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Jewish Pioneers in Dubuque County

 

 

The Dubuque pioneers founded a Jewish congregation in 1862, and for a time it was a vigorous element among the rest of the Iowa Jewries. The first religious services conducted in Dubuque were held during the Passover of 1862, Mr. A. Levi being the projector of the movement, and that community could pride itself on being the first one in this state to have bought a Sepher Torah. The Levi's and several other prominent pioneers were the leaders of the short lived congregation. It lasted for about seven years and had the good fortune of engaging worthy ministers. Among the three gentlemen who guided the spiritual welfare of the Dubuque congregation was Rabbi H.J. Messing, who subsequently had a golden career in St. Louis, Mo. Since 1869, the Dubuque pioneers held services during many holiday seasons and have managed to give their children as much knowledge of Judaism as their fathers and teachers had instilled in themselves.

In wealth and esteem the Dubuque Jewish pioneers stand second to none of the Iowa Jewries, and from among their children there arose none to discredit their fathers and mothers.

During the flow of immigration a score of families landed in Dubuque and, as it has been the mission of the Russian Jews in all other towns where they have a sufficient number, they have organized a congregation and named it Knesseth Israel (1894). At the lapse of a few years their number increased so that they could count twenty males above thirteen years of age a sufficient number to establish two Mynionim and being from different sections of Russia and Poland they deemed it best to have two congregations, two schooltim and two sets of officers. The name of the second K'hilah suggests a lack of police force in the oldest Iowa city, and, more than that, it is the most unique name among the 760 Jewish congregations of the United States and Canada, for it is: "The Jewish Protection Club." An orthodox Rabbi, who recently was called upon by the Dubuque Jewry to get things in shape among the Schochtin, however, claims, that the latter congregation needs that name for its protection against the more numerous Knesseth Israel.

The foundation of everything good which this state was to derive from the brain and muscle of its Jewish pioneers was laid prior to the Civil War; for, almost every name which was destined to become illustrious in the history of the Iowa Jews was to be found in some obscure nook among the small merchants or even among the hard-working peddlers. The Jew in this state has witnessed the upbuilding of every important city and with his thriftiness and ingenious commercial spirit he might justly be called the founder of commerce in Iowa. The large department stores, the great wholesale houses, the vast sums of money invested in manufacturing merchandise, made the cities in Iowa what they are, that is the finest in all the states beyond the Missouri river, and surely the Jew was at the front of Iowa's commercial enterprises from the very day Dubuque was founded and opened for civilization.

The following are Jews living in Dubuque prior to the Civil War:
A. Levi Lead Miner
Abraham Grunwald Clothing
James Levy  Dry Goods
Moses Leppman Clothing
L. & B. Rauh Clothing and Furnishing
I.D. Weil Clothing
Charles Brezinsky General Store
   

Mr. B.M. Samuels, of Dubuque, another pioneer of that old city, was elected to serve the town as alderman, and in the same year S. Lesser came to Dubuque and established himself as a physician and surgeon. Possibly the latter was the first Jewish doctor in this state. [transcribers note: the dates are not given for Mr. Samuels or Dr. Lesser in the book "Jews of Iowa", but the "History of Dubuque County, Iowa", 1880, states that Ben M. Samuels was there by 1854 and Dr. Lesser came in 1876.]
 
Alexander Levi
        Among the pioneers of Iowa and the first Jewish settler in Iowa, was Alexander Levi. He landed, together with many other pioneers, on the first day of August, 1833. Mr. Levi was born in France March 13, 1809, and his ancestry was traced back to a most noble family of Spanish Jews, who, during the expulsion, fled to Portugal and thence to France. He opened a grocery in the newly organized village, which was named Dubuque, and whatever cheerfulness there was about the dreary little place was in his store. There the miners came and met together, and there were many scenes of early Iowa politics lined out. It also appears that he knew how to appreciate the value of advertising a business, for in the first Iowa newspaper, the "Dubuque Visitor," May 11, 1836, an ad telling what he had for sale is found. In 1837, Mr. Levi became the first foreigner to be naturalized in Iowa. So far as it could be ascertained, Mr. Levi enjoyed the most remarkable distinction in the history of the Jews of America, for it is not on record whether or not any other Jew had the fortune of being the first citizen of any other state in the Union.

