Remnant of Israel
A Portrait of America's First Jewish Congregation: Shearith Israel
By Rabbi Marc D. Angel
Riverside Book Company, Inc., 2004, 189 pages
ISBN 10: 1-878351-62-1
ISBN 13: 978-1-878351-62-3
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - February 2, 2011
Most people know little about Sephardic Jews, individuals whose ancestors lived in Spain, Portugal, and Arab countries, along with many Jews in Israel. This is sad since it is the Sephardic Jews who produced such notable intellects as Saadiah Gaon, Abraham ibn Ezra, and Moses Maimonides. Until recently, Sephardic Jews had a superior culture, far advanced than many of their coreligionists in Germany and Poland, people who lived under Christian persecutions, who were kept from a secular education. Rabbi Marc D. Angel, a leading American rabbi, a past president of the orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, who was first engaged by Shearith Israel as a student rabbi in 1969 and was later its rabbi for decades, tells the story of a part of this history, the formation of the first Jewish congregation in America, Shearith Israel, "Remnant of Israel," in 1648. This very informative volume is enhanced by many beautiful pictures, making it an excellent table-top book.
In September 1654, twenty-three Jews sailed into New Amsterdam, later called New York, and although they were preceded by individual Jews, they became the first Jewish community in North America. These were Sephardic Jews who fled to North America from Brazil where they had been living successful lives and had contributed greatly to the Brazilian community. They left because Brazil was captured by Portugal in 1648 and Portugal refused to allow Jews in its domain. Although they sought freedom, they found discrimination. Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of New Amsterdam, also rejected Jews, just as he rejected Lutherans, Quakers, and Roman Catholics. He ordered them to leave. But the Jews petitioned the Dutch West India Company who controlled New Amsterdam, and the company agreed that the Jews could remain because of the past loyalty of Jews to the company and their large investments. Stuyvesant accepted them reluctantly. He refused to allow them to trade and own property. He made them pay the highest taxes. He placed five Jews among the thirteen people in the top tax category. He refused Jews permission to participate in New Amsterdam's armed forces. When the British captured New Amsterdam, they continued many of these restrictions. In 1683, for example, the British granted Christians the right to public worship, but not Jews. But the Jews persevered and the situation changed. In 1789, for example, after the formation of the United States, the citizens in Philadelphia, the capital of the new nation, placed a table at the end of a parade route which contained kosher foods. Rabbi Angel details the many contributions of the Jewish American citizens since 1654, contributions that helped shape America.
He tells about the formation of Shearith Israel, about its philosophy, how it took care of Jews of all denominations and non-Jews. Shearith Israel was the only synagogue in New York until 1825. Its practices were and are very interesting. It was run by lay people, not clergy. It hired its first chazzan in 1702 and its first rabbi in 1874. Its current rabbi is Rabbi Angel's son, Hayyim Angel, a brilliant scholar. Its services do not include mystical kabbalistic prayers that make up much of non-Sephardic services.
He describes how non-Sephardic Ashkenazic Jews became the majority in the synagogue after 1700, but agreed that the synagogue would retain its historic Sephardic practices, which it still does today. Even non-observant Jews wanted the synagogue to maintain its traditions. Benjamin Nathan Cardozo, a Justice of the United States Supreme Court and member of Shearith Israel, wrote: "I do not attend services often; I am not strictly observant religiously. But when I do come to synagogue, I believe the services should be conducted in the same manner as when my parents, grandparent and ancestors attended."
He relates fascinating tales such as about Jews who returned to Judaism after years, sometimes generations, during which they were forced to live as Christians, lest they be killed. A number of women continued to recite the Hebrew prayers holding a Catholic rosary and would cross themselves when the clock struck twelve. Such is the pernicious effect of persecution.
Thus, this is a beautiful and an important book. It reveals the story of the beginning of the Jewish community in North America and the contributions that the community, as a group and as individuals, made to the United States. And it tells about Sephardic Jews and the first synagogue in our country, a synagogue that still exists after more than 350 years.