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In the generation of the early republic, most Jews believed in the Jewish religion; at any rate, membership in a synagog was the norm. There appeared to have been no question in their minds: no one could be a Jew without Judaism; Judaism and the Jewish people were one. For Christians, it is Christ who is all important; for Jews, it is Jews who are all important. Religion in those days was the synthesis, the golden thread of Jewish history; it was the past and the present, the core and the spirit of the community. But what was the community? The community was unity; it was concept and reality, the totality of agencies and activities, folkways and practices, beliefs and worship, all these religiously motivated. It included everyone who identified with the Jewish group, whether willingly or reluctantly. Jews did not join the group, they were born into it and identified completely with one another. In spite of their constant and bitter intramural feuds, they stuck together. Most probably they were afraid to be alone; they could never be sure of the Gentiles, not even on these shores. The community nourished synagogs, Jewish philanthropies, schools; it integrated newcomers and gave both the native-born and the foreign-born that unity and cohesion which made for a strong sense of loyalty. The sentiment of kinship embraced Jews everywhere; virtually all Jews held to the concept of Kelal Yisrael, the Oneness of the Jewish people.

Religion as such, however, is expressed primarily in a synagog. Back in biblical times, Jacob, the patriarch, had made a covenant with God: If God would give him bread to eat and a garment to wear, he in turn would set up a Beth Elohim, a house of God (Gen. 28:20–22). Jews first had to make a living, then they organized societies and built sanctuaries. They had had communities, synagogs, back in their ancestral Europe; obviously they would establish them here. They wanted a place, a building, a room, where they could meet, talk, pray, weep. The synagog was the prime instrumentality of Jewish survival. Their Christian neighbors had built churches and expected the Jews to do likewise; all decent people had houses of worship. When the Declaration of Independence was adopted in July, 1776, there were five synagogs in the new United States—in Newport, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Savannah. These five all followed the Spanish-Portuguese liturgical rite which had been employed since the first settlement in North America was established in the mid-1600’s. The Sephardic ritual was accepted as the standard American liturgy. In 1781, during the War, a congregation was also established in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, American Jewry’s westernmost outpost. Lancaster was an interior town deemed safe from the British. Refugees from the seacoast assembled here. They probably met in the home of Joseph Simon, who owned two Torah scrolls and their usual ornaments. It is doubtful that the chaplain whom Simon employed knew the Sephardic chaunts. Lancaster was a patriarchal congregation, dominated by one man, the Ashkenazi Simon—who was later to become a member of Sephardic Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia. During the Revolution, about fifteen men gathered together for worship here, but the Lancaster conventicle is unlikely to have survived the 1780’s. It is not improbable that, wherever and whenever backcountry shopkeepers could muster a prayer quorum of ten adult males over thirteen years of age, they would hold worship services.1

It was in 1786, that some of Charleston, South Carolina, Ashkenazim established a synagog-community of their own, quite possibly the first such congregation in this country. They may have resorted to their own German or Polish rite, but it is by no means improbable that they, too, continued to use the Sephardic prayer books. It was not unusual in the Western Hemisphere for the “Germans”—the Ashkenazim—of the Caribbean islands and Surinam to adopt the Spanish-Portugese liturgy. The divisiveness that separated the two groups was ethnic, never creedal. Later, however, Ashkenazic congregations did rely on prayer books reflecting their own German or Polish style. Why did an Ashkenazic congregation come into being in Charleston? It is very probable that there was a quarrel and a resultant secession in the original congregation. The details of the controversy are unknown; there are very few extant sources, but this we know: one group survived and continued to employ the Spanish-Portuguese liturgy. The second “German” group to organize in America met at Philadelphia in 1795. The Revolutionary ethos encouraged dissent. In 1787, German Catholics going off on their own had established a schismatic congregation to the dismay of Bishop Carroll of Baltimore. A generation earlier, when Philadelphia’s Jews were in the throes of an organizational ferment, they, too, may already have envisaged an Ashkenazic service. In any case, positive evidence is lacking that the 1795 German conventicle survived in Philadelphia, but by 1800 the city had a new Ashkenazic group that was destined to persevere. Obviously these newcomers felt that they would be more comfortable with their own non-Sephardic ritual and a compatible membership. “Minor” differences and nuances are always important. If by 1801 they had a cemetery, it may be assumed that the organization was created a year earlier. Philadelphia, then the country’s outstanding city, was the first to harbor two ritually diverse congregations. The longstanding colonial American tradition of a single synagog-community was shattered; from now on there would be multiple Jewish religious communities, each one autonomous. In short, the American Protestant tradition would now become the American Jewish tradition. A formal organization of these Philadelphia Germans was effected in 1802; they called themselves the Hebrew German Society, Rodeph Shalom, the Pursuer of Peace, and set out to unite the dissident Ashkenazim in town—hence, the “pursuit” of peace. This urge to peace, the desire for unity, has remained a recurrent motif in American Jewry down to the present day.2

Originally Rodeph Shalom was a sick-care and burial society. When a man took sick, two members sat up with him every night; if he had died away from home, messengers were sent to bring the body back if the distance was less than eighty miles. By 1810, the conventicle became a full congregation with a constitution of its own; two years later, it was chartered by the state. For a time its reader, probably a volunteer, was Wolfe Benjamin, a native Englishman. Back in London, as a distiller, he had come into conflict with the British excise authorities and had left for Philadelphia. He was respected as a generous and learned man. A later reader was the omnibus factotum Jacob Lippman, sometimes known as Rabbi Jacky (Jackey, Jakey). From 1819 to 1834, Lippman served as reader, beadle, circumciser, and probably as collector, too. On the pittance he received—$50 a year—he could not survive and so augmented his salary from the profits of a second-hand clothing store. Rodeph Shalom finally increased his salary to $150 a year. The members stinted on the hazzan’s salary, but when they received an appeal for help from a new Ashkenazic confraternity in Richmond, they responded generously. It was many years before the congregants had a building of their own; in the meantime, they rented quarters. Over the door of one of the hired halls, they piously painted the Hebrew text of Genesis 28:17, which the Authorized Version translates: “How dreadful is this place! This is none other than the House of God.” When the Central Europeans arrived in larger numbers, they joined Rodeph Shalom; the congregation grew and as the members prospered some moved over to the more prestigious Mikveh Israel and became “Sephardim.” By 1840, a third Jewish congregation had arisen in the city, Beth Israel. This new Ashkenazic group looked askance at the acculturated Sephardim of Mikveh Israel and even at the well-settled Ashkenazim of Rodeph Shalom. Like most immigrant conventicles, it was to the right of the town’s established congregations, whose Orthodoxy seemed somehow inauthentic.3

It was not uncommon for Jews in their initial form of organization to establish a sick-care and burial society. This is what happened in Philadelphia when the founders of Rodeph Shalom decided to withdraw from Mikveh Israel, and apparently the same process recurred in Columbia, South Carolina. In 1826, a handful of men created a Hebrew Burial Society, which speedily became a Hebrew Benevolent Society, a mutual-benefit, sick-care, burial, and charitable organization. There can be no question that the members joined together for worship services on occasion, although it is difficult to determine whether these Central Europeans used a Sephardic or an Ashkenazic prayer book. In 1819, Cincinnati’s Jews, Ashkenazim, had begun to hold services; two years later they bought a cemetery to bury a resident who, dying, had requested Jewish burial. An older settler in town, he had married out and had reared a Christian family. By 1824, the English, Dutch, and German Jews in the city had organized themselves formally; there were twenty households; in 1832 they had over thirty. Thinking of building a synagog of their own—the first beyond the Alleghenies—they sent letters of appeal throughout the United States, the Islands, and even to England. Here in this western boomtown, they bragged, they were building a congregation where a few years before naught had been heard “but the howling of wild beasts and the more hideous cry of savage man.” The appeal was written by Joseph Jonas, the congregation’s romantic founder. The new congregation, he pointed out, had a rented room, two Scrolls of the Law, and a volunteer shohet. The cemetery was filling up; the members had already buried four people, two of them poor strangers. One of those buried had been brought up by steamboat from Louisville. If only they had a building of their own, they could draw members from New Orleans! Writing to Sephardic congregations, they reminded them that Ashkenazim were of the “same family and faith.” Jonas and his brother had each married a daughter of the Sephardi Gershom Seixas. There was no congregation within 500 miles of Cincinnati—help us stop intermarriage, they pleaded. It took over a decade to get enough money to construct their own synagog; fifty-two Cincinnati Gentiles each gave $25, which mounted up to a substantial sum and helped make possible in 1836 the dedication of the first Jewish sanctuary west of the mountains.4


The same year—1825—that Joseph Jonas sent out his appeal for funds the Ashkenazim of New York were determined to establish a group of their own. The Ashkenazic congregations soon to rise in the United States were breakaways from older Sephardic synagogs, or pioneer conventicles in the hinterland, or secessions from recently established Ashkenazic congregations. The English and Central European immigrants coming into a new town obviously preferred their familiar Ashkenazic rite to the standard American Sephardic ritual. Whether in New York, Philadelphia, or Richmond, they wanted a synagog life of their own. The motivations for secession are reflected in the history of Bnai Jeshurun of New York, the first non-Sephardic congregation in that city. Though the Central and East Europeans—Ashkenazim—had constituted the majority of New York Jewry since 1720 at the latest, the eighteenth-century non-Iberian newcomers were speedily Sephardized. Their descendants supplied Shearith Israel’s members and leaders throughout this period. By the 1820’s, however, a substantial number of newcomers in town felt strong enough to push for autonomy. These Jews were English, Dutch, Germans, and Poles. (Many of the latter may well have originated in the Prussian provinces which had once been part of Poland; the Germans would never forgive them for having been born east of the Neisse River.) The nineteenth-century immigrants may have believed that they were being snubbed by the older families in Shearith Israel—just as the East Europeans who came to New York in the late nineteenth century were convinced that the acculturated “Germans” looked down on them. By 1822, the German element in Shearith Israel had already established a charity of its own, the Hebrew Benevolent Society. These Central Europeans became more belligerent as they gathered strength. The struggle was ethnic, liturgical, a fight for power between the old-timers and the ambitious newcomers. The new arrivals, many of them English-born, were men of education. Some had means; others aspired to leadership. Rivalries between the Spanish-Portuguese and the Central European Jews were nothing new; such ethnic and social hostilities surely inspired the establishment of exclusionary Sephardic cemeteries in New York during the seventeenth century and in Charleston during the eighteenth.5

By 1825, the New York non-Sephardim were ready to begin their thrust. That year the dissidents established in Shearith Israel an educational group of their own, the Hebra Hinuch Nearim, a Society for Educating the Youth. Along with the hevrah came a series of demands. The non-Sephardim sought a separate service in the synagog, although they were willing to continue the use of the Sephardic rite, and they wanted cheaper offerings, their own voluntary lay reader, more democracy in the conduct of the board, and better educational facilities. Back in the 1600’s, in Holland, the Amsterdam Spanish-Portuguese had allowed incoming Germans to use their synagog for services of their own, but the latter-day New Amsterdam-New Yorkers were too apprehensive to tolerate this push for autonomy, for an Ashkenazic liturgy within the venerable Sephardic synagog. These intimations of Jacksonian democracy, as they may well have been, were not well received at Shearith Israel. Bear in mind that the decade of the 1820’s was one of ferment; much of Europe was unhappy in the Age of Metternich; the South Americans were in revolt against Spain. One suspects that the Shearith Israel newcomers were goading the establishment. The congregational leaders responded by setting out to control the admission of newcomers. The break soon followed. In 1825, a new congregation was established, the first Ashkenazic one in the city; it called itself Bnai Jeshurun, the Children of Jeshurun. To justify their secession, they gave their reasons; the United States allows everyone to worship according to the dictates of his conscience; the synagog is too far downtown; it is too small for the Holy Day crowds; the newcomers have a right to their own ritual; they want a more intense form of Judaism. The secessionists seem to have insinuated that the older congregation was slipping religiously. One suspects, too, that Shearith Israel was quite willing to let the protestants go. In the 1730’s, the Sephardim had needed the Ashkenazim; now, in the 1820’s the Sephardic elite knew that it could survive without the Ashkenazic newcomers. Indeed the Shearith Israel leaders gave the secessionists their blessing; the rich Harmon Hendricks helped finance them; Noah and other Sephardim encouraged them. Who can question that some of the Shearith Israel members muttered the old blessing under their breath: “Blessed be He who hath freed me from this responsibility.” This is the congé when a father tells his thirteen-year-old son he is now a man, religiously, and is expected to take care of himself.6

The Sons of Jeshurun bought a Negro church, refurbished it, introduced their own rite, and then sent letters all over the Atlantic world asking for money. This procedure, witnessed already in the Cincinnati request for funds, goes back to the 1730’s. Like the Cincinnatians, whose appeal the New Yorkers had undoubtedly read, they reminded the Sephardim that all Jews were kinsmen; to the Ashkenazim to whom they turned they emphasized that they were refugees fleeing from European persecution. The dedication address, given in 1827, was delivered by the twenty-three-year-old Henry Hendricks, a member of Shearith Israel. The new congregation could not refuse this request by their wealthy patron, Harmon Hendricks; after all it was a secured loan from him that had made possible the purchase of the church. In the course of time, Bnai Jeshurun became one of the largest synagogs in the country. The rise of this congregation and of other Ashkenazic synagogs was a premonitory warning that Sephardic rule was approaching its end. Ultimately, later in the nineteenth century, and in the twentieth especially, the city’s Ashkenazic Jewry was to become the most influential Jewish body in the world.7

Bnai Jeshurun broke the (Ashkenazic) ice. The next fifteen years saw four new congregations established in New York City; three were to survive. Why did different Ashkenazic synagogs arise? Were the liturgical variations that important? For some, yes, they were—but, actually, the causes for proliferation and secession were frequently very personal in nature. New congregations were established because people wanted to be with their very own fellow countrymen. Personal idiosyncrasies and complaints played their part in inciting breakaways; intramural quarrels, prejudices, imagined slights, social ambitions, the desire for office all played an important part in the establishment of new congregations. A man resigned from Bnai Jeshurun in 1835 because of a minor restriction and then set out to establish a new congregation; he succeeded, though it was only three months before the new congregation closed its doors. Earlier in 1828, Anshe Chesed, The Merciful Men, had come into being. Shearith Israel helped the Merciful Men get on its feet, but would not permit it to worship in its building. The Merciful Men was a motley group at first—Germans, Poles, and Dutch—but, when the Central Europeans began to arrive in numbers, the Germans dominated. By 1840, Anshe Chesed had purchased and renovated a Quaker church down on the Lower East Side; two decades later, overtaking Bnai Jeshurun numerically, it became the largest Jewish congregation in the United States. Bnai Jeshurun itself was to experience two or three secessions: in 1839, some Germans and Poles left the mother Ashkenazic synagog and founded the Gates of Righteousness, Shaarey Zedek; that same year a group of Jews opened The Gates of Heaven, Shaarey Hashamayim. An immigrant had no trouble finding a place to worship where he could truly be with his own.8


New York was a city with a religious tradition. There had always been a congregation there, and it was expected that newcomers would rally around the synagog. The New Orleans Jews faced a different situation: A substantial number came there but found no synagog and wanted none. New Orleans was a “wide open” town—an “emporium of wine, women and segars,” a young Charlestonian once called it. The Jews acculturated speedily, were accepted by the Catholic elite, intermarried, and reared Christian families. They themselves remained Jews; there was no compulsion to embrace Christianity. The Jews there who did take the Jewish religion seriously—and there were always some—were moved by Jacob S. Solis to organize themselves as a congregation. This man, London-born in 1780, had come to the United States about the year 1803. His business career was a checkered one; there is no reason to believe that he was successful. Opening a store in Wilmington, Delaware, he settled down for a while at least and then moved to Westchester County, New York, where he attempted unsuccessfully in 1826 to establish an academy for Jewish children who were to be taught agriculture, domestic skills, and crafts.

