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Did you know the first Jews in America were Anousim fleeing the Inquisition?

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The majority of today's American Jewish community is Ashkenazi but in Colonial times Sephardim made up the majority of the Jewish population. Historically, Sephardim are associated with Jews who lived on the Iberian Peninsula. The story of these Jews' immigration to North America and their success in adapting their rich culture to their new home is a fascinating aspect of American Jewish history.

Many Jews from Spain fled to various Mediterranean locations after the Spanish Expulsion. Some settled in various regions of the Ottoman Empire (notably Eretz Yisrael, Salonica and Constantinople) while others crossed the border into Portugal. Which was not affected by the Inquisition until 1536. When the Inquisition did reach Portugal, the Portuguese king formally allowed Jews who were not prepared to convert to Christianity to emigrate from Portugal. In fact, however, he hindered the Jews' departure because he needed their professional knowledge for Portugal's expanding overseas territories and enterprises.

These events paved the way for the emigration of many Spanish and Portuguese Jews to new territories in South America. The first locations where Jews settled were on the islands of Sao Tome and Principe Island; Jewish settlers established communities there as early as 1500. From those islands Jewish settlement expanded into Brazil.

Simultaneously, a large number of Portuguese and Spanish refugees settled in Amsterdam. They established contacts in South America and sent for their co-religionists, including craftsmen and professionals, to populate the expanding colonies. Among the Dutch Jewish settlers was a shipload of 600 Jews who left Amsterdam in 1642 for Brazil. The distinguished scholars Moses Raphael de Aguilar and Isaac Aboab da Fonseca were on board. Rabbi da Fonseca was appointed rabbi in Recife, where the largest Jewish community was located, at the Kahal Zur Yisrael synagogue. There, most of the inhabitants were Portuguese Sephardic Jews. The synagogue had amikveh, a yeshiva and a cemetery.

Historical records show that Jews in Brazil helped start the sugar industry, and built bridges, roads and a basic sewage system. Some worked as financiers and brokers. At its height in 1645, the Jewish community of Recife numbered 1,630 members. When the Portuguese captured the territory in 1654 the majority of the Jews were killed, expelled or forced to go into hiding by the Portuguese Inquisition.

Some of the Jews of Recife took refuge in Serido, a town in the Brazilian interior, while others converted and lived as Christians or as crypto-Jews. The Portuguese allowed the Jews some rights as Dutch citizens and numerous Jews succeeded in emigrating from South America. Their journeys were treacherous and the groups faced storms and pirates. Many went to the Dutch Islands of St. Thomas, Curaçao and Barbados or the British colonies in Jamaica or Surinam where they established new communities.

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In 1654 a group of 23 Jews sailed on the Saint Catherine. Their original destination was the Caribbean but the Spanish thwarted their landing and they sailed on, arriving in New Amsterdam in September of that year.


Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of New Amsterdam, tried to expel the Recife Jews as soon as they arrived, calling them a “deceitful race” and “the hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ.” He warned that the Jews would bring harm the new colony.

But the Jews were able to make contact with co-religionists in Amsterdam who prevailed on the Dutch West India Company to overrule Stuyvesant’s objections.

On the grounds that Jews had been loyal and economically productive residents of Holland and that the same level of loyalty could be expected in the new colony, the Dutch West India Company ruled that Jews would be welcome to live and work in New Amsterdam. This group established the Sheraith Israel – Remnants of Israel – congregation which remains, to this day, an Orthodox Sephardic synagogue.

Once the first Jewish community had been established in New Amsterdam, other Jews began to immigrate. The next center of Jewish life to develop was in Newport, Rhode Island. Jews from Holland, Spain and Portugal – many of whom had lived as crypto-Jews for several generations – as well as some Ashkenazim, started to settle in Newport in 1658. Already by 1712 the center of the Newport Jewish community was called Jew Street. The Newport Jewish community inaugurated the Touro synagogue in 1763.

The Newport Touro synagogue was never officially named "Touro" – the community called itself Yeshuat Yisrael. By the mid-19th century, however, the Newport synagogue was recognized, though never formally, as the Touro Synagogue. It received this informal title in honor of one of Newport's founding Jewish families – that of Isaac Touro, which had come from Amsterdam by way of the West Indies. Touro's family was originally from Spain and the family name had originally been de Toro.

