A neighbor of mine here in Israel once showed me a very rare certificate – perhaps the only one in Israel – called “Daughters of the Mayflower.” She was a direct descendant of the Pilgrims, who in 1620 sailed away from the religious persecution of Holland to the New World, and a year later, having survived the trials of wild America, instituted the holiday of Thanksgiving. Indeed, there were a number of Jewish families that sailed to America on the Mayflower, and perhaps many others who hid their Jewish identity as Marranos. But even they were not the first Jews to set foot in North America.

There are many conspiracy theorists who believe that Christopher Columbus, discoverer of the New World, was Jewish – but there is no real evidence supporting that. When the North America was discovered and explored in the 16th century, rumors spread through Europe that the language of the wild Indians was Hebrew, and that they were descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes. This, of course, was wonderful news for the downtrodden Jews and it was widely believed that the Messianic era was just around the corner, with people like Solomon Molcho ready and eager to accept that title. But this proved to be just wishful thinking.

The Jewish Metal Expert

The first documented case of a Jew to reach the shores of America is that of Joachim (Chaim) Gans, who arrived on Roanoke Island, North Carolina in 1585 as part of Sir Walter Raleigh’s expedition commissioned by Queen Elizabeth. (The most complete account of Gans’ life is found in Gary Grassl’s The Search for the First English Settlement in America). Gans’ story is a fascinating tale that starts in his birthplace of Prague. Joachim was related to the famous historian, astronomer and talmid hacham, David Gans, who was a student of the Rama and the Maharal, worked in the laboratory of the greatest astronomer of his time, Tycho Brahe, and authored Tzemach David, a chronicle of Jewish history up to his time.

Joachim was a chemist specializing in metals. He most probably learned his trade in the Ore Mountains of Bohemi, which had the most advanced copper mining techniques of the time. In 1581, Gans was offered a position at Queen Elizabeth’s Mines Royal, and within a short time was able to show the English miners how to produce copper by heating it only four times, instead of 18. Gans simplified the process by pounding the ore into a powder and then roasting it and passing water through it. In addition to purifying the copper, Gans also used the waste products – namely, copper sulfate –for dyeing textiles. (It could be that Gans got some of his ideas from the fact that the deyo – ink used by soferei stam– uses copper sulfate, known in halachic literature as kuper vasser.)

The Queen’s Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham, was governor of the Mines Royal and also a substantial investor in ventures to explore and exploit the New World. So when Sir Walter Raleigh set out to establish a permanent colony in North America, Joachim Gans, whose mining achievements were well known to Walsingham, was the natural choice for the expedition’s metal expert. The Queen was set to receive a fifth of any minerals, gold or silver that was found, and Gans would be called upon to determine if there was any valuable ore in America. And so in 1585, Gans foundhimself on Roanoke Island, surveying the area and testing the trinkets of the Indians to see if they contained any gold or silver. Archeologists have found bricks from Gans’ furnace and chunks of copper, indicating that Gans had the capability of smelting ore at a temperature of over 2,000 degrees – enough to melt copper.

One can only wonder what Gans must have felt like so far from home, the first and only Jew in the Western Hemisphere. I imagine him waking up to the crisp Carolina dawn putting on his tallet, while the wild turkeys pecked at his tzitzit, hoping they were some new exotic kind of worm. What did his fellow colonists, a band of English Christians, think when they saw him in his tefillin? And what must the Indians have thought?

Return to England

In March 1586, Gans participated in an expedition inland to look for minerals. In typical European fashion, the group burst into an Indian village, captured the chief and interrogated him for two days, while taking his son prisoner. The chief told them about marvelous and strange minerals up river. They set out to reach the deposits, but after five days of rowing, the expedition had to turn back, having made enemies of the Indians who could have supplied them with food.

The band made it back to Roanoke Island, but things were not much better there. When the supply ship from England did not arrive, and given the state of war with the local Indians, the leaders decided to pack up and abandon the settlement. In June 1586, the colonists hitched a ride with the great English explorer, Sir Francis Drake, on his way back to England, fresh off his spectacular successes fighting the Spanish in Florida. Drake’s financer was none other than Walsingham, who must have gotten the message to the admiral to pick up the stranded colonists and salvage what he could from his investment.

Though the colony did not succeed in its main goal, Gans was able to report on a land rich with resources of great economic value. This information provided the impetus for England to continue its objective to colonize America, with the next major expedition founding the first permanent settlement of Jamestown, Virginia in 1607.