About 1843 an incident of uncommon significance came to pass in Dubuque, and the details thereof throw much light on the life of the early Jewish settlers. Mr. Sol. Kuh, an old settler of this state and now (1903) a resident of Sioux Falls, S.D., who knew Mr. Levi, is still able to recount the whole incident and speaks very enthusiastically of it. A certain Jewish merchant, said to have come from Alsace, but whose name cannot be learned despite many efforts,  settled down in Dubuque a few years after Mr. Levi did; and, as he was still single, a courtship between him and a highly cultured Gentile lady, who was respected in society and very prominent in church circles, sprang forth, and it ended in a marriage between the two.  The wedding (this certainly was the first marriage of a Jew in Iowa) was the talk of the town for many months, and all the staunch church members were delighted indeed to have added to their

number such a worthy convert.  A year elapsed and the couple still continued to be the center of attraction for the best class of society folk in Dubuque, for their doors were thrown widely open for all kinds of social doings. Mr. Levi, though friends with all and a single man himself, politely declined every invitation, beginning with the urgent request to attend the marriage ceremony, which was solemnized in a church, but he made no comment whatever.

But the couple had enjoyed more than their share of temporal happiness during such comparatively short time, and, either because of miscalculated economy or reckless lavishness, the new church member had to resort to something very disagreeable to the pious in order to save himself from a crisis of financial distress; for, on a certain day he was discovered packing up some goods belonging to his creditors with intentions to ship it across the Mississippi. The creditors took action against him, and he was compelled to face serious charges, which was certainly a discredit to him; and his entire host of new friends cared very little about the result, for when he was placed in the county jail none cared to aid him in the least.

A few days after, two preachers came to "see" Mr. Levi, who was, during those days, the most unconcerned person in the whole community. The founder of the Iowa Jewry had nothing out of the ordinary to tell to the representatives of the gospel so long as they confined the interview to innocent talk, but when they told him that they "never thought the Jew would prove so tricky, that they now believed some of the horrible tales told about the Jews and that henceforth they would look out," he replied in the following words, which speak volumes for the sentiments of the Jewish pioneers regarding assimilation.

Said Mr. Levi: "You have undoubtedly considered the Jew a very good man, else a prominent church lady would have refused to entertain and accept a proposal from him; you have certainly been of the opinion that he was free from all bad habits, else you would not have accepted him as a member in your church; you have, I presume, considered him one of the best sons of Israel, else your joy of getting him across the gulf would not have been as great; you have, as you know, thought him to be a gentleman of refinement and good standing, else you would not have frequented his house and suffered yourselves to attend so many of the functions given by him. Now, how comes it, that continuing for but one year as a member of your church, he is no longer a gentleman, no longer honest, no longer successful and no longer fit tc be either Jew or Gentile? That he was a good man prior thereto cannot be questioned, since he has been honest, successful and upright so long as he continued to be a Jew, so long as I could claim him as a brother in exile, so long as the conduct of his orthodox parents still appealed to his sympathy. Does it not, therefore, appear most strange to you that such a good man shall fall so low in such a brief period? The truth is this: Till the last minute the Jews could yet claim him as theirs, till the last minute he yet claimed to belong to them, he was that which he was destined to be, that which he was born for, and, therefore, cared not, to change the tranquility of his life and as such, continued to be a credit to his people and a benefit to organized society. But the minute he joined you, the minute your environments pulled him out of his root, the minute he lost his originality, he was compelled to please a society, a church and a woman whom he did not understand and who could be contented with anything but his Jewishness. Thus he was no longer responsible for his deeds as a Jew. Hence, in this case you are the defendants, and all the more honor for those Jews who continue as such."
   
In the year 1846, the few Jews of Iowa could boast of having a worthy officeholder in the city of Dubuque, and he was none other than the esteemed Mr. Levi. He was honored by his fellow citizens, with whom he struggled together from the very minute the foundation of Iowa was laid. They chose him as their justice of the peace. In the following year, Mr. Levi went on a visit to his native land, and returning, he surprised his friends by bringing along a charming bride. He married a distant cousin of his named Miss Minette Levi, who was also a native of France and as faithful a Jewess as he was a faithful Jew.

