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April 19, 2014 / 19 Nisan, 5774
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘New World’

Unsung Hero: Reverend Arnold Fischel

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes are from “Arnold Fischel: ‘Unsung Hero’ in American Israel” by Jonathan Waxman, American Jewish Historical Quarterly (1961-1978); Sep 1970-Jun 1971; 60, 1-4; AJHS Journal.

Last month’s column outlined the struggle that took place at the beginning of the Civil War to get Congress to allow the appointment of Jewish army chaplains. Originally only Christian clergymen could serve as chaplains, and it was only as a result of pressure from the American Jewish community that in 1861 Congress passed a new law allowing ordained clergy of other religions to serve as chaplains. The Reverend Arnold (Adolph) Fischel (1830-1894) played a key role in this effort.

Little is known about Fischel’s early life, save that he was a native of Holland and from an Ashkenazi family. We know that by 1849 Fischel had settled in England, because the March 23, 1849 issue of The Jewish Chronicle carried an article about a talk he gave before the Brighton Royal Literary and Scientific Society.

“…[O]n Tuesday evening…Mr. Fischel delivered, at the Albion Room, a very excellent essay on the Peculiarness and Beauties of the Hebrew Language…and entered into much curious philological research connected with his subject, clearly indicating his own knowledge of the learned languages, Oriental and Occidental. He next entered into some critical observations showing the harmony between science and revelation, whilst he clearly demonstrated the ignorance of Hebrew in those infidel writers who used ingenuity instead of learning in attempting to find contradictory texts, but which he showed, not only harmonised with true philosophy, but were consistent with the biblical doctrines.

“Three items in the article should be noted: one that Fischel has no title, such as ‘Reverend’ or ‘Dr.’; two, despite this, he appears to have been a man of some erudition; and three he appears as Orthodox in his views. At a later period Fischel is addressed as ‘the Reverend Dr.,’ and we may indeed question the source of his semicha and doctorate.”

Other scholarly activities by Fischel followed. Several months after his first talk he gave another one before the same society titled “Sublimity of Hebrew Poetry compared with that of the Greek and Roman classics.” He also published several letters in The Jewish Chronicle about the Hebrew language and Psalm 110 using only his initials, A.F.

He “was subsequently identified by Hertz Ben Pinchas, a leading Anglo-Jewish scholar of the period, as ‘the learned and friendly A.F.’ Fischel’s reputation as a scholar was further enhanced when The Jewish Chronicle commented favorably on his offer to lecture, gratis, at Sussex Hall, home of the British Literary Society, and perhaps the most prestigious institution for adult Jewish education in Great Britain at this time.”

In 1852 Fischel was elected to the position of lecturer at the Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation.

“Within a month of his election we note an elevation in status when the Reverend A. Fischel was elected an honorary member of the Board of Management of the Liverpool Hebrew Education Institute. Fischel’s main duty was delivering an English sermon on a regular basis as well as preaching on special occasions such as the Day of National Humiliation and Prayer called by Chief Rabbi Adler in April, 1854. It is quite likely, however, that his functions were broader.”

In December 1855, Congregation Shearith Israel of New York invited “Dr. Arnold Fischell, a Dutch Jew in England, to be candidate for lecturer.” In September 1856 Fischel sailed for New York. After delivering some sermons, he was appointed to the position of lecturer at Shearith Israel. He also taught at the Congregation’s Polonies Talmud Torah School. It should be kept in mind that Fischel’s position of Lecturer put him on a slightly lower status than that of the Reverend J. J. Lyons, who was the congregation’s chazzan. Indeed, Fischel essentially became Lyons’s assistant.

“But Dr. Fischel had his difficulties. He had learning and devotion, but he had not the personality or the eloquence of an effective preacher. More than once he was earnestly requested by the board of trustees to write out his lectures and read them from the manuscript. Furthermore, Hazzan Lyons was not given to viewing his efforts sympathetically. Nevertheless, Dr. Fischel was steadily reelected until in October, 1861, he declined reelection.”

The Chaplaincy

In September 1861 Michael Allen, a Jew, was forced to give up his position as chaplain of the 65th Regiment of the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry because the law at the time said only a Christian could be an army chaplain. The American Jewish community mounted an effort to change this discriminatory law with protests in the press. On December 4, 1861, the Board of Delegates of American Israelites, the only Jewish national organization at the time, invited Fischel to come to Washington to meet with government officials and to lobby to have the law changed.

