W.C. Fields, who was born in Philadelphia, used to make fun of his birthplace as a staid and boring place by threatening to have the line, “All things considered, I’d rather be in Philadelphia,” as the epitaph on his gravestone. (Apparently, that threat was never carried out.) Philadelphia has often been overshadowed by New York to its north and by Washington to its south. I remember traveling to Philadelphia to visit my relatives when I was a child, my siblings and I fidgeting in the back seat of the car as my father fought through the traffic on the ugly New Jersey Turnpike.
My grandmother Eva Cohen and her second husband Frank Crocker lived in what I remember as a small apartment in Philadelphia, and somehow it was always hot and humid whenever we visited. I was only nine when my grandmother died, so my memories are somewhat vague, but I do remember watching a baseball game with Poppy Frank, as we called him, discussing the merits of Sandy Koufax versus Don Drysdale (the Phillies were obviously playing the Dodgers that particular visit). We would sit and visit for a while, have lunch or dinner, and then pile back in the car, suffer through the Jersey Turnpike again, fidgeting and bickering in the backseat. So I guess I could relate to W.C. Fields’ sentiments about his hometown. Somehow I associated Philadelphia with long car rides, being tortured by my siblings, and hot, humid weather. I wish I could remember more about my grandmother, but as a child, I was focused on childish things. Well, and baseball. As I wrote before, I remember her as beautiful, reserved, and very dignified, a true gentle-woman in both senses of the word.
So given my somewhat skewed views of the City of Brotherly Love, I did wonder why my Cohen relatives (and in fact all of my father’s lines) ended up in Philadelphia. They sailed into New York City—why did they leave the Greatest City in the World to go to its poor stepsibling to the south? I asked my father, who was born and raised in Philadelphia, this question the other day, and he said something about William Penn and how Philadelphia was a Quaker city and probably more tolerant of Jews.
I decided to do some research to answer a couple of questions: What was Philadelphia like for Jews in the 1840s and 1850s when the Cohens arrived? Where did they live in the city, and what were the socioeconomic conditions like in those areas? What drew them there instead of New York or some other American city?
I found a wonderful resource, a book by Robert P. Swierenga, a historian who has published several books about the Dutch in the United States. The book I relied on is titled The Forerunners: Dutch Jewry in the North American Diaspora (Wayne State University Press 1994), and in it Swierenga traced the immigration of Dutch Jews to America and their settlements in several US cities, including Philadelphia. I read the chapter on Philadelphia and learned not only about the Dutch Jews who settled there, but more generally about the history of Jews in Philadelphia. After reading this chapter, I better understand why the Cohen family decided to settle there.
Philadelphia had one of the earliest Jewish communities in the United States. In 1776 it had the third largest Jewish population of American cities, after New York and Charleston; there were 300 Jews living in Philadelphia at that time. That number grew to 200 families by 1778 as Jews sought refuge there during the Revolutionary War. The population was largely Sephardic, and the first synagogue was formed in 1782, Congregation Mikveh Israel, an Orthodox Sephardic synagogue. Once the war ended, however, many of the Jews returned to their prior homes, and by 1790 there were only 25 Jewish families or about 150 people. (Swierenga, pp. 118-119)
There was a growing number of non-Sephardic Jews settling in Philadelphia after the Revolution, however, as immigrants from Germany, Poland and the Netherlands began to arrive, and in 1790 these people formed a new synagogue, Rodeph Shalom, which would adhere to Ashkenazi practices. Rodeph Shalom was the first Ashkenazi synagogue in North America, and most of its first congregants were Dutch. (Swierenga, pp. 119-120)
The Jewish population really started to grow in the early 19th century. In 1820, there were 450 Jews in Philadelphia; in 1830 there were 730. By 1840, there were 1500, and then there was a huge surge to 6000 by 1850 and to 10,000 by 1860. This, of course, was the period my Cohen relatives began to arrive in Philadelphia—between about 1848 and 1851. In fact, according to Swierenga, a substantial number of these Jewish immigrants were Dutch Jews. (p. 120)
In his discussion of Dutch Jews, Swierenga included not only those who came directly from the Netherlands (meaning primarily Amsterdam), but also those, like my ancestors, who had emigrated from Amsterdam to England before coming to America. Based on his research, he concluded that for the most part the Dutch Jews who came to Philadelphia tended to come directly from Amsterdam whereas those who had first stopped in London tended to end up in New York. Swierenga found that in 1850 and 1860 there were only two Dutch Jewish families in Philadelphia who had had children born in England. (Swierenga, p. 125) Was he counting my relatives? Hart Levy Cohen’s children were born in England, but did they count as “children?” On the other hand, Jacob’s daughter Fannie was born in England, and although his later children were born in the US, his family must have been one of those two families.
