communities in America were built in the port cities of New York, Philadelphia, Newport, Charleston, and Savannah.
- For youth:
Seeing your Jewish community through different eyes
- For family/congregational education:
Pioneering spirits: A personalized history of our Jewish community
- For adults:
The Jewish community in America, past and present
Letter from Rebecca Samuel, c. 1790s
I hope my letter will ease your mind. You can now be reassured and send me one of the family to Charleston, South Carolina. This is the place to which, with God’s help, we will go after Passover. The whole reason why we are leaving this place is because of [its lack] of Yehudishkeit [Jewishness].
Dear parents, I know quite well you will not want me to bring up my children like Gentiles. Here they cannot become anything else. Jewishness is pushed aside here. There are here [in Petersburg, Virginia] ten or twelve Jews, and they are not worthy of being called Jews. We have a shohet [slaughterer of animals and poultry] here who goes to market and buys terefah [nonkosher] meat and then brings it home. On Rosh Ha-Shanah and on Yom Kippur the people worshipped here without one Sefer Torah, and not one of them wore the tallit or the arba kanfot, except Hyman and my Sammy’s godfather. The latter is an old man of sixty, a man from Holland. He has been in America for thirty years already; for twenty years he was in Charleston, and he has been living here for four years. He does not want to remain here any longer and will go with us to Charleston. In that place there is a blessed community of three hundred Jews.
You can believe me that I crave to see a synagogue to which I can go. The way we live now is no life at all. We do not know what the Sabbath and the holidays are. On the Sabbath all the Jewish shops are open, and they do business on that day as they do throughout the whole week. But ours we do not allow to open. With us there is still some Sabbath. You must believe me that in our house we all live as Jews as much as we can.
As for the Gentiles, we have nothing to complain about. For the sake of a livelihood we do not have to leave here. Nor do we have to leave because of debts. I believe ever since Hyman has grown up that he has not had it so good. You cannot know what a wonderful country this is for the common man. One can live here peacefully. Hyman made a clock that goes very accurately, just like the one in the Buchenstrasse in Hamburg. Now you can imagine what honors Hyman has been getting here. In all Virginia there is no clock [like this one], and Virginia is the greatest province in the whole of America, and America is the largest section of the world. Now you know what sort of a country this is. It is not too long since Virginia was discovered. It is a young country. And it is amazing to see the business they do in this little Petersburg. At times as many as a thousand hogsheads of tobacco arrive at one time, and each hogshead contains 1,000 and sometimes 1,200 pounds of tobacco. The tobacco is shipped from here to the whole world.
When Judah [my brother] comes here, he can become a watchmaker and goldsmith, if he so desires. Here it is not like Germany where a watchmaker is not permitted to sell silverware. They do not know otherwise here. They expect a watchmaker to be a silversmith here. Hyman has more to do in making silverware than with watchmaking. He has a journeyman, a silversmith, a very good artisan, and he, Hyman, takes care of the watches. This work is well paid here, but in Charleston, it pays even better.
All the people who hear that we are leaving give us their blessings. They say that it is sinful that such blessed children should be brought up here in Petersburg. My children cannot learn anything here, nothing Jewish, nothing of general culture. My Schoene [my daughter], God bless her, is already three years old; I think it is time that she should learn something, and she has a good head to learn. I have taught her the bedtime prayers and grace after meals in just two lessons. I believe that no one among the Jews here can do as well as she. And my Sammy [born in 1790], God bless him, is already beginning to talk.
I could write more. However, I do not have any more paper.
I remain, your devoted daughter and servant,
Rebecca, the wife of Hayyim, the son of Samuel the Levite
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Writing Home: A Letter from an Early American Jew." (Viewed on January 20, 2017) <https://jwa.org/teach/golearn/nov05>.