Although there have always been rumors that Christopher Columbus was Jewish, this is the story of the first documented Jewish Americans.
It all started with 23 Jewish passengers originally from Spain by way of Portugal, Amsterdam, and finally Brazil, who arrived in New Amsterdam on the Saint Charles in 1654.*
Congregation Shearith Israel was founded in that year.
The congregation purchased Chatham Square cemetery in 1682 and built the first synagogue in America in 1730 on Mill St. in Manhattan. Unlike many Jewish cemeteries in Spain and Portugal, Chatham Square cemetery remains today.
Shearith Israel relocated to Central Park West at 70th Street where to this day the Rabbi and the Temple President dress in high hat and tuxedo to celebrate Rosh Hashanah in the new world.
* Descendents of the 23 and Shearith Israel congregation members include Gershom Mendes Seixas, patriot leader during the American Revolution; Benjamin Mendes Seixas, Ephraim Hart and Alexander Zuntz, founders of the New York Stock Exchange; Emma Lazarus, American poet best known for the poem “The New Colossus”, inscribed on the Statue of Liberty; Dr. Henry Pereira Mendes, Rabbi of the Congregation and founder of Montefiore Hospital and Lexington School for the Deaf; Rebecca Gratz, first Jewish female college student in America, philanthropist and model for Sir Walter Scott’s character of Rebecca in his novel, Ivanhoe; Hayam Solomon, financier who provided the funding for the American Revolution through the issuance of the first United States Government bonds; Uriah Levy, first Jewish U.S. Naval Officer, first Jewish Commodore of the U.S. Navy and restorer of Monticello; and Benjamin Nathan Cardozo, United States Supreme Court Justice.
Both President Roosevelt and President Kennedy shared a sense of fairness and obligation to those less fortunate reflected in the following stories about the reaction of the common man to each president’s death.
As Franklin Roosevelt’s funeral procession went by a man collapsed because he was so overcome with grief.
A neighbor picked him up and asked, “Did you know the President.” The man responded,
“No, but he knew me.”
A sign on the door of a shop in a small town the day of President Kennedy’s funeral:
The Treasury Department announced on Wednesday that women and civil rights leaders will be incorporated into the new designs for the $5, $10 and $20 bills. Lucretia Mott will be one of 5 women whose face will be incorporated into the design of the back of the $10 dollar bill.
In 2012, I adopted the portrait of Lucretia Mott on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Mott, abolitionist, suffragette and founder of Swarthmore College, established the Village of La Mott in Montgomery County PA where she donated the land and built homes for slaves escaping from the South through the Underground Railroad. La Mott is located in the former 154th Legislative District, where in my youth I was a candidate for the State Legislature.
In January 2016, I adopted the portrait of Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and the first Secretary of the Treasury. His image graces the front of the $10 bill.
Now the names and faces of Hamilton and Mott will be linked for decades to come.
An Assasin, An Emperor’s Sister- in -Law and A Former King
Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore City was dedicated in 1839 and listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Found there are nearly 65,000 grave plots scattered among buildings, sculptures and a hilltop chapel. Three of those plots bear the names of an assassin, an Emperor’s sister-in law and a former King.
John Wilkes Booth, assassin of President Abraham Lincoln is buried in Green Mount Cemetery in the Booth family plot. His tombstone is unmarked, the Booth family fearing it might become a shrine to the confederacy because of the number of confederate sympathizers living in Baltimore at the end of the Civil War. Today visitors leave pennies on the unmarked tombstone with President Lincoln’s likeness facing up “to lock the assassin in the ground”.
The Emperor’s Sister-in-Law
Elizabeth Patterson met Jerome Bonaparte in 1803. Elizabeth wanted to leave Baltimore which she considered provincial. Jerome wanted the wealth Elizabeth could provide him. Not long after they were married Jérôme’s brother Napoleon, Emperor of France, ordered his brother back to France and demanded that the marriage be annulled. In return Napoleon made Jerome King of Westphalia, a short lived appointment. Elizabeth, pregnant with Jerome’s son, learned of the annulment from a newspaper report.
Elizabeth returned to Baltimore and amassed a fortune through her own ingenuity and business acumen. Her formula for business was straightforward: “Never run the slightest risk in the pursuit of great profits—see clearly the transaction to its termination.” This approach benefited her greatly and ensured wealth for her son and grandsons. Unlike Elizabeth who often fretted over her financial state, the future generations of American Bonapartes enjoyed fortunes free from worry.
Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte spent her last years in Baltimore in the management of her estate, the value of which she increased to $1.5 million. She died in the midst of a court battle over whether the state of Maryland could tax her out-of-state bonds.The case reached the Supreme Court (Bonaparte v. Tax Court, 104 U.S. 592). The Court decided in favor of Maryland. She is buried in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore City.
The Former King
In Green Mount Cemetery, there are two burial plots that remain empty. They are owned by the late Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the former King Edward Vlll of England and Wallis Simpson of Baltimore City.
