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A Peep at the Israelites

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A Peep at the Israelites.

For the first time in our life, we went, on Saturday morning last, to spend an hour in a Jewish synagogue. Accompanied by a friend, and starting at 10 o'clock, we wended our way through Centre street, from thence into Crosby, in which, a block or two above Grand, we found the place of our destination. The front to the street was bordered by a high fence, with banister work on the top.1 Passing through a gate, and down two or three rods by the side of the building, we went up the steps of a porch in the rear, where we found the entrance.

Fearful lest we should go somewhere or do something that might be totally malapropos, we waited a few moments, until, seeing a gentleman enter, we followed him through a side door into the main body of the house There, we were politely ushered to a convenient seat, from whence we had a fair view of all the performances.

The whole scene was entirely new; never had we beheld any thing of a similar description before. The congregation (we don't know what other word to use) were all standing, each one with his hat on. A white silken mantle, somewhat like a scarf, was worn by every person; it encircled the neck, falling down the back, and the ends in front reaching to the floor.2 In the middle of the room was a raised platform about four yards square, with a heavy balustrade of bronze work and mahogany around it.3 Upon the centre of this platform was a figure which, by the voice coming from it, we knew to be a man. None of the lineaments of the human form, however, were visible; for one of the large silk mantles alluded to was thrown over his head, and completely shrouded him. He was speaking; but as his language was Hebrew, we could not understand a word he uttered.

At the further end of the room stood an erection very much resembling the front that pictures give the ancient Parthenon.4 Under it was a semi circular partitioned enclosure, of panelled wood, which from the ornaments and expensive tracery lavished upon the whole affair, seemed intended to contain something either very valuable, or very sacred. Upon the platform which made part of this structure, there was another figure standing, half shrouded in a white mantle, like the personage before described. He was also speaking.

And there we were amid the Jews worshipping in their temple. The people of Solomon and Saul, of Ruth and Mary Magdalene, of the traitor Judas, and John, the beloved of the Son of God—the people of the very Christ himself—these were they who stood around.5 And they were speaking in the same tones as those which at night bade the shepherds to follow the guidance of the star in the east—the same tones which Jonathan and Saul used in their beautiful friendship6—which sounded out from the plaintive Hagar in the wilderness7—through which Absalom, "that too beauteous boy," made rebellion against his father8—with which the widow's son, who was dead, and brought to life again, gladdened his desolate mother's heart;—the tones and the native language of the holy Psalmist, the lovely Rebecca of Scott, and the malignant Shylock of Shakespeare.9

And here was a remnant of the mighty nation, who routed the warlike dwellers in Canaan, and who received the Law from the great I Am upon the mountain of clouds;—their ancient pride swept to the winds—their name a jeering and mark for contempt—their might humbled, their old homes taken by the hand of the spoiler, and clouds and dark frowns for ages spread around them;—yet here, scoffed, scouted, and scorned, they came, to worship their God after the manner of their ancestors.

The heart within us felt awed as in the presence of memorials from an age that had passed away centuries and centuries ago. The strange and discordant tongue—the mystery, and all the associations that crowded themselves in troops upon our mind—made a thrilling sensation to creep through every nerve. It was indeed a sight well calculated to impress the mind with an unwonted tone.

As our account has already stretched to the limits beyond which it is not judicious to go in a paper like ours, we shall give the remainder of what we saw during our stay at the synagogue, in the Aurora of tomorrow.


1. The synagogue that Whitman went to and reported on was the Crosby Street Synagogue, which was dedicated on June 12, 1834 and closed in 1859. This church used the same cornerstone as the first Mills Street Synagogue, as the Crosby Street Synagogue was notable for carrying on from its predecessor church. This synagogue seemed to be one of many failed attempts to establish a long term Jewish presence in a particular neighborhood, as many of these churches closed due to their congregations moving out of the neighborhoods and would assemble in another area (Benson J. Lossing, History of New York City: An Outline Sketch of Events from 1609 to 1830, and a Full Account of its Development from 1830 to 1884 [New York: Perine Engraving and Publishing Co., 1884], 552–553). For further reading, see: Leo Hershkowitz, "The Mill Street Synagogue Reconsidered," American Jewish Historical Quarterly 53, no. 4 (1964): 404–410; Howard B. Rock, "The Early Years of American Jewish History: Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society and the Minute Books of Congregation Shearith Israel," American Jewish History 99, no. 2 (2015): 119–144; Adina Anflick, "Guide to the Records of Congregation Shearith Israel, undated, 1755-1996," American Jewish Historical Society,, published 2006, accessed October 3, 2016. [back]

2. The silk scarf that Whitman is referring to is a tallit, a white garment that is shawl-like and is worn typically over a Jewish male's head and clothing during prayer (Oxford English Dictionary). [back]

3. The elevated platform that Whitman is referring to is a bema. A bema is "the altar part or sanctuary in the ancient churches' chambers; the chancel" (Oxford English Dictionary). [back]

