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April 19, 2014 / 19 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Rhode Island’

Ezra Stiles And The Jews Of Newport

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

The Rev. Ezra Stiles was born on November 29, 1727 in Connecticut and graduated from Yale University in 1746. He then studied theology at Yale and was ordained in 1749. After working as a tutor at Yale for a year, he began some mission work among the Indians. In 1752 he was forced to give this up due to ill health. He turned to the study of law and in 1753 took the attorney’s oath. He practiced law in New Haven until 1755, whereupon he returned to the ministry, accepting the position of pastor of the Second Congregational Church in Newport, Rhode Island, serving there from 1755 until 1777.

Stiles was an avid supporter of the American Revolution. Thus, when the British captured Newport in late 1776, he left the city and became pastor of the Congregational Church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1777. The following year he became president of Yale, serving in this capacity until his death on May 12, 1795.

Hebrew Studies

 

After settling in Newport Stiles became interested in the Jews residing there as well as in the Hebrew language.

Proceeding in the study of the Scriptures and of divinity, he felt the necessity of the knowledge of the Hebrew. His frequent attendance at the Jews’ synagogue increased his wish to possess at least as much of it as to see a little into their books and service. On receiving a diploma from Edinburgh [March, 1765] his ambition was touched, or rather a sense of shame excited, that a Doctor of Divinity should not understand a language; so important and so easily acquired.1

In May, 1767, Dr. Stiles knew ten letters of the Hebrew alphabet; he therefore requested one of his Jewish friends to teach him the others. Unlike some modern students of that ancient tongue, he determined, before beginning to translate from it into English, to read the language fluently, and henceforth read ten pages of the Psalter every day before breakfast. On the last of January of the next year, he began to translate Genesis, and by May 12 had finished it and Exodus. By the end of the year he had read Ezra and some of the Chaldee in Daniel, reading one chapter of the Bible and a little Arabic daily except Sundays. Thus he finished the Bible in October, 1770.

He now continued his Hebrew studies and became so proficient that in 1773 – the year he met Rabbi Hayim Isaac Carigal – he wrote a Hebrew letter of 22 pages in 1774, he read Onkelos and Jonathan in the original, and in 1777, we find him, according to his biographer, reading “Chaldee and Targum with Eben Ezra and Ishaki.”2 In July 1778, when he was inducted into his office as President of Yale, he delivered a Hebrew oration.3

Despite all this, one should not make the mistake of thinking Dr. Stiles became an accomplished Hebraist. In a footnote to the quote above, the author writes, “This sounds very nice, to be sure, nevertheless we may doubt whether he understood everything he read in his ‘Ishaki.’” He then goes on to point out a number of translation errors that Stiles made in his notes to a siddur.

Interest In Newport Jewry

 

On January 1, 1769 Dr. Stiles began keeping a diary, making regular entries until shortly before his death.

One is struck at once upon taking up the Diary by the large number of references to Jews and to Jewish affairs, although they are almost all confined to the period of his residence at Newport. The first entry about the Jews occurs as early as March 16, 1769, which day, he tells us, he spent mostly with the “Jew priest,” Isaac de Abraham Touro, [chazzan of the Newport Synagogue] in a discussion on biblical prophecies. From that time until the outbreak of the Revolution, which, when it began, absorbed almost all his thoughts, scarcely a month passes without some entry referring either to conversations or to correspondence with Jews, or to discussions on religious questions with them, or to items of interest regarding Jews.4

On December 2, 1763 Dr. Stiles attended the dedication of what is today known as the Touro Synagogue, and among his papers there is an elaborate description of the services as well as of the building. He often attended services at the synagogue on special occasions such as Jewish holidays and describes in detail what he saw. These writings provide us with a fascinating description of the religious life of Newport Jewry during the middle of the 18th century.

