The first Jewish voices in the new world almost didn’t make it. As Sephardim, they were evicted from Spain and fled to Amsterdam, from which they later sailed to Brazil. Fearing a new Inquisition there, they fled once again to New Amsterdam in 1654. There, they were finally able to build a new home—albeit not without protest from Governor Peter Stuyvesant—and establish the first Jewish congregation in North America.
The dedication to their religion and heritage, so dear to them after nearly being taken away on many an occasion, created a legacy that endures to this day. Their sacred music was maintained meticulously by recruiting experienced cantors from established communities in Amsterdam and London.
By contrast, the early Ashkenazi (German-Jewish) immigrants were more focused on adaptation. Until the seeds of a Reform movement began to sprout in the mid-19th century, Ashkenazi immigrants simply joined the fold of existing Sephardi congregations. When they finally did strike out on their own, they consciously forged a musical repertoire that signaled a break from their past, rather than a continuation. It was music intended to portray a new vision of Jewish life in step with the broader culture of America.
Our new virtual exhibit is a media-rich dive into the history and music of the early American Jewish experience. We invite you to listen and learn as you explore the early centuries of Jewish life in America.
Experience the Music
The Song of Prayer in Colonial and 19th-Century America