4. The Parthenon was a former temple in Athens, Greece. Dedicated to the worship of Athena, protector of the city, the Parthenon is known for its Doric architecture accentuated with eight columns on each edge of the building (Barbara A. Barletta, "In Defense of the Ionic Frieze of the Parthenon," American Journal of Archaeology 113, no. 4 [2009]: 547-68). [back]

5. Whitman mentions all of these famous figures in the Bible that are either linked to Jesus' ministry, or that are linked to Israel as kings (following the New Testament, many Americans believe Solomon to be the ancestor of Jesus) (I Samuel 10–11, Ruth 4, Mathew 1:1–8 [King James Version]; Max J. Kohler, Phases of Jewish Life in New York Before 1800: The Lopez and Rivera Families of Newport [Baltimore, Friedenwald Company, 1894], 90–105). For further reading, see: Miriam Sanua Dalin, "City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York, Vol. 2: Emerging Metropolis, New York Jews in the Age of Immigration, 1840-1920," Yearbook of German-American Studies 47, (2012): 137–148. [back]

6. Jonathan and Saul are biblical figures whose story is mainly told in 1 Samuel, 11–31. Jonathan was the eldest son of Saul, king of Israel and Judah. King Saul believed that Jonathan betrayed him with his friendship of King David, "that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul." Both Saul and Jonathan died on the battlefield at Mount Gilboa (1 Samuel 13–20, 31 [King James Version]). For further reading, see: Siam Bhayro, "The Madness of King Saul," Archiv Für Orientforschung 50, (2003): 285–292. [back]

7. Hagar was also a Biblical figure, the concubine of Abraham's, who bore him the son Ishmael. Sarah, Abraham's wife, allowed Hagar and her son to live with their family. This relationship came to an end when Sarah conceived a son, Isaac, and had Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away. Hagar and Ishmael roamed the wilderness and eventually exhausted their rations, and Hagar prayed to God for help. The angel of God showed Hagar the Zamzam Well, and proclaimed to Hagar that God will create a nation of Ishmael (Genesis 16, 20–22 [King James Version]). For further reading, see: S. Nikaido, "Hagar and Ishmael as Literary Figures: An Intertextual Study," Vetus and Testamentum 51, no. 2 (2001): 219–242. [back]

8. Absalom was the third son of King David of Israel. Known for being the most handsome man in the kingdom, Absalom established his reputation by aiding the people who sought justice from King David, and the people grew to love him. Absalom spent years doing this until he pronounced himself king and led a revolt at Hebron, which Whitman is alluding to in this sentence. Absalom was killed in battle during the Battle of Ephraim's Wood by Joab, King David's commander. King David wept as he heard of his son's demise (2 Samuel 14–15, 16:22, 18 [King James Version]). For further reading, see: David Daube, "Absalom and the Ideal King," Vestus Testamentum 48, no. 3 (1998): 315-325. [back]

9. "Rebecca of Scott" and "Shakespeare's Shylock" are both Jewish characters in works from Sir Walter Scott and William Shakespeare, respectively. Rebecca is a character from Scott's novel, Ivanhoe: A Romance, and is the daughter of a Jewish moneylender, Isaac of York. The story is the basis of which people now portray and think of Robin Hood, as the setting is England following the events of the Third Crusade. Prince John, brother of King Richard the Lionhearted, has a tournament where Rebecca's father attempts to pay his debt by winning the tournament. Rebecca is put on trial by Prince John's court after being captured for aiding Wilfred of Ivanhoe, follower of King Richard. She is released after her Ivanhoe defeats another knight in a trial-by-combat. Similarly, Shylock is a character from the William Shakespeare play, The Merchant of Venice. A Venetian money lender, Shylock's story arc deals with his religion, as he is a Jewish man who leads money to a Christian, Antonio. As the story unfolds, Shylock loses half of his wealth as his daughter marries a Christian who is Antonio's friend. Shylock is put on trial for attempted murder, and is forced to start practicing Christianity as punishment. This character's stereotypical occupation for a Jew was still common in England at this time. Whitman used both of these literary characters, because of their significance to the contemporary prejudice against Jews; in both stories, Jews are looked down on for their occupation being surrounded by money and thus, greed. Both of these characters were put on trial for different reasons, Rebecca for aiding the enemy and Shylock for attempted murder of a Christian. Whitman is highlighting the prejudice, and uses two different adjectives to describe these characters: lovely and malignant, respectively. Whitman does this to showcase that Jewish people do not always fit under one category—"greedy"—but that Rebecca shows courage and kindness as a healer to Ivanhoe's title character. On the other side, Shylock shows the evil in humanity, as his hatred for another and his distrust of Christians led to him endeavoring to murder (William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice,, Act I Scene iii, Act III–Act IV Scene ii; Walter Scott, Ivanhoe: A Romance [Edinburgh: Archibald Constable and Company, 1820], 140–185, 200–240). For further reading, see: Hannah Meyer, "Making Sense of Christian Excommunication of Jews in Thirteenth-Century England," The Jewish Quarterly Review 100, no. 4 (2010): 598–630. [back]

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