All Things Considered, I’d Rather Be in Philadelphia

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.

English: W.C. Fields

English: W.C. Fields (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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)

English: Former home of Mikveh Israel Synagogu...

Former home of Mikveh Israel Synagogue

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)

Rodeph Shalom Synagogue on the NRHP since Augu...

Rodeph Shalom Synagogue on the NRHP since August 7, 2007. At 607–615 North Broad St., in the Poplar neighborhood of Philadelphia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Appendix III from Swierenga. The Forerunners

Appendix III from Swierenga. The Forerunners

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.

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My Ancestor was a Chut: More on Dutch and English Jews

The Chuts” Synagogue Sandy’s Row London

After I wrote my last post saying I was going to put aside for now any attempt to find my four times great-grandfather’s family in Holland, I decided to look more generally into the question of why a Dutch Jew would have emigrated from Holland to England in the late 18th century.  After all, life seemed to be pretty good for the Jews in Amsterdam at that point.  They had acquired full legal rights as citizens, many were comfortable both socially and economically, and England was in fact still forty years away from giving Jews the same legal rights as Christian residents.  Why would someone have left Amsterdam to move to London?

Su Leslie of Shaking the Tree mentioned in a comment that she had seen some episodes of the British version of Who Do You Think You Are involving famous British Jews and recalled that there had been discussion of an immigration of Jews from Holland to England in the late 18th century.  I decided to search on line for more information and learned that there was in fact a whole community of Dutch Jews who settled in London during that time.  My research led me to several websites discussing this community, including the Bishopsgate Institute website describing a recent oral history project about this community being sponsored by the Institute and created under the direction of Rachel Lichtenstein, a well-known writer and artist.  According to this site:

The oldest Ashkenazi synagogue in London, Sandys Row in Spitalfields, was established by Dutch Jewish immigrants in 1854, who began arriving in the city from the 1840s onwards. They came in search of a better life, rather than fleeing persecution like the thousands of Ashkenazi Jews who came after them in the 1880s from the Pale of Settlements.  Mostly from Amsterdam, many settled in a small quarter of narrow streets in Spitalfields known as the Tenterground. Here they continued to practise the trades they had bought with them from Holland, which were predominately cigar making, diamond cutting and polishing, and slipper and cap making. Many small workshops were established in the area and businesses were passed on within generations of families.

With their own practises and customs, many of which were different from other Ashkenazi Jewish groups, they became a distinctive, tight knit community of about a thousand people. To the frustration of the more established Anglo-Jewish population living in the area at the time, ‘the Chuts’ (as they were known locally) refused to join any of the existing synagogues…

Sandys Row Synagogue

Sandys Row Synagogue (Photo credit: FarzanaL)

So my four times great grandfather Hart Levy Cohen was a Chut—a term I’d never heard before and a community I’d never known about before.  Other sites confirmed this information and also provided some other details.  Wikipedia provided this explanation for the name “Chuts.”

The origin of the name Chuts is uncertain. A popular assumption is that it derives from the Dutch word goed (meaning “good”) and is imitative of the foreign-language chatter that others heard. It is also Hebrew חוץ for “outside” or “in the street” and may have been applied to the Dutch Jews of London either because they were socially isolated or because many were street vendors. Another possibility is that the Hebrew word would have appeared increasingly in Amsterdam synagogue records as more and more emigrated to London, and others who followed would have “gone chuts” (i.e., emigrated).

Sandys Row Synagogue, London

Sandys Row Synagogue, London (Photo credit: nicksarebi)

The About Jewishness website revealed where in London the Chuts lived:

They settled mostly in a small system of streets in Spitalfields known as the Tenterground, formerly an enclosed area where Flemish weavers stretched and dried cloth on machines called tenters (hence the expression “on tenterhooks”). By the 19th century, the site had been built upon with housing, but remained an enclave where the Dutch immigrants lived as a close-knit and generally separate community. Demolished and rebuilt during the twentieth century, the area is now bounded by White’s Row, Wentworth Street, Bell Lane and Toynbee Street (formerly Shepherd Street).

