Tom Edmonds, executive director of the Southampton Historical Museum, who will give a talk on “Jewish Settlers in Southampton” at Chabad of Southampton Jewish Center on February 27.
What piqued your interest to explore this topic?
It was like an assignment and I was suddenly back in school. I gave a talk at the Chabad recently on a different topic, and they said, “How about another talk?” I said, “What do you want to hear?” They said, “The history of Jews in Southampton.” I thought, great, something I know nothing about. So I feel like a student.
We know about the European Jews who came to Sag Harbor to work at Fahys Watchcase factory in the 1880s, but you’re going further back and further west in your research. What have you uncovered so far?
The Jewish population in New York City is the second largest in the world. Even as far back as the 1600s, there were Jews in New York City. I found out that in 1654, several Jewish families landed at New Amsterdam. What was surprising is, they were Brazilian Jews who may have been Portuguese. They had been shipwrecked in Brazil and brought to New Amsterdam by pirates. Governor Stuyvesant wanted them deported. But the Dutch West India Company had an open immigration policy because it needed workers.
But as far as finding their way to the East End, Jewish settlers weren’t here quite that long ago. When did they arrive and what brought them here?
They were not really out here until the 1840s and I think it was because of the railroad. There had been waves of Jewish immigration from Europe to New York City — they were fleeing Europe and looking to find jobs.
Many of them had been farmers and wanted out of the city. That was the attraction of Suffolk County and the East End. Also, not only was there a good deal of anti-Semitism in the city, but Jim Crow laws after the Civil War barred Jews from being allowed to buy or rent certain apartments. That also attracted them to Suffolk — that and the fact it had a lot of available land.
There was also a wave of German immigrants who came to New York City in the 1840s who were successful in the clothing and manufacturing industries. The founder of Barney’s department store came in 1840. Lower class Jews would be peddlers and they would buy clothing and notions or kitchen utensils from their connections in the city and bring them out on the railroad to sell on the East End. There was a rising middle class here and they needed perishable goods.
Then of course there was Sag Harbor’s large Jewish community which sprang up when Fahys built his watchcase factory here in 1884. What have you learned about those settlers?
Fahys needed cheap labor. Whaling had tanked, so he solicited for German Jews to come out to Sag Harbor. Interestingly enough, the founding of Temple Adas Israel happened because of the death of a child in 1889. Jews in Sag Harbor didn’t have a temple and there was no Jewish cemetery east of Lyndhurst and there was concern for the family because they had no way to bury the child. So in 1889 they established the Jewish cemetery and that’s how the temple also got started.
You said you’re still in the midst of researching this topic — what else do you need to uncover?
The recent stuff. I make it hard for myself. To show the national trend and how Jews first came here, instead of starting in Southampton I started in the city. But I think it’s interesting because immigration here followed national trends and the industrial revolution helped them move out here.
So if it hadn’t been for the suggestion from the Chabad, is it fair to say this is a topic you would have never thought to delve into?
No, I wouldn’t have thought about. But it’s great learning something new. It makes life more interesting.
“Jewish Settlers in Southampton” will be offered on Wednesday, February 27 at 11 a.m. at Chabad of Southampton Jewish Center, 214 Hill Street, Southampton.