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A New Candidate for “The First American Jewish Medal,” Engraved by Myer Myers

By Mel Wacks, Director of the Jewish-American Hall of Fame Division of the American Jewish Historical Society Originally published in The Shekel, the magazine of the American Israel Numismatic Association

It has been universally held that “Moritz Fürst … has to his credit the first recorded American Jewish Medal …(of) Gershom Mendes Seixas” (Daniel Friedenberg, Jewish Minters & Medalists, p. 70), that according to new research, was made c. 1812 (Mel Wacks, Gershom Mendes Seixas, The First American Jewish Medal, in the Spring 2009 The Medal, pp.37-8). However, this is not the first American Jewish medal! That distinction belongs to a circumcision medal created by the great Jewish colonial American silversmith Myer Meyers (1723-1795), as was noted by Friedenberg (Jewish Medals from the Renaissance to the Fall of Napoleon, p. 68).

In the American Jewish Historical Quarterly, Volume 27 (1920), a silver medal belonging to David Hays of New York is described as follows:

“This medal was given by the Mohel Elchanan bar Abraham to Moshe bar David in the year 5480 = 1719. [This is undoubtedly an error in transcription. The date should be 5544 — 1784.] This is Moses Hays, grandfather of David Hays, the present owner of the medal (the latter being the son of Benjn. Hays, formerly of West Chester County). This medal manufactured by Myers the silversmith and has the same trade mark as the Rimonim [which were] manufactured 5490 [1730], property of Congregation. The letters דא on the reverse of the medal evidently mean 41, the number of children thus far named by this Mohel.”

[The following (translation of the two circular inscriptions on the obverse) is written on a slip of paper pasted in the book:] Eichanan bar Abraham* Outer line of the medal: I, Eichanan son of Abraham lifted up my hands in the holy covenant to circumcise the boy—(inner line) Moses son of David on Monday, 5 Tishri, this day being the thirteenth since his birth in 5544 [1784]. I saw a similar medal that he presented to Israel, son of Isaac Moses, named in 5544 [1784].

Drawings showing both sides of a silver medal with inscription in Hebrew, name "MYERS" printed on one.


Thanks to Tammy Kiter, Reference Librarian/Archivist of the American Jewish Historical Society, for supplying Jacques Judah Lyons’ drawing made in the 1870s [The Lyons Collection Volume II, PAJHS, 27 (1920), pp. 383-84] of Moses Etting Hays’ circumcision medal by Myer Myers.

In his 2001 Doctoral dissertation Myer Myers and the Silversmith's Trade in New York City, 1746—1795, David L. Barquist, wrote: “Moses Hays died unmarried, and in the 1870s this medal belonged to his nephew, David Solis Hays. The present author’s attempts to trace its ownership further have proved unsuccessful” (p.153).

About Myer Myers

Myers was born in 1723 New York City, where he was not only a successful silversmith but also an influential figure in the Jewish community, particularly as one of the heads of the Congregation Shearith Israel. Myers was most productive in the 1760s. He moved together with his family to Connecticut when the British occupied New York in 1776, and returned in 1783. Among the approximately 380 pieces of silver and gold objects extant carrying the “MM” mark are Torah finials (rimonim) in the collections of synagogues in New York, Philadelphia and Newport, as well as candlesticks, shoe buckles, tankards, swords, etc.

Rimonim by Myer Myers

Myers was elected chairman of the Gold and Silver Smith’s Society, that also included Ephraim Brasher, creator of the famous Brasher Doubloon. One of the duties of Society members was as “regulators”--to counterstamp and if necessary plug gold coins in circulation to certify their purity and weight. Thus some foreign coins feature the initials EB for Ephraim Brasher, MM for Myer Meyers, and others.


Myer Myers counterstamped this 1771 Brazil 6400 Reis gold coin with his initials “MM.” It sold for $92,000 in the Roehrs Collection at the August 2010 sale by Heritage Auction Galleries.


Early Circumcision Medals

According to The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion (edited by R. J. Zwi Werblowsky and Geoffrey Wigoder, 1966), “Circumcision is the removal of the foreskin in an operation performed on all male Jewish children on the eighth day after birth … as enjoined by God upon Abraham and his descendants (Gen 17:10-12).”

The earliest known circumcision medal (Daniel Friedenberg, Jewish Medals from the Renaissance to the Fall of Napoleon, pp. 65-67) was made in 1665 in Amsterdam “Almost 3 ½ inches in diameter, and cast and chased in gold;” it is in the collection of the Israel Museum. The obverse pictures the anointing of David as king, with a Hebrew inscription indicating that a child by the name of David was born on the 5th of Tammuz, 5425 (1665); the reverse depicts King David dancing before the Ark with the Biblical inscription: “And David danced before the Lord with all his might; and David was girded with a linen ephod” (2 Sam. 6:14). According to Webster’s New World College Dictionary, an ephod was “a richly embroidered outer vestment worn by Jewish priests in ancient times.”

Friedenberg indicates that “Almost a century passed before we have a record of another birth medal, also assumed to celebrate circumcision. This too occurred in Holland. Dated 5508 in Hebrew, and therefore issued in 1747-1748, the obverse of the medal shows a pair of scales with a ribbon, indicating the hope of the parents that later life would deal justly with the child. The reverse is inscribed in Hebrew: “In the city of Dordrecht, Abraham, the son of Hertog [Zangers].” And the next circumcision medals reported by Friedenberg are two made by Myer Myers. He sums up by saying “The fragile nature of [19th century circumcision] medals and the insecurity of Jewish life meant they were melted down or destroyed.”

Notes

  1. The Myers and Hays families were related. In 1766, a Moses Michael Hays married Rachel Myers, younger sister of Myer Myers.
  2. In a letter to the author, David L. Barquist wrote (12/10/09): “I am assuming that the Johnson [?] and Hays medals were flat disks of silver with engraved decoration rather than relief medals created with dies.”
 
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