NH Jewish Community Deeply Rooted in Portsmouth
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
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Passover is near. The joyous Jewish holiday that commemorates the Israelites exodus from Egypt is familiar to all, even if we only know the movie version with Charlton Heston as Moses. But what do we know of our own Jewish heritage here in Portsmouth, home to the oldest operating synagogue in the state of New Hampshire? (continued below)
Portsmouth history is intricately linked to its key Christian churches that, while arguing over land and religious practices, sometimes acted more like warring camps than armies of God. The arrival of the city’s small Jewish community got lost in the din and scarcely appears in local history texts. We can thank the late George Sherman, a pharmacist and historian of Temple Israel, for assembling our Jewish heritage into an important spiral bound book. He gave this writer a copy years ago, from which this brief summary is drawn.
In the beginning
Jewish history in New Hampshire dates from the arrival of two New Castle men, William Abrams and Aaron Moses, in 1693, but they did not stay long in the seacoast region. A century passed. Then Abraham and Rachel Isaac came in 1789. No one knows exactly how Abraham and Rachel arrived here from Prussia soon after the American Revolution. They were, at least as far as historian Charles Brewster knew, the city’s only Jewish couple.
The Isaacs set up a little business near the waterfront locally called “The Cheap Shop” which was probably the city’s first discount store. As business expanded they moved to a more upscale location on State Street under the sign of a large golden teapot.
Abraham Isaac was also an auctioneer and the city mourned his death in 1803 as “a faithful steward and an honest man.” His advertisements for imported English crockery appeared in the New Hampshire Gazette. You can still see a small plaque on his old house at 414 State Street across from the Rockingham Hotel.
Abraham is buried in the Old North Cemetery near such local luminaries as Declaration signer William Whipple and Governor John Langdon. His detailed epitaph reads, in part:
Entombed beneath where earth-born troubles cease
A son of faithful Abraham sleeps in peace.
In life's first bloom, he left his native air
A sojourner as all his fathers were
After Abraham’s death, Rachel Isaac moved on in 1813. Portsmouth’s first true Jewish community did not appear until the next century, but City records indicate the presence of “probable” Jewish citizens, historian Sherman tells us. An advertisement in a New York newspaper requested the services of a “shochet” or ritual kosher butcher in Portsmouth in 1856. But the first formal Jewish community evolved here with the arrival of a few families from Eastern Europe in the 1880s who settled in the South End of town. By 1905 the community had grown to 27 families who founded what became Temple Israel.
Despite the open reception of Abraham Isaac in earlier days, Jews, like other ethnic groups, suffered from local discrimination. In 1903 a 15-year old George Caswell shot Philip Schort with a rifle in the Puddle Dock area of town. Schort, a young Russian Jew, later died of his wounds. An investigation was held, but there is no record of any trial ever taking place.
CONTINUE Jewsih History
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