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Small beginning, big impact

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The Jews who landed in the harbor of New Amsterdam in 1654 were a penniless and weary lot. They had traveled a long and costly four months, and they had neither the strength nor the money to push farther.

Having been exiled from their home in Brazil when Portugal overthrew the Dutch colony, many Jews attempted to flee to the Netherlands. Most were lost at sea or captured by pirates.

But a group of 23 was blown off course and landed in what would become New York and in what was then, fortunately for them, another Dutch haven.

The governor of New Amsterdam greeted them icily. Peter Stuyvesant did not like Jews and made no attempt to hide it.

But he had to answer to the West India Company in Amsterdam, Netherlands, whose directors were being urged by primary shareholders - many of them Jewish - to consider the benefits of having "loyal people" pay taxes and increase trade in the new and spacious land. So Stuyvesant was forced to allow the Jews entry.

Although a few individual Jews had come to the New World earlier, the arrival of this group 350 years ago this month is commemorated by Jews in the United States as the beginning of a profound relationship.

Few can imagine an America without a Jewish influence - from baseball great Sandy Koufax to comedians Andy Kaufman and Woody Allen, from kosher restaurants to the Hanukkah festival of lights, from schmoozing to chutzpah.

The impact of Jews on the US began, some say, as early as the moment of their arrival.

"In a sense, this first group of Jews was a test case for American plural- ism," says Leonard Groopman, a Jewish historian in New York.

"Stuyvesant knew that if you let the Jews in, you had to eventually allow other religious groups. So the first impact [on America] was not due to anything these Jews did themselves, but just the fact of their capacity to gain entry."

Soon after the first Jews settled in New Amsterdam, there followed - as Stuyvesant woefully predicted - peoples of other faiths, such as Quakers and the Amish.


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