Jewish Culture and Migration

Judaism is a culture and a religion that consists of experiences and events woven tightly together with nearly all other aspects of history.  Anytime history is taught to us, there are Jewish and non-Jewish versions of the same story.  And usually whenever we learn about the history of something or someone, what we learn about places the Jewish aspect of this story second to history in general.  We pay little attention to the role Jewish culture and religion paid in these historical events.   Whenever we have the opportunity to learn this same story in Judaic context, we come to recognize that there is a role that religion played in nearly these historical events, even though these roles are sometimes very subliminal in nature.  What this tells us is that in the end, it is not just a Jewish individual who performed these events that become history, it is the Jewish culture and tradition of that individual that provided us with much of the substance of these events.

This importance of Jewish history in the modern sense is just as true for medicine as it is for culture and science.  Learning Jewish medicine is much the same as learning Jewish medical history. There is a culture and tradition you have to learn along with the philosophy and scientific know-how that defines Jewish medicine as a trade.  Working within a medical school system with a strong Jewish cultural heritage and ongoing Jewish influence, I once learned that medicine is not always as it is practiced according to the  standard medical jargon, ideology, philosophy, and belief.  Within the Jewish setting, medicine does have an underlying tradition that is not easily detected unless you search for the clues for this located about the care setting.  Almost always there is the tradition and teachings of Maimonides that we can learn about in these settings.  In close competition with Maimonides’ presence in the Jewish hospital is Moses, and in close competition with Moses we might learn about the less obvious of Jewish influences of such great scientists, physicians, sociologists, and psychologists as Sigmund Freud, Jonas Salk, Paul Ehrlich, Elie Metchnikoff, Martin Buber, or even Ann Landers and Dear Abby.  Those whom we don’t learn so much about within the Jewish medical setting are people just as important to medical history, especially New York medical history, such as Solomon (author of the medical writing Sepher Refuoth), Baruch Spinoza (17th C philosopher), Rabbi haNasi (author or Mishnah), Yisroel ben Eliezer (founder of Hassidism), Rabbi Abraham Abrahams (mohel for NY to RI, 1760s), and I would like to add, Isaac Marks, mohel and ropheim to New York, ca. 1760. 

Medicine as it is practiced by someone devoted to Talmud as much as the standard PDR and pathology texts still has many traditions which at times seem to intervene with the basics of medical practice.   In contemporary medicine, this is the case in a philosophical sense more than in a physiological sense, but it still exists.  Judaic teachings on subjects dealing with health may not appear to be as intervening as other religious trainings can be, but little do we know how many of the actions of prevention and sanitation that we engage in today actually have this part of their tradition for us to thank.   Engaging in the teachings of the Talmud and Mishnah is not going to prevent us from engaging in unhealthy living practices.    Nor can the Torah always prevent you from engaging in certain treatment or physician required activities such as driving to a pharmacy or to a hospital. 

But back in New York in the 1750s, a Jewish doctor did not have to contend with all of these issues.  The decision was whether or not to take the horse, not the car.    Most likely in either case, time no longer mattered, since a one day or two-day trip could have equally devastating consequences on the dying body.  When you had to decide your chores for the day on the Sabbath, the decision-making process was fairly simple.  When you had to decide how to deal with someone with a dreadful disease, this too had its Jewish recommendations.  When you had to decide upon whether or not to treat someone in such a way that it was completely against your own will and religious upbringing, Jewish culture had an answer for this questions as well.

In general, I like to think of the Jewish practice of medicine as defined by three things–Jewish Tradition and teachings, one’s own individual’s philosophy and identity, and the contemporary teachings for the time in medicine.  Exactly where in the world some of the newest medical training for the time erupted culturally and professionally plays no role in the personal decision-making process of a Jewish physician.  The cultural heritage however does play an important role in helping a Jewish doctor better understand the nature and philosophy of the body, the cause for health and the etiology of disease, and the legal and ethical requriements of being a colonial Jewish physician.   A Jewish physician raised and trained in medicine in the Spanish Sephardic community setting has much the same practice as a Jewish physician raised and trained in western United Netherlands who is Ashkenazi, or a Jewish doctor raised and trained in the wilderness of Lithuania like the early Baal Shem Tov.   Jewish medicine is health first, disease second.

