Jewish Music In Early America
by Simcha Cohen, Guest Contributor
No study of American Jewish history would be complete without reviewing the role of Jewish music in Colonial America. A scholarly look at Jewish music of early Jewish Americans provides researchers with the ability to examine the Colonial-era Jewish community, its history, ethnicity, language, worship and customs.
The first Jews settled in Colonial American in the mid-17th century. Jews had arrived in North America beforehand -- some scholars believe that Christopher Columbus and many of his sailors were Jews -- but in the mid-17th century these Jews, from Recife, Brazil, were fleeing the Portuguese Inquisition which had recently crossed the ocean when the Portuguese captured Brazil from the Dutch. Once the authorities granted these individuals the right to settle in the colonies, additional Jewish immigrants began to make the journey.
Early Jewish communities in Colonial America were basically comprised of Dutch Jews whose ancestors had fled the Spanish Inquisition. As such, their early synagogues, including the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of New York, Congregation Shearith Israel in New York and Jeshuat Israel, also known as the Touro Synagogue of Newport Rhode Island, followed the style of Sephardic prayer common among the Jews whose families had originated in North Africa and eastern Mediterranean regions. Some of these traditions had begun in pre-Inquisition Spain and were developed by "hazzanim" -- cantors -- who lived in 16th century Amsterdam.
Many of these synagogues are still functioning Houses of Worship and 21st century, researchers are able to hear some of the same chants and liturgy at synagogue services today as they were sung in the 17th and 18th centuries. Jeshuat Israel, Mikve Israel in Philadelphia and Shearith Israel continue to hold services in the "Nusach Sepharad" -- Sepharadi tradition -- and include Sepharadi "hazzanut" -- cantorial chanting and song -- which reflects the Spanish and Portuguese traditions of the synagogues' founders.
Although recordings of later Jewish American music traditions exist, the knowledge that exists of Colonial Jewish music comes from the unbroken line of Sepharadi hazzanut that is still sung in these historical synagogues. A unique project, by Lowell Milken and his Milken Archive of Jewish Music, is presently spearheading a project to record these chants and preserve them. Albums that represent this music of Jewish Colonial America are available at the Archive.
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