My great-grandmother’s father’s father’s grandmother was named Abigail Levy. She was born on August 12th, 1760, although I’m not sure just where yet. As you might guess from the surname, this is my entry into a much larger, and well documented, Jewish family.
Abigail was married twice, the first time on March 17th, 1779 in Baltimore Maryland to Dr. Lyde Goodwin. (My line). The second time on November 12th, 1807 in Baltimore to Dr. John Worthington. She died on August 4th, 1820 and is buried in St. Paul’s Burying Ground on W. Lombard St. in Baltimore.
Now, as exciting as that info is, there’s of course more. For starters, there seems to be some interesting marriages in the tree that branches upward from her, tales that are more to the tastes of an America yearning for pure reality-tv offerings. But more importantly, there is much history. For instance, within a few generations of Abigail you will find the first Jew to reside permanently in North America. Kind of a big deal, yes?
The Big Picture
OK, this is a hard family to mentally imagine. Let’s start with the top of what I’ve found thus far. A man named Isaac Levy. He died on April 26th, 1695. No other info as far as his birth, place of “where”, or anything else. At least not yet in this tale. He and his wife Beila had three sons: Joseph, Moses (Raphael), and Samuel Zanvil. Of those, I spring downward from the middle son, Moses.
Moses was born in 1665 in Germany and died June 14th, 1728 in New York. He was married twice. Once to Richea (Rycha) Asher in 1695 in London at Bevis Marks Synagogue. He would have been 30 years old. The second marriage was to a Grace Mears in 1718 in London. He would have been 53.
Now normally, I would focus on just one his marriages, but … we need to keep both in mind for what comes soon. His second marriage to Grace resulted in seven children. Four girls and three boys. It was the second son (or the sixth child of the second marriage) that was named Benjamin Levy. He was born on September 5th, 1726 in New York and died on February 3rd, 1802 in Baltimore Maryland. He married a Rachel Levy in 1758. And no, Levy was not just her married name. It was her maiden name as well.
Now before we get to Rachel and how she relates to me, let’s go back to Moses’ first marriage. The one to Richea. They had five children together. (Yes, Moses produced 12 offspring). The third child of that marriage was to man named Nathan. Born in 1704 in London (died in 1753, I believe in Philadelphia), he was married to a Michal. Together they had a Rachel, a Michel, and a child named Philadelphia. Twas that first child that loops us around.
Rachel Levy, born 1739 in Philly, was married in 1758 to Benjamin Levy, discussed two paragraphs above. To recap, Moses Levy’s granddaughter from his first marriage married his son from his second marriage.
Just to complete the numbers, Rachel (who would die on November 11th, 1794 in Baltimore), was about 19 years old when she married her Uncle Benjamin. He would have been around 32.
Now it was this marriage that produced Abigail, where we started this story. Abigail’s first marriage in Baltimore to Dr. Lyde Goodwin saw a child named Pleasance Goodwin. She later married a Michael McBlair (from Belfast Ireland). They had a son named Charles Henry McBlair, who in turn married a Francis Duncan. They had a son named Charles R. McBlair (married to Elizabeth Martin) and they had one Anna Elizabeth McBlair … who was my great-grandmother. Whew.
OK, got all that?
Now that you know the players, we need to dig into whatever we can find about the family. (By the way, the McBlairs were quite well documented. If you want some light reading, check out this story on Michael McBlair).
I mentioned that there was a Benjamin Levy who was the “first Jew to reside permanently in North America”. His lineage is thus: several paragraphs up you saw a Richea (Rycha) Asher who was married to Moses Levy. Well technically, she was already a Levy as well. Richea was one of three children born to a Rebecca and a man named Asher Michaels De Paul. All of those children took the last name of “Asher”. Now it was Rebecca who was the second (of two children) to Rachel Levy and a man with the impressive name of Valentijn Valck Van Der Wilden. This Rachel’s father was the Benjamin who claimed the fame in the first sentence of this paragraph. Easy, huh?
To jump from people to places, we have mentioned Germany, New York, London, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Plus somehow, Amsterdam. And we have mentioned Judaism. Presumably everyone in this tale backwards from Abigail Levy was of the faith. In one publication, it was mentioned that the Goodwins married into a prominent Jewish family. Having said all that, we need to determine who came from where, and hopefully, why.
Jewish Settlers in the 1770’s
There is an article titled The Jews of Baltimore to 1810 by Ira Rosenwaike. It was in the American Jewish Historical Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 4 (June, 1975), which was published by The Johns Hopkins University Press. In it, Ira has done quite a lot of research, dipping into my family lines.