Solis was above all an ardent Jew and, arriving in New Orleans in 1827, set out to establish a synagog. In this effort, he was successful; Congregation Gates of Mercy, Shanarai-Chasset, was the work of his hands. Sephardic at first, it later adopted the Ashkenazic rite—which is not surprising, since practically all the early members were of non-Iberian origin. The new synagog published a constitution in 1828, one adapted to its needs in this town. The board was to raise money to build a temple or an “institute,” the latter word reflecting the new European pedagogy with which Solis was very probably familiar. The poor were to be helped; the children were to be educated. The traditional requirement that the individual’s Jewish descent be traced through the mother was disregarded; a child of even one Jewish parent was recognized as a Jew for purposes of education or burial. Christian wives were to receive a Jewish burial; so were prostitutes, adultresses, and suicides, and special sections in the cemetery were reserved for them. During those days of rampant yellow fever epidemics, the congregation was very much concerned with burials; the entire board was expected to attend all funerals. A cemetery had been purchased in March, 1828, a month after the congregation’s founding. When the Gates of Mercy was established in 1828, there were 28 founding members; 33 other Jews in town gave it donations, but refused to join; 11 Gentiles made generous subscriptions. To teach the Jews when to celebrate their Holy Days, Solis and his friends attached a calendar to the constitution which they published. This was true home missionary activity. Since the constitution was intended to build a viable Jewish community, its sponsors had no hesitation in disregarding Jewish laws which would have precluded unity and organization. For a generation, Gates of Mercy, the first synagog on the Gulf, was the only one in town. For the short time that Solis remained in town, he served as the synagog’s spiritual leader, then returned to his home in New York, and by 1829 was dead. In a letter to his widow a number of the New Orleans congregants spoke of him as a brother to all men, a father to the orphans, an aid to the poor, a helper for the sick, a companion to the afflicted.9

Solis, a devoted volunteer, was succeeded by others determined to keep the congregation alive. Manis Jacobs, his successor, president and acting-rabbi, was a native Hollander. When he died in 1839 his Catholic wife attempted to slip a crucifix into his coffin. During the 1830’s and later, Alfred J. Marks served as secretary and lay rabbi, possibly even as circumciser, though there is some evidence that his own children were left uncircumcised. The congregation gave him some sort of salary, but he made his living chiefly as an official in the customshouse, as a stage manager, and as an actor. Because he had at times played the part of Rowley in the School for Scandal, he was known to his friends as Rowley or Roley Marks. He especially enjoyed his role as a volunteer in the Washington Fire Company, No. 4. A German traveler who attended his services in 1842 was shocked. Marks observed no dietary laws; indeed in all New Orleans there were only four families which attempted to keep kosher and only two which kept the Sabbath. New Orleans Jewry was anything but observant; the assimilatory influences were almost overwhelming. Most boys in New Orleans were not circumcised; many youngsters could read no Hebrew; Purim was not observed because Marks was too busy; even the High Holy Day services were poorly attended. Some immigrants wandered up the Mississippi from New Orleans and settled in Natchez, an old Spanish town which at one time had sheltered a handful of Marranos. Ashkenazic newcomers, coming later, bought a cemetery and probably met together as a prayer union.10

Baltimore was not New Orleans; there was less emphasis on wine, women, and good food. Here, too, Jews were late to organize because relatively few of them found their way to the city at first. Baltimore was a metropolis but it was slow to attract Jews; the older coastal towns, so it seemed, had more to offer. By 1829, with about thirty families, Baltimoreans were ready to establish a congregation of their own. To be sure the local Jews could have fashioned a community earlier had the elite old-timers been willing to help; for social reasons these pioneers kept aloof and worshipped by themselves. One may assume occasional prayer services were held in the early 1820’s, for there were enough newcomers in town and there was always a need for special devotions. By 1829, the Dutch, Germans, Bohemians, and Poles had united to establish an Ashkenazic conventicle—Nitgy Israel (Nidhe Israel), the Scattered Ones of Israel; later, the worshippers called themselves the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. In January, 1830, they were chartered and immediately published a constitution of their own in English, not German. Unlike their coreligionists in distant New Orleans, they made no compromise with intermarriage, but hewed to the line. Before the decade was over, about the year 1838, another small synagog opened in a different part of town—the Fell’s Point Hebrew Congregation. By 1840, about 100 families had settled in Baltimore, all of them nominally traditional. That year Abraham Rice (Reiss?), an ordained German rabbi, came in to serve the Scattered Israelites. He, the first ordained rabbi to serve a congregation in Baltimore, was an ardent follower of the Law. Baltimoreans of a later generation maintained that he had helped keep Baltimore “Jewish,” though in his own eyes his success seemed quite limited. The times were against him. He is said to have been the first ordained rabbi to officiate in this country.11

Authentic tradition has it that Baltimore Jews were among the first to settle in Louisville at the Falls of the Ohio. Once a man reached the Ohio, the whole West was open to him on the river highways. Jews are known to have already settled in town by the 1820’s. About the year 1830 there was a cemetery, in answer to an urgent need, women dying in childbirth and high infant mortality. Louisville, by the 1830’s, seems to have established a mutual-aid and burial society, which certainly helped stem the forces of assimilation. Attempts during this decade to organize a synagog were unsuccessful until 1836 when a congregation was established that would one day become Adath Israel, The Community of Israel. Anyone who went around the Falls at Louisville could float down the Ohio into the Mississippi. Poling up the Mississippi would bring a traveler to St. Louis, an old French settlement important because the Mississippi tributary, the Missouri, opened up the western country all the way to the Rocky Mountains. Jews were doing business in St. Louis by the first decade of the new century. This city, like Louisville, set out to build a congregation in the 1830’s; prayer quorums began to meet and about the year 1837 a permanent religious society was founded—the later United Hebrew Congregation, called “United” because of the congeries of Jews it tied together.12

The West—of that generation—was being infiltrated also from the Gulf and from the Atlantic coastal towns. Charleston’s eager young men were to be found in Columbia, South Carolina, and in all the states of the Old Southwest; Jewish adventurers from Philadelphia and Baltimore crossed the mountains to the Ohio; New York’s Jewish argonauts sailed up the Hudson to Albany and then moved west on the Erie Canal. Albany, rather surprisingly, had had Jewish settlers or visitors as early as the 1660’s under Dutch rule, but had to wait thirteen years after the Erie was opened before German immigrants decided to remain in the city and established a congregation. In 1838, Congregation Beth El was founded; eight years later it hired the young Bohemian √©migr√© Isaac Mayer Wise to minister to it. Wise in later years—by then he had gone on to Cincinnati—organized the American Jewish Reform movement. Settlers and peddlers moving west on the Canal planted themselves in Syracuse and held services. The town sheltered a number of itinerant merchants who returned to it periodically to replenish their packs and wagons at a wholesale house owned by Jews. Congregation Keneseth Shalom, the Society of Concord, opened its doors in 1839. The constant emphasis on peace and concord is not accidental. American Jewry was a melting pot fusing together Jews from a half-dozen different European lands and a dozen different German principalities. Among them were Alsatians from Western Europe and Russians from Eastern Europe. If they were to pray together, peace and concord were imperative. It was a short steamboat trip from the western terminal of the Erie Canal to Cleveland, a city with a future since it could reach out to all the Great Lakes and to the Atlantic, while through the Ohio Canal the whole West lay open before it. Thus it was that a congregation was established in Cleveland in 1839, though individual Jews had lived in the city or its immediate neighborhood since the 1820’s. A small body of Bavarian Jews from the village of Unsleben had settled there in the late 1830’s and was soon joined by others. A part-time reader and shohet was hired for $50 a year to serve the Israelite Society, a mutual-aid association. The West was building up.13

When Jews establish communities, they go where opportunity beckons. Thus it is not surprising that the community of Easton was reborn in 1839—decades after the passing of colonial Jewish Easton. Jews returned there because the town took on a new lease of life when it became a junction point for three canals. The new Jewish settlers, Germans, wrote their synagogal constitution in that language, but used the Hebrew script; some Jews could not or would not write the Gothic cursive. A few immigrants who knew the Latin alphabet preferred the Hebrew cursive when they wrote English. Dues were not high in the reborn congregation, $1.50 a year, payable in installments. These Jews were simple, humble shopkeepers. One of the businessmen in town was known to retire to the back of his store to recite his daily prayers; another, losing part of a finger, saw to its proper Jewish burial; the Resurrection was always to be kept in mind. The Easton ritual was Ashkenazic, but the worshippers had no hesitation about employing Sephardic melodies for some of their hymns. Leeser visited them in 1856 and was surprised to find them still using German as the language of instruction in their synagogal school. The Germans, he reminded them, were oppressors of Jews. What he perhaps overlooked was how helpful the German language was in business around Easton; German farmers worked the land in many places in that region.14

Individual Jews were often pioneers, bold ones. Nevertheless, many new arrivals stayed within the sound of familiar Hebrew prayers; they were Jews who wanted to be with Jews; they needed that comfort, that security. Most of the newcomers stayed east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. That is why a few had settled in Easton. Some of these Germans, however, wandered west into the Virginia piedmont, to Richmond, where there had been a congregation since the late 1780’s. It may well be indeed that Sephardic Beth Shalome received them kindly. In any event, caution and economic need impelled new settlers to remain under the umbrella of an older group, even when they were numerically strong enough to introduce a service more to their own liking. By 1839, however, the Central European newcomers had organized a mutual-aid welfare and burial society, a new fraternity calling itself Hebrah Ahabat Yisrael, the Love of Israel Association. The new congregation which soon emerged from it received the name Congregation Beth Ahabah, the House of Love (1840–41).15

It is strange to reflect that Virginia, the oldest of the states, was one of the last to foster a Jewish congregation, and even then not until the Revolution was past. It is stranger still that the Jews were slow to penetrate New England, one of the oldest North American areas of settlement. Newport’s colonial Salvation of Israel was dead by the turn of the century. New Jewish communities were to develop but slowly in New England when the Jews began to leave the perimeter of New York. There can be no question that the New York Jewish exiles of 1776, living for years in Connecticut during the Revolution, conducted services at least for the Holy Days. Their rabbi, Seixas, was with them from 1776 to 1780. It would take time for Jewish communities to make their appearance in Connecticut; the political climate was not too wholesome, but by 1840 there is a probability that New Haven Jewry was praying together. Out of this group would later come the congregation Mishkan Israel, Israel’s Tabernacle. It is also very likely that ten adult males had by that time found one another in Boston and united in prayer. Some 200 years after the first Jew had landed in the city, Boston saw the beginning of a rebirth of New England Jewry. In the distant Midwest, across the Appalachians, newcomers who settled in Cincinnati had no choice but to affiliate with Bnai Israel, The Sons of Israel, the town’s Jewish spiritual entrepôt ever since 1824. But, by 1840, or so, the Germans felt strong enough to secede from the older English-style Ashkenazic synagog and to establish one of their own—B’nai Yeshurun, the Sons of Jeshurun.16


By 1840, whenever the Central Europeans—Ashkenazim—were numerous enough, they began organizing their own prayer groups in the metropolitan centers and in the hinterland. It bears repeating: the social motivation was dominant in synagogal secessions. The Ashkenazic newcomers wanted their pronunciation, or mispronunication, of the Hebrew; they wanted their theologically inconsequential, liturgical variations; they wanted to be with their own. The newcomers generally spoke German; the old-line citizens of the Sephardic rite spoke English. Such tensions and divisions did not typify the Jews alone. German and Irish Catholics scorned one another, ethnic Catholics wanted their own language, their own traditional way of life reflected in their own religious and communal affairs. Despite the fact that most Jews in the United States were of Central European origin, the differences that separated them were keenly felt. The older congregations were not happy with the newcomers; the recent arrivals were uncomfortable in the presence of their acculturated fellow Jews. The distinctions were cultural and socioeconomic. The new settlers were religiously more intense, more observant; they wanted a completely European-type service untouched by any American character. Thus it was that multiple congregations sprang up in Philadelphia, New York, Richmond, and Cincinnati. It was the Jewish version of the Protestant, the American tradition—proliferation, a multiplicity of congregations if not of denominations. One may hazard a guess that by the end of this period there were at least 25 Jewish congregations and prayer groups in the country; most were Ashkenazic; as many as 7 may have been Sephardic. The Ashkenazim ruled the hinterland as far west as the left bank of the Mississippi, St. Louis. Memberships were invariably small, but this was true of the Christian churches, too. The monopolistic Sephardic synagog-community of the colonial and early national decades was dead by 1840. The European style consolidated, authoritative community had no place here; every American synagog was an autonomous entity making its own rules and doing that which was right in its own eyes. Yet the different congregations in the cities remained friendly; separatism tended to dissipate hostilities.17



