Saturday, March 20, 2010

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.


Laura Leibman said...

My husband asked, "What about wine?" Good point. Many of the major merchants, including Aaron Lopez, regularly imported wine (often Madeira). One could also make wine from raisins, which are easier to transport via ship.

Why Madeira wine, my husband asks? Apparently wine tends to change its flavor when exposed to heat (for example on long sea voyages to the tropics), and Madeira wine prevents this problem by adding a "small amount of distilled alcohol made from cane sugar ... to stabilize the wine by boosting the alcohol content." Today the wine is made by heating it to high temperatures (Wikipedia). I'd assume the manufacturing process also made it easier to make the wine mevushal, a substantial side benefit for Jewish consumers. Madeira was very popular in the eighteenth century, and ships from Europe often stopped at the Madeira islands to pick up the liquor en route to the colonies. Apparently there is a long-standing crypto-Jewish community on the island.

Anonymous said...

Very nice, Laura. Thank you.
Donna Kuttner

Laura Leibman said...

Here is some fascinating information from Dennis Ouderdorp, caretaker of Beth Haim Ouderkerk (and owner of Iyar):

"The Jews in Surinam didn't always had "Matzot", due to sometimes the lack of grain. So they made cassava bread as the Indians make it. Not instead of the Matzot, but just to have a "bread" which one can eat on Pesach.
Cassave isn't a grain and it stays unleavened.
The Surinam Jews still make their charoseth from coco's, wine, tropical fruits and nuts.
To amazement there is a recipe known among Surinamese made from cassava bread and a filling from a sweet substance. Lots off people think it is Indian. The cassava bread is, but the recipe for the combination isn't. The recipe is called "Dossy" (dossi). Dossy is taken from the Hebrew word "daty", meaning a religious person. And as we know during the Seder we have to dip the Matza with the bitter herbs into the charoseth."

Thanks Dennis!

Kosher Certification for gelatin said...

Definitively each one adapts to his environment, the real importance is on no losing our roots.

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