Volume Introductions

Introduction to Volume 1

Jewish Voices in the New World: The Song of Prayer in Colonial and 19th-century America

by Neil W. Levin

The Colonial-Era and the Early Years of the Republic

V1Let us imagine for a moment that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, or another of the Founding Fathers of the United States—or, for that matter, any of their non-Jewish contemporaries—had been a guest at a synagogue service in New York during the years leading up to the Revolutionary War (a fictitious scenario, of course, insofar as we know, but not entirely implausible); or that any of the framers of the Constitution had, during a break from their deliberations, paid a visit to a service at Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, which had been founded during the war and which Franklin viewed simply as one of the city’s various bona fide houses of worship. What music would they have experienced? What are the melodies, prayer settings, and biblical cantillations they would have heard? How would those renditions have sounded?

Hypothetical musicological exercises of this nature can, as a general rule, be open invitations for fanciful amateur speculation, unanchored assumptions, and dubious reconstructions based on the sort of quasi-artistic or aesthetic license prevalent in many commercial films set against supposedly historical backdrops. The natural evolutionary process of musical acculturation, oral transmission, and altered norms of vocal production over a span of more than two centuries, together with a host of acoustical considerations and contextual issues, can all combine to defy attempts at so-called historical-musical reconstruction, even when the basic identities of specific tunes, pieces, or chants can be documented.

However, in facing this particular challenge concerning the earliest known synagogue music heard and sung in the North American colonies, we benefit from the fact that Colonial American synagogues followed the Western, or Amsterdam, Sephardi rite. This tradition is known for its meticulous preservation and the continuity of its musical heritage and practice. Apart from the professional polish of the choral timbres heard in the renditions here, which are acknowledged to represent at most a contemporaneous and perhaps subliminal desiderata rather than a faithful historical replication of the less-schooled combined voices (unison choral or congregational) in actual services, the recordings contained in this volume offer a reasonable reproduction of American Colonial synagogue repertoire in its original context. The time frame embraced by this sampling of synagogue melodies and biblical cantillations extends beyond the Colonial period to the early decades of the new republic—up to circa 1830. These musical versions of the Hebrew liturgy and biblical readings thus exemplify the overall synagogal melos of early American Jewry as a whole until approximately that date.

Sephardi Complexion of Colonial-Era Synagogues

The liturgical rite of American Jewry remained basically that of Western Sephardi practice until at least the 1820s, with a musical repertoire that had been developed chiefly in Amsterdam—and to a lesser extent in London—during the late 16th and 17th centuries. This transplanted (and, prior to the 17th century, largely invented) musical tradition was, of course, perpetuated in the new American environment with a degree of variation and adaptation—processes that accompany all oral transmission. Such adaptive variation in transformation, however, was perhaps minimal in this case (at least by comparison with secular genres), owing to the care taken by learned Sephardi hazzanim from Europe in teaching this repertoire and keeping it intact as much as possible. If anything, variations that have become embedded in the accepted practice in America have lent a measure of distinction to the American brand of Western Sephardi tradition, serving to define it in relation to its European and London counterparts.

Colonial and immediately post-Colonial American Jewry was Sephardi in its synagogue life, ritual, and aesthetics, but by no means so in terms of the ethnic heritage or geographical origin of the majority of its population. Ashkenazi Jews came to the American colonies as early as the 17th century from German-speaking lands in Central and western Europe (including Polish regions)—and, eventually, from other areas in eastern Europe. On the eve of the Revolutionary War, their numbers far exceeded those of the Sephardim, and they had constituted the majority of New York Jewry for more than half a century.

Yet they were not inclined to create separate or distinct Ashkenazi communities, synagogues, synagogue societies, or social structures. Rather, they accepted and adopted the imported Western Sephardi format, rituals, and ritual authority as the new and appropriate American form of Judaism—one that just happened to be Sephardi. For them, Sephardi practice and even identity were not so much matters of Sephardi content or origins as they were a part of the New World. Moreover, as was the case in certain European cities and communities, the Western Sephardim had succeeded to some extent in creating a perception of themselves and their customs as a type of Jewish pseudo-aristocracy. For some of the Ashkenazi arrivals in the colonies, especially during the 18th century, integration into that midst could represent a form of acceptance not only by elements of the wider Colonial society but also by the American Jewish establishment.

Also in common with their fellow Colonial-era Jews of Sephardi heritage was the Ashkenazim’s desire quickly to abandon their European vernacular: German, or—especially prior to circa the 1840s or early 1850s—sometimes Judeo-German, a lingering Western or German-tinged dialect of Yiddish. Equally eager to adopt the English language, apart from the liturgical content of synagogue services, they too embraced the Colonial brand of Anglo-American culture. It was only after the initial waves of 19th-century German-Jewish immigration (up through the 1830s) that some Jews from German-speaking lands—as well as some important rabbinical figures—sought for some time to maintain the German language both within and outside their synagogues. Sermons in German were preferred and often mandated in a number of those synagogues even in the second half of the 19th century; and some hymns and prayer settings in German persisted even longer. Throughout the 19th century, German-speaking Jews participated together with non-Jewish fellow German émigrés in such German cultural activities as secular singing societies, classical music ensembles, concert life, and literary pursuits. Beginning in the 1840s and lasting well past the turn of the century, German cultural organizations as well as preferences—ranging from high art and Christian church music to secular folk tunes—also reverberated in the synagogue music of formerly German Jews throughout the United States and became associated with the aesthetics of the emerging Reform movement. For the first three or four decades of the new republic, however, the Ashkenazim accepted—enthusiastically in most cases—the same Western Sephardi musical fare that had prevailed in the colonies before independence.

Assertions of Ashkenazi Identity

During the time frame embraced by the music discussed here (i.e., prior to the full-scale migration of German-speaking Jews), there were a few assertions of Ashkenazi synagogal identity. Whether for a brief time prior to 1791 Charleston actually hosted two completely separate and legally unrelated synagogues—one for Sephardim and another for Ashkenazim—is still not entirely clear. Even if so, however, the two groups quickly rejoined, and the music of neither was likely to have been affected. Just after the dawn of the 19th century, a separate German Ashkenazi congregation, Rodeph Shalom (1802), was established in Philadelphia. But its birth was not so much a function of cultural revolt as a practical matter: the perceived need for a new functioning synagogue inasmuch as Congregation Mikveh Israel seemed on the verge of dissolution after many of its members had rejoined its parent congregation in New York following American independence. Moreover, we have no information concerning its music at that time or the degree to which (if any) it might have departed from Mikveh Israel’s repertoire—to which some of Rodeph Shalom’s founding members must have become accustomed. We do know that the early German-speaking Jewish immigrants brought with them little if any knowledge or even awareness of synagogue music in the lands from which they had emigrated; nor did they make any concerted effort to learn via communications with their former communities in Europe.

The first Ashkenazi synagogue in New York, B’nai Jeshurun, was conceived and founded in 1825–26 to follow what was articulated as the “German and Polish minhag [custom, or rite].” But its stated mission was also to shed some of the formality and hierarchical aspects associated with the Western Sephardi format, to which that relatively young faction had until then submitted as members of Shearith Israel, North America’s first congregation. They also sought to place what they felt should be a higher priority on Jewish education and basic instruction (including during worship)—to rejuvenate rituals by undergirding them with explanations of their history and meaning, and thereby to ensure the appeal of services and overall synagogue life to younger generations that would be increasingly exposed to Western education and culture in the new nation. Although the original catalyst for a new congregation was Shearith Israel’s refusal to permit that group to conduct a separate minyan (service) there on Sabbath mornings during summer, part of the impetus for B’nai Jeshurun’s subsequent founding as a distinct congregation and corporate entity in a building of its own was also geographically driven. As a second synagogue, it could better accommodate those who no longer lived in or near the neighborhood of Shearith Israel. As in the case of Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia, we cannot know what role musical preferences or differences might have played within the wider desire for a non-Sephardi service. Nor do we know what melodies or versions of biblical cantillation prevailed there during its formative years.

Ashkenazim who remained within the Sephardi fold—both during the early period of transition to a more diverse and pluralistic scene and afterward, through the 19th and 20th centuries—continued to perpetuate that musical tradition. In this context, they have remained inseparable from their fellow Sephardi congregants. Indeed, those Ashkenazim who have continued to this day to be active members and frequently officers of Shearith Israel (by some calculations, depending on definitions, even the majority at certain times) have been at least equally scrupulous in preserving and maintaining all aspects of the synagogue’s perceived tradition. Beginning in the late 19th century, choirmasters have occasionally inserted compositions by Ashkenazi and other non-Sephardi composers (Salomon Sulzer and Salamone Rossi, for example). Yet the congregation as a whole (Sephardim as well as those with Ashkenazi roots), admittedly unaware at least originally of the provenance or origin of those pieces, accepts them as part of what it proudly proclaims as its unique, undiluted aggregate tradition—one that they would insist by now is manifestly Sephardi, despite those and other more recent enrichments.

The Western Sephardi Musical Tradition

Backdrop: The End of Iberian Jewry

By the end of the 14th century (the so-called Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, whether or not in light of recent assessments it was actually or always so golden), Iberian Jewry, which had flourished for significant periods since the 8th century in Moslem-controlled areas of the peninsula, had come to a gradual end with the ultimate establishment of Christian hegemony in what is Spain today. Although the expansion of Christian rule was punctuated by periods of tolerance and even Jewish prosperity, the overall position of the Jews in Christian Spain deteriorated throughout the era during which Moslem rule simultaneously shrank. By the 14th century, Jewry was subjected to fierce persecution from which it never recovered. The culminating massacres in 1391, in which an estimated 70,000 Jews were murdered and entire communities extinguished (except in Moslem-ruled Granada and in Portugal, owing to royal protection), resulted in significant numbers of Jews surrendering to baptism and conversion. Continued persecutions led to a second wave of conversions in the early 15th century. Some, though not all, of these “new Christians,” or conversos, continued to practice Jewish customs and ceremonies in secret—as “crypto-Jews,” or marranos (“swine,” the derogatory epithet originally attached to them, which remains in common usage without its initial aspersion). But the synagogue, as a public institution where liturgical music traditions had been maintained, could no longer play any role in their lives. Moreover, as nominal Christians who were now subject to the authority of the Inquisition—the Congregation of the Holy Office—their recidivism, covert or otherwise, would constitute heresy that could lead to punishment (or perceived “purification”) by death.

Over the course of the 15th century, the road led rapidly to outright expulsion for all who had declined conversion—from Spain in 1492, and from Portugal, where an estimated 100,000 Jews found a brief period of refuge before equally brutal forced conversions and expulsions, by 1497. The largest number of Jewish exiles were now called Sephardim, from the Hebrew word that had come to be used to designate Spain: s’farad.

The appearance of the word s’farad in Obadiah I:20 was originally associated erroneously with the collective Latin name for the region that once comprised multiple kingdoms or polities on the Iberian Peninsula, which later became the single entity known as Hispania. The biblical reference, however, is now understood as referring to a colony of Jerusalem exiles that—based on early-20th-century biblical scholarship—has been identified as Sardis, the capital city of Lydia in Asia Minor. S’farad was rendered only later as the Hebrew equivalent of the Latin Hispania, i.e., Spain. By the 9th century C.E., s’farad had become the accepted Hebrew designation for the Iberian Peninsula.

The exiled Jews found refuge and built new lives in Islamic lands of North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, including various parts of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. Judged by 20th-century standards, those new host environments were not always entirely free of political and economic restrictions, which, on balance, were nonetheless at least tolerable. Overall, however, relative hospitality prevailed—more so in some regions and at certain periods than others—and new guises of Sephardi culture, learning, and life flourished.