Chronicles Of Crises In Our Communities – 9/23/11

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

Man And Woman Opine…

 

Dear Rachel,           

I am a male who, upon reading the article of the husband who likes the company of other women (see Chronicles July 22), thought the story had more holes than a rice strainer. How can any human (male or female) dwell for so long in the same hostile environment with a cheating spouse and endure this kind of torment and agony — and all of a sudden, out of the clear blue, decide she’s had enough, just because she married off all of their children.

There must be another side to this story. Odds are if the woman allowed the cheating spouse to behave in such a repulsive manner for so many years, she is as guilty as her husband. This poor wife shouldn’t have waited even one microsecond and ought to have inquired about a divorce ASAP! By waiting for so long, she demonstrated to her husband and to herself that she condoned and tolerated such pitiful behavior.

But it’s never too late. I’m sure if the wife would put her foot down – as opposed to seeking help from a Dear Rachel columnist – her husband would stop his silly shenanigans. The wife should directly approach her husband, give him an ultimatum and not resort to such constant humiliation.

Secondly, part of the problem of why so many couples live in such strange arrangements today and are afraid to make a drastic move and seek closure, is because of the immorality that some of our community leaders and Batei Din display on a day-to-day basis. How can we expect any husband and wife having nuptial issues to ever resolve their differences if many at the top are corrupt, immoral, and can’t get their act together?

That might explain why cheating spouses can get away with it for so many years and the poor spouse’s only hope and defense is a Dear Rachel column. Immorality starts from the neck up (the head).

Straighten out the head and the body will follow

 

Dear Rachel,

I would like to address some of the points made by Just Observing about women in the workplace (see Chronicles Sept 9). I wonder whether this writer uses a phone, gets on a plane, drives a car or has air conditioning. There was a time when a man could beat a drum, send smoke signals, or blow a shofar to send a message, collected wood to make a fire for warmth, walked miles across the desert to go to the temple, rode on a mule, and when the temperature soared just plain sweated it out.

Times change. What was appropriate, expected, doable and normal THEN has little relation to what is the norm in 2011.

The Eishes Chayil poem extols the virtues of the woman and her hard work. Listen to the words. Hardly sounds like the little woman with delicate hands, sensitive features untouched by the sun, never working a day in her life, sits home, eats bonbons and lives a charmed life of luxury, without stress or worry.

How much stress might there be in juggling seven plus children, a home, shopping, laundry, school, cleaning, meals, boo-boos, sickness, parents, community service AND a husband? Stress is not a 21st century invention.

And as smoke signals are no longer the modern communications standard, going backwards in expectations for women is counterproductive to everyone’s betterment. Old Indian saying: If wife is unhappy, you will not be happy.

It may come as a disturbing realization to some men that in the “New World” a woman can, will, need, and want to lead her life as best as Hashem has rendered her capable of and that there is no going back. The cork is out of the bottle.

What may really lie beneath this writer’s concern is the idea that women need to conform to a preconceived “Old World” notion — whether it be how they should look, how they should act or even what they should learn. His uneasiness with the “New World” changes may have more to do with his own sense of identity and low self-esteem. Instead of him subtly suggesting that time should be turned back and that we need to return to the good old days, he may try figuring out where he fits into the “New World” system.

How is femininity defined? The husband of a lawyer may very well believe his wife to be feminine. Not every man has an issue with an independent savvy partner. My mother was a lawyer and my father adored her and treated her like the “feminine” woman she was. She was president of the Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association and was strong, bright, aggressive and active.

If a man is worried about his ego being bruised because his wife is smarter, earns more, is better looking and more personable, then it is he who has the problem. How selfish of him to assuage his problem by turning it around and making it her problem.

As I recall, my father beamed with pride when mention was made of the outstanding job my mother did and of all her accomplishments. There was mutual respect between them. My mother (Mildred B. Lesser, who professionally NEVER gave up her maiden name) was always complimenting my dad and his business prowess. Truth is, I believe she earned considerably more than he.

