Jewish Voices in the New World looks at two important phases in the history of Jewish liturgical music in America: the Western Sephardi tradition of the Colonial era through circa 1830, and the music of Classical Reform as it developed from the mid-19th century through the First World War.
To those accustomed to Ashkenazi liturgical music, North America’s first Jewish music might sound unfamiliar. It is part of the Western or Amsterdam Sephardi tradition, which traces to the 16th-century conversos and marranos who fled the Iberian Penninsula and settled initially in Amsterdam and, later, in London. As conversos—Jews who had converted to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition—the Sephardim who moved to Amsterdam lacked significant knowledge of Jewish tradition or ritual. Longing to re-engage with Jewish practice and custom, they recruited cantors and rabbis from North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean region (that is, eastern Sephardim—i.e., Sephardi Jews who had earlier left instead of converting) to assist them in “re-inventing” their rituals, traditions, and music.
Their liturgical music tradition appears to have been a potent vehicle for defining their internal Jewish identity. ”
North America's first Jews were of Western Sephardi origin. They were part of a group originally from the Netherlands that had established a sizable community in Recife, Brazil while it was under Dutch rule. But they left after the Portuguese took over and the specter of the Inquisition loomed. The origins of the American Jewish community are generally traced to twenty-three members of this group that arrived in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam—present-day New York—in 1654.
Recife, the center of Jewish life in Brazil until 1654. (Painting by Zachariah Wagener, 17th century)