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A Jewish family in early New York

Colonial portraits of a Jewish family from New York offer a glimpse into the life of early 18th-century Jewish immigrants. The family, led by Abigail, Jacob, and Moses Levy, were wealthy merchants and key figures in their community. The portraits, likely painted by Gerardus Dyckinck I, reflect their status and lineage. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(gentle music) - [Beth] We're in the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art looking at a set of colonial portraits of a Jewish family from New York. - [Mindy] It's amazing that it has stayed together. There are three different generations depicted. The centerpiece of the family and of the portraits is Abigail. We also see her husband, Jacob, and her father, Moses Levy, which was likely painted after his death to join the suite of portraits. Five of the nine children are depicted. One, likely Richa Franks, is by herself, and then two of the other portraits are two children together, usually a boy and girl, although because the boys wore dresses when they were small, that also could be their son instead of a daughter. - [Beth] So what we have here is a real window onto the very small community of Jewish immigrants in New York in the early 18th century. - [Mindy] By 1730, there were only 75 families that identified as Jewish in the very Dutch colony of New York. - [Beth] In the early 18th century, they would have been in what we consider lower Manhattan. In fact, we could still visit Moses's grave in the first Jewish cemetery in New York City. - [Mindy] And they were instrumental in starting and funding the synagogue. Jacob is likely the president, one of the leaders of that synagogue. - [Beth] What we're looking at is a very wealthy merchant family. It's really only because these portraits stayed within the family that we can connect them, especially Abigail, with letters that she wrote to her son in London and begin to fill out the life experience of this early colonial family. - [Mindy] She was incredibly well-read. She was teaching her children the good manners, the painting, the music, just simply that life of a wealthy family, and she talks about entertaining and doing all the things that would have been required of that level of society. - [Beth] And at the same though, when she writes to her son in London, she's reminding him to maintain a kosher diet, to keep the holidays, to observe the Sabbath. - [Mindy] The portraits, we think, are painted by Gerardus Dyckinck I. He was part of a family of what we would call limner portraitists in the colonies. He would advertise and say, "Come get your likeness done." But what he's looking at for inspiration for the composition, for the clothing, for the background, is English mezzotints. So they do resemble British aristocracy. This is not lost on the audiences in colonial America, who are aligning themselves with that upper echelon. The flowers, the little lamb, the props, the birds, all of those just carry directly over from the mezzotints. Moses and then subsequently Jacob formed really a shipping empire. Jacob was the chief agent to supply the British, especially during the French and Indian War, with materials and supplies. He's also capitalizing on the trade that's going down to the Caribbean and for the sugar plantations. We might also guess that enslaved people were also carried on these ships. - [Beth] And it's not until 100 years later that Britain will outlaw slavery in its colonies. We can see that her hand gesture brings us in the direction of the neighboring portrait of her husband. We can assume that these were hung next to one another, and Jacob is gesturing toward his wife. - [Mindy] And if you line up Moses, in fact, if you put Moses to Abigail's right, our left, they would all be directing their attention to Abigail in the middle. - [Beth] So we can imagine these hanging in a semi-public area of the house, and that's important because these portraits were meant to convey to people who visited their status, their wealthy, their lineage. - [Mindy] And that they can afford to have their portraits done. (gentle music)