I looked up these streets on the map of London and was not surprised that this area is very close to New Goulston Street where my ancestors were living in 1841.

The About Jewishness site also provided some insight into what happened to this community and perhaps why my ancestors left London and moved to the US.  According to this site, “the successful introduction of machinery for the mass-production of cigarettes ultimately led to the collapse of the cigar-making economy on which the Chuts community depended. Many Chuts returned to improved conditions in Amsterdam, some emigrated further afield to places such as Australia and the USA, some assimilated into other Jewish families, and some eventually lost their Jewish identity altogether.”

In addition, the huge influx of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the late 19th century caused tensions between the older established Chuts community and the newer immigrants, most of whom were poor, not as well skilled, and not used to living in a big city.  Interestingly, the Chuts community had traditions and practices that made them different both from the older Sephardic community and from the newer Eastern European Ashkenazi community.  Again, from the About Jewishness site:

[T]he Chuts were treated with suspicion by other Jews because the former had developed specific customs and practices, many of their families having lived in Amsterdam since the first synagogues were established there in the early years of the 17th century. Uniquely in Amsterdam, Ashkenazim (so-called “German Jews”) and Sephardim (so-called “Spanish Jews”) lived in close proximity for centuries, resulting in a cultural blend not found elsewhere. Most remarkably, the Dutch Jews were well accustomed to the sea, and ate seafoods considered not kosher by other Jewish communities.

From this information, it seems reasonable to infer a couple of things.  First, it seems that despite the fact that the Amsterdam Jewish community was fairly well-established, there must have been those, my ancestor Hart among them, who believed that there was greater opportunity for financial success in London.  These Dutch Jews decided to emigrate in order to achieve greater economic security.  Secondly, it seems that at some point many of those Dutch Jews either left or assimilated into the greater Jewish or non-Jewish society.  Some may have left because economic conditions were not as good as they had hoped; others may have left because as a “Chut,” they were not well integrated into the world of London’s Jews.  With different traditions, different practices, different synagogues, they may have felt isolated and disrespected.  I don’t know specifically what motivated my ancestors first to leave Amsterdam and then to leave London, but I’d imagine it was a combination of these factors.

Once again I am finding out new things about my own history and about Jewish history by doing genealogy.  I never knew about the Chuts, and I certainly never knew I was descended from one.  I have written to Rachel Lichtenstein to learn more about her project and will report back with whatever else I learn.

Also, in researching more about the Dutch Jews in general, I came across a genealogy blog I’d not seen before written by Kerry Farmer called Family History Research.  Kerry had a post from two years ago about searching for a Dutch Jewish ancestor using information she was able to obtain from a book compiling information about marriages performed at the Great Synagogue in London, Harold and Miriam Lewin’s Marriage Records of the Great Synagogue- London 1791-1885.  I was very excited when I read this post and contacted Kerry, who generously looked up Hart Levy Cohen and Rachel Jacobs’ wedding for me in the Lewin book.  She was able to provide me with the information she found there:

(Groom) Cohen Hart Levy

(Groom’s father) Leib Katz

(Groom’s patronymic) Hertz b. Leib Katz

(Groom’s address) Not listed

(Bride) Jacobs Rachel

(Bride’s father) Yaakov

(Bride’s patronymic) Rechel b. Yaakov

She also suggested that I contact the owners of the Akevoth site to see if this additional information would help in locating the records of my ancestors, and I have done that.  Now I will wait to see if they can provide any further assistance.

So yesterday I was ready to put aside the search for my Dutch ancestors, and then, with the help of Su Leslie and Kerry Farmer, I was able to make some progress in understanding who they were and why they left Amsterdam and why they left London.  Once again I am humbled by and grateful for the generosity of the genealogy community.  Su and Kerry are from New Zealand and Australia, respectively, and they have helped me in my search to find a Dutch Jew who lived in England and moved to America.  What a small world it is when you find such wonderful, helpful and knowledgeable people.

 

 

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