Watercolor painting of two ships bringing the first Jews to New Amsterdam in 1654.
351 years later, tour marks Jews first steps Downtown
By Amanda Kludt
The history of the modern Jewish world was really built here, says historian and attorney Jim Kaplan. Kaplan explains that the Jewish settlement in New York, or New Amsterdam, in 1654 was the first Jewish settlement in the North America and one of the first in the new world. And, Kaplan plans to explain the full history of Jews in New York from their inauspicious beginnings being lost at sea and captured by pirates to their role in creating a modern state of Israel on his three hour Downtown walking tour this May 15.
The tour was commissioned by Shearith Israel League, the social arm of Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of New York City. Shearith Israel is the oldest Jewish congregation in North America and the only congregation in New York from 1654 to 1825. The League asked Kaplan to conduct a private walking tour last year for the congregations 350th anniversary. He found it so intriguing that this year he asked to do it again.
Kaplan, who has conducted walking tours in Lower Manhattan for the last 22 years, says he never knew how the Jews came to New York before he started doing research for this tour.
The first Jews landed in New Amsterdam by accident. After being persecuted or kicked out of many European countries, a large number of Jews moved to Holland seeking the sympathy of the Dutch. As the Dutch empire expanded to Recife, Brazil, Jews went with them. However, after a generation in Recife, Portuguese defeated the Dutch for control of Brazil, and most of the Jews left. Some went back to Amsterdam, some went to Curacao and Jamaica, and one boat of 23 people got lost at sea and captured by pirates. When they were rescued by a French boat, they were sent to the closest Dutch colony New Amsterdam.
Kaplan will explain this story in full detail at the first stop of the walking tour at the Customs House. He adds that the Jewish community faced persecution from then Governor Peter Stuyvesant who didnt want Jews to settle in New Amsterdam. However, their long history fighting for the Dutch both in Holland and in Brazil won them their right to stay.
Kaplan will also bring his tour to the site of the Mill Street Synagogue, the first synagogue in North America, built in 1730. Kaplan will speak about Mordecai Noah, a major Jewish figure and spokesman who encouraged the Shearith Israel community to get involved in politics and he will discuss the Jews role in the Revolutionary War.
At Wall St., Kaplan will talk about the Jewish role in the New York Stock Exchange, including the history of Goldman Sachs and the House of Morgan. He will take the tour to John St. to discuss Jews in theater and up Broadway to talk about the influential poet Emma Lazarus author of the famed poem about the Statue of Liberty, The New Colossus and about the impact of large-scale immigration in the late 19th century.
Getting into the 20th century, Kaplan will explain the Jewish alliances with other groups like the African Americans or the Irish, to fight discrimination. The civil rights movement really came out of an alliance between blacks and Jews, he says. He will also explain how the famed Tammany Hall figure, Al Smith, helped both Irish and Jewish causes. At Chatham Square, the last stop, Kaplan will explain how influential New York Jews have pushed for the establishment of the state of Israel.
The tour begins at 1 oclock on May 15th at the Customs House, One Bowling Green. It is $7 for League members and $12 for non League Members. 212-595-7030.