Despite the fact that there were at least twenty some Ashkenazic socioreligious fellowships and at the most only seven Sephardic, the latter were dominant during this period religiously, culturally, and socially. They had high visibility inasmuch as their members were the leading tidewater Jews of New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, Savannah, and the Virginia piedmont at Richmond. These Jews were all aware of the differences between the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim: the liturgy, the pronunciation of the Hebrew, the terms used to designate the reading desk and the ark in the synagog; the resort to Spanish-Portuguese as a semi-sacred tongue, all these marked some of the divisions. Most of those who considered themselves Sephardim, the old-timers, were actually not of Iberian stock, but were of Ashkenazic background, descendants of earlier Ashkenazic settlers who had accepted the Sephardic worship style as the American style. The Ashkephardim, as they may be called, were middle-class Jews with an ethos of their own; they looked down on the newcomers. The distinctions between the old and the new were, after all, not so much religious or ethnic, as they were social and, to a degree, economic. The native-born deemed themselves important; they had prestige, status. The roots of the older settlers went back, in some instances, to the 1650’s in New York City; their rite had long been the standard one in America. Yet these old-timers were doomed to decline in the face of much larger numbers of Ashkenazic immgrants. Sephardic Newport began to disappear when the port lost its importance during and after the Revolution; very few Jews were left in town in the 1790’s. Actually Newport Jewry had never numbered even 200 souls. The remaining few who clung to the town after the War were siphoned off to Boston, New York, and Charleston, the new cities of opportunity. Moses Seixas, the cashier of the Bank of Rhode Island, elected to remain; he functioned also as the community’s circumciser. The congregation did not even own a proper ram’s horn to sound the call to prayer on the High Holy Days. All told, the Newport congregation had lasted but one generation.18


Obviously New York was the oldest congregation in the country; the second oldest was Savannah. Newport very probably had a prayer quorum in the 1670’s for a very brief period, there may have been enough Jews in Charleston in the 1690’s to meet together for an occasional service, but the Georgia Jewish colonists who arrived as a body in 1733 set themselves up without delay as a congregation. Savannah Jewry, however, seems to have had no capacity to stay alive for any length of time; because of the colony’s economic and political problems, the Jewish community did not grow. A permanent group was finally established in 1790 although there is reason to believe that it was preceded by at least two rebirths of the 1733 congregation. The Georgians took on new life in 1790, because the constitution of 1789 accorded them equality. The newly established synagog-community, like the Philadelphia synagog, called itself the Hope of Israel, Mickve (Mikveh) Israel. The two communities were probably mindful of the seventeenth-century Curaçao group of the same name. The North Americans leaned heavily on the Islands all through the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Baltimore’s Scattered Israelites, Nidhe Yisrael, certainly took the name from the then much more important Barbados synagog. Savannah Jews had had a cemetery since Oglethorpe’s day; Mordecai Sheftall gave them another one in 1773. For fifty years at least, Mickve Israel struggled to survive after its turn-of-the-century rebirth. It was only with difficulty that the members could pay the rent on the room where from time to time they met for services. The few dollars needed had to be borrowed from a burial confraternity which had been established in the late eighteenth century: Meshibat Nefesh, Restoration of the Soul. Occasionally they hired a part-time beadle and a shohet, but there was no full-time paid reader all through this period. Devoted ardent Jews like the De La Mottas, Emanuel and Jacob, volunteered to conduct services as they commuted between Charleston and Savannah. As late as 1800, there were times when ten adults could not be gathered for a religious quorum. They did buy lottery tickets for the synagog in the hope of winning a substantial prize and improving their financial position. It was also good public relations to buy lotteries for the benefit of the local poorhouse or hospital.

Why the Savannah congregation did not advance is not easy to divine. Georgia became a boom state as the new cotton lands were cultivated. There is some evidence that the little community was riven by cliques; there was friction between the natives and the incoming aliens. There are indications that a rival group held a service of its own; the congregation threatened to expel the dissidents if they did not hasten to make amends. Of course when the state called on Mickve Israel along with the other religious societies in Georgia to hold public services of thanks or supplication, the Jews complied. A cultured member like Dr. Moses Sheftall would then make a formal address. There had been talk of building a synagog ever since the 1790’s, but this goal was not reached till 1820. Nearly ninety years passed before the first sanctuary was erected. The dedication was a grand affair; the Masons participated, and Dr. Jacob De La Motta made the important address, printed copies of which were sent to Jefferson and Madison. Nine years later, Mickve Israel was gutted by fire and was not rebuilt until 1838. The dedication took place in 1843, when Leeser was brought down from Philadelphia. Why wait five years? How typical was this struggle to stay alive? Most Jewish congregations found it very difficult to balance the budget. Why? Impecuniosity? Thrift? Indifference? Dissension?19


Jewish Savannah was a satellite of Charleston, which, despite the fact that the South Carolina metropolis had by the 1830’s lost its economic preeminence, still sheltered the South’s most important Jewish community. Its Jews had wealth, status, and culture; they were highly respected by all other Jewish communities. The first organized Jewish congregation had made its appearance about the year 1749; incorporation came in 1791, a year after a new state constitution enfranchised Jews. The new synagogal charter emphasized not only religion and education, but also the determination of local Jewry to support its poor. Beth Elohim assured the State Assembly that the Jewish community would never be a charity burden. The tone certainly seems apologetic, but the concept of Jewish integration into an overwhelmingly Gentile society was, after all, something very new and precarious in 1791. After living in rented rooms for almost half a century, the congregation renovated a building. The beautiful rebuilt structure, the Old Synagogue, as the Charlestonians called it, sheltered the largest Jewish congregation in the country for some four decades. Charleston Jews prospered when the city became a shipping and cotton center. Beth Elohim was ardently Sephardic, though there is some evidence that the original synagog owed its establishment to “Germans.” Ultimately the Germans and the Portuguese united, a fusion eased by the probability that both congregations originally employed the Sephardic rite, and had been ethnically rather than liturgically disparate. The Jews of the city were seldom without a minister and refused to be satisfied with second best. One of their hazzanim served for twenty years till his death in 1805. After his passing, his wife continued to receive his salary and the use of the parsonage until a successor was appointed; then she was given a pension. In the meantime, Beth Elohim wrote to the mother Sephardic congregation in London and asked the leaders there to send over a man of merit and classical education who would reflect honor on the congregation. It was concerned with its image in the general community. The Londoners, eager to help, sent a man who was totally unfit—and when Beth Elohim shipped him back, the English were furious.20

Two new constitutions adopted in 1820 and 1836 reflect some of the problems and challenges of a large city community. Would-be proselytes were not to be encouraged; converts were to be admitted only after careful scrutiny of their religious credentials; Jewish blacks could not become members; prostitutes and bordello madams were accepted only after they had repented and demonstrated an ability to lead respectable lives. The congregation suffered a great loss when the synagog burnt down in 1838; the new one, built in 1841, is still standing; it is the oldest Jewish sanctuary in continuous use in this country, since Newport’s Salvation of Israel was not revived until the 1890’s. In 1840, Charleston was shattered by a schism and a secession. Beth Elohim introduced some very minor reforms, though it remained Sephardic in liturgy. The traditionalists—a substantial number—seceded calling themselves Shearith Israel, taking as their model New York’s rock-ribbed Sephardic congregation. Thus Charleston now had two Sephardic communities at war with each other. The split hurt Beth Elohim, diminishing its resources radically.21

South Carolina’s second largest Jewish community maintained itself in Columbia. A congregation organized in 1846 also bore the name Shearith Israel. If indeed it patterned itself on the Charleston secessionists and the New Yorkers, then it, too, must have adopted the Sephardic liturgy. Columbia’s Jews had a Hebrew Benevolent Society as early as 1826. Very probably its prime purpose was to serve as a sick-care and burial organization. Undoubtedly, religious services were also conducted. The name employed was borrowed from a similar confraternity which had been established in Charleston in 1784. This latter society, still in existence, is the oldest Jewish association of its kind in this country. Georgetown on the coast north of Charleston may very well have had enough Jews to constitute a religious quorum, but no evidence that they met for prayer has yet surfaced. Some of them were members of Beth Elohim. Georgetown’s Jewry was thoroughly acculturated and may have feared that the establishment of a congregation there would emphasize Jewish disparateness in so overwhelmingly Christian a community. This much is certain: the assimilatory influences in the South have always been stronger than in the North. Wilmington, North Carolina, was to have no formal organized congregation till a later decade, though services were conducted on the High Holy Days in the early 1820’s by voluntary readers, men and women. There is every reason to believe that much of the reading was in English from the Sephardic prayer book. The few Jews in Norfolk, Virginia, found it necessary to buy a cemetery in 1820, and there is a strong probability that they met occasionally for services. The Myers family included several adults who could have counted for a quorum, and Scrolls of the Law were available.22


It is puzzling why coastal Norfolk, which had an excellent harbor, did not develop into a viable Jewish community whereas Richmond, an inland town, did (and no later than 1789). Richmond thus became the country’s westernmost Jewish outpost. The group’s constitution was short as befitted a small new community. Worthy of comment is the limitation of membership to free men, a prohibition directed in all likelihood against white bondsmen, Jews, of course. Among the founding members were only one or two Jews of even remote Iberian origin. Why then did the group, the House of Peace, Beth Shalome, adopt the Spanish-Portuguese rite? All the members had probably lived in coastal towns where the minhag Sefarad, the Sephardic worship style, was standard; they all did business with men who belonged to “Iberian” congregations. Beth Shalome employed professional readers, but when there was no incumbent, or if the occasion required it, able men in the congregation were invited to speak. Thus Mordecai addressed his compatriots on Rosh Hashanah of 1824, and at times Solomon Jacobs, among others, was asked to preach and to conduct services. The young Ashkenazi immigrant Isaac Leeser, who occasionally helped the reader, learned the traditional Spanish-Jewish chaunts and was thus able to respond to an invitation from Mikveh Israel of Philadelphia to serve as hazzan.23

Baltimore’s first Jewish settlers—a handful at best—had come there before the revolt against the British. They were Philadelphians with roots in Mikveh Israel. Indeed Baltimore’s Jewish elite retained membership in the Philadelphia synagog for decades. Inasmuch as there was occasional need for services, the Ettings and Cohens—and perhaps the Levys—may well have joined together to constitute a prayer quorum. Services were held in one of the homes. In 1827, the Ettings gave up their seats and severed their connection with Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia. In those prerailroad days, they could not run to Philadelphia every time they wished to intone the commemorative Kaddish prayer for their dead. There is some evidence, too, that both Sephardic families observed the dietary laws. Solomon Etting was a trained shohet; the Cohens owned a book dealing with the rules of kashrut. These are indicia, not proofs to be sure, that the families were concerned with tradition. As we have already observed, had these cultured Jews been willing to join with the European newcomers, there would have been no difficulty in setting up an all-inclusive synagog based on America’s traditional Spanish-Portuguese minhag. This the old-timers refused to do, though such fusions had been successfully effected long before this in New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Savannah. The Baltimore Sephardim felt no need to co-opt the incoming Germans; they had a minyan of their own and at least one cemetery. A formal Sephardic congregation established in the 1850’s, proved to be shortlived.24


Despite the many difficulties which Philadelphia’s Hope of Israel, Mikveh Israel, confronted, it was an important Sephardic congregation. In the 1830’s and 1840’s under Hazzan Leeser, it was destined to exercise a great deal of influence. There is evidence that the Jews in town had organized themselves as early as the 1730’s; during the next decade they certainly held services, but, like most other synagog-communities, they grew very slowly. There would be no genuinely substantial inflow of immigrants to the United States till the end of the fourth decade of the nineteenth century. This much is certain: when the Philadelphians and the assembled exiles from British-occupied territory built the town’s first synagog building during the Revolution, the liturgy was Sephardic for the simple reason that the exiles who flocked to the city during the Revolution had come from Sephardic communities. The refugees made the new synagog possible; they determined the liturgy that was adopted. The exiles were often men of affluence, substantial merchants and importers. The congregation was always to remain Sephardic—like Shearith Israel in New York—and ardently so, though in the nineteenth century the members of authentic Iberian descent could nearly always be counted on the fingers of one hand. Only 14 of the 61 subscribers to the new building in 1782 were descended from Jews who originally came from Spain and Portugal. In 1782, when the old-timers and exiles foregathered, Philadelphia sheltered the country’s largest Jewry. The well-to-do subscribed liberally; valuable Scrolls of the Law were presented or lent to the congregation, and Captain Abraham M. Seixas gave Mikveh Israel a silver cup to be used for the Saturday night havdalah service. The women sewed mantles to adorn the Scrolls, made curtains for the ark, and a beautiful silk cloth cover for the reading desk. Parliamentary rules of order were laid down for the conduct of meetings. This was an aspect of Americanization; an attempt to put the best foot forward in this, the capital city of the new republic.25

With the coming of peace and the postwar depression, Mikveh Israel found itself in trouble. The membership declined when the war refugees left. These former exiles, often men of influence, returned to their original homes, but even before they left they asked to be reimbursed for the sums they had so generously advanced. The congregation could not or would not pay its debts; internal quarrels exacerbated conditions. There was a substantial mortgage, but very little money to pay the interest. At times there were not enough funds to pay salaries; in the early 1790’s, the congregation had less than a dozen paying members. Mikveh Israel had appealed for aid to liberals among the Gentiles; a lottery was licensed and tickets were sold; by the second decade of the new century, the congregation had gotten out of debt and was finally able to meet its obligations. It was a long, hard pull. New members came in, albeit slowly, for the not infrequent financial depressions made it difficult for many to make a living.26

The synagogal functionaries had been receiving salaries since the 1750’s; some of them were only part-time workers; salaries were low. In 1776, one man served as reader, teacher, and shohet. The war brought great changes; the congregation blossomed, and in 1780 Gershom Seixas, in exile in Connecticut, was invited to become the minister. He was a dignified, cultured American gentleman. There could be no question about that; with him came, or was reinforced, the Sephardic ritual. Unfortunately for the Philadelphians, when Shearith Israel of New York was taken over in 1783 by its returning Whigs, they recalled Seixas. Philadelphia, in a quandary, employed the next best man, Jacob Raphael Cohen, an anglicized native of North Africa, who had served the Montreal congregation. There in Canada from 1778 to 1781, he had performed the duties of an omnibus synagogal servant, but after quarreling with his congregants—they were a tough lot—he moved on to British-held New York whose Jewish Loyalists appointed him their hazzan. When Seixas returned to Shearith Israel’s Mill Street Synagogue in New York, the Philadelphians took Cohen. His life at Mikveh Israel was no bed of roses; he suffered in the early 1800’s, for the Jeffersonian embargoes proved ruinous for his congregants. After Cohen’s death in 1811, the congregation hired other hazzanim when it could find them. During the years when no minister was available, volunteer readers served the office. Among those whom it hired were Emanuel Nunez Carvalho (in 1815–1817) and Abraham Israel Keys (in 1824–1828). Carvalho, a man of some education and culture, had dared to oppose his board in Charleston but he left many friends in that city. After he died that Carolina congregation memorialized him in its prayers for his services to the community. Carvalho was London trained; Jacob R. Cohen, too, had benefited from a stay in that city, and the Rev. Mr. Abraham Israel Keys had also probably come from the English capital. English polish and culture were much valued on these shores. Keys had been induced to leave a Barbados congregation to take the Philadelphia post. He was very popular, probably the most beloved minister Mikveh Israel had in the first half of the century. True he was no intellectual; for some, that lack was a virtue. A good teacher, he chanted well, limited himself to his liturgical chores, and maintained excellent social relations with the members. All this the board appreciated.27

