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Pioneer Jews of the West

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Message William T. Hathaway
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Amazing but true: Before the Mayflower sailed to America, Jews were living in what is now the USA. They had fled the Spanish Inquisition and settled in what is now Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Who were these pioneers? What happened that forced them to flee? What did they encounter in this far land? These questions fascinate me, and as I read what little we know about them and imagine their lives, a story emerges:

In Spain during the Inquisition two Sephardic brothers are in deep conflict. Weary of persecution, the older has decided to have his family baptized and become nominal Christians. The younger, Elias, sees this as a threat to the survival of the Jewish people. Rather than give in to the Inquisition, he decides to flee to the colonies. Before he leaves, he and his brother put their quarrel aside and reconcile.

On the boat to Mexico he meets a young woman, Dorit, whose family is also fleeing. Their romance blossoms into love, and they are married in a traditional ceremony in the Sephardic community of Vera Cruz. Their wedding reception is broken up by an Inquisition priest with soldiers. Anti-Semitic persecution has followed them to the New World.

In a journey reminiscent of the ancient escape from Egypt, Elias and Dorit and a few other families travel as far from Spanish authority as they can, up into what is now the Southwest of the USA. On the way Dorit gives birth to a son, and the group celebrates this perpetuation of their Jewish life with the bris ceremony.

The group settles in a remote area inhabited only by Native Americans, with whom they trade. They have brought extra horses, cloth, and metal tools, which they exchange for food. The newcomers and the natives develop a relationship of mutual assistance and respect. Here the group is free to build a new life centered around their Jewish faith. The family has a second child, a daughter.

Spaniards gradually move into the area with herds of cattle and set up ranches. Some of them are hostile to the Jews, but others accept them. The Spaniards want the natives' land, so they approach the Jews for information about the native settlements and their defenses. The ranchers, some of whom the Jews had thought were their friends, threaten them with exposure to the Spanish authorities and imprisonment if they don't cooperate. After much internal conflict, the Jews give them the information.

The natives are brutally pushed off the fertile land, much of which the ranchers then sell to Spanish farmers who have begun arriving.

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William T. Hathaway is an award-winning novelist and an emeritus Fulbright professor of creative writing. His peace novel, Summer Snow, is the story of an American warrior falling in love with a Sufi Muslim and learning from her that higher (more...)

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