Europe: The Birth of Western Sephardi Jewry

Around the middle of the 16th century some conversos began leaving the Iberian Peninsula. The numbers of crypto-Jewish emigration were small at first, but by the turn of the century they had begun to swell. Many marranos, of course, also remained permanently in Spain and Portugal in unknown—and unknowable—numbers, often intermarrying with the general population. (Spaniards and Portuguese with crypto-Jews in their family histories have periodically come upon reasonable suspicions and evidence of such marrano roots, and sometimes actual discoveries—especially in post-Franco Spain; and occasional discoveries continue into the 21st century.)

Henceforth, the former crypto-Jews became known in their émigré communities as “Spanish and Portuguese Jews” or, more commonly in Europe, simply as “Portuguese Jews.” They could also be known—with their full approval—as the “Portuguese Jewish Nation,” which in some historical findings and interpretations was originally a Portuguese epithet directed at them, and which, especially once they were removed from any context of danger, they chose proudly and purposefully to retain as a curious badge of honor in self-proclamation of peoplehood, over and above religious persuasion.

In that time frame crypto-Jews were motivated to emigrate from Spain and Portugal out of twin considerations: a quest for new economic and commercial opportunities in environments of religious tolerance, where continued concealment of Jewish identity or hiding of symbolic ritual practices would no longer be necessary; and a rejuvenated desire to reconnect with Jewish heritage and to resume genuine observance of Judaism and Jewish life.

Amsterdam became their primary destination, especially as Dutch parts of the Netherlands (which included Belgium until 1830) proceeded toward independence from Spain beginning in the 17th century. The Jewish émigrés were particularly welcome in that booming center of international trade and commerce, as they were in Dutch colonial regions. This was not merely out of magnanimity or unalloyed commitment to religious tolerance for its own sake—although, as a Protestant country that needed no reminder of the struggle against Rome’s intolerance of religious differences or theological divergences, that sentiment could have played a principal role in some minds. But additional and more practical economic and commercial forces were at play, along with equally pragmatic political-religious considerations in the context of Reformation versus Counter-Reformation tensions. An influx of Jews with secular knowledge and exposure to Western culture and worldviews, even from their circumscribed experience within a Roman Catholic society such as Spain, and with an ingrained antipathy toward Rome, was seen as potentially beneficial to Dutch capitalist ambitions, international trade, and mercantile enterprise; and it could reinforce the requisite Dutch middle- and merchant-class structures. At the same time, Jews were viewed as natural allies against Rome and the Church, given their history of persecutions and especially their abhorrence of the Inquisition and its effect on Spanish Jewry. Clearly, the Inquisition was the instrument being used by Spain and other Roman Catholic countries and rulers in their attempt to crush Protestantism, which, in turn, was crucial to the Dutch pursuit of a capitalist economy and related commercial and territorial ambitions.

In addition to Amsterdam, the crypto-Jews also settled in Venice and southern France—and, later, in other parts of Europe (Hamburg, Paris, Livorno, Vienna, and London); northeast Brazil and the Caribbean (Recife, Curaçao, Surinam, and other areas); and, eventually, North America. The “Western Sephardi” label distinguishes these Jews from their eastern Sephardi counterpart communities and cultures in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean.

Invention of an Amsterdam “Portuguese” Tradition: The foundations of the Western Sephardi musical tradition can be traced to its “mother” community in Amsterdam, where the conversos who arrived possessed little if any knowledge of Judaism or Judaic rituals (especially outside the home) after so long a detachment. Since the expulsions, all opportunities for retaining any ties to authentic synagogue-based musical traditions had become nonexistent. If those Jews were now to experience a full sense of return, they felt impelled at least partly to invent, or reinvent, a liturgical music tradition to which they could feel reconnected. In that determination to find authenticity and thereby reestablish links to an imagined continuum of Judaic tradition, they looked eastward to the Moslem-dominated Jewish world for their instruction. They recruited knowledgeable cantors and rabbis from some of the principal North African and eastern Mediterranean Sephardi centers—a practice that was followed with regard to biblical and talmudic learning as well. The Western Sephardi musical repertoire that emerged was thus based in part on North African and Ottoman Sephardi traditions.

Among the earliest of those imported hazzanim were Joseph Shalom Gallego, from Saloniki, who officiated in Amsterdam ca. 1614–28; and Rabbi Isaac Uziel, from Fez, Morocco. Both had a permanent impact on the construction of a local liturgical music canon during the formative stages of the Amsterdam community.

The North African/eastern Mediterranean style of vocal rendition was undoubtedly alien to the more Western-attuned aesthetic sensibilities of the former conversos in Amsterdam. That style could easily have appeared unrefined, excessively filigreed, modally strange, rhythmically confusing, and foreign in terms of nasal vocal timbre. And to those with cultivated Western tastes, what could appear as rhythmic and other improvisatory freedom in the eastern approach might have seemed lacking in the decorum expected for religious contexts. These concerns probably spawned the adaptive process by which the eastern musical versions were frequently streamlined and “westernized” by their compression into more metrical contexts and simpler regular meters, and by shearing them of their improvisatory extensions and ornamentation.

The composite Amsterdam “traditional” repertoire, however, also came to include two additional elements: 1) original creations or adaptations by local cantors who were conversant with western European art music, for which the former conversos had developed a decided affinity (especially the Italian Baroque style then prevalent in Spain, and to a lesser extent in the Netherlands, in the 17th century); and 2) traditional but “foreign” accretions, such as Ashkenazi liturgical tunes and non-Jewish secular Dutch and other folksongs.

The engagement of hazzanim from Amsterdam by the city’s so-called sister communities—which eventually included New York—contributed to the stability as well as to the relative uniformity of their liturgical repertoires. This perceived tradition required learned cantors to preserve and teach it. But such qualified hazzanim, often the sole repositories of the musical traditions of their communities, were in short supply. Western Sephardi communities therefore paid careful attention to the selection, training, and support of their hazzanim; and when they found it necessary or advisable, they shared them. Amsterdam was usually the base for such mobile hazzanim.

The willingness to import cantors from Amsterdam and London was especially important for the maintenance of tradition in America throughout the Colonial period and beyond. Our very knowledge of that process gives relative assurance that the music in this section of Volume 1—all of which is preserved intact to this day in the repertoire of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York, which dates to the Colonial era—is essentially the same as was sung in the American colonies throughout much of the 18th century. This lineage is further substantiated in those cases where we find in the current repertoire of that synagogue a melody that we can trace back therein for several generations, and which also appears documented in 19th-century notated sources identified as long established by then in Western Sephardi tradition. One of the most important of these sources is the collection by Emanuel Aguilar and David Aaron de Sola, The Ancient Melodies of the Liturgy of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews (London, 1857). We can legitimately deduce that a tune from this volume (in the section labeled “ancient”) that has been in the repertoire of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York all during the 20th century was also in the very same synagogue’s repertoire during the Colonial period—the more so since we know that this congregation had the benefit of Amsterdam hazzanim at its pulpit.

Our assessment of the continuum with reference to biblical cantillation is even more solidly grounded. We know that the post-expulsion hazzanim who were entrusted with transmitting and teaching the details of biblical cantillations (ta’amei hamikra) did so with exacting precision—as traditionally demanded by Sephardi congregations (often to an even greater degree of minutiae than Ashkenazi ones) in deference to the sacred centrality of the Holy Scriptures in the synagogue service. Moreover, it was (and is) almost always those hazzanim themselves who chanted the Torah readings, and not laymen—who often fulfill this function in Ashkenazi synagogues. For these reasons we can be assured that the cantillations considered and sampled here are relatively faithful replications of such biblical readings in Colonial-era services.

The Emergence of American Jewry

Prior to the second half of the 17th century, a handful of European Jews came individually, mostly for economic prospects, to North America. In most of these isolated cases they either returned to Europe, tried their luck elsewhere, or assimilated completely among the other settlers. These people did not found a community. The date of the actual birth of the American Jewish community is accepted as 1654, when a group of twenty-three self-affirming Jews arrived in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, then under the control of the Dutch West India Company. (The precise number of Jews among the passengers on that ship—whose identity, registration, and name remains uncertain—has been questioned by 20th-century scholarship, although, in the absence of irrefutable evidence to the contrary, the number twenty-three continues to be generally accepted.)

Many, if not most (but not all) of those Jewish arrivals were Amsterdam Portuguese Sephardim. They had been living in Recife (Pernambuco), Brazil, which the Dutch had wrested from the Portuguese in 1630. A relatively sizable formal Jewish community had been established there (some 1,400 to 1,500 people at its peak) on European models, with a synagogue to accommodate all Jews, and with Jewish schools, but also with the classic institution of orthodox rabbinic authority, which was not transferred to North America. When the Dutch surrendered Recife back to the Portuguese in 1654 and the specter of the Inquisition hovered, most of the remaining Jews—whose number had dwindled to less than half by the final years of Dutch rule—left. They were generously if ironically assisted in their exodus by the Portuguese commander, who lent them ships and issued protective orders for their physical safety.

Some who could afford the cost of passage returned directly to Amsterdam; others resettled in Caribbean areas such as St. Thomas, Curaçao, Jamaica, and Surinam, where they founded Sephardi congregations. The now-legendary group of twenty-three refugees who landed in New Amsterdam are believed to have headed, at least initially, for the Caribbean and to have been prevented from landing there by the Spanish. Even if their original or ideal destination had been Holland, they were in effect stranded in New Amsterdam as indigent refugees. Though clearly unwelcome, they elected to remain permanently, which became possible only thanks to the economic influence and pressure on their behalf by fellow Jews in Amsterdam. The governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, had insisted on their evacuation. But he was overruled from Amsterdam by his employer, the Dutch West India Company. Some of its Jewish stockholders were not eager for a fresh communal burden at home. They were also mindful of the commercial benefit to the company in having potentially enterprising fellow Jews living and working in the New World. They had therefore appealed to the company directors at the request of the refugees waiting in New Amsterdam to learn their fate or determine their next move.

Stuyvesant was thus thwarted in his bid to rid the colony of the Jewish refugees. Within a year, five well-to-do Amsterdam Jewish families were dispatched to the colony, where they would help root the newly planted bulbs of a community and also assist in absolving the Dutch West India Company of economic responsibility for the earlier immigrants. Continued immigration followed from Amsterdam and from Dutch possessions in the Western hemisphere and, later, in smaller numbers, from London.

Myth and Reality

Despite gaps, inconsistencies, and even holes in the story, and in the absence of more substantial documentation, the “original twenty-three” refugees continue to be credited with having been the seeds of both American Jewry and the American synagogue, as well as communal life. As with all national and ethnic histories, this story, too, has accumulated its share of extra-factual folk myth components, conjecture-based tradition, and liberally drawn assumptions or conclusions. This does not necessarily diminish the value of the account (especially those parts that are knowable) or the role played by those courageous refugees—whatever their number.

Yet the story as it is commonly related, particularly in terms of a continuum of an American Jewish community and the realities of its initial synagogue experiences, might be interpreted as having some of the elements of what is known in 21st-century politically correct jargon as a narrative (or national narrative)—often a euphemism for advantageous, self-serving invention of fact. In this case, however, any elaborations or exaggerations would have arisen harmlessly out of emotionally driven rather than the more usual politically driven agendas.

The fact is that by the time England took control of the colony from the Dutch and it became New York, nearly all of the original refugees had left. The sefer torah that had been brought from Amsterdam for them had been returned. Asser Levy—now famous for his victory in a dispute over his right as a Jew to participate in standing guard duty, as the acknowledged burghers (or citizens) did, and for being the first Jew in America to serve in the militia or on a jury—is believed to have been the only one of the original refugees from Recife who remained.

