Jewish Holy Days

Jewish holy days

Jewish holidays were celebrated by a faithful few in 18th-century colonies. Martha Katz-Hyman outlines the early traditions.


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.

Joining me today is Martha Katz-Hyman, who is retired from Colonial Williamsburg, but not really. She still does everything. In colonial Williamsburg, Anglican was the official faith at the beginning. Then, during the Great Awakening, various Protestant denominations gained ground. Jews were never a huge influence, but they were an influence. Ms. Katz-Hyman knows that history.

Was there ever a synagogue in Williamsburg?

Martha Katz-Hyman: There was never a synagogue in Williamsburg until the 20th century. In fact, the only synagogue in Virginia in the 18th century was in Richmond. Even that was not founded until after the Revolution.

Lloyd: I know there was a synagogue in Rhode Island, because, believe it or not, Rhode Island was a center of religious freedom. I think the first was in New York.

Martha: Correct. The first and the oldest congregation on the North American continent is congregation Shearith Israel in New York City. There were five other congregations, what are considered the six colonial Jewish congregations: one in Philadelphia, the one in Rhode Island, the one in New York, one in Savannah, one in Charleston, and the one in Richmond. The six of them sent a letter to George Washington after the Revolution congratulating him upon his election to be president. He wrote back to them a very famous letter, saying that in this new country, there would be acceptance and toleration of all religions.

These six congregations – Richmond included – were very happy about that. Jews came to this country initially in 1654, fleeing persecution that had dogged them throughout the ages. The people who came in 1654 to New York were fleeing Brazil and the Spanish re-conquering of Brazil from Holland. They had fled to Brazil, fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. So, 1492 is not only when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but when Jews were forced to leave Spain, and then Portugal, under pain of death or conversion.

Lloyd: I remember the Inquisition. Trying to remember the name of the guy who was the chief bad guy …

Martha: Torquemada.

Lloyd: Yeah, that's him. Actually, I did not know the Jews had been forced to flee Brazil. But if the Spanish came, they would have to get out.

Martha: That's right. And they came to New Amsterdam. Peter Stuyvesant was not very happy. He, like many Europeans, had no great love for Jews at all. In fact, we would call him probably anti-Semitic today. But, he did not want these Jewish refugees – 23 of them – in New Amsterdam. So he wrote to his superiors in Amsterdam, saying, "Please give me permission to push them out." Unfortunately for Peter Stuyvesant, but happily for the history of the Jewish community in this country, the powers that be in Amsterdam said, "Unfortunately, you may not like the Jews being here, but stay in New Amsterdam they will." As it turns out, there were a lot of funders of that colony in New York who were Jews in Amsterdam. Money talked then as it talks now. So, even though Jews did suffer disabilities – not physical disabilities, but legal disabilities – in New York in the 17th and 18th centuries, they stayed in New York. They founded their congregation, which continues today.

Lloyd: Do you know when Jews got to Virginia?

Martha: There are instances here and there of Jews coming through Virginia. As you said in your introduction, this being an Anglican church colony, it really wasn't a really amicable place for a Jew to be. They would not go to church, but had to support a state-supported church. Because of this, there really aren't many that we know of before the Revolution. Here and there. I'm trying to remember now, in the early 18th century, but really none to speak of until late in the 18th century.

Ironically however, on my way to talk to you, I remembered that Ivor Noel Hume wrote an article in the journal about the lost colony in North Carolina. One of those people who came was, I believe, a Joseph Gans, who was a chemist. It was thought that he could find gold, refine gold. He left, went back to Europe, but he may be one of the first Jews that we know of, that we have documentary evidence of in this part of North America.

Lloyd: In the 2007 holiday issue of the journal, there is, or will be, and online as well, an article about the Jews and the freedom to celebrate the high holy days. It is an article for which you supplied not only expertise, but some props as well. You can see pictures of those in the online version. You brought in some pictures. One is a menorah that looks like it hangs on a wall. Every menorah I've ever seen is shaped, and you put in nine candles and you light one per day. This, you said is oil?

Martha: It's an oil menorah. It’s a reproduction of one that was probably used in 18th- 19th-century Eastern Europe, or even in the Middle Eastern countries – Yemen – where Jews lived for thousands of years. It is an oil Hanukkah menorah, as opposed to a Sabbath menorah. There are two kinds: one that has seven branches for the seven days of the week, and one that has nine for Hanukkah. This is a Hanukkah one. You fill the little cups with oil and you light it that way. I've used it that way in my home. In an era when candles were very expensive, you did not want to use candles for what was basically a ceremonial purpose. Once you light these lights, you don't blow them out, you don't put them out deliberately. That is, you let the oil burn itself out. And if it's a candle, by the end of Hanukkah, you have used 44 candles. That's a huge expense in the 18th century, whereas a little bit of oil with a little bit of cotton wicking is a much more cost-effective way to observe your holiday.

Lloyd: I read in the article that you can never be quite sure of a Jewish community, because the synagogue, or temple, is not as important to Jews as a church is to Protestants or a cathedral is to Catholics. Jews care more about the congregants than they do about where they congregate.

Martha: You are absolutely right. You do not need a building to have worship services in the Jewish faith. All you need are – even one person can pray in private – but a communal service needs 10 people. In the 18th century, this was 10 men. Today, with our varieties of Jewish practice, that includes women. But in the 18th century, 10 men over the age of 13 was all it took, in one place, to conduct a service. You didn't even necessarily need a Torah scroll -- that is the scroll of the first five books of the Bible written in Hebrew. Yes, you want to have a Torah, you want to be able to read from the Bible, but to have your prayers, you do not need to have the Torah there. So, it's very easy. If you could gather 10 men, you could have a service. You did not need to have a rabbi, all you needed to have was someone who was knowledgeable in the ritual and could say the prayers and lead the people.

Lloyd: Even if there were 10, 15, 20 Jews in Williamsburg, you would not necessarily find a synagogue.

Martha: That is correct, although there were never that many Jews in 18th-century Williamsburg. We know of one who lived here in the 18th century. That was Dr. John deSequeyra who was at the Public Hospital. Even he did not identify publicly as a Jew, to our knowledge. There is very little written documentation that he left about his own personal life. He did leave a diary of the weather, and of illness, but he wrote very little about his personal life. So we don't know whether he identified as a Jew. Everyone else knew in the city that he was Jewish, but he had no community. There was no community in Williamsburg.

Bernard and Michael Gratz, who lived in Philadelphia, did business with the General Assembly. They came down to Williamsburg to conduct their mercantile business and their trade with the colony. But they didn't stay here. They went back up to Philadelphia where they did have a congregation, and family, and a Jewish community.

Lloyd: In those days, Philadelphia was the largest city, was it not?

Martha: Yes. Philadelphia was the largest city. It had a large active congregation. During the Revolutionary War, when fighting came to New York and the New York area, many of the Jewish inhabitants fled south to Philadelphia. After the war was over, they returned to New York.

Lloyd: So actually, Europe, Spain, Brazil, the United States – Jews never were accepted and welcomed anywhere, were they?

Martha: I think you're correct. There was always something, whether from a theological standpoint, from an economic standpoint. Jews have gone from place, to place, to place, to place, and in America, have found a home where we can practice our religion freely, openly, have positions in all walks of life, and all areas of industry, of economic life. Truly, anywhere you go in this country, you're apt to find at least one Jewish person, although now, especially in the South and the West, it's becoming more difficult when you go to a smaller town to find Jewish people. But I would not be amiss in saying that in the United States, Jews have found a very hospitable home.

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Visit to learn more. Check back often, we'll post more for you to download and hear.

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