Just Observing said, “some men find it hard to find their desired jobs because of the many women who now fill the job market.” Funny, a similar sentiment was expressed by non-Jews when the influx of Jewish immigrants arrived in their communities. That’s what people say when they are fearful.

Self-serving observations merely lift the spirit of the one who feels down and oppress the targeted.

Women are endowed by Hashem with all sorts of blessings; should anyone determine which ones – if any – should be stifled?

 Going backwards is futile

 

* * * * *

We encourage women and men of all ages to send in their personal stories via email to  rachel@jewishpress.com  or by mail to Rachel/Chronicles, c/o The Jewish Press, 4915 16th Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y. 11204. If you wish to make a contribution and help agunot, your tax-deductible donation should be sent to The Jewish Press Foundation. Please make sure to specify that it is to help agunot, as the foundation supports many worthwhile causes.

Columbus Day 1892 And The Jews Of New York

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007

      On Sunday, October 9, 1892, page 36 of The New York Herald featured the following banners.[i]

 

AMERICAN HEBREWS HEARTILY JOIN

IN PRAISE OF COLUMBUS

Patriotic Music, Bunting and Decorations

Throngs of Joyful Worshippers And

Appropriate Discourses in All the Synagogues

ALL ISRAEL REJOICES

Thankfulness for America Reconciles Jews

to the Expulsion from Spain
 

 

      From these headlines it is clear that the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering the New World was cause for great celebration by New York Jewry. Indeed, the Herald’s account of what occurred in the various synagogues – the intensity of the patriotism displayed by the Jewish community in 1892 – is something one simply does not see today.
 

      The Herald article continued,

 

In these dates, 1492 and 1892, how much significance is there for the Hebrew race! The quadrennial celebration of the New World ties with the woe of the Jews of the Old World. Superstition is almost vindicated when one considers that the day that Columbus set sail in quest of the New World was identical with the day that the Jews were expelled from Spain. Those [the Jews] of this country are Americans. Though the proof was not needed, the outpouring in the synagogues yesterday [Shabbos] bore sounding evidence that they are not only Americans, but patriotic Americans. Four hundred years ago millionaires hobbled out of Spain – beggars. Today Hebrew millionaires negotiate loans (from their own pockets) with Spain.

 

      In every synagogue in the city the American flag was proudly displayed on the day before October 9. In 1892, October 8 was Shabbos Chol Hamoed Succos. The Herald noted, On Thursday was the Succoth, or Harvest Feast. This feast is better known as the ‘hut feast,’ which is the commemoration of the forty years is wandering in the wilderness by the children of Israel.”
 
      The article presented selections from sermons delivered at some of the synagogues. The remarks made by Rabbi Dr. Alexander Kohut and Rav Yaakov Yosef (Jacob Joseph) are of particular interest.
 
Dr. Alexander Kohut
 
      Alexander Kohut (1842-1894), a well-known rabbinical scholar, began work on his famous “dictionary of the talmud” in about 1873. It took him 25 years of untiring work to complete the Arukh Ha Shalem, a monumental work amounting to more than 4000 double-column pages. In 1885 Dr. Kohut became the spiritual leader of Congregation Ahavas Chesed in New York.
 
      “Dr. Kohut was renowned as a brilliant orator and a great Hebrew scholar, undoubtedly one of the greatest Talmudists who have ever been in America.”[ii]
 

      In his remarks about the 400th Anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America, Dr. Kohut said:

 

America was discovered because Columbus possessed a living faith in his ideal, in himself, and in his God. [This is] of utmost significance for us Israelites. In fact, between Columbus’ innate reverential piety and staunch adherence to faith and the firm, unflinching, unbeguiled confidence in our own conviction throughout these stormy centuries, most suggestive parallels could be drawn.
 
Friends! What a thrilling thought darts through our minds at the strange coincidence which commends itself to our notice! What a whirl of conflicting emotions seizes our hearts at the startling truth, but recently unfolded, that the 12th of October, 1492, when the noted discoverer first spied the welcome dawn of feeble light, when Columbus first set foot upon the land, which was a momentous event for us all, the advent of the Jewish New Year[iii]marked Israel’s claim, pleaded Israel’s plea for deliverance from tyranny.
 

