The Synagogues of New York City
Shearith Israel Synagogue

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From The New-York Tribune, May 23, 1897.

It was thirty-seven years ago, in the year 5620-- this being 5657, according to the Hebrew calendar-- that the strange and mystic ceremonies of consecration by the Spanish-Portuguese Jewish rites were last seen in New York. Under more elaborate auspices, and with a dramatic effect such as this city has seldom, if ever seen, this same ritual was given last Wednesday evening, the occasion being the formal "opening of the doors" of Shearith Israel Synagogue, the new worshipping place of this most orthodox body of Jews. They have only four congregations in the United States and Canada, and they cleave to the faith of their fathers without the turning of a hair, as if they were even now in Spain, and as if the dispersion into Holland had never come.


New Synagogue of the Congregation of Shearith Israel.

photo: New synagogue of the Congregation of Shearith Israel. This was the fifth home of the synagogue. This building was first used as a synagogue in 1897. The first synagogue was established in 1654.

Romantic and Oriental in the highest degree were these rites that have been handed down unchanged through the centuries, and they lost none of their impressiveness from the fact that the men who officiated in them--over a hundred Jews of the leading families of New York--were in modern evening garb and wore silk hats throughout the evening. The Tribune a year ago described this building, at Seventieth Street and Central Park West, in detail, just before the cornerstone was laid. It is, therefore, merely necessary now to mention a few of its salient features. The scene that formed the setting for these rites was strange and picturesque. A Spanish-Portuguese synagogue is curiously planned. At its eastern end stands the Ark of the Covenant--the Eachal (in Hebrew)--here a superb front of Sierra marble, veined in iridescent brown, with a cornice and an entablature decorated in gold and led up to by steps of blood read Numidian marble. The floor to the line of the galleries is empty, save for the large square altar, on which is placed the reading desk where the scrolls of the law are unrolled. This is well down by the western wall. The great empty space of floor is carpeted in the new Shearith Israel in deep red, harmonizing with the yellows and browns of the walls and glass. Under the galleries the seats run from front to back, facing the altar.


When, at a few moments past 8 o'clock on Wednesday evening, the stringed instruments in the wide gallery over the Ark commenced to play the overture, every seat under the gallery was filled with black-coated men. In accordance with the unvarying traditions of the Spanish-Portuguese race, not a woman was to be seen on this floor. Overhead the broad galleries on three sides of the synagogue were filled with the flower of New York Judaism, with never a man among them. Daintily, arrayed, a mass of brilliant colors, of silks and satins, this throng of femininity presented a vivid contrast to the somber black below.

The open space in the center, the Ark and the altar were deserted as the stringed instruments softly played their medley, a potpourri of Spanish Jewry airs, hundreds of years old. A great hush fell over the assemblage. Not a man or woman moved in the seats. The music ceased, and then, after a second's wait, two loud raps were heard at one of the doors at the rear of the synagogue. A voice could be heard chanting in Hebrew, clear and distinct. It was the voice of the Rev. H. Pereira Mendes, the rabbi, and in English this was what he intoned:

"Open for me the gates of righteousness; I would enter through them, I would praise the Lord."

Slowly and with dignity a gray-haired man, wrapping his talith about his shoulders (the talith is a fringed shawl of white silk, bordered with blue, which ministers and members of any Orthodox Jewish congregation must wear when performing religious rites), came forward and opened the doors. He was Dr. Horatio Gomez, a lineal descendant of Louis Gomez, who was one of the first Jews to arrive in New York, some time before 1680. For those that could see, the scene brought up a picture of what once must have been in Palestine. In the hallway was a forest of white satin rolls, the "scrolls of the Law," held in the arms of distinguished men. Behind them were the five Spanish-Portuguese ministers of America. Reverently, as they advanced upon the synagogue's ?cor, the choir of Hebrew men and boys in the high gallery over the Ark chanted (in Hebrew):

"This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous may enter therein. I will praise Thee, for Thou hast answered me, and Thou hast become my salvation."


