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.

Enhanced by Zemanta

The Brick Dyke in Amsterdam?

Before I write about the next phase in the life of Hart Levy Cohen and his children, I want to explain what I have learned or rather tried to learn about his life and his family before he came to London.  From the English census of 1841, I knew he was born in “foreign parts” outside of Great Britain.  The 1851 English census was more specific; it said that he was born in Holland.  The 1860 US census was even more specific than that.  It reported his place of birth as Amsterdam.

photo 1 (3)IMG_1060

Knowing his Hebrew name, his father’s Hebrew name, his English name and his approximate year of birth, I thought that I would be able to find some record of Hart’s birth and of his family in Holland fairly easily.  When I first found this information over a year ago, I searched every way I could on a site called Akevoth, which has a huge database and lots of information on Dutch Jewry.  It’s a wonderful resource, but I was soon overwhelmed.  There were just too many people with the names Hart(og), Levie, and Cohen or some combination of two of those three.  I had no way to figure out whether any of those people were my relatives.  I’ve just looked again, and now I remember why I was overwhelmed.  It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.  Last time I had not known about FamilySearch, so I have now looked there as well, and once again, I have not found anything definitive there or on

I’ve also had a chance to try and find evidence of Hart not only online, but also in Amsterdam itself.  Last spring we took a weeklong trip to Amsterdam.  We had an amazing time and loved the city.  It was not a trip we took for genealogical purposes, but rather a general interest trip to see the art, walk the canals, visit the museums, drink the beer, and learn about the history of Amsterdam.  Part of that history is, of course, the history of the Jews in Amsterdam, and in addition to an incredibly moving visit to Anne Frank’s house, we also took a walking tour of Jewish Amsterdam with Jeannette Loeb, a Dutch Jew herself with expertise in the history of the Jews in Amsterdam.

From Jeannette and other sources, I’ve learned some of the long history of the Jews in Amsterdam.  Like England and like the United States, the earliest Jews in Amsterdam were Sephardic—traders from Portugal and Spain. When the Netherlands established their independence from Spain, religious freedom was one of the important tenets of the new state, allowing not only Protestants but also Jews to practice their religion.  The Sephardic Jewish community became well-integrated both socially and economically in Amsterdam, although Jews were not given the full legal rights of citizens.

Portuguese Synagogue Amsterdam

Portuguese Synagogue Amsterdam

It was not until the late 17th century that Ashkenazi Jews from Germany and Poland began to settle in Amsterdam to escape persecution and poverty.  These immigrants were helped by the established Sephardic community, although the two communities retained their own languages, practices and synagogues.  Although they  started off poverty-stricken, the Ashkenazi community became more economically stable over the years.  In 1792 Jews were finally given full legal rights in the Netherlands, certainly late but nevertheless a full forty years before Jews were given such rights in England.

Joods Historisch Museum (Jewish Historical Mus...

Joods Historisch Museum (Jewish Historical Museum) in Amsterdam, Holland. {| cellspacing=”0″ style=”width:400px; text-align:left; color:#000; background:#ddd; border:1px solid #bbb; margin:1px; direction:ltr;” class=”layouttemplate” | style=”width:22px; height:22px;” | 20px|link= | style=”font-size:8pt; padding:1pt; line-height:1.1em;” | This is a photo of rijksmonument number 265 |} 00000265 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Before World War II, there were 80,000 Jews living in Amsterdam, about 10% of the overall population.  Almost all of them were killed during the Holocaust, leaving only 20,000 Jews in Amsterdam after the war.  Today there is a small Jewish community in Amsterdam, but nothing like that large and active Jewish community that existed before the Holocaust.

Holocaust Memorial Amsterdam

Holocaust Memorial Amsterdam

Thus, in the late 18th century when Hart was born, the Ashkenazi Jewish community in Amsterdam was fairly well established, and Jews had full legal rights by the time he was a young adult in 1792.  Why did he leave? What was the economic situation of his family? Who was his family?

While we were on our walking tour, I asked Jeannette Loeb where I might be able to get some help in tracking my Dutch ancestor, Hart Levy Cohen.  She suggested that I visit the Amsterdam city archives and ask for some help in searching the city records.  I followed her advice and spent a couple of hours there with an archivist who specialized in Dutch Jewish genealogy.  He sifted through many books of records of births and circumcisions, but was unable to come up with anything definitive.  As he explained to me, until 1812 most Ashkenazi Jews in Amsterdam (and in Europe generally) did not have surnames.  People were known only by their patronyms, that is, by their Hebrew name paired with their father’s Hebrew name.  Because of that, it is nearly impossible to identify specific families.  Rather, there are just a very large number of people with very similar names.  Hart was probably Hartog in Amsterdam, a Dutch version of Hirts, and there were many Hartog Cohens.  Cohen was also probably a patronymic label, referring to the Cohanim tribe, not a specific family.

Thus, for now I am going to once again put aside any attempt to find Hart Levy Cohen’s father or other relatives and ancestors.  Perhaps I will have another chance to go to Amsterdam or find some other clues to help me sift through all the data.  Perhaps there will be some hole in this “brick dyke” that will allow me to find my ancestors.  For now instead I will bring the story forward and trace Hart’s children and grandchildren all the way to my father and to his children.


Enhanced by Zemanta