The Jewish Palate: A taste of old New York

A new column about Jewish history and Jewish food: Who were the first Jews to arrive to New York City and what exactly did they eat?

With over 2 million Jews, New York City boasts the largest Jewish population outside of Israel. From Brooklyn’s ultra-orthodox communities to two of the most heavily Jewish populated universities – NYU and Columbia – New York City is renowned for being “Jewish”.

So, it is almost impossible to imaging this great city without a single Jew. However, travel back to 1654 and that is exactly what you will find – not one Jew in sight. The city that would become the epicenter of Jewish existence in North America was devoid of Jews until that fateful year.

However, all that changed on August 22, 1654, when Jacob Bar-Simon set foot on Manhattan Island – becoming the very first Jew to arrive to “New Amsterdam”. A short month later he was joined by 23 other men, women, and children who were all fleeing the Inquisition in Recife, Brazil. Up to that point, Brazil had been a safe place for Jews to live; however when the Portuguese re-seized control of the territory, they brought the dreaded Inquisition with them.

When these refugees from Brazil’s Sephardic Community reached Manhattan, they did not receive the warmest of welcomes. The Governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant was an ardent Anti-Semite and did not want Jews to settle in his town. In fact, he went as far as to seek permission to expel the new arrivals. Fortunately he was prevented from doing so by the Dutch West India Company. As it turns out, Jacob Bar-Simon was a stock holder in this powerful group, and they controlled all of “New Amsterdam”. The Jews were therefore allowed to stay, with some restrictions, and eventually formed a strong Portuguese Sephardic Community, which still survives in New York to this day.

New York during the 17th century was a far cry from the New York we know and love today. So what was it like for those first refugees when they arrived in “New Amsterdam”? More importantly, what did they eat? They found themselves in a strange, unwelcoming land right before the start of the High Holidays. There was no place for them to buy Kosher meat. There were not any Kosher shops at all. All they had were each other, and whatever they had brought with them.

Their cooking was that of Sephardic Portuguese Style, modified with some North American ingredients: a simple mix of corn, grains, vegetables, beans, potatoes, and whatever cured meat that may have survived the journey. Rice would have been an important staple as it had been in Brazil. This small memory of home no doubt sustained the fledgling community during those first lean months.

The following recipe is a typical rice casserole that is served in Brazilian households for the Friday evening Shabbat Meal. A version of this dish would have been made by the First Jewish Settlers in New York (Amsterdam).

Brazilian Rice Casserole for Shabbat
Serves 8

Ingredients
-4 cups cooked white or brown rice
-2 tablespoons vegetable oil or palm oil
-1 onion, finely diced
-3 garlic cloves, chopped
-1 red bell pepper, finely diced
-½ pound garlic sausage, diced
-1 cup fresh or frozen okra (bamia), sliced
-1 ½ cups crushed tomatoes
-3 hard boiled eggs, chopped
-½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
-Salt and pepper

Directions
Sauté the onion, garlic, and bell pepper in the oil until quite soft. Add the garlic sausage and sauté 5 minutes more. Add okra and sauté until just heated through. Combine all ingredients, season to taste, and spread into an oiled casserole dish. Bake at 375 degrees until hot and crusty on the surface, about 25 to 30 minutes. Serve as a main course or as a side dish.

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