The differences between the three types of Jewish doctors who could have lived in New York in 1750–Sephardic, Ashkenazi and early Hassidic– are important to local history due to the impacts these cultures had on future settlements and vice versa.  It is for this reason that this project took me almost 30 years to complete.  The traditional approach to researching medical history is to read and interpret other studies out there already for the time and place at hand, and then try to extrapolate this to the setting that you are researching.  In a sense, much of what I have done is essentially the same type of analysis on the local history of Jewish medicine.  Unfortunately we have very little direct physical evidence to work with when trying to understand how the first Jewish doctors lived and practiced as physicians.  There were no recipe books left behind in local colonial history, and only a very few documents pertaining specifically to a Jewish lifestyle.  To understand jewish medicine I learned, simply look at the traditional writings on Jewish medicine.  Very little of this philosophy and way of life has really changed that much.

For this work, I reviewed the years, decades and centuries of Jewish medical tradition prior to the settlement of the New World, not completely, but enough to provide such a review of early American Jewish medical culture.  By combining these findings with other findings that are out there for other very local medical communities, we get a better picture of the sociocultural setting that existed when Jewish physician Isaac Marks practiced medicine in the Hudson Valley some time between 1700 and 1770.   Based on this time period in both American and Jewish history, we can deduce what type of physician Isaac Marks probably was during this time.  He was either a traditional Sephardic Jew living a life like the many other Sephardics of the region with a long history of social ties to this part of the colonies, or he was an Ashkenazi Jew with either a similar long history of involvement with the New York and New England Jewish communities or a history with a short life due to his recent arrival to the New York setting, or he was  a “new age” contemporary thinker in theology, with interests in some of the modern beliefs for the time on both Jewish and non-Jewish European medicine, blended with the unique natural philosophy preachings and teachings of a new breed of Jews making their way into western Europe–the first Hasidic produced as a result of the influences of Baal Shem Tov in Eastern Europe.

 The Jewish Migration

In general, I like to think of the Jewish migration to North America between 1600 and 1750 as two types of migrations: Sephardim and Askenazim as migrations of people, and Hasidism as a migration of culture and the related natural philosophy beliefs.    There are also several other very small groups of Jewish people that came to North America.  The study of mitochondrial DNA recognizes the following groups:  Ashkenazim (Jews of Northern and Eastern Europe), Sephardim (Spanish and Portuguese Jews), Mizrakhim (Middle Eastern Jews), Italkim (Italian Jews), Caucasian Mountain Jews (Dagestani and Azerbaijani Jews) , Georgian Jews, Indian Jews, North African Jews, Yemenite Jews, and Ethiopian Jews (see   Culturally speaking, the jews of New York could also be classified as Marranos or cryptojews, the Jews living in seclusion or in hiding, such as in the wilderness, and anusim, the coerced or forcibly converted Jews.

The following migration maps pertain to the principal Jewish groups that Isaac Marks may have related to and/or learned from (Ashkenazi and Sephardic), and/or adopted a philosophy or followed as an act of experience and faith, a personal natural philosophy of Hasidic nature and intent.




Early Hasidism

There has been much coverage on the migration of Sephardim and to a lesser extent the Ashkenazim to North America.  The tradition of Jewish medicine practiced by members of noth of these traditions are reviewed on another page.  For this page, I am concerned solely with two very important topics of Jewish philosophy–the natural philosophy aspect of the life of a Hasidic, and the deep and profound teachings and philosophy of a life directed by the Cabala.

Physiography and the Diffusion of Baal Shem Tov’s Teachings

The one part of the Jewish migration into North America that is not covered so well is the diffusion of Hasidism culture, tradition and knowledge.  In a geographical sense, there are several theories out there to define how a belief like that which initiated Hasidism might have been spread.  In Torstend Hagerstrand’s contagious diffusion model of 1952, he proposed that an innovation or new way of thinking first undergoes a primary process, reaching major economic areas and forming hot spots, from where it then undergoes a  much more diverse diffusion process into outlying areas, leaving major voids between these secondary hot spots, ending with a condensing phase in which others begin to take on the innovation or practice that has been changed.   Relating this scenario to Colonial New York, this suggest that the Hasidic lifestyle influenced New York City and then Isaac Marks or his immediate living area. 

