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Adventures in Jewish Studies

The Association for Jewish Studies Podcast

Episode 29: Jews in Colonial America



Erin Phillips: Welcome to “Adventures in Jewish Studies,” the podcast of the Association for Jewish Studies. In every episode, we take you on an entertaining and intellectual journey about Jewish life, history, and culture, with the help of some of the world’s leading Jewish studies scholars. I’m one of your hosts, Erin Phillips, and today, we’re discovering the New World with the earliest Jewish Americans – settlers and traders who came to the British colonies in the eighteenth century, just like Thomas Paine and Alexander Hamilton.

Okay, maybe they weren’t just like those guys. But Jews were far more numerous in the North American colonies than you might think. Sephardic Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent established thriving communities in New York; Newport, Rhode Island; Savannah, Georgia; and Charleston, South Carolina. And in Philadelphia, Ashkenazi Jews of German descent created their own enclave of opportunity. They came from the rest of what scholars call the Atlantic world – the cities and colonies bordering the Atlantic Ocean who were newly connected by maritime discovery and trade. They arrived as early as the late 17th century, and made names for themselves as merchants, traders, and investors. They built and operated the first American synagogues – without the help of Rabbis or ordained religious leaders. They lived uniquely, unabashedly Jewish lives while blending deeply into the hodge podge cultural landscape of the British and Dutch colonies that would later become the United States. Letters, account books, newspaper advertisements and other sources offer us a glimpse at the histories and lives of Colonial Jews. But as we’ll see, scholars are still putting the pieces together to give us a better understanding of these fragmentary stories. Today, two of those scholars will help us understand – as best we can – who the first American Jews were, their social and religious lives, and how they helped shape colonial history.

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Phillips: Like many of the first colonial settlers, the first Jews to arrive in North America came seeking an escape from religious persecution.

Dr. Shari Rabin: The first Jews in North America to become subjects of the English crown, were Jews in what was New Amsterdam, but then, what was renamed New York in 1664. 

Phillips: This is Dr. Shari Rabin, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and Religion and Chair of Jewish Studies at Oberlin College.

Dr. Rabin: And those were a group of Jews, they're very kind of famous in the lore of American Jewish history. They had been living in Dutch Brazil, when the Portuguese re-conquered that territory and brought with them the Inquisition, and having public Jewish identities they had to leave. So, they went to New Amsterdam. But it was Dutch at the time, right? So, they were still remaining under Dutch rule. And it wasn't until ten years later, 1664, that they suddenly found themselves under English rule.

Phillips: Out of the 900 or so Jewish people that historians believe lived in Dutch Brazil at the time, only 23 found themselves on the shores of New Amsterdam in the 1660s. But in just a few short decades, they’d be joined by a growing number of Sephardic Jews from around the Atlantic world, who had been driven from Spain by the Inquisition.

Dr. Toni Pitock: The earliest that were circulating in the Atlantic world were conversos, or crypto Jews, and they were in some of the Spanish colonies. 

Phillips: This is Dr. Toni Pitock, assistant teaching professor of History and Co-Director of the Judaic Studies program at Drexel University. She’s talking about conversos – Jews who converted to Christianity as a result of the Spanish inquisition. And also, crypto Jews, a subset of conversos who continued to practice Judaism in secret. The religious upheaval in Spain and its colonies pushed many of these outcasts out into the rest of the Atlantic world, where they could reclaim their culture and religion.

Dr. Pitock: So, when Jews were expelled from Spain, and then later, when they moved to Portugal, there were some Jews who opted to convert, they were called new Christians. So, at the stage when they were circulating early on in the Atlantic world, they were operating as Christians, often called “new Christians.” Often, they were identified as such, that they were not the same as other Christians. Some of them continued to practice Judaism in secret. And so, hence the term crypto Jews. Some of them did not. But these were among the first people of Jewish descent. who settled in the New World. And as the Dutch established colonies, and then later the British, they Judaized. And moved both to Amsterdam, and to London, and to the colonies associated with those empires. 