It was on this Jewish New Year that the loyal standard bearer of faith, with his now jubilant followers, all attired in raiments of royal splendor, sang with lifted eye and bended knee a devout Te Deum [a traditional Christian hymn of joy and thanksgiving] upon America’s blessed shores. Our hearts swell with conscious pride, our souls revel in the luxury of this sublime conception, and we, too, reverently lift the eye and humbly bend the knee on this day of jubilee, hallowed by recollections of that divine prophecy.

 

Rabbi Jacob Joseph

 

      Rabbi Jacob Joseph (1840-1902), the chief rabbi of New York, was the rav of Congregation Beis Medrash Hagodol on the Lower East Side, the largest and most prestigious Orthodox synagogue in New York.
 
      Rabbi Joseph spoke in Yiddish, so what The Herald attributed to him is undoubtedly a translation.
 
      The Herald reported, “From all quarters of the east side the orthodox Hebrews flocked to Temple [sic] Beth Hamedrash Hagodal, No. 54 Norfolk street, yesterday morning. The synagogue was crowded and the great audience was rewarded by hearing a beautiful address by the Chief Rabbi of the Union of Orthodox Congregations, Rev. Dr. [sic] Jacob Joseph.”
 

      In part Rav Joseph said:

 

His [Columbus's] plans and his propositions aroused the ill pleasure of the Church, the distrust of the science of his age, and the ridicule of the masses. But all those turbulent elements were calmed in the course of time, taught to accommodate themselves to the truth and to be raised and enlightened by it. We can now appreciate the wisdom of the discovery of America in its bearings upon the social, moral and religious development of the human family, and bless the Author of Wisdom for His wondrous deeds and providential guidance of our destinies.
 

At last the blessed constitution and government of the United States was enacted, and the wisdom divine in revealing the New World to man became apparent. Here the persecuted of all nations found the justice that was due them as human beings at the hands of their fellowmen; here the sufferers of the sons of Israel found a haven of rest, liberty to breath the free air of God, the right and the protection of the law in the development of their abilities and usefulness, and, above all, the freedom to follow the dictates of conscious, and to worship the God of their fathers without molestation.

 

      The chief rabbi read a special prayer in Hebrew composed by J. Buchhalter for this occasion: “After the recitation of this prayer in Hebrew the chief rabbi offered up a short prayer for the souls of Columbus and his Jewish followers. He commended to divine grace the souls of George Washington and the ‘Fathers of the Revolution,’ and finally he prayed for the peace and prosperity of the United States and for divine blessings in behalf of the President, Vice President and the judiciary and executive authorities of the nation.”
 
      (The author wishes to express his thanks to Roberta Saltzman, Dorot Jewish Division of the New York Public Library, for supplying him with the New York Herald article on which this column is based.)
 

      Dr. Yitzchok Levine, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. “Glimpses Into American Jewish History” appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

 



[i] Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes are from The New York Herald, Sunday, October 9, 1892, pages 36-37.

 

[ii] The Unfailing Light by Rabbi Dr. Bernard Drachman, The Rabbinical Council of America, New York, 1948, page 172.

 

[iii] Dr. Kohut was incorrect when he said that Rosh Hashanah fell on October 12, 1492. In 1492 Rosh Hashanah fell on October 1/2. It may well be that Dr. Kohut misread the date of Columbus’s landing in the New World and thought it was October 2 rather than October 12.

The Beginnings Of Jewish Education In New York

Monday, April 2nd, 2007

   “Jewish communities from time immemorial have recognized educational institutions as the bedrock of Jewish continuity. The first Jews to settle in the New World brought this lesson with them when developing their community in Brazil. Embedded into the framework of this community was a school to instruct the community’s children.”[i]
 
      “The history of Jewish education in New York, prior to 1840, is the story of one school, that of the Portuguese Jewish congregation, Shearith Israel. Because of the inhospitable treatment which the Jews were accorded in New Amsterdam, their educational activities were carried on during the first seventy-five years of their sojourn in America in the privacy of their own homes. But with the building of the first synagogue on Mill Street, in 1729-1730, the question of the Jewish education of the children became the concern of the entire congregation. We find that one year after the dedication of the synagogue, the first Jewish school in America was established.”[ii]
 
