Photo Credit:
The Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island

Throughout the 18th century in Colonial America most of the liturgical tunes were rendered with no harmonization — even when a lay “choir” provided vocal timbre or functioned as an adjunct to the chazzan in leading the congregation. In the 19th century the Sephardic synagogues began to harmonize most of the traditional tunes in four parts, sung chorally in adult male-choir renditions with soprano, alto, tenor, bass or with two tenors, a bass and two baritones/basses.

Before that, and certainly throughout the 18th century in Colonial America, liturgical melodies were rendered with no harmonization — even when a lay “choir” functioned as an adjunct to the chazzan in leading the congregation and also in providing variety in vocal timbre. Octaves were included if boys were involved in the choirs.

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Some of the colonial melodies of note include:

Baruch Haba (Tehillim 118:26-29) The last passage of Hallel was often sung as a welcome for weddings and other life-cycle events. The Sephardi melody includes a number of variations and is often used when singing Shirat HaYam. It is also used for the Spanish Bendigamos hymn, similar to the Birkat HaMazon prayer recited after meals by all Jews. The musical notations were found in a Dutch manuscript that dates back to the 18th century; many Sephardim believe the Baruch Haba tune is an ancient Sephardic melody that originated in time of early Iberian Jewish settlement.

Baruch Haba was sung in 1782 when Mikve Israel, the first Philadelphia synagogue, was consecrated as synagogue dignitaries circled around the chazzan‘s reading stand with Sifrei Torah.

The melody, also used when singing Shirah Chadashah, part of the Shacharit service, has been used extensively in other Sephardic liturgy.

Megillat Eichah, chanted on Tisha B’Av, had a special significance for Sephardic Jews of Colonial America because the date of the destruction of the First and Second Temples coincided with the Spanish expulsion of 1492. The lyric poetry of Eichah describes the unbearable sadness and desolation of Jerusalem after the destruction of the First Temple and it is used in combination with the kinot of medieval Hebrew poets to illustrate catastrophes and massacres the Jewish world has ensured.

All communities have their own specific cantillation pattern for the Book of Eichah. Colonial synagogues used the cantillation that was traditional to Portuguese communities and was later adopted by the Portuguese Jews of Amsterdam and the American colonies. A Lisbon manuscript, believed to date prior to the Spanish Expulsion, provides indications of the exact Portuguese melody for the Book of Eichah as adopted by the Amsterdam community in the 17th century. In America the chazzan Mendes Seixas continued to chant the traditional tunes of Eichah that have come down to Tisha B’Av observance today. Some researchers believe the tunes were copied from Italian Baroque melodies.

Recordings of many of these melodies and additional colonial American music can be found at the Lowell Milken Archives of Jewish Music.

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The idea that America’s first Jews were not as religiously observant as their co-religionists in other areas of the world has been challenged with new research into the mystical practices of many of the first Jewish inhabitants of North America. And anecdotal writings of Jewish and Christian Americans from the era speak of a devout community of committed American Jews.

The Spanish and Portuguese expulsions raised messianic hopes and mystical aspirations of Jews worldwide who saw, in the turmoil, the hope that the era would bring the Messiah.  Many of the most prominent Sephardic leaders of the era were imbued with these expectations. As was true in Spain, Portugal and Amsterdam, the line that divided mystical and magical beliefs from modern thinking was a thin one.

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