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 looked back.
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