Rabbis of Renown: The Ramchal

I am an unabashed fan of the Ramchal--Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746). He is one of those authors whose works I return to again and again. Yet, I often feel like there are two Ramchals. There is the tzaddik who spawned the modern mussar (ethics) movement who work is taught in orthodox yeshivot around the world. Then, there is the sometimes heretical, messianic mystic studied by academics. Can these be the same person?

Recent publications of some of the Ramchal's mystical masterpieces (including 138 Openings of Wisdom and Secrets of the Future Temple: Mishkney Elyon) by Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum have begun to close this gap, by showing the importance of the Ramchal as a mystical thinker as well as ethical philosopher. In my own scholarship, I've tried to understand why the Ramchal became such a crucial figure for mainstream Judaism by looking to how he reveals the logic of mysticism and how he answers the fundamental theological questions of his era.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746) was born in Padua (Italy) and died in Acre, near Tiberius (Israel). In between, he settled in Amsterdam where he wrote many of his most famous works, including Mesillat Yesharim (The Path of the Just) and possibly Derech haShem (The Way of G-d). These works answered a basic need in the Sephardic community, particularly the questions raised by the large numbers of conversos arriving in Amsterdam due to late waves of the Inquisition. These are questions that still plague us today. Do our acts matter for salvation? How can we gain knowledge of God’s plan? What is the relationship between the physical realm and the spiritual? What is the meaning and purpose of life? If God is in charge of the universe, how can I have free will?

The Ramchal’s writings were (and are) powerful because they addressed the great questions and concerns of his day; moreover, his answers revealed that the major “threats” to Jewish practice were not as threatening as people might have thought. Thus it should not surprise us, that works like Mesillat Yesharim and Derech haShem were almost immediately accepted as central formulations of Jewish belief, despite the fact that the Ramchal authored other more controversial messianic manuscripts.

Ramchal Synagogue in Acre © Yourway

Like any good fan, as soon as there is another edition of one the Ramchal's books, I rush out to get it. Hence I was thrilled when my copy of the Ofeq Institute's Complete Mesillat Yesharim arrived. I own several other versions of Mesillat Yesharim, but this version is already by far my favorite. I suspect that the new Ofeq edition of The Complete Mesillat Yesharim (superbly edited and translated by Avraham Shoshana) will appeal to readers new to the Ramchal as well as fans like myself.

The edition has many strengths. First, the translation is lively and very readable. Second, the notes are excellent and insightful, but not intrusive. Third, the introduction is succinct and still helpful. Fourth, the book contains both the "dialogue" and "thematic" versions of this classic work.

It is this fourth element that will ensure the Ofeq edition is an immediate classic and is necessary to any serious study of the Ramchal. The "thematic version" is the one most commonly found in print, and is based on a revised version of the 1740 edition of Mesillat Yesharim from Amsterdam. The dialogue version is based on a 1738 manuscript in the Guenzberg Collection of the Russian State Library in Moscow. This "version" takes the form of a dialogue between a hakham (wise man) and a hasid (a pietist). Although the 1740 edition of Mesillat Yesharim was both generated from this dialogic text and is an abridgement of it, the manuscript was an independent work, not a "draft." One of the geniuses of the Ofeq edition is that it allows readers to toggle back and forth between the two versions and learn from the comparison. Indeed, there is a comparative study of the two versions at the end of the volume. At $35.99 (and 672 pages) this beautifully printed edition is a bargain.

If you are new to the Ramchal, you might find it helpful to read Derech haShem before trying Mesillat Yesharim. Likewise, I find that the Ramchal's more openly kabbalistic texts 138 Openings of Wisdom and Secrets of the Future Temple: Mishkney benefit both from an introduction to kabbalism and a thorough reading of his other works. Here are a few resources that people may enjoy:

Resources on the Ramchal


Keep This Classic Cemetery Open to the Public!

Beth Haim Ouderkerk is the most magnificent and important of the historic cemeteries in the Jewish Atlantic World. It is the birthplace of the unique Sephardic sepulchral tradition that spread throughout Hamburg, London, Newport, New York, and the Caribbean in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The cemetery opened in 1614, and some of the oldest (and most famous) stones imitate the coffin-shaped style found in medieval Spanish Jewish cemeteries and Sephardic cemeteries in the Ottoman Empire. These stones have been memorialized in paintings and drawings by Dutch artists like Romeyn de Hooghe (1645–1708) and Jacob van Ruysdael (1628/9-1682). By the final quarter of the seventeenth century, a distinctive tradition emerged in the cemetery: flat table stones with a predilection for elaborate carvings that often include death’s heads, angels, biblical scenes, the hand of God cutting down the tree of life, and heraldic images. Members of the Sephardic elite in the colonies imitated these stones, and often even imported stones from Amsterdam before their death. This incredible cemetery has been open to the public and available as an important heritage site for travelers and scholars from around the world. The site is also a priceless resource for genealogists.

Gravestone featuring Daniel and the Lions, Beth Haim Ouderkerk (Photo by L. Leibman, 2009)

The recent economic crisis is also hitting Beth Haim Ouderkerk. The lack of donations have created a situation where the annual municipal subsidies may be withdrawn. The lack of these funds will halt maintenance work and make it difficult to keep the cemetery open to the public.

You can help! As this tax season ends and you consider making charitable donations, keep Beth Haim Ouderkerk in mind. You can also support the cemetery by purchasing books about the cemetery. All proceeds go to the Beth Haim.

To learn more about this classic cemetery, please enjoy the most recent newsletter (Thank you to Dennis Ouderdorp for being willing to share it!):
De Castro Newsletter 17-1

All photos from Beth Haim Ouderkerk by Laura Leibman, 2009.