Phillips: Dutch and British port cities like Amsterdam and London, as well as their colonies like Barbados and Port Royal, Jamaica, were some of the safest places Jews could settle, which, Dr. Rabin notes, is pretty ironic given some historical context.

Dr. Rabin: Jews had been banned from living in England in 1290. And it wasn't until the 1650s that Jews were sort of tacitly allowed back in English territory, first, actually, in Barbados. And then, after a big sort of public debate in London. So, when English colonization began, during that period, Jews weren't allowed to live in England altogether. 

Phillips: Nevertheless, by the time crypto Jews and newly reconverted conversos were looking for safe places to land, the Dutch and British colonies were high on the list. And as these Jews left Spain, Portugal, and Brazil in search of freedom and safety, they brushed up against maritime traders and some became involved themselves in the movements of goods and people. As these particular Jewish families took up trading businesses, each new port city they visited became a new opportunity. And these traders were the first Jews to turn their attention – and the sails of their ships – towards North American colonies like New York. Here’s Dr. Pitock.

Dr. Pitock: So, especially early on, because there were no Jewish communities that were established, the people that went to the colonies were those who were looking for trade opportunities. So, they had some stuff of their own. Well, most of them must have had because it was too difficult to break into trade unless you had family connections, unless your family had some kind of capital, unless your family was well established in trade already. You couldn't just show up in a place and say, “I'm going to be a merchant now. I'm going to trade with you.” Because there was a scarcity of cash. And so, there were complex arrangements that had to be made to cooperate with someone in trade. So, the people who came had to have been participants in usually kinship, sometimes ethnic, trade networks. And so it was their connections to other people, it's the credit they had within these networks that gave them access, that gave them the ability to participate in commerce.

Phillips: Dr. Pitock explains that five port cities in particular became hubs for Jewish traders and migrants.

Dr. Pitock: So, before the revolution, five centers – five Jewish centers – took root in what would become the United States. New York was one of the earliest ones. Rhode Island, Newport, Rhode Island, although they only built a synagogue in the years leading up to the revolution. There was also a community in Savannah, Georgia, and in Charlestown, North Carolina. There was also a community that established itself in Philadelphia. In contrast, to the Sephardim that I've been talking about, though, that community in Philadelphia was really established by Ashkenazi Jews. And so. their whole profile was quite different from the other Jews who arrived with their well established trade networks.

Phillips: While most of these communities, as Dr. Pitock notes, were built up over time via the individual migration of Jewish traders, Philadelphia, and also Savannah, both offer exceptions. Dr. Rabin highlights the unique origins of the Jewish community in Georgia’s port city.

Dr. Rabin: Savannah is interesting, because that was a group of Jews being essentially sent by the Jewish community of London. It was a group of 41 Jews sent to this colony, which the Georgia was explicitly designed to be a sort of charitable utopia and a refuge for religious refugees, which many of the planners just assumed that it was clear that they meant Protestant refugees – Protestants who were being persecuted in continental Europe by Catholic rulers. But the Jewish community of London heard,” hey, refuge for religious minorities, a new utopian project,” like, “we'll send our group, too.” So, that is sort of an interesting example, because it was a group that was sent by by philanthropists in London rather than sort of individual gradual migration, which is what you see in Charleston.

Phillips: Despite differences in their origins, location and size, the major centers of Jewish life in what would become the United States shared common social and religious structures. And the Jews who arrived to them, while they may have arrived from vastly different locations, shared a commitment to practicing Judaism in the New World.

Dr. Rabin: Those Jews brought with them Judaica, and came prepared to start practicing Judaism and gathering for worship. 

Philips: Dr. Pitock reminds us, however, that when it came to religious infrastructure, these communities were starting from scratch. Which meant gathering for worship looked a little different.

