Grandees: America’s Sephardic Elite – Book Review

Proud Jewish Navy Officer Uriah Levy’s Statute of Thomas Jefferson in front of the White House

Background to the Book

Stephen Birmingham, author of “The Grandees” seems to be as much of a goy as any. This is good because he is able to write without the blinding emotion that can sometimes come with being part of the group you are writing about, though the book also comes with his own style of elitism and some misunderstandings of Jewish practice. In fact, his writing as a whole isn’t centered around Jews – though he has a few books about same – his writing is focused on the upper class minorities including, in other works, blacks. In my mind, that makes him an interesting fellow with a “cross cultural” focus bound together by a different commonality than the shoe boxes we’re used to.

While searching for a particular piece of information about Hayyim Solaman, a search results from Google Books popped up. Google has famously and controversially digitized books and put them online arguing that this preserves and makes available books that otherwise would never leave a library shelf whereas publishers have argued that this is an infringement of copyright. The compromise seems to be to put parts of the books online which is exactly how I found this book and exactly why I bought the book. This is certainly one of those nearly “lost” books that is worth seeing the light of day again. If you ask someone about American Jewish history, they’ll typically point you to a Johnathan Sarna book – which is an excellent starting point.

Arriving in the United States

It’s oft repeated that the first Jews to arrive in American were from Brazil, escaping the Spanish Inquisition. What’s missing in this story is . . . wait, Brazil? There’s must be more to that story. In fact, there is and he tells it. He also brings up the question – were they really the first Jews in New York because someone else with a very Jewish name was their lawyer who must have been here before. The story is worth repeating in brief – Jews had escaped from Spain and Portugal to Amsterdam which was friendly to Jews. Brazil, for a time, was a Dutch colony. Jews, like other Dutch, migrated there only to have the colony seized again by Portugal.

Rather than, you know, kill the Jews, force them to convert, or send them away with just their clothing they were given 90 days to sell their property and settle everything and sail back to the Netherlands. (How nice, right?) One of the more than a dozen ships got blown off course, taken by Spanish pirates who looted them and forced them to throw things overboard, and then took them to New York to get random money from another Dutch colony. That’s how New York got it’s generally reported first group of 23 Jews. From these 23 Jews come many great and famous descendants from Supreme Court Judge Cordozo, Emma Lazerus (known for New Great Colossus, a poem on the Statute of Liberty), Anne Nathan (founder of Barnard college), Moshe Sexious (Hazan of the synagogue in New York City that famously said, “Better to close the shul than remain here under the British!” and whom moved his congregation to Philadelphia), Judah Benjamin (secretary to Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy) and my personal favorite, Uriah Levy. More on him later.

Once here, the Sephardi families intermarried with each other to a large extent and has also merged with the rest of the population after generations without great religious education.

The Before Time

Birmingham spends quite a bit of detail describing the Inquisition in Spain. Perhaps a bit too much for the topic of the book, though he tends to spend a lot of time on the topics of his interest which is fine. This is in contrast to Sarna who I find does a more high level overview of Jewish history, sometimes with perhaps a paragraph or even just a sentence on a particular event.

Painting a more nuanced picture of the Inquisition than is normally heard, Birmingham explains that enforcement was not the same everywhere in Spain and the rich were often able to bribe their way into safety. While in some places Jews were burned at the stake, this was, in fact, not the norm. In some cases it was an “open secret” that Jews were practicing Judaism and in other places it was often the Jews who converted to Christianity who wanted to show how sincere they were by persecuting other Jews. This, they thought, was the best way to protect themselves from accusations. Meanwhile, there are cases were a hundred or more priests and nuns were accused and killed in masse, most of them probably never Jewish. Birmingham explains how the Inquisition itself hurt Spain which has never recovered to what it was. Interesting side note – Franco (Spanish dictator during WWII) saved somewhere around 60,000 Greek Sefardi Jews in negotiations with Hitler. This isn’t the only case of a dictator saving Jews during the war. Perhaps Franco himself was descended from Jews? It’s probable that all of Spain today is.

Uriah Levy

Birmingham spends almost two full chapters on Levy. This is my favorite Jew in the book – so much so that I wrote a short play about Uriah Levy for a 6th grade history class that I teach. Levy was the first Jewish commander in the U.S. navy. A proud Jew who dealt with anti-semitism which almost ended his career on a few occasions and court martialed multiple times (often an anti-semetic over reaction to something he had done), he won a duel, successfully lobbied for the end of centuries of flogging in the navy, and restored Monticello

Jefferson was a hero due to his principals of religious freedom. Levy made his money buying and selling Manhattan real estate (a Jewish tradition which remains to this day) and had a statue commissioned for Jefferson which is the only privately funded statue in the rotunda today after Uriah Levy’s statue spent a few decades in front of the White House. (The statue was removed by President Hayes because, you know, Northern Republicans won the Civil War.)

This guy was renegade. In his 60s he married his niece who was 18 (see the Gemora in Kesubos, daf Chaf Gimmel). After he not only got a law passed so he could sue the navy after they dismissed him, he won, bringing dozens of witnesses to testify that he was fit to serve. Then he demanded that his wife come on board! No navy officer has been able to do that since.

Now things in the navy are named after him … a ship … a Jewish center …

The Family Tree

The tree doth cross over and over. In the middle of the book is a nice fold out showing much of the tree – this places so much in context. You can see how Hayyim Salomon, Emma Lazerus, Sexious, Touro, Rebecca Gratz,etc, etc, fit on a tree with one another.

Another tid bit – The Gomez’s had a teenager apprentice named Astor … they thought he wouldn’t do anything in life because he was such a bad worker. He went on to monopolize the fur trade.

From a person here and there, a web in your mind can be created to make the facts come alive and connect to each other. From Gomez’s in Newburgh, NY who had good relations with the Indians started the fur trade to the West, to revolutionary war heros, to confederate heros(?), poets, founders, preservers, and businessmen, it’s easy to see how the original Sephardi Jews did so much for the United States. I will bless those who bless you.

I highly recommend this book which is an almost forgotten history, being outside of a general history curriculum and not even known by most Jews or taught in Jewish schools. (I’m busy changing that.)


You may also like...

Leave a Reply