I got woefully lost tracing my family’s Jewish roots and fell into a familiar trap. Like many family history researchers on the Internet, I wanted to believe that I was related to the great Moses Levy, a New York merchant who commissioned portraits for most family members. My fifth grandmother was a Levy, Eva Levy. I leaped and assumed she was related to Moses. She probably isn’t.
Adding relatives to your tree who lived more than 200 years ago is never easy, and it’s not like anyone who ever knew them is still around. The temptation is to follow the click-happy crowd. But you can never assume that family trees built by others are correct unless they cite a written, authoritative source, preferably a family Bible. Even then, a written source could be wrong. That makes it pleasant to have two of them.
The hunt for my Jewish ancestors starts with Peninah Benjamin Kruttschnitt (1824-1903), my last 100 percent Jewish ancestor, though it’s unlikely she was a practicing Jew. Her father, Philip Benjamin (1779-1852), belonged to a group of super-reformed Jews in Charleston, South Carolina. He and his wife, Rebecca de Mendes (1790-1847), were shopkeepers, and they riled their Jewish compatriots by keeping their store open on the Sabbath.
This Philip, by all accounts, was an underachiever. In contrast, his wife Rebecca was just the opposite — diligent, hard-working, and brilliant, qualities that probably led her to abandon her husband. But not before she gave birth to the couple’s claim to fame, Judah P. Benjamin, the first self-professed Jew elected to the U.S. Senate. Judah P., you may remember from history class, was acknowledged as “the brains” of the Confederacy. He served as Secretary of State, War, and Attorney General.
Peninah, who was very bright, home-schooled her highly successful children. Ernest, one of New Orleans’ most prominent lawyers, authored some of the most controversial provisions of a Louisiana constitution rewrite in 1898. Julius, a scrupulous safety-minded engineer, rose to become the chief executive officer of the Union Pacific Railroad. Peninah’s husband, Johannes Kruttschnitt (1812-1892), was a German immigrant who served as foreign consul. The 19th-century Renaissance man conducted scientific experiments in his spare time.
I digress. The subject at hand is Eva Levy, Peninah’s grandmother, my fifth grandmother. Was she related to the infamous Mose Levy? Probably not. What little we know about Eva comes from one of those storied family genealogy letters left behind in a family Bible by a self-important patriarch, in this case, Henry M. Hyams, the former lieutenant governor of Louisiana. His father, Samuel, married Eva Levy’s niece.
Hyams wrote that Eva was a “great beauty” who became the wife of a “very opulent Spanish Jewish merchant” [De Mendes] … This marriage between the Portugee. The Tedaesqua was the first of any note in Europe as … the educated rich and proud … De Mendez, exiled as he was, held in all the capitals of Europe, a social position high above the Native Jew and especially in Holland and Germany.”
The Levy family in Holland, Hyams wrote, “had some connection with the introduction and discovery of Vaccine distribution of the Government organization, from which it presumed and obtained the soubriquet of ‘Coo,’ which was familiarly attached afterward to a sister [Eva], said to have been of great beauty and a dashing woman in the Court of Holland.”
Solomon De Mendes, who may have been much older than his bride, is listed as a merchant in London directories for 1790-4. “He lived at Goodman’s Fields and at Bishopgate Within, a neighborhood in the old part of London where numerous Jews then lived and engaged in trade,” wrote Judah P. Benjamin’s principal biographer, Robert Douthat Meade. “Later, he moved to Finsbury in the suburbs, where a more prosperous class of Jews resided.”
Meade wrote that Solomon eventually found his way to Holland “doubtless impelled by the religious prosecution that had long since spread into Portugal.” The “De Mendes or Mendes,” he wrote, “are listed among thirty prominent families that escaped from Spain to Portugal under the leadership of an aged rabbi.” Solomon and Eva married in Holland before 1785 when their daughter Harriet was born. Their second daughter, Rebecca, was born in Holland in about 1790. The family moved to England shortly after her birth.
How did Hyams know this? His father, Samuel (1766-1843), emigrated from England to Charleston, S.C., and married Miriam Levy (1779-1821) about a year later. Miriam, who went by the name Eliza, was the daughter of Eva’s brother, Eleazer Levy, and his wife, Judith. Hyams wrote that Eleazer was a man of excellent education and highly instructed in that day’s Hebrew, Greek, and Latin languages and literature.
Many people on Ancestry jump to the conclusion that Eleazer’s father was Hayman Marache Solomon Levy, another big-time New York merchant. But that seems unlikely, given that Eleazer was born in Holland and isn’t even mentioned in Hayman Marache’s probate record. Also, a scholarly article fails to list Eleazur as one of Hayman M. S. Levy’s children.
Doubly confusing, there’s a remote chance that Eleazur and Eva may still have had a father named Hayman. There’s a folder in the Jews in Colonial America file for Eleazar Levy (about 1750-1811). It lists his father as “Hayman,” though there’s no further information about the father inside the folder. It seems unlikely that this Eleazur is my uncle. Most of this guy’s business dealings were in the Northeast rather than the Southeast.
My Jewish ancestry on Philip Benjamin’s side is a little easier to trace, thanks to a family tree on the Jewish Archives website taking the Benjamins back a couple of generations before Peninah. It lists his father as Philip Benjamin (1779-1852), born in Nevis, St. Croix. His father was another Judah who lived in St. Eustatius and the Virgin Islands. And his father was yet another Philip, a prominent physician by scholarly accounts, who appeared on the Dutch island of St. Eustatius by 1744.
This Philip Benjamin of Eustatius was married to Hannah de Leon (1715-1783), whose tombstone can be found online. She is described in Hebrew on her 1783 tombstone as a “skilled doctor and expert midwife.” She made her home available to fellow worshipers during the rebuilding of the community synagogue after the hurricane of 1772. According to the inscription, Hannah was a “skilled doctor and expert midwife” whose works “were praised at the gates.”
There weren’t many Jews living in Eustatius in the 1700s, and their plight was sorrowful. Many were forced to move to the Virgin Islands. That subject seems ripe for a separate blog.