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The First Jew in America

Rabbi Eliezer Eisikovits

He was a Jew born in Prague who encountered tribes of bloodthirsty Indians in America, helped found the first British colony in the New World, helped the British repel the attack of the mighty Spanish Armada, and then nearly had his life cut short because of his Jewish faith. A journey through the fascinating life story of Joachim Gans, an old-world Jew who helped found the New.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

boatJoachimsthal, northwest Bohemia, 1578

George Nedham brought his panting horse to a halt and peered at his destination, looming in the distance. The picturesque homes of the town of Joachimsthal were scattered across the mountainside before him, surrounded by dark mounds of debris and copper dust that attested to the intensive digging that had been taking place in the area. Ever since the discovery of the abundant natural resources in the Erzgebirge mountain range, the entire area had become one of the most important centers in Europe for the mining and processing of metal ore.

But what brought George Nedham to Joachimsthal on that dreary day had nothing to do with mines or metals. He had been entrusted with a mission of great significance by Sir Francis Walsingham, the spymaster of Queen Elizabeth herself.

On the outskirts of the city, in a long, low, wooden building, he found what he was looking for: the workshop of a Jew by the name of Gans. Inside the workshop, a blazing furnace was surrounded by tables laden with jars, bottles, and bizarre-looking instruments. A thick-bearded man with tzitzis dangling at his sides stood in the corner of the room, methodically striking an anvil with a hammer in his hand. Nedham raised his voice to be heard over the deafening noise: “I am looking for Joachim Gans!”

The man with the hammer directed a suspicious gaze at his uninvited guest. “I am Joachim Gans. What do you want?”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, sir.” The British man extended his hand and continued, “My name is George Nedham, and I serve as the secretary of the Royal Mining Company in London. Herr Gans, please forgive my abruptness, but I would like to get straight down to the point of my visit. England needs you and your abilities.”

“England needs me?” Gans repeated with a bitter laugh. “Since when does England need the Jews? I was under the impression that England has not been interested in the presence of Jews on its soil for the past 300 years.”

“Times change, Joachim. What was once true is no longer so today. Winds of change are in the air. You will yet see that the gates of England will open wide before the Jews. But in the meantime, we need you, and we are prepared to compensate you very handsomely.”

Gans shook his head slowly from side to side. “Keep the money for yourself, Nedham,” he said, turning his back on his visitor. “I’m not interested.”

“Just a minute, Joachim, wait. You haven’t heard everything yet. The work that we are offering you is much more than a simple business proposition. It is part of a plan to deal a decisive blow to the Spanish. Think about it — you will have an opportunity to ‘pay back’ the kings of Spain for the Inquisition and all the troubles they brought upon your brethren during the period of the Great Expulsion. Think about the flames of the auto-da-fé, about the small children stolen from their parents. You may not be a good friend of the English, Joachim, but I am certain that you have a good deal less love for the Spanish.”

Joachim Gans slowly turned back around. A spark of curiosity had been ignited in his eyes.

“Tell me more about the plan,” he said.

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