The West’s relationship with Hebrew is a complex and sometimes contradictory story. The study of Hebrew by Christians, or “Christian Hebraism,” which emerged in the Renaissance and continued into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and beyond, was generally not a reflection of its adherents’ interest in Jewish contemporaries, or Judaism, per se. Rather, knowledge of the language could be applied in biblical and related religious studies, from a Christian perspective. Moreover, New England Puritans styled themselves as New World Israelites, envisioning parallels between their own story carving a Christian civilization out of the wilderness and the experience of Old Testament Jews.
A small but interesting chapter is the role of Judah Monis at Harvard College in the 18th century. Since his life is well-chronicled elsewhere, only a few details should be necessary here. Little is known of Monis’ early life, but he is thought to have been of European birth, and ended up in New York in 1716 before turning up in Boston subsequent to becoming Harvard’s first instructor of Hebrew. He would also hold the distinction of becoming the first Jew to receive an advanced degree in colonial America.
While much of his American life is documented in the Harvard University Archives, a possible artifact of Monis’ story there resides here at the Historical Society. Its unlikely home is in the papers of the popular sculptor, John Rogers. Rogers was something of a 19th century Norman Rockwell, but a cache of earlier documents relating to his ancestors accompany his papers. As it turns out, these ancestors included an early Harvard president and a tutor, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, respectively.
Of interest here is the tutor, Daniel Rogers (of Ipswich, Massachusetts, and 1725 Harvard graduate) and his handwritten Hebrew grammar. At the time Hebrew was required at Harvard, and a lack of interest among students appears to have been a function of why its study was not voluntary. In any event, it is an otherwise unassuming volume, except for the natural curiosity something of that age and that it suggests something of the complexity of scholarly interest in colonial-era study of the language.
A closer examination argues for one slightly more significant connection. Pasted on after the fact to increase its durability, the volume’s coarse laid paper cover has begun to peel away, possibly helped by someone once eager to see what it obscured. It now reveals Daniel’s repeated expressions of ownership of the “liber” but particularly helpful is “Daniel Rogers/ his Book/ Anno Dom/ 1722.” At first this seems useful only in that it dates the volume which corresponds to his attendance prior to becoming a Harvard tutor. However, in the broader context of Harvard history, Judah Monis converted to Christianity in March 1722, a month before he became Harvard’s first instructor in Hebrew. (The implications of his conversion are clear and are a topic of discussion by historians.)
With that in mind, the case seems rather strong that Monis had been teaching when Rogers dated the volume and used the grammar while his student. It would confer a rather interesting, and important, historical association. Indeed, Monis had completed his grammar years earlier but only had it printed in 1736 as Dickdook Leshon Gnebreet: A Grammar of the Hebrew Tongue (incidentally, with the first Hebrew type used in colonial America). History also has it that his students were irked that they had to make copies in the interim. Given that and class’ unpopularity, it does make one wonder why it survived among an assortment of Daniel’s papers. Perhaps, as a preacher, he felt it would be of use to him in the future?
For those interested in exploring this subject further, The First Jewish Americans: Freedom and Culture in the New World is on view at the New-York Historical Society through March 12, 2017