How Not to be Jewish 

By Bruce Poli

MEYER THALMESSINGER, a German Jew, was part of a group of the first Jews to come to America from Germany. Photo courtesy of NYPL.

“We’re not religious.”

That was the line from my mother throughout my childhood about any religious question I had. Well, don’t believe everything you hear.

My great-great-grandfather Meyer Thalmessinger, a German Jew from Baden-Württemberg, was part of a group known as the ’48ers, the first Jews to come to America from Germany and introduce Jewish culture in this country. He had taken part in the 1848 Revolution (as in ’48ers) that spread throughout Europe where Jews protested their governments’ treatment of them.

I actually found out that I was Jewish on the Internet—after both my parents had died (my father at 94 in 2015).

Next, I found a photograph of a silver goblet presented to Meyer as the leader of the first order of B’nai B’rith. It was engraved, “Presented to M. Thalmessinger as an acknowledgement of his merits and as a mark of esteem. Oct. 30, 1853.”

SILVER GOBLET. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Along with his ’48er friend, he established the first Jewish printing and lithography company in New York on Chambers Street. Thalmessinger & Kahn printed Hebrew books as well as books on Palestine history. 

In the 1850s, Meyer became the president of the Merchants & Traders Bank (the equivalent of JP Morgan Chase today in stature). He was also a principal owner of the Westchester Railroad and a trustee of the New York City Board of Education. A lithograph of him is at The New York Public Library.

His daughter, my great grandmother Cornelia Thalmessinger, was one of the founders of Hadassah in New York and a director of a synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Why is the significance beyond the obvious reasons?

Because all my life I never knew I was Jewish. I was told I was not religious and if anyone asked, I was a “non-practicing Protestant!”

My mother (daughter of a Lithuanian Jewish father) taught Sunday school at the Protestant church in my small town on Long Island. She and my semi-famous artist grandmother had rebelled and become Christian Scientists. There were waves of strictness, discipline and subsequent rebellion through the generations. My parents, sophisticated New Yorkers that they were, never knew the historic importance on my mother’s side.

At an art gallery opening in East Hampton, I met an academic librarian who became fascinated with the story and sent me numerous researched bulletins on my great-great-grandfather. I found the handwritten log from the ship they came on from Germany.

Was it the Holocaust’s unspeakable destructive effect on Jews or simply guilt, denial and shame? No matter, the family story I have learned is quite extraordinary. Mazel Tov!

Who knew? And why was it never passed down? Was it fear from the Holocaust? Or other reasons?

As the joke goes “Denial is a river in Egypt.”

Oy Vey.