“What Need Has Almighty Gd For a Son?”

Joachim moved to London where he continued his work as a scientist. But on a trip to the mines, his quick wit and sharp tongue got him into trouble. While stopped at an inn, Gans got into a theological discussion about the Old and New Testament. When someone challenged Gans and asked him if he believed inthe Christian messiah, Gans answered that there was no such person, that there was only one Gd, and that He had neither a wife nor a child. The local minister got into the argument and explained to Joachim in Hebrew that Yeshu was the king of the Jews and son of Gd. Gans answered him back, also in Hebrew, that Yeshu was not the son of Gd. Thepreacher then asked Gans in English if he denied that Yeshu was the son of Gd, to which Gans replied, “What need has Almighty Gd for a son? Is He not Almighty?”

This “heresy” was too much to forgive. If Gans had been a Christian, his sin would be punishable by death, but as a Jew, no one was quite sure what to do with him. Jews had been expelled from England in 1290, and were not officially to be allowed back until Menasheh ben Israel convinced Oliver Cromwell in 1655 to permit them to return. Gans was taken back to London and incarcerated. While in jail, he composed a treatise describing a unique method of producing saltpeter, a major ingredient in gunpowder. His recipe for saltpeter was a translation and explanation of the work of Lazarus Erker, chief of the Emperor’s mines in Bohemia. Ganzdedicated his work to none other than the Secretary of State, Sir Walsingham. This “ransom” seems to have done the trick, as there is no record of Gans being punished in any way. Most probably, he was allowed to return to Bohemia and spent the rest of his life there.

From Ganz to Haber to Hebrew U

Saltpeter is the most important component in gunpowder, as it supplies the other ingredients (charcoal and sulfur) with the rapid release of oxygen required for explosive ignition. It is formed in warm climates when animal and vegetable refuse which decomposes into ammonia undergoes bacterial action. So the key to large deposits of saltpeter is a lot of animal dung. One of the key sources of saltpeter in the ancient world was Petra, which was a very popular resting station along the spice route. The aqueducts of Petra provided the dung heaps of thousands of caravan camels with the just the right conditions for production of the highly valuable commodity. In fact, some have suggested that the name “saltpeter” comes from the phrase “salt of Petra.” Saltpeter was also produced at En Bokek on the Dead Sea as early as the 2 ndcentury C.E., as well as at Avdat. In later years, the best raw material for saltpeter was to be found in the guano (bat and bird droppings) on the islands off the coast of South America.

The lack of saltpeter in England meant that most gunpowder was imported. However, as British naval power expanded beyond Europe during the reign of Elizabeth, it became possible to bring saltpeter back to England and manufacture gunpowder at home. As a result, a number of factories were set up during the 16thcentury. Gans’ more efficient process must have been very well received and put to use immediately.

Ganz was part of a long tradition of Jews who were involved in the gunpowder industry. In 1515, the Jews ofRome came up with a new recipe for saltpeter, and in the late 16th century, Al-Mansur of Morocco gave the Jews the concession for running the state monopolies on sugar and saltpeter. In the 17th century, a Jew named Salitrariul (maker of saltpeter) provided the Prince of Romania with gunpowder. And in 1804, an Austrian law banned Jews from dealing in gunpowder, suggesting that they had previously been active in this industry.

Ultimately, the German-Jewish scientist Fritz Haber developed a process to produce ammonia synthetically, putting an end to the dependence on bats and birds for the world’s gunpowder and fertilizer. Haber went on to develop the poison gas used by Germany in World War I and eventually won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918. In 1933, when the Nazi government came to power, Haber, as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry, was ordered to dismiss all the Jewish scientists working there. Instead, he resigned and left for England, where he met Chaim Weizman who offered him a position at a new research institute in Rehovot. In 1934, on his way there, he died of a heart attack in Switzerland.

While I was working on my doctorate at the Hebrew University, we built a radio powered CO laser. After a few hours the laser stopped working, and when we opened it up we saw a brown powder that had collected on the electrodes. We sent the powder for chemical analysis and found it to contain ammonia. For a while we thought that we had discovered a vital new process that could change the world – but we later learned that Haber had beaten us to it by about 100 years!

Baruch Sterman is co-founder of the Ptil Tekhelet Association. Baruch received his doctorate in Physics from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he developed a CO2 laser used for both medical and industrial purposes. For the past 17 years, Baruch has been a leading executive in the hi tech sector in Israel, specializing in the fields of telecommunications and computer security.