The second possibility is that simultaneous invention of Hasidic traditions took place in both Europe and the New World.  This simultaneous or synchronous discovery would occur due to a common knowledge and tradition being shared diffusely around the world as a part of Jewish culture and tradition, which due to the circumstances for the time, exhibited identical births due to similar discoveries and realizations being made for the time.  These shared discoveries might be the news and teachings of the natural sciences, which in association with the beliefs for the time, led to crowd or group acceptance of whatever new beliefs then erupt.   In the case of New York, whereas the terrain itself may have served as a communication barrier for some forms of intellectual diffusion, this physiographic element in turn became the instigator of the new philosophy local Jews were about to bear.  In this way, Isaac Marks learned and decided upon pretty much the same traditional aspects of natural history and life as the Baal Shem Tov had deduced in Europe.   Not that Isaac Marks was any better than Baal Shem Tov, only that he was possibly in touch with G-d and nature as any good Jew might or should be.

Some of the evidence I have to support this claim is by no means conclusive.  All of this is for the most part speculative, but is a product of my reviews of the physical, social and natural settings which Isaac Marks and Baal Shem Tov resided in.  This would be where their cultural experiences as Jews separated from the other Jews (Isaac because he was not Sephardic, Baal Shem Tov due to his living place), opened them up to some new spiritual messages, and so learned their most important and newest lessons in life.  Baal Shem Tov’s and Isaac Mark’s surroundings are remarkably similar.  Both of them learned from guidance and their natural philosophy.    

This means that even if Isaac Marks never knew about Baal Shem Tov and his teachings, Isaac Marks had the opportunity to experience nature alone, in an isolated wilderness setting, with few other cultural influences out there to modify your interpretations of natural events.  Marks and ben Eliezer (Baal Shem Tov’s name) had similar very natural human experiences.  They obtained similar levels of wisdom living within these types of natural settings, where both abided by similar traditions, but let natural philosophy define their personal way of being.   Both probably marvelled at the same plants, the same animals, the same types of rock forms and water ways, the same type of mystical places.    For these reason, both became naturally gifted in their own unique ways.

For those familiar with the topography of the valley and its immediate neighbors, the Catskill and Taghanik mountainous regions, a number of features stand out as similar between New York and Baal Shem Tov’s home country.  We can immediate see parallels between the European topography and the topography of the Hudson Valley area.   

The Hudson Valley is bordered by a ridge of mountains at the Connecticut border, another at its southern border, the expansive Catskill Mountains topography to the west, and the Shawangunks ridge just to the south of the Catskills.    These land features provided some natural settings that would be very attractive to deist followers of the Jewish Natural Theologist equivalent, Baal Shem Tov.   Such people would very much admire if not fall in love with such signs of G-d–His beautifully constructed Natural tapestries of Art.  In the following satellite image of the Carpathians, we see very much the same.


To Baal Shem Tov, a number of land features were important to his take on natural theology, as he learned this concept as a Jewish boy.  Although many of the concepts of communication with nature and G-d are pretty much identical across cultures, the notion that we are communicated with through nature by YHWH or whomever, the fact remains that there is something supernatural or transcendental about these communications that each group and culture has a different take on.  So, when people from one culture go to another, and again see more of these symbols placed there for them by the Creator, this tends to have a strong influence on how adapted, acclimated or befitted they feel about the local environment.  If a person who is Jewish and a natural philosopher at heart removed to a new region, he/she must experience the same feelings of importance when entering that new place in the world.   This is how a doctor like Isaac Marks might have thought, and is definitely how the Baal Shem Tov learned about nature, life and disease.  

The only difference in philosophy that may exist between Marks and Baal Shem Tov is that Marks is a little more old-fashioned and traditional that Baal Shem Tov.   The Baal Shem Tov one could say is very deistic, Marks a little more pietic.   Baal Shem Tov is pantheistic, Marks is panentheistic.  Or is it vice versa?






When we take a look at the local physiography of the Hudson Valley and some of its primary physical forms, and then take a closer look at the contents of each of these parts that make up nature, we sometimes get a feeling for what the Baal Shem Tov must have been so attached to in the wilderness.  Likewise, we can imagine these same thoughts and feeling going through Marks’s mind as he travelled from Westchester and Dutchess County areas, across the mountain ranges to the east separating him from Sephardic towns as far away as Rhode Island.  We can contrast the mountains of eastern Europe witnessed by baal Shem Tov with the Shawangunks.  Each of these landforms have remarkably similar topography, with  ecosystems generated by this topography that share their most important elements, such as similar looking rock formations, colorful evergreen forest tops, and numerous plants and animal resembling very much those found in the both of these montane settings to this day.