      It was through the generosity of Jacob Mendes da Costa of London that Yeshivah [Yeshibat] Minhat Areb was consecrated on the 7th day of Pesach, 1731 “for the use of the Congregation Sheerit Israel and as a Bet Hamidras for the pupils. Notwithstanding the name Yeshibah, which usually denotes a Talmudic academy, in practice the building was used for meetings and the general purposes of the congregation, and for the children’s school rather than for adult and advanced Hebrew study.”[iii]
 
      The characteristics of Yeshiva Minhat Areb from its founding until 1801 were those of the usual American colonial school in that “it was conducted entirely under religious auspices. The Hazan (praecentor, rabbi, or reader) acted as school teacher, and the Parnassim (trustees) served as school inspectors.”[iv]
 

      At first the curriculum was confined to Hebrew language. Indeed, when David Mendes Machado took office as Hazan in 1737, it was clearly specified that he was promising and obliging himself to keep a publick school in due form for teaching the Hebrew language, either the whole morning or afternoon as he shall think proper, and any poor that shall be thought unable to pay for their children’s learning they shall be taught gratis.[v]

 

      In 1747 the hours of instruction were specified to be from nine to twelve in the morning and on Thursdays from two to five. A Parnas or one of the adjuntos of the congregation visited the school weekly to check on the progress of the students. Hazan Machado received eight shillings a quarter and a load of wood yearly for every paying pupil.
 
      The school soon became a parochial school in which both secular and religious subjects were taught. In 1755, the Hazan was instructed to teach “the Hebrew, Spanish, English, writting & Arithmetick.” Twenty pounds per annum were to be added to his salary on condition that the school met in his home every day of the week except for Friday afternoons, religious holidays and fast days. The hours of instruction were daily from 9 to noon and from 2 to 5. In 1762 Spanish was dropped from the curriculum, and the school was called a “publickschool.”
 
      As the congregation grew it became impossible for one man to serve as both hazan and schoolteacher. In 1760 the Parnassim and Elders of the synagogue wrote to England seeking a qualified teacher. However, until 1800 the teacher was expected, when necessary, to serve as hazan as well as shammos.
 
      Yeshiva Minhat Areb was supported partly by the tuition fees paid by the parents of the students and partly by the congregation. Tuition fees were paid both in cash and in goods. Provision was made for children who came from poor homes; the teacher was required to teach them gratis.
 
      During the stormy days of the Revolution virtually the entire membership of Shearith Israel left New York for Philadelphia, and the school was temporarily discontinued. When the war ended, most of the congregation returned to New York, the yeshiva was reopened and “the school had to be organized anew. In the winter of 1785-86, and again in 1792, the congregation was looking for someone both capable and ready to conduct its school in the Hebra building. In September, 1793, Simeon Levy applied for and was given the position. He agreed to teach for half a day all children under thirteen years of age, the pupils providing the necessary books and other school supplies. He was expected to pay ‘strict attention to the morals as well as the religious duties of all the youths that shall be committed to his care.’ At synagogue services all the school children were to be under his watchful direction.”[vi]
 
Polonies Talmud Torah[vii]
 
      When Myer Polony, a native of Poland, died in New York in 1801 he “bequeathed to the Congregation [Shearith Israel] the sum of $900; the interest to be applied towards the establishing a Hebrew School. This sum the trustees invested in 8% stock of the United States, and they applied the interest toward the maintenance of ‘a charity school’ to be called the Polonies Talmud Torah, for teaching the Hebrew language.”[viii] Thus Yeshiva Minhat Areb was reorganized as Polonies Talmud Torah. A school with this name is still in existence today. (See www.shearithisrael.org/folder/general_info_ptts_new.html.)
 
      The school was housed in the Hebra building adjoining the synagogue and classes met for three hours on weekday afternoons and on Sunday mornings. In 1812 the curriculum still consisted of English, reading, writing, arithmetic and Hebrew. Later, geography was included as a subject in the curriculum. It is of interest to note that in June 1808 enrollment consisted of four students whose families paid no tuition, and sixteen boys and six girls each paying $6.25 a quarter. Thus girls attended Polonies Talmud Torah at a time when organized Jewish education for girls was essentially unheard of in the rest of the Jewish world.
 