Stiles was particularly interested in discussing theological and religious matters with the various rabbis who from time to time visited Newport. He writes that he met six rabbis: Rabbi Moses Malki in 1759, Rabbi Moses Bar David [Ashkenazi] in 1772, Rabbi Chaim Isaac Karigal [Carigal] in 1773, Rabbi Tobiah ben Jehudah in 1773, Rabbi Bosquila in either 1773 or 1774, and Rabbi Samuel Cohen in 1775.

Dr. Stiles found Rabbi Raphael Chaim Yitzchok Karigal by far the most interesting of his rabbinical acquaintances. Rabbi Karigal was a unique visitor to America in that he was a true talmid chacham who was ordained in 1750 at his birthplace, Hebron, and then went to Jerusalem to continue his studies. He was appointed a shliach of the Hebron community in 1754. In this capacity he became a world traveler visiting Jewish communities in Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Persia, Italy, Germany, Prague, Vienna, London, and Amsterdam.

In 1762 the rabbi of the Sephardi Jewish Community of Cura?ao passed away. Since Cura?ao was a Dutch colony, the Jews of Cura?ao had close ties with the Amsterdam Jewish community. The leaders of the Jewish community of Amsterdam asked Rav Karigal to become the rabbi of Cura?ao Jewish community. He agreed and served in this capacity for two years, returning to Hebron in 1764.

In 1768 he again took up his travels going to France and then London. After visiting Jamaica, he set sail for North America, visiting Philadelphia and New York. On March 3, 1773 he arrived in Newport, where he stayed until July 21.5

When on March 5 the Rev. Stiles learned of Rabbi Karigal’s arrival in Newport, he wanted to meet him. And so on March 8 Stiles attended Purim night services at the Newport Synagogue because he knew the rabbi would be there. This led to numerous meetings between Rabbi Karigal and Dr. Stiles while the rabbi stayed in Newport.

In a diary entry dated April 8, Dr. Stiles provides us with a fascinating description of the appearance of Rabbi Karigal. Below is a direct quote that preserves his spelling, grammar and syntax.

The Rabbi’s Dress or Aparrel: Common English Shoes, black leather, Silver flowered Buckles, White Stockings. His general Habit was Turkish. A green Silk Vest or long under Garment reaching down more than half way the Legs or within 3 Inches of the Ankles, the ends of the Sleeves of this Vest appeared on the Wrists in a foliage Turn-up of 3 inches, & the Opening little larger than that the hand might pass freely. A Girdle or Sash of different Colors red and green girt the Vest around his Body. It appeared not to be open at the bottom but to come down like a petticoat; and no Breeches could be discovered. This Vest however had an opening above the Girdle – and he put in his Handkerchief, and Snuff-box, and Watch. Under this was an inner Vest of Calico, besides other Jewish Talismans. Upon the vest first mentioned was a scarlet outer Garment of Cloth, one side of it was Blue, the outside scarlet; it reached down about an Inch lower than the Vest, or near the Ankles. It was open before, no range of Buttons &c. along the Edge, but like a Scholars Gown in the Body but plain and without many gatherings at the Neck, the sleeves strait or narrow and slit open 4 or 5 Inches at the End, and turned up with a blue silk Quarter Cuff, higher up than at the End of the sleeve of the Vest. When he came into the Synoguge he put over all, the usual Alb or white Surplice, which was like that of other Jews, except that its Edge was striped with Blue straiks, and had more Fringe. He had a White Cravat round his Neck. He had a long black Beard, the upper Lip partly shaven-his Head shaved all over. On his Head a high Fur [Sable] Cap, exactly like a Woman’s Muff, and about 9 or 10 Inches high, the Aperture atop was closed with green cloth. He behaved modestly and reverently.6

 

Dr. Stiles was so taken with the personality and wisdom of this genuine talmid chacham that he commissioned the painting of his portrait.7

 

1 Ezra Stiles and the Jews, Selected Passages from his Literary Diary Concerning Jews and Judaism with Critical and Explanatory Notes, by George Alexander Kohut, Philip Cowen Publisher, New York 1902, page 14. This book may be downloaded from http://books.google.com at no cost.