It was during Keys’s tenure in office that a new synagog was built. The 1782 building was now over forty years old; though the congregation had fewer than 100 members, it was financially sound. In addition to what it itself raised for the new structure, monies came in from other American congregations, from the Caribbean and from London. Important, too, was the sale of tickets for the dedication; 600 were sold. Christians in particular were eager to witness this spectacle, the dedication of an Egyptian-style Jewish “temple.” The program of dedication, which took place on January 21, 1825, was an elaborate one. Keys was assisted by the hazzan from New York; both men wore robes. There was a well trained Jewish choir of male and female voices—unusual, since tradition required the segregation of women from men in the sanctuary ritual. One pious Jew tried unsuccessfully to restrict the women singers to the gallery. Keys had also labored to teach the congregants to sing in unison; it was imperative that the audience be impressed, for it included a number of Gentile notables, justices of the Supreme Court and the bishop of the Episcopal Church.28


By 1840, five different synagog-communities maintained themselves in New York City; four were Ashkenazic; one was Sephardic. The city on the Hudson now sheltered the largest Jewry in the country; its preeminence has continued down to the present day. The Sephardic congregation, Shearith Israel, is the mother synagog of North America. Though not the largest congregation it was certainly the most prestigious, with its roots reaching back into the 1650’s. It could have bragged that its religious community was well over a century older than that of the Catholics, who had no sanctuary in the city until the 1780’s. In 1784 and 1801, legislative acts passed by the state authorities brought new status to Shearith Israel; it was now a chartered, recognized religious organization—a status unknown to the colonial synagog. It was during this period that the trustees and members experimented with new constitutions. Not improbably, the new organic documents reflected conflicting liberal, Jeffersonian, and Federalist biases. Postrevolutionary Shearith Israel included British Loyalists, Hessian sutlers, and returning Whig exiles. They learned to live together, but there is no reason to believe it was all smooth sailing. The 1780’s and 1790’s heard talk of a bill of rights; the 1790 congregational statute breathed the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution. Solomon Simson, the synagog president in 1790, was a radical Whig and Jeffersonian Democrat. But even the 1790 libertarian document rejected for membership a “bound or hired servant”—a prohibition shared with the Southern congregations, Richmond and Charleston. A new constitution adopted in 1805 contained no magniloquent preamble making its bow to an egalitarian philosophy. Obviously the men who wrote this document felt no need to emphasize their political beliefs; they were now concerned solely with details that would help them administer the synagog effectively. Like Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel, the New York congregation experienced many difficult years financially. The Napoleonic wars disrupted economic life; the salaries of the congregation appointees were not always paid on time. The friends of the late hazzan Gershom Seixas complained that not enough was done for his widow. Seven of the hazzan’s children were still teenagers. To defend itself, the board published a pamphlet retailing all that had been done for her. For four years after his death she received his full salary; after that she had been given a pension of sorts. What was important, too, as she was reminded, the congregation had erected a marble monument over her husband’s grave and it was reciting memorial prayers for him annually. Her answer is not recorded, but who can doubt that she was tempted to answer she could not feed her brood with a marble monument.29

For years there were only about fifty members and not all of them paid dues. The community was not growing rapidly although there were always a few émigrés arriving at the docks. Immigration was not heavy; many Europeans opted to remain at home and take advantage of Europe’s expanding political and economic opportunities. Yet, despite the very slow growth, Shearith Israel realized that it could no longer remain in the tiny building near the tip of Manhattan Island. The Mill Street sanctuary, a mere thirty-five by thirty-five feet in size, was heated by an iron stove and lit by flickering candles. The congregants were moving northward away from the old neighborhood; for some, the walk on the Sabbath was simply too much. Ultimately, the synagog was torn down, but instead of seeking a new site, the sanctuary was rebuilt on the old lot. The rich helped supply the needed funds; Harmon Hendricks and the two Touro brothers were very generous. Other American Jews and West Indians were solicited. The New Yorkers might well have built without these outside gifts, but a tradition had been set: when a synagog is built, every Jew must help. The dedication ceremony pattern had also already been seen at Philadelphia in 1782. English language prayers were emphasized; Christian notables were invited. The women in the gallery had a grandstand view of what was going on below; there was no longer a lattice to distort their vision as they followed the ceremonies in the specially printed twenty-one page program. All Hebrew prayers were translated into English, even the acrostic hymn written for the occasion by the learned Abraham Dov Pique.30

The climax of the dedication was an eloquent address by Mordecai Manuel Noah; the printed edition is forty-seven pages long, but it still reads well. The rebuilt Mill Street Synagogue could not for long solve the congregation’s spatial and geographic problems. The last service was held downtown in 1833; the following year Shearith Israel moved into new quarters—including a sanctuary and a parsonage—on Crosby Street. The new temple was fitted out with gaslight. This time the dedicatory exercises lasted two days and featured a beautiful musical service. Because it was the Pentecostal (late Spring) season, the synagog was decorated with flowers. Among the notables was the High Constable, Jacob Hays, a born Jew, but no affiliate. Four other policemen were present; it was imperative that order be preserved. Once more Shearith Israel called on Noah to deliver the dedicatory discourse. In 1818, the Major had inveighed against liturgical reforms; now, in 1834, he had come to recognize the need for some changes. Noah and other Jews in that audience could not ignore the advancing nineteenth century with its threat to tradition.31

Seixas had been succeeded in 1816 by Moses Levy Maduro Peixotto, a native of Curaçao. Peixotto, originally a merchant, was a fine, cultured gentleman of the old Sephardic school. He knew very little English, however, and found it difficult to preach in that language—a distinct disadvantage in view of the state occasions when the hazzan was expected to address his congregation in the vernacular. After Peixotto’s death in 1828, he was succeeded by Gershom Seixas’s nephew, Isaac Benjamin Seixas. Like Peixotto, Isaac B. Seixas had been a businessman for years and had turned to the clerical office as a last resort; he had a large family to support. For many years, the new hazzan had lived in Richmond, where he engaged in business and at the same time served as a volunteer reader. He had played his part as a good citizen in Virginia, for he was enrolled in the militia during the War of 1812 and joined others in the effort to bring a railroad into the city. It is possible that, even while he lived in Richmond, Beth Shalome paid for his services; in New York he was a salaried professional living in the parsonage. Shearith Israel kept him busy for he was also in charge of the congregation’s day school. In hiring Seixas, the board had uttered a special caveat; he was to introduce no profane melodies or any used in Christian churches. It would be interesting to know what prompted the congregational authorities to issue that warning. The learned Eleazar S. Lazarus, grandfather of the poetess Emma Lazarus, followed Seixas in 1839 and chaunted the services till Jacques Judah Lyons was appointed. When called to New York, Lyons had been serving in Richmond. His parents were native Americans, but the new hazzan had been born in Surinam. Young Lyons had officiated in that Dutch colony till he accepted the call to Virginia’s capital. The New Yorkers liked Lyons, a charming, courteous gentleman, dignified and religiously observant. Lyons, who had pronounced literary interests, left a diary—certainly a most valuable document—but the family destroyed it on his death in 1877: the clergy must not keep diaries!32



The Synagog

The “synagog” was a socioreligious institution housed in a building—often not more than a rented room, though sooner or later a house was leased or a building purchased. When a growing community began to reach out it bought and renovated a church and finally erected a sanctuary from the ground up. Up to about 1800 most synagogs had fewer than fifty members, but this is no gauge of synagogal use. It is a good guess, if a conservative one, that many more individuals visited the sanctuaries on the Holy Days. Charleston in the first decade of the nineteenth century was exceptionally large; by 1802, it had about 125 contributors. The country’s new Ashkenazic conventicles began modestly; Baltimore’s Scattered Israelites had forty-eight members in 1837 almost a decade after it was organized. The typical synagog was a hall with chairs, benches, or pews, a reading desk in the center, and an ark housing the manuscript Pentateuchal Scrolls of the Law. Most congregations also owned scrolls of the Book of Esther. Until the second quarter of the new century, manuscript scrolls were imported from Europe; there were no artisan scribes at work in this country. Other sancta were prayer shawls, phylacteries, prayer books, copper kettles, utensils to bake unleavened bread, and a ram’s horn to trumpet the high point of the service during the Days of Awe in the fall. For the autumnal Festival of Booths, the congregants joyfully recited blessings over a citron and branches of the palm, the willow, and the myrtle. The women graced the balcony; in some buildings, they had their own separate entrance. The first seats in the balcony overlooking the downstairs floor were reserved for matrons; girls were enjoined to use the back seats. This was deemed proper; the girls would not distract the men or be distracted themselves.

Essentially the Sephardim and the Ashkenazim had much in common. Any Jew could wander into any synagog, pick up a prayer book, and participate in the service with good conscience. Yet it is equally true that no two services were exactly alike. The synagog, an autonomous institution, was completely independent; there was no hierarchy to compel uniformity; any congregation could do what it chose. Until the rise of the secessionist Ashkenazic conventicles, the Sephardic synagogs in each town set out to exercise authoritarian control over every Jew. It was held forbidden to establish rival synagogs, and congregations even attempted through explicit threats to compel every Jew in town to contribute. Even after the turn of the century, despite genuflections in the direction of democracy, every effort was made to impose compulsory membership. The effort was only a continuation of the monolithic Jewish community which prevailed in some European lands. There the state supported and enforced the dictates of the Jewish communal leaders, but in this country, where church and state were separated, the secular authorities left all synagogs to their own devices. The synagog monopoly was maintained in Philadelphia to 1800, in Charleston to 1824, in New York to 1825, in Richmond to 1839, in Savannah until the second half of the nineteenth century. After the first secession, there was no integrated local Jewry; coercion was no longer possible. From now on, there were multiple synagog-communities; institutional atomization became normal; affiliation was entirely voluntary. The synagog itself was part of a complex. It included not only the prayer auditorium but also quarters for some of the paid officiants. There was a school room that might well serve as a meeting hall. Most congregations had a bathhouse (mikveh) for the monthly ritual ablutions of the women. Rodeph Shalom used the Delaware River to immerse proselytes on conversion. A leafy booth was erected in the synagog yard—and in private homes, too—for the harvest festival Succoth, Booths.33

The Cemetery

Often the cemetery was a community’s first purchase and institution; indeed the need for a cemetery might well trigger the establishment of a synagog-community. Every congregation had its own cemetery; members would not join unless guaranteed a final resting place. This Eternal Home, Bet Olam, as the Jews called it, was imperative owing to the high mortality rate of lying-in women and infants. Epidemics and children’s diseases were constant and devastating. Most cemeteries also had a tiny Purification Chapel, where bodies were prepared for burial. This hut might also serve as a “watchhouse” where a guard could warn off body snatchers and vandals. Jewish cemeteries were frequently vandalized; the tombstones were defaced or carried off; garbage was thrown onto the cemetery lots. In the eighteenth century, tombstones with their inscriptions were expensively imported from Europe; poor people often had no headstones. By 1682, New York City had two burial plots; the second, the Chatham Square Cemetery, is still extant. Three new cemeteries had to be purchased in the first half of the next century as the congregation struggled against the encroachments of a growing metropolis. In 1827, Shearith Israel’s burial society Love and Truth, established in 1802 by Hazzan Seixas, published a compendium of the burial service and the ritual for mourning. Bnai Jeshurun had its own burial ground in 1826. Philadelphia had one in 1740—before there was an organized religious community; the few Jews in neighboring Easton used the Michael Hart family plot. In 1786, long before the Baltimore Jews were ready to join together as a community, they purchased a cemetery plot. The two affluent families had their own private burial grounds while the Scattered Israelites Congregation, like all communities, offered its members the benefits of Jewish burial.34

Richmond had two Eternal Homes. The first was a gift of Isaiah Isaacs in 1791, but it was not long before it was covered over to raise the area to street level. It is one of the tragedies of mortality that older cemeteries are frequently neglected. In 1816–1817, Richmond’s city council gave the Jews a new cemetery plot, a courtesy accorded all churches by the Common Hall. Lots for a cemetery were frequently granted by town promoters in order to further settlement; Jews were seldom forgotten. Still much influenced by a mercantilistic philosophy, town officials looked upon Jews as desirable citizens. This second Richmond plot was secured through the good offices of Benjamin Wolfe, a member of the city council; Wolfe was the first man to be interred in the new burial ground. Cincinnati was compelled to buy a cemetery in 1821, when a dying Jew, ostensibly a Christian, asked for Jewish burial. Savannah had at least two cemeteries by 1773, the later the gift of Mordecai Sheftall, the earlier a plot given the first Jewish immigrants by Colonel Oglethorpe in 1733. New Orleans’s Jewish burial ground was purchased when Congregation Gates of Mercy was founded in 1828.