.The suggestion with this comparison is that there are a number of features conducive to the development of a philosophy and natural theology ideology very much similar to that of Baal Shem Tov.  Were Isaac Marks not at all familiar with the growing popularity of this philosophy in eastern Europe, he was still very likely to have naturally adopted similar thoughts about G-d and Nature conducive to living a more devoted lifestyle–a necessary component if he were to serve as one of the more important local political and social Jewish leaders for his time.



Cumulative Migration Impacts


One way to interpret the diffusion of Jewish culture throughout Europe is to simply state a fairly diffuse distribution of knowledge, skills and commodities occurred between some time around the end of the dark ages (ca. 1050-1200) to the middle of the 16th century.   So many small and large-scale migration patterns exist for Jewish culture, it is hard to define a specific series of paths that Jewish traditions took throughout Europe and between Russia, Africa and the Middle East.  During the century just prior to the establishment of trade routes with the Americas, soon after the first explorations of the Americas by Columbus, Vespucci and others, we find a definite patterns of sociopolitical influence taking hold in Europe.   Even though a continued dispersal outwards in all directions was likely to occur between 1490 and 1690, the primary flow of knowledge, trade skills and such appears to be from southeast to northwest across the Middle European region, especially regarding Jewish traditions.  This direction existed primarily due to the early absence of certain Jewish traditions west of Austria and Germany, for which reason we find the introduction of  non-Sephardic traditions taking hold in these more western European regions around 1650.  The strengthening of these teachings by 1700 would enable them to reach England in sufficient numbers so as to result in a migration of descendents of these same people westward towards the American colonies. 

This migration of new Jewish tradition to the American colonies began some time around 1700 to 1705, and constitutes the first non-Sephardic distribution of information into North America.  Between 1700 and 1730, a combination of Sephardic and Ashkenazi cultures began to fill some otherwise non-Judaic parts of the North American colonies, with the third Jewish religion-defined cultural group–early Hasidism–making its way to the colonies either in the form of simple knowledge, philosophy and teachings, or as an actual form of Jewish religious and lifestyle practice, generating it first footing in the Americas by the possible presence of natural philosophers living a life much like that of the Great Baal Shem Tov.




The zone of influence for human behavior and consciousness is where one’s beliefs have an impact on people and society.  That “one” may be an individual, or something more symbolic in nature like the influence of a cultural belief.  As an example, consider the zone of influence for a German culture.  The German recipe for the treatment of cancer using a sorrel (Rumex acetosa or acetosella)  leaf in the form of a compress is a recipe repeated across various traditions and lines of culture.  The zone of influence for this philosophy is in fact continental in size on North America, having followed the migration routes taken by non-German people who took on this healing tradition and then later passed it on to others in the Pacific Northwest.  We can usually divide a zone of influence into two parts–the part with the direct influence induced by those initiating the influential beliefs, claims or knowledge.  There is also a secondary influence in which this is propagated away from the sources of direct influence, crossing into new cultural realms.  For Judaism, one could argue that there is an Ashkenazi zone of influence that is very distinct and different from the Sephardic zone of influence in early colonial North American history. Sephardi arguably came first,  perhaps with some Ashkenazi cryptojews, 17th century, followed by a much stronger inward migration and settlement of Ashkenazim beginning around 1720.  

Where does Isaac Marks fit into all of this?  If Marks is Sephardic, his personal zone of influence is not as important perhaps as the Sephardic zone of influence, which has its primary zones situated around a number of Jewish communities settled since the 1600s.   If Marks is Ashkenazi, of late introduction, ca. 1720s-1730s, he personally bears a zone of influence that follows pretty much a unique pattern.  The three dots in the map below depict these 3 places:  his Dutchess County Location, his supposed Westchester influence, and his eastward influences towards Rhode Island, but probably not all the way to Newport or Providence like Abraham Abrahams’ route apparently was.   The Lange Eylandt portion of this is more speculative than the rest, as well as the inclusion of Novum Guernsen perhaps, but this extension of the distribution is meant to include possible secondary influences not so easily traceable.  These distributions onto Long Island and into New Jersey are based on the distributions of other cultures found in his immediate area in Dutchess County. 