      “The only reference to special method consisted in stipulating that the ‘translation of the Hebrew and the instruction of the service of the synagogue is to be according to the order of the Portuguese Jews’ (1821), which means, in accordance with the Sephardic (Spanish) ritual. As for school equipment, the teacher was ‘to provide the necessary stationery and fuel,’ and ‘the parents and guardians of the children to provide reading and spelling books’ (1812), since the trustees had refused to ‘furnish scholars with any article of stationery except ink’ (1808). One of the interesting duties imposed upon the teacher, was not to permit his scholars ‘to riot or make a noise in the synagogue yard, or about the premises, or in any manner to disturb the neighbors’ (1822).
 
      “The Polonies Talmud Torah was not particularly successful. It was frequently disbanded and again reorganized. At one time there were only ‘one paid scholar and five free scholars’ (1821). One of the teachers during this time was informed that ‘no disposition exists on the part of families to send their children to the school under his superintendence’ (1821). There were several reasons for this lack of success. Because of the stationary size of the congregation, the religious school was naturally also small. Besides this normal limitation the custom prevailed among the wealthier members of the congregation of sending their children to be educated by private teachers or in the existing Jewish boarding schools. On the whole, this school did not play a significant part in the development of Jewish education.”[ix]
 
      As the movement for the establishment of public schools developed in the early part of the nineteenth century, the character of the school changed. Slowly it evolved from a general parochial school that gave Hebrew instruction into a supplementary school that gave religious instruction only.
 
      Dr. Yitzchok Levine, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.
     


[i]Hebrew Printing in America 1735-1926, A History and Annotated Bibliography, by Yosef Goldman, YG Books, 2006, page 257.

                       

[ii]Jewish Education in New York City, by Alexander M. Dushkin, The Bureau of Jewish Education, New York, 1918, pages 39-40.

 

[iii]An Old Faith in the New World, by David and Tamar de Sola Pool, Columbia University Press, New York, 1955, page 228.

 

[iv]Jewish Education in New York City, page 40.

 

[v]Ibid., page 449.

 

[vi]An Old Faith in the New World, page 214.

 

[vii]This section is based in part on The Polonies Talmud Torah of New York, by Jacob I. Hartstein, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, 1937, 34.

 

[viii]An Old Faith in the New World, page 214.

 

[ix]Jewish Education in New York City, pages 43-44.

Maintaining Yiddishkeit In Colonial Times

Thursday, September 1st, 2005

It was not easy to maintain tradition and religious observance in the sparsely settled American colonies. These colonies were, of course, far away from the old European centers of Jewish life and learning. Furthermore, there were very few Jews residing in America during the 17th and 18th centuries.

In 1695, New York City, considered to be a relative bastion of American Judaism, had a Jewish population of about 100. By 1750 this number had increased to about 300; by 1794 it rose to only 350. In addition, qualified religious leadership was to be found only in a few cities. The first ordained Orthodox rabbi in America, Rav Abraham Rice, did not arrive until 1840. Sadly but not surprisingly, he found total chaos in Baltimore`s Jewish religious community.

Despite the almost insurmountable obstacles that stood in the way of observance, there were those who made valiant efforts to maintain Yiddishkeit to whatever extent possible.

The Franks were a prominent New York Jewish family during Colonial times. Jacob Franks came to New York in 1705, and he married Bilhah Abagail Levy in 1719. They were typical of Jewish families of the times in that, with very few exceptions, they were observant and resolved to continue their Jewish way of life.

Of course, “remaining loyal to the ancient traditions was not easy in the colonies where there were neither rabbis nor Jewish learning, and where Jews were outnumbered 1,000 to one.” (Jewish Pioneers in America, 1492-1848, Anita Libman Lebeson, Brentano`s Publishers, 1931, pages 110-111.)

In the 1740`s it was extremely difficult in a place like Georgia to maintain observance. There were at most four or five Jewish householders and only two of them were “religious.” One of the two families was that of the Sheftalls, headed by Benjamin Sheftall, who came to Savannah with the first Jewish settlers. Benjamin`s oldest son, Mordecai, became thirteen in the spring of 1749. However, his father did not have a siddur and tefillin for him. Such religious items had to come from abroad, and war had made it very difficult for British ships to come to Georgia.