Masonic Jews

Phil Belinfante recently asked me about a gravestone of one of his Jewish ancestors that had masonic symbols on it. The gravestone was that of Judah Cappé (1799-1878) of St. Thomas. The stone lies in the Jewish Cemetery in St. Thomas and features a Masonic square and compass with a G inside surrounded by a laurel (right). The square and compass are the most universal symbols of freemasonry: the tools are understood "emblematically" to "remind the Mason to square his actions by the square of virtue, [and] to circumscribe his passions and desires with a symbolic compass" (Morris 5). The "G" is stands for how God (or geometry) is at the center of freemasonry. Laurels are a sign of divine blessing (and victory) and are associated with the Scottish Rite.

Phil wanted to know (1) if it was common for Jews to be Masons during this era, and (2) if so, why?

The answer to the first question is relatively simple: yes. Many prominent Jews in the American colonies were masons and they often decorated their gravestones with Masonic symbols. Some joined regular lodges, others created Jewish-themed lodges, such as the King David's Lodge of New York, Newport, and Massachusetts. Men like Michael Moses Hays and Moses Seixas rose through the masonic ranks to become grand masters. Masonic symbols can also be found on ketubot (marriage contracts) and even the lintel for Temple Emanu-el in Curaçao (above left), as well as gravestones. Although some communities (such as Curaçao) had separate non-denominational masonic cemeteries, Jewish Masons tended to be buried in Jewish cemeteries and to show their affiliations with the masons through symbols on their stones.

The second question is more complicated: why be masons? Fraternal organizations in general were extremely popular starting in the eighteenth century. As historian Steven Bullock explains, freemasonry provided a welcome relief for Restoration Britons who otherwise were awash in religious and political factionalism: “doctrinal and sectarian differences were to be laid aside within the Masonic family.” The Masons expressly banned discussions that might lead to controversy, including quarrels about religion. Nor was religious belief used to define membership. Brotherhoods allowed Jews to forge business and social connections with the wider community of elites in their port towns. Moreover, Masonic rituals that lauded the Jewish origins of the group probably helped make Jews feel at least partially at home in the organization. Some masonic "secrets" (as well as the general interest in symbols) drew upon known mystical traditions, including kabbalism, which may have also made Jews feel an affinity for masonic rites.

Did being a freemason mean one was less devoted to Judaism? As Phil points out, "One would think being a Jew was enough of a full time ... life." While many orthodox Rabbis today would probably see freemasonry as antithetical to Judaism, at least some early American Jews seem to have believed that the two were compatible. Joseph Chayyim Mendes Chumaceiro (Amsterdam 1844-Curaçao 1905), who served as the Chazan for in Charleston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Georgia as well as Curaçao, wrote an extended treatise on the evidences of freemasonry in "Ancient Hebrew Records." The degree to which Jews actively practiced both Judaism and freemasonry probably varied tremendously.

Let's turn back, then, to Judah Cappé. Judah was the son-in-law of Samuel Hoheb and the husband of Sara de Samuel Hoheb (ca. 1796-1863). According to the history of the Harmonic Lodge, they lived downtown at 22 Commandant Gade (right). Sara's gravestone indicated that they had four children that survived her death. As Judah's stone suggests, he was active in the masons. The Harmonic Lodge's records support this and indicate that key meetings were held at the Cappé house. Judah was also active in the Synagogue. When a fire destroyed the synagogue in 1831 and the community had to rebuild the structure, the Cappés held a dinner and ball at their house in honor of the laying of the first cornerstone in December of 1832 (Cohen 46). In spite of this support, the family does not appear to have been completely shomer shabbat (sabbath observant): Cohen notes that the auction houses owned by Judah and his father-in-law "ran their swiftest business on Saturdays." Yet, when Cappé's duties as "consul to the Netherlands" conflicted with religion, he chose Judaism: when the King's birthday fell on a Saturday, "Cappé moved the planned fireworks celebration to Sunday" (Cohen 60, 126, 254 fn63). Like many Jews in the Atlantic World (and today), Judah's religious beliefs and observances were complex.

Judah's tombstone is all in English, but pays allegiance to both his beginnings (in the Jewish community of St. Eustatius) and the heritage he left to his son, named for Judah's father-in-law Samuel Hoheb. The inscription reads

to the memory of
Born in the island of St. Lusiastius [Eustatius]
on the 9th of April 1799
And summoned hence on the 4th day
of November 1878
Aged 70 years and 8 months
This stone has been erected
as a mark of filial affection
by his son

Here are a few more gravestones of Jewish Masons that people may enjoy.

Gravestone of thirty-first-degree Mason Isaac Moises Penso (1878). Temple Emanu-él section of Beit Haim Berg Altena, Curaçao

Gravestone of Grand Master Moses Michael Hays. Touro Cemetery, Newport RI. Although Hays helped start King David's Lodge and was the Grand Master in New York, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, there are no Masonic symbols on his tomb.

Does anyone else have a Jewish gravestone about which they have questions?


Bullock, Steven C. Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order, 1730-1840. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Chumaceiro, Joseph Chayyim Mendes. The Evidences of Free-Masonry from Ancient Hebrew Records. Augusta, GA: 1896; New York: Bloch, 1921.

Cohen, Judah. Through the Sands of Time: a History of the Jewish community of St. Thomas. Hanover: U. Press of New England, 2004.

History of the Harmonic Lodge, a Freemasons Lodge in the Virgin Islands. http://www.harmoniclodge.com/a_short_history_of_the_harmonic_.htm>

Margolinsky, J. 299 epitaphs from the Jewish cemetery in St. Thomas, West Indies, 1837-1916, with and index; compiled from records in the archives of the Jewish Community in Copenhagen. Copehagen: 1965.

Morris, S. Brent. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Freemasonry. New York: Alpha, 2006.


