Jewish Music in Colonial America

By Simcha Cohen

Even as our schools face an unprecedented financial crises, I find myself in awe at the dedication and creativity that some teachers demonstrate. A friend recently told me about her daughter’s 8th grade Bais Ya’akov class which was studying about early American history. Knowing that a number of the girls were interested in music, their teacher succeeded in inspiring them by creating a presentation about music in early Jewish American.

This, of course, brings the class to the period well before 1776. The first Jews immigrated to the United States in the 17th century. These were Jews whose families had been forced to flee Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition. They sailed to Recife, Brazil and, when Brazil fell under Portuguese rule, made their way north to North America. As the teacher taught this information she was able to review the consequences of the Inquisition, Exile and its far-reaching effects on the Jewish World of its day.

These early Jewish immigrants settled in American settlements including New York City, Newport Rhode Island, Philadelphia, Charleston South Carolina, Savannah Georgia and Richmond Virginia. In each of these communities the Jews established synagogues and Jewish institutions.

The immigrants, termed “Western Sepharadim,” had been banned from practicing their own Jewish liturgies during prayer by the Inquisition and, for several generations, had no innate community music. Once allowed to practice their religion freely in America they incorporated North African and Mediterranean Jewish practices into their prayers. These included musical traditions which slowly took on various western innovations including adapted nasal vocal timbres and modal approaches. This Western Sephardic musical model can still be heard today at the Shearith Israel Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York which the early Jewish settlers established in 1654.

German immigrants who arrived in American in the early 19th century integrated into the established Sepharadic synagogues and adopted the musical traditions of the American Sepharadim. It was only when large waves of Eastern European immigrants began to immigrate to America in the 1880s that the Ashkanazi synagogues and traditions became more widely practiced than those of the Sephardim.

The Bais Ya’akov girls in the class were for the most part, from Ashkanazi homes and most have not been exposed to Sephardic culture. They had been unaware of the part that Sephardic tradition played in early America. The girls responded well to the presentation especially to after hearing some of the earliest recorded American Jewish music, recently released by Lowell Milken and his Music Archive. The teacher, in one swoop, succeeded in motivating the girls by using a subject that interested them, music, as they studied about the Spanish Inquisition and Exile, American history and Jewish America’s Sephardic roots.

2 comments on “Jewish Music in Colonial America

  1. You can hear the same music at Mikveh Israel, in Philadelphia, founded 1740. Their modern building is in the same neighborhood as the congregation was when it was founded. It is just steps from the most important historical sites in Philadelphia and also the National Museum of American Jewish History.

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