Both Marks (Marks was in the Poughkeepsie area settled somewhere on what is now property near Vassar Hospital and Vassar College), and a neighbor to his south Dr. Cornelius Osborn, did a lot of travel for Governor Clinton (see Osborn’s biography for more).  They had the wagon needed to make these journeys.  The same could very well be assumed for Isaac alone and his personal belongings.  Isaac Mark’s zone of influence pretty much mimicks the zone of influence for the Osborn family in the southward direction, and influence of Sephardic Rabbi Abrahams in the easterly direction.  If Marks is Ashkenazi, his zone remains close to the Hudson Valley, perhaps even cryptojewish in tradition, but with French and English cultural appearances to the locals (see details of Mark’s genealogy for more on this).  If Isaac Marks bore some sort of Hasidic thinking in his personal philosophy, he may have come to appreciate nature and its symbolism and art as displayed in the Shawangunks, Catskills, Taconics and Berkshire Mountains.


Zones of Influence

The following topographic surface image demonstrates the limiting factors to Marks’ life and responsibilities as a physician.  In a letter in which reference to Dr. Marks is made, Abraham Abrahams was asked to perform a briss in the Westchester County area, if not in the northern Manhattan Island rural spaces, then  just north of New York City.  His travels would have been from the east, in Newport, RI (not seen in the image, but just east of the upper left image border).  On this image, the Catskills and Shawangunks (a fault with well-defined edge) can clearly be seen.  The east and west montane river edges just south of these are the Dancing Chamber noted as such by an early Labadian traveller of this region ca. 1667.  Dr. Marks resided in the flat flood plain formed between this ridge (which includes Mount Beacon) and land situated just east of the Shawangunks on the east side of the river.

Orientation of above map:  Long Island at the upper edge is the south edge of this map.  Following the Hudson River upstream,one travels northward towards the Mohawk River, which traverses New York from the Hudson westward towards the Great Lakes.




Southeastward view of NY to Long Island.

PIA02758: Perspective View, New York State, Lake Ontario to Long Island

accessed 11-11-2010 at

Original Caption Released with Image:
From Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River (at the bottom of the image) and extending to Long Island (at the top), this perspective view shows the varied topography of eastern New York State and parts of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Rhode Island. The high “bumpy” area in the left foreground is the southern and western Adirondack Mountains, a deeply eroded landscape that includes the oldest rocks in the eastern United States. On the right side are the Catskill Mountains, a part of the Appalachian Mountain chain, where river erosion has produced an intricate pattern of valleys. Between the Adirondacks and Catskills, A wide valley contains the Mohawk River and the Erie Canal. To the northwest (lower right) of the Catskills are the Finger Lakes of central New York . They were carved by the vast glacier that covered this entire area as recently as 18,000 years ago. The Hudson River runs along a straight valley from left center (near Glens Falls), widening out as it approaches New York City at the upper right on the image. The Connecticut River valley has a similar north-south trend further to the east (across the upper left corner of the image). The Berkshire Hills are between the Hudson and Connecticut valleys.This image was generated using a single swath of data acquired in 68 seconds by SRTM and an enhanced false-color mosaic of images from the Landsat 5 satellite. Lush vegetation appears green, water appears dark blue, and cities are generally light blue. White clouds occur in the upper left and lower left. Topographic shading in the image was enhanced with false shading derived from the elevation model. Topographic expression is exaggerated 5X.Elevation data used in this image was acquired by the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour, launched on February 11, 2000. SRTM used the same radar instrument that comprised the Spaceborne Imaging Radar-C/X-Band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SIR-C/X-SAR) that flew twice on the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1994. SRTM was designed to collect three-dimensional measurements of the Earth’s surface. To collect the 3-D data, engineers added a 60-meter-long (200-foot) mast, installed additional C-band and X-band antennas, and improved tracking and navigation devices. The mission is a cooperative project between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), and the German and Italian space agencies. It is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, for NASA’s Earth Science Enterprise, Washington, DC.Size: 220 by 510 kilometers (135 by 315 miles)
Location: 43 deg. North lat., 75 deg. West lon.
Orientation: View southeast
Colors: Landsat bands 2,4,7 in blue, green, and red
Date Acquired: February 13, 2000 (SRTM); Various Dates (Landsat Mosaic)
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