The first communal cemetery in Charleston was laid out in 1762, more than a decade after a formal community was established, but unquestionably there were earlier cemeteries; Jews had settled there in the 1690’s. By 1800, at least three known cemeteries were maintained in Charleston and one in nearby Georgetown. One of the three in Charleston was restricted to “Portuguese” Jews—bloodline Iberians, who did not want to be buried with those they regarded as fraudulent Sephardim, people of Central European rather than Iberian origin. Charleston’s Beth Elohim, as conservative and as cautious as New York’s Shearith Israel, scrupulously adhered to tradition where burials were concerned. Despite the fact that a Jewish woman had married a Christian, she was given a traditional burial when her time came; she had not forfeited her birthright, declared the congregational fathers in 1841; two years later, however, when David Lopez’s Christian wife died, there was no place for her. Her grieving husband bought an adjoining lot and buried her next to the Jewish cemetery. Jewish burial was a privilege reserved for Jews in good standing. Transgressors were interred on the grounds—but off to the side; others were denied any access to the cemetery proper. Thus a separate section was reserved for suicides, prostitutes, adultresses, and intermarried individuals. Frequently, intermarried Jews were completely excluded from consecrated grounds; they were seen as having betrayed their fellow Jews. In towns where there was no organized community, Jews patronized the local Protestant cemetery; often they established private family plots wherever they lived. Most of these family resting places have long since disappeared; Baltimore is a notable exception. What happens when a family petitions for the interment of a parent who had not supported the local community? The communal authorities bury him, but demand a substantial punitive fee. The death of Robert Phillips, a wealthy Philadelphian, led Mikveh Israel to assess the estate $200, and when the executors balked, the congregation and the family locked horns. In the final compromise settlement, Mikveh Israel received $100.35

Some congregations handled burial themselves, though they may have delegated the work to a committee. This seems to have been the custom in Shearith Israel during the seventeenth and most of the next century. In other towns, semi-autonomous organizations were set up to deal specifically with the dying and the dead. Most members, busy in their shops, were only too happy to delegate the onerous task of making provision for those who needed ritual cleansing and burial. The oldest society concerned with this task was established at Charleston in 1784; it was a mutual-aid sick-care and burial association. A year later, Shearith Israel founded a similar organization, which called itself, as did the Charlestonian model, the Hebrew Benevolent Society. Like all fraternities of this nature, the New York group met together socially at an annual dinner. Historians are happy that the menu for the 1789 meeting has been preserved. The guests were served goose, duck, turkey, beef, and cranberries. Tobacco, too, was distributed; the potables were beer and porter. For reasons unknown, this association was short-lived, but was succeeded in 1802 by the Love and Truth Association or the Fellowship of True Love, Hebra Hased Va Amet.36

These burial congeries had been part of the administrative apparatus of the synagog since the late eighteenth century. They are historically important because, together with an occasional immigrants’ aid society, they marked the rise of communal social-welfare agencies. Socially they are important, because they gave the individual an opportunity to express himself, to find himself in a small intimate group. The members in these burial associations developed a sense of “community” of their own. To govern themselves, they appointed officers and set down a series of regulations and rules of conduct. Violators were fined. In one society a man who refused to sit up with the dead was fined eight shillings; insulting the elected head of this hevrah cost the sinner only one shilling (insults were cheap, it would seem). In 1801, an overeager Charlestonian, one Solomon Moses, insisted on helping the hevrah prepare a corpse for burial. When Simon Hart, the head of the society, rejected his proffer, Moses punched him. Whereupon the indignant congregation made Moses apologize publicly and fined him heavily. The injured Mr. Hart brought a civil suit in the courts against the belligerent Mr. Moses, who was again fined, but because he had already made his peace with Beth Elohim, the amercement was a modest $1. One sometimes suspects that the centrifugality inherent in semi-autonomous burial congeries was a reaction to the centripetality of an authoritarian synagog board and president. Congregations were in a dilemma; they needed burial societies, but realized that they might well present a threat to congregational control. In tight little communities, individuals were constantly in a state of rebellion; they were individualists; they resented authority—an everpresent malaise (if that is what it is) in the world of Jewry.37


Clearly and not surprisingly, all Jewish congregations and religious societies wanted to adopt rules and regulations for their guidance. Under British rule, synagogs had never been chartered, never been accorded official recognition, but as soon as the Jews received equality in the new constitutions of the original thirteen states, they proceeded to charter their synagogs and to write constitutions. Constitutions, of course, had probably been promulgated as early as the seventeenth century; the oldest extant organic statute of a synagog dates back to 1706. Indeed, governing rules for Jewish organizations are nothing new; European Jews had been writing takkanot (regulations) in Hebrew and Yiddish for centuries. Here in this country, Americanism was reflected in the titles of the officers: president, vice president, treasurer, secretary, clerk. More significant is the constant incorporation of the standard parliamentary rules of order in these documents. This demand for restraint, decorum, orderliness in debate is characteristically American. With typical cultural lag, however, many congregational documents persist in speaking of the parnas (president) and the gabbai (treasurer).38

There could be no organization without records of some sort. Constitutions and bylaws are found everywhere; then came board minutes and, occasionally, the records of a special body called the trustees who were concerned with the temporalities. Charleston is exemplary in that it kept records of births, circumcisions, marriages, deaths, legacies, and offerings. Unfortunately many of Beth Elohim’s important papers were destroyed when the South Carolina state capital was gutted by flames during the Civil War; the congregation’s records had been sent there for safekeeping! Extant documents of the early Ashkenazic congregations reflected the simplicity of their administrative efforts. Notes were sometimes written in phonetic English. In some congregations, bilingual announcements and publications—German and English—persisted for decades. New York’s Anshe Chesed, honoring the prohibition against writing on the Sabbath, had a book where slips could be inserted to record the Saturday gifts of generous donors called to the Torah. Such procedures on the Sabbath were common. Baltimore’s Ashkenazi pioneers jotted down all donations made by grateful parishioners or strangers. Identification was simple: the tall man living at Myer’s house; the man with the Polish cap. The oldest extant printed constitution, dated 1805, was published by Shearith Israel of New York City. From that time on, printed constitutions were common in American Jewish communities. By 1824, indeed, Shearith Israel had begun printing committee reports, and as the administrative apparatus developed, more printed reports of various types were submitted by the officers to boards and congregations. This, too, may well reflect democratic influences. Most congregations had much in common, structurally and ideologically. On occasion, these basic congregational documents reflected the impact of the environment on an Orthodoxy beginning to come to terms with a permissive America. Time ameliorated tradition, though, not as yet to any marked degree.39

Congregational bylaws, rules, regulations, and minutes not infrequently betray the anxieties and problems confronting the synagog leaders and the members. Christian concepts of decorum and devotion were making their impress. Infants, for example, were to be left at home. In Easton, all members were expected to be present at the service in the house of mourning—otherwise there would be no prayer quorum. No one in Savannah was to be called to the reading of the Scroll wearing boots; the streets and roads of the city and countryside were muddy; soiled footgear would offer insult to Jewry’s divine Law. Marriages and intermarriages were problems of constant concern. A married couple seeking seats in Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel was rejected. Why? They had been married by a Christian minister. Let them repent—be married Jewishly—and a place in the synagog would be available. Anshe Chesed in the late 1830’s was very much involved in matters touching on marriage. In the United States, culturally Europe’s western “frontier,” anything could happen. The congregation urged individuals not to perform unauthorized marriages; some candidates for marriages may have left a wife back home. In one instance the congregation tried to induce a runaway husband to return. In 1836, Anshe Chesed required all members to secure board permission before they were married. Intermarriage was nearly always frowned upon; violators lost their synagogal membership. When, however, a man and his sweetheart said that they had been betrothed back in Bavaria, their request to be married was readily granted by Anshe Chesed: the congregants knew that “back home” pharaonic laws limited the number of Jewish marriages. Charleston’s fascinating constitutions for 1820 and 1836 are most revealing. Defaulters in dues were segregated in special seats—true mourners’ benches! The intermarried were rigorously excluded; Sabbath violators were not tolerated; would-be proselytes were viewed with suspicion; blacks were excluded from membership; prostitutes and madams must live down their past; rival congregations in town were forbidden.40

Important as they are, constitutions are but a faint reflection of an institution manned by vibrant human beings. Most congregations had two kinds of members, first-class and others. The word second-class is never used. A full member is called a yahid, an outstanding special person; occasionally he is called an elector; the others may be designated seatholders, congregators, and even resident aliens. To be sure, the non-yehidim had fewer rights, but no member was ever denied religious honors. The yahid, of course, took preference; he paid more. When congregations first started, they made it easy for almost any Jew to join and to hold office. They needed bodies! There was an inverse ratio between the paucity of members and the fullness of democracy. Even so, no matter how desperate congregations were to enroll members, they balked at including indentured servants or black freedmen. These prohibitions may very well have reflected contemporary practices in Christian churches. The very congregation that would pay lip service to Jeffersonian principles would make no exceptions in this area. After a group had been firmly established, there was a tendency to tighten the rules of admission. With the Gentiles in mind constantly, the Jews never faltered in their desire to project an image of utter respectability. One was not automatically admitted because he was a Jew willing to pay the admission fee and the usual dues. Some synagogs began to insist on proof of citizenship and to impose residential requirements in an attempt to keep out itinerants suspected of dubious antecedents and to prevent a take-over by undesirables; the ballot can become a Trojan horse. Congregations, nearly always apprehensive, did not permit members to join other synagogs; there are occasional exceptions. Intermarried men were nearly always denied admission, but occasionally a subterfuge was employed; the out-marriage was ignored, and the member was called to the Torah as a “single” man. In its early days, Anshe Chesed was prepared to expel a member who apprenticed a son to a Gentile artisan without making provisions for Sabbath and Holy Day observance by the youngster. In all congregations, members, regardless of status, had the right to participate in the services and to enjoy at all times the ministrations of the reader, the beadle, the teacher, and the shohet. There are, of course, special occasions when every Jew is privileged in the synagog services, when he is a bridegroom, the parent of a newborn child, or father of a son about to become an adult religiously (bar mitzvah). He was honored, too, when his wife first came to services after lying-in. All these standard traditional privilegia (hiyyuvim) were honored in practically all sanctuaries.41


The most influential man in the congregation was the president, the parnas. He was the boss; this is a European tradition that was honored in the full sense of the word here, both in the colonial regime and in the new republic. Even today the word parnas carries the connotation of an authoritarian personality. Nothing was deemed outside his jurisdiction: the worship ritual, the personnel, the distribution of honors, the preservation of decorum, the bestowal of charity, the care of the sick, itinerants, the imposition of fines, the supervision of marriages and burials, the preservation of the dietary laws, the baking of unleavened bread for the Passover, the arrangement of intercessory and Thanksgiving services requested by the state or national government. Still, his authority was never absolute. He was limited by the board and ultimately by the franchises of the membership. This was the United States; the concepts and practices of democracy and majority rule were never forgotten, never totally ignored. In a typical congregation, the board numbered between five and seven men. The Charleston congregation in 1820 had a board of twenty-five and an executive committee of seven. In the 1836 constitution written after a traumatic schism caused by the departure of the Reformers, the board of five was elected for life in a deliberate attempt to frustrate a liberal takeover. Rodeph Shalom’s board met occasionally in the home of a member or even in a more congenial place, a rathskeller.

It was also the board which appointed special committees. In those early years of the nineteenth century, there were relatively few committees, but a cemetery committee was a necessity. Burgeoning Charleston had an endowment committee—which was most unusual. When a problem of religious law arose in a community it was not uncustomary to appoint a “court” of three learned men (beth din) in order to come up with an answer that would not violate Jewish tradition. It was imperative in a voluntaristic organization like the synagog that no pressures be exerted if they could be avoided. The members of the board were usually elected by the congregants; on rare occasions, resort was had to an indirect form of appointment. To a degree, boards were self-perpetuating. Attempts were made to limit tenure, but some officers served for many years. It was not unusual to rise to power through the hierarchy of offices. One started as a “Bridegroom of the Law” or as a “Bridegroom of Genesis”—that is, as worshippers honored with the opportunity to close the final weekly cycle of Pentateuchal readings in Deuteronomy and begin the new cycle with the first chapter of Genesis. From this office, one rose to the top as a board member, or as secretary, treasurer, and president. Not all men were eager to wield the presidential gavel. Being a congregational boss was time-consuming; after all, a man had to make a living. Aggravation and frustration were often the lot of every presiding officer. There were deficits to be met, especially in time of war when depression struck and the president had to hustle not only to keep the congregation alive, but also to feed his own family. Few presidents were spared insults; board conflicts were frequent; then, too, there were auxiliary confraternities and frustrated personnel to be pacified. Congregants posed problems. The men and women patronizing the synagog were often immigrants—newcomers, more often than not an unhappy lot—which may well be an understatement.42


One of the irritating problems that confronted every board was how to work amicably with the paid functionaries. Some of them—the beadle, for example—were appointed by the board; the hazzan was elected by the congregation. Small synagogs, just organized or with few members, made do with volunteers. When a synagog was affluent enough to hire someone part-time or full-time, the one and same hireling might function as beadle, slaughterer, and reader. Congregations of size and a modicum of wealth employed several men, a teacher, a beadle, a hazzan, and a collector of dues. The one man who was never a congregational appointee was the circumciser (mohel). Some circumcisers were volunteers, initiating youngsters into Judaism in order to earn the reward for a good deed; it was a labor of love for them. Generally, however, most circumcisers were professionals who were remunerated by the father. Congregational officiants often served as circumcisers, augmenting their scanty incomes by engaging in this meritorious ritual. Seixas, who was also a mohel, traveled as far north as Canada in his capacity as circumciser, though most of his service as a mohel was limited to his own parish. Thus he circumcised one of the sons of Isaac Moses, the notable merchant. Because the child was sickly, the hazzan had to make several trips to attend it. His expenses caring for the infant were heavy, but the father finally reimbursed him for all his labors. An older contemporary of Seixas, Abraham I. Abrahams, had been a popular circumciser in New York in pre-Revolutionary days. Abrahams, a petty businessman and parochial schoolteacher, went as far north as Massachusetts to carry on his sacred work of initiating infants into the covenant. The mohel book of Barnard Jacobs records that he traveled all over eastern Pennsylvania in the line of duty. Like Abrahams, Jacobs was a shopkeeper; so was Myer Derkheim, whose circumcision record book attests to his religious services in England and in many American states. Some youngsters had to wait years before the mohel came; circumcisers rarely found their way into the hinterland.43


The teacher in the early American Jewish community was sometimes called the “rabbi,” a variant form of the Yiddish word “rebbe,” or teacher. Paying due deference to other vowels, he was on occasion known as the rubi and the ribbi, but he was not a rabbi in the modern or conventional sense. There would be no officiating ordained rabbi, a diplomate and fully authoritative spiritual leader of a congregation, in this country until the end of the fourth decade of the nineteenth century. The rebbe, in any case, was not really to be counted among the congregational servants; he was a part-time appointee whose job it was to teach the children of the poor. For this service the congregation paid him a modest salary and on occasion gave him quarters and some perquisites. All others who attended his semi-communal school—and many did—were “pay” students, their families paid for their tuition. Jewish education was not free or compulsory. It was the rebbe’s job to prepare a boy for bar mitzvah and to teach the basic blessings and ceremonies. Together with the hazzan, he might also be assigned the task of watching the children during the services and making sure that they behaved. In Shearith Israel, it was not the rebbe or the beadle who kept an eye on the youngsters segregated in a corner; Hazzan Seixas, perched on his “high place,” the reading desk, was expected to keep them under control.44


The beadle was the communal servant par excellence. What was he called on to do? What was he not called on to do? He attended all services, kept the sanctuary clean, made and lit the candles used for illumination and for ritual purposes, kept the Eternal Light burning, and made sure that the doors were securely locked. In some congregations, it was he who kept the books which recorded the donations of the congregants. He was expected to attend all weddings, funerals, and circumcisions and to do whatever the parnas told him to do.45

The shohet, the ritual slaughterer, was a source of headaches for the parnas and his board. One suspects that there was a tradition among these shohets to take no guff from anyone; they were an independent lot. It was the shohet’s job to provide kosher meat for the Jews in town, to work with the dispensers, the butchers, making sure that they were not guilty of any ritual violations. This was important since most butchers who sold the meat were Christians; some of them were prone to cheat by substituting non-kosher for kosher products.

