This Day in Jewish History / The First Jew to Teach at Harvard Is Born

David Green
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David Green

February 4, 1683, was the birthdate of Judah Monis, the European-born descendant of Portuguese conversos who emigrated to the 13 Colonies, where he wrote the first Hebrew grammar textbook, taught at Harvard College and became its first Jewish graduate.

Little is known of the origins of Monis, who was born in either in Italy or in the Barbary states of North Africa. It is known that he was educated at Jewish schools in both Livorno, Italy and Amsterdam, and that in 1715 he left Europe for the New World.

Arriving in New York, he opened a shop and also provided instruction in Hebrew, apparently both to other Jews and to Christians interested in reading the Hebrew Bible in the original.

Soon after his arrival in New York, Monis began to correspond with a variety of different educators about more substantial opportunities for teaching Hebrew, and in 1720 he moved to Boston, Massachusetts, which had no Jewish community to speak of. There, he had been in touch with the Puritan ministers Increase Mather and his son Cotton Mather. Harvard, which had been founded in 1636, was a Puritan institution, all of whose students had to study Hebrew, Greek and Latin.

Monis came with sterling qualifications, including the fact that he had written a “Grammar of the Hebrew Tongue,” which he submitted to the Harvard administration for its “judicious perusal.” The school was interested in engaging his services – but it had a condition: Monis would have to convert to Christianity.

A Harvard man

A westerly view of the colleges in Cambridge New England by Paul RevereCredit: Wikipedia

On March 27, 1722, Judah Monis underwent baptism, first in a private ceremony at Harvard’s College Hall and then in a public ritual, at which he also delivered a sermon intended to prove that Jesus Christ was the Messiah.

A month later, Monis assumed his teaching responsibilities, which required him to teach Hebrew to every Harvard undergraduate, with the exception of first-year students, four days a week.

He was not the first person to teach Hebrew there – that distinction went to Michael Wigglesworth, a minister and poet who had taught at Harvard in 1653 – but he was the first to be accompanied by his own textbook, and he remained at the school until 1760. And when Harvard granted Monis a Master of Arts degree in 1723, he was the first Jew – or in his case, former Jew – to attain that academic rank in the Colonies.

The title page of A Grammar of the Hebrew Tongue published in 1735 by Judah Monis.Credit: Wikipedia

The students complain – of boredom

Unfortunately, Hebrew was no more popular among Puritan undergraduates in colonial Boston than it is among contemporary Jewish schoolchildren in the United States. Many complaints were heard about Monis.

Certainly, students could not have enjoyed having to copy by hand Monis’ Hebrew grammar, something that was necessary until, in 1635, he had raised enough money to subsidize a printed edition. Because no Hebrew type was available in America, it had to be imported from England, contributing to the expense.

In 1724, the Harvard Corporation undertook to investigate Monis’s methods of teaching in order to determine if they were indeed “so tedious as to be discouraging to many,” and also to “consider what may facilitate and encourage the study” of Hebrew. From that year on, his teaching was confined to only graduate students; starting in 1755, the language became an elective subject.

There were also those who doubted Monis’ religious convictions, and he was forced to defend himself of charges that he had converted purely in order to land a job. He also apparently continued to observe the Sabbath on Saturday, rather than Sunday, something that aroused considerable suspicion.

Monis wrote at least one book, called “The Truth,” in which he expounded upon his Christian belief. At the same time, his fellow Jews resented his having converted, and feared that he would attempt to missionize them.

Monis retired from the college in 1760, the same year his wife died. He then went to reside with his brother-in-law, John Martyn, a Protestant minister in Westboro, Massachusetts. He died on April 25, 1764, and was buried in Northboro, MA.

His gravestone depicts a tree with a branch grafted onto it, with an epitaph that reads in part: “A native branch of Jacob see / Which once from off its olive brook / Regrafted, from the living tree.”

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

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