Rabbis of Renown: Rabbi Haim Isaac Carigal

Rabbi Carigal was born around 1729 and died in Barbados in 1777. He was one of the many emissaries that visited the American colonies from Europe and the Four Holy Cities in Israel (Safed, Hebron, Tiberias, and Jerusalem). These emissaries not only played an important role raising funds for yeshivot, but also brought learning to the edges of the Jewish diaspora.

Although Carigal lived for several years in London and Barbados, he is most famous among American Jews for having visited Newport (RI) in 1773, where he delivered a Shavuot sermon that became the first published Rabbinical address delivered in what would become the United States. He also became life-long friends with Ezra Stiles (affectionately known by me as the "Harriet the Spy of the Colonial World"), who took copious notes on their visits together and transcribed their letters back and forth. Today Carigal's sermon, along with Stiles' records comprise the two main textual resources we have on the Rabbi, his thoughts, and his life. We also have his will, written in Barbados shortly before his death at the young age of 48 (see below). These written sources are complemented by two objects that round out our sense of the Rabbi: a portrait commissioned by Stiles from artist Samuel King (above), and Carigal's elaborately carved gravestone that rests today in the Nidhe Israel cemetery in Bridgetown, Barbados (below).

Like many Jewish gravestones in the West Indies, the inscription for Carigal's stone is in three languages: Hebrew, Portuguese, and English. The Portuguese and English portions read:

Do muy Docto Erudito & Isigne
H.H.R. Refael Haim Ishac Carigal
Illustre Cabeca do K K de Nidhe
Israel en Berbados que O'Soberano:
Jues chamo desta Transitoria Vida
em 2da Fra 12 de Iyar 5537 que cor
responde a 19 de Mayo 1777 de
48 Annos de Idade

Here lyeth the remains of the Learned
& Revd Rabbi Ralph Haim Isaac Carigal
Worthy Pastor of the Synagogue NY
who departed this life on the 19 of May
1777 Aged 48 Years.

Although carved in a beautiful marble with care, the stone lacks many of the signature symbols found in the Nidhe Israel cemetery: there are no angels, the tree of life, no scenes of resurrection like those found on stones nearby. The restraint shown on the stone speaks to the Rabbi's origins in the Ottoman Empire: although Turkish stones are often gorgeous and elaborate (as Minna Rozen has shown), they do not tend to have images of humans and divine beings (angels, hand of God) found on the stones of the Jewish Atlantic World. Rabbi Carigal's "Turkishness" fascinated Stiles when the Rabbi visited Newport. Stiles was particularly intrigued by Carigal's hat and robes, which gave the Rabbi an "Oriental" air.

As I argue in my essay on the Shavuot sermon, Carigal was an important resource for early American Jews. His sermon was stepped in Sephardic tradition and relied upon the greater learning he had had while in Hebron. Marc Saperstein argues that Sephardic sermons underwent a shift from an older derush form to a newer “catenary” style during the eighteenth century. Carigal's sermon bridges these two forms (Saperstein 78; Leibman 80). Carigal's will also reveals his undying ties to the Holy Land and the family he left behind: he asks that most of his estate be sold and divided between his wife and son, but that "my books and wearing apparel be send to ... be remitted ... to my loving wife Hori Carrigal [in London] and my loving son David Carrigal of Hebron to be equally divided share and share alike." Rabbi Carigal is an important reminder of the sacrifices Sephardic luminaries made to bring learning to the Jewish Atlantic World.

Transcription by L. Leibman of the "Will of Rabbi Raphael Haim Isaac Carrigal May 27th, 1777" (Barbados Department of Archives, Bridgetown, Barbados; RB6 25 pp. 111-12)

Entd May 27th, 1777

In the Name of God Amen I Raphael Him Isaac Carrigal of the Parish of St. Michael in the Island abovesaid Raby being sick and weak in body but of a sound and perfect disposing mind and memory do make & publish this my last Will and Testament in manner and form following that is to say. First I recommend my soul to the Almighty God of Israel imploring his Divine Goodness to pardon my sins. Impris I direct all my just debts and funeral Expenses be first fully paid and Satisfied Item I direct all my books and wearing apparel be send to Mr. Abraham Levi Hemenes of London one of my Executors here after mentioned to be remitted by him to my loving wife Hori Carrigal and my loving son David Carrigal of Hebron to be equally divided share and share alike. Item I direct that all my estate real and personal might be sold by my Executors hereafter named and the moneys arising therefrom to be remitted to London to Mr. Abraham Levi Hemenes one of my Executors here after named to be remitted to my loving wife Hore Carrigal and my loving son David Carrigal of Hebron to be equally divided share and share alike between them both and Lastly I nominate and appoint my loving friends Abraham Massiah Isaac Lind and Matthias Lopez of this Island and Mr Abraham Levi Hemenes of the City of London Executors of this my said Will hereby revoking and making void all former or other Wills by me heretofore made. In Witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and Seal this seventeenth day of May one thousand seven hundred and Seventy Seven.

Rephael Haim Carrigal (Seal)

Signed Sealed published and declared by the said Testator as and for his last Will and Testament in the presence of
Abm Depriza Moses Depriza Moses Lopez Junr

Barbados By His Excellency
Moses Lopez Junr one of the Subscribing Witness to within written Will this day personally appeared before me and made oath on the Five Books of Moses that he was present and did see Raphael Haim Isaac Carrigal the Testator therein named (Since decd) sign Seal publish and declare the same as and for this last Will and testament ad that he was at the executing thereof of a sound and disposing mind an memory to the best of his this deponents and Belief given at Pilgrim this 27th day of May 1777
Edward Hay

Further Readings:Karigal, Rabbi Haijm Isaac. “A Sermon Preached at the Synagogue in Newport,” Newport: S. Southwick, 1773.

Kohut, George Alexander. Ezra Stiles and the Jews. NY: Philip Cowen, 1902.

