Editor’s Note: Today is Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts, commemorating the anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord. I noticed a surprising lack of articles with a Jewish perspective on this day and wondered why. This excerpt from an article by Ellen Smith in The Jews of Boston offers some of the story behind the story.
The lack of a permanent Jewish community made Boston unique among major eastern seaboard towns in the 17th and 18th centuries, the result of a variety of contributing factors. Jewish immigration to British North American colonies was discouraged altogether throughout most of the 17th century. The expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 left few Jews with British citizenship available or welcome to settle in the British North American colonies even three and a half centuries later. Jews who did settle in the West generally chose the more receptive Dutch colonies in New Amsterdam and the Caribbean islands. With the English Civil War, Jews were readmitted into England and its possessions. But by then, Jews who chose to migrate to British North America tended to select cities where trade centers already linked to the trans-Atlantic trade routes were well established.
Boston, perhaps surprisingly, did not rank high on those lists. The Massachusetts Bay Colony had been founded in 1630 in part to advance British trading interests. But the colony did not succeed on the scale of New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Georgia, or the Carolinas. No large-scale crops or industries emerged to form the foundation of a strong export economy. Massachusetts evolved instead as a series of locally linked, agriculturally based communities. Boston thus held little economic appeal to the British or European-based Jewish trading families from whom many New World Jewish immigrants were drawn. The Massachusetts Bay Colony had also been founded as a religious haven for Puritans, a broad community of reformed Christians who had emigrated from Holland and Britain beginning in 1629. Though probably only half the early colony’s residents were Puritans, they dominated civic and church leadership. Seeking to become a model for Congregational Christianity, the Puritan community actively discouraged religious dissension. Throughout the 17th century, many dissenters and religious critics—including Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Samuel Gorton, and Quakers—chose, or were forced, to leave. Jewish settlers in the New World thus found immigration, economic, and religious opportunities more congenial in the West Indies and the port cities south of Boston. Jews established small but permanent communities in the major colonial cities along the Atlantic coast in New Amsterdam / New York City in 1654, Newport in 1658, Savannah in 1733, Philadelphia in 1737, and Charleston in the 1750’s.
And so Boston, uniquely among the major seaport towns in colonial North America, developed in the 17th and 18th centuries without a permanent Jewish community. Important North American Sephardic trading networks never figured prominently in Boston’s development as a colonial mercantile and maritime center. Boston’s Jewish residents lived there impermanently, without the institutions and communal security of other colonial towns. The lack of a permanent Sephardic community in colonial Boston thus helped shape the city’s economic and cultural character in its absence, even as it might have by its presence. Yet despite the lack of a permanent Jewish community in Boston in the 17th and 18th centuries, New England, as Judge Samuel Sewall observed, was “seldom wholly without them.”* Jewish traders provided a constant, though never permanent, presence. Their names are retrievable from court, census and tax records, and occasional references in surviving diaries and letters. The names of Jewish women and children are harder to come by. But a sampling of even this scanty evidence gives a sense of the life of Boston’s earliest Jews in a city lacking an organized Jewish community, permanent Jewish institutions, or an evolved Jewish leadership.
* Quoted in Jacob R. Marcus, The Colonial American Jew: 1492–1776 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1970), vol. 1, 303.