An Odyssey From Amsterdam to Philadelphia

By Hannah Lee

As a companion program to the Rembrandt and the Faces of Jesus exhibit now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) hosted a lecture on the journey taken by Sephardic Jewry from the Old World to the new one.  William Pencak, Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University, gave the standing-room-only audience (many at the NMAJH for the first time!) a historical tour that featured the role of the Dutch in Amsterdam and in Philadelphia.

More after the jump.

Painting of Mikveh Israel, 1775-1783, Synagogue of the American Revolution.

Rembrandt’s Jews in the Synagogue, The Jewish Museum

First, Professor Pencak wanted to rebute “The Jewish Rembrandt” exhibit held in Amsterdam a few years ago that attempted to deny a Jewish influence on Rembrandt’s works.  In Rembrandt’s “Jews in the Synagogue” of  1648, the people depicted in the painting are garbed in robes and hats as did the Ashkenazic Jewish refugees to Amsterdam, not like the cosmopolitan Sephardic Jews who sought to blend into upper class Dutch society, as in the “Portrait of Jan Six” of 1654.  In “Balthazar’s Feast” of 1635, there is Hebrew inscription on the upper right corner, but the words are written erroneously in a vertical instead of horizontal direction.  In “Moses Smashing the Tables of the Law” of 1659, the two tablets are depicted according to Jewish tradition, not the Christian imagery of the time.

Next, Professor Pencak gave a brief overview of the Jewish expulsion from their homes in Spain, Portugal, and England.  Of the Dutch nation of the Netherlands, then comprising of Holland and Belgium, Amsterdam in Holland became the center for Jewish life.  The Ashkenazic Jews started arriving about 30-40 years after the Sephardic Jews, and by the 1670’s  there were separate synagogues for Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jewry.  

The Jewish community was tight-knit, with the Sephardic synagogue documented exacting a tax of ½ of 1% of a family’s income.  Of some 3,000 Jews who lived in Amsterdam by the end of the 17th century, over half of them received relief from the community.  The Netherlands was not uniformly tolerant of Jews, with the rural states less so than the urban centers, including Antwerp in the Belgian half.

The Jews thrived in Amsterdam, with the first synagogue established in 1618.  The first Jewish play and the first book of poetry were written there.  The heretical philosopher Spinoza was excommunicated along with 766 other Jews in the 17th century for immoral behavior, which later included intermarriage with the Ashkenazic Jews.

The Dutch’s main economic interests were in the New World colonies of Brazil, Curaçao, and Surinam (formerly the Dutch Guyana) that focused on sugar plantations, which brought Jews into involvement with the African slave trade.  Enjoying equal rights, Jews comprised up to a third of the population in Brazil at the time.  In 1654, Jews were chased out of Brazil and many went back to Amsterdam, but one ship of 23 Jews got diverted and landed in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (later renamed New York).  

Director-General Pieter Stuyvesant was a Calvinist (Dutch Reform Protestant) and a former soldier who banded with the Dutch clergyman to protest the arrival of the Jews.  However, their appeal to the Dutch West Indies Company was denied and the Company insisted that the Jewish refugees stay, in part because they were Dutchmen and in part because Jewish investors had influence in the company, and the Company even offered to support the new arrivals if they proved unable to support themselves, according to Jewish communal values.  

New Amsterdam became the colony of the Duke of York (the brother of the British King Charles II) in 1664 and being a Catholic, he extended religious freedom to all, including the Jews.  When Asher Levy asked for burgher rights as a freeman, it was a right enjoyed by Jews in the Netherlands, and when freemen got the right to vote in 1664, so did the Jews.

In the 1730’s, the Jews started coming to Philadelphia, with the German Jews —  the Levys and the Franks — being prominent.  Nathan Levy built the first cemetery at Mikveh Israel on 8th and Spruce Streets, although they found that in colonial America, they had to build walls for their cemeteries in an attempt to preserve the headstones.  These German (Ashkenazic) Jews adopted Sephardic rites of worship.  When Mikveh Israel built its first synagogue (after the cemetery, because Nathan Levy’s young child had died) in 1782, its location was moved because of protest that its proposed site next to a church would offend the Dutch Reform Protestant congregants.  Prominent Philadelphians such as Benjamin Franklin and Robert Morris contributed to its building fund.  

Whereas the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island, experienced split loyalties during the American Revolution, there were no Jewish Loyalists (loyal to the British crown) in Philadelphia and Jews served prominently in financing and otherwise supporting the revolutionaries.  Haym Solomon was especially appreciated for his skill in converting foreign currencies into a form usable by the colonists, but he did not stand up in his synagogue on Yom Kippur to raise funds for the Revolution.  This myth was raised by an audience member and refuted by both the Professor and Rabbi Albert Gabbai, the current spiritual leader of Mikveh Israel, the oldest continuously functioning synagogue in this nation.

An audience member asked about the role of the Mennonites, who are known to be a very tolerant group, but the Professor pointed out that the Mennonites were never in a position of political power.  Jews, in fact, were never in a position of political power, so they were so often slandered as scapegoats for the ills of society.

The President and CEO, Michael Rosenzweig, then invited the members of the audience to tour the new museum, which highlights the journey of Jews who’d fled from turmoil and travail in the Old World to earn stability and prominence in this New World of ours.