Leibman, Laura. "From the Holy Land to New England Canaan: Rabbi Karigal and Sephardic Itinerant Preaching in the 18th Century." Early American Literature 44.1 (March 2009).

Minna Rozen
, Hasköy Cemetery: Typology of Stones. Pennsylvania: Center for Judaic Studies, 1994.

Saperstein, Marc.
Jewish Preaching, 1200-1800: an Anthology. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.
Singer, Rabbi Shmuel, "The Chacham for the Colonies: He Came from Hebron to the New World to Serve."

Stiles, Ezra.
Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles, 3 volumes. Ed. F.B. Dexter. NY: C. Scribner's Sons, 1901.

Stiles, Ezra.
Itinerancies. Ezra Stiles papers, Beinecke Library. Yale University.


Family Portraits

Portraits of early American Jews tell us a lot about how Jews wanted to be seen and remembered. They also tell us about how Jews dressed and how they thought about family. Who was featured together in portraits? Where were the paintings hung? Over ten years ago, the Jewish Museum in New York featured an exhibit entitled, "Facing the New World: Jewish Portraits in Colonial and Federal America," the exhibition book for which is still a landmark in the field. Today, many early American Jewish portraits are available online through the Loeb Database of Early American Portraits at AJHS.
This summer I am teaching a MALS class on material culture in the Jewish Atlantic World. This week we've focused on portraits and representations of Jews between 1640-1840. I like to distinguish between portraits paid for by a patron (who had the power not only to choose his clothes and the painter, but also not to pay for the work if it wasn't to his liking), and paintings of Jews over which the sitter had little or no input or control. Examples of a portrait would be Gilbert Stuart's "Mrs. Aaron Lopez and Her Son Joshua" (1772/73) or Gerardus Duyckinck's "Portrait of Franks Children with Lamb" (ca. 1735). In contrast, an example of an unsolicited representation of Jews would be Pierre Jacques Benoit's "Shopkeeper and Tailor, Paramaribo, Surinam" (1839). Somewhere in between these extremes is Bernard Picart's Etchings of Amsterdam's Jews, an example of which I featured in my post on the House of the Rounds. Comparing these types of representations of Jews can help students understand the differences between how Jews were seen by others and how they wanted to be seen.

Below are some resources for other teachers who are interested in having students analyze early Jewish portraits in class.

Sylvan Barnet’s General Questions Art Historians Ask About Art1. What is my first response to the work? (Later you may modify or even reject this response, but begin by trying to study it.)

2. Where and when was the work made? Does it reveal qualities attributed to the culture? (Don't assume that it does; works of art have a way of eluding easy generalizations.)

3. Where would the work originally have been seen? (Surely not in a museum or textbook.)

4. What purpose did the work serve?
To glorify a god? To immortalize a man? To teach? To delight? Does the work present a likeness, or express a feeling, or illustrate a mystery?

5. In what condition has the work survived?
Is it exactly as it left the artist's hands, or has it been damaged, repaired, or in some way altered? What evidence of change do I see?

6. What is the title? Does it help illuminate the work? Sometimes it is useful to ask yourself, what would I call the work?
Specific Questions I Ask about Portraits
1. Was the portrait commissioned by the sitter (or the sitter’s family) or was it created without the sitter’s input?

2.Does the portrait emphasize or elide ethnic identity?

3. What social type does the sitter represent? (There may be more than one.) How do you know?

4. What is the class/social rank of the sitter? How does the painter establish the rank of the sitter? Does the social standing of the painter tell us anything about the social rank of the sitter?

5. What objects does the sitter hold or have around him/her? What message do these objects convey?

6. Is anyone else present in the portrait? Do these people help construct a communal identity for the sitter or emphasize the sitter as defined by specific relationships?

7. What is the sitter wearing? How do the clothing help establish the sitter’s identity?

8.If possible, look at another portrait by the same artist of a non-Jewish patron.What differences do you notice? What is the significance of the differences? [For example you could compare Gilbert Stuart's portrait of Sarah and Joshua Lopez to that his portrait of Christian Stelle Bannister and her son John].

9.If a child is in the portrait is (s)he presented as a “little adult” or as a child?

10.If you feel comfortable thinking about styles of art, in what style is the portrait made?

Resources for Finding Portraits
from the Jewish Atlantic World




The Magic of Probate Records

Most of us don't just want to know the names of people in the past, we want to know who they were, how they lived, what mattered to them most, who they considered family. Probate records are one important key to unlocking these mysteries. Probate records sound boring: who wants to sit around reading wills or estate inventories? I hope to show that probate records are actually a goldmine waiting to be excavated.

When I was recently in Barbados, I managed to convince my father we NEEDED to go the Department of Archives to look at probate records. I was interested in historical research, and he was interested in family history, and for both of us, probate records provided a lot of answers to our most urgent questions.

My father knew his great-grandfather's name and date of death, but he didn't know anything about how he died, what kind of life he led, or how he felt about the family he left behind. Probate records helped my father answer these questions. By finding his great-grandfather's will, he found out he owned a small plantation, had a small amount of livestock, and a carriage. The size of the plantation and the basic holdings told us their lot was not as glamorous as that of the owners of large plantations, nor as desperate as the poor whites known as "Red Legs." We discovered our ancestor cared about his children, all of whom were mentioned by name in the will, and to whom he chose to leave equal portions to "share and share alike" after his death rather than trying to consolidate wealth with his eldest son. Although we didn't find out what precisely caused his death, we did find out that he knew he was going to die reasonable amount of time before he did, suggesting that he wasn't carried off in a sudden illness. We also found out the name of plantation. With this information in hand, we looked up the deed to the plantation and found out the exact location of the family property, the date the family sold it, and the amount of the sale after debts were paid. This gave us a sense of what our great (great) grandmother had taken as a nest egg to the United States as a young woman.