The Touro synagogue was built with a trap door under the bimah. The hiding place was adapted from the Marrano tradition of ensuring that one existed wherever Jews might have needed to hide from soldiers of the Inquisition. During the 19th century it served as a hiding site for runaway slaves who were escaping north via the Underground Railroad. The Hebrew Cemetery on Jew Street – today's Bellevue Avenue – has origins dating back to 1677, making it the oldest Jewish cemetery in America.

Within a few years other Jews began to arrive in America. Charleston, South Carolina, was a popular destination for these Sephardic Jews thanks to the religious tolerance established there by the South Carolina charter. This charter, drawn up by the English philosopher John Locke, granted liberty of conscience to all residents. The charter specifically mentioned Jews in its expression of freedom of religion (along with heathens and dissenters).

The first Jews in Charleston were of Portuguese origin and their synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, was inaugurated in 1749 as an Orthodox Sephardic synagogue. By the early 1800s, however, a large percentage of Jewish Charleston residents were Ashkenazic immigrants from Germany and in 1828 the synagogue became affiliated with the Reform movement.

Through most of the 18th century American synagogues conducted and recorded their business in Portuguese, even as their daily language was English. When the German immigration to the United States began in the 19th century, Ashkenazi traditions and culture began to dominate the American Jewish landscape. Ashkenazi dominance of America's Jewish community solidified when the mass immigration of Eastern European Jewish immigrants began in the late 19th century.

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Early American Jewry's liturgies and rituals were conducted in the western Sephardi tradition that developed in late 16th and early 17th century Amsterdam. While many of the members of the first American Jewish communities were of Spanish and Portuguese origins, their worship was influenced by the style of the Dutch Sephardi Jews. Scholarly Sephardi cantors succeeded in passing their repertoire down from generation to generation, with a measure of distinction that has become identified with the American brand of western Sephardi tradition.


Until the middle of the 18th century the prayer books used by American Jewish synagogues were brought from Amsterdam. During Oliver Cromwell's reign England began to allow Jews to return to the country. By the 18thcentury American Jews were importing Sephardi prayer books from London for use in America's synagogues . These English prayer books included both Hebrew and English, a combination that grew increasingly popular as English became the main language of American Jews.

Colonial synagogues were Orthodox. Community members preferred the unmodified traditional service. Since American Jews of Colonial times didn't establish Talmudic academies or Jewish schools or even try to bring in rabbis who could help guide the religious life of the community (as did the Jews of the Caribbean), their religious life centered around their synagogues. American Jews came to rely on the synagogues to guide them in adhering to the Sephardi liturgical traditions. Many of these Jews may not have been observant in the "Orthodox" sense but they saw their synagogue chants and music as the primary vehicle that defined their internal Jewish identity.

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The early Sephardic synagogues had choirs whose primary function involved leading the congregation in singing and in strophic and responsorial prayers. For congregants in these synagogues the choir would provide a model that they could follow through the service.


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.

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 ofEichah 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.

Menasseh ben Israel, a Dutch rabbi who promoted Jewish settlement in the New World, wrote that he "conceived that our universal dispersion was a necessary circumstance, to be fulfilled, before all that shall be accomplished which the Lord hath promised to the people of the Jews, concerning their restoration and their returning again into their own land."

Rabbi Menasseh wrote these words when the synagogue of Recife was still functioning, but following the demise of the Jewish community in Brazil new Jewish settlements throughout the Caribbean and in North America adopted the same outlook: that the upheavals of the times were both the harbinger and the instrument of messianic redemption.

The names the Jews of the new American settlements chose for their synagogues reflect their mystical and messianic tendencies. Synagogues in Philadelphia, Jamaica, Savannah and Curacao took on the name Mikve Yisrael – the name of Rabbi Menassah's book that echoed Yirmiyahu's promise "O Hope of Mikveh Israel, its deliverer in the time of trouble."

The first synagogue in New York based its name, Shearith Israel, on Micah's prophecy "I will bring together the remnant of Shearith Israel." In Barbados the synagogue was named Nidheh Israel based on Isaiah's prophecy "He will hold up a signal to the nations and assemble the banished of Nidheh Israel and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth. In Suriname the synagogue's name, Berachah VeShalom came from a verse in the Zohar – "Where is the Garden of Eden? There are found the treasures of good life, berachah veshalom."