There was a hiatus of Jewish settlement and community development in New York for at least the first several years of British rule. Sometime after 1670 or during the 1670s the Jewish community was in a sense “refounded”; and by the 1680s it had become firmly established, notwithstanding its small numbers—probably significantly fewer than 200, since the entire Colonial Jewish population by 1700 (i.e., those who identified openly as Jews) is estimated at between 200 and 300. By 1776 the estimate ranges from 1,000 to 2,500, although it is not clear if these estimates include complete families or adults only, or whether they include individuals who married non-Jews but did not themselves convert or disclaim their Jewishness. By the mid-18th century there were functioning synagogues in five cities, with attached organized communities whose specifically Jewish communal needs, concerns, operations, and responsibilities beyond worship services were under their aegis and were centered around them: New York, Newport, Charleston, Savannah, and Philadelphia.

Jewish Life and the Synagogue in Colonial America

The first American synagogue, Shearith Israel (Remnant of Israel; originally Kahal Kodosh Shearith Israel [Holy Congregation Remnant of Israel]), has remained in continuous operation in New York to this day and is the prestigious flagship congregation devoted to Western Sephardi tradition in the United States. It dates loosely from the early years of established Jewish presence in New Amsterdam and then New York. The year 1654 has been adopted and is commonly cited as the birth of the synagogue. Obviously, that date represents a liberal espousal; it is impossible to confirm an actual official founding in that year—apart from the reasonable assumption that the Jews, who had previously been part of the synagogue community in Recife and under its authority, did begin assembling for worship somewhere in New Amsterdam during that time frame. The earliest preserved minutes books of the congregation are dated 1728, although some of its religious records go back a bit further. No one knows the precise date of the first formal service.

Religious Freedom

Freedom of worship and religious choice were not automatic in New Amsterdam at first, although some of the attempted restrictions probably applied to any religion or religious group outside the Dutch Reformed Church and not only to Jews. An initial prohibition against private Jewish services in homes—in part out of fear that it might set a precedent for similar but even less desirable worship by non-Calvinist Protestant denominations and sects (German Evangelicals, or Lutherans, for example) and even Roman Catholics (as the hated and feared “Papists”) and present a challenge to the authority of the Calvinists and the exclusivity of their Dutch Reformed Church—was rescinded through the intervention of Jewish leadership in Amsterdam, which succeeded once again in persuading the Dutch West India Company and in overriding Stuyvesant’s vehement objections.

Acceptance of a publicly recognized synagogue took more time. The British permitted private Jewish worship from the beginning of the reestablished Jewish community as long as there would be no public or open display and thus no potential provocation on the part of those who, even though tolerated within that restricted framework, were nonetheless perceived as the rejecters of Christian faith and of its Messiah. But the British denied a request, even as late as 1685, for the right to hold Jewish services in public—i.e., in a recognizable building or quarters designated for unconcealed synagogue worship.

Meanwhile, even before it was prudent to do so openly, the Jews had been holding services inconspicuously in a mill loft used as a makeshift synagogue, and this appears to have been an “open secret,” regarding which the authorities looked the other way. By the end of the 17th century, however, the community gained more or less official recognition. By the dawn of the 18th century, or perhaps even several years earlier (retrospective accounts differ), Jews were able to conduct services publicly, and in 1730 Shearith Israel inaugurated and consecrated its first proper synagogue building, on Mill Street. This remained its home for the rest of the Colonial period, until its move in 1818 to its second building—also on Mill Street. By that time, of course, it could conduct the dedication ceremonies with public acknowledgment.

In August 1776, in anticipation of the imminent British occupation of New York following the commencement of hostilities, and as those troops were advancing toward the city from Long Island, a group said to comprise the majority of Shearith Israel’s congregants evacuated the city—led by the synagogue’s American-born hazzan and minister, Gershom Mendes Seixas. Like most of Colonial Jewry by then, especially once the reconciliation for which they had prayed was clearly impossible and the pursuit of full-scale military engagement was unavoidable, that group vigorously supported the patriot cause and independence. Jewish Loyalists, or Tories, however, kept the synagogue officially open in New York during the occupation and until the British surrender, although it is difficult to ascertain how consistently services were held under those conditions.

In the meantime, after four years in Connecticut, Seixas and his flock from Shearith Israel arrived in Philadelphia in 1780. They came together and held services with the sizable contingent of other Jewish war refugees there. In September 1782 they founded a new congregation, Mikveh Israel, which was in effect a branch of Shearith Israel and which perpetuated its traditions and rituals. A formal consecration was held that year, with a procession of Torah scrolls and other artifacts that had been brought from New York for use and for safekeeping.

Colonial-Era Prayerbooks

Until past the middle of the 18th century, all prayerbooks were brought from Amsterdam. The first known artifact of Jewish prayer to be printed and published, or quasi-published, in Colonial America was issued in 1760, but it was clearly intended more as a historical record and memento of a unique occasion than as a practical order of liturgy for regular services. Titled The form of prayer which was performed at the Jews’ synagogue in the city of New York [Shearith Israel], on Thursday, October 23, 1760: being the day appointed by proclamation for a general Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the reducing of Canada to His Majesty’s dominions, it was “composed” in Hebrew by Joseph Yeshurun Pinto and translated by “a Friend to truth.”

The first prayerbook published in America (New York, 1761) that pertained to the Hebrew liturgical calendar was a set of English translations only—without Hebrew—for the High Holy Day evening services: Evening Service of Rosh-Hashanah, or the Beginning of the Year and Kippur, the Day of Atonement . Although it was published anonymously, its attribution to Isaac Pinto (1720–91), long suspected, is now generally accepted. This was also the first Jewish prayerbook in the English language to have been published anywhere. Four or five years later, Pinto—a Jewishly learned merchant who had immigrated to Connecticut from the West Indies and who, after he moved to New York in 1751, was a member of Shearith Israel—published under his name further English translations in his Prayers for the Sabbath, Rosh-Hashanah, and Kippur, Or the Sabbath, the Begining [sic] of the Year, and the day of Atonements: with the Amidah and Musaph of the Moadim, or solemn seasons: according to the order of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews.

Collectively, these volumes are historically significant as the earliest English translations of Hebrew liturgy in the New World. They were not intended to replace Hebrew, which remains the required language of prayer in all traditional services and was consistently so in the Colonial-era synagogues. Rather, these—and the subsequent prayerbooks with English—were seen as a needed supplement for individual worshippers whose less-than-thorough knowledge of Hebrew might have dissuaded them from synagogue attendance. That there was such a perceived need can be viewed as one of many indicators of the minimal, diluted level not only of basic instruction in liturgical Hebrew but also of Jewish education in general throughout the Colonial era—an assessment that is substantiated by much additional evidence. Shortly after the appearance of Pinto’s volumes, daily and Sabbath Sephardi prayerbooks from London were also used; these contained both Hebrew and English. The first American Hebrew and English prayerbook was not published until 1826.

Societal Acceptance and Limitations

On balance, mid- to late-18th century Colonial Jewry enjoyed freedom of worship and Judaic practice to the extent it wished—which varied across a spectrum then as it does today—especially when this did not intersect with thornier issues of political franchise, rights, or equality. The English establishment notwithstanding, a substantial degree of ethnic and religious plurality already characterized the population. There were numerous sects and denominations, and there were immigrants from many parts of Europe in addition to those from England who espoused faiths outside the Church of England (and, after independence, the Episcopal Church). Jews were thus not the only religious nonconformists in the Colonies, but—apart from their ethnicity and their historical separateness—simply one of many tolerated and even permitted religions outside the established church. In that sense they did not stand out quite so prominently from the general population as they did in Europe. When Benjamin Franklin contributed money on an equal basis to Philadelphia churches of all denominations, for example, he included the local synagogue as a matter of course, as one of the legitimate American religions.

Still, professing Colonial Jews did not have the same degree of political equality, even though some restrictions were honored more in the quiet breach than in enforcement. But as the accepted norm of the time, such inequalities do not seem to have been unbearable or to have created major or widespread issues. Indeed, civil and often economic rights typically have preceded political rights in the course of the evolution of Western democracies—a chronology and order of priorities considered natural as well as reasonable by many observers of political and legal history. (“Given a choice,” once quipped the erudite Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “I’ll take habeas corpus over the right to vote any day!”) Only with the end of Colonial rule and the ratification of the Constitution did Jews attain full political rights and complete religious freedom in relation to political enfranchisement—on the federal level. It took another eighty years for the elimination of all anti-Jewish political restrictions from all state constitutions, with New Hampshire as the last holdout.

At the same time, Jews did have basically full economic rights and equality of business opportunity—for at least half a century before the same level was obtained even in England. Also, it was possible to achieve social respectability without having to sacrifice Jewish identity. As the new republic was born, Hazzan Mendes Seixas participated in George Washington’s inauguration ceremony; and the hazzan-minister of Congregation Mikveh Israel, as its perceived de facto rabbi, was one of the pallbearers of Benjamin Franklin’s coffin. Washington’s letter to the Newport congregation, with its warmth toward the Jewish people and its condemnation of prejudice (“to bigotry no sanction”) is frequently quoted and generally familiar to students of American history. Less widely known is his gracious reply to the May 6, 1789, congratulatory letter from the Savannah congregation (both of which were published in a New York newspaper, the Gazette, in 1790), in which he referred to “the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivered the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors” as having “lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation”; and he expressed the hope that this same “Deity” would “make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people whose God is J […/ adonai].”

Musical Tradition and Jewish Identity

Nominal Orthodoxy

Colonial synagogues were orthodox not out of pious commitment to European-style orthodoxy, which would have meant adherence to an entire mode of daily life outside the synagogue and apart from typical home celebrations and ceremonies. And it would have necessitated acceptance of rabbinically led communal structures and rabbinic authority. Rather, these synagogues were orthodox because an unmodified and fossilized service represented for those Jews the continuum of tradition and custom they felt necessary for their identity, without necesssarily requiring more of them. This applied fully and with exactitude to the musical dimension. Also, there were not yet any alternative models: Reform did not begin in terms of practical worship formats until the 19th century, in Germany and then in America; and it bypassed the Sephardi world anyway.

It does not attach opprobrium to observe that Colonial Jewry as a whole did not exhibit the same degree of concern for other, extra-synagogal aspects of Jewish tradition, law, and life. Their interests outside the synagogue (and away from their Sabbath and holy day tables and Passover seders) simply resided elsewhere: in the social and intellectual pursuits of the emerging American society. Thus, apart form personal, individual choices with respect to observance, they did not establish Jewish schools or talmudic academies; nor did they produce or nurture higher Judaic learning or scholarship. For the most part they remained committed in principle to the most basic theological tenets of Judaic faith, and equally so to the continuum of Jewish peoplehood—which would appear to account for the fact that whatever other Jewish legally required rituals and practices might have been jettisoned, ignored, or diluted (including dietary laws, though certainly not in all cases or even across the board), brit mila (circumcision) was the most consistently observed such mandate.

A Community Without Rabbis: Most significantly, unlike the sister Sephardi communities in the Caribbean during this same time frame, Colonial Jewry deliberately chose not to import any ordained rabbis from Europe (or from Caribbean settlements) to lead their congregations, to teach, to implant scholarship, or even to determine issues of halakha—the primary historical role of rabbis. For those halakhic matters about which Colonial Jews were concerned and which they acknowledged as requiring rabbinic approval, supervision, opinion, or adjudication—in particular relating to conversion or divorce—they could turn to Amsterdam. (There were no rabbis in North America, other than perhaps visitors, until well after the turn of the century; bona fide rabbis, including those with the new Reform form of ordination or other legitimacy, did not hold regular or permanent pulpit positions in American synagogues until after the 1830s.) Otherwise, the European model of the k’hilla (the all-embracive organized Jewish communal structure), with rabbinical authority not only over daily religious observances but also over social and business-related matters, was not something they wanted. Even for disputes with fellow Jewish colonists, they were content to rely on civil authority and the civil courts. Moreover, certain pastoral functions, including some rudimentary teaching, presiding along with lay leaders over services, and even preaching sermons when that innovation gained some following—as well as overall Judaic guidance without binding authority—could be fulfilled by certain learned hazzanim elevated to the position of hazzan-minister.