Five men (and their families) are known to have settled in Baltimore sometime during the 1770’s. These were Benjamin Levy, Mordecai M. Mordecai, Eleazar Lyons, Jacob Hart, and Elias Pollock. The Levy family links the story of Baltimore Jewry to that of Jewish settlement in early eighteenth century New York and Philadelphia. Benjamin Levy (1726—1802) was born in New York, the son of Moses Levy, a prominent merchant, originally from London. Orphaned at an early age, he seems to have been in Philadelphia, living with a considerably older half-brother, by 1742. Benjamin married Rachel, the daughter of another half-brother, Nathan Levy (1704—1753), who had carried the family’s business activities to Philadelphia, where he settled permanently in 1737. Benjamin Levy was thus the son-in-law of the enterprising merchant who has been considered the “founding father of Philadelphia Jewry.
The earliest known record of Levy’s move to Baltimore is an advertisement in the Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser of December 9, 1773, reporting that he “has just opened store in Market Street, at the corner of Calvert Street, where he sells, whole- sale and retail, for ready money only.” Levy did not entirely give up his roots in Philadelphia, however, for a tax list for 1780 indicates he still owned valuable property in that city. In Philadelphia, Benjamin Levy’s high social status was attested to by his membership in the exclusive Mount Regale Fishing Company and his close friendship with Robert Morris, the prominent financier. The family mingled in Baltimore society, as well, and their oldest daughter Abigail (c.1761—1821) married Lyde Goodwin, a physician who was close kin to the well-known Ridgelys, and after his death, Dr. John Worthington, also of the Maryland aristocracy.
By 1789 the Levys were in financial straits and Rachel wrote a letter to George Washington in New York fervently applying for a post “for my second son, a minor … brought up as a Merchant, without a Capital to put into trade, and his Father unable to assist him.”
The Levys’ life style seems to have marked the epitome of eighteenth century Jewish assimilation; yet American-born Rachel Levy preferred not to sever her ties to Judaism. In 1793, sensing the end of her life was close at hand, she traveled to Philadelphia to make arrangements for a plot for her husband and herself in the cemetery her father had purchased in 1740 which had become the city’s Jewish communal burial ground. Unfortunately, a failure on the part of Mikveh Israel officials to find cemetery ownership documents “led to some bitterness” and in consequence, when Rachel Levy died in 1794 she was laid to rest in Baltimore in St. Paul’s cemetery. Her husband and a number of her children were later buried in the same Episcopalian ground.
One writer has speculated that Sampson Levy, an older brother of Benjamin Levy was “probably one of the earliest Jewish settlers in Baltimore County” on the basis of a judgment he obtained in 1755 on the property of the widow of Talbot Risteau in the town of Joppa, then the county seat of Baltimore County. It would seem, however, since Sampson Levy’s lengthy residence in Philadelphia is well documented, that this incident reflected his far-ranging commercial activities rather than his settlement in Maryland. It is worthy of note, too, that at Sampson Levy’s death in Philadelphia in 1781 his will directed that “… My lot and House in the Town of Baltimore in the state of Maryland I devise to my Executors to be sold and the Money arising from the Sale to be divided equally between my two Daughters.. Levy’s estate also included property in New Jersey, as well as Philadelphia.
Although Nathan Levy (1759—1846), the oldest son of Benjamin and Rachel, died in Baltimore, he seems to have spent a good part of his long and checkered career elsewhere. In an account written in 1830 he declared that for “many years I lived at Georgetown, D. C. where I am well known as well as Washington & Baltimore.” In U. S. Supreme Court records for a case involving his firm, Levy is shown to have resided at Georgetown while he “carried on trade & commerce in co-partnership, under the name & firm of Levy & M’lntosh, at Alexandria … from sometime in the year 1796, till the 12th day of November, 1797, on which day the partnership was dissolved Much later, in 1818, Levy was named U. S. commercial agent in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands; his activities here until his retirement in 1832 were subject to some criticism. One detractor in 1820 commented “This N. Levy is a Jew and lives with a Black woman and frequently walks the streets with her arm in arm.” Nathan Levy had been one of the Marylander’s who fought under Lafayette in Virginia in 1781 during the last phase of the Revolutionary War, and in 1824 he seems to have been present in Baltimore when General Lafayette visited the city as part of his grand tour of a grateful nation. Levy was among “a small remnant” of the “First Baltimore Cavalry” chosen by the mayor to honor the returning hero.