The hazzan was the chief officiant in every early American synagog. Consequently, he received the highest salary; the shohet and beadle were always paid less. One can hardly question that the hazzan was paid more than the typical non-college-educated evangelical minister, but he received considerably less than notable Boston or Philadelphia Christian clergymen. Seixas, with a large family, found it difficult to make both ends meet and did not hesitate to haggle with his board about his pay. Salaries varied; twenty years later the hazzan at Anshe Chesed received but $100 a year, though very probably it was then a part-time job. The cantor or hazzan really functioned as the rabbi, for he was elected by the congregation to serve as its spiritual head. On occasion, even Christians referred to him as the “rabbi”; he was equated by them and by the state with ministers of the gospel. Because Christians accepted the hazzan as an important religious figure, his status was constantly on the rise. One can well understand, therefore, why the Rev. Mr. Leeser, of Philadelphia, was resentful that Mikveh Israel’s constitution did not permit him to attend congregational meetings. He was angry to be denied a privilege accorded every thirteen-year-old boy who had been called to the Torah. In addition to a salary, the hazzan was given housing, fuel, unleavened bread for Passover, and a variety of other perquisites. Additional income was derived from marriages, funerals, circumcisions, and from teaching in the congregation’s all-day school. On occasion, the hazzan could augment his income by certifying overseas shipments of kosher meat. Congregants who loved and respected their rabbi gave him gifts, and Christian friends were also generous.46

What did the board and members expect of their hazzan? They asked that he be a kind, affable man, that he be dignified, a good teacher, and an educated gentleman who could hold his own in good Christian society. Charleston, in particular, was insistent on these qualities. By the 1830’s, under the impact of Protestant examples, some congregations began requiring their ministers to preach in English and to address themselves to moral themes. By 1836, Charleston’s Beth Elohim was ready to listen to its hazzan every Saturday or whenever he chose to preach. This, undoubtedly, was the answer to local dissidents, who had seceded to form a group of their own where the sermon was stressed; the conservative leaders of Beth Elohim could not evade history. By the 1840’s, in Philadelphia, Rodeph Shalom—German newcomers for the most part—encouraged preaching. If discourses were then delivered in that synagog, the language was most probably German.47


American Jewish congregations met at least once a year to attack their problems. Some held quarterly meetings; others met semi-annually. There were synagogs where a few determined individuals could force the authorities to call a special meeting of all members; there were towns, too, where the board could hinder protestants if they sought to ventilate their complaints. Most boards met regularly, at least once a month; there was rarely a dearth of issues. The basic problem, a constant and recurrent one, was the need to balance the budget. Frequent financial panics frightened and impoverished members. Money was needed to pay salaries, to repair the sanctuary, to help the poor. The standard sources of income in all congregations were initiation fees, dues, the purchase and rental of seats. The seating problem was always a ticklish one, because seating indicated status, there was always a place set aside for the poor and for visiting Gentiles. The galleries where the women sat were the subject of not infrequent discussion; matrons and girls vied for the front seats; they wanted to see and to be seen. Another source of income was the offerings made when a man was called to the reading of the Torah. He was expected to make a gift and he did, but such donations were not invariably profit, for in many congregations it was permissible to deduct the amount offered from the dues pledged. This was a face-saving device for the typical middle-class householder; money was scarce; a man could thus be generous at no cost. Some congregations set a minimum voluntary offering, but smart alecks offered less than the minimum in order to harass the board. The Shearith Israel secessionists who established Bnai Jeshurun reduced the minimum. Was this a democratic gesture? Was the Shearith Israel minimum too high? Bnai Jeshurun offered a special bargain rate of three blessings for a shilling.48

Additional income came from burial fees and special imposts on non-members who required the services of the congregation or its officiants. Money came in through gifts, legacies, annual postmortem blessings. Beth Elohim was exceptional in that it had a well-established endowment fund. Philadelphia, which had need for the services of an attorney, permitted him to balance his statement for legal fees against his synagogal bills; almost $400 was involved in this interchange. If a man could not pay his pledges, he would appeal for an abatement; indebtedness to the congregation was a problem with which the board frequently had to cope. Another source of income—one not always easy to evaluate—was the imposition of fines. Men were fined, for example, because they refused to accept congregational office. Fines of this nature were imposed in the London synagogs also; Isaac D’Israeli, the English author, refused to accept an appointment to the board of London’s Sephardic Bevis Marks and he resigned in 1813 when the customary fine was demanded. D’Israeli, himself never a convert to Christianity, attended the ceremonies which marked the opening of a liberal synagog, but in 1817 permitted or encouraged the conversion of his son Benjamin, the later Lord Beaconsfield. Fines were exacted for doing business on the Sabbath, for disorderly conduct, for insulting the honorary officers. One congregation imposed penalties as high as $250—an enormous sum in a day when a rabbi’s annual salary was often less than $1,000. In 1805, sixty-seven fines were imposed by Beth Elohim and presumably collected.49

The Baltimore Hebrew Congregation had an interesting system of alerting its members when they threatened to break the peace. The Scattered Israelites had three cards of different colors, red, white, and blue, which they handed out. The white was a warning: Please behave! The red and blue were fines: one for 25 cents; the other, for 50 cents. In different communities, there were monetary penalties for leaving a meeting without permission of the parnas, for talking during the service, for singing louder than the cantor, for chewing tobacco and spitting on the floor, for bringing children under five to the sanctuary, for removing one’s prayer shawl before the services were over, for assembling in front of the synagog after the last hymn had been sung. There is no way to determine whether fines added up to an appreciable source of congregational income. The records of such penalties have, for the most part, been destroyed. In the first decade of the new century, Charleston’s Beth Elohim probably enjoyed the largest congregational income in the country, £800; its most generous giver paid about £50 a year. By 1840, New York’s Shearith Israel had a budget of about $6,000; in 1839, Bnai Jeshurun spent $4,000; Anshe Chesed, thirteen years old in 1841, was spending only $1,000; ten years later, when its membership was swollen by the incoming Central Europeans, these Men of Love had a budget of $5,500. The substantial expenditures of the Ashkenazic congregations indicate that they were moving ahead.50


The ultimate goal of a congregation—possibly not always a conscious one—was to guarantee that Jews and Judaism would survive; its immediate purpose was to make provision for worship. There were three rites in the United States, the Spanish-Portuguese or Sephardic, the German, and the Polish; the latter two Ashkenazic. But no matter what the liturgical style, there were variations in every synagog, whose rite in turn, was invariably modified somewhat with the advent of a new hazzan. Improvisation was the order of the day. Often the petty differences within any specific rite represented regional or local differences which the congregants brought with them from Europe. These minutiae were deemed sacrosanct; the pettier the liturgical deviations, the more opportunity they offered for congregational squabbles. In 1761, on hearing that a congregation was to be established in Philadelphia, Jacob Henry implied that it would founder on the rock of finding an acceptable common liturgy. What is it going to be, he said sarcastically, Sephardic, German, Polish or Quaker? He invoked the Quakers because their ministers served “without fee or reward.” After publishing a few English translations of liturgical material in the 1760’s, the Jews here finally issued an edition of the Sephardic prayers in 1826; Hebrew and English faced each other on opposite pages.

Ashkenazic prayer books were printed in 1848. Despite what had become a traditional religiocultural lag in America, it was difficult to continue ignoring the Central European majority; these provincials, after all, already had at least seventy-five Ashkenazic synagogs and conventicles in the country. Services were held on late Friday afternoons, on Saturdays, and on the holidays; occasionally a quorum was rounded up for special occasions. Rarely, if ever, were offerings made in English; intoning the gifts, when the Scroll was read, the cantor sang in Hebrew, Spanish-Portuguese, German, or in all probability, Juedisch-Deutsch or Yiddish. When either the national or state governments urged citizens, Jews among them, to assemble in their houses of worship to supplicate the Holy One Blessed Be He or to thank Him, the Children of Israel hastened to respond. They would gather to offer thanksgiving in victory and and to mourn when war, fire, or disease threatened. The Passover seder, the festival of freedom, was an occasion which few missed. It is noteworthy, too, that the seder liturgy, the Haggadah (the Telling of the Exodus from Egypt) was a common one for all Jews, both Sephardim and Ashkenazim. The New Year and the Day of Atonement were celebrated with solemnity; the giving of the Law (the Teaching) was commemorated on Pentecost; Jews, even intermarried ones, sat in booths during the autumnal festival of Tabernacles; Hanukkah was not yet equated with Christmas and its gift giving, although Jews lit their silver candelabra. The most joyous holiday was Purim, celebrated as a sort of carnival in the weeks before Spring; the day was spent in drinking, gift giving, and games.51

There were no permanent choirs, though almost invariably choral groups were organized for dedication exercises, if only to impress the large number of Christian visitors. An effort made in 1818 to organize a choir in Shearith Israel met with strong opposition—it was an innovation that smacked of Protestantism and Jewish Reform. The year 1818 saw Hamburg Jews revolt—mildly, to be sure—against tradition; more radical religious dissenters had been raising their voices in Germany for well over a decade, and the New Yorkers knew what was going on in Europe. In some congregations, there were men and women who wanted a choir of male and female voices. By this time, a Jew in Philadelphia was arranging a Hebrew hymn for voice and piano accompaniment. Synagogs did enjoy and approve of congregational singing; maybe that is one of the reasons many rejected the introduction of a choir; the people in the benches wanted to participate themselves. Congregational—rather than pulpit or choral—domination of the service was a Jewish tradition centuries old. It was this desire to retain the worshippers’ centrality in the service that induced some Jews to think of preaching as an intrusion. Only one congregation in all America heard discourses with some regularity in the early and middle 1830’s, Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia.52


Like most Jews everywhere, American Israelites believed that they were duty bound to observe God’s law as propounded in the Hebrew Bible and as interpreted by the rabbis for the past 2,000 years. In their own fashion most American Jews here who identified with their people believed that the Law merited obedience. By far the majority was traditional in avowal, if not in practice. In 1825, writing to Brother Ben in Lexington, Rebecca Gratz said that their brothers in Philadelphia were very attentive in synagog matters. The women’s gallery was as well filled as the men’s section downstairs. “We all go Friday evening as well as on Saturday morning.” In the various congregations, those in authority made efforts to enforce observance, and denunciations of religious transgression were not uncommon. In 1782 Mordecai M. Mordecai, of Philadelphia, denounced Ezekiel Levy for having shaved on the Sabbath. The “fundamentalism” exhibited by Mordecai did not prevent him, when it suited him, from disregarding the Law. In the late 1830’s, Anshe Chesed, still rigorous in observance, debarred men from membership for working on the Sabbath. The Philadelphian Moses Nathans accused a Mr. Bromat of writing in a coffeehouse on the Sabbath in 1783. Less than a decade later, the same zealous Mr. Nathans married a Gentile in a non-Jewish ceremony. Nathans, after two years, turned to the congregation and asked that his wife and the couple’s two circumcised infants be converted. The congregation was sympathetic and wrote to religious authorities in Europe asking for guidance. The Philadelphians pointed out that Nathans had at all times lived a Jewish life in the traditional sense. Indeed, there were ardent Jews in every town.53

Shearith Israel’s members tended to follow the letter of the Law. In 1794, they refused to convert the Gentile wife of a member. Undoubtedly the congregation was influenced by a regulation enacted in 1763 denying conversion to any non-Jew—which was supererogation with a vengeance since there is nothing in Jewish Law to forbid proselytization. It is likely that New York’s Jews in the 1760’s and in the 1790’s assumed so conservative a stance because they feared public reaction if they converted a Christian to Judaism; they were insecure, still responsive to Old World memories. Adhering to rabbinic precepts, Savannah refused to bury the son of a Jew born of a Christian mother; the Philadelphians denied interment to the child of a Jewish woman and a Christian husband. Despite the many evidences of recusancy, most American Jews were loyal to their faith. In 1844, Mrs. Judith Pettigrew was buried in a special section of Philadelphia’s Jewish cemetery because she had married a Christian. She was the daughter of Myer Hart, of Easton, who had been one of the founders of that village. Sixty-two years after her marriage, it was held against her that her husband was a Christian. A black woman who worked for a Mr. Marks, of Philadelphia, was a meticulous observer of Jewish traditions. When she died, he asked permission to bury her in the congregation’s cemetery. After this request was denied, Marks and a number of friends buried her, nevertheless, but off to the side. One of Philadelphia’s notable Jews, Hyman Gratz, was censured in 1827 by Mikveh Israel for bringing some Christian women visitors up to the holy ark and showing them a Scroll of the Law. In his will Gratz left his estate to found a Jewish college in Philadelphia, a legacy which in 1893 made possible the establishment of present-day Gratz College. In matters religious, nineteenth-century American Jewry was still conservative.54

Since most Jews accepted traditional religious practices, in principle at least, it is well to ask: what was the nature of their compliance? Most Jews respected the Sabbath and what it stood for, even if they were less than scrupulous in its observance. Others—a minority, to be sure—attended Sabbath services during the year and recited the prayers mechanically, noisily, and joyously. Parents wanted their sons to be bar mitzvah at thirteen. Some members of Shearith Israel wore no praying shawl (tallith) at service; the congregation insisted, however, that it be worn if a member hoped to be honored when the Law was read. This was in 1825 when American Jewry in general was dismayed by the rise of the Reformed Society of Israelites in Charleston. When in doubt about proper practice, congregations consulted knowledgeable Jews like Israel Baer Kursheedt or turned for guidance to European rabbinical authorities. Congregations distributed liturgical honors—for instance standing by as the Law was read—not merely to solicit offerings, but, at least equally, to encourage and reward the pious and the observant. Many a traveler refused to begin journeys on the Sabbath and, if on the road, made every effort to reach lodgings before sundown on Friday night. In January, 1826, two young Ettings, of the Philadelphia-Baltimore clan, were caught in a storm about twenty miles outside of Baltimore. Night had fallen, the Sabbath was setting in, and they refused to go any farther. The boys stopped the stage, got out on the road, went through their Hebrew prayers, and lit the Sabbath candles. They observed the day of rest in a nearby home, but the storm was so severe they had to get out and tie the house to a tree to prevent it from blowing away. After it was all over, Henry, a young naval officer, thought it all a huge joke. The only evil effect he experienced was a bad cold—which he survived to become a disbursing officer in the navy (years later he retired with the relative rank of commodore). Jonas Phillips, the well-known Philadelphia merchant, paid a fine rather than be sworn on the Sabbath in court.55