A Musical Engine for Identity: By sharp contrast, Colonial Jews were obviously deeply concerned about ensuring the authentic maintenance of the Sephardi liturgical musical traditions down to the minute details—especially with regard to biblical cantillation, but in general for all liturgical melodies and their mode of rendition. For that purpose they did import hazzanim from both Amsterdam and London (sometimes via the Caribbean), not only during the Colonial period but also throughout the formative decades of the new republic and even well into the 20th century. In no other area of Jewish practice were they so meticulous. Thus their liturgical music tradition appears to have been a potent—perhaps the primary—vehicle for defining their internal Jewish identity.

The Choral Dimension

A primary function of the choir in western Sephardi synagogues with regard to much of the liturgy—and especially the strophic and responsorial prayers and Psalms—is to lead the congregation in singing. As a specially assembled, designated ensemble, the choir provides a model that the other worshippers can follow and into which they can be absorbed.

During the 19th century in London and Amsterdam, and later in New York, most of the tunes considered here were harmonized in three and four parts either for men and boys or for adult male choir renditions. But before that, and certainly throughout the 18th century in Colonial America, these liturgical melodies were rendered without harmonization—even when an ensemble or de facto choir might have served as an adjunct to the hazzan in leading the congregation and in providing variety in vocal timbre. Until the late 19th century, any choral or formalized group singing that might have accompanied and supplemented the hazzan at Shearith Israel in New York would have consisted of unison renditions—in octaves for applicable passages if boys' unchanged voices were included. This unison choral practice was the modus operandi at Shearith Israel’s perceived parent synagogue in Amsterdam until circa 1870.

It is impossible to know how frequently such simple unison choirs were or would have been part of the regular services at Shearith Israel during the Colonial era and the early decades of the young republic—and, for that matter, throughout the years prior to the establishment of a four-part choir as a permanent feature. As early as 1812, a class from the Polonies Talmud Torah (religious school) is recorded as having “led the singing” at a special Thanksgiving Day service; and to consecrate the congregation’s new, second edifice on Mill Street in lower Manhattan in 1818, a mixed choir (men and women) participated in a special dedication service (anukkat habayit)—which probably occurred either following the musaf service or during a typical break between the afternoon service and the prayers for the conclusion of the Sabbath on that shabbat hagadol (the Sabbath immediately preceding Pesaḥ, which is known as the “Great Sabbath”).

But these were specially devised “onetime” ceremonies rather than prescribed regular worship services. Only in the 1870s or the first few years of the 1880s (but definitely prior to 1883) did Shearith Israel institute its permanent formal choir, which has been a regular feature of Sabbath, High Holy Day, Festival and Tisha Ba’av services ever since. At the time of its inception and debut, the desiderata was a four-part ensemble of men and boys in an SATB format. That makeup and voicing persisted for as long as it was feasible—certainly for the remainder of the 19th century and well into the next. It may have lasted up through the 1940s, albeit with decreasing frequency and perhaps only intermittently by then, as the necessary talented boys became less and less available owing to a host of sociological and sociocultural factors. A broad range of other activities now competed for boys’ time, interest, and attention. Documentation is scarce, but by the end of the first half of the 20th century the choir had become an all-adult male ensemble and the repertoire was rearranged to fit the TTBB format. (For further discussion on the history of the choir at Shearith Israel, see the notes to “American Choral Settings in the Western Sephardi Liturgical Tradition” in Volume 2.)

Meanwhile, we await continued archival research which might yield further information about choral usage in the Colonial era and the immediate postscolonial years. We may, however, reasonably posit that Shearith Israel would have sought in those time frames to emulate its Amsterdam template on those occasions when it could summon the vocal resources, even if the result would have been a bit unpolished and even primitive by contemporary musical standards. A simple choral dimension of liturgical delivery would have been seen as a natural extension of the phenomenon in Europe, and it could at the same time have been perceived as a link to Jewish antiquity and the choral Psalm renditions in the ancient Temple. Also, by the 18th century, choral assistance to Ashkenazi hazzanim to one degree or another was common practice in western, Central, and east Central Europe—dating to the hazzan-bass-singer (high tenor or soprano) trio format of the late medieval period, which had been further developed and expanded in many communities by that time. The Ashkenazi component among the congregation at Shearith Israel—which by the Revolutionary War was numerically significant—was certainly not aware of that convention.

Moreover, the nature and style of Western Sephardi melodies invite the timbral variety, support, and responsorial delivery that even a lay unison choir can provide, especially in terms of interaction with the hazzan for the purpose of facilitating and encouraging vocal participation by the congregation. Thus we may imagine logically that at least on some special occasions during the Colonial era and the immediate postcolonial period, such unison ensembles accompanied the hazzan on an ad hoc basis. This scenario is all the more probable with regard to the mid 19th century, by which time Shearith Israel’s so-called sister congregation in London had introduced formalized choral singing.

The Nineteenth Century and the Music of Classical Reform

[N.B. The following introductory observations, commentary, and background information pertaining to this second part of Volume I should be read in conjunction with the biographical sketches of the composers and arrangers of the selections cited here—as a single discussion. These biographical notes offer further explanations and contexts that round out, complement, and contribute to our appreciation of 19th-century developments in American Jewish life from which this music emanates and which it represents.]

The music in this second part of Volume 1 all pertains to Reform-oriented worship in America, beginning with its emergence in the first half of the 19th century, continuing through the years leading up to the First World War, and extending beyond the war for at least two decades. It is emblematic of what is now known as “Classical Reform”—the label that came to describe and designate the ideological as well as liturgical-aesthetic route traversed and espoused by the American Reform movement during that time frame. Although the movement began to show signs of artistic and literary advancement by the late 1920s, the character and content of its musical repertoire remained little changed until at least the 1940s, when a new, more sophisticated, and more original direction began to take root.

Unlike most of the music recorded by the Milken Archive, the settings in this section are presented not out of any claim to artistic merit, but exclusively as curiosities intended faithfully to invoke the musical scene and aural ambience of virtually all American Reform congregations of the second half of the 19th century and its 20th-century extensions. Now primarily a matter of historical interest that must be understood in its well-intentioned and, for its time, culturally high-minded context, this repertoire was later superseded by more Jewishly considered and informed congregational tastes and guided by more talented as well as more Judaically grounded composers. With the possible exception of some of the settings by Edward Stark and perhaps the one by Max Graumann, none of the pieces here would find acceptance or appropriate application in any contemporary synagogue (nor is this suggested) apart from proudly preserved custom in individual cases; and nearly all had become extinct by the second half of the 20th century—notwithstanding some lingering nostalgic echoes of Classical Reform in a few individual congregations.

Confronted with this repertoire divorced from its historical and sociological contexts, the contemporary listener will be justified in finding most of the settings, along with the English and German texts, hopelessly dated, musically wanting, Judaically unanchored, and in many cases downright humorous—particularly the adaptations from well-known classical concert, operatic, or Christian sacred works or the banal, platitudinous, and antiquated hymn texts (including those by highly respected Jewish as well as non-Jewish poets). Yet these pieces were once taken quite seriously by educated worshippers and by many of their leaders, who perceived them to be spiritually uplifting and heard and sang them as marks of refinement and cultured religious experience. Listening to them can bring to life—perhaps in a way that no written accounts can do on their own—the aura of those services and the quest for modernity and a patently “American” stamp that infused them, all at a time when such settings and their vernacular texts reflected the contemporaneous middle- and upper-middle-class sensibilities of American society. These recordings can also provide convenient and valuable illustrations (available nowhere else) for lectures on 19th-century American Jewry, as well as material for historically reconstructed services and other commemorative programs.

Foundations of American Reform

The few incidents of congregational disaffection from the Western Sephardi fold prior to the 1830s did not yet have any perceptible impact on the overall American synagogue melos, which, during that period, remained overwhelmingly within the framework of the Amsterdam Sephardi tradition and its American guise. That situation changed only afterward, with the intensified and accelerated arrival of German-speaking Jews chiefly from villages or relatively small towns in Bavaria and other German principalities or states; Bohemia and elsewhere in that region of Central Europe, including parts of present-day Hungary; and, to a lesser extent, Alsace-Lorraine. They came to constitute a distinct, numerically as well as culturally significant wave of immigration that altered the entire face and future of American Jewry. The foundation was thus laid for the next chapter in the story of the religious, social, and cultural paths of American Jewish history, in which the content and character of synagogue music was radically transformed. This new stage was marked not merely by a few secessions or tributaries from the original Colonial-era synagogues, but by the eventual establishment de novo of an aggregation of specifically “German” (or congenitally German) Ashkenazi congregations in eastern, midwestern, and southern urban centers and as far west as San Francisco—along with new parallel communal structures and agencies that were no longer necessarily tied to or administered by synagogues or religious institutions.

Prior to the middle of the century, only two of the synagogues that subsequently became affiliated with the Reform movement were actually founded as “reformed” or reform-minded congregations: Har Sinai Congregation in Baltimore and Temple Emanu-El in New York.

B’nai Jeshurun in New York, notwithstanding its innovations, never followed through in pursuit of the path that led all the way to the Reform movement. In fact, it later became the first synagogue of the traditionally oriented but nonorthodox Conservative movement, which originated out of irreconcilable doctrinal, theological, ritual, and historical differences with the positions of the Reform movement and in reaction to the degree of its divergences—especially its abandonment of traditional Judaism’s underlying basis in the continuum of talmudic, rabbinic, and halakhic authority. Hence, the Conservative movement’s chosen designation— i.e., while being open to what its promulgators viewed as halakhically grounded as well as halakhically driven reconsiderations, fresh interpretations, and revisited constructions, to “conserve” Judaism nonetheless from Reform’s perceived excesses and from what some responders feared would result in an inevitable dilution to the point of demolition.

The other Reform synagogues that were founded during that initial phase in the first half of the century began debating about and instituting various ritual and pragmatic (but not yet ideological or theological) reforms and departures from tradition soon after they opened as nominally orthodox or conventional congregations. Lay-initiated, lay-founded, and lay-led at first by the German-speaking Jews (the “German Jews”) who had started immigrating in appreciable numbers in the 1820s and 1830s and possessed minimal Judaic learning and for the most part no higher secular education, those congregations began blazing the reformist trail in the 1840s on purely individual bases, forming what would only later be seen as the seeds of a federated movement. Those innovations were preceded not only by the birth of the Reform developments in Germany, with which few American immigrants had had any firsthand experience (and of whose ideological deliberations, theological justifications, and historical implications they had even less intellectual understanding) but also on the American scene by a few lay-organized experiments with so-called synagogue modernization. But even if those preliminary American episodes could be cited as precedents, they had not yet amounted to a trend or a direction by 1840. Neither were they part of any all-embracing, nationwide (or even regional) agenda; nor were they linked—as would later be promoted by certain elements within the Reform movement (including a major contender for its leadership)—to the perpetuation of a specifically German-Jewish cultural, linguistic, and intellectual, if sometimes overly imagined or embellished, German heritage.