Intrigued? I'd like to offer a few general suggestions on where to find probate records and what to look for when you find them, and then I'll turn to some specific examples from Barbados to talk about the significance of what people say in their wills.

1. Where to find probate records. In order to locate probate records, you will need to know when and where someone died. In the United States, probate records are usually found in the court records of the county in which the person died. Sometimes these records have either been moved to state archives (if they are early and fragile) or are available in state archives in duplicate form. Many state archives have good websites with information about what records they possess and provide research services at a small cost. (See the resources at Mass. Archives as an example.) For more specific tips on how to find the exact document once you have located the correct archive, see these Probate Research Steps. If you don't live near the archive (or even after you get there), don't be afraid to ask someone who works there for help. Some places have printed excerpts of probate records: while these are useful, I'd encourage you to look for (or order) the original document. Although they are better than nothing, synopsis often leave out personal information: precisely the details that will help you understand who the person was and what mattered to them most. If you can't read the handwriting, don't despair: there is often a later (nineteenth century or early twentieth century) transcription. These are different than synopses as they are complete and they are usually much easier to read. If there is no transcription, try my early American handwriting game to get up to speed on reading early American handwriting. You may also find the common name and abbreviation quizzes to be helpful.

2. What you may find. Probate records vary tremendously by location, date, and the wealth of the deceased. The best case scenario is that the estate will be inventoried. This provides you with a complete list of household items owned by the deceased (see image at the top of the page). Other common features are statements about the deceased's religious beliefs, a list of real property and prized personal possessions, suggestions for how they should be commemorated, the executor of the will, and a list of heirs (and their relationship to the deceased). Sometimes what people aren't given is as important as what they are given: for example, in one will I saw, a child who had married against his parents wishes was left a dollar, while other children were given vast quantities of money. Here are some examples of what you might find:

Religious Statements
Sometimes these are stock phrases, so it is worth looking to see what the "norm" is for the era. For example in eighteenth-century Barbados, many wills included some sort of religious aspirations for after death, but in the nineteenth century, religious statements were less common (my great-great-great grandfather's will had none). Here are some examples from those who did:

  1. From the will of Abigail Henriques (15 August 1755, Barbados): "First I recommend my Soule unto the hands of Almighty God in hope of his infinite mercy to obtain forgiveness of my sins and a joyfull resurrection with my breathren the Israelites, my body to the Earth to be buryed at the discretion of my Executors here after named." This statement interested me, as resurrection motifs can also be found on the gravestones at the Synagogue.
  2. From the will of Rabbi Raphael Haim Isaac Carrigal (27 May 1777, Barbados): "First I recommend my soul to the Almighty God of Israel imploring his Divine Goodness to pardon my sins." Notice how similar this is to Abigail's phrasing, suggesting a stock motif.
Prized Personal Possessions
  1. From the will of Rabbi Raphael Haim Isaac Carrigal (27 May 1777, Barbados): "I direct all my books and wearing apparel be send to Mr. Abraham Levi Hemenes of London one of my Executors here after mentioned to be remitted by him to my loving wife Hori Carrigal and my loving son David Carrigal of Hebron to be equally divided share and share alike." In order to earn his living in the colonies, Rabbi Carrigal had lived apart from his wife and son for many years. Since he was a hocham (scholar), it isn't surprising that Rabbi Carrigal prized his books, but it is touching that he wanted to make sure that his clothes were sent back to to his family! When Carrigal was in Newport, Ezra Stiles made note of Carrigal's distinctive Turkish dress, which was also featured in the portrait Stiles commissioned from Samuel King after Carrigal's death.
Suggestions for how they should be Commemorated
  1. From the Will of Sarah Belifante (4 Nov. 1785, Barbados): " I then direct that my body be interred after the Custom of the Hebrew Nation and that a white marble stone to cost eighteen pounds sterling money of Great Britain be placed over my grave I then give to the poor of the Hebrew Nation in the island the sum of twenty five pounds current money of this island to be divided amongst them at the discretion of my executors." Notice that Sarah is interested in her legacy on a variety of levels: through how she should be buried, the type of gravestone to be used, and by leaving tzedakah for the poor.
Executor of the WillWho the deceased designate to take care of their real and personal property after their death can say a lot about who they trust most. Rabbi Carrigal takes care to mention that he appoints his executors because they are his "loving friends." Likewise when Sarah Henriquez (1774 Barbados) appoints "Rachel Henriquez sole Executrix of this my Will," she does so only after noting that Rachel is her "dearly beloved friend."

Lists of Heirs
My father and I were touched that our great (great) grandmother received an equal share in the will, even though she was one of the youngest children in the family. It is worth comparing a list of descendants with those who are left money. Do the obvious people get the largest amounts of money? If the deceased has no children, who does she see as her closest kin? Sarah Henriquez left her entire estate to "Rachel Henriquez of the same Parish & Island Spinster [and] her heirs." The fact that Sarah and Rachel share the last name suggests that they were related, yet Sarah identifies Rachel as her "dearly beloved friend," not as a relative. More historical research would be useful to determine to whom else Sarah might have left her possessions.

I hope this post helps people see what gems can be found in Probate Records and encourage people to find records from their own ancestors!


Happy Mother's Day from Barbados

Happy Mother's Day from Barbados! Photos in are from Nidhe Israel Synagogue, Huntes Garden, St. Nicholas Abbey, Bridgetown, and other locations on the island. Music is the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in D Major, Czech Radio recording. All photos by Laura Leibman and Stevan Arnold.