Then it was that the incident of the greatest historic interest occurred. The genius of the Past came forward and clasped the hand of the Present. Moving with slow and measured step, in single file, scroll succeeding scroll, the rabbis behind, each man wearing his talith of dashing white over his black clothing, and all with silk hats upon their heads, this procession moved around the further side of the altar, up toward the Ark. The rabbi's voice could be heard in sweet tones of chanting, and the choir responded. The bells fastened on the metal tops of the scrolls (these tops are known as the "Trees of Life," and are fantastic and decorative in design) jingled as the bearers advanced.


New Shearith Israel Synagogue, Looking Toward the Ark of the Covenant.

photo: The New Shearith Israel Synagogue, Looking Toward the Ark of the Covenant.

 It is a great honor to carry a scroll of the Law at a time like this, and in the hour that these sacred records were carried around the altar nearly one hundred men of the congregation officiated and had the precious relics placed in their arms. There was a constant changing going on, but those chosen for the entry were the seniors and the leading spirits of the congregation.

As the band of worshippers wound its way to the Ark, the choir broke forth into the "Hymn of Welcome." "Hymn of Welcome" hardly tells the story, however. In orthodox Jewry it is known as the "Song of the Sea," and is considered by the Jews to be the oldest piece of music in the world. Migrations and transplantation, the destruction of Jerusalem and the scattering of the Jewish race have not caused it to be lost to Israel. It is the song that Miriam, the sister of Aaron, sang after the Red Sea was crossed, and tradition has preserved it.

Exquisitely, too, did the Hebraic choir behind the Ark render this ancient melody, with the soft tones of the violins making an undercurrent of harmony. The entire musical program, in fact, was curious. The melodies sung and played were almost altogether old airs of the Jews in Spain. Many of them are said to have been sung in the Temple of Solomon, and there are a few which Jewish records positively assert were played by King David on his harp. It is only the Spanish Jews that have carried down these wonderful rhythms and melodies, a music that is unknown to the world at large. Even to the few who did not know the story of these quaint airs played on Wednesday night, the melodies had a charm and a sweetness it would be hard to describe.


Once at the steps of the ark the scroll-bearers ascended until they formed an impressive picture against the gilded doors. The rabbis stood at the foot. The hour had come for the lighting of the "Perpetual Lamp," which must never be extinguished while stone remains upon stone of the "Temple." This honor was given to L. Napoleon Levy, who presented the lamp to the congregation (it hangs directly in front of the ark and is of gorgeous silver), and Solomon L. Cohen, whose father lighted the lamp at the consecration of the Nineteenth Street Synagogue, in 1860. This ceremony must be performed by a Levi and a Cohen--literally, in Jewish ritual, a priest and his assistant. An interesting detail is that the taper with which the lamp was lighted on Wednesday night was the same taper that lighted the Nineteenth Street Synagogue lamp. It was presented at that time by Isaac Phillips, one of the pillars of Spanish-Portuguese Judaism thirty years ago, and the father of N. Taylor Phillips, "clerk" of the congregation today, to Andrew H. Green. Mr. Green, who was present on Wednesday night, lent it for this occasion.

After the lighting of the "Perpetual Lamp" the procession filed back to the altar again, and then the rabbis going upon the altar, commenced its seven circuits, seven being a mystic number in the Spanish-Portuguese ritual. There were seven patriarchs, it will be recalled--Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the "three fathers"; Moses, Aaron, David and Solomon. There are seven days in the week, and the "seventh year" is the year of rest, when the land is not to be tilled, when al debts are "released" (our "Statue of Limitations" comes from this. The seventh year in pastoral Judea was the year of Jubal [jubilee]).

Nearly an hour was taken up with the "circuits," the "Hayan," the Rev. A. H. Nieto, chanting the Psalms and the Law, together with the choir. In stately processional the scrolls went around and around, gorgeous in their shimmering white "gowns" and glancing metal above. Following this, the entire fifteen, including a new one by the Rev. Mr. Nieto, the task of writing which took two years, were deposited in the Ark. Most of the scrolls are very old, and the oldest were written in Spain.

The ceremonies concluded with a prayer by the Rev. Mendola de Sola, of Montreal an address by the Rev. Dr. Sabato Morais, of Philadelphia, and a sermon by Dr. Mendes, of the congregation. The famous hymn, "Adom Olam," was then sung by the choir, and a benediction was pronounced. Shearith Israel was installed in its new abiding place. The Hebrew words on the cornice of the Ark of the Covenant had come true--"Know in whose presence thou art standing."







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