By Robert A. Liftig, EdD
When Bob Liftig read an obscure reference to “Jew Street, Hartford,” he couldn’t resist doing a little digging. Here is what he found.
Before there was even a Royal Charter for what was to become the State of Connecticut, there were Jews in Hartford; and before there was Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., there was “Jew Street” in Hartford. Or so it was commonly called.
“Jew Street” was located near the intersection of Market and State Streets, and was close to the Connecticut River. State Street was laid out in colonial times as the primary road from the river to Meeting House Square, and “Jew Street” – so-called because of the stretch of Jewish-owned businesses there – was open for business at least as early as 1788, according to advertisements published in the Connecticut Courant. Jews had been living in Hartford for over 100 years by then, and whether for reasons of business, or traditional exclusion from the reigning Puritan establishment (a prohibition which included Catholics and Moslems), they may have chosen the River’s bank, or had it picked for them, as their Connecticut Garden of Eden.
The first Jew of record living in Hartford was named, appropriately enough, “David” – “David The Jew,” to be more precise, though that’s where precision ends for him. David was resident in 1659 – perhaps for a short time only – for, in that same year, he was arrested and fined by the Court of Assistants for “illegal peddling” – meaning he was selling to women and children when the “man of the house” was not at the homestead.
Ten years later, a “David Jew” and a “Jacob Jew” were recorded as two of the 721 inhabitants of the colonial capital. It may be that this is the same David who was arrested in 1659, or maybe it was another; and it may be that this was the same Jacob or another one who, in 1670, was arrested on similar charges – but with a lusty twist to it; for in that year “Jacob the Jew,” a peddler of horses, was held “notorious in his lascivious dalliance and wanton carriage and proffers to several women” while he was attempting to sell his horses. He was found guilty.
“Jacob the Jew” was probably a Puritan-inspired alias for Jacob Lucena, who was most likely a son or a brother of one of the first Jewish immigrants to New Amsterdam (later New York City) – Abraham de Lucena. When the court sentenced Jacob the Jew to an extravagant fine of 20 pounds ($20,000 today), and a flogging if he failed to pay it, Jacob wisely appealed the decision, and the court cut his fine in half out of “respect” for Jacob’s status as one of the “Chosen People.” However, Jacob was stubborn, or perhaps poor, or a combination; so this time he appealed to Asser Levy down in the Dutch colonial capital – the embryonic city where Jacob probably came from. Asser rushed to the court in Hartford and pled Jacob’s case. He must have been very persuasive, because the court once again cut Jacob’s fine in half, and Jacob quickly paid it (or did Asser?), and then fled the Connecticut Colony…which cut the Jewish population of Hartford in half.
Perhaps Jacob was too aggressive a salesman; perhaps the Puritan population of Hartford was, by definition, too puritanical. Or, perhaps the Hartford establishment didn’t understand the historical context that Jacob the Jew carried along with him when he came to America. These were not good times for the Jews of Europe – nor had they long been. Just 200 years earlier, the Jews had been expelled from Spain (most likely they were Jacob’s Sephardic ancestors) and Jews had long since been banned from the professions in other European countries. Thus, they had had to resort to money lending and peddling to feed their families.
Jewish peddlers were a common sight in the “Old World,” and it was only to be expected that in the “New World” they would continue what they had been doing to survive since the Middle Ages. And yet, as bad as things might have seemed for the early Jews of America, they were better than facing the confusion and heartache back in Europe. At the time Jacob was living in Hartford, for example, the Chimielicki Massacres were ravaging the Ukraine (estimated Jewish victims: 300,000). Yet, at the same time, in 1651, Oliver Cromwell had invited the Jews back to England (from which they had been expelled in 1290). Cromwell, just like the settlers of Hartford, was a Puritan. So, if Jews weren’t exactly welcomed in the New England colonies, at least the Puritans realized they had their uses.
A generation after the Chimielicki Massacres, Jew Street in Hartford was up and running, with an unknown number of Jewish merchants, traders, horse dealers, and peddlers using Jew Street for their base camp. Twenty-four Dutch Jews had arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654 on the “Jewish Mayflower.” They most likely were related to, or included, Hartford’s David and Jacob. By the time the American Revolution erupted, the Jewish population in the English colonies had grown to 3,000. By 1860, the Jewish population in America was almost 200,000. In this year – the year in which Lincoln was elected – there were 16,000 peddlers recorded on the national census in the soon-to-be-divided United States of America. Many of these peddlers were based in New England and New York – and the nation’s census takers assumed the majority of them to be Jewish. These were the adventurers who sold their goods up the Ohio River Valley and down the Mississippi, and out in the Wild West. These were the hearty souls who eventually came to be known in the American mind as the “Yankee Peddler.”
In Hartford, as in those other places, peddling was viewed as a starting point in what would hopefully become a career in shopkeeping; and the Hartford Jews who came after David and Jacob would leave some lasting legacies. In 1855 the Hartford Directory shows that 13 of 17 clothing stores were owned by Jews. One well-known success story is that of Gerson Fox (Gerson Fuchs, 1811-1880). Born in Bekunstadt, Germany, Fox came to Hartford in about 1830, beginning his career as a peddler. By 1840, he and his brother Isaac had established a dry goods store at 126 Main St. – not far, but a long way in public acceptance, from the early traders of Jew Street. The next year Gerson opened G. Fox & Co. – which became one of the largest and best-known department stores in 19th and 20th century New England.
By the 20th century, hundreds of former Jewish peddlers had established themselves as the owners and operators of the great American chain stores. Abraham & Strauss, Neiman Marcus, I. Magnin, Gimbel’s, Hochschild Kohn, Hecht’s, Bloomingdale’s, Saks, Filene’s, and Bergdorf Goodman, all owe their origins to Jewish American peddlers – some of them probably from Jew Street, Hartford – one of the cradles of the Yankee Peddler.
Dr. Robert A. Liftig is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fairfield University and a freelance writer. He lives in Westport.
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Charles Street Chicken Market, Hartford , c. 1900-1910.
Photo courtesy Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford.
Berman Abrahams, Harnessmaking,
Market Street, Hartford, c. 1900.
Photo courtesy Jewish Historical Society
of Greater Hartford.