2 From Willner (see next reference) it seems that Ishaki refers to a Sephardic siddur Stiles owned.

3 “Ezra Stiles and the Jews” by Reverend W. Willner, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society (1893-1961); 1900; 8, AJHS Journal.

4 Ibid.

5 For more about the unusual career of Rabbi Karigal see “The Chacham for the Colonies” by Rabbi Shmuel Singer, available at www.tzemachdovid.org/gedolim/jo/tpersonality/rkarigal.html.

6 Kohut, pages 116-117.

7 See www.jewishencyclopedia.com/volume3/V03p592003.jpg.

 

 

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 llevine@stevens.edu.

Coming Home To Touro: Our Colonial Legacy

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

   It’s a story that’s familiar to every student of American history. In 1620, the Pilgrims fled England aboard the Mayflower and founded the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, where they could freely practice their religion. A little known, but equally significant, historical event took place just a few years later in 1658, when another group seeking a haven from religious persecution sailed into Newport Harbor in Rhode Island and founded Congregation Jeshuat Israel.

 

   The history of the Jewish settlement of America actually begins in 1492 with the Edict of Expulsion issued by that infamous duo, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, who demanded that Jews choose conversion or exile. So, once again, Jewish citizens, who had contributed to the social, economic and cultural life of a nation, were forced to flee from a country that had been their home for centuries.

 

   But Spain’s loss was the world’s gain. Thousands sought safety in the Netherlands, the Caribbean Islands, and South America. These locales provided temporary havens, but as the brutal arm of Spain began to extend across the globe, Jews once again felt threatened.

 

   Encouraged by Governor Roger Williams’s open door policy, a group of 15 Sephardic families from the West Indies settled in Rhode Island. Over the next 100 years the Jewish population of Newport flourished, taking advantage of the social and economic opportunities available. Isaac Touro, originally from Holland via Jamaica, became Jeshuat Israel’s first spiritual leader and the congregation purchased land and hired Peter Harrison, the preeminent architect of the colonial era, to design their synagogue.

 

   Dedicated in 1763, the oldest standing synagogue building in the United States is not only considered a prime example of Georgian architecture but also reflects the Sephardic influence, reminiscent of the Spanish-Portuguese synagogues in Amsterdam and London.

 

   When George Washington became president of the United States he assured the Jewish citizens of his commitment to the community in his famous 1790 letter, “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport,” and bestowed upon them this blessing, “May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

 

   The annual reading of the Washington letter has become a much anticipated summer weekend event, with the honor given to prominent American Jews. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg presided over the 57th reading, which also coincided with the celebration of 350 years of Jewish life in America, which we attended.

 

   The synagogue was designated a national historic site and part of the National Park System by an act of Congress in 1946. And in 2001 The National Trust for Historic Preservation selected Touro as the first religious structure to become part of its collection of historic sites.

 

   Newport’s spectacular mansions, once the homes of the rich and famous, today are museums, the destination of throngs of tourists who marvel at the conspicuous consumption of a bygone era. Standing modestly on the top of a hill, just a short distance away, Touro Synagogue not only predates the ornate mansions but continues to serve as the spiritual home of the Jewish community of Newport.

 

   Today, the congregation consists of approximately 140 member families whose bar and bat mitzvah and wedding celebrations are a testament to the vitality of the community. Shabbat services are held on Friday evening and Saturday morning under the direction of Rabbi Mordechai Eskovitz. Touro Synagogue uses the Orthodox Sephardic liturgy with separate seating for men and women.

 

   We attended Shabbat services during the Washington letter weekend celebration and as I peered down at the 12 pillars supporting the women’s gallery, with each column carved from a single tree representing the 12 tribes, I felt grateful to our colonial ancestors for providing the Jews of America with such a rich legacy.

