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B'siyata d'shmaya - With the help of Heaven


Letter correcting an error that NPR made while
interviewing some non-Jewish "expert" on Jewish history!

A Christian author wrote a book about an early assimilated Sephardic family. The United States government radio: National Public Radio interviewed the author. She says in the interview there were no rabbis in the USA before 1776, and that is why his Christian wife could not be converted. The actual reason why she could not be converted, is that she was a Jew in name only. There is no evidence to support the fact she intrinsically converted.


May 28, 2003

Mr. Bob Edwards
National Public Radio
635 Massachusetts Avenue
N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001

Dear Mr. Edwards,

I was listening to your interview with Emily Bingham where she discusses her book "Mordecai: An Early American Family." This was on the radio broadcast, "Morning Edition" 11:00am EST May 21, 2003.

I found the subject of the interview very interesting. However, I was astounded to hear that this author who wrote a book about Jewry in early America had made such a enormous mistake at 1:02 into the broadcast:

EDWARDS: You say at the time of the revolution there were only--What?--3,000 Jews in the country and no rabbis.

Ms. BINGHAM: That's right. So being a Jew here was a new proposition. It was not the European story that we're familiar of pogroms and shtetls and ghettos with the kind of prejudice and anti-Semitism that was so rife there.


In regards to Ms. Bingham's comment that "prejudice and anti-Semitism" was not such an issue in America, I respond by saying there was prejudice and anti-Semitism. Jews had been in America ever since 1624. The first congregation which assembled and held religious services, in addition to commemorating Jewish lifecycle events in the standard Judaic tradition, was that of Congregation Shearith Israel. The people who would develop this congregation arrived in America, September 5, 1654. They were the 23 Sephardic Jews which arrived in New Amsterdam [New York], from Brazil. They would later establish their congregation, the first Jewish congregation in North America-and today, the oldest.

The newly settled Jews were met with, and suffered under, continued persecution and denial of religious freedom by order of Governor Peter Stuyvesant who sought with great zeal to oust them from his Dutch enclave. Stuyvesant described Jews as "deceitful," "very repugnant," and as "hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ. They were denied permission to butcher livestock in keeping with their tradition, levied with a special military tax, denied permission to trade, and were not allowed to conduct any type practice of religion where they could be seen. He ordered to his staff, "Jews or Portuguese people…shall not be employed in any public service..." Though the Jews arrived in 1654, they were not allowed to openly practice their religion until 1686. Even dead Jews had problems, as there were no places to be buried, and the community had to fight solely to obtain a parcel of land to lay them. One of the most tragic event happened nearly six decades after their settlement when on a New York winter day a Jewish funeral procession was attacked by a mob. According to, "one learned Christian" witness to it, the mob had, "insulted the dead in such a vile manner that to mention all would shock a human ear."

By the era of the American Revolution, Jews had been in the Colonies for over 120 years, and numbered in the thousands. Shearith Israel was the only Jewish Congregation in New York City from 1654 until 1825. During that entire span of history, all of the Jews of New York belonged there.


Ms. Bingham is in error when she affirms to you that there were no rabbis in the United States at the time of the American Revolution. In her interview she talks about her book, which was written about an Ashkenazi (eastern European Jew). However, the majority of the Jews in America were of Sephardic (western European) descent. There are a range of differences between the two, including cultural and language differences. Ms. Bingham mentioned American Jewish life, "was not the European story that we're familiar of pogroms and shtetls and ghettos."

I am not sure if the author is aware of this, but shtetls and ghettos are not some type of common denominator in Jewish history. They are not the baseline in which to measure anything about a Jewish community, and should not be mentioned in a feeble attempt to tell of the history of the Jewish community in North America-one which had never experienced that eastern European phenomenon.

If we wanted to be selective about how to entertain people using epochs in Jewish history (instead of bringing up living in ghettos), I would tell you about the rabbi who lead an Islamic Army into battle, or how a Jewish community helped defend one group of Muslims in an attempt to destroy another (both being historic fact, but little remembered).

The Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497. They resettlement in two major areas, most going to the Ottoman Empire, many going to Holland. The Sephardim who populated early America had been descendant of those who emigrated to the latter, and there they adopted certain words and cultural titles after being influenced by the Christian community. The term "rabbi" is used as a title for someone who has distinguished themselves to a point where they can teach. They are the authoritative teachers of Halakha (Jewish holy law), and are appointed spiritual heads of the community. Conversely, to describe someone in this spiritual leadership/teaching capacity, there is more than one word. The Sephardic Jews who settled in early America followed the tradition of the clergy of the day referring to their spiritual leaders as reverend or minister, as is still the case today in some Sephardic congregations. Another interchangeable terms which is used other than rabbi is hakham (wise man), or haRav.

The usage of the term "rabbi" is not the important issue here, as is the actuality that the NPR listeners were told there were no rabbis, and from this they may walk away with a sense that the Jewish community was without leadership-this being an historical inaccuracy. As the Jewish Encyclopedia states, "In the Jewish religion the rabbi is no priest, no apostle; he has no hierarchical power. He is a teacher, one who unfolds and explains religion, teaches the young in the school and the old from the pulpit, and both by his writings." We had these teachers in America.

Ms. Bingham matter-of-factly stated, "being a Jew here [America] was a new proposition." She speaks in a tone which makes it sound like the Jews just arrived. This again is not accurate. Jews had already established a regimented way of life, and a religious infrastructure, complete with rabbinical leaders.


I would like to clarify something the author has written which your interview did not explore. In the book, the author alleged that there were no rabbis who could convert his wife.

We have already clarified there were rabbis. Now we have to clarify why was she not converted, what might have led to this.

It is important to note that even though some Jews during that period had strayed away from Judaism, the ones who did attended the synagogue-and were members of the congregations-were God fearing pious people, who practiced their Judaism with reverence to the Almighty and followed the teachings of the law. They had practiced it as it had been practiced for 2000 years. This was a trait which is associated with Sephardic Jews of the era, and to a lesser degree with Ashkenazi Jews coming out of Germany, which at the time was going through numerous religious reforms.

Mordechai could have been ostracized by his community as a reformer for many of the ways in which he lived his life. Such reforms grew out of a 17th century philosophical climate. This new Jewish thinking was far removed from Judaism as it had been practiced for thousands of years. The German Jews asserted that Judaism and the Torah are subject to evolution. They proclaimed that assimilation is good, and the "rabbis" assimilated in a way by adopting the garments of the Christian clergy, built synagogues which interiors resembled churches, changed the language of prayer from Hebrew to German (and later English) and changed the Godly Jewish ordained day of Sabbath to the Christian Sabbath of Sunday. To convert in Judaism means to accept the yoke of all the Bible precepts, make a declaration of such in front of a board of esteemed members of the rabbinical community, live a life of observing the Sabbath, and be immersed in a ritual bath. These are considered the holy way to conversion, and there is no other route of converting. At the time, the reform community coming out of Germany simplified this, doing away with most of these rules, calling them unnecessary.

Just a thought, but the mere fact Mordecai was one of these German Jews could have cast an awe of suspicion over him. In addition, his non-Jewish, but self-declared "converted" wife would be an issue, and most importantly would be his mother's "gentile origins" and his father's shadowy past." In Judaism, your religion comes through your mother, and so if his mother never had a conversion herself in accordance of which I have just described, he would not be considered a member of the Jewish community. He would remain an outsider.

To say there were no rabbis in the United States during that time period is like saying that America didn't exist before Columbus 'discovered' it. This of course is like many things, it all depends on your worldview.

Sincerely yours,

(sent via electronic mail)

S. Alfassa