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Pinto, who was originally from Amsterdam, had come in 1759 from London at the age of thirty to serve as Congregation Shearith Israel’s Hazzan. Gershom, who was then fourteen, learned from Pinto how to conduct synagogue services and gained from him a fairly advanced knowledge of Hebrew as well as familiarity with Halacha.
In 1765 Pinto had to return to Europe for financial reasons. From 1766 to 1768 Isaac da Silva served as Hazzan. However, there were many who were dissatisfied with his performance and a replacement was sought. Gershom Seixas applied for the position on July 3, 1768 and the following Sunday afternoon, da Silva was discharged and Gershom was unanimously elected as Hazzan of Congregation Shearith Israel. He served in this position for almost fifty years, until his passing on July 2, 1816.
“The young hazzan took to his job quickly and well. One year after his appointment we encounter records of a trip to Lancaster, Pennsylvania in fulfillment of his duties, possibly to circumcise a child. Although he was quite happy with the work he was doing, the young man was dissatisfied with his annual salary, a mere eighty pounds. The additional perquisites of office, firewood and the option to live in congregation-owned quarters, did little to assuage his growing needs. In fact, a raise was necessary to facilitate his impending marriage. Hence, in January of 1775, he applied for a raise in pay which set off the first of a long number of haggles over salary. Seixas actually had to quit for a full month before the trustees of the congregation compromised with his demands. On March 29, his salary was raised to 120 pounds plus the usual perquisites of office.”[iv]
On September 6, 1775, at the age of thirty, Gershom married Elkalah (or Elkaley), the daughter of Abraham and Sarah Myers-Cohen, who brought her husband a meager dowry of only 200 pounds. Elkalah was born in 1749, nine years after her father was granted letters of naturalization. Abraham Myers-Cohen was of Ashkenazic origin and eked out a living as a struggling storekeeper. He died before Elkalah’s sixteenth birthday.
“During the ten years of their married life she had to establish for him no less than four homes. The first was their New York home in 1775. Then came their home in exile in Stratford in 1776, and their home in Philadelphia in 1780. Finally she set up their home once more in New York in 1784 before she died a little over a year later [at age 36]. In those ten years she established not only his physical homes but also his family with four children to whom she gave birth, Isaac (born 1776), Sarah Abigail (born 1778), Rebecca (born 1780), and Benjamin (born 1783).”[v]
Isaac died in infancy, so when Elkalah passed away in 1785 Gershom was left to care for three small children. A little more than a year later Gershom married Hannah (Annie/Nancy) Manuel (1766-1856). Hannah gave birth to twelve children, one of whom died in infancy. Since fourteen of Gershom’s children reached adulthood, his home resounded with children’s and grandchildren’s voices.
“Simple, modest, altogether unassuming, Gershom spent his happiest hours with his ever-growing family who were never far from his thoughts.”[vi]
Next month’s column will deal with Reverend Gershom Mendes Seixas’s activities during and after the Revolutionary War.
[i] “Gershom Mendes Seixas: His Religious ‘Calling,’ Outlook and Competence,” Thomas Kessner, American Jewish Historical Quarterly (1961-1978); Sep 1968-Jun 1969; 58, 1-4; AJHS Journal pg. 445.
About the Author: Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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