There is much less information available on the other two Levy sons. Robert Morris Levy evidently died young. Jacob Franks Levy (d. 1811) is listed as a broker in Baltimore city directories from 1796 to 1810.18 On June 9, 1796 he acquired a mortgage on a “parcel of ground situate lying and being on Baltimore Street ex- tended in Baltimore County and near to Baltimore Town.” Two years later as an “Insolvent Debtor” he executed a deed conveying “all his property real Personal and Mixed, Rights and Credits except the necessary wearing apparel of himself and his family in trust for the benefit of the Creditors”.
Rachel Levy’s sister, appropriately named Philadelphia Levy for the city of her birth, appears infrequently in the annals of her adopted city, Baltimore. In 1793 she accompanied Rachel on the unsuccessful trip to Mikveh Israel and in 1796 her name appeared among the stockholders of Union Bank. At her death in 1826, at the age of 85 (according to a contemporary newspaper) or 86 (according to church records) she was interred in St. Paul’s beside her relatives.
By The Numbers
Interesting stuff, this. If tales are true, then I have an ancestor that, sometime in the mid-1700s, was a Jew, lived with a unmarried black woman, and had the audacity to walk arm in arm with her publicly. In for no other reason, I like this Nathan.
Let’s skip back to places. So far we have these people tagged with a location outside of what is now the United States:
- Moses (Raphael) Levy, born in Germany in 1665, married in London in 1695, and married again in 1718 in London. His children, from both marriages and who have birth locations, appear to be from several places:
- Bilhah Abigail, 1696, London
- Nathan, 1704, London
- Isaac, 1706, New York
- Rachel, 1719, London
- Esther, 1721, New York
- Benjamin, 1726, New York
- Samuel Zanvil Levy, Moses’ brother, was also born in Germany in 1666/7.
What can we assume from all of that? Well, for starters, the oldest names I’ve found thus far, Isaac Levy and his wife Beila had children in Germany between 1665 and 1666/7. Presumably they were both from there, or at least found themselves as adults in that country.
We also know that Moses, born in Germany, was in London at the age of 30. And seemed to have traveled between there and New York quite often, as six of his children (who have documented birthplaces) were born in those two cities, in somewhat alternating order. All other dates after 1726 seem to be only in the US, at least as far as births go.
Which means we need to go back, somewhere in Germany, to 1665. Moses was born that year, but we know not yet where. He moved to London by the year 1695, yet we know not why. And who his parents were, and their backstory, we still don’t know as well.
Let’s put the world in perspective. In 17th century “Germany”, this was life:
This century saw the Thirty Years War (1618–1648). The death toll was outrageous. Battles and pillages accompanied by famines and epidemics destroyed and depopulated entire areas. Cities were stormed and burned to the ground, inhabitants slaughtered. When Magdeburg, a stronghold of Protestantism, fell to the Catholics, 20,000 inhabitants were killed. When the war ended in 1648, Magdeburg was a mere village with 4,000 inhabitants.
It would take decades to recover from that.
After 1648 the living conditions improved, although there was still a high infant mortality rate (due to lack of hygiene). But once you reached your teenage years, chances were quite high that you would be able to start a family and watch your children grow. That is, if you weren’t killed by tuberculosis or died died while giving birth.
The witch hunt had its peak between 1550 and 1650, so was also a part of the 17th century. Today, we often think that this happened during the dark ages. But it take much longer to overcome this superstition (in Europe).
All in all, life in Germany during the 17th century was driven by war, famines and illnesses. Your average person lived in rural areas as a farmer and was mostly uneducated. Even those who were living in cities as craftsmen or merchants, although they knew their trade, wouldn’t count as very educated by modern standards. Nevertheless, we see the beginning of the huge advances in Science and Technology of later times. Universities started to establish themselves as a place of knowledge, independent from the Church. The power shift to worldly powers away from the Church started.
By the by, Germany then did not exist as it was separated among different German states such as Saxony, Brandenburg, Bavaria etc. under the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation which included Austria.
All grand, but in terms of being Jewish, history is always different.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Jews were still subject to the will of the princes and free cities, both in Catholic and in Protestant countries. Martin Luther (1483-1645) advocated in “That Jesus Was Born A Jews” (1523) that Christian love, not “papal law” should guide Christians in their dealings with Jews. Later, in his “The Jews and Their Lies” he changed his tune, and suggested that it would “honor our Lord” were Christians to “set fire to their synagogues and … bury … and cover wth dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or a cinder of them”.
