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Jerry Novesky

Foodways of Colonial Sephardim in the Hudson Valley


IN 1654, 23 SEPHARDIC JEWS ARRIVED in the port of New Amsterdam from Recife, Brazil. These wandering Jews had been pirated, almost shipwrecked an eventually were sued by the ship’s captain for the cost of their passage. Although they actually had been heading back to Holland, they represented the first Jews to arrive on American soil.

New Amsterdam Jews had names such as Pinto, da Silva and Peixotto. They followed Iberian customs and eventually were connected, often by marriage, to other American Jewish communities in Philadelphia, Newport and Charleston. There were approximately 2,000 Jews in the colonies by the Revolution; New York had the largest population.

Today’s American Jews are overwhelmingly Ashkenazi, of German or Eastern European descent, who immigrated here mainly during the nineteenth century. In colonial times, however, Sephardic Jews, originally from Spain and Portugal, predominated (Sephardim is derives from Sepharad, the Hebrew word for Spain). Sephardic Jews have existed in what is now Spain for at least 2,000 years. The history of religious tolerance there is spotted, to say the least, but from the eighth through eleventh centuries—the “Golden Age” in Muslim-ruled Spain—Jews and Muslims shared a highly advanced intellectual, spiritual and political society, and the Sephardim absorbed many aspects of Islamic culture, including the cuisine.

By the mid-thirteenth century, though, Christian rule in Spain outlawed Judaism, and because of the Inquisition many Sephardim became Marranos, or New Christians (“hidden” or “crypto-Jews”), forced to practice their religion secretly. Eventually, as many as 100,000 Jews were expelled from Spain during a four-month period in 1492 (an event commemorated by the Jewish holiday Tisha B’Av); many of them eventually settled in North Africa, Turkey, Greece and the Middle East. Some went to Portugal (which also outlawed Judaism in 1497) and from there to Holland, where they were allowed to practice Judaism openly.

Dutch colonialism throughout much of the New World meant religious freedom for the Sephardim, as it did for other religious sects. But when Brazil and other Latin American colonies were wrested from the Dutch by Portugal, yet another diaspora sent the Jews to other Dutch colonies in the Caribbean, and eventually to what is now New York. Those who stayed in Central or South American under Portuguese or Spanish rule were again forced to practice in secret—some of the descendants still can be found in the American Southwest.

Though settlement in the New World meant religious freedom, it presented its own set of difficulties. Despite the bounty traditionally (and mythically) associated with the early American Thanksgiving, for example, nourishing themselves as a challenge to all settlers. Agriculture, trade, milling and food preserving systems had to be established from scratch. Jews colonials had the further challenge of maintaining kasruth, or kosher dietary laws.

“For the most part,” though, “Jews during the Colonial period cooked and ate like everyone else,” explains Joan Nathan in her well-researched Jewish Cooking in America. “They learned to use corn, beans and the abundant halibut, cod, shad, herring and salmon. Their diet was seasonal: fresh food in the summer, dried and preserved fruits and vegetables in the winter, pickled vegetables in the late summer and fall,” Nathan continues.

Luis Moses Gomez, an ancestor of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardazo, arrived in 1695, 41 years after the first Sephardim arrived. After establishing successful agricultural holdings, especially in wheat, in Westchester, Gomez set up a trading post near Newburgh in 1714. Though he traded in furs, iron and glass, his descendants imported silk and Portuguese wine, eventually buying the land in Manhattan that would become the oldest Jewish congregation in America. (The Spanish and Portuguese synagogue Sheareth Israel is still active today.) Gomez’s trading post, just off Route 9W in Marlboro, north of Newburgh, is open to the public as the Gomez Mill House Historic Site—the “oldest surviving Jewish homestead in America.” The building has undergone generations of alterations and additions and few of the Gomez family’s earliest possessions survive, but the hand-hewn  beams, open hearth and pot hooks still suggest the life lead there. Perhaps a chamin—a simple Sephardic stew of beans, garlic, meat and bones—bubbled in an iron pot resting on a tripod in the embers. Because observant Jewish women could not cook on the Sabbath, the stew was begun on Friday before sundown and kept simmering for the midday Sabbath meal on Saturday.

The Gomez Mill House is as much a testament to the multicultural history of the Hudson Valley as it is “the oldest surviving Jewish homestead in North America.” For the nearly 300 years since Luis Moses Gomez build his fieldstone trading post, the site has served as home to owners and occupants who made significant contributions to American culture, among them Wolfert Acker, patriot of the Revolution; writer and farmer William Henry Armstrong; artisan Dard Hunter, who resurrected and popularized the art of handmade paper; and preservationist Mildred Starin. The house stands as one of the oldest continuously occupied residencies in North America.

In 1979 the house was placed on the national Register of Historic Places. Today it is a public museum operated by a private foundation to educate the public about the contributions of the former occupants. The 28-acre property consists of the six-room house, the mill, ice house, root cellar and visitors’ center.