Those early, mostly German-Jewish congregations that embarked on reformist paths after circa 1840 undertook to do so initially without rabbinical authority (reform-minded or traditional), supervision, or even guidance. Their lay leaders were mostly unfamiliar personally with either the theological or historical underpinnings of the Reform movement in Germany or its synagogue aesthetics and procedures (including the musical dimensions) in urban centers such as Berlin or Hamburg, from which few of the immigrants had come. They thus proceeded in that incipient phase without any underlying ideological framework; without developed theological revisions or positions; and in the absence of any of the subsequently articulated repudiations of halakha and its relevance to modern Judaism beyond its historical or symbolic significance. The serious and substantive considerations, however, along with a new form of rabbinical or rabbinical-type leadership, were soon to come. Over the ensuing three decades, divergent routes led to intellectual, ideological, theological, and liturgical as well as pragmatic battlegrounds on which learned advocates of opposing or differing views, conceptions, and visions for American Judaism engaged. The debates concerned, among other issues:

The nature and extent of ritual, ceremonial, and procedural reforms—pertaining to those practices traditionally accepted as having halakhic foundations or requirements and to those that are (or were) generally a matter of custom;

The proper role of Judaism in American society, as well as in the wider modern world;

The legitimate place of tradition in relation to ritual, ceremonial, or liturgical practices considered by some to be antiquarian, or even offensive;

The Divine origin of the Torah and all that the varying beliefs in that regard might imply for Jewish conduct;

Messianism and the possibility of a new guise or interpretation vis-à-vis contemporary Judaism in a free and open environment;

The validity of rabbinic Judaism and the rabbinic continuum;

Whether or not Jews and “Jewishness” (although the latter terminology was a century away from its common usage, and certainly from its vogue) constituted simply and exclusively a “religion,”—i.e., a religious persuasion, community, and practice as an analogous counterpart to any of the Christian denominations—or also a distinct “people,” and, if the latter, whether it had a particular mission;

The appropriate ideal principal language of prayer: Hebrew, English, or German—the ultimate desiderata in the eyes of Rabbi David Einhorn, who formulated and promoted his own substantially, indeed radically, reformed approach to modern Judaism in America, for which he had an enthusiastic following;

The place, if any, in Reform worship and ideology of the Land of Israel, or Zion—either as a historical-geographical objective or as a metaphor for ultimate humanistic aspirations;

Whether or not the practice as well as the ideological underpinnings of Judaism in America ought to be (“must be”) uniform, so as to become the new, indigenous “American Judaism,” in principle ideally embraced by all American Jews. This was the minhag amerika (the American rite or custom) conceived and promoted by Isaac Mayer Wise—until the reality of American Jewry’s prized and inevitable religious pluralism dictated retreat, compromise, and acknowledgment of a distinct nonexclusive Reform denomination.

Although his rank-and-file support was not unanimous, Isaac Mayer Wise’s principal and eventually decisive following derived from the grass roots of the concerned laity and from those of its lay leadership who were susceptible to his powers of persuasion, pragmatic flexibility, appeals for unity and then at least union, and personal magnetism. He did not have equal support or respect from colleagues or perceived colleagues among the reform-minded rabbinical intelligentsia with more solid credentials and higher Judaic learning, with whom he nonetheless never shied away from engaging. Yet he eventually emerged from the sometimes overheated polemics and even sharp denunciations (that did not vanish with the formal establishment of the Reform movement) to become accepted and acknowledged as the founding leader of American “Reform Judaism”—so named in place of his previous aspiration to an exclusive, uniform, and monolithic “American Judaism” (minhag amerika)—as well as the founder of its central lay agency in 1873, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), which in turn spawned its rabbinical seminary, Hebrew Union College (HUC), in 1875.

To permit those achievements, the strains and tensions that had been played out on the polemic field (without ever becoming fully resolved within that time frame) before, during, and especially after the War Between the States—when Reform-aligned congregations multiplied and burgeoned—intermeshed, converged, and yielded sufficiently to compromise so as to become a single, consolidated movement. Despite Wise’s necessary and politically astute retreat from his earlier vision of a single American Jewish religion rather than one denomination among others, the use of the word “union” in both the movement’s lay arm and its rabbinical seminary was anything but coincidental. Similarly significant was the presumption of Reform’s primacy and its American “centrality” in the name chosen for its rabbinical structure, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1889)—which omitted any reference to “Reform.” The years following the founding of the movement saw the formulation and announcement of ritually associated and ideological stands (including the combustible issue of Zionism) presented as platforms and confirmed or adjusted at national conventions and congresses. The leadership could speak from individual perspectives and viewpoints, but ultimately with a basically unified voice insofar as the lay constituency was concerned or affected.

Along the road to the Reform movement’s establishment as an unsplintered coalition that amounted to a branch of American Jewish religious practice and affiliation (the continuation of healthy internal debates and deliberations notwithstanding), there were elements that articulated divergent ideological conceptions of Reform—corresponding in prevalence at certain times to geographical regions. And each proposed path had its active rabbinical or quasi-rabbinical champion who gave voice to his positions through writings, sermons, lectures, forums, and other public appearances—and perhaps most significantly, most concretely, and most practically through his own new prayerbook.

American Reform Prayerbooks: Foundations for New Musical Expression

Antecedents of the Union Prayerbook

Rabbi David Einhorn’s prayerbook, on which he had begun work in Europe influenced only partly by Reform liturgical models in the Hamburg and Berlin communities, was published in 1858 under the title Olath Tamid: Gebetbuch für israelitische Reform-Gemeinden (Prayerbook for Israelite [Jewish] Reform Congregations). In 1856 he had issued the preliminary part of his new liturgy, for the Sabbath and Three Festivals, under the title Gebetbuch für israelitische Reform-Gemeinden. Published by Congregation Har-Sinai in Baltimore, whose pulpit he occupied, it was also available through a firm in New York, but it did not reveal on its face Einhorn’s name as editor or author. For the 1858 publication, which now addressed the complete liturgical calendar, the Hebrew title Olat Tamid was added, but only in Hebrew characters. 

Olath Tamid promoted an essential bilingual prayer rite—with roughly half of its contents in Hebrew—even though Einhorn himself maintained in theory that German, as the highest expression of modern Jewish culture and intellect, was the ideal language to predominate in Jewish worship (and certainly for sermons). Indeed, German was prominent in Olat Tamid, including for the new vernacular readings and recitations by rabbis or ministers designed to replace (and often based on) some of the traditional congregational recitations or cantorially intoned liturgy in Hebrew. He altered and adjusted some traditional Hebrew prayer texts, and he fashioned German translations of Hebrew texts that were sometimes more liberal, poetic versions than literal translations. He also created original prayers in either Hebrew or German—but not as alternatives for the same text. The language as well as the sequence of the liturgy was fixed, without options for German or Hebrew delivery of any particular prayer.

Einhorn also eliminated musaf as a distinct “additional” service, except on Yom Kippur, on the grounds that it constituted unnecessary and therefore undesirable repetition. Repetition in general was one of the significant bones of contention in the deliberations concerning liturgical reform, and its elimination as a perceived vestige of antiquated custom and a meaningless annoyance became a desiderata if not a mandate of Classical Reform.

In 1872, in order to accommodate worshippers whose primary language of comfort had become English, Einhorn issued a version of his prayerbook in English and Hebrew: Olath Tamid: Book of Prayers for Israelitisch Congregations.

Isaac Mayer Wise, who by all accounts was “self-ordained” (a title eventually confirmed by tacit acclamation) and without either a classical education or the academic degree he attached to his name, titled his prayerbook after his subsequently and ultimately abandoned hope for a single uniform American Judaism: Minhag Amerika (1857). Titled T’fillat b’nei y’shurun, minhag amerika in its initial publication and bound with Part I of The Daily Prayers, which had been edited (“revised”) and compiled by the Committee of the Cleveland Conference and translated by Wise, it was reissued in several subsequent editions—including some in Hebrew only. It acquired the full, single title Minhag Amerika: The Daily Prayers for American Israelites only in its 1872 edition (subtitled As Revised in Conference), which included an appendix:

“Select Prayers for Various Occasions in Life.” Also published that year was a Hebrew-only edition and a separate “school edition.”

In Minhag Amerika, Wise leaned toward basic retention of the traditional sedert’filla (order of the liturgy), with much Hebrew and with acknowledgment of the needs of many worshippers for connections to tradition without being bound by it. At the same time, Minhag Amerika incorporated various text revisions and adaptations that reflected his own new Reform principles and their application to an anticipated, all-embracive American rite that could, so he thought or hoped, be acceptable to all American Jewry. Certain texts that were considered anachronistic or inappropriate for both modern and American Jewish practice were excised altogether, and in some cases traditional prayers or piyyutim were replaced by Psalms or Psalm excerpts or references. Kol nidrei was abandoned here as well as in the other principal American reformist prayerbooks of the period and replaced in Yom Kippur eve services either by Leopold Stein’s Yom Kippur–associated but otherwise topically unrelated poem O, Tag des Herrn (either in its original German or in an English translation, “O, Day of God”) or other substitutions, all of them without reference to absolution of vows. (In Germany, Psalm 130, Mima’amakim, also became a popular substitute text for Kol nidrei, sung either in the original Hebrew or in a German translation—Aus den Tiefen ruf’ ich Dich—to settings or arrangements of the authentic traditional Ashkenazi Kol nidrei melody; but that custom seems not to have taken hold in America.)

There were other newly devised prayerbooks for reform-oriented worship that were adopted by particular congregations during the period prior to the Union Prayerbook’s consolidation of Reform liturgy and its long reign. Among them was Rabbi Leo Merzbacher’s Seder t’filla: The Order of Prayer for Divine Service (1855), which identified his role as reviser rather than as author or editor (“revised by Dr. L. Merzbacher, Rabbi at the Temple ‘Emanu-El’ ”). It was a fairly drastic abridgment and simplification of the traditional liturgical order and content. (Like Einhorn’s prayerbook, it retained a musaf service only for Yom Kippur, and it eliminated or streamlined various other standard components.) Especially for the traditional statutory—or obligatory—liturgy, it preserved a significant amount of Hebrew, which was nonetheless often paraphrased or rephrased. Its vernacular was English, on which it relied a good deal for nonstatutory or supplementary prayers and hymns (although Rabbi Merzbacher’s sermons were always delivered in German). It left unexpurgated some (though not all) messianic references; and it avoided the notion of the people Israel’s special place or role in relation to other nations or peoples.

 Seder t’filla’s third edition in 1864 noted that it was also “corrected” by Rabbi Adler. Some copies of that third edition contained hymns in German (in some cases hymns employed at Temple Emanu-El and compiled by James K. Gutheim and others); some contained only English hymns; and some contained both.

“Merzbacher-Adler,” as Seder t’filla came to be known, was eventually largely overshadowed by Wise’s Minhag Amerika, which came to predominate by about 1870, especially in the Midwest, the Great Lakes region, and the South, although it was used by many Reform synagogues elsewhere in the country. (By 1874 Wise reported that it had been adopted by one hundred congregations, which would have made it the most extensively used American prayerbook of that decade.) Seder t’filla was also dwarfed by Einhorn’s Olat Tamid, which, even in the partial shade of Wise’s more popular liturgy, continued to enjoy acceptance, particularly in eastern and northeastern states but also in Chicago at Sinai Temple. Still, use of Merzbacher’s prayerbook persisted throughout most of the century at Temple Emanu-El and at a number of other synagogues—including Chicago’s first congregation, Kehillat Anshe Maariv (KAM).


Rabbi Benjamin Szold’s prayerbook in German and Hebrew, Avodat yisra’el: israelitisches Gebetbuch für den offentlichen Gottesdienst im ganzen Jahre, was published in 1864 and was relatively conservative in its approach to reforming the liturgy—certainly by comparison with the work of Einhorn, Wise, or Merzbacher. A year later Szold issued a second edition—this time in English and Hebrew, with his own translations (Avodat yisra’el: The Order of Prayer for the Israelitish Divine Service on Every Day of the Year); and the third edition (1871) was further revised by Marcus Jastrow, the rabbi at Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia, who made some retranslations, and H. Hochheimer, the rabbi at Oheb Israel in Baltimore. Known henceforth as “Jastrow-Szold” or “Szold-Jastrow,” it was embraced (before and after the third edition) by reform-bound congregations of a cautious bent that were less ready than others for more thoroughgoing revisions. Even as late as 1953 it was still used in some synagogues, though no longer at Oheb Israel in Baltimore, over which Rabbi Szold had presided—and which had long before replaced it with the Union Prayerbook.

