Tag Archives: American Jews

Jew of the Week: Mordecai Sheftall

Highest-Ranking Jew in the Continental Army

Mordechai Sheftall (1735-1797) was born in the new colony of Savannah, Georgia to Jewish immigrants from England that had arrived two years earlier aboard a vessel carrying 36 Sephardic and 8 Ashkenazi Jews. The same year he was born, his parents cofounded North America’s third oldest synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Mickve Israel of Savannah (the first is Shearith Israel of New York, and the second the Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island). Seven years later, Spanish troops invaded Georgia, causing the Sephardic families to flee in fear of the Spanish Inquisition. Only the two Ashkenazi families remained, the Sheftalls being one of them. Mordechai Sheftall received a strong Jewish education from his father, who ordered a set of tefillin and Jewish books for his bar mitzvah from England. He even sent a letter when the precious shipment was delayed—which happens to be the earliest-known historical mention of a bar mitzvah in the Americas! At age 17, Sheftall went into the deerskin business and quickly made a small fortune, soon buying 50 acres of his own in Savannah. By the time he married at age 26, he operated a 2000-acre cattle ranch and a tanning facility. The Mickve Israel congregation ran services from a room in his house. Sheftall was also a philanthropist, and a major contributor to the Union Society and the Bethesda orphanage. In 1765, the British imposed the hugely unpopular Stamp Act. Like many colonists, Sheftall strongly opposed excessive British taxation, and became chairman of Savannah’s Parochial Committee of American patriots. When the Revolutionary War broke out, Sheftall immediately volunteered to fight, and in 1777 became the commissary-general of Georgia’s troops. He went on to attain the rank of colonel, making him the highest-ranking Jew in the Continental Army. Sheftall was captured during the First Battle of Savannah in 1778, yet continued to arrange major funds to the American cause from the prisoner-of-war ship he was being held in. The British would purposely give him pork, which he refused to eat, and even greased his cutlery with pork fat, which he refused to use. He was only freed in a prisoner exchange two years later. Having lost everything in the Revolutionary War, Sheftall moved to Philadelphia in 1781 to try a new business. During his brief time there, he also helped build Philadelphia’s historic Mikveh Israel synagogue. Sheftall returned to Savannah to work at its port as Georgia’s official Inspector of Tanned Leather. In 1790, he became president of Savannah’s Mickve Israel synagogue. That same year, George Washington wrote a letter to the congregation (the first ever by a president to a Jewish community) where he wrote: “May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivering the Hebrews from their Egyptian Oppressors planted them in the promised land – whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation – still continue to water them with the dews of heaven…” Like fellow Revolutionary hero (and the very first Jew of the Week) Haym Solomon, the vital loans Sheftall provided to the nascent US government were never repaid. Sheftall was buried in Savannah’s first Jewish cemetery, which he had himself established years earlier.

Words of the Week

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
George Washington, first president of the United States, to the Touro Synagogue in 1790

Jew of the Week: Billy Joel

Piano Man

William Martin Joel (b. 1949) was born in New York to an immigrant Jewish family with German and English heritage. Both of his parents were music enthusiasts, and compelled little Billy to start piano lessons at age 4. Often picked on as a teen, he decided to take up boxing and soon became an amateur champion. He only retired from boxing after seriously breaking his nose. To support his impoverished family, Joel played piano at a bar most nights. Because of this, he missed many exams and failed to graduate from high school. He decided to pursue a music career instead, inspired by the success of The Beatles. Joel first played for a number of bands, including the Echoes, the Emeralds, the Lost Souls, the Hassles, and Attila. He recorded his first solo album in 1970, but it did not do well. He went on tour and at one point opened for The Beach Boys. In 1972, Joel signed with Columbia Records and moved to LA. The first album was Piano Man, with its eponymous hit song making Joel famous. (“Piano Man” was later ranked among the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time by Rolling Stone.) His 1977 album The Stranger became Columbia Records’ all-time bestseller. In 1987, Joel performed in the Soviet Union, one of the first Americans to do so. All in all, Joel produced 13 albums, winning 5 Grammy Awards (out of 23 nominations) and selling over 160 million records worldwide. He is America’s fourth-best-selling solo artist. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He has also been awarded 7 honourary degrees. Aside from music, Joel is passionate about boating and runs the Long Island Boat Company as a side-business. Despite nearing his 73rd birthday, he is still performing.

Purim Begins Tonight! Chag Sameach!

The Purim Code That Prophesied the Nazi Nuremberg Trials

Purim-themed posts from the Jew of the Week archives: Esther, Mordechai, and Daniel

Words of the Week

I have frequently had cause to comment upon the extraordinary generosity and liberality of the American Jews in their charitable contributions. Indeed, their voluntary contributions exceed that of any other American group, and range from the stinted savings of the poorest workman to the full outpouring of those in more fortunate positions.
– President Herbert Hoover

Jew of the Week: Bob Shad

The Producer Who Discovered Janis Joplin

Bob Shad (Courtesy: Herman Leonard Photography)

Abraham Shadrinsky (1920-1985) was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. His parents were early Bolsheviks that were actively fighting the Czar, and his father was exiled before the Russian Revolution. Young Abee Shadrinsky soon became “Bobby Shad”. His passion was music and especially the popular jazz of the time. In the 1940s, when the music producers’ union went on strike, a totally inexperienced Shad took the opportunity to go to the Savoy Label and offered to produce some jazz. He spent much of the next forty years in the recording studio, producing over 800 albums. He founded the great Emercy jazz label for Mercury Records, as well as Sitting In, Time, Brent, and Mainstream Records. He recorded many of the jazz legends and was personally responsible for developing the careers of greats like Quincy Jones, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, and Clifford Brown. He recorded pop artists, too, including Patti Page, the Platters, and Vic Damone. Shad was an incredibly creative man who was able to foresee many of the trends in music, such as early stereo, high fidelity, avant-garde, and acid rock. In the sixties, it was Shad who first discovered Ted Nugent and Janis Joplin, recording and producing her first album with the Big Brother band. Joplin went on to become one of the top-selling musicians in American history, and was ranked among the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time by Rolling Stone. Despite the great success, Shad lived modestly and remained true to his love of music, devoting most of his career and financial resources to the world of jazz. Having grown up in an atheistic home, he was not religious. Nonetheless, he was a real Jew at heart and was deeply in dialogue with God, especially regarding the Holocaust. He would often recount how special the Jewish people were and, because he was a pilot and had a private twin engine plane, he even assisted in smuggling arms for Israel at one point! Altogether, Shad recorded thousands of songs, including some of the greatest hits of the 20th century (listen to some of his music here). He is the father of Hollywood screenwriter Samantha Shad, and grandfather of author and professor Robert Apatow, and comedy filmmaker Judd Apatow.*

Words of the Week

People think loving one’s fellow means to give him a pat on the back. Loving one’s fellow means that if a Jew on the other side of the world has a problem, you feel it.
Rabbi Yisroel Friedman, the Ruzhiner Rebbe (1796-1850)


*The above Jew of the Week was a guest submission by Robert (Avraham) Apatow, about his grandfather Bob Shad.