Dr. Pitock: There were no rabbis at this point. So, there were lay leaders that oversaw the community. And they formed a board that coordinated all the needs of the community. And so,it was the lay leaders, who were usually the wealthy merchants who were in positions of authority.  And so once there was a large enough community that supported sort of the growth of Jewish institutions. So, historians have suggested that in New York, Jews who were living there, certainly by the turn of the 18th century, were gathering for prayer, either in a rented space or in someone's home. They eventually built a synagogue of their own in 1728. And at that point, there were something like 30 families. So, it took three decades, even a little bit more from the time that there might have been, you know, a quorum of of Jewish men to form a minyan until they had enough of a community to justify building a synagogue.

Phillips: Even before they constructed their first synagogues, though, colonists began to establish the identities of their congregations. Early lay leaders chose names, structures, and meeting spaces for prayer groups. And these names tell us a lot about the types of worship that went on in the New World. Often, they mirrored trends from the rest of the Atlantic world. Here’s Dr. Rabin again.

Dr. Rabin: Yeah, so in general, in the sort of Jewish Atlantic world, as Laura Leibman has written about, there was a fervent Messianism in many of these communities. And one place you can see this is in the name of the congregations. New York's congregation was Sh’ar Israel, remnant of Israel. Savannah was Mikveh Israel, hope of Israel. So they shared this kind of Messianism with other Jewish congregations in the Caribbean and Amsterdam and in London. And they maintained connections to those congregations as well. There were ties kind of within and amongst different Atlantic Jewish world congregations.

Phillips: Like Jews throughout the rest of the Atlantic World at the time, American Jews leaned into messianic ideals – perhaps because of their time spent as New Christian conversos, perhaps because of their traumatic experiences with the Inquisition. Regardless, their tinges of messianism should not be confused with Christianity or the Messianic Jewish movement we hear about today. These communities kept to their largely Sepahardic Jewish traditions, from the prayer books they read to the food on their plates.

Dr. Rabin: Now, all of these congregations did follow the Spanish and Portuguese rite. And that continued on even after demographically the congregations became more and more kind of German. They kept those historic Spanish and Portuguese rites and they also remained very traditional – expectations of Sabbath observance, kosher food observance, etc. 

Phillips: But keeping certain traditions, like kashrut, or kosher eating, was a lot harder without Rabbis or other religious experts around. At first, colonists made do however they could. But after a while, Dr. Pitock explains, they began to fill in the gaps in their expertise.

Dr. Pitock: During the colonial period, probably later colonial period, there were people who had certain skills that arrived and served as functionaries. So, there were people who were trained in circumcision. So, they served as the communal circumciser and there are some of their records that we still have today that indicate, you know, kind of all the circumcisions that they performed over a long period of time. In their everyday life, though, those people were traders of some sort, usually. You know, they might have had a shop or they might have gone on the road and sold goods. You know, they might have gotten goods on consignment from some other merchant that they sold. There were people who were trained in kosher slaughter. So, they brought the instruments with them. They brought the special knives that they needed. Some of them brought a certificate to show that they were qualified to slaughter in the specific way. So, those were the first people who came that performed rites and rituals, shall we say? That needed some kind of special training.

Phillips: In their religious life, these leaders performed essential services and were deeply invested in their culture and community. In their public life, they continued to operate as everyday traders and colonists. And Dr. Pitock explains that this is the perfect representation of how Jews fit into the multicultural landscape of the colonies.

Dr. Pitock: Scholars have emphasized that Jews inhabited two domains or two realms, the worldly, or secular realm, on the one hand, and then the private, or Jewish realm, on the other hand. So, in their own homes, they observed to the best of their ability. We have really valuable records from Abigail Levy Franks in New York that give some kind of indication that they observed the Sabbath, that they observed the dietary laws, that they were regular attendants at the synagogue. But that was their specifically Jewish world. Beyond that, her husband was a wealthy merchant. They lived among non-Jewish neighbors, some of whom were colleagues, some of whom were friends. When they went out into that secular world, it doesn't seem like there was any difference. They had social relationships with some of their neighbors. And they would even go during the summer. Abigail Levy Franks, you know, of occasion would sort of go further up north with friends and stay in their country homes for a period of time. What she did about about observing kashrut, observing the dietary laws, when she was there, there just is no indication.