With rare exception, Jews prepared and employed the standard Aramaic contract when entering into marriage. According to biblical law, a man was bound to marry a brother’s childless widow. The traditional symbolic ceremony (halitsah) which released the brother from marrying his bereaved sister-in-law was observed in some congregations, and the widow was free to marry whomever she wished. Efforts were made, not always effectively, to ensure that a Cohen, a man of priestly descent, did not marry a divorcee or a proselyte. Most congregations in the large towns succeeded in building a mikveh (pool) to be used by the women for their monthly ritual ablutions. Manuel Josephson, of Philadelphia, insisted successfully on the establishment of such a bathhouse in 1784. This merchant, respected as a Jewish communal leader and admired for his scholastic attainments, was among the city’s most cultured Jews in Jewish and secular studies. When pleading for a mikveh he reminded his coreligionists, a year after the war with England, that because they were now blessed with freedom it was their duty to thank their Father in Heaven by following his injunctions scrupulously. If a mikveh is not built, God will punish us; our fellow Jews will not associate with us; all the curses of the Bible will descend upon us! Our women must be induced to a strict compliance! May God have mercy upon us and send his redeemer to Zion speedily! Town Jews wrote their families in the villages alerting them to the coming Holy Days, since printed Jewish calendars were rare. When David Hays, of Westchester County, New York, wrote to his brother Michael in 1784, he urged him to recite the anniversary memorial prayer for their mother and to fast on the Day of Atonement. Accompanying the note and the necessary dates of all the Holy Days was a gift of some kosher meat.56

In 1798, on a long voyage from New York to Madras, India, two Jews observed the Passover “with strictness … God send we may spend the next one in New York.” Wherever there were Jews, they made an effort to provide themselves with matzo, unleavened Passover bread. Samuel Mordecai in Richmond or Petersburg made sure to send the family in Warrenton, North Carolina, a supply of unleavened bread for the holiday. Sheftall Sheftall, a Revolutionary War officer when only a teenager, always fasted on the eve of Passover according to a widely followed medieval custom. In the cities, congregants supervised the baking of matzo whether it was done by Jews or Christians. In some places, it was the synagog that distributed it, controlled the prices, and made sure that the impoverished received their allotment. The Newport synagog reportedly had a built-in oven for the baking of matzo for the congregants. Free matzo counted as one of the perquisites of congregational functionaries. Christians were impressed by the Jewish observance of the Passover. “A Protestant,” writing to the press in 1784, complained that Christians neglected the coeval Good Friday. Jews, ardent in their observance of the Passover, were setting Christians an example by staying away from their shops during the paschal holiday.57

The Hebrew Bible describes which animals—cattle, fowl, fish—are permitted for food and which are forbidden. Cattle and fowl, if eaten by observant Jews, must be slaughtered, examined, and prepared according to prescribed rules and regulations laid down in rabbinic law. The maintenance of these laws of kashrut occasioned communal leaders much concern. They were determined that these injunctions, divinely ordained in Sacred Writ, be honored. Why were the leaders so insistent on kashrut? Here in America, one goes to synagog once or twice a week at best, but one eats twenty-one times a week at least. Jews sensed that, if a man made sacrifices to observe the dietary laws and set himself apart, he was committed to tradition and would remain a Jew. Adherence to the kosher code is instant identification; it becomes an ingrained habit, a deterrent against defection; it ties Jews to one another. In actual practice, it may be deemed more important than adherence to other traditional beliefs and dogmas; it is even more important than an occasional visit to the synagog. Jews believed, in a far more subtle sense than the materialist L. A. Feuerbach, that man is what he eats. (Der Mensch ist was er isst.) In short, as long as a man ate kosher he would remain a Jew. This is why communities were so determined to provide kosher food and to require people to keep a kosher kitchen. While visiting a spa, Rebecca Gratz was offered fried oysters. Her hostess, recalling that the food was forbidden, hastened to apologize, saying to Rebecca, “My memory is bad.” “Mine is better,” answered Rebecca, “the fish is so good here that I have no temptation to forget it is the only thing on the table to be eaten.” Rebecca, one of the best educated Jewish women in all America, enjoyed being Jewish.58

Providing kosher meat and enforcing the laws of kashrut was practically an insoluble problem. Communities were looking for competent, dependable shohets. It was the job of the slaughterers to kill the animal ritually; Christian butchers, licensed by a congregation, cut and distributed the meat. A butcher in New York who compensated the shohet was willing to pay for the privilege of handling kosher meats because he had a built-in Jewish-clientele and received a good price for the product he sold. In order to make sure that there was kosher meat which the poor of the community could afford to buy, Harmon Hendricks, the philanthropist, made a contribution. He sought to encourage the eating of lamb which was cheaper. The experiment failed, for the people preferred the more expensive veal to the cheaper lamb. The problem facing the community was that some butchers would cheat and affix kosher seals fraudulently to forbidden carcasses. When cheats were caught, as some were in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they were punished by the municipal authorities. Respecting the needs and sensitivities of the Jews, the local government in New York City between 1796 and 1813 was willing to help them and, if necessary, pass requisite ordinances. Typical of the cheating is the case of the butcher Caleb Vanderberg. When caught in a fraud, he said it was all a joke, but he failed to see the humor of it all when the Common Council deprived him of his license in 1805.59

The problem of kosher meat control was only exacerbated by the fact that there were laymen competent to perform shehitah. Most of these private shohets slaughtered meat for themselves and their friends exclusively; they were honorable men. Notables like Solomon Etting, Ephraim Hart, and Mordecai Sheftall were versed in the art. Etting was an outstanding Baltimore merchant; Hart, a prominent New York businessman; Sheftall, one of Georgia’s leading citizens. Another who took care of his own needs was Benjamin Etting Hays, of Mt. Pleasant, New York, whom the Christians called Uncle Ben. A pious Jew, he observed biblical laws by leaving some fruit and grain for the poor on his trees and in his fields. Men like Hays and Sheftall created no problem for anyone, but when a shohet went into business for himself and tied himself to a Christian butcher, there was no congregational control—no positive assurance that the product was ritually truly kosher. Kosher food can become a big business; the prospect of gain always carries with it the possibility of fraud. Congregational leaders believed that consumers had to be protected and in 1813 the Common Council of New York gave Shearith Israel the authority to license shohets and butchers. Victory? The ordinance raised a storm in the congregation; eminent members believed that their political and religious rights were being violated; and within a few days the offending ordinance was revoked. For lack of a better reason, the historian can only assume that behind this attack on sound legislation stood bitter intramural hostilities. Was there a fight for synagogal control between the officers and the power elite which had hitherto dominated? The attempt then to control kashrut—in New York at least—failed.60

New York’s kashrut problems were multiplied when, in the 1820’s, new congregations were established; each synagog had its own shohet; now with multiple slaughterers and a plethora of butchers, control of distribution was completely out of the question. There was no single overall community, no administrative apparatus, no city or state legislation to restrain cheating. Indeed the problem of kashrut supervision has plagued New York Jewry down to the present day. What was true of New York was, to a degree, true of all towns; it was never easy anywhere to guarantee the supply of kosher meat. As people became less exacting, more permissive in these matters, and as their sense of guilt increased, they began to insist that the officiating minister, at least, must be meticulous in his observance of the dietary laws. The hazzan must be the vicarious (observant) Jew in town. There could be no leeway where the paid functionaries were concerned. Thus in, 1809, the teacher and assistant hazzan Emanuel N. Carvalho was accused of eating in the home of a member whose kitchen was not kosher. Lobster had been served! Carvalho was tried, but emerged triumphant from the inquisition; he proved that his black servant was present to make sure that the food served his master was truly kosher.


Kashrut in the home was, is, the concern of the woman. Though women were restricted to the galleries in the synagog, it is not necessary to interpret this segregation as abasement; women were highly respected and cherished. It is worthy of note that, when New York’s Mill Street Synagogue was rebuilt in 1817, the grille or wall which had once hidden the women’s galleries was not restored. Even the effort to reserve the front seats in the galleries to married women was not altogether successful. Leeser, in his preface to Grace Aguilar’s Spirit of Judaism, was primarily concerned that women devote themselves to religion, to belief, to piety. Thus they would have a profound influence on their children and, together with men, further the Kingdom of Heaven. In the contemporary Christian churches, women were co-workers with men in every organization, in the missionary, reform, and welfare societies. Men and women worked shoulder to shoulder as equals. Nothing comparable was evident in the synagogs of that day. Rebecca Gratz was annoyed that some of her sophisticated contemporaries, women too, believed Judaism to be the concern of rabbis and women alone, no one else. Piety, true religiosity among women, was common. Rebecca sensed and felt the presence of God; she was prepared to submit to his will no matter what befell her; she was firm in her beliefs. When Mrs. T. Biddle, her hostess on one occasion, attempted to convert her, Rebecca answered that she was happy in her Jewish faith and could not sympathize with Mrs. Biddle’s wish that she accept Christianity. Deborah Moses, the daughter of Hazzan Jacob R. Cohen, of Philadelphia, was exemplary in her piety. Knowing that she was about to die, she laid out her shrouds and gave money to the poor; “charity, righteousness delivereth from death” (Prov. 10:2). “God bless her memory,” said her son, Major Raphael J. Moses, the Confederate firebrand, “I know she has gone to her reward and feel that she still lives and loves us.” When her will was opened, her grieving children read her last words: “Mourn not beyond the hour sanctified by nature and true grief. The tears which spring from the heart are the only dews the grave should be moistened with. The dead receive sufficient honor in being called to face their God.”61

Following a practice that assumed increasing importance in later generations, Hazzan Seixas wrote the Hebrew of “Our God,” Elohenu as Elokenu. The divine name is ineffable, it is too holy ever to be pronounced as written. London’s chief rabbi wrote the word God, “G-d.” The desire of most worshippers was to continue the old way of life without substantial modification. Their conservative approach was reinforced by the constant arrival of immigrants wedded to orthodoxy. Most newcomers were meticulously observant; certainly initially. Malcolm Stern, the genealogist and historian, has maintained that most Jews identified with a congregation. This was true, he believes, even of the intermarried. Whether Jews joined a synagog or not most of them did savor Judaism, the religion of their fathers. Anti-Jewish prejudice, never absent, served only to intensify their loyalties. American Jewry and Judaism, an extension of Orthodox Europe, constituted the western frontier of an Atlantic basin community. For some of America’s Gentile literati, Europe reached as far west as the Blue Ridge Mountains; for American Jewry, by 1840, it extended to the mouth of the Missouri River; a Bohemian immigrant would feel completely at home in a St. Louis prayer group.62


Kashrut and other religious practices created problems for Jewish leaders and traditional conformists inasmuch as no two individuals walked quite the same religious path. The American ethos, which allowed every man and woman freedom in all matters religious, served to encourage rugged Jewish individualists. Other problems, too, confronted Jews in the United States; they were no longer living in an ethnic enclave, but in an integrated non-corporative world where Christians outnumbered them about a thousand to one. Jews were thus compelled to reevaluate their conduct and their religious mores. Because of Gentile concepts of behavior in the sanctuary, Jews reexamined their traditional notions of decorum and found them wanting. By Christian standards, Jewish services were indecorous. Disturbed by the mote in the eyes of the Jews, some Christians failed to see the beam in their own eye; tobacco spitting in some churches was by no means uncommon. Still from the vantage point of Western culture, Jewish services came somewhat as a shock. What, then, were these exotics doing when they worshipped? They walked about or carried on conversations with their neighbors, especially when the Law and the Prophets were being read in the original Hebrew. Children ran about; members quarreled with the beadle and even insulted the officers. Young Emanuel B. Hart of Shearith Israel, then twenty-three, was assisting a stranger during the service. Because this was deemed misbehavior, Hart was publicly reprimanded by the parnas. The young man responded by threatening to knock the president down. Hart in later years became a colonel in the militia and went to Washington as a congressman.63

Coshman Pollack, a Savannah, Georgia, Revolutionary War veteran, was another to take offense in the synagog. Infuriated because his wife was denied what he deemed a proper seat, Pollack refused to pay dues. The synagog retaliated by denying him religious honors. When the exiles in Philadelphia were organizing a synagog, in 1782, they were enjoined to behave with decency during worship and unanimously agreed to do so. That same year Abraham Levy, accused of starting a riot in the house of God, was fined fifty pounds of wax. The wax of course was used by the beadle to make candles. Years later in this same congregation, the beadle climbed up to the women’s gallery and ordered the young girls to vacate the front seats which they had unlawfully occupied; young women leaning over the banister would only distract the men at their devotions. A brother of one of the girls told the shammash that, if he ever did it again, he would drag him down the stairs. As befitted a cultured American whose roots went back in this country for almost a century, Seixas in Philadelphia and in New York had always insisted on decorum during the services. In 1784, after returning to the city on the Hudson, he appealed to his congregants to behave, to desist from chatting while the prayers were read, to keep their children under control. Reproached by one of the congregational bosses, the scholarly Eleazar Lazarus responded in verse:

When we go to the theatre we pay our money to be amused.

But when we go to shul we pay our money to be abused.

Emma Lazarus, his granddaughter, wrote more sophisticated poetry.64

Like a repetitive phrase on a broken record, constitutions inveterately addressed themselves to the need for orderly conduct in the house of God. The New York worshippers in 1790 were admonished to behave; they would be fined and, if necessary, taken to court—this in the oldest and most respected Jewish congregation in the country. Actually, of course, some worshippers were uncouth. A Mr. Phillips came to services and made such a nuisance of himself that a constable had to haul him off to jail. In all probability, to use the vernacular of the 1790’s, he was obnubilated—under the influence. Mrs. Phillips pleaded with Shearith Israel to arrange for his release; she promised “in future to keep him from going to synagog.” The constitution of 1805 was precise in telling the worshippers what was expected of them. They were not to outsing the cantor; no umbrellas or canes were to be brought to one’s seat unless one were lame; garments were to be deposited on the free seats near the door. No one was to go out during the service, and when departing, members were to leave in an orderly fashion, not flock out en masse. The constant harping of the bylaws on good behavior was a call to Americanization or, more correctly, to an acceptance of prevailing church mores. Decorum was very important to the self-conscious Jewish leaders of that day. America was slowly crowding out Europe and its thousand-years-old synagogal amenities. Determined to force the congregants into an American mold, the synagog leaders appealed to them or threatened them with fines and expulsion. Order and dignity must be preserved. Lay leaders, ministers, Sephardic and Ashkenazic constitutions reiterated this refrain.