Benjamin`s anguish at the thought that his son would not be properly prepared for full-fledged membership in the Jewish community is reflected in a note to his friends in England [the spelling and wording of the original has been preserved]:

As I have received some letters five days ago from one of our relation, Samule, who writes me that you was so good as to send mee some books and other things, which I to my misfortune never have received, and as I do not no [know] which way they wear [were] sent, nor no [know] the name of the captain or the name of the ship, so I can`t enquier for them. I hope your honour will soon find it out wether that ship is taken by an enemy or lost at sea.

If she is not taken nor lost, I hop your honour will let me no [know] where to inquier for them. I live [leave] your honour to guess in what grife I am in to be so misfortenabel, my eldest son binq [being] three months ago thirten years of age and I not to have any frauntlets [phylacteries] nor books fit for him. I won`t troubel your houner with much writing, for my heart is full of grife.

No more at present, I am Your humbel servant Benjamin Sheftall Savanah in Georgia, March 1748. [1]

Mrs. Hyman Samuel (n?e Rebecca Alexander), whose family lived in a small town in Virginia during the last part of the 18th century, corresponded with her parents in Hamburg, Germany. Rebecca`s husband, a competent craftsman, was a watchmaker and silversmith. The letters of hers that are extant are among the best descriptions we have of life on the American Jewish cultural and religious frontier. They indicate the difficulties encountered in America by those who wanted to remain observant Jews. Indeed, the reader cannot help but empathize with the Samuels for the Jewish isolation they experienced in the New World.

Petersburg, January 12, 1791, Wednesday, 8th [7th ?] Shebat, 5551.

Dear and Worthy Parents:

We are completely isolated here. We do not have any friends, and when we do not hear from you for any length of time, it is enough to make us sick. I hop e that I will get to see some of my family. That will give me some satisfaction.

You write me that Mr. Jacob Renner`s son Reuben is in Philadelphia and that he will come to us. People will not advise him to come to Virginia. When the Jews of Philadelphia or New York hear the name Virginia, they get nasty. And they are not wrong! It won`t do for a Jew. In the first place it is an unhealthful district, and we are only human. God forbid, if anything should happen to us, where would we be thrown? There is no cemetery in the whole of Virginia. In Richmond, which is twenty-two miles from here, there is a Jewish community consisting of two quorums [twenty men], and the two cannot muster a quarter [quorum when needed?]. In another letter Rebecca wrote:

I hope my letter will ease your mind. You can now be reassured and send me one of the family to Charleston, South Carolina. This is the place to which, with God`s help, we will go after Passover. The whole reason why we are leaving this place is because of (its lack of) Yehudishkeit.

Dear Parents, I know quite well you will not want me to bring up my children like Gentiles. Here they cannot become anything else. Jewishness is pushed aside here. There are here (in Petersburg) ten or twelve Jews, and they are not worthy of being called Jews. We have a shohet here who goes to market and buys terefah meat and then brings it home. On Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur the people worshipped here without one Sefer Torah; and not one of them wore the tallit or the arba kanfot, except Hyman and my Sammy`s godfather.

You can believe me that I crave to see a synagogue to which I can go. The way we live now is no life at all. We do not know what the Sabbath and the holidays are. On the Sabbath all the Jewish shops are open, and they do business on that day as they do throughout the whole week. But ours we do not allow to open. With us there is still some Sabbath. You must believe me that in our house we all live as Jews as much as we can. My children cannot learn anything here, nothing Jewish, nothing of general culture.[2]

From the above we see how difficult it was for Jews to maintain their Yiddishkeit in the New World in the 17th and 18th centuries. Yet there were those who, despite huge obstacles, did their utmost to maintain as much of the faith of their ancestors as possible. Knowing this should make us realize how fortunate we are to live in vibrant Orthodox communities where all needed religious amenities are readily available.
 

[1] On Love Marriage Children and Death Collected and Edited by Jacob R. Marcus, Society of Jewish Bibliophiles 1965, pages 7 and 9.

[2] Ibid., pages 42-45.

Dr. Yitzchok Levine, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. He can be contacted at llevine@stevens-tech.edu.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/magazine/glimpses-ajh/maintaining-yiddishkeit-in-colonial-times/2005/09/01/

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