Jewish Soldiers in Blue & Grey


To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, the National Museum of American Jewish History presented Jewish Soldiers in Blue & Gray,  a first-of-its-kind documentary that reveals the little-known struggles that faced Jewish-Americans both in battle and on the home front during the Civil War. This film reveals an unknown chapter in American history when allegiances during the War Between the States deeply split the Jewish community. It examines a time when approximately 10,000 Jewish soldiers fought on both sides; 7,000 Union and 3,000 Confederate. It exposes General Ulysses Grant’s controversial decision to expel all Jews from his territory, and tells the stories of President Lincoln’s Jewish doctor who serve as a spy in the South and how five Union Jewish soldiers received the Congressional Medal of Honor. It features commentary by noted historians, with Sam Waterston as the voice of Abraham Lincoln and narration by Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Milius (Apocalypse Now).

This moving film allowed me to discover many surprising facts about American Jews during the Civil War.

More after the jump.
Various rabbis argued both for and against slavery. Rabbi David Einhorn of Baltimore wrote in support of abolitionism in his German-language newspaper “Sinai”. In 1861, he was run out of town by the local pro-slavery community. Imagine how differently the Civil War would have played out had Gov. Thomas Hicks allowed Maryland to join the Confederacy.

The word Jew was used mostly as a verb with a negative connotation at that time, so the Jews in the film mostly referred to themselves as following the Mosaic tradition, as Israelites or as Hebrews. This latent anti-Semitism was probably a factor in Jews being excluded from the Chaplaincy in the Army and Gen. Grant’s infamous General Order 11 which expelled all Jews from the Tennessee Territory – the only expulsion of Jews in American history.

Jews were loyal patriots and began to expect fair treatment in return. The Jewish community directly petitioned President Lincoln in both of these cases, and Lincoln was quite understanding. Lincoln appointed our countries first Jewish chaplain, setting the stage for Jewish observances during all future U.S. conflicts. Lincoln also reversed General Order 11. During the 1868 Presidential election, the question of General Order 11 was raised by the secular press; Grant repudiated the controversial order, asserting it had been drafted by a subordinate and he signed the document without reading. Grant won the election, receiving the majority of the Jewish vote. In fact, Grant participated in the dedication of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC becoming the first American President to attend a synagogue service.

Civil War historian Gregory J. W. Urwin, professor of history at Temple University, moderated the post-film discussion with Jonathan Gruber, the film’s director, producer and writer, and Rabbi Lance Sussman, Ph.D. and senior rabbi at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, a lecturer and author on Jewish history.      

For a list of showings of to order the DVD, please visit the National Center for Jewish Film website.

National Museum of American Jewish History Opening

Long-time board members and supporters of NMAJH, Lyn and George Ross, have their names emblazoned on the new museum.

Bonnie Squires

One of the great mysteries surrounding the evolution of the new National Museum of American Jewish History site was solved at a press preview right before the official opening and dedication of NMAJH.  For months I had been wondering – how could Patrick Gallagher, the “interpretive designer” who worked so closely with Gwen Goodman, Executive Director Emerita, the board of trustees, and the new CEO Michael Rosenzweig, have translated the vision of Goodman and her board into the amazing new building on Inde
pendence Mall?

I mean – you don’t have to be Jewish to love bagels and lox.  But do you have to be Jewish to interpret the history of Jews in America into a museum which will speak to all ages, all ethnic groups, all different expressions of Judaism, all the immigrant groups in American society?

Some of the older artifacts in the new museum, like this pile of immigrant suitcases, look outstanding in their new home.

So I asked Gallagher, as he stood next to Goodman, after the press conference.  And he answered, “I’m Jewish!”  Now at first I thought he was joking – until Goodman confirmed that yes, indeed, Patrick was Jewish.    Gallagher had converted to Judaism in his twenties when he was getting married.

And like other people who have studied their way into Judaism, instead of simply having been born into the religion, Gallagher probably knows a lot more about Jewish history, traditions, customs and practices than many of those born Jewish.

Gwen Goodman, Executive Director Emerita of the National Museum of American Jewish History, and Patrick Gallagher, the interpretive designer of the new museum.

For ten years, Goodman and her board worked with Gallagher & Associates, in creating the core exhibition. The new museum has been designed by the internationally acclaimed architectural firm Polshek Partnership Architects.

The grand opening gala will feature performances by Bette Midler and Jerry Seinfeld, along with seminars by academics and a ribbon-cutting featuring Vice President Joe Biden.  Nearly one thousand patrons and sponsors will attend the gala concert and dinner, with national figures flying in from around the country.

And as Polshek explained, the beacon atop the glass and terra cotta structure will act as a reflection of the Statue of Liberty’s torch, a call to freedom; a reminder of the Eternal LIght which shines in every synagogue around the world; as well as a reflection of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, American icons of freedom, just across the street from the new National Museum of American Jewish History.

The move to Independence Mall included the 19th century statue, now situated on the Caroline and Sidney Kimmel Plaza, which was a gift from the Jewish community of Philadelphia.

Photo credits: Bonnie Squires


Explaining the mission of the NMAJH are (left to right) architect James Polshek and NMAJH CEO Michael Rosenzweig.