The genealogy of America’s earliest Jews can be traced through multiple veins of the Nathan family, including the Hendricks branch, the Seixas branch, and the Mendes branch. However, perhaps no part of the Nathan bloodline is as historically rich and prestigious as their connection to the Gomez family, through which Edgar J. Nathan, Jr.–whose papers have been recently processed–was related to one of the 23 original Jewish immigrants to America: Abraham de Lucena.
The complex narrative begins in 17th-century Spain, with a nobleman named Issac Gomez. Issac, according to the records in the Nathan collection, was held in high esteem by the King of Spain. One night the king learned of a plot by the Inquisition to seize the Gomez family for the crime of being Jews. Alarmed to hear of the imminent danger his friend faced, the king determined to warn Issac of the Inquisition’s plans. The king had to be careful; no one could learn he was aiding a Jewish family or he would be scandalized. In order to pass on the information discreetly, the king wrote in a code only Issac would understand: his note said, simply, “Gomez, the onions begin to smell.” Issac immediately gathered his son, Moses, and wife, Esther, and sent them to France with some of his more portable property (including a fortune in jewels and metals), intending to meet them in their new home as soon as the business of his estate was settled in Spain. Unfortunately, the Inquisition heard news of his planned escape, seized his remaining property, and threw him into prison for fourteen years.
Once Isaac was free and reunited with his family, he renamed his son Lewis Moses, after the King of France who had so graciously offered the family refuge. Lewis Moses married and had seven children, but he began to fear for his family’s safety in the increasingly fraught religious environment of France in the wake of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. In response to these fears, he decided to relocate the family to England. In England, he received a letter of denigration from the crown that permitted the family to move to America and retain all the rights of natural-born English citizens due to their prestigious heritage.
Once in America, Lewis Moses’s son, Mordechai, married Rebecca de Lucena, the granddaughter of Abraham de Lucena, thereby linking the Gomez family with the original Jewish settlers of America. Two generations later, the Hendricks family married into the Gomez line, which gave rise to Rosalie Gomez, Edgar J. Nathan’s paternal grandmother, who then married Gershom Nathan, Edgar J. Nathan, Jr.’s paternal grandfather, uniting the two clans.
Though Nathan’s connection to the de Lucenas is less direct than his connection to the Gomez line, the apocryphal history of Abraham de Lucena’s journey to America is, like Issac Gomez’s tale, so fantastic that it assumes almost mythical proportions. Still, it is worth retelling. According to an interview with Edgar J. Nathan, Jr. in 1954, the de Lucenas emigrated from Spain to the Netherlands and from the Netherlands to the colony of Brazil, which had been captured from the Portuguese by the religiously tolerant Dutch. However, in the 17th century, the Portuguese recaptured Brazil from the Dutch and demanded that all inhabitants convert to Catholicism and become Portuguese subjects, or evacuate the colony. According to the legend, every Dutchman (Jew and Protestant alike) refused to convert, causing 16 ships of exiled families to flee from Brazil back toward Holland. The ship carrying Nathan’s ancestors was the last ship to leave the port, and was seized by a Spanish privateer before it arrived in Amsterdam. The frightened Jewish refugees on board, including Abraham de Lucena, were taken as hostages with uncertain fates.
But soon after the initial Spanish seizure, the refugees’ ship was captured yet again, this time by the generous captain of a French Man of War. The French captain asked the Jewish passengers on the ship where they were headed so that he could assist them on their journey. Meaning well, the Frenchman misinterpreted their intended destination, Holland, and thought that they were bound for New Holland. As a result, he delivered the refugees to the New World, rather than Europe, making Abraham de Lucena and his 22 Jewish companions the first Jewish settlers in North America.
In 1654 these men and women founded Shearith Israel, the first Jewish congregation in North America, now located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where their descendants still worship today.