This and that throughout R.I.’s history


When the Spanish explorer Hernan Cortez visited The New World in 1520, he learned about a cold drink made from the cacao bean. Called bitter water, it was spiced with chili and said to be an aphrodisiac.

Cortez brought the beverage back to Spain, where it became an instant hit with the aristocracy, particularly after milk, sugar and vanilla were added to dispel the bitter taste.

When the Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal, they took the secret of the manufacture of this beverage to wherever they found refuge. The secret recipe provided a means of earning a living.

Through the network of Sephardi planters and traders, the chocolate trade and cocoa manufacturing came to Colonial America with the Gomez family of New York and Aaron Lopez of Newport.

Lopez’s chocolate enterprise prospered until the American Revolution, when he and his family left for Massachusetts.

Although he was an ardent patriot, Lopez had this complaint: the shortage of food during the war was a special problem for Jews who tried to continue keeping Kosher. They were “forced to subsist on chocolate and coffee.” Patriots, of course, no longer drank tea. (From Moment magazine and other sources). 

Postscript:  The two families were later related via the marriage of Isaac Gomez and Adelaide Lopez, Aaron’s daughter, in 1790. 

Another first

Colonial Newport had the first Jewish doctor to practice in Rhode Island, and probably all of New England, for all the years prior to the Civil War.

The Newport Mercury of Sept. 17, 1764, carried this item:

“Francis Lucena, Physician from Lisbon

“Takes this Method to acquaint the Public that he deigns to practice Physick in this Place. He was once of the Royal Society of Portugal: his regular education, his travels, practice, Experience, have acquired him the Knowledge that enables him to be of service to the Public.

“N.B. Those who shall employ him may depend on careful Attendance, and any poor Persons may have his advice gratis. He keeps at the House of Mr. James Lucena. Merchant.”

In February 1761, James Lucena, a converso, applied to the General Assembly in East Greenwich for naturalization, which was granted. One month later, Aaron Lopez and Isaac Elizer filed similar petitions, but were refused because they were Jews.

Lucena did not appear as a Jew, but as a subject of Portugal professing the “Faith of a True Christian.” Not only did he receive citizenship, but he was granted exclusive rights to manufacture Castile Soap, because this would provide employment and a product for export.

Civil War connections

Two members of Congregation Sons of Israel and David, now known as Temple Beth-El, in Providence, served in the Civil War. Amelia Rodenberg (Mrs. Ernest Rodenberg) was a nurse at the Battle of Antietam. Newman Pincus served in the army.

In 1864, before he was 16 years old, according to family lore, Pincus followed his two older brothers to army camp in New York. He tried to enlist by giving a false age, but his brothers intervened.

Disappointed, he left for home, but when he reached New Haven, Connecticut, he again attempted to enlist, this time as Charles Pincus, age 18. This time he was successful.

Pincus was honorably discharged at Fort Ethan Allen on Aug. 18, 1865. He was an active member of the Grand Army of the Republic, serving as commander of Slocum Post No. 10. He was in line to become commander of the Department of Rhode Island when he died. (RIJHNotes, Vol. 3)  


There are two Jewish commercial lobstermen currently on record, one in Maine and one in Canada. One is my grandson.

GERALDINE S. FOSTER is a past president of the R.I. Jewish Historical Association. To comment about this or any RIJHA article, contact the RIJHA office at or 401-331-1360.

Foster, RIJHA