There was also Rabbi Adolphe Hübsch’s [Huebsch] Seder t’fillah, which he devised primarily for his own Congregation Ahavath [Ahawath] Chesed Shaar Hashomayim in New York. Now known as Central Synaogue, Ahavath Chesed was for some time on the comparatively conservative flank of the Reform movement. The various editions of Hübsch’s prayerbook, in German and Hebrew, were issued between 1869 and 1887 (the last for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur only); and in 1889 an English and Hebrew edition was published (still by Ahavath Chesed itself), with translations by Alexander Kohut. As late as 1916 it was revised by Rabbi Isaac S. Moses for yet a new edition, this time without the Hebrew title, simply as DivineService for the Congregation Ahawath Chesed Shaar Hashomayim. Outside Ahavath Chesed, Seder t’filla found use in some synagogues in eastern and southeastern regions and as far south as New Orleans. Its revision and republication by Ahavath Chesed in 1916 indicates, of course, that by the World War I era, that congregation had not yet adoped the Union Prayerbook—or at least not exclusively.

To varying degrees and on differing levels, these prayerbooks all reflected some primal influence of both the original (1819) and the 1841 versions of the highly provocative Hamburg Gebetbuch (Hamburg [Reform] Prayerbook). Preceded by the more tentative and less far-reaching Berlin Reform prayerbook, it is considered the first truly extensive and encompassing revision that can be identified as a “Reform liturgy.” In a number of ways it radically albeit inconsistently altered the language, order, prayer formulas, and ceremonies of services—especially with its numerous deletions as well as replacements and innovations concerning (but not limited to) the essential theme of ultimate messianic redemption in the form of eventual return to Zion; and it eliminated the Haftorah readings altogether. (In the absence of any viable alternative, Har Sinai in Baltimore adopted the Hamburg Gebetbuch for a while upon or shortly after its inauguration in 1842, until Rabbi Einhorn, having been elected to its pulpit, introduced his own prayerbook.) But none of the American products slavishly relied on it.

On the contrary, whatever role that historic German prayerbook might have played as an initial model or stimulus, the various individually conceived, reform-minded liturgical approaches developed in 19th-century America were infused with their editors’ or authors’ own evolved or rethought theological leanings and formulations, historical perspectives, interpretations of modernity, practical considerations for American Jewish acceptance and appropriateness, and general as well as Judaic worldviews. All were attempts to adjust aspects of inherited tradition to the fundmentally novel and unprecedented circumstances of permanent participation in American life—as a religion potentially no less American than its principal mainstream Christian counterparts—and all of them aspired to represent manifestly albeit divergent American visions for the future of Judaism in the entirely new cultural and social setting. In the end, of course, none of them prevailed.

Eventually they became obsolete after the Central Conference of American Rabbis—the rabbinical arm of the young Reform movement—published the Union Prayerbook in 1894 (Part II: High Holy Days) and 1895 (Part I: Sabbaths, Festivals, and other occasions). That landmark accomplishment, which served as the de facto official prayerbook for American Reform worship for more than seven decades, followed the preliminary (1892) version of the same title (for Sabbaths, Festivals, and weekdays), which was created for the Central Conference in Chicago by Rabbi Isaac Moses. When it met with sharp criticism and opposition by Einhorn loyalists, it was expeditiously revamped by the Central Conference—this time by committee and without credit to any one editor or author—and replaced by the 1894/95 versions that are now considered the first editions. (They do not carry any indication of the earlier one.) As such, those two volumes were the first American Jewish prayerbooks to be composed collectively and, in effect, anonymously, although it is known that advocates of differing viewpoints and convictions were invited to participate in the deliberations in order to produce a liturgy that would find common acceptance among the contending camps.

The Union Prayerbook and Its Evolution

The debut of the Union Prayerbook offered a substantially truncated and reordered as well as streamlined and simplified liturgy. Nonetheless—in its English paraphrases, liberal as well as (less frequently) actual albeit modern translations, thematic or historical references, and reconsidered Hebrew pronouncements or quotations—it drew heavily on traditional prayer texts and supplementary Psalm excerpts. In fact, even though, in addition to liturgical revisions, its first editions also played down traditional ceremonies and rituals and eliminated some altogether, a handful of Classical Reform congregations—including some prominent ones—still rejected it initially on the grounds that it was “too traditional” for them or in some cases simply because they were too accustomed to the language and formats of the prayerbooks they had been using.

Among the latter was Chicago Sinai Congregation (Sinai Temple), which had been founded in 1861. Its rabbi, Emil G. Hirsch (1851–1923), who occupied that pulpit from 1880 until the year of his death, was one of his generation’s two principal intellectual and theological architects of Reform. He was also married to one of Rabbi Einhorn’s daughters (as was his brother-in-law, Rabbi Kaufman Kohler, his sometimes adversarial, less radical but for the most part synergetic and collegial coauthor of contemporaneous Reform ideology, and president of the Hebrew Union College). In 1896, a year after the CCAR issued the Union Prayerbook, Hirsch published his own new retranslation of Einhorn’s prayerbook under the title Dr. David Einhorn’s Olat tamid: Book of Prayers for Jewish Congregations—New Translation After the German Original. Intended for Sinai and for other synagogues that had been using Olat tamid or Olath tamid (viz., either the original German-Hebrew or Einhorn’s own English-Hebrew edition) and wished to make use of that new translation, it was only minimally reedited, emended, and supplemented. In his preface, Hirsch cited the undiminished attachment to its liturgy by some worshippers:

We know that there will always be a few congregations that will continue to love their Einhorn; for many decades they have by this book been led to the fount of true edification. They know no reason why they should now exchange their old and well-tried friend for a new-comer that, at its best, can only give what the old possesses so abundantly.

At the same time, Hirsch was careful to emphasize that this new Einhorn edition need not preclude use of the Union Prayerbook—although he did not refer to the latter by name—but that its value could stand on its own: “regardless of the question of its further retention in the synagogues of our American congregations, [Olat tamid / Olath tamid] deserves to be made available to American Israel, and to be preserved in a form worthy of the German original.” For Hirsch, Olat tamid represented “an epitome of the aspirations and beliefs of modern Judaism, which, while conscious of the glories of its past, is at the same time keenly alive to its duty to the larger future of a united mankind.” In managing to be “both Jewish and cosmopolitan,” Olat tamid had “escaped the danger of lapsing into counterfeit Unitarianism and artificial emotionalism,” which, he seems to have been implying, colored the Union Prayerbook. Also, Hirsch’s “enlargement of the formula” of the weekday service in Einhorn’s original German edition was geared to those Reform congregations that, out of purely practical rather than theological considerations, held a weekly Sunday morning service as a substitute for a Saturday morning Sabbath service, in addition to a regular Friday evening service, without claiming Sunday as their Sabbath. This is Sinai’s practice to this day. Most Reform congregations (including Sinai), however, eventually surrendered to the Union Prayerbook, although it took some longer than others.

English predominated in the Union Prayerbook, but with respectable (for its time) amounts of Hebrew, whose proportion was increased in subsequent editions—though neither Hebrew comprehension nor facility in recitation beyond a few words was expected or required of worshippers in vocal congregational responses or in the new genre of interactive, orderly “responsive readings.” (The few Hebrew hymns and responses in companion hymnals, in which the congregation was invited to join, were printed in transliteration.)

In the ensuing years, the CCAR was always wisely attuned to evolving congregational needs and preferences, sociological and demographic changes that affected cultural tastes and affinities, and the widening diversity in the members’ Judaic backgrounds and their exposure through family orientations. Even after the First World War, but especially during and after the Second World War, Reform congregations came to include increasing numbers of Jews who previously had not been theologically or otherwise committed to Reform per se. Some of those newcomers could be linked through their preceding generations more to eastern European (the Östjuden, in German parlance) than to German or culturally German Jewry—or perhaps equally to both orientations in the inevitably increasing instances of heterogeneous eastern-western European parental forebears. Quite apart from or in addition to the synagogue-centered issues that had fueled the attraction to Reform for the German immigrants and their immediately succeeding generations, the preference for Reform congregational affiliation could now derive from a variety of other considerations—ranging from Judaically principled as well as social reasons to practical concerns that might include sheer geographical convenience, school schedules, particular rabbinical personalities (especially the nature of sermons), fewer religious or ritual demands on their time and lifestyles, length of services, and even comfort levels for non-Jewish spouses. But these new candidates for Reform membership still required more aesthetic and ceremonial echoes of the traditional synagogue experience than Classical Reform had provided and to which they had been accustomed.

These considerations were thus reflected in subsequent editions of the Union Prayerbook, each of which contained acknowledgment of continuously evolving Reform theological and ideological concepts while also restoring some modified forms of certain ritual observances—or at least their symbolic echoes. The 1922 (second) edition, for example, already contained some of these adjustments in terms of ceremonial memories. In the 1940 edition there was a greater emphasis on Hebrew, partly in response to some of that new generation’s Reform rabbinical focus on historical and linguistic continuity—influenced by solid academic studies at Hebrew Union College. It was also in line with residues of earlier habits and conventions of newcomers to Reform worship, for whom the very sounds, alliterations, and nuances of the Hebrew language could provide sufficient emotional comfort levels with maintenance of tradition, even if they could not understand the words.

Still, in this prayerbook (and in the services of all but a few progressive Reform synagogues until the 1950s), Hebrew was most always specifically reserved for ceremonious and mellifluous readings by the rabbi (or “minister” or other “reader”) or for singing by a presupposed choir. Nothing was designated expressly by superscription or other printed instruction for “cantor” or any other formally identified individual clerical officiant.

Until the waning years of Classical Reform’s predominance and even for quite a while thereafter, the cantor’s role in those congregations that retained the position (principally in the East and Northeast, with San Francisco and a few midwestern communities notable exceptions) was essentially that of primary soloist with organ accompaniment, augmented and elaborated by the choir, rather than the traditional role of sh’lia tzibbur (messenger of the congregation). His function was thus more purely aesthetic than liturgical, as reflected in the format of the Union Prayerbook. In the majority of Reform congregations, in which specific cantorial positions were abandoned altogether (and in some cases even prohibited by constitutions or bylaws, as remains the case in some Reform synagogues in England), all solo roles were left to individual choral soloists who sang along with the full choirs—as did many official cantors—from concealed or semi-concealed lofts. That setting, in which choirs and soloists or even cantors were invisible to the worshippers, was somehow commonly considered more dignified, more elevating, more spiritual, more appropriately solemn, less distracting, and more in keeping with perceived notions of the sanctity of divine service than vocal delivery from the pulpit in full view.

The Union Prayerbook has been subjected to differing analyses and interpretations from historical as well as liturgical perspectives. Issues and questions that can spark scholarly debate and even revisionist scenarios remain: whether or to what degree this prayerbook represented an overall theological or liturgical victory (or both) for Einhorn’s or for Wise’s positions and convictions; to what extent it amounted to a compromise that included elements of each; whether in the end it tilted—even if subliminally—more toward a particularistic or toward a universal conception of Judaism; and to what degree it portrayed Judaism as a unique, distinct religion or faith on its own terms, not linked to any acceptance of Jewish peoplehood, but exclusively and vaguely as a “religious community” with a purported mission to humanity. There are, of course, clues in the prayerbook’s verbiage and imagery, but resolutions of these issues are not always as obvious as they might seem. Cases have been put forth in support of opposing interpretations.

