New-York Historical Society Exhibition To Tell The Remarkable Story Of Early Jewish Participation In The Cultural, Social, And Political Development Of The New World

Exhibit Includes Recently Recovered Manuscripts Relating to Mexican Inquisition Victim Luis de Carvajal to be on Public Display for the First Time

The First Jewish Americans: Freedom and Culture in the New World, On View October 28, 2016 – February 26, 2017

This fall, a path-breaking exhibition at the New-York Historical Society (170 Central Park West at Richard Gilder Way (77th Street), New York, NY 10024. Phone (212) 873-3400. TTY (212) 873-7489) will examine the story of newcomers to the New World, both Jewish and of Jewish ancestry, who made their way to colonial America and engaged fully in the cultural, social, and political life of the young nation. On view now through to February 26, 2017, The First Jewish Americans: Freedom and Culture in the New World will feature more than 170 objects, including rare early portraits, drawings, maps, books, documents, and ritual objects primarily drawn from the Princeton University Jewish American Collection, gift of Mr. Leonard L. Milberg, Class of 1953; and Mr. Leonard L. Milberg’s personal collection.


Luis de Carvajal the Younger (ca. 1567-1596) Memorias autobiographical manuscripts , ca. 1595, with devotional manuscripts Manuscript leaves, 3 volumes, each stitched into plain wrappers. Courtesy of the Government of Mexico.

In addition to objects from the New-York Historical Society, the exhibition will showcase loans from museums nationwide and abroad. Highlights include two landscape paintings by Sephardic Jew Camille Pissarro, on loan from the National Gallery of Art, depicting St. Thomas—the Caribbean island where the artist was born in 1830—and an important group of six portraits depicting members of the Levy-Franks family, prominent figures in New York City’s 18th-century Jewish community, from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Establishing vibrant communities in American port cities including New York, Philadelphia, Newport, Savannah, and Charleston, early Jewish settlers adopted American ideals while remaining a distinctive and socially cohesive group, giving birth to a new Jewish American tradition with the stamp of both cultures. This groundbreaking exhibition reveals the extraordinary contributions of 18th- and 19th-century Jewish artists, writers, activists, and others to the development of American culture and politics.


Suriname map, 1718. Nieuwe Kaart van Suriname vertonende de stromen en land-streken van Suriname, Comowini, Cottica, en Marawini, Amsterdam, 1718. Collection of Leonard L. Milberg.

The First Jewish Americans explores the paths taken by Jews who for centuries fled persecution in Europe—beginning with the little-known but remarkable stories of their experience in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Brazil during the colonial period, and following their journey toward finding freedom and tolerance in the early American Republic,” said Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. “We are grateful for the extraordinary collections of Leonard L. Milberg and the partnership of the Princeton University Library, which will allow us to convey to the New York public the fundamental importance of the Jewish people to early American history. We are deeply grateful to Mr. Milberg for his tenacity and hard work in securing the loan of recently recovered Jewish writings from Spanish Colonial Mexico, the earliest extant Jewish manuscripts from that time period.

The First Jewish Americans will showcase, for the first time on public display, the manuscripts relating to Mexican Inquisition victim Luis de Carvajal—considered the earliest extant Jewish books in the New World. These exceptional documents and other materials in the exhibition underscore the long reach of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, which followed settlers of Jewish ancestry into the New World, forcing confessions and burning suspected “Judaizers” at the stake in horrific autos-de-fé.

(The New-York Historical Society is grateful to the Government of Mexico, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Culture, and the Consulate General of Mexico in New York, for the loan of Luis de Carvajal‘s manuscripts.)

Exhibition Highlights

The First Jewish Americans will explore the origins of the Jewish diaspora and paths to the New World, Jewish life in American port cities, and the birth of American Judaism in the 18th and early 19th centuries, as well as profile prominent Jewish Americans who made an impact on early American life.


Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Locket with photo. The Historic New Orleans Collection.