Slideshow Version

Your pictures and fotos in a slideshow on MySpace, eBay, Facebook or your website!view all pictures of this slideshow

Video Version


Early American Mikvaot (Ritual Baths)

There is probably no less understood element of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Jewish life in the American colonies than the ritual bath or mikveh. The ritual bath was an essential part of early modern Jewish society, and indeed remains so today for orthodox Jews today. Over the past several years, I have studied numerous early American mikvaot. The findings from this research are being published this month in the journal Religion in the Age of Enlightenment (AMS Press) in an article entitled, "Early American Mikvaot: Ritual Baths as the Hope of Israel."

I began to investigate early American mikvaot during a research trip focusing upon the early Jewish community in Newport, RI; my fascination with the subject is both academic and personal. As an academic, I am deeply interested in the daily lives of early American Jews, and mikveh provides important insights into the habits and behaviors of early American women. My intrigue with early mikvaot was also arises out of my own experiences as a Jew. As an orthodox woman in a small city, I have sometimes served as a volunteer balanit (mikveh attendant). When I left to do research one summer in Newport, I told the other mikveh attendants I would find out about early mikvaot. This turned out to be more challenging than I'd thought. Although I was told by tour guides in Newport that women in colonial times probably immersed in the ocean, this struck me as incredibly unlikely. In the summer, the Narragansett bay would hardly be the most modest place to immerse; in the winter the temperature drops well below zero, making ocean immersion also extremely uncomfortable if not deadly. Would early American Jews have cared enough to build a mikveh?

Textual evidence suggests yes. Mikveh use by women was required by Jewish law and was seen as essential to the continuance of a Jewish community. As one Jew in eighteenth-century Philadelphia noted, negligence of the mikveh by women was “highly criminal,” and if such negligence was deemed widespread, other communities might not only “pronounce heavy anathemas against us,” but also might “avoid intermarriages with us, equal as with [a] different nation or sect, to our great shame and mortification” (Marcus 1958: 135). From this colonist's point of view, lack of regular use of the mikveh by women had a negative impact on the family as a whole since offspring “born from so unlawful cohabitation are deemed bene niddot [children conceived during the menstrual period], which makes this offense the more hoeinous [heinous] and detestable, in as much as it effects not only the parents, but their posterity for generations to come“ (Marcus 1958: 135). Indeed the mikveh is considered so essential to Jewish life that some Rabbinical authorities gave it higher precedence than building a synagogue or buying a Torah scroll (Lesches 33).

Archaeological evidence also supports the theory that early American Jews built mikvaot. On the downside, there is little evidence from the United States. Although a spring runs under the Touro Synagogue and there are underground cisterns next to the synagogue, most mikvaot from early U.S. Jewish communities were built in what were (or became) dense urban centers. As neighborhoods changed and mikvaot were abandoned, later structures were built on top of them. Not surprisingly then, most remains of early mikvaot in the Americas are in the Caribbean—the most famous examples being in St. Eustatius and Willemstad, Curaçao (right). Other important mikvaot include the first American mikveh in Recife (Brazil), two mikavot in Paramaribo (below), and the recently rediscovered and excavated mikveh in Barbados (image at top). Archaeological digs of the early synagogue in Jamaica may have located a structure there as well that was a mikveh. As I argue in my RAE article, the unique features of these structures should be understood in relationship to the early mikvaot in Amsterdam.

Mikveh at Neve Shalom Synagogue Complex (Paramaribo, Suriname).
Quite possibly the oldest bor al gabei bor (one pit on top of another pit) mikveh in the Americas.
Recently renovated.

Interested in learning more about the Amsterdam mikvaot? There is a great article online by Jerzy Gawronski and Ranjith Jayasena. For more on early American mikvaot check out the first issue of RAE. Interested in supporting mikvaot in some of Americas oldest Jewish communities? Consider Chai Membership for Suriname or donate to the construction of the new mikveh in Newport, RI. In the meantime, enjoy the photos posted here!

Works cited
Lesches, Schneur Zalman.Understanding Mikveh Montreal: Rabbi S.Z. Lesches, 2001.
Marcus, Jacob Rader. American Jewry. Documents Eighteenth Century.

Photo creditsTop photo of the Barbados mikevh by and courtesy of Karl Watson, 2008. Features archaeologist Michael Stoner. Fisheye effects added by Laura Leibman.

Second Image of an excerpt of a letter from Rabbi Karigal (Barbados) to Aaron Lopez (Newport), asking "me advise como está el Baño" (can you tell me how is the mikveh going) suggesting a mikveh was being (re)built in Newport. From the Collection of Menashe Lehman, printed in “Early Relations Between American Jews and Eretz Yisrael.” Algemeiner Journal 3 March, 1992 : B3.

All other photos by Laura Leibman.


Jewish Heritage Travel: The Gomez House

One of the great gems of Jewish American architecture stands just north of New York City near the Hudson River in Marlboro. Built in 1714, the Gomez Mill House was originally the trading post and home of Luis Moses Gomez. The house is the oldest Jewish dwelling in the United States and is a fine example of Dutch colonial architecture. Like many other early Jewish homes throughout the American colonies, the Gomez Mill House contained both living space and work space, a tradition that can be seen in other early iconic Jewish buildings like the Penha house in Curacao.

The Gomez House likewise reflects the opportunities available to Jewish settlers in the colonies. Although a refugee of the Spanish Inquisition, Luis Gomez was able to purchase the land for the house because he had obtained denizen papers from Queen Anne of England. In addition to the Mill House, Gomez owned a home and prosperous store in Manhattan. Gomez's denizen rights also allowed him to purchase the land that would serve as the first cemetery for Shearith Israel, for which he served as the parnass.

Today the Mill House has been lovingly restored by the Gomez Foundation for Mill House. Included in the house are examples of early American furniture and early Jewish ritual artifacts, including a Dutch hanukkiyah. Also on display are the denizen papers that allowed Luis Gomez to make his fortune. The grounds are lovely, so you may want to pack a lunch. Directions from Manhattan are posted on the house's website.