Phillips: We’re going to come back to Abigail Levy Franks before the end of this episode, but her records offer us valuable insight on just how entwined Jews and colonists were commercially and socially. In many areas, like Savannah, which, as you may remember, was designed as a utopian escape for religious outcasts, the mission and vision of the colonies was one that required acceptance for Jews and their practices. Here’s Dr. Pitock again:

Dr. Pitock: There was great diversity in the colonies. And we're used to that today. But at the time, sort of, this is what marked America. This is what marked the colonies, that there were people coming from so many different places that were sort of coalescing together. So, you had people coming from different countries speaking different languages, observing different religions. And even for Protestants, you know, they didn't all see themselves as observing one religion. The differences between the different groups were significant. So, Jews were just another group sort of in this mass of people who had differences in their identities.

Phillips: But while Jews found a relative degree of social, economic, and even legal freedom in the colonies, that doesn’t mean their place in the New World was secure. Perceptions of Judaism shifted rapidly during this entire period of history. On the one hand, Jews gained unprecedented rights throughout the 18th century in the Atlantic World. On the other hand, as Dr. Rabin highlights, the framing of these rights demonstrated just how precarious and contested their identities were.

Dr. Rabin: What's so fascinating to me about this time period is that you're seeing these sort of really big shifts in how Jews are understood and treated in European Christian societies, broadly. And you see this – one of my favorite documents is the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina from 1669, which kind of sets up what the colony of Carolina is going to look like. And there's a part of this plan for the colony, which specifically argues that “Jews heathens and other dissenters from the purity of the Christian religion will be allowed to gather for worship.” So, on one hand, long before they had a real congregation, they could have, according to at least the the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina. But what's so interesting to me about this phrasing, this specific mentioning of “Jews, heathens and other dissenters” is that I think it speaks to the sort of, in between place of Jews in colonial society and how much it's changing, right? You know, England didn't even allow Jews to settle within its territory at all for centuries before the mid 1650s. And now, Jews are starting to show up in Barbados. There's this debate in England in the 1650s that leads to the tacit allowance of Jewish settlement in London. So there’s this shift to include Jews. There still is this kind of old Christian antagonism toward Jews, but understandings of human difference are changing all over the place because of the Protestant Reformation. Righ? Suddenly, there's this Protestant-Catholic antagonism. The Enlightenment, which starts to introduce, you know, ideas of toleration and natural rights. And also the project of colonialism, which brings Europeans into this new exploitative relationship with indigenous Americans and Africans.

Phillips: In order to complete the picture of how Jews operated in colonial society at this time, we also need to talk about their relationship to whiteness. We’ve got a whole podcast episode exploring the question, “are Jews white?” But here’s Dr. Rabin on the early North American colonial answer to that question:

Dr. Rabin: What you see in this period is that Jews do get access to a lot of rights, but it often requires them being understood implicitly, or sometimes even explicitly, as Protestant dissenters. So, you see this sometimes when there's naturalization laws for Jews, is that they get swept under a broader naturalization of Protestant dissenters. Amidst all these changes, “white” is emerging as a sort of new category that becomes more important than “Christian” in defining colonial society. Historians have written about literally how the word “Christian” is crossed out and replaced with “white” in colonial documents, which is, in large part because indigenous Africans and Americans had started to convert to Christianity. So, suddenly, “Christian” felt a little too inclusive of people that they didn't want to include. But interestingly, the shift from “Christian” to “white” opens up this space for Jews to be considered, you know, as the highest kind of rung of colonial society and to be included as white.

