(1683 - 1764)
Judah Monis, North America's first instructor of Hebrew, taught students at Harvard College from 1722 to 1760.
His career, in turn, teaches us about the challenges of maintaining a Jewish life in early America.
Monis was born in Italy in 1683, into a family of formerly Portuguese conversos. Educated at Jewish academies
in Italy and Holland, Monis emigrated to New York City around 1715, where he established a small store and
taught Hebrew to Christians and Jews. By 1720 he moved to Cambridge, Mass., home of Harvard College and an
area in which few Jews resided.
At that time, all Harvard undergraduates except freshmen were required to study Hebrew. Harvard assumed that
no Christian gentleman could be considered truly educated unless he could read the Bible in its original language.
Encouraged by friends, Monis presented his personal, handwritten manual of Hebrew grammar to the Harvard
Corporation in 1720, for its Judicious perusall. Two years later, the corporation Voted, That Mr. Judah Monis
be approved instructor of the Hebrew Language, making Monis Harvard's first full-time Hebrew instructor but
not as a Jew. For at that time, Harvard required all its faculty to be professing Christians.
From the time of his arrival in New York, Monis corresponded with leading Puritan clergy on Kaballah, the
trinity and Christian doctrine. Monis studied Christianity with Cambridge ministers. One month before assuming
his post at Harvard, Monis converted to Christianity.
His conversion attracted widespread notoriety. Some Christian clergy warned of other converted Jews who
reverted to their original faith. They expressed concern that Harvard's requirement that its faculty members be
Christians had compelled Monis to an insincere conversion. European Jews wrote of their outrage and dismay.
Monis, however, defended his conversion in three books, published in 1722. He argued that he left Judaism out
of religious conviction, not opportunism. Monis, the descendant of conversos, himself became a convert.
Monis' instruction was based on the handwritten text he submitted to the Harvard Corporation in 1720. Each
year, his new students had to copy the text by hand, a task that could take up to one month. A rare remaining
handwritten copy of Monis' text resides in the archives of the American Jewish Historical Society.
In 1724, to save his students from the burden of copying, Monis petitioned the corporation to publish his
grammar. Eventually, the corporation agreed. Hebrew type was shipped from London, and in 1735, a thousand
copies of Monis'A Grammar of the Hebrew Tongue! were published the first Hebrew textbook published in
North America. Two of the remaining originals can be found in the Society's library.
Hebrew was never a popular course at Harvard in Monis' time. Students complained that the exercises were
boring, and college records show that Monis was frequently hazed by his students. While in 1723 the college
recorded itself as greatly pleased with [Monis] assiduity and faithfulness to his instruction, in 1724 the teaching
of Hebrew to undergraduates was turned over to tutors. Monis remained responsible only for teaching graduate
students and tutors.
Monis taught at Harvard until 1760. By then, his responsibilities had dwindled to one weekly class with graduate
students. His own health declining and student interest flagging, he retired. Monis died in 1764 and is buried in a
churchyard in Northboro, Mass.
Monis' life presents one case of how a Jew made a place for himself in colonial America. Monis chose to enter
Harvard as a Christian. Having voluntarily left a mature Jewish community in New York City, Monis came to
Cambridge, which had no Jewish institutions, to teach Hebrew to Christian students. He seems never to have
But the Christian community sometimes looked on him with skepticism. The Cambridge First Church and the
Harvard College records often refer to Monis as the converted Jew, the converted rabbi; and the Christianized
Jew. Church records indicate concern that Monis may have quietly continued to observe the Sabbath on
Saturday. The headstone of his grave in the Northboro churchyard bears witness to the double identity by which
Monis lived in Massachusetts. Using the Christian image of a grafted tree for conversion, the inscription reads in
part: A native branch of Jacob see. Which once from off its olive brook/ Regrafted, from the living tree.
Sources: American Jewish Historical Society