Conventional perceptions as well as most current analyses ascribe victory on balance to the Einhorn camp. The Union Prayerbook, especially in its debut edition, contained much less Hebrew than Wise would have preferred—which, for him, would have been a unifying device and a matter of continuity that could in turn overcome boundaries among American Jewry. In that as well as other, ideological respects, however, the Union Prayerbook now clearly represented a Reform denomination with a distinct institutional identity—and not the single, unified liturgical voice of an imagined monolithic, exclusive American Judaism, a notion that Wise had by then had to relinquish.

Wise accepted that fait accompli not so much out of altered convictions as probably and realistically from the recognition that by 1894 the continuing immigration of eastern European Jews had already changed the character of American Jewry and had rendered—and would continue to render—Reform as one denomination among others. A specifically Reform liturgy was now not only legitimate but also necessary, and Wise endorsed the Union Prayerbook wholeheartedly. In that sense, one might view the Einhorn camp’s victory as having been won partly by default rather than on purely intellectual grounds. On the other hand, unlike Einhorn’s original conception, the Union Prayerbook offered alternatives both in terms of Hebrew versus English delivery of certain prayers and in multiple services from which to choose. In that respect it reflected Wise’s influence.

What is undeniable is the Union Prayerbook’s role in facilitating the desired moods of propriety, elevation, dignity, and decorum at services, and the reflection in those services of Judaism and Jewish worship as inherently modern in its tenets as well as its ambience, and—perhaps of even greater concern to Reform leadership—manifestly American. Moreover, apart from its theological and liturgical content, its refined approach to the English language—punctuated in practice by euphonious Hebrew delivery—readily reinforced the pursuit of those objectives. Whatever one’s personal Jewish perspectives, what has distinguished the English usage in the Union Prayerbook consistently throughout its reign is its stylistic elegance, literary polish, and eloquent phrasing, all of which remain unsurpassed—and, in some objective views even in traditional circles, unequaled—by any subsequent Jewish prayerbook of any denominational stripe.

The Music of Classical Reform

Almost immediately following its initial publication, the Union Prayerbook began serving as an inspiration to composers for the Reform format. Probably the first attempt to accommodate and to promote the new prayerbook was the hasty preparation and adoption by the CCAR ca. 1895–96 of The Temple Service: Containing All the Music Required for the Union Prayer-Book for Jewish Worship. Published [compiled and edited?] in Cincinnati by Morris Goldstein—presumably Moritz Goldstein, a cantor in Cincinnati who had been one of the co-compilers and coeditors of Zimrath Yah in the 1870s (see the biographical sketch of Alois Kaiser)—that three-volume collection provided settings and hymns for cantors (especially inasmuch as Goldstein functioned in that capacity), mixed choir, and organ.

It was, of course, naïve for the CCAR to presume even temporarily that any single collection—especially one so quickly assembled—could provide “all the music required” for services that would use the new Union Prayerbook. But apparently, and perhaps understandably, the rabbis felt the need for some musical adjunct to the new prayerbook, even if it was an interim measure, to encourage its expeditious use. Indeed, in the ensuing years they encouraged a greater variety of new music, even while promoting (ultimately without complete success) uniformity specifically for congregational hymns. Increasingly, talented composers created individual settings and entire unified services that conformed intentionally to the verbal revisions, prescriptions, and liturgical order of the Union Prayerbook. Later, during much of the 20th century, complete artistic services by some of the most prominent American (and in a few cases, Israeli) composers in the classical as well as sacred music worlds frequently indicated on title pages that their works were composed specifically “according to the Union Prayerbook.”

There was no attempt on the part of national leadership during the period of Classical Reform (nor in succeeding phases) to impose a single, uniform, or “authorized” musical repertoire on all Reform congregations (particularly with regard to liturgical settings as opposed to hymns). Yet apart from some of Edward Stark’s modest, stylized references to traditional prayer modes and Max Graumann’s subtle cantorial inflections (which never attained the degree of popularity on the national level that became attached to the music of such composers as Schlesinger, Sparger, or Kaiser), the music of Classical Reform betrays a transparent similitude in the tone and spirit of its Hebrew, English, and German settings alike.

The laity, including even those who acquired serious secular education and cultural refinement, was clearly neither versed in nor familiar with contemporaneous currents and advancements in the synagogue music of German-speaking Jewry in Europe. Beginning in the late 1820s with Salomon Sulzer in Vienna (in an orthodox but modernized and progressive setting) and continuing from mid-century on with the oeuvre and wide acceptance of Louis Lewandowski and his disciples and perpetuators in Liberale “organ synagogues” as well as Reform and modern orthodox synagogues in nearly all German communities, those developments were focused on preserving and rejuvenating the cantorial traditions and melodic, motivic, and modal attributes of minhag Ashkenaz by clothing them in modern, Western harmonic treatments and other stylizations.

Much of that artistically worthy as well as authentic European repertoire could easily and appropriately have been adapted to the new American Reform formats—in synagogues with capable choirs—even though Sulzer’s music for worship, like that of his quasi-counterpart in Paris, Samuel Naumbourg, was written without organ parts; these could have been added or improvised. In fact, a few such pieces by Sulzer and Naumbourg were reworked with new organ parts in the 1870s in the multivolume anthology Zimrath Yah. Later, in 1904, on the hundredth anniversary of Sulzer’s birth, the Society of American Cantors issued an “American version” of his two-volume Schir Zion in only thirty-two pages, comprising selections rearranged for American use with added organ parts. This was probably the first easy availability of Sulzer’s music in America, although his volumes could be purchased from Vienna. But it was too late for that music to make any appreciable inroads. The repertoires of Classical Reform were by then firmly established.

Perhaps in large measure owing to that obliviousness to potential European models, American Reform congregations of the era were content to rely for the creation of new repertoires mostly on Christian organists and choirmasters, along with a few Jews such as Schlesinger, and on an even smaller number of cantor-composers—none of whom possessed more than minimal and at best superficial creative gifts. 

Old World Versus New: The Musical Desiderata

In fact, individual congregations, their leaders, and, for that matter, the movement as a whole did not really know what they might want ideally for their synagogue music—only that it should be American and American-Jewish. Nor could they define in concrete musical terms what would constitute appropriate aesthetic dimensions of prayers for them. But they had no trouble in proclaiming, articulating, cautioning against, and even forbidding what they most certainly did not want: anything too directly linked to traditional European Jewish experience as they perceived or imagined it; anything that was ethnically tinged, especially with eastern European flavors; anything that sounded too foreign to Western ears attuned to Western sensibilities; anything lacking in Western notions of sanctity, religious dignity, or optimistic solemnity; anything that might seem dolorous or mournful (especially by virtue of excessive focus on minor or minor-related modes); anything that masked universal perspectives and sensibilities; anything that might, by its tone, contradict the desired mood of exaltation; and, most especially, anything that might be heard or interpreted as imploring God with unrestrained emotion for relief from suffering (which some considered a now unwarranted obsession in the new American environment, best left to Europe) or for the traditionally accepted but now viewed as antiquated route to redemption.

An 1859 resolution by the trustees of Kehillat Anshe Maariv (KAM) in Chicago was typical of such admonitions against traditional or virtuoso emotional cantorial fervor: “From public worship there shall be removed wailing over oppression and persecution…. Bombastic words, exaggerations, and bad taste shall have no place in public worship.” The “messianic kingdom” was still to be pursued, not as the Jewish people’s end of exile and return to Zion as typically expressed by Old World emotional cantorial supplication, but as a platitudinous and universally sought “kingdom of truth, of virtue, and of peace.”

It is tempting to draw analogies between such sentiments—with their potentially far-reaching implications for musical content and the manner of its rendition—and the principles concerning service modernization expressed by Rabbi David Philipson (1862–1949), a Reform rabbi in Cincinnati who was present at the conference that gave birth to the Pittsburgh Platform, who declared:

Whatever makes us ridiculous before the world as it now is, may be and should be abolished, and whatever tends to elevate the divine service to inspire the heart of the worshipper and to attract him, should be done without unnecessary delay.

The difficulty here lies in determining what might appear “ridiculous,” why, and to whom. What may serve as inspiration and even elevation for one worshipper—for reasons of family background, Jewish cultural orientation, or personal taste—might be precisely what Philipson feared could appear ridiculous to the outside world. The more so if by “ridiculous” he meant non-Western, or what might be characterized in the context of the time as exotic. Experience has shown that it is not always possible in advance to gauge reactions to genuine traditions of “the other,” or to predict what musical elements, customs, and rituals might come across to the uninitiated as farcical, unbecoming, and worthy of derision, as opposed to intriguing. At the same time, of course, we must acknowledge that 19th-century middle- and upper-middle-class American society was probably far less open than it would be in the late 20th century to new experiences of unfamiliar ethnic sounds—perhaps even less so with sounds associated with immigrant cultures.

Still, even if—from the vantage point of Reform architects and the sensibilities of their constituencies—there were legitimate external sociological as well as internal Judaic rationales for their campaign to mute conspicuous aspects of Jewish singularity and to de-emphasize visible or audible European roots, that reasoning was less valid when applied to Jewish musical distinctiveness. Christian liturgical music in America was, after all, hardly uniform—even if this observation is restricted to the churches attended primarily by middle and upper-middle classes, along with those of “high society.” Musical differences abounded among American Protestant denominations then as they do now—especially, for example, between the Presbyterian or Lutheran services and the Episcopal Mass (if, for the purpose of this discussion, we accept the official English or Anglican designation of the Episcopal Church as Protestant, which in some views is more political and historical than theological). The musical features of Roman Catholic worship that distinguished the aesthetics of its services from Protestant ones in that same time frame are even sharper. Yet for all the storied Protestant animosity toward the Roman Catholic Church in America, those attitudes derived from social and economic—and resulting political—as well as doctrinal factors rather than directly from the Roman Catholic Church’s purely musical dimensions and its perpetuation of Old World continuity in terms of adherence to established chant traditions and modal formulas.

Thus it would seem that superimposed or promulgated anxieties about negative outside impressions of synagogue music were more a form of projection, to invoke the vocabulary of modern psychology, than a more candid acknowledgment of the actual tastes, preferences, and predilections or aversions of contemporaneous Reform congregants themselves—for whom even the more subdued Western or German variants and varieties of traditional cantorial expression had little if any resonance. Apart from their attachment to a number of favorite echoes from the concert hall and opera house, however, that attitude probably pertained more to aesthetic character than to artistic merit or melodic origin. It is unlikely that Classical Reform congregations would have rejected a higher quality of music—had it been presented to them. Nor, for that matter, might they have been averse to appropriate melodies, motivic references, established leitmotifs, and even restrained cantorial flavors grounded in Ashkenazi custom (especially its Western orbit), as long as these still perceptible properties were sufficiently stylized and arranged in Western musical contexts. When Alois Kaiser used age-old missinai tunes and other melodies of minhag Ashkenaz for some of the English hymns included in the movement’s first official hymnal, no one objected—although few probably recognized their source.

Perceptions of Modernity

Classical Reform wanted its music to be both modern and American—not because its congregations wanted their services aesthetically to resemble those of mainstream Protestant churches in the same communities, nor because they sought respectability and acceptance in the eyes and ears of imagined or prospective Christian visitors or guests. It is high time to retire this unsupportable myth, which has been bandied about in ignorance for nearly a century.

Equally misinformed but ubiquitous is the baseless assumption that the organ was introduced into Reform synagogues (in Germany as well as America) specifically to imitate Christian church ambience. It was not. The organ was seen at the earliest stages of Reform simply as a practical mechanism for mediating inhibitions and facilitating orderly congregational hymn singing, which, in its Western style, was new to synagogue services. The organ was also viewed as a means of promoting decorum by stifling inappropriate congregational conversations and by providing uniformity and meter to the more traditional individual pace of collective vocal response.

