I’d like to welcome another guest blogger to Coffee Shop Rabbi. Laurie Rappeport grew up in Detroit Michigan and made aliyah in 1983. She lives in Safed, a northern Israeli city known as the “City of Kabbalah.” Laurie worked in the Safed Tourist Information Center for 13 years and continues to remain active in the city’s tourism. She teaches about Israel and Judaism online to American Hebrew School students.
The evolution of the American Jewish community from the 17th century till today can be followed at the Lowell Milken Archives where the development of American Jewry is documented in a wide-ranging series musical and liturgical recordings.
Up until the mid-1800s the majority of America’s Jewish community was Sephardic. These were Jews whose families originally came from Spain and Portugal. They made their way to the New World via Holland. The first American synagogues, including Sherith Israel in New York, the Touro synagogue in Newport Rhode Island and the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue of Charleston South Carolina followed Sephardic liturgy and musical traditions. These synagogues were given names with deep messianic and kabbalistic meanings that reflected the prevalent belief that the upheaval in the Jewish world that had been brought about by the Inquisition and expulsions heralded the coming of the Messiah. The name of the first synagogue in Philadelphia, Mikve Yisrael, was taken from the name of Dutch Rabbi Ben Israel’s book of Kabbalah which reminded the Jews of Yirmiyahu’s promise “O Hope of Mikveh Israel, it’s deliverer in the time of trouble.” Sherith Israel — the remnants of Israel — was named for the prophet Micah’s prophecy “I will bring together the remnant of Shearith Israel.” The formal name of the Touro synagogue is Yeshuat Yisrael which is based on the verse of psalms “the deliverance of Yeshuat Yisrael might come from Zion when the Lord restores the fortunes of His people Jacob will exult and Israel will rejoice.”
Several years ago researcher Edward Kritzler published an account of 16th century Jews who fled the Inquisition of their native lands to South America. The book, Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean: How a Generation of Swashbuckling Jews Carved Out an Empire in the New World in Their Quest for Treasure, Religious Freedom–and Revenge chronicles the riveting history of Sephardic Jews who settled in South America. When the Spanish and Portuguese governments brought the Inquisition to the New World they were forced to flee to areas which were controlled by the Dutch Republic and English crown. Many of these Jews settled in the Caribbean where they turned to piracy, both for economic reasons and as a strategy that allowed them to take revenge on the Spanish fleet.
Portuguese Jews who had managed to flee Portugal’s Inquisition established new communities in Holland. The Dutch Jewish leadership encouraged these people to immigrate to the New World and many of them did so, sailing to Brazil where, until 1654, Jews enjoyed the right to live and worship freely. In that year Portugal wrested control of the country from Holland and the Inquisition began to forcibly convert the Jews to Christianity. A group of 23 Jews fled and sailed from Recife, Brazil to New York where, over governor Peter Stuyvesant’s objections, were allowed to stay. They were soon joined by other Dutch Jews and in 1729 they established America’s first synagogue, Sherith Israel, which continues to serve the Sephardic Jewish community of New York.
By the mid-1800s German Jewish immigrants formed the majority of the American Jewish community. During this time the Reform Movement began to strengthen in America and many of the old Sepharadi synagogues adopted German and Reform liturgy and customs. The Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue of Charleston was the first synagogue to make this change and its classical Reform traditions continue till today.
By the late 1800s the immigration of the Eastern European Jews began. Between 1882 and 1924 it’s estimated that 2 million Jews immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe. Most of these immigrants began to acculturate to their new home and to American society while maintaining many of their original prayer customs and synagogue liturgy. This era also saw the expansion of hazzanut — cantorial singing — and even those Jews who were no longer strictly observant loved the Ashkanazi hazzanut. Hazzanut that developed during these years continues to influence cantors of all streams of Judaism till today.
To learn more about the development of American Jewish music, visit the Lowell Milken Archives website. There you will find a treasury of musical recordings of all kinds.