The German emperors were not always able to protect them, even when they desired to do so, as did the chivalrous Emperor Maximilian I; they could not prevent the accusations of ritual murder and desecration of the host. The unending religious controversies that rent the empire and finally led to the Thirty Years’ War further aggravated the position of the Jews, who were made the prey of each party in turn. The emperors even occasionally expelled their kammerknechte from their crown lands, although they still assumed the office of protector. Ferdinand I expelled the Jews from Lower Austria and Görz, and would have carried out his vow to banish them also from Bohemia had not the noble Mordecai Ẓemaḥ Cohen of Prague induced the pope to absolve the emperor from this vow. Emperor Leopold I expelled them in 1670 from Vienna and the Archduchy of Austria, in spite of their vested rights and the intercession of princes and ecclesiastics; the exiles were received in the Margraviate of Brandenburg. The Great Elector Frederick William (1620–1688), deciding to tolerate all religious beliefs impartially, protected his new subjects against oppression and slander. In spite of the civic and religious restrictions to which they were subjected even here, the Jews of this flourishing community gradually attained to a wider outlook, although their one-sided education, the result of centuries of oppression, restricted them in European culture and kept them in intellectual bondage.
Back to Moses.
“After accumulating something of a competency in London, he thought he saw in the New World opportunities for adding to it, and about the year 1705 landed in New York City.”
The Levys were accompanied by Moses’s brother, Samuel, and his wife, Rachel Asher who was Beila’s sister. (The practice of brothers solidifying family and business ties by marrying sisters was not uncommon at this time.) A young man named Jacob Franks, who would eventually marry Bilhah Abigail, also came with them.
“As Ashkenazim, the Levys found themselves outnumbered. New York had been settled by Sephardim, who constituted a majority of its Jewish residents. Because there was no organized Ashkenazic community in New York until the nineteenth century, the Levys had no choice but to turn for communal support to the Sephardic establishment. They were allowed to join the Sephardic community with the understanding that they would conform to Sephardic customs. They did, and gradually became accepted as “naturalized” Sephardim.”
Moses Levy took an active interest in New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel and served as its parnas (president) for several years. Indeed, he was serving that office when he passed away on June 14, 1728.
His main interests, however, were financial.
“Taking full advantage of business and family connections in London and the West Indies, Levy soon became so successful in exporting beaver pelts and grain and importing a variety of manufactured goods that he controlled a fleet of ships, one of which he named after his daughter, Abigail.
“With the emergence of a thriving American export economy of grains, furs, and hides, Levy became ever more involved in commerce and trade. Business was so good that in 1711 Levy joined several other wealthy Jewish merchants in contributing to a fund for the completion of a spire on Trinity Church on Broadway and Wall Street, making the church the tallest man-made structure in the city. It was an investment that paid off. Four years later, the New York Assembly passed a bill naturalizing all resident landowners of foreign birth, regardless of religion. This law entitled Levy and his heirs to the same rights and obligations their gentile neighbors enjoyed.
“In 1716 Levy’s wife Richea died, leaving Levy with five children. Two years later, in London, Levy married Grace Mears of Spanish Town, Jamaica, where a Sephardic community had existed for over half a century. Grace bore Levy seven children.”
Their first child Rachel was born in London in 1719. She was the mother of Gershom Mendes Seixas, who served as Hazzan of Congregation Shearith Israel from 1768 to 1776 and again from 1784 until his passing in 1816. (Shearith Israel did not function during the Revolutionary War, since many of New York’s Jews left the city rather than live under the British when they captured the city. Seixas led this exodus and is often referred to as the Revolutionary War Hazzan.)
Some of Levy’s twelve children “became the ancestors of very distinguished Jews in the generations to follow. One of his sons was the real founder of the Philadelphia Jewish community, another was one of the first Jews in Baltimore. A grandson of his, likewise named Moses Levy, was considered by Jefferson for a cabinet post.” The Liberty Bell was transported to America on the ship Myrtilla which belonged to Nathan Levy, Moses’s eldest son.
Levy suffered the ups and downs of the business world in his many financial endeavors.
“That the merchant-shipper of that generation only too frequently suffered reverses is eloquently demonstrated in Levy’s relations with Isaac Napthaly, a Rhode Island butcher who also aspired to be a merchant. By 1705, Napthaly, now in New York, had been granted the freedom of the city; the following year, while engaged in litigation of some sort, he succeeded in inducing Levy to become his bondsman. Two years later Napthaly ran up a debt with Levy in a commercial deal and then fled the country. He was probably hopelessly bankrupt and ran away to escape imprisonment for debt.
