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Nassy was both an entrepreneur and a learned practitioner of geography and other sciences, and his hopes for Jewish colonization were both economic and eschatological.*** David Nassy was born in 1612 in Portugal and was known to the Christian world at times by the prestigious name “Cristóvão da Tavera” and at other times as “Joseph de Nunes da Fonseca.” He began his life as a , a Marrano, that is, as a descendant of a Portuguese Jewish family seemingly converted to Christianity, like the father of Baruch Spinoza and like the eminent Amsterdam rabbi Menassah ben Israel.
By then, too, David Nassy had been circumcised and had started the process of education in Jewish belief, law (), and liturgy to which the former crypto-Jews in seventeenth-century Amsterdam were being urgently exhorted by the rabbis.
Fluent in his native Portuguese and in Spanish, Nassy undoubtedly knew something of the Bible in Latin, but Hebrew was essential for true understanding and prayer.
Since Nassy had retained the family memory that he was a Cohen, that is, in the priestly line of men descended from the biblical Aaron, he had a special calling here.
For those still learning the holy tongue, the Bible had been translated into Spanish, and prayer books came off the presses in Spanish or in Spanish and Hebrew columns side by side.
Not long ago, I was telling a historian friend, himself a specialist on Puerto Rico and the post-emancipation Caribbean, about the Jewish settlers of Suriname, with their sugar and coffee plantations and slaves. I had asked myself that question even though I knew well that in Leviticus [-46], after the Lord had brought forth the people of Israel, his servants, out of the land of Egypt, he had instructed Moses that they were not to buy or sell each other (“And if thy brother be waxen poor with thee, and sell himself unto thee, thou shall not make him to serve as a bondservant”), but only those of the “nations” around them, “children of the strangers that do sojourn among you.” I had asked myself the Passover question even though I recalled the demonstration by David Brion Davis, one of our greatest historians, that acceptance of the institution of slavery—if not of one’s own kind, then of others—was so widespread and enduring that the emergence of abolition movements in the eighteenth century was a “momentous turning point in the evolution of man’s moral perception.” In the past, the Passover conundrum has often been ignored.
I told him that I had asked myself the same question, and that was one of the reasons that back in 1995 I had started to study the Jews of Suriname, including the Nassys, who had been among the founding families of the colony.
For classic Jewish historiography, the drama of the early modern period was the gradual move toward Jewish emancipation, not Jewish participation with Christians in oppressive colonial regimes.Indeed, a pioneering 1991 book on the Jews of Suriname described the demography, political structure, and social tensions within the Jewish community, including the contested status of the free Jews of color, but simply did not address the role of Jews as owners of slaves and directors of work by enslaved persons.Impatient with such silence, or as he put it, with “the unwillingness of Jewish scholarship to engage Black-Jewish relations in the colonial period,” Jonathan Schorsch produced his learned and wide-ranging 2004 book .Now a younger generation of historians in North America and the Netherlands (Aviva Ben-Ur, Rachel Franklin, H. Oron, and Wieke Vink among others) are making in-depth studies of the Portuguese Jews of Suriname where slaves are part of the story.My essay explores the formative moment in the relation between Africans and Jews David Nassy and his family.A cluster of connections in Nassy’s life strike me as significant in understanding how Portuguese Jews were seeking emancipation at the same time they were enslaving others.