Phillips: So, colonial Jews operated in a liminal space between Christians and oppressed groups like indigenous Americans and African enslaved peoples. They benefited immensely from the privilege of their skin color and their European origins, while still grappling with centuries of antisemitism, distrust and violence, that often left them on the outskirts of full acceptance. Unfortunately, because of these intricacies, it’s important to note that Jewish traders and colonists, like White settlers around them, did participate in the slave trade, especially in Southern colonies like Charleston. Here’s Dr. Rabin again:

Dr. Rabin: Yeah, so Savannah does eventually get slavery and becomes a majority enslaved society by the end of the 18th century. And Jews participate in that there. And slavery is very much a part of Carolina from the very beginning. In fact, one of those early documents from the 1690s of Jews in Charleston, is a writ of sale between two Jews of an enslaved man named Dick. And enslaved people are referenced and named in many Jewish documents from this period, including business documents and also in wills. So, yeah, Jews, like other white colonists – European-descended colonists – you know, understood, enslaving people as a means of economic advancement, and they took advantage of it,

Phillips: It’s necessary to acknowledge that Jewish economic success in the colonies did, in many cases, rely on slavery – whether Jews were directly involved in the slave trade, owned slaves themselves, or did business with those who did. They benefited from a degree of whiteness that allowed them to exploit the labor of enslaved people, and they willingly participated.

We’re able to understand this troubling but important aspect of colonial Jewish history, though, thanks to business and economic records from the time. In fact, beyond the subject of the slave trade, these documents are some of the most valuable source material we have in the study of colonial Jewry more broadly. Dr. Pitock explains some of the sources she turns to to fill in the details.

Dr. Pitock: Account books, where there are long lists of who owed a merchant or a trader money, what they what they had purchased from them, on the one side, and on the other side, what that merchant or trader might have purchased, right? What were his expenses? Who did he owe money to? So, that gives a sense of who their business associates were, what book wealth they might have had – right, keeping those records – and also the kinds of products that they bought, the kinds of things that they bought and sold. Newspaper advertisements, often mentions of Jews, mentions of a marriage or someone's death. In some cases, and again, this applies to the poorer Jews, Jews who were indentured servants and had run away or who had stolen some items of goods from, you know, theirmaster, the person that they were working for, and their master was looking for them

Phillips: The sources available allow us to piece together a vision of what life was like for Jews in the North American colonies, but they leave many unanswered questions, particularly about the everyday Jews who were less involved in major trading and prominent business endeavors. And this can be frustrating for the scholars who study this period. Here’s Dr. Rabin again:

Dr. Rabin: When I first started studying American Jewish history in college, someone told me, you should study the earliest of the history as you can. And so, I went and started looking at the Colonial sources. And basically, I abandoned colonial Jewish history because it felt like there wasn't enough. So, there are, out of New York, especially, there's letters from certain prominent Jewish families. In Savannah, we have the Sheftall diaries, the records that Benjamin Sheftall, and then his son Levi, maintained about the activities of the community. There's some amount of business records. In some places, not in Charleston or Savannah, but in other places, there are congregational minutes, like out of New York. There are wills, which we do have some of in Charleston and Savannah, and gravestones. So, there are sources out there, but it's not voluminous, and it certainly, as would maybe be expected, certainly the source base is biased in favor of those who were kind of wealthy and prominent and had a sense of self-importance to maintain their documents.

Phillips: This bias is one of the reasons Dr. Pitock likes exploring personal letters — while still quite formal, they offer us some of the best glimpses into Colonial life and what it was like for all kinds of Jews at the time, not just wealthy merchants.

Dr. Pitock: It's through the letters that I understand their Jewish practice, because there'll be tiny little mentions. One person who lived in Reading, Pennsylvania, a small little town, you know – by car, it's 45 minutes, I guess it was a lot further, you know, back then. But he owned a shop in Reading, Pennsylvania, and he would send letters. Many of them were actually written in Yiddish. The dates were always the Hebrew date. So that, you know, it gives you a little bit of a sense of their Jewish lives. It gives you a sense of their business lives, because they share, “oh, well I sent this. And I’ve paid someone else on your behalf.” And also their personal lives. You know, sometimes there were things that were going on in their lives that they mentioned. So, they’re really rich material.