European Jews fleeing persecution and seeking ports of refuge were propelled westward to the distant shores of New World colonies, which offered hope for a new beginning until the infamous Holy Inquisition followed them across the ocean. The exhibition powerfully illustrates this experience through the 1595 autobiography of Luis de Carvajal, a “converso” Jew in Mexico and the nephew of a prominent governor, who was tried by the Inquisition and denounced more than 120 other secretly practicing Jews before he was burned at the stake in 1596.


Isaac N. Cardozo (1792–1855), A Discourse, Delivered in Charleston, (S.C.) on the 21st of Nov. 1827, before the Reformed Society of Israelites, for Promoting True Principles of Judaism according to Its Purity and Spirit, on Their Third Anniversary. Charleston, 1827. Princeton University Library. Gift of Leonard L. Milberg, Class of 1953, in honor of his grandchildren: Beverly Allison Milberg, Ava Miriam Milberg, Emmett Nathaniel Milberg, William Nathan Milberg, Charles Bennett Milberg, Samantha Eve Shapiro, and Nathan Busky Shapiro.

The recently rediscovered documents, which had gone missing from the National Archives of Mexico more than 75 years ago, will be on view at New-York Historical by special arrangement with the Mexican government before returning to Mexico.


Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) Two Women Chatting by the Sea, St. Thomas, 1856. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. Image courtesy National Gallery of Art

The Jewish community in the New World dispersed throughout the colonies in the Caribbean, creating a network built on trade, family, and religious connections. Examples of these island communities and influences featured in the exhibition include a 1718 map of the Jewish settlement in Suriname, 18th-century texts of religious services for the circumcision of slaves, and Jamaican legal documents from 1823 that argued for Jewish voting rights.


Shearith Israel Torah Scroll, Vandalized by the British during the Revolutionary War. Collection of Congregation Shearith Israel.

During the colonial period, Jews clustered in the cosmopolitan and commercially minded port cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, and within each city, an elaborate communal infrastructure grew that supported all aspects of Jewish life. Shearith Israel, the first Jewish congregation in colonial North America, built its home in Lower Manhattan in 1730. The congregation has loaned significant objects to the exhibition, such as a Torah scroll that was burned by British soldiers during the Revolutionary War and a rare set of Torah bells (or rimonim) designed by Myer Myers—one of colonial America’s preeminent silversmiths and an active congregation member. Also on view are six oil paintings circa 1735 of the prominent Levy-Franks family of New York, also members of the congregation. On loan from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, they emulate paintings of the British aristocracy.


Gerardus Duyckinck I (1695-1746), Jacob Franks (1688-1769), Oil on canvas. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.


Gerardus Duyckinck I (1695-1746), Mrs. Jacob (Abigaill Levy) Franks (1696-1756). Oil on canvas. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

The Philadelphia Jewish community grew during and after the Revolutionary War, with the city serving as a refuge for patriots fleeing British-occupied New York. Some Philadelphia Jews opposed Britain’s harsh restrictions on American trade by signing the Resolution of Non-Importation made by the Citizens of Philadelphia in 1765—one of the first official protests against British mercantile policy, which is on view in the exhibit. Also featured are portrait paintings of Philadelphia merchant Barnard Gratz, a signer of the resolution who supplied American militias; and of his niece Rebecca Gratz, who in 1819 established the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society, the first Jewish lay charity in the country.


Thomas Sully, Rebecca Gratz, 1831. Oil on panel. The Rosenbach Museum and Library.

In the first decades of the 19th century, Charleston was home to more Jews than any other place in North America and became a site of cultural and religious ferment. Congregation K.K. Beth Elohim—whose elegant synagogue is depicted in an 1838 oil painting on view—was the birthplace of the Reform movement in 1824, when a group of 47 members petitioned to make worship more accessible by introducing innovations that included prayers in English. The leadership refused, so the petitioners seceded and established the Reformed Society of Israelites for Promoting True Principles of Judaism According to Its Purity and Spirit. The exhibition features the group’s 1825 prayer book and speeches promoting their initially radical position, which soon became main stream. Also on view are earlier examples of revolutions in American Judaism, such as an English translation of a Hebrew prayer book from 1766, Samuel Johnson’s English and Hebrew Grammar book from 1771, and a lunar calendar of Jewish festivals and Sabbath observance from 1806.


