THE DEBTS owed by the United States to early Jewish patriots have never been accurately counted and seldom acknowledged. Specifically, in the case of Haym Salomon, the nation owes his heirs something over $658,000 plus about 200 years of interest.
A small and late effort to at least admit this and other non-monetary debts to the early Jewish settlers and citizens is being made, appropriately, by the Daughters of the American Revolution. "The Jewish Community in Early America: 1654-1830" opens to the public Thursday and continues through next March 15 at the DAR Museum in the Memorial Continental Hall, 1776 D St. NW. "This is the first major loan exhibition mounted by the museum," according to its curator, Jean Taylor Federico.
A gala invitational preview dinner for the 400 sponsors and friends of the show, including former President and Mrs. Gerald Ford, will be given opening night at the Corcoran Art Gallery by John Langeloth Loeb Jr., an investment banker, a financial supporter of Ronald Reagan since 1976 and a member of his foreign affairs task force. Loeb, who is related to most of the families honored in the exhibition, suggested the show and helped finance it.
History, especially biography, is difficult to exhibit. When people die, what is left behind? Legends told about their lives are whispers and wisps of words on the winds of time. Only art endures. The Egyptians knew this, and tried to give some substance to their time by gathering to them the accouterments of their lives. The objects buried with King Tut say, "This was a mighty king. Behold his wealth and his great love of beauty."
In the same way, the 80 or so objects in the DAR exhibition give hints and clues about the families of the 23 original Jewish settlers in New York and the early Jewish immigrants who made their homes in Newport, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Richmond, Norfolk, Charleston and Savannah, a network down the East Coast.
Siler, jewelry, manuscripts, documents, paintings, furniture and pottery come together to make a picture of an affluent community of people who had taste and money. Not enough emphasis, it seems to me, is ever given to those people who by their patronage enable artist-craftsmen of any era to be able to work -- and eat. In Vienna, Austria, for instance, around 1900, a Jewish intellectual was the patron for the Wiener Werkstatte , the beginning of the modern movement. According to the DAR exhibition, the Jewish patrons of the early years of the nation encouraged the making of beautiful and useful objects that offer evidence of the way they lived.
Two portraits of Rebecca Gratz, one of Thomas Sully (who painted her many times) and a miniature by Edward Greene Malbone, are perhaps the most compelling in the exhibit. Rebecca Gratz was a famous beauty of her time, and her good looks still command our appreciation. Her story is as interesting as her face. She lived from 1781 to 1869.
According to the legend, she was in love with a Christian. Their families forbade them to remarry, so she did not marry at all, spending the rest of her years in good works.
She was a close friend of author Washington Irving's fiance, Matilda Hoffman, who died tragically at a young age. Irving and Miss Gratz met when both attended Miss Hoffman as she lay dying. Irving admired Miss Gratz tremendously -- whether he was the lover she was not allowed to marry has been forgotten. But he related the story and a description of Rebecca Gratz' beauty to his friend Sir Walter Scott. The British historical novelist in turn based the character Rebecca in his "Ivanhoe" on Miss Gratz, as is attested to in letters between the writers and a letter of hers.
Scott described his Rebecca in colorful terms"
Her form was exquisitely symmetrical, and was shown to advantage by a sort of Eastern dress, which she wore according to the fashion of the females of her nation. Her turban of yellow silk suited well with the darkness of her complexion.The brilliancy of her eyes, the superb arch of her eyebrows, her well-formed aquiline nose, her teeth as white as pearl, and the profusion of her sable tresses which, each arranged in its own little spiral of twisted curls, fell down upon as much of a lovely neck and bosom . . . all these constituted a combination of loveliness . . . . It is true that of the golden and pearl-studded clasps, which closed her vest from the throat to the waist, the three uppermost were left unfastened, on account of the heat, which something enlarged the prospect to which we allude.
Sully was fascinated by Rebecca's novelization, and often painted her in the costume described by Scott. According to one story, her family wouldn't buy one portrait in which she was so depicted.
In 1838 Rebecca Gratz founded the Hebrew Sunday School Society and was its president. She also suggested the founding of a Jewish Foster home for orphans.
