Investigating the 1658 settlement of a Jewish community in Newport, Rhode Island
|"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" |
(1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe
Everyone knows Jews first came to Newport in 1658. This date is presented as fact by the Touro Synagogue of Newport, RI , the Newport Historical Society , the University of Virginia’s Papers of George Washington Collection , the Jewish Encyclopedia , the Jewish Virtual Library , The George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom , Harvard University’s Pluralism Project , Wikipedia articles on the topic and various other authorities on the subject.*
Even noted historians claim 1658 as the official date of Jewish settlement in Newport.** The problem is there are no primary sources to substantiate this claim. The 1658 settlement date is a tradition. In addition, it is a recent tradition which rests on discredited evidence. It is the perfect example of how a falsehood, repeated enough times by trusted sources, becomes a truth.
Facts matter. When we reconstruct the historical record on tradition, we enter the realm of fiction. When that happens, it is important to ask why. Who benefits from historical fictions? Consider the following examples:
Most Americans believe Plymouth, MA was the first English colony when in fact it was Jamestown in Virginia. Most Americans believe it was Pilgrims who founded Plymouth Colony when in fact most of the Mayflower’s passengers were not Pilgrims. Related to this, most Americans believe the Pilgrims came to the New World seeking religious freedom. They did not. Most Americans believe the settlers of Plymouth got along well with the Native Americans when it fact Plymouth Colony began one of the bloodiest wars in American history against their Native American neighbors in 1675.
Why are there so many factual errors in the popular understanding of this period of history? Because the story of the Pilgrims is an origin story and origin stories define a people like no other story does. Origin stories tell us the very nature of a people – what they value, what they fear, who is in charge, who is not, and why they came to exist. Consider the battle between evolutionists and creationists in the United States. Evolution and creation are origin stories of human existence. In origin stories, facts are not nearly as important as ideals. Was America founded on religious freedom and ethnic cooperation or economic opportunism and ethnic bigotry? Were the first American colonists driven by freedom or driven by money?
And if we go back further to the origins of humanity you might ask: Were humans lovingly created by a personal God to be the most important creatures in the universe, or did they evolve like every other life form from a fortunate series of biological and geological events? Are humans loved or are they lucky?
Origin stories matter on the basest of emotional levels because we tend to read in them signs regarding a people’s character and destiny. When you tell the story of how a people began, you tell the story of who they are.
The settlement of Jews in Newport is an origin story. Perhaps it is not as well known as that of the Pilgrims or not as contested as that of human life on earth, but it is important nonetheless. In Part II of this series we’ll take a look at the various dates historians have offered for the settlement of the Jews in Newport, including 1658.
* Shearith Israel Congregation in New York , The State of Rhode Island General Assembly , and The Library of Congress.
**Historians including Edward Peterson, Max J. Kohler, Charles P. Daly, Samuel Oppenheim, Leon Hühner, Anita Libman Lebeson, Stanley F. Chyet, Henry L. Feingold, David J. Elazar, Oscar Reiss, and Joseph Heckelman.