In 1848, a daughter was born to Mr. and Mrs. Levi, whom they named Eliza. She was the first Jewish child born on Iowa soil; but, unfortunately, she was an invalid most of her days and died in 1873. Their other children were Selina (wife of James Levi); Gustave (Gus), a deaf mute; Emile and Eugene.

Mr. A. Levi was honored by the citizens of Dubuque till the day of his death, and when he breathed his last, a universal sorrow was expressed by every one who ever came in contact with him. He died Friday evening, March 31, 1893, and his funeral was one of the largest ever witnessed by the citizens' of Dubuque. Many Masonic representatives from various sections of the state came to pay their last respects to their honored brother who was no more, and Rabbi Messing of Chicago, a friend of the deceased, conducted the services and delivered the funeral oration. His wife Minette died in March, 1907.
Alexander Levi, said to have been the first citizen naturalized in Iowa, died at his home in Dubuque, March 31st, 1893, aged 84 years. He had been a citizen of Dubuque since 1833, and was the last of the charter members of the first Masonic Lodge formed in that placeAbout 1843 an incident of uncommon significance came to pass in Dubuque, and the details thereof throw much light on the life of the early Jewish settlers. Mr. Sol. Kuh, an old settler of this state and now (1903) a resident of Sioux Falls, S.D., who knew Mr. Levi, is still able to recount the whole incident and speaks very enthusiastically of it. A certain Jewish merchant, said to have come from Alsace, but whose name cannot be learned despite many efforts, settled down in Dubuque a few years after Mr. Levi did; and, as he was still single, a courtship between him and a highly cultured Gentile lady, who was respected in society and very prominent in church circles, sprang forth, and it ended in a marriage between the two. The wedding (this certainly was the first marriage of a Jew in Iowa) was the talk of the town for many months, and all the staunch church members were delighted indeed to have added to their number such a worthy convert. A year elapsed and the couple still continued to be the center of attraction for the best class of society folk in Dubuque, for their doors were thrown widely open for all kinds of social doings. Mr. Levi, though friends with all and a single man himself, politely declined every invitation, beginning with the urgent request to attend the marriage ceremony, which was solemnized in a church, but he made no comment whatever.

But the couple had enjoyed more than their share of temporal happiness during such comparatively short time, and, either because of miscalculated economy or reckless lavishness, the new church member had to resort to something very disagreeable to the pious in order to save himself from a crisis of financial distress; for, on a certain day he was discovered packing up some goods belonging to his creditors with intentions to ship it across the Mississippi. The creditors took action against him, and he was compelled to face serious charges, which was certainly a discredit to him; and his entire host of new friends cared very little about the result, for when he was placed in the county jail none cared to aid him in the least.

A few days after, two preachers came to "see" Mr. Levi, who was, during those days, the most unconcerned person in the whole community. The founder of the Iowa Jewry had nothing out of the ordinary to tell to the representatives of the gospel so long as they confined the interview to innocent talk, but when they told him that they "never thought the Jew would prove so tricky, that they now believed some of the horrible tales told about the Jews and that henceforth they would look out," he replied in the following words, which speak volumes for the sentiments of the Jewish pioneers regarding assimilation.

Said Mr. Levi: "You have undoubtedly considered the Jew a very good man, else a prominent church lady would have refused to entertain and accept a proposal from him; you have certainly been of the opinion that he was free from all bad habits, else you would not have accepted him as a member in your church; you have, I presume, considered him one of the best sons of Israel, else your joy of getting him across the gulf would not have been as great; you have, as you know, thought him to be a gentleman of refinement and good standing, else you would not have frequented his house and suffered yourselves to attend so many of the functions given by him. Now, how comes it, that continuing for but one year as a member of your church, he is no longer a gentleman, no longer honest, no longer successful and no longer fit tc be either Jew or Gentile? That he was a good man prior thereto cannot be questioned, since he has been honest, successful and upright so long as he continued to be a Jew, so long as I could claim him as a brother in exile, so long as the conduct of his orthodox parents still appealed to his sympathy. Does it not, therefore, appear most strange to you that such a good man shall fall so low in such a brief period? The truth is this: Till the last minute the Jews could yet claim him as theirs, till the last minute he yet claimed to belong to them, he was that which he was destined to be, that which he was born for, and, therefore, cared not, to change the tranquility of his life and as such, continued to be a credit to his people and a benefit to organized society. But the minute he joined you, the minute your environments pulled him out of his root, the minute he lost his originality, he was compelled to please a society, a church and a woman whom he did not understand and who could be contented with anything but his Jewishness. Thus he was no longer responsible for his deeds as a Jew. Hence, in this case you are the defendants, and all the more honor for those Jews who continue as such."