The exquisite silver in the exhibition was not only owned by wealthy Jews of the period but in many cases also were made by one of them. Myer Myers, a gold and silversmith, is counted by many as the equal, and by some, as the master of that other great silversmith-patriot, Paul Revere.
Myers was the only silversmith (according to a cataloge of an exhibition on him by Jane Bostman Larus) to make ceremonial silver for three of the oldest American synagogues as well as several important New York churches. Myers' marvelous silver rimmonims, also called "Torah bells," made for the poles of the Torah scroll or used by a rabbi as a staff, is in the exhibition.
Four salvers, one with an elaborately engraved coat of arms; a sauceboat with fanciful scrollwork; a silver ladle with an elaborate engraving; a tankard; a teapot with a pineapple finial and a bird face on the handle; a castor; a coffee pot; a sugar bowl and a pair of beakers; a basting spoon in the rattail pattern -- all in solid silver -- bear testimony to Myers' artistry and craftsmanship.
Myers worked in the manner of English silversmiths of his period, in the Queen Anne and Georgian style; and there is some evidence to show that he at least once used an English piece as a mold.
Myers began his work in 1746 in New York after a seven-year apprenticeship (to whom is not known). But at the beginning of the Revolution, New York City was expected to fall to the British. Myers, like many other New York revolutionaries, fled to Norwalk, Conn.; he later moved to Philadelphia. Myers returned after New York was freed. He was a leader of the Shearith Israel Synagogue, master of the King David Masonic Lodge in New York City, and chairman of the Silversmith's Society. The wealthy burgers of New York City kept him busy pouring out tea and coffee sets, tankards and bowls, many of which are now in museums across the country.
Other handsome silver in the exhibition was made for Jewish families by other early silversmiths. A creamware jug of the Liverpool variety shows a ship flying the American flag and the name of the ship's owner, Moses Myers. Myers grew up in New York. In 1787, he loaded his family and fine furnishings on a boat and moved them to Norfolk, Va. He continued in shipping, eventually owning five ships. He built himself a fine house in Norfolk in 1792 where he entertained as the French, Dutch and Swedish consular agent; president of the Norfolk Common (city) Council and the Norfolk Assembly; superintendent of the Marine hospital and the Norfolk branch of the Bank of Richmond. He was bankrupted by the War of 1812's shipping embargo. His home is now a part of the Chrysler Museum. Several Anglo-Irish leaded glass objects in the DAR exhibition also belonged to him.
The exhibition includes a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Abraham Touro, sometimes called the first American philanthropist. Touro gave $5,000 and $10,000 donations, a great deal of money in those days, to hospitals, orphanages and asylums in Boston, Newport and New York. Touro had made his fortune in New Orleans before he moved to Boston.
The Seixas, an important New York family, are well represented in the exhibition. A sampler was made by Rachel. She had the bad luck to be painted by John Wollaston, an early portrait painter. He made everyone look deformed and depressed (as well they might have been by having him paint them).
Unfortunately, the show includes only one original document of Haym Salomon, who is often said to have financed the Revolution.Salomon, according to the definitive "Americans of Jewish Descent: A Compedium of Genealogy," and the DAR Patriot Index, was paymaster-general for the French forces in America. When the revolutionary government was bankrupt, he paid from his own pockets the salaries of civil servants, army officers and men, and foreign agents.
Not only did he put up his money, he put up his life. In 1776 he was arrested as a spy by the British army. When they found he spoke German (he was Polish born), he was used as an interpreter with the Hessians. Salomon used his position to encourage the Hessians to desert, and he passed on all the information he gathered to the Americans. Strangely, he was released, only to be arrested again in 1778. Just before he was to be executed, he bribed his jailer and escaped to safety. Later he settled in Philadelphia as a government bond broker. No one had much confidence in the bonds but they did in Salomon. Now he is credited with preventing the collapse of the new American government from their own bankruptcy.
His heroism and patriotism did little to enhance his private fortune, he died penniless in 1785. The U.S. Government never paid him the $658,000 plus interest owed him.
The DAR exhibition began as a show on early New York Jewish patriots suggested by Loeb at the Fraunces Tavern in New York's financial district. Loeb gave money to establish the Adeline Moses Loeb Gallery in memory of his grandmother (a member of the DAR) in the Fraunces museum. The Fraunces Tavern is owned by the Sons of the Revolution.