Rimonim, 1765-1776. Silver and brass with parcel gilding. Congregation Shearith Israel, New York City.

The exhibition also features profiles of prominent Jewish Americans of the 18th and early 19th centuries, whose writing, activism, and artistic achievements provide a window into an era of cultural vitality and change in the new Republic. Among the highlighted figures are renown artist Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), a Caribbean Jew born in St. Thomas whose 1856 landscape paintings on view capture waterfront scenes of his island home; and Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1860), a New Orleans-born piano prodigy and composer who became the first classically trained American pianist to achieve international fame. Science and medicine were remarkably open to Jewish men during the 19th century. On display are books written by Jewish Americans that made major contributions to American science and medicine as those fields were developing during this period. The exhibition concludes with views of newly flourishing cities, including Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and San Francisco that became home to American Jews as they ventured westward.


Solomon Nunes Carvalho, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, Interior, 1838. Oil on canvas. Collection of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim.

Publication & Programming

A catalog of the Milberg Princeton collection, By Dawn’s Early Light, will accompany the exhibition and is available in the New-York Historical Society Museum Store and online.

Several programs will be offered to further examine the role Jewish Americans played in the colonial and founding eras. On January 23, 2017, exhibition co-curator Debra Schmidt Bach leads a gallery tour of First Jewish Americans, showcasing the portraits, objects, ritual objects, and memorabilia on display.

The long history of Jewish-American contributions to our nation, beginning during the earliest era of colonial settlement, will be discussed in a conversation moderated by New-York Historical’s President and CEO Louise Mirrer on January 30. Dale Rosengarten, founding curator of the Jewish Heritage Collection and director of the new Center for Southern Jewish Culture at the College of Charleston; and Rabbi Meir Y. Soloveichik, minister at Congregation Shearith Israel, delve into this fascinating period of Jewish-American history, tracing the development of Judaism in the New World.

On February 15, experts Abraham Foxman and Thane Rosenbaum explore the pivotal moments in Jewish-American history, including the Leo Frank murder trial, the movement to free Soviet Jewry, Jewish participation in the Civil Rights struggle, and the Rosenberg espionage trial and execution.

As previously mentioned, the exhibit is based primarily upon loans from the Princeton University Jewish American Collection, gift of Mr. Leonard L. Milberg, Class of 1953, and Mr. Leonard L. Milberg’s personal collection. Lead support for this exhibition provided by Ellen and Leonard L. Milberg. Additional support is provided by Steven and Shelley Einhorn, Stacy, Jason, Noah and Talia Helfstein; Helen and Robert Appel, David Dangoor/American Sephardi Federation, Barbara K. and Ira A. Lipman, Ambassador John L. Loeb, Jr./George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom, Jack and Susan Rudin, Pam and Scott Schafler, Jeffrey A. Schoenfeld, Laurie and Sy Sternberg, Norman S. Benzaquen, David Berg Foundation, Michele and Martin Cohen, Susan and Greg Danilow, Lori and Mark Fife, Ruth and Sid Lapidus, The Lerner Foundation, Martin Lewis and, Diane Brandt, Cheryl and Glen Lewy, Nancy and Morris W. Offit, Daryl and Steven Roth, Ann and Andrew Tisch, John and Jennifer Monsky, Leon and Toby Cooperman and The Biddelman-Bascom Family Charitable Fund

The New-York Historical Society, one of America’s preeminent cultural institutions, is dedicated to fostering research and presenting history and art exhibitions and public programs that reveal the dynamism of history and its influence on the world of today. Founded in 1804, New-York Historical has a mission to explore the richly layered history of New York City and State and the country, and to serve as a national forum for the discussion of issues surrounding the making and meaning of history.

Exhibitions at the New-York Historical Society are made possible by Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang, the Saunders Trust for American History, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.


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