 

   A tour of the Touro Synagogue is a memorable learning experience for children, as well as adults. Well-informed guides provide illuminating accounts of the history of the synagogue, the Jewish community and colonial America. The very first time our family visited Newport, my oldest son Joshua was attending elementary school and was visibly excited to sit in the very same chair once occupied by George Washington.

 

   Tours are given May through October, Sunday through Friday, except on Jewish holidays. For additional information regarding tours call 401-847-4794 x10, or visit tourosynagogue.org.

 

 

   Helen Zegerman Schwimmer is the author of the acclaimed anthology, “Like The Stars of The Heavens,” available from amazon.com. To learn more please visit helenschwimmer.com.

Bris Mila During Colonial Times

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2005

Since the time of Avraham Aveinu, Jews have observed the mitzva of having their sons circumcised on the eighth day after birth. During the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries, “New Christian” men living on the Iberian Peninsula and in other countries under the influence of the Inquisition could not maintain this tenet of Judaism. To do so was almost the equivalent of committing suicide, since anyone found circumcised by the Inquisitional authorities would most likely be burned at the stake. Indeed, it was common practice for those who managed to escape the Inquisition and arrive in America to have themselves and their sons mald shortly after their arrival. More often than not, these circumcisions were performed when the refugees reached adulthood, despite the risk and pain.

The proper observance of mila as well as the other precepts of Judaism requires the support of competent religious functionaries. Shochtim, mohellim, and Rabbonim are all needed if Jews are to live a truly Jewish life. “Most Jewish functionaries of the colonial era were laymen. While an occasional rabbi [hakham to the Sephardim] found his way to these shores, few remained. The Jewish communities were too small, and often too struggling to support professional clergy. As congregations became established and synagogues were built, the demand for ritual functionaries grew. The reader, or chazzan, who knew the ritual chants, became especially important.”[1]

While it is true that any observant Jewish man with the proper knowledge and skill can perform a bris, having one’s son circumcised in Colonial times was not easy for those who did not live in one of the few cities with “substantial” Jewish populations such as New York (with only about 300 Jews as late as 1790). Below is a description of the activities of an Eighteenth Century mohel, and what it took for one father to get his son circumcised.

Abraham Isaac Abrahams and the Bris of Josy Lopez

Aaron Lopez (1731 – 1783) was a Portuguese refugee from the Inquisition   who settled in Newport, RI, where he lived a completely observant life.  (See Aaron Lopez, Colonial American Merchant Prince, the Jewish Press, October 7, 2005, page 36.) We are not sure when Lopez’s son Joseph was born. It was probably in 1756, but it may have been earlier. In any case, at the time of his birth the small Jewish community of Newport did not have a mohel. “Sometime during the summer of 1756 Aaron wrote to Abraham Isaac Abrahams (1720-1796) of New York and urged that rarest of eighteenth-century Americans, a Jew of Lithuanian descent, to undertake Joseph’s circumcision. The Newporter may have previously favored others with that request, only to be disappointed; we do not know.”[2] Abrahams was “the best known circumciser in New York during the 1750′s. Like many fellow-Jews of his generation, Abrahams ‘doubled in brass,’ for he was a tobacconist, a distiller, a schoolteacher, a shopkeeper, and a synagogal precentor, as well as a mohel. Apparently he did a good job in performing the Abrahamitic rite, for his services were in constant demand. When summoned to add meritorious deeds to his credit by initiating young Israelites into the faith, he traveled into Westchester County, Long Island, to New Jersey, and to Connecticut. One of his trips to Long Island brought him to a prison where a Jewish debtor was incarcerated. The circumcision ceremony and the feast were held in the jail so that the father could participate.”[3]

“Abrahams traveled as far north as Rhode Island in the performance of his craft. It is doubtful that he was paid for performing this religious privilege. More likely he did so out of devotion. In June, 1756 – he was then thirty-six – he began to chronicle his work as a mohel in New York City. His first recorded circumcision was that of his own son, Isaac. Less than two months after Isaac Abrahams was circumcised, his father was called upon to make a trip to Newport, Rhode Island, at the invitation of a young businessman by the name of Aaron Lopez.”[4]