In the year 1846, the few Jews of Iowa could boast of having a worthy officeholder in the city of Dubuque, and he was none other than the esteemed Mr. Levi. He was honored by his fellow citizens, with whom he struggled together from the very minute the foundation of Iowa was laid. They chose him as their justice of the peace. In the following year, Mr. Levi went on a visit to his native land, and returning, he surprised his friends by bringing along a charming bride. He married a distant cousin of his named Miss Minette Levi, who was also a native of France and as faithful a Jewess as he was a faithful Jew.

In 1848, a daughter was born to Mr. and Mrs. Levi, whom they named Eliza. She was the first Jewish child born on Iowa soil; but, unfortunately, she was an invalid most of her days and died in 1873. Their other children were Selina (wife of James Levi); Gustave (Gus), a deaf mute; Emile and Eugene.

Mr. A. Levi was honored by the citizens of Dubuque till the day of his death, and when he breathed his last, a universal sorrow was expressed by every one who ever came in contact with him. He died Friday evening, March 31, 1893, and his funeral was one of the largest ever witnessed by the citizens' of Dubuque. Many Masonic representatives from various sections of the state came to pay their last respects to their honored brother who was no more, and Rabbi Messing of Chicago, a friend of the deceased, conducted the services and delivered the funeral oration. His wife Minette died in March, 1907.

Alexander Levi, said to have been the first citizen naturalized in Iowa, died at his home in Dubuque, March 31st, 1893, aged 84 years. He had been a citizen of Dubuque since 1833, and was the last of the charter members of the first Masonic Lodge formed in that place.

*** ~~~ ***

James Levi
     Mr. James Levi is an Iowa pioneer himself and is one of the wealthiest Jewish merchants of Iowa. He was both the nephew and son-in-law of Alexander Levi.
The present Mrs. James Levi, Selina, of Dubuque, who is also the daughter of the founder of the Iowa Jewry, holds the record of being the oldest living Jewish lady born in Iowa. (December 10, 1855.) She has inherited her father's staunch principles in Judaism and is one of the foremost ladies of Dubuque. In writing about the condition of Judaism in this country Mrs. Levi greatly bewails the lack of interest among the young American Jews in Judaism. "I have always instilled Judaism in my children the same as my papa had in me," reads one sentence of Mrs. Levi's communication. "But," she continues, "God hath punished me greatly; my son Jesse, twenty years old, a student in the University of Chicago for two years and a great violinist, went out swimming with my consent, but came home no more. Among those who have sent condolence was a personal letter from Dr. Harpert the president of the University of Chicago."

"My mother is eighty-four years old now (1904); she was well up to Jesse's death, but is almost broken down now."
 
*** ~~~ ***
 
C.W. Schrieber
    In 1851, another pioneer of considerable merit came to Iowa, but he was at first less fortunate than the others mentioned in these pages. He was Mr. C.W. Schrieber, later of the firm of Schrieber and Strinsky of Dubuque, who were the first junk dealers of the Jewish people in Iowa. Mr. Schrieber was a peddler for many years, and it is probable that he was the first Jew to have penetrated the region where a few years after flourished the Jewish community of McGregor. It appears that he was a remarkable man among all the Jewish pioneers, particularly so because of his physical strength.

C.W. Schreiber became a wealthy iron dealer in Dubuque, and as a middle-aged man, left every other care behind him and enlisted in Company C, Twenty-Seventh Infantry. He saw actual war and came out victorious during many engagements, but was wounded during the battle of Pleasant Hill.
 
~ source: The Jews of Iowa; by Rabbi Simon Glazer, 1904; Dubuque-related info. extracted from pages 158-160, 169-170, 175-179, 183, 199, 205, 217 & 310-312
~ source: History of Dubuque county, Iowa; Western Historical Co., 1880; pg 838
~ source: Northwestern Reporter, Vol 136, 1912, pg 697-698
~ source: Iowa Historical Record; Volume IX, No 3, July 1893; pg 527

~ extracted and transcribed by S. Ferrall for Dubuque co. IAGenWeb
     
 

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