What were the causes of the “disorder” which the synagog strove to control? After a service of four to five hours the worshippers became restless—tired, bored. There were numerous blessings, memorial offerings, auctioning off of honors; all this took time. Many, however, felt that the sale of privileges was needed if the synagog was to survive. Yet there were others who pleaded for a lessening or even the abolition of the blessings, which, indeed, were not required by Jewish canon law. Some pointed out, and this was true, that the income derived from the hawking of blessings was not significant. Decorum picked up when Gentiles were present; the Jews were then on their best behavior. This was particularly true when synagogs were dedicated, and the non-Jewish public was invited to the services. Knowing that the Gentiles might be shocked, Jews conducted themselves so as to command the respect of the visitors. Most congregants were respected businessmen; they were certainly intelligent. Why then did they not “behave”? They prayed as they had always prayed, both here and in Europe. The liturgy was structured, but their conduct was not; informality was traditional; Jews were at home in the house of God, which was also a house of assembly. Because God was loved, they were ready to do battle for him, and because they were human beings beset with problems, they were more than ready to do battle with one another. Factions brought their quarrels into the synagog. What better place was there to meet and fight? Angry with fellow Jews, some vented their rage on God and stayed away from His house. At times when men were feuding it was difficult to assemble a prayer quorum. As the environment overwhelmed them, they became aware that their Old World decorum was not American. The struggle between the two cultures was thus joined, but no service of that age was completely decorous by the standards of contemporary urban middle-class Christians. Though often bored, Jews loved the service; it was part of them. It would be a generation before any, even the native-born, would become Protestantized enough to “behave.”65


Misbehavior does not necessarily indicate hostility or indifference to religion. On December 13, 1790, Manuel Josephson, president of Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel, called on President Washington and delivered a letter of greeting from American Jewry. Three years later, however, the minister of the same congregation was instructed by the board not to mention Josephson’s name or accept any offerings from him. What happened? Just another intracongregational quarrel. His response to a congregational request that he submit some financial accounts and return a shofar was that “the whole congregation might be damn’d.” Squabbles in God’s house were almost as traditional as the liturgy itself; one sometimes suspects that these quarrels testified to a rugged spiritual health. Apathy and non-observance of the Law were often non-ideological. Though there is evidence that some Jews did not affiliate with the local synagog, most were content to remain Jews and to practice some sort of Judaism; they were committed at least in principle. Religiously, the Gentiles about them provided scant inspiration. The last years of the eighteenth and the first two decades of the nineteenth century were bad years for the churches. It has been estimated that around the year 1800 less than 7 percent of all Americans were members of Christian denominations. Thousands of New York Gentiles protested when ministers threatened to prohibit excursions up the Hudson on the Lord’s Day. It was reported in 1815 that there were people in remote reaches of the Mississippi Valley who had never seen a Bible. In effect, speaking in church language, most Christians were then really Gentiles.66

The Revolution had disrupted lives and thinking; Deism, rationalism, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution had all turned individuals away from Orthodoxy. Franklin, Jefferson, Madison and other notables were not sympathetic to organized religion. Pessimists clucked that Christianity was on its last legs. Some Jews, too, thought Judaism about to expire; a South Carolina sophisticate prophesied in 1833 that Orthodoxy would not last another fifty ears. Certainly in the early years of the century, the prospects for Judaism appeared anything but rosy. Synagog attendance was minimal. In 1807–1808, Jacob R. Cohen, the Philadelphia hazzan, had a contract requiring him to conduct services even when there was no quorum. In 1827, the officers of Cohen’s congregation were warned that they would be fined if they did not come to services at least once a month. In 1825, times are recorded in New York’s metropolitan synagog when only three householders made their appearance. Some Jews came to service but once a year; members were derelict in paying dues; one even ventured to palm off $15 in counterfeit bills when the collector called on him. New York’s frustrated board threatened to read the list of the delinquents publicly at the Sabbath service. In dealing with dues defaulters, some synagogs simply bided their time. Thus, in one congregation when a bereaved father turned to the synagog and asked it to bury a child, the leaders blandly suggested that he pay all his past debts as well as the modest burial fee. He paid.67


Some of the challenges facing American Jewry in those early days indicate that pessimistic American attitudes toward religion were affecting Jewry adversely. Some Jews were not interested in teaching their children Hebrew, even though they knew that it was the language in which God spoke to Moses. For many there was no passion for Jewish education; it was enough that their sons could chant the bar mitzvah portion in Hebrew. Some congregations went for years without a professional reader; no qualified rabbi was brought over from Europe, for no need for a talmudic expert was felt here; there was little interest in the study of the standard Hebrew codes. Few, if any, rejected the principle of the immutability and the sanctity of the Sabbath, but for business reasons most Jews violated it in practice. Savannah Jewry made an effort to compel all Jews to close their stores on that day and when a member refused to do so and even kept open on the second day of the Jewish New Year, he was denounced from the pulpit. But, despite his contumacy, he remained a member. Congregations were always eager to help members observe the dietary laws. In 1786 when Lion Jonas, a New York furrier, violated the Sabbath and insulted the parnas and the board, he was fined, denied synagogal honors, and denounced publicly from the reading desk. Years later, in 1809, when he was old and impoverished, the community took him out of an almshouse because he refused to eat forbidden food, and made sure that he was given kosher victuals. Though he was a good-for-nothing the congregation took care of him because he wanted to live a Jewish life.68

Notwithstanding the fact that dietary laws are prescribed in the Bible, many violated them with impunity. Like neglect of the Sabbath, this was a real departure from Old World patterns. Social control, which still operated to a large degree in town, broke down completely when Jews were on the road. A European Christian visiting North America as early as 1748 reported that Jews traveling on business did not keep kosher. Levy Andrew Levy, a Fort Pitt trader, refused to eat bacon but relished barbecued turtle. It was so good it just had to be kosher. Yet he loved Jewish tradition: “For a family to be remote from our [Jewish] society is shocking,” he once said. A dear friend writing to Leeser in 1831 said that everybody in Charleston ate forbidden foods and had no qualms about it. In a history of the Jews published in this country in 1840, the author reported that Jews were not religiously observant. Expediency, not the Law, determined the attitude of many Jews towards the most sacred commands.69

The refusal of some Jewish sophisticates to circumcise their infant sons brought problems. If the child died was it to be given a Jewish burial? An influential, wealthy elite member was able to bring pressure to bear and induce the minister and synagogal leader to provide interment according to Jewish custom, although it was obvious that the dead did not merit traditional burial. In Savannah, on one occasion, when the congregants were asked to inter the circumcised son of a Christian mother, the members acting as a committee of the whole made their decision not by consulting the codes but by voting. America superseded Judea; a democratic vote, not the rabbinic code, was decisive. The refusal to accept circumcision was apparently so common in Philadelphia that in 1822 the city-wide Hebrew Society for the Visitation of the Sick refused to admit members who had not circumcised their sons. As one might have expected there was no consistency in legislating about the uncircumcised. Referring to the Jews of America, the learned Israel B. Kursheedt said that Jews here were wont to do what was right in their own eyes. Where the Sabbath, circumcision, and intermarriage were concerned, congregations had to make concessions in order to hold their members. They did so reluctantly in New Orleans. In Baltimore, the intermarried were allowed to remain in the congregation, but were denied the franchise.70

To be sure, constitutions must not be taken too seriously. The Baltimore congregation numbered among its founders a Bohemian Jewish peddler whose Quaker wife continued to practice her faith. This man was active in the Jewish community. The solution to intermarriage was conversion to Judaism; some congregations went along with petitioners for admission into the fold though Jewry in general did not encourage proselytization. Every congregation, every husband, every father had to come to grips with this problem, one that has confronted Jews ever since biblical days. Solomon Lyons, a prominent businessman in Philadelphia, had more than one Christian mistress. When one of them bore him a son, he arranged for circumcision, saw to it that the mother was converted, and then married her. He was an observant Jew, an active member of Mikveh Israel, and a generous contributor to Jewish causes. Determined to keep his children Jewish he left specific instructions that they be reared as Jews but a daughter grew up to marry a non-Jew. What was Jacob Mordecai to do when his sons and a daughter began marrying out? Mourn for them as if they were dead? He loved them! Despite the fact that most affiliated Jews were Orthodox, they made their peace with intermarriage, even though the rate of out-marriages was not low. Only on the rarest of occasions did a congregation ask a Jew to divorce his non-Jewish wife, and there is no record of compliance even in these instances.71


Certainly there was laxity in the observance of many basic Jewish practices. In his sermons, Isaac Leeser dwelt on this subject without letup. Some of his attacks no doubt are the professional jeremiads which characterize all preachers, but, though a discount must be taken, there was much indifference—what Leeser called infidelity. There were cultured families whose children, native-born of course, ignored religious prohibitions by traveling on the holidays. These young men and women, completely American, had no desire to conform to ancient Jewish patterns. Jacob Mordecai, himself an ardent Jew, seems somehow to have ignored the Jewish education of his offspring. When Jacob I. Cohen, of Richmond and Philadelphia, contracted a forbidden marriage, he deliberately ignored an express prohibition of the Bible, and the best Jews gave him moral support. They all knew they were violating the Law, but they went ahead anyhow. Yet they were all totally committed to Judaism—of this there can be no doubt—though what they did would never have been tolerated in Germany and Poland among observant Jews. It is evident that there was disregard of age-old observance of laws and customs on the part of many. This permissiveness—really gross neglect—was widespread even among people who deemed themselves good Jews. At Petersburg, Virginia, in 1791, if we are to accept the testimony of a contemporary Jewish woman, the shohet himself bought and ate non-kosher meat; worshippers wore no prayer shawl in the synagog; the holidays were not celebrated; and no shop was closed on the Sabbath.72

What was it that moved men and women in those days to ignore the religious folkways in violation of biblical, rabbinical, and congregational injunctions? There were several answers and this multiplicity induces historians to believe that they cannot fully account for the derelictions. Social control was not absolute; there was much indifference. When Philip Minis marched into a cafe and shot down a man who had insulted him as a Jew, Slowey Hays intimated that Philip and his sister had not been given a good Jewish training by their parents; their papa and mama were not ardent Jews. There were Israelites—how many we do not know—who rejected Judaism; there were Jewish atheists, freethinkers. When a Jewish infidel was blown up in his chemistry laboratory on a Saturday, it was suggested that God must have punished him for working on the divinely appointed day of rest. Most Jews who neglected the jots and tittles of the Law were not prompted to do so for ideological reasons; their conduct stemmed from neglect. There were others, Deists no doubt, who looked upon the Law as a “human invention,” “unreasonable and obsolete.” One is inclined to believe that those Jews who refused to circumcise their sons, condoned intermarriage, violated the Sabbath, and ignored the dietary laws were moving in the direction of secularism—but they were not necessarily defectors since they were content to remain Jews. When a patrician Jewish woman sent her daughter to a Christian boarding school, her letter of instructions said nothing of religion or prayers. As a friend of Leeser’s once said, Jews are stubborn; they will never convert to Christianity; they are just as stubborn in refusing to be observant.73

Were there in those days Jews eager to maintain Judaism but convinced that it would have to be liberalized? The Marxes and the younger Mordecais of Virginia were liberals. One of the Marx girls was told by an aunt that she had her choice of Sabbaths, Saturday or Sunday. She opted for Sunday, but when she grew up she married a Jew. Ellen Mordecai thought there was too much ceremonial and superstition in Judaism. In her early days, she was quite attached to her Jewish heritage; later, she became an ardent convert to Christianity. As the 1824–1825 religious secession in Charleston demonstrated, a substantial number of liberals called that city home. Many of them nursed Deist ideas. It was inevitable that cultured Jews, associating with Christians of intelligence and learning, would be influenced. The Jew could not escape the environment that enveloped him; many Jews had gone to secular schools patronized by middle-class Christians. For perhaps the first time in Jewish history, they were living together with Gentiles, in close proximity. To a degree, of course, they had no choice; they patterned themselves on their non-Jewish neighbors. Jews were certainly exposed to religious liberalism as it began to manifest itself among the Christians of that day. It is not easy to measure the extent of Jewish religious progressivism in the various towns. There were Jewish political liberals, Jeffersonians, “Democrats,” but many of these men made a sharp distinction between political and religious liberalism; the two were not deemed tangential. Political left-wingers like Solomon Simson and Benjamin Nones were leaders in their Jewish communities, and synagogs.74


How did religious Jews cope with the many problems that confronted them in their congregations and in their homes? As long as Sephardim were able to maintain the synagog-community—the only one in town—and enjoy a monopoly of religious privileges, marriages, and burials, they could threaten offenders with fines, court action, public denunciation during the services, refusal of honors, and expulsion. They could and did demand public apologies. The leaders made threats and carried them out, but when multiple synagog-communities were established in a town, the dissidents and the disaffected could always leave. Now there was another cemetery in town! Fighting indifference and laxity was from now on to be an uphill battle; coercion was no longer a serious option; pushing people would drive them out of the synagog. As early as 1790, a generation before the rise of a rival synagog in New York, Shearith Israel fulminated against members who violated the Law, but they were not driven out of the congregation. Even Charleston in 1820 hesitated to take strong measures against those who flaunted their disregard of accepted practices. Individuals and congregations had no choice but to accommodate themselves to their Christian neighbors and to American mores. It was imperative that there be compromise here on a “frontier” 3,000 miles from talmudically trained European rabbinical authorities. Because they were so pitifully small, congregations had to be tolerant if the community was to be held together. The more ardent devotees could not afford the luxury of expelling others. In essence, all communities here resolved their problems of observance by ignoring some laws, traditions, and customs. It was a selective process. Gradually the mikveh was ignored, and women bathed ritually at home. The Jews bent the Law; they made liberal decisions by honoring many traditions in the breach. This pattern of salutary neglect has continued in American life among many traditional Jews down to the present day. Most Israelites of the early nineteenth century wanted to live as Jews; there was enough prejudice in the United States to keep them in line—but not enough to drive them into the synagog. Practically all of them began sooner or later to realize that accommodation spelled survival.75

What held Jews together in an early American community? Despite the indifference on the part of many, the avowed religionists among them held their own, maintaining their basic institutions till they were reinforced in the late 1830’s by observant Central European Jewish newcomers, who then began a new cycle of Jewish religious activity. To repeat; what held Jews together in the early days of the republic? Jews were united by their religion, even if intensity of devotion was not the determining factor. Secularism, as intimated above, was present, but there was no visible body of secularists. There can be no question that, in the minds of most Jews, one could not be a Jew without Judaism; Judaism and the Jewish people were one. In their daily conduct the impact of customary law was always present; it was bred in the bone; Jews could not emancipate themselves from it nor did they want to do so. Next to the Law and its rabbinical interpretations came the institutions, the synagog, the school, the confraternities, the home. These constituted the cement, the binding element. This organic whole of customs, institutions, and mindset was what determined the conduct and loyalty of Jews.

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