Throughout the year, Gomez Mill House presents public lectures, workshops and celebrations. Upcoming programs include papermaking techniques (August 25), a lecture on the early Hispanic in the Hudson Valley (September 15), a Civil War re-enactment (October 20), and a lecture on the Dutch influence in architecture in the Hudson Valley (October 27).

The house is open April through October, Wendesday through Sunday, with guided tours at 10 and 11:30am, and 1 and 2:30pm. Admission is $5 for adults, $3.50 seniors, and $2 students.

Sephardic colonists may have made chamim much like the one included in a nineteenth-century Gomez family cookbook. Chamim, known to Ashkenazi jews as cholent, may in fact have been an antecedent of the popular Boston baked beans (which includes molasses, a product of the triangle trade).

Because of the long interaction with Muslim culture in Spain, Sephardic and Arabic cuisine have much in common. In their new home, Jewish colonists would have replaced Middle Eastern and Mediterranean elements, using native kidney beans for Iberians fava or chickpeas and olive oil rather than lard. No tomatoes were available—they had not yet made their trip from New World to Old and back.

The Sephardic influence on early American cuisine is evident in some surprising places. All early colonists pounded almonds into marzipan to produce sweets. However, Hannah Glasse, in her Art of Cookery (1796), the first American cookbook, included “a marmalade of eggs the Jews’ way.” Flourless tortes with  ground almonds and orange flower water also represent an Arab-Iberian influence (the recipe allowed Jewish cooks to avoid using wheat flour during Passover). Jewish merchants also might have made Passover macaroons from pistachios, again recalling Spanish-Arabic flavors. Rum and shrub (a combination of rum, lemon rind and sugar), a popular drink during the Revolutionary period, was based on an Arabic preserving technique taught to medieval Jews. Sorbet, sherbet and shrub  are related terms.

Both raisins and almonds might have been combined to produce a Sephardic-style colonial haroset, rolled into balls. This sweet paste, used at the Passover Seder, often is made from apples and walnuts for the Ashkenazi Seder table. It represents the sweetness of life as well as the mortar the Jews had to mix to build the pyramids in Egypt.

Iberian-style recipes often were preserved or adopted by Sephardim because of their association with holiday ritual. Kosher wine, essential for the Passover Seder, might have been made from raisins, as observant Jews had been making it since the eighth century. (No grain yeasts could be added because of the prohibition against leavening of any kind during Passover.) Because wine is so important in Jewish holiday ritual, southern Jews later were among the first grape growers and wine importers in the United States.

Kosher butchering was essential to the community, and most Jewish men learned to butcher according to Jewish dietary laws—otherwise there would have been no meat to eat. Asser Levy, among the group of Sephardim that arrived in 1654, was licensed as a butcher, or shohet, but was specifically exempted from having to butcher pigs. Jewish ritual slaughter also helped establish the Hays family (formerly the Haas family, from Amsterdam). Six Dutch brothers (probably Ashkenazi) emigrated from Holland in the early eighteenth century; Jacob Hays, the first naturalized Jew in Westchester, bought 40 acres of land in White Plains and became the ritual butcher for the fledgling community there.

Jacob’s second son, David, moved to Bedford in the 1760s to accommodate his growing family (some of his descendants still live there). Dealing in kosher meat led to trading, and David opened a general store and eventually a tavern. He purchased butter, corn, wheat, rye, fruit and flax, as well as locally produced vinegar and gin to be traded for salt, sugar, tea, molasses, pepper, rum and chocolate.

Because record keeping in the Jewish community had greatly increased by this time, records of the Hays family’s marriage contracts, circumcisions, receipt and account books, and even litigation and correspondence about the Jewish holidays survive. The family did keep two sets of pans to separate milk and meat, and perhaps a third set for Passover, as is the kosher custom, but records also show they traded in pork and bacon as part of the usual colonial commodities.

By the time The Jewish Manual, the first Jewish cookbook in English, was published anonymously in 1846 in England, and Esther Jacobs Levy’s Jewish Cookery Book appeared in America in 1871, the Ashkenazi-influenced foods most often associated with contemporary Jewish cuisine were well established in the community. The Jewish Manual contains recipes for the sauerbraten-style meat with caraway (for cholent and kugel), though much earlier, Jewish pickled herring and smoked fish were familiar commodities in the colonial Hudson Valley. Hannah Glasse refers to escabeche, a spiced and pickled preparation, as “the Jews’ way of preserving salmon and all sorts of fish.” Shad from the Hudson would have been potted in this Iberian (originally Middle Eastern) fashion, which survives intact today in Caribbean cuisine and as ceviche in Latin America.

Most of the original Sephardic Jewish “pilgrim” line has disappeared into history. However, a few cultural and culinary links clearly persist in the Hudson Valley and beyond. The settlement of the  valley and the rest of the New World spread their influence beyond their wildest dreams, and evidence continues to reappear in apparently unrelated corners.

Hudson Valley Restaurant Week is back this April 8-21!