Phillips: Because of the nature of this colonial record-keeping, the families with the best-preserved collections of letters and other documents have ended up becoming prominent characters in the study of colonial Jewry. While they may have been only mildly prominent at the time, the richness of detail around their lives has become a stand-in for the hundreds of ordinary colonial Jews we may never know anything about. For Dr. Pitock, one such family are the Levy-Franks of colonial Philadelphia and New York.

Dr. Pitock: There's two families, the Levy’s, and the Franks’s. So, these were two Ashkenazi families starting out in London, who, you know, kind of there was just a very small population of Ashkenazim in London. And they were among them and they were among the elites – very few elites – in that community. David Franks, one of Jacob Franks’s sons, came to Philadelphia. And together with his uncle, Nathan Levy, Moses Levy’s son, they really formed the foundations, the seeds of the Jewish community in Philadelphia – not because they necessarily established any institutions for congregational life, but because they made it possible for other Jews to migrate to Philadelphia, to start up their businesses in Philadelphia.

Phillips: The Levy-Franks, according to records, continued to play an influential role in Jewish life in colonial Philadelphia, all the way up until pre-Revolutionary War. For many Jews, this period became a tumultuous moment that upended their business supply chains, forced them to rethink their identities, and even migrate to different colonies. While scholars generally agree that most Jews fell to the Patriot side, the Levy-Franks were an interesting exception and case study. Here’s Dr. Pitock again.

Dr. Pitock: So, for David Franks, for example, his business was nothing without his ties to England. And at a certain point, he did write a letter to his brother to say like, you know, I'm thinking about coming over there because things aren't looking good for me. And his brother said to him, you’re gonna have a hard time starting out, yeah, you know, you should stay there. 

Avishay Artsy: A letter to David Franks from his brother Moses Franks in England.

“Dear brother,

I observe you mention a design you had of coming hither, had your [account] and certificates been ready – however mutual your friends are in their wishes to see you, they surely are more pleased that you did not put your intention in practice; this is not the time for such excursions… Every individual who have yet come here in this predicament have repented – and wish it undone. Your Sister DeLancy finds it so… she does not think her situation to be envied. Think of this, and do not let caprice of any sort, nor any influence prevail on you to quit… your own home where you can live the master of your own time and of your own will and disposition; circumstances which nothing can compensate the loss of.

Your affectionate Brother, Moses Franks”

Phillips: David Franks did stay at his brother’s behest, but with complicated ties to England, his situation in Revolutionary America took a turn. Here’s Dr. Pitock again.

Dr. Pitock: But then he was accused of being a loyalist and he was expelled from Pennsylvania. So, the circumstances kind of decided his position. So, he went to New York for a period of time because the British were occupying New York. Eventually, he got to London, where two of his sons had moved to England by that point. And he made a claim from the British government. And, you know, he said, I'm a loyalist, I lost everything. You know, kind of and he claimed reparations, essentially, from the British government. It doesn't seem like he ever, you know, kind of earned anything back. It seems from some records that he made his way back to Philadelphia to try and wrap up some of his business. He had purchased a lot of land in Pennsylvania, land that was expected to become very valuable. It was a huge project, there were a lot of investors in this project. And so, he came back to try and sell what he had and wrap up his business. And then he disappears from the record. And no one knows where he's buried. For a period of time, he was believed to be buried in the Christ Church graveyard in Philadelphia, but it has been established that that was David Salisbury Franks, a nephew of his but not him. And so, no one knows, you know, kind of what happened beyond that point.

