Jewish Women in Colonial America

Tall ships sailing toward New Amsterdam. Windmills and Dutch houses in the distance.
Johannes Vingboons, Memory of The Netherlands. Source: Public Domain

The first Jews to arrive in New Amsterdam (what would become New York in 1664) came to escape the continuation of the Inquisition when Portugal wrested control of Brazil from the Dutch in 1654. There were six women among the twenty-three refugees, and only two of their names survived in the record because they were widowed heads of households — Ricke Nunes and Judith Mercado.

For the most part, “at a time when Jews elsewhere were so often locked away behind ghetto walls, colonial Jews found a remarkable degree of toleration and diversity.”1

Daily Life

The lives of colonial Jewish women, like their Christian neighbors, centered on the household as well as religious life, allowing the rhythms and cycles of sacred times to govern their days. They also dressed the same in their bonnets and gowns, practiced needlework, and wealthier wives employed servants and owned slaves to help with chores and childrearing.

A plaque that reads: The first cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, Shearith Israel, in the city of New York. 1656-1833
Shearith Israel, first cemetery. Source: Public Domain

Jewish law does not require women to pray in synagogue. Before coming to America, they rarely attended. However, once in America, they chose to attend like Christian housewives. The first synagogue in colonial America, Shearith Israel, was founded in 1654 (it would take 2 years before a cemetery became necessary) and still serves the community in Manhattan to this day.

At home, Jewish housewives made sure kashrut — dietary laws — were followed, including separate dishes for meat and dairy. They were also responsible for teaching their children Jewish culture and traditions. But it must be mentioned that Jewish households, then as now, ran the gamut of observing every Jewish law to disregarding what didn’t serve them.

Marriage

The average age for a Jewish woman to marry for the first time in the 18th century was twenty-three. Men, needing a means to support a future family, took time to establish themselves. They were therefore about ten years older when they married.

A Jewish couple standing under the chuppah are blessed by the rabbi, surrounded by friends and family.
Daniel Moritz Oppenheim (1801-1882), 18th Century Jewish Wedding

Because the Jewish community in America was relatively small (by 1776, there were about 2500 Jews in colonial America, hailing from all over the world), spouses were chosen locally or as far away as the Caribbean or in England. When marriages straddled the Atlantic, they offered a commercial advantage to merchant families, creating profitable networks.

Unfortunately, as happens too often in history, Jews in British Jamaica were blamed for being “too successful,” causing anti-Jewish sentiment. In 1695, the Jamaican assembly passed an additional tax on Jews.

Education & Business

Many Jewish women were literate, having been educated by private tutors or having attended a school maintained by the Jewish community. In fact, Shearith Israel opened their first school in 1731. Even poor children attended by financial contributions left in wills. 

Abigail Franks wearing a blue gown with ruffles.
Portrait of Abigail Franks (c. 1696-1756), circa 1735. Source: Public Domain

We find further evidence of literate Jewish women in family documents, letters, and wills. Abigail Franks, born in colonial America in 1688, left a substantial quantity of letters written to her son while he lived in London.

Many Jewish widows acted as the executors of these wills, suggesting they had some business experience by assisting their husbands. They regularly received property and money that the law of coverture denied their Christian neighbors.

Though it was rare for a woman to own a business in her own right, it wasn’t impossible. Grace Levy Hays (1690-1740) kept a retail store. Esther Pinheiro on Nevis, a British colony and the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton, owned several ships in her own right and partnered with merchants in Boston between the years 1710 and 1728.

Jewish women in colonial America also built cottage industries selling jams and pickles, taking in washing, and running kosher boarding houses.

Jarred pickles covered with cloth and tied with twine.
Pickles

Conclusion

If it weren’t for colonial American Jewish women who held business in their own right, wrote letters deemed worthy enough to be saved, or became heads of households after the death of their husbands, more of their names and accomplishments would be erased from the historical record.

Footnotes:

  1. Nadell, P. (2019). America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today. United States: W. W. Norton.

Sources:

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