Corrections on Ellis Island Piece

In your piece on Ellis Island you have two factual errors (and one misleading minor error) that should have been caught prior to publication.

The first is the claim that the first wave of Jewish immigration was Sephardic. This is a common misconception that does not match the historical details. While four of the first five shuls in America were “minhag Sepharad” shuls, including the first shul, most of the first wave were Ashkenazim. When the first 13 Jews arrived from the Dutch colony of Recife after it fell to Portugal, some were Sephardi and some were Ashkenazi. The Sephardim were from the Dutch Sephardi community which fled Spain between 1492 and 1600, and they davened the original Sephardic nusach, which is quite different from the Eidot Mizrach most people are familiar with today.

Out of those first 13, about half were from the old Dutch Ashkenazi community, and by 1700 Ashkenazim outnumbered Sephardim by an estimated 3:1 ratio, which kept growing. Because the Sephardic community was wealthier, they built the shuls (though when one looks at their early documents, many of the founders were Ashkenazim.) It was due to achdus in the early American community that no break-off shuls were founded. So there is a misconception that it was a Sephardic majority immigration wave because of the nusach of the early shuls, but it is not what it was. The first wave was mostly Dutch and Ashkenazi Jews from Britain (who had only come to England after Cromwell and were mostly Dutch and French Jews).

The second error is the claim that people changed their names when they arrived at Ellis Island or that surnames were changed at Ellis Island. This is a myth that historians have been trying to get out of people’s heads for decades. And while there are many jokes about it, as mentioned in the piece, it was a joke based on a myth, not a fact. There was never a single recorded incident in the entire history of Ellis Island of someone’s surname being changed there; in fact, they would not have been able to. Ellis Island was a processing center; any name changes were done when they applied for their paperwork back in Europe (the most common method) and the changed name was on their immigration papers when they were processed at Ellis Island (where the myth that it was changed there came from). Sometimes people changed their names afterwards to better fit into society with a less ethnic name (around when you see people changing their first names to English ones like Harry, Henry, Richard, etc). But as many noted scholars of immigration history, as well as some of the most prominent genealogists in America point out, there never was a single recorded incident or record of any surnames being changed at Ellis Island.

The third, minor issue is the claim that the second wave was German Jews. While German Jews were a nice chunk of it, French Jews and Jews from the Austrian Empire made up equal parts of it, and there were some Jews from Italy too. German Jews were about half of it; people mostly remember them because they brought Reform Judaism and the early break-off kehillos in America.

Please do better fact-checking in the future. This is not the first time a history piece published in the Features section had factual errors. I know these errors are usually based on commonly believed myths or inaccuracies, but I hold Hamodia to a higher standard.



Mrs. Faigy Grunfeld responds:

Thank you for your letter.

For your first point, although it is true that the original Jewish community was not only Sephardic, it is often referred to this way perhaps because, as Prof. Jonathan Sarna writes, “the seeds of Judaism sown in mid-seventeenth-century colonial America fell from plants nurtured in the soil of the Iberian peninsula.” The story of the first Jewish wave in America is inextricably linked to the Sephardic tale of Inquisition and persecution which followed the Jews to Recife, Brazil. (History books mention 23 rather than 13 Jews arriving in New Amsterdam in 1654). Historians tend to focus on the Sephardic element and their unique journey (Prof. Hasia Diner). However, Ashkenazim did become the more dominant sect during the 18th century.

The same holds true for the second wave of immigration, commonly referred to as the German wave, perhaps because many of the Rabbinic leaders were German, although you are certainly correct it wasn’t only German; there were a number of central-European Jews who emigrated at this time.

Being that this article just mentioned a couple of sentences on the broader history of Jewish immigration, I felt it was fair to use what you might call “stereotypes” to describe the first and second waves. Perhaps we can do a piece that gives this topic a full discussion, which it certainly deserves.

As for your other point, that immigration officers did not change Jewish names upon arrival, I’m afraid I was mistaken here! Immigration officers dealt with various immigrants and were no strangers to unfamiliar names. They also used the ship manifest to confirm names given during inspection, so it is unlikely that Jewish names were shortened out of difficulty with pronunciation. I apologize to our readers. I generally try to cross-reference information with two or three history sources to confirm accuracy, but this one slipped by me.

Thank you again for taking the time to point this out, and I hope you’ll continue to hold us to that high standard!