“Levy was now compelled to pay the bond and the costs of the suit, and he lost what he himself had advanced in goods and credits. All told, the fugitive cost him over £ 176, to say nothing of incidental expenses in the affair. Years later Levy heard that Napthaly had passed away, ‘in parts remote … beyond the seas, intestate,’ but he also heard that he did leave some small effects in New York. Accordingly, Levy petitioned Governor William Burnett for letters of administration as principal creditor, and received them; he probably salvaged very little of the original credits now due for almost fifteen years.”
Nonetheless, Moses Levy’s immigration to America, the land of opportunity, paid off handsomely, as the following incident shows. Levy took out an ad in the April 14, 1726 issue of the New York Gazette in which he announced that he wanted to sell “a house in the town of Rye, with about sixty or seventy acres of upland and about five acres of meadow, together with part of mansion, formerly belonging to John Heward and now to Moses Levy, in New York, or any part thereof, on reasonable terms to any person that has a mind to purchase the same.”
“Moses Levy’s personal stature, civic attainments and early Americanization are best captured in the portraits (all in the collection of the American Jewish Historical Society) not only of himself but also of his daughters Rachel and Abigail, his son-in-law Jacob Franks, and his grandchildren David and Phila Franks. It is by far the most complete visual record we have of an early colonial American Jewish family. Decked out in an imposing powdered wig and a greyhound at his side symbolizing his landowning status (unattainable for a Jew elsewhere in the Christian world) Levy radiates the well-fed comfort and well-bred confidence of a successful merchant-landowner.”
And yes, I stole all of that.
Flavors of Judiasm
You may have noticed the word Ashkenazi above. And you may be like me and not know what it means. Well …
Ashkenazi Jews, also known as Ashkenazic Jews or simply Ashkenazim, are a Jewish diaspora population who coalesced in the Holy Roman Empire around the end of the first millennium.
The traditional diaspora language of Ashkenazi Jews is Yiddish (a Germanic language with elements of Hebrew and Aramaic), developed after they had moved into northern Europe: beginning with Germany and France in the Middle Ages. For centuries they used Hebrew only as a sacred language, until the revival of Hebrew as a common language in Israel. Throughout their time in Europe, Ashkenazim have made many important contributions to its philosophy, scholarship, literature, art, music and science.
The term “Ashkenazi” refers to Jewish settlers who established communities along the Rhine river in Western Germany and in Northern France dating to the Middle Ages. Once there, they adapted traditions carried from Babylon, the Holy Land, and the Western Mediterranean to their new environment. The Ashkenazi religious rite developed in cities such as Mainz, Worms, and Troyes. The eminent French Rishon rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki (Rashi) would have a significant influence on the Jewish religion.
In the late Middle Ages, due to religious persecution, the majority of the Ashkenazi population shifted steadily eastward, moving out of the Holy Roman Empire into the areas later part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (comprising parts of present-day Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine). In the course of the late 18th and 19th centuries, those Jews who remained in or returned to the German lands generated a cultural reorientation; under the influence of the Haskalah and the struggle for emancipation, as well as the intellectual and cultural ferment in urban centers, they gradually abandoned the use of Yiddish and adopted German, while developing new forms of Jewish religious life and cultural identity.
The Holocaust of the Second World War decimated the Ashkenazim, affecting almost every Jewish family. It is estimated that in the 11th century Ashkenazi Jews composed three percent of the world’s total Jewish population, while an estimate made in 1930 (near the population’s peak) had them as 92 percent of the world’s Jews. Immediately prior to the Holocaust, the number of Jews in the world stood at approximately 16.7 million. Statistical figures vary for the contemporary demography of Ashkenazi Jews, ranging from 10 million to 11.2 million. Sergio Della Pergola, in a rough calculation of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, implies that Ashkenazi Jews make up less than 74% of Jews worldwide. Other estimates place Ashkenazi Jews as making up about 75% of Jews worldwide.
Genetic studies on Ashkenazim—researching both their paternal and maternal lineages—suggest a predominant amount of shared Middle Eastern ancestry, complemented by varying percentages of European admixture. These studies have arrived at diverging conclusions regarding both the degree and the sources of their European ancestry, and have generally focused on the extent of the European genetic origin observed in Ashkenazi maternal lineages. Ashkenazi Jews are popularly contrasted with Sephardi Jews (also called Sephardim), who descend from Jews who settled in the Iberian Peninsula, and Mizrahi Jews, who descend from Jews who remained in the Middle East.
And yes, I stole all of that too.