Phillips: Individual stories, like that of David Franks and his family, offer us a perfectly imperfect portrait of this time and place. On the one hand, they follow many patterns that are typical within the limited records we have. On the other hand, they contain gaps, exceptions, mysteries, and contradictions. It’s part of the challenge of studying this particular niche of history, one Dr. Pitock notes can be radically different from the rest of the Jewish American story.

Dr. Pitock: For a very long time scholars have looked at colonial American Jews, you know, kind of the period as being a prelude to American Jewish history. And I think that's the wrong way of looking at it because these people were really part of the Atlantic world. And it's a whole different lens that you use to understand their lives. 

Phillips: But while the study of the Atlantic World helps us better understand the lives and legacies of colonial Jews, Dr. Rabin notes, colonial Jewry can still conversely teach us much about American Jewish history and American history as a whole.

Dr. Rabin: It helps show the deep Jewish roots in the places that became part of the United States. Early on in the sort of field of American Jewish history, that was a real focus is proving Jewish bona fides as Americans by showing the depth and the length of that history. Certainly, in a time when there are still people questioning Jewish belonging, it's not nothing to be able to point to this long history. But I think, you know, sort of the flip side of that is showing kind of that this early period of history shows how entwined Jews have been in the country's history, including, in its more troubling legacies. You know, it's hard to study this period, especially in places like Charleston and Savannah, without understanding how central the exploitation of Black and indigenous peoples were to laying the groundwork for Jewish life and to making Jewish life possible in the first place. So, it shows kind of how much Jewish history and American history are intertwined and have been intertwined from the very beginning. And I think it also helps us to sort of see what was new and what was not new about the United States specifically. You know, I think it's tempting to see 1776 or 1789, as, you know, a radically new beginning. And in some ways, it was. Right? We have this new nation that's uninterested in Jews as such in all of its founding documents, which kind of assumes that European descended Jews are going to have rights. And that is notable. But that was not just the sort of magical work of these documents out of nowhere. Right? It was a process of a long history of reconfiguring the place of Jews in Christian societies on the part of Christians, and also, it's a product of the effort of Jews themselves living in these places for many decades. So, I think it provides important perspective on the U.S. to sort of zoom out and see that it was created by this earlier and longer history.

Phillips: The Jewish communities of colonial New York, Rhode Island, Philadelphia, Savannah, and Charleston were more than just a prologue to the rest of the Jewish American story. They were real people who migrated, traded, prayed, celebrated, and participated inextricably in colonial life. They brought prejudices and biases of their neighbors to light, while grappling with many similar prejudices and biases towards indigenous and enslaved peoples. They sought both to blend in and to maintain their distinct religious and cultural identities. While evidence for how they lived their daily lives is challenging to piece together, the stories we do have offer fascinating vignettes of an often-neglected era of history – one that scholars will continue to piece together in the years to come.

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“Adventures in Jewish Studies” is made possible with generous support from The Salo W. and Jeannette M. Baron Foundation and from the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation. The executive producer of the podcast is Warren Hoffman. I’m the lead producer for this episode, and producer Avishay Artsy was the voice of Moses Franks.

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Episode Guests


Toni Pitock

Toni Pitock is assistant teaching professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She has published articles on Ashkenazi trade networks in the British Atlantic world and on Philadelphia’s early Jewish community. Her manuscript in progress is entitled “Trust and Confidence: Jewish Networks, Philadelphia, and the Atlantic World, 1736-1783.”


Shari Rabin

Shari Rabin is associate professor of Jewish studies and religion at Oberlin College. She is the author of Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America (NYU Press, 2017), which won a National Jewish Book Award in American Jewish Studies, and is currently completing a new narrative survey of southern Jewish history.

Episode Host


Erin Phillips

Erin Phillips is an audio producer, communications professional, and Jewish educator from Alexandria, Virginia. She has a BA in Social Innovation and Enterprise from George Mason University. Erin has produced thought-provoking stories for popular shows like Out There and the Duolingo English podcast, as well as local community radio.

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