|First Families||This Happy Land||Pledging Allegiance||Palmetto Jews|
A Sephardic* Story
Robert Altamont Moses
This is a story that my family tells, and we call it “A Sephardic Story,” about some of our early ancestors who came to this country from Portugal.
The Inquisition lasted about three hundred and fifty years, and it ended in 1834. About a hundred years before it ended, there lived in Lisbon one Dr. Samuel Nunez, quite a successful physician, well liked, popular, and affluent, and he had a nice home, a mansion high on the banks of the Tagus River.**
Dr. Nunez’s skill was such that he was serving as the head physician to the Chief Inquisitor’s court, and unfortunately it was discovered that he and his family were secretly practicing Judaism, whereas of course they had falsely professed to have been converted to Christianity. And the family and Dr. Nunez were all thrown into prison. His services were such that they were sorely needed and severely missed when he was in prison, so the Inquisitor requisitioned him back out of prison. However, two members of the Inquisitor’s court were to live in the house with the family and actually make sure that they did not stick to their Jewish practices.
Dr. Nunez was a people-oriented man. He was very popular and he enjoyed socializing, and he frequently entertained and gave dinner parties. And he had one such party on a summer day in 1732.
In the early afternoon the guests were strolling about, and among the guests that were present that day was this British sea captain whose brigantine was anchored in the river below the banks of the doctor’s grounds. And as the guests were strolling about the premises and playing croquet or whatnot, the sea captain thought they would all like to inspect his yacht and invited them all aboard. So they all went aboard, including the two spies from the family. While they were there, the anchor was weighed, the sails unfurled, and the brigantine caught a fair breeze, shot out the Tagus River, and headed for London.
Prior to having given this party, and of course secretly, Dr. Nunez had converted all of his assets to gold. He had obtained special belts with secret compartments in them and passed them out to all the men in the family. Similarly, all the women with their voluminous hoop skirts had sewed in the hems of the skirts their valuable jewelry and silver and so forth to try to carry as much of their possessions with them as they could. Once they got to London, there was interesting talk about the colonization of America and the settlement of the colonies, and they were particularly attracted to the news about Georgia. So a few months after being in London, they chartered a ship, the William and Sarah, and most of the same group that escaped that afternoon from Lisbon now boarded the William and Sarah, and in about five months they arrived in Savannah.
Well, what happened? The Jews were not welcome. They were told not to come in, but again they were in luck in that an epidemic had swept through the first settlement that Oglethorpe had made maybe five months prior to that. Wiped out about half of them, including the only doctor in the lot. So Dr. Nunez was able to stem the tide of the epidemic when he arrived, and the people were very shortly accepted into the community. They were all upright, hardworking, contributing citizens and became integrated pretty well into the Savannah area.
A funny thing was that people, the women particularly, were said to have been unable to recite their Jewish prayers without the aid of the rosary because they had been so accustomed to doing that under the eyes of the spies that had been placed in their home.
Shortly after they arrived in Savannah, Dr. Nunez’s daughter, Zipporah, married David Mendez Machado, and those two people thereby became my great-great-great-great-grandparents.
* Jews of Spanish and Portuguese extraction. Following their expulsion in the late fifteenth century, the Iberian Jews settled around the Mediterranean, the Balkans, western Europe, and later the Americas.
** The Tagus flows west across central Spain and Portugal into the Atlantic.