In fact, this screenshot from Appendix III in Swierenga’s book, captioned “Dutch Jewish Household Heads and Working Adults in Philadelphia 1850, 1860 and 1870,” shows that Swierenga did count Hart Cohen as one of those Dutch Jews.
Based on this data as compared to his findings that there was a greater number of Dutch Jewish families in New York with children born in England, Swierenga reached the following conclusion: “Clearly, the Dutch Jews in Philadelphia had been better off economically in the Netherlands, and they immigrated earlier than those settling in New York, who out of economic necessity spent a longer sojourn in London. For the Philadelphia Dutch Jews, a London stopover or two-stage migration was not as necessary or desirable.” (p. 126)
I found this observation very interesting. Obviously, my ancestors did make that two-stage migration. Did they do that because they could not afford to get directly to the US, or did they originally plan to stay in London? Does this mean that Hart and Rachel were not as well-off as many of the other young couples who left Amsterdam at the end of the 18th century?
The Dutch Jewish community was located in the south side of Philadelphia. With the large wave of German immigrants in the 1840s, the Dutch Jews had moved south to Wards 1 through 5, and primarily Wards 4 and 5, located between what is now Broad Street and the Delaware River and South Street to the south and 2d Street to the north. Swierenga described these two wards as slums. Ward 4 is where Jacob and his family lived for many years at 136 South Street. Was he living in a slum with his large family and three servants? It seems unlikely. The neighborhood must have been somewhat economically diverse to attract what Swierenga himself had described as a fairly comfortable Dutch Jewish population. (pp. 139-146)
This growing community of Dutch Jews eventually decided to form their own synagogue and leave Rodeph Shalom, which had become increasingly made up of congregants who had emigrated from Germany. Also, Rodeph Shalom and Mikveh Israel as well as a third synagogue, Beth Israel, were all located in the north side of Philadelphia. (Swierenga, pp. 127-129) Thus, in 1852 the Dutch Jewish families formed their own synagogue, B’nai Israel, on the south side where Jacob and Rachel were living in 1850. (pp. 130-145)
Between the 1850s and 1880, however, the Dutch Jews increasingly left the south side of Philadelphia and moved to neighborhoods further north. Those who remained could not support their own synagogue, and B’nai Israel was closed in 1879. By the end of the 19th century, the Dutch Jewish community had integrated into the larger Jewish community and had disappeared as a separate cultural subgroup. (pp. 135, 320) As I move forward from 1860 in tracing my Cohen relatives, I will keep in mind this shift to see whether or not they were a part of that trend.
After reading this material and understanding more about the history of the Jewish community in Philadelphia in the first half of the 19th century, I better understand why my ancestors chose Philadelphia. It had a distinct Dutch Jewish community, which might have been very attractive to them after the Chut experience as outsiders in London. It had a long history of a diverse but cooperative overall Jewish population. And perhaps, like today, it seemed less overwhelming and more affordable than New York City.
I now read, “All things considered, I’d rather be in Philadelphia” in a whole new light.