Abrahams replied on August 8, 1756 to Aaron Lopez’s request that he mal his son. He wrote:

           Mr. Aaron Lopez,
           S’r:

I was out of town last Monday or shou’d answer’d your favour pr. post.  Am much oblig’d for your kind congratulations and wishes [on the birth of my son, Isaac].I take it as a great honour in your presenting me with the circumcising your son. Shou’d been glad it had been sooner on acc’t of my [ap]prentice being out of his time and gone and [this] will make it difficult for me to go just now. And another reason, my cousin Manuel [Emanuel Abrahams] and self have enter’d in the business of distilling and tobacco and manufacture. However, if I can possibly some in a little while hence, will gladly do it as nothing wou’d be more pleasure than to see my good friends att your place which I really long to do. In my next, will
be more particular as to my coming. Till then I am, with respect, s’r,

                                         Your very hum’le ser’t,
                                                   Abr’m I. Abrahams
My spouse joins her complim’ts to you, spouse, and family.[5]

“Abrahams was, however, no more particular in his next letter, dated two weeks later, August 25, and Aaron could not have been much encouraged by it. He was ‘sorry to tell’ Aaron that his business still detained him in New York, and he could not say when it might be possible for him to come. Perhaps Aaron would consider employing someone else: ‘Doctr Marks is releas’d out of goal [jail]. Beleive he wou’d willingly go if you was to write him. Think he gladly go.’

“Perhaps Aaron had little confidence in the erstwhile prisoner, who had probably been jailed for nothing more heinous than debt. Or perhaps ‘Doctor’ Marks was not as willing to go as Abrahams had assumed. It may even have happened that Marks did not remain out of jail long enough to set out for Newport. At all events, little Joseph remained uncircumcised until the following February, when Abrahams did at length find it possible to undertake the journey to Newport. The New Yorker then recorded in his registry of circumcisions:


                       3.     Sundy Febry 12: 1757
                         Moses Lopez’s son Aaron
                       4.     and Aaron Lopez his son
                         Joseph at Rhode Island.

He added in Hebrew, ‘Sunday 13th Shebat 5517 Aaron son of   Moses Lopez and on the same day Joseph son of Aaron Lopez.’ During the same visit Moses’ newborn son, named Aaron in good Sephardic fashion for his uncle, was circumcised   as well. Writing to the Newporters from Stamford, Connecticut, some weeks later on his way back to New York, the mohel asked to ‘have the pleasure of a few lines from you all with good news from all your good families.’ Abrahams must have felt warmly attached to his Newport host; on at least two further occasions he concluded business letters to Aaron with the request, ‘Pray kiss my dear boy Josy for my sake.’”[6]

Such were some of the difficulties encountered by Colonial Jews who wanted to initiate their sons into the covenant of Avraham. Despite these obstacles, they did their best to continue the religion of their ancestors and pass it on to their offspring. In a real sense they laid the foundations for those who came to the United States after them by showing that in the face of what appeared to be insurmountable obstacles, one could still maintain one’s Yiddishkeit.



[1] Two Jewish Functionaries in Colonial Pennsylvania, Malcolm H. Stein, American Jewish Historical Society, reproduced in the Jewish Experience in America, Ktav Publishing House, New York, 1969, pages 120-121.

[2] Lopez of Newport, Colonial American Merchant Prince, Stanley F. Chyet, Wayne State University Press, 1970, page 32.

[3] On Love, Marriage, Children And Death, Too Jacob R. Marcus, Society of Jewish Bibliophiles, 1965, pages 36 – 37.

[4] Early American Jewry, Volume 1, Jacob Rader Marcus, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1951, page 79.

[5] Lopez of Newport, page 32 and On Love, Marriage, Children And Death, Too, page 37.

[6] Lopez of Newport, pages 32 – 33.

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

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/magazine/glimpses-ajh/bris-mila-during-colonial-times/2005/11/02/

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