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Title: Doings at the Synagogue

Creator: Walt Whitman

Date: March 29, 1842

Publication information: New York Aurora 29 March 1842: [2].

Source: Original issue held at the Paterson Free Public Library, Paterson, NJ. Our transcription is based on a digital image of an original issue.

Whitman Archive ID: per.00419

Contributors to digital file: Alex Ashland, Jake Byers, Lucas Reincke, Jason Stacy, and Kevin McMullen




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Doings at the Synagogue.

We continue our account of what we saw on Saturday, during our visit to the Jews' synagogue in Crosby street.1 It may perhaps be well to say here, that as we had no one to explain to us what we saw, and as the whole scene from beginning to end resembled nothing that we had ever seen before, our relation professes to give merely the scene as it appears to the eyes of an utter stranger. Very likely we may make some awkward blunders; but nevertheless the reader shall have our "first impressions."

After the performance had continued for some time as we described it in yesterday's Aurora, some of the Jews went up to the semicircular panel work before mentioned, unlocked it, and opened the doors.2 Three or four of them then took from the inclosure certain contrivances, which we dare hardly pretend to describe, for fear of bungling in the attempt. As near as we can now recollect, they resembled in shape large sugar loaves; and each had an ornamental and fantastic affair made of silver and glass upon its top. These were brought up to the platform in the centre, and each of the silver ornaments we have described was taken from the top the sugar loaf structure, and put upon the desk in front.

The priest then raised aloft a large scroll of parchment probably the sacred law—wafting it around so that the people could see it in all parts of the house. All this while he uttered a kind of chant, to which the men and women made responses.

We saw M.M. Noah, of the sessions court, among the Jews present. He officiated upon the platform in some of the ceremonies.3

The main floor, on which we were, was occupied exclusively by men. There was a gallery over it filled with women—dark-eyed Jewesses, most of them dressed in black, and a few strangers, attracted there probably by curiosity.

The spectacle in the gallery was by no means the most unpleasing sight in the whole proceeding. Up aloft they seemed to pay as reverent heed to the exercises as in any part of the congregation. We found ourselves casting our glances thither quite frequently; perhaps this may account for our not having a distinct recollection of the whole matter.

The personage who appeared to officiate as the high priest continued his chant, and the people their responses. Every now and then, while the parchment scroll was upon the desk, and unrolled before the priest, individuals from the congregation would step forward, and upon the platform, and speak to the priest. Then, while they stood by and looked on, he would read them something from the parchment spread out upon the desk. For five minutes, perhaps, this would last; and then another person would come up and go through the same ceremony.

Of course, to our perceptions, the whole affair had much the aspect of an unintelligible mummery. Still we could not divest ourselves of the thought that we were amid the people of ancient Jewry; the people who had kept themselves apart from the contagion of the world, and adhered strictly to the customs, and observances, and laws of their forefathers.

Once or twice we allowed fancy to have its unchecked flow. The then and there scene vanished from our eyes; the uncouth jabber, and the fantastic garb of the worshippers were heard and seen no more. We were in the holy city. The palaces of the haughty nobles—the magnificent temple which the Jews loved as the apple of their eye—the streets and the houses, and the public places—all, all, were there. And along the public thoroughfare came trailingly a solemn group. In the centre was a pale being with a crown of thorns bound round his forehead, and blood trickling down his brow. It was the Holy Savior of Man, bearing the cross upon his shoulder. And as he passed, the mob scouted and reviled him—his very friends thought it scorn to recognise him; all but one, a woman, who followed him even to the place of his crucifixion.

We did not wait to see the conclusion of the exercises. After a stay of more than an hour, feeling somewhat wearied by the continuance of vocal utterance, which we could not take the meaning of, we left the place.


Notes:

1. The Crosby Street Synagogue is the third synagogue constructed by the Congregation Shearith Israel, which was America's first Jewish Congregation. The Synagogue was built in 1834, and took up several building spaces along Crosby Street ("Crosby Street Synagogue," Congregation Shearith Israel, http://shearithisrael.org/content/crosby-street-synagogue, accessed September 30, 2016). [back]

2. Whitman is most likely referring to the Ark, the location where the Torah scrolls are kept (Rachel Wischnitzer, "Ark," Jewish Virtual Library, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0002_0_01315.html, accessed October 23, 2016). [back]

3. Whitman is referring to Mordecai Manuel Noah, who, in the nineteenth century, was one of the most important Jewish men born in America. He was born on July 14, 1785, and died on May 22, 1851. During his life, he was a writer, activist, politician, and the first Jew born in the United States to reach national prominence. He was appointed U.S. Consul to the Kingdom of Tunis in 1813, where he served till 1816 (Mordecai Manuel Noah and George Alexander Kohut, "A Literary Autobiography of Mordecai Manuel Noah," Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society 6, (1897): 113–121. [back]


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