How a stamp revived the American-Jewish colonial experience

The Touro Synagogue stamp was one of the most celebrated ever to appear in US.

THE TOURO Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, is one of the few Jewish buildings to have American landmark status. (photo credit: Courtesy)
THE TOURO Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, is one of the few Jewish buildings to have American landmark status.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One cannot describe the joy that blanketed the United States in the buildup to 1976, the bicentennial year of the America nation. Most citizens of the country realized that this would be their only opportunity to be a part of such a centennial celebration.
For me personally, and Jewish stamp collectors in general, we were in suspense because the US Postal Service had announced as early as 1972 that there would be an entire set of stamps issued for the nation’s 200th anniversary.
By 1975, many of the stamps had appeared, emphasizing the various religious institutions and individuals in the US. Then the announcement was made that the Haym Salomon stamp was to appear in March 1975.
At our synagogue in Wilmington, Delaware, from January of that year, I spoke about Haym Salomon, one of the few financiers of the American Revolution. My method was to describe the 1939 Warner Brothers film about Salomon, Son of Liberty. The two-reeler, starring Claude Rains as Salomon, was so good that it won the Oscar for best short film.
Suddenly, we see a messenger riding a horse to Mikveh Israel Synagogue in Philadelphia on the sacred Kol Nidre eve. He opens the door, sees an officer of the synagogue and tells him it is imperative that Haym Salomon come out. He must speak to him.
We then see Salomon talking excitedly with the messenger. He returns to the sanctuary, goes up to the rabbi and says that he must be allowed to speak. He stands in front of the congregation and explains the situation of the soldiers under George Washington’s command.
“Money is needed if we are to maintain our freedom from Britain.” Pledges are made. Right after Yom Kippur, the money is delivered to Salomon, and then sent to buy ammunition, food and clothing for the American soldiers.
Most historians suggest that the Warners made the film to help fight antisemitism in the USA by reminding Americans that Haym Salomon had used his talents to assist the USA in its struggle for freedom. When I corresponded, recently with Prof. Jonathan Sarna, the leading American Jewish historian, I asked what was new about Salomon.
HE WROTE, “In terms of Haym Salomon, he did not win the Revolution and did not even loan much to the US” (as was later claimed by the family). Sarna pointed to Salomon’s expertise, which was important.
HAYM SALOMON, one of the few financiers of the American Revolution.HAYM SALOMON, one of the few financiers of the American Revolution.
“But he was deeply significant as a dealer in bonds. Indeed, he was the first ‘junk bond’ dealer in American Jewish history, and the ‘junk bonds’ were those of the new USA. The bonds he brought in were sorely needed by the new government.”
Sarna emphasizes what the American leadership thought of him.
“It is fascinating to see how Robert Morris, secretary of the Treasury, comes to respect Salomon more and more. In early diary entries we read about ‘the Jew, Haym Salomon.’ Later on, he writes of ‘Mr. Salomon.’ Jews and non-Jews alike came to respect Salomon for his business acumen, his honesty and reliability, and his charitable deeds.”
One of the few Jewish buildings to have American Landmark status is the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, dedicated in 1763. On August 22, 1982, a stamp with a picture of the synagogue was issued by the USPS. The stamp was one of the most celebrated ever to appear in the US.
In planning for the Touro stamp, a suggestion was made to issue it in August because the Jewish New Year occurs soon after. Before long, posters were up announcing the stamp’s August issue date.
In that summer of 1982, my family and I were in from Israel visiting relatives in Long Beach, New York. My purchasing habits pushed me to arrive at that town’s small post office early in the morning as soon as the stamp was available. I could not understand what was transpiring. It was a weekday and the lines were very long going out into the street.
I quickly realized that almost everyone there was Jewish. They, like Jews across America, were buying the Touro stamp to put on the envelopes of their Rosh Hashanah cards. Nearly 500,000 of the Touro Synagogue stamps were sold. On the stamp are the words of George Washington from a letter he wrote to the synagogue in August 1790. The president wanted all religions to know that the United States government “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
IN THIS memorial along the Chicago River, George Washington, in his Revolutionary War uniform, shakes hands with English-born Robert Morris on his right and Polish-Jewish emigrant Salomon on his left. Morris, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Salomon provided financial support to assure victory in the American Revolution. At the statue’s base, a plaque envisions a multitude of people being welcomed by Liberty and her outstretched arms. (Spiterman/Flickr)IN THIS memorial along the Chicago River, George Washington, in his Revolutionary War uniform, shakes hands with English-born Robert Morris on his right and Polish-Jewish emigrant Salomon on his left. Morris, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Salomon provided financial support to assure victory in the American Revolution. At the statue’s base, a plaque envisions a multitude of people being welcomed by Liberty and her outstretched arms. (Spiterman/Flickr)
The first Jews arrived in Newport in 1658. They came, in particular, because the founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, proclaimed, “Liberty should be weighed out to all consciences of the world.”
In 1677, as Newport’s Jewish population began to grow, it was decided to purchase ground for a Jewish cemetery. At the time, the congregation was officially named Yeshuat Israel, its actual name until today.
IN 1759, the enlarged membership decided to build a synagogue. Peter Harrison, a noted American architect, was asked to propose a plan for a Jewish house of worship. Four years later, the synagogue was completed. A total of 196,715 bricks had been imported from England.
“Not a nail was hammered; only wooden pegs were inserted to hold this sacred structure together.”
In 1973, my wife and I visited my wife’s brother and his wife at the University of Rhode Island. On July 4, we toured the Touro Synagogue. Our kids were most intrigued by the trap door that could be used to escape the British. Myer Myers, the famous Jewish colonial silversmith had made the decorative rimonim to adorn the Torah scroll.
It has been suggested that the synagogue is modeled after the Spanish Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam, though a great deal smaller.
The Jews of Newport left the city in the early 19th century. However, since they owned cemetery plots, families returned there to have their loved ones buried. Abraham and Judah, sons of Isaac Touro, the first rabbi of the congregation, both made significant bequests to provide perpetual care of the congregation’s properties.
The two brothers were quite well known in Massachusetts circles as well for their generosity. When the Bunker Hill monument ran short of funds during its construction, the Touro brothers contributed so it could be completed.
The following details are part of the history of the synagogue: “When Abraham Touro died in 1822, he bequeathed $10,000 to the State of Rhode Island for the support and maintenance of the ‘Old Jewish Synagogue’ in Newport. He also made an additional bequest of $5,000 for the street running from the synagogue to the cemetery. First, the street became The Touro Street. When the state legislature accepted Abraham’s gift, they were the first to publicly refer to the synagogue as ‘Touro (or Touro’s) Synagogue.’”
Now we turn to the younger brother, Judah, who had moved to New Orleans in the early part of the 19th century. Judah Touro died in 1854. Since his will was so unusual, it was published in several languages around the world.
He left bequests to both Jewish and non-Jewish charitable organizations in the US and abroad, including the funds to build Mishkenot Sha’anaim in Jerusalem.
To insure that there would be funding in perpetuity, Touro gave $10,000 toward the salary of spiritual leader and maintenance of the synagogue, and $3,000 for building repairs. American Jews, and we American Jews in Israel, integrate into the observance of the Fourth of July the spirit of Haym Salomon and the beauty of the oldest synagogue building in the United States.