Educators and those interested in the history of American domestic architecture may find the section on Dutch Colonial Architecture in Rachel Carley's Visual Dictionary of American Domestic Architecture (pages 33-39) helpful to compare to the floorplan and design elements found at the Mill House. Those interested in studying the furniture may find Early American Furniture: A Practical Guide for Collectors by John Obbard will enrich their understanding of the early American aesthetic.

The Mill

The Mill House, First Story Dates to Era of Gomez Ownership

Fireplace in the Front Room of Gomez House, Dates to Era of Gomez Ownership. Fireplaces were a key element of Early American architecture and provided not only a source of heat, but also a place to cook. In some early houses, fireplaces were large enough to sit inside.
Denization Papers Given to Luis Moses Gomez by Queen Anne

All Photos by Laura Leibman, 2007.


Passover Recipes from the Caribbean

Surinamese Charoseth (from Dennis Ouderdorp)

Dennis writes, "The basis of Surinamese Charoseth is always ground coconut and sweet red wine. From family to family and from generation to generation, there are variations in the recipe. My family had the tradition of Surinam cherries to simmer before adding this to the charoseth. In the Netherlands, there are no cherries to be found of this taste, so it all disappeared. The Charoseth of my Grandma again differs with mine. But my mother still finds my Charoseth delicious. And that's what Passover is all about. The quantities Charoseth I make are not only for the Passover Seder alone. We were always accustomed to make the Charoseth for the whole week to eat with Matzot."

• 400 grams of ground coconut
• sweet red wine (half a bottle)
• raisins
• plums (dried)
• apricot (dried)
• cinnamon (powder or cinnamon sticks)
• ginger powder (ginger jelly isn’t easy to find kosher for Passover!)
• dates

If you don't like one of the ingredients, then it can be replaced by one of these (or they can be added, why not!):
• peach
• pineapple

Cinnamon must be present in the recipe. This is not only for the taste, but also to keep the Charoseth from going sour.

Ground coconut. Do not do buy a whole coconut, it will take you way too much time to grind the coconut flesh yourself.

Let the hard dried fruit stand 1 night in water in the refrigerator. This is to soften the fruit.

Day of preparation:
Cut all the fruit up finely.
Making the Charoseth shouldn't take more then 10 to 15 minutes (excluding the cutting and the preparations): Add the ground coconut in a saucepan. Add the wine and simmer on a low heat. Keep stirring so the coconut does not get stuck to the saucepan. Add slowly more and more coconut and wine. The balance must remain. Once you feel that the coconut and the wine are well balanced (not too dry nor too wet), add the other fruits. Keep stirring. Don’t bring it to boil, but maintain a nice balance (not too dry nor too wet). Remove from the heat. Put the Charoseth into a large bowl. Mix the cinnamon powder well through the Charoseth or place the cinnamon sticks in the Charoseth. This is not just for the taste, but also to keep it from going sour. Let the Charoseth cool off in the refrigerator.

Do not serve it too cold! If one takes the Charoseth out at the beginning of the Seder, it will be delicious once you get to the Seder-meal.


Gremshelish (Dutch Matza Fritters) from Recipes from the Jewish Kitchens of Curacao
6 matzas
4 eggs, separated
Grated lemon rind
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup plus 1 T. sugar
4 T. oil
pinch of salt
1-2/3 cups raisins
1 cup ground almonds
oil for frying
cinnamon/sugar mixture

Soak the matzas in water until soft. Drain and crush to a fine texture

Beat egg yolks with grated rind, cinnamon, sugar, oil and salt.
Add matzas, raisins, and almonds to the yolk mixture and blend well. Beat egg whites until stiff and fold into the yolk mixture.

Fry by tablespoons in hot oil until golden brown. Drain well on paper towels and sprinkle with a cinnamon-sugar mixture.

Like this recipe? Order the book Recipes from the Jewish Kitchens of Curacao for $15.00 from the Snoa at giftshop@snoa.com.

Photo Credits:
Top: Surinam Cherries, photo by Laura Leibman
Middle: Wild Pineapples from Jodensavanne (Suriname), photo by Laura Leibman
Bottom: Fried Matza from http://chewonthatblog.com


Jewish Heritage Travel: Newport, RI

Newport is one of those towns of breath-taking beauty that everyone should visit at least once in their lives. At the end of the nineteenth century, anyone who was anyone in New York society had a "cottage" (mansion) in Newport. Today, the Newport Preservation Society offers tours of many of the most elegant of these homes, along with colonial gems like the Hunter House.

Before the Revolutionary War, Newport was a crucial port of call on early trade routes. It was also home to one of the most important early American Jewish communities. The collapse of the economy following the war meant many members of the Jewish community left, but many fine examples of colonial architecture remain in the town, including homes of several prominent Jewish families. The Newport Historical Society offers a wide range of tours of local landmarks. Walking tours of Jewish Newport are also available through the Touro Synagogue, America's oldest synagogue and a national historic site. Military history buffs will want to visit Fort Adams.

Interested in visiting Newport? I recommend the Inn on Bellevue. The rates are reasonable and the location is superb. If you are staying for at least a week, it is worth asking if there is a special "extended stay" rate. Those with more to spend may want to try The Hotel Viking or the Hyatt Regency Newport Hotel & Spa, located on magnificent Goat Island.

All Photos by Laura Leibman, 2007.
Top: Cliff Walk
Second: The Breakers
Third: Fort Adams
Bottom: Touro Synagogue


Passover in the Colonies

What's wrong about self-pity, anyway?
...I told myself,
"Pity should begin at home." So the more
pity I felt the more I felt at home
(Elizabeth Bishop, "Crusoe in England").