The story of the romance between the King and a twice divorced woman from Baltimore is well known. What is less known is the end of life plan made by the couple.
After the abdication of the King, the couple was without a country. Rumors of Nazi sympathies plagued the Windsors in the wake of a 1937 visit to Germany. The couple was banished to the Bahamas during World War 11 to keep them out of Europe and avoid potential embarrassment to the Crown.
Estranged from his family and his country, the Duke with the Duchess made plans to be buried in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore City, the childhood home of the Duchess. But Queen Elizabeth had a change of heart and in a 1965 agreement she allowed for her uncle, the former King Edward VIII and his wife, the Duchess of Windsor, to be buried near other members of the royal family in the Royal Burial near Windsor Castle. The Duke died in 1972, the Duchess in 1986. The cemetery plots they purchased in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore City remain empty.
John F. Kennedy wanted to reward West Virginia for its support during his Presidential campaign. For most politicians the reward would be pork and patronage, but not President Kennedy. In his first act as President, Kennedy doubled the surplus food allotment for the poor in West Virginia. The words from his last visit to the state were ” the sun does not always shine in West Virginia but the people always do.” This little known act resulted in Kennedy holding a special place in the hearts of West Virginians, his photograph hanging on the wall in many homes that previously displayed pictures of Franklin Roosevelt.
How A Vicuña Coat Made The World A Safer Place
President Eisenhower needed a favor from his successor, John Kennedy. Eisenhower’s former chief of staff, Sherman Adams was about to be indicted for taking a vicuña coat as quid pro quo for political favors. If Kennedy through his brother, the Attorney General, squashed the indictment, Eisenhower offered Kennedy a blank check for a future political favor. Kennedy as a new President having few political favors in his grasp, had the indictment squashed.
As his first and only term as President was ending, Kennedy had 2 bills coming to Congress for a vote, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and The Civil Rights Act. Kennedy used Eisenhower’s blank check to garner the votes needed to pass the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty making the world safer for future generations. Explaining his choice to use Eisenhower’s support for passage of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and not the Civil Rights Act, Kennedy confided to an aide, “Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.”
Prayer and the President
Following the Supreme Court’s decision declaring officially sponsored prayers in public schools unconstitutional, President Kennedy was asked to comment on the subject at a press conference. Instead of being critical of a decision that conflicted with his personal convictions as so often is the reaction of elected officials today, Kennedy answered by giving strong support to the Court’s decision, saying it is important for us, if we are going to maintain our constitutional principles, to support Supreme Court decisions even when we might not agree with them. He added that the decision reminds people of an easy remedy, we can pray a good deal more at home.
Immediately upon seeing Monticello, you are struck by how modern it is.
Jefferson divided the spaces inside into private space, office space, guest space. Similar to how realtors describe properties today.
Jefferson also installed the latest gadgets like self closing doors and skylights and hidden storage areas. These installations resulted in the continual renovation of Monticello while Jefferson was alive.
Jefferson never stopped rebuilding and shopping. When he died his heirs were faced with large debts that could not be paid without selling off his possesions including his library of books.
Monticello went into extreme disrepair after Jeffersons death when it was purchased by Uriah Levy the first Jewish Commodore of the US navy and a 5th generation American. It was restored by Levy and his family including Jefferson Levy, his nephew. The Levy family then sold Monticello to the foundation formed to preserve Monticello for the Nation.
Uriah Levy was courtmarshalled 6 times because of antisemitism and each time POTUS exonerated him. Levy, an American Patriot, abolished corporal punishment in the U S Navy. He also negotiated the release of John Paul Jones body so it could be buried at the US naval academy.
Jefferson designed and built Monticello but Uriah Levy restored it for the Nation.
The entire world mourned the death of the President, but none more than the people working in the fields of Cuba who showed their grief by wearing black mourning bands, The Cuban government that benefited from maintaining a hierarchical society reacted by banning the wearing of mourning bands and imposing a fine on anyone wearing such a band. Undeterred, the field workers paid the fine and pinned the receipt for payment on their shirts to show their respect for the fallen U.S. President.
The Cairo apartment building, located at 1615 Q Street NW in Washington, D.C., is a landmark in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. Designed by architect Thomas Franklin Schneider, it was the District’s first residential skyscraper and is the District’s tallest residential building.
Upon its completion in 1894, at 12 stories and 164 feet, outraged local residents lobbied Congress for help.
The resulting Height of Buildings Act restricts building height in the District to the width of the adjacent street plus 20 feet. Subsequently, Washington has evolved as a city of streets filled with natural light, protected by a strong historic preservation movement.
Around 1900, the building was renamed the Cairo Hotel and became a center of D.C. society, with its ballroom frequently the center of social and political gatherings. Its guests and tenants have included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Edison, and other powerful political figures. The Cairo was also the home of ladies of the night who made their living entertaining members of the U.S.Congress.