If I am ever tempted to "feel at home" in the weeks leading up to Passover, all I have to do is think of the Jews in the colonies. At least after I finish my cleaning, I can drive to the local supermarket and buy matzoh and an entire range of packaged kosher l'pesach products. I can even order food from Nosh Away in Seattle (and I often do) and they will send me a complete seder package, often for less than it would cost me to make it myself. Although early American Jews often had servants (or slaves) to help them clean, getting ready for passover would have been much harder for Jews in the American colonies.

First, there was the question of food. Early American families had a difficult time getting the food they needed even when it wasn't passover. Colonies were rarely self sufficient: as one historian notes, " the inability to produce livestock, meat, flour and lumber in the West India islands laid the basis for one of the most serious commercial problems of the mercantilist empires" (Gould 473). Fortunately, many of the Jews in the colonies were merchants or had merchants in their extended families. They shipped all sorts of items: hard woods, sugar, rum, candles, oil, leather, fur, wheat, liquor, tobacco, and yes, food. Some of this food included the basic things needed for survival. Other was food was for show or was used as status symbols. Pineapples, for example, traveled north from Suriname and the tropics, and became a symbol of hospitality prominently featured in Newport architecture.

Pineapples, are lovely, but it is hard to make a seder out of them. Two items were probably more on the minds of colonists: maztoh and meat. Today when I want to get kosher meat in Portland, Oregon, I can either buy it at the local butcher or get it shipped in frozen in bulk through NW Kosher. The latter is cheaper, but I need to plan several weeks ahead and if I order something interesting (e.g. bison), I may not get it the first time I ask. Many of the communities in the Caribbean had beef shipped from New York, Philadelphia, or Newport. One can well imagine that it took much longer for their meat to arrive than mine, and since freezing it wasn't an option, it was almost certainly salted. One colonist described salted beef as "the most important commodity of all," for Jews and non-Jews alike (Mandelblatt 19).

The kosher beef trade was an important part of early American Jewish life. Aaron Lopez and other Jews in Newport exported kosher meat to Jamaica, Barbados, and Suriname. Michael Gratz of Philadelphia sent beef to Barbados and probably Curacao. In 1752, New York's Shearith Israel devised a seal to "attest to the ritual purity of meat exported from the city under their supervision." There is a fine example of an early Kosher Certificate in Eli Faber's A Time for Planting: The First Migration, 1654-1820 (p. 68). Shearith Israel hired a shochet and paid him a yearly stipend. Philadelphia's Mikveh Israel likewise hired a slaughter. Even so, kosher meat was in such short supply that in New York fines were imposed upon anyone who bought meat on erev Shabbat or immediately before holidays with the intent to sell it abroad. (Faber 51, 69-70, 120).

Matzoh was another story. Matzoh production was often a local affair, though it was sometimes imported. In larger communities, matzoh production was supervised and controlled by the Rabbi, Chazzan, or Parnassim. In these communities, matzoh was available for purchase, but was also distributed in large quantities free to the poor. The Touro Foundation still owns an eighteenth-century matzoh board on which the congregation made its matzot (below). Even so, a lot of planning was in order: many of the colonies did not produce wheat, so presumably months before the holiday began, congregations and individuals would need to arrange for wheat to be shipped from other locations. Sometimes people did import already baked matzoh: Aaron Lopez once ordered 250 pounds of maztot from New York, probably for the use of his (large) extended family. Shearith Israel also distributed haroset to its congregants, and (as unlikely as it sounds) Aaron Lopez once exported haroset to Jews in the West Indies (Rader 978-979)

Matzoh Board (Eighteenth Century)
During the colonial period, this board was used at Touro Synagogue (Newport, RI)
to prepare the dough for Matzoh (unleavened bread) used in the Passover season.
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress,
Religion and the Founding of the American Republic Exhibit, "America as a Religious Refuge"

Prayer books were often imported from Amsterdam and London, though starting in 1761 an English siddur was available out of New York. Haggadot were probably imported from Amsterdam, which was well known for its elaborate, illustrated editions. A Venice hagaddah published in 1609 and then 1629 became the prototype for many Sefardi haggadot of the era. Likewise the Ashkenazi haggadah published in 1695 in Amsterdam (later known as the "Amsterdam Haggadah") was widely imitated and reprinted. You can read more about these and other early haggadot at the Library of Congress website. These haggadot and other Jewish publications out of Amsterdam were highly influential and were even imitated on the gravestones produced by the Amsterdam community and exported to the colonies.

If I have time in between cleaning, I will suggest some activities for students. In the meantime, I hope you have a happy and kosher pesach!
The illustrations on these printed pages of the Venice Haggadah
depict events in the life of the patriarch Abraham.
The binding of Isaac is illustrated in the woodcut on the bottom left.

Works Cited:
Eli Faber, A Time for Planting: The First Migration, 1654-1820. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992.

Clarence P. Gould, ‘Trade Between the Windward Islands and the Continental Colonies of the French Empire, 1683–1763’,Mississippi Valley Historical Review 25: 4, 1939.

Bertie Mandelblatt, "A Transatlantic Commodity: Irish Salt Beef in the French Atlantic World," History Workshop Journal 63: 18-47.

Jacob Marcus Rader, The Colonial American Jew, 1492-1776. Detroit: Wayne State U.P., 1970.

Image at Top of Page: Seder Haggadah shel Pesah (Passover Haggadah)
(Amsterdam, 1695).
Moses (right and above) and Aaron,
his older brother and the founder of the Jewish priesthood,

are depicted on the title page of the Amsterdam Haggadah.
Photos by author: Pineapple photo taken of wild pineapples at Jodensavanne (Jew's Savannah) in Suriname; Pineapple architectural motif taken at the William Hunter House, Newport RI. The Hunter House was right next door to "The Lantern" (now destroyed), the home of Jacob Rodriguez Rivera, one of Newport's most important Jewish settlers.