Later, cantors in Reform synagogues, as well as those in some American Conservative ones, espoused organ accompaniment for purely musical reasons. So did a few of the most progressive, Westernized but still traditional and nominally orthodox (or not “non-orthodox”) khor shuls in eastern Europe that were not concerned with the halakhic ramifications—or that subscribed to the organ’s use on freshly interpreted halakhic grounds. Congregants, too, have often been attracted to the organ on its own sonic merits. Its traditionalist opponents, however, have not always confined their prohibition to valid halakhic arguments related to the playing of musical instruments on Sabbaths and other holy days, or to legitimate personal aesthetic preferences; in addition, lacking adequate knowledge of the history of music in the West and the evolution of the organ’s place in it, some opponents have incorrectly and absurdly perceived the organ as an inherently “Christian instrument.”

It has been suggested that avoidance of the “ridiculous” to which Philipson and others alluded was tied to a notion, harbored by some, that anything too “foreign” or too different about synagogue rituals, ceremonies, or aesthetics—including, of course, the music—had the potential to induce outside disdain and thus excavate or contribute to antisemitism. Any such supposition as a rationale for conformity was misplaced and without merit. It is an old though apt adage that an antisemite needs no cause, no reason, no instigation to dislike Jews or Judaism.

Classical Reform wanted its music to be American not out of fear, not out of intimidation, not out of servility, and not out of compliance. Its congregations wanted their music to be American because, for them, modernized, updated Judaism was itself both American and an American religion. 

Adoption and Adaptation: European Becomes American

Until well after the First World War (and even then, in only a few isolated instances for decades to come) the desire for an American synagogue music did not translate into any pursuit of serious American composers in the general concert world. Throughout the 19th century and substantially past its turn, with the possible exception of some of the works of Charles Ives, the music of those composers—as well as much of their training—remained principally in the mold of the German and Central European classical tradition. Yet that tendency was not in itself cause for avoidance, but rather the fact that American classical music had not yet become part of the so-called standard repertory prized by American German-Jewish concert and opera audiences and their social peers. (Apart from Ives, whose consideration in this regard presents some complicated and unresolved issues, Aaron Copland is generally credited with being the first successful composer whose virtual mission was to write fundamentally American concert music and ballet scores.) Nor, of course, was there any thought given to the exploration of indigenous American folk musics or, later, any of the manifestly American popular art genres such as jazz or blues. (It was indeed the postclassical phases of the Reform movement that first encouraged experimentation with jazz for the Hebrew liturgy, but not until the 1960s.)

To the contrary, and somewhat ironically, Classical Reform’s conception of “American” in terms of its music was twofold: the highbrow European concert and operatic fare that was appreciated by—and popular among—upper-middle-class American audiences of the time; and hymn-type and other liturgical expressions that exuded the overall character of respectable, mainstream American sacred music. Both those repertoires and genres were highly attractive because, especially in the case of certain classical music chestnuts, they were familiar; because they symbolized edification as well as status; and because they were interpreted intuitively as signs of social and cultural arrival.

Hence the wholesale adoption of a range of materials from non-Jewish sources. These supplemented—and in many congregations superseded in prominence and general use—much of the liturgical corpus written expressly for American Reform worship. Those non-Jewish appropriations included:

  • Numerous Christian hymn melodies—sometimes by celebrated Christian classical composers such as Bach and Mendelssohn, sometimes adapted from secular works by Beethoven, Schumann, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Anton Rubinstein, Rossini, Paisiello, and others of that level of popular recognition, and, even more frequently, by established parochial church composers—all of whose texts were modified or replaced (only occasionally with words by Jewish poets such as Penina Moise and Emma Lazarus) when transparently Christian references interfered;

  • Original, religiously neutral (or so deemed) hymn texts and typical Anglican, Presbyterian, or Puritan rhymed English Psalm paraphrases—including those by non-Jewish poets of such fame as John Milton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Kipling, Goethe, and Sir Walter Scott;

  • Outright expropriations of favorite classical instrument pieces, operatic and oratorio arias, and even concertworthy Mass excerpts—with replacement texts from, or drawn from, Hebrew liturgy.

Voices from the Pews

The Union Hymnal: Toward a Uniform Repertoire: In 1897 the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) issued the Union Hymnal. Compiled and edited by Cantor Alois Kaiser, it was a collection of four-part metrical choral hymns on Western models, with English texts, which was intended as a pool from which choirmasters, music directors, or, in their absence, rabbis could draw, which would ideally become familiar to all Reform congregations and worshippers throughout the United States. It was not the first synagogue hymnal to be published for Reform use in America; earlier ones had been compiled and issued by individuals as well as by particular congregations who made them available to all synagogues and choirs that wished to use them. (The Charleston hymnal, however, which predates the others, provided only texts, without music.)

Among those many soon-to-be obsolete hymnals, in addition to the aforementioned one of Temple Emanu-El in New York, were one first issued in 1874 in German and English by Simon Hecht, a cantor/music director at a synagogue in Evansville, Indiana (initially intended for “Sabbath-schools and families” but used for some actual services); one compiled and published by Moritz Goldstein in Cincinnati in the 1880s (including Psalm settings and other sacred music in addition to hymns); and a hymnal prepared by Wise himself prior to the preliminary Union Prayerbook and prior to the 1892 CCAR conference that mandated the creation of the Union Hymnal, when the rabbis proposed to unify widely varying local customs by providing a set of hymns that could become common to all Reform congregations.

The discussions on music at that 1892 CCAR conference centered around the perceived need for a common set of “artistic” hymns. None of the available hymnals was considered acceptable for the long run, and certainly not as a single, authoritative one. Also, the rabbis voiced the need for an “official” musical companion to the Union Prayerbook that would promote and ensure its use. Meanwhile, pending the completion of that newly envisioned hymnal, they passed a resolution declaring that Wise’s own hymnal should be adopted temporarily as “the hymnbook of American Jewish Reform congregations,” and a committee was appointed to make revisions and additions “as they may see fit.” At the same time, a second resolution called upon the young Cantors Association of America to furnish “appropriate music.”

In the deliberations, which are revealing about the sensibilities of that time, Rabbi Adolph Guttman (1854–1927), who in 1883 assumed a pulpit in Syracuse, New York, complained that “the Jewish synagogue is indeed sadly in need of Jewish music . . . our music is not the outgrowth of Jewish production. We sing Methodist music and Presbyterian and Catholic.” Rabbi Guttman imagined a time when the singing of hymns would bring “life and new spirit in our congregations.” Sharing his experiences as a guest at various Christian services, he observed enviously that

it is the song in the Christian Church which is the power and is really the secret that gives them this power, and I think we ought to do likewise in the Jewish church [!].

Rabbi Guttman’s lament over the use of Christian hymn sources was, however, to have a minimal effect on the substance of the first two editions of the Union Hymnal. Kaiser turned to authentic liturgical melodies, but unfortunately, in only a few cases; the rabbi’s concerns were more than addressed in the third (1932) edition. Perhaps most curious was Rabbi Guttman’s candid acceptance (or was it merely an observation) that “in Jewish Reform congregations they do not pray, and [so] they ought to sing.”

In his responding remarks, Wise confirmed the “truth” of Guttman’s assessment. Reiterating and reinvoking his mantra—“As we now worship we ought to be as American as possible, namely as American Israelites”—he first addressed the liturgical content of the Union Prayerbook. He opined that all prayers (in German, Hebrew, or English) that had been produced originally by “American minds” (presumably Jewish ones) should ideally have been preserved in that prayerbook, although he acknowledged the impracticality. “Then it would have been a ‘Union Prayer’ book and an American one.” If that was impossible owing to the volume of prayer texts produced in America by then, it was, he believed, not so with regard to hymnology. Elaborating on Guttman’s comment about prayer in contemporaneous Reform synagogues, he pointed out that the Bible contains very little prayer, but contains a very large collection of psalms. Hence we say that it is not the prayer coming from the spirit of Judaism which is the element, but the indestructible element is the psalmody of the people…. It is evident that song is the main thing and therefore I would be in favor… to have all that the Hebrew mind has produced in the way of song united in one volume.

He then proposed that the hymnal should be continually expanded with new texts, perhaps each year, and that—in keeping with the universalist perspectives he constantly promoted—the hymnal would not only be one for “American Israelites” but would “also go into a great many American churches.” He agreed with Guttman—to whom he referred strangely as “Brother Guttman” in the manner of Christian clergy in some denominations—that “original Jewish music and Jewish hymns” should be a priority. Like Guttman, he was voicing hope for something that would not materialize substantially for some time.

Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler also cited Protestant services as positive models for congregational singing in synagogues, recalling that a Presbyterian minister colleague had once ascribed the attendance at his church to the singing. “In the making up of our prayerbooks,” Kohler claimed,

[we have been] too intellectual and too little emotional…. We should touch the soul, make people [do] what they seldom do in our synagogues: cry. And the music, the song, can wrest tears even from those who come without any desire to pray.

We may wonder why, if overt emotion, crying, and actual tears were Kohler’s (and thus should be Reform’s) desiderata, both minor modes and traditional eastern European hazzanut were so consistently, albeit mistakenly, spurned by the Reform rabbinate then and afterward (and no doubt by Kohler) specifically for the perceived sighing and crying to the point of tears in that manner of cantorial delivery. One recalls the admonition against “wailing” in the resolution of KAM in Chicago and, in general, a ubiquitous aversion to such hazzanut because, among other features, of its lack of emotional restraint. In the 1904 Yearbook of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, in a commemorative article on Salomon Sulzer’s 100th birthday, Cantor Alois Kaiser repudiated with disdain the typical Schreien (screaming/shrieking) and the heightened emotional intensity of Nachsagen (repetition) emblematic of much traditional hazzanut—which he credited Sulzer, not quite accurately, with abolishing. Yet taming and superimposing taste and refinement would have been a more appropriate characterization of Sulzer’s role, both as a composer and as a hazzan. What impressed and intrigued non-Jewish dignitaries and musicians who visited his synagogue in Vienna—including Franz Liszt, whose reaction is recorded in writing—was precisely the exotic nature of Sulzer’s singing. For Kohler, on the other hand, tears and weeping might have implied the Western experience of cathartic reaction to beauty—of being “moved to tears,” for example, by great art.

For Maurice H. Harris, a rabbi in New York from 1882 until his death, in 1930, the hymnal project was “perhaps more important for our work than the prayerbook.” He seconded Wise’s and others’ calls for congregational singing, and he stressed the importance of a corpus of hymns that would become familiar to all Reform Jews throughout the United States. He disagreed, however, with those colleagues who insisted that ideally, the hymn texts should be products of Jews, especially if the task fell to the rabbis themselves:

And while we are all ministers and can all write prayers, we can not write hymns [texts]. Hymns are poems, and only poets can write them. If we prepare a hymnbook at all, it must be classical. Rather compile real poems, even if they be not written by Jews, provided the spirit be Jewish, if they be written by the standard poets of England and America.

In reviewing not only the Union Hymnal but several other significant hymnals of the early 20th century as well, it may be said that Harris got his wish. He also took the movement to task for its reliance on the choirs, since worshippers were not joining with them:

And in the preparation of the music [for the hymnal] let us not consider the choir. We have been considering the choir too long. The choir has driven the congregation out as far as the worship of praise is concerned. It is time that the congregation be given a hearing before God.

What Harris proposed was a service “so simple that after it has been sung once or twice, they can all join in it—simple melodies, simple airs.” He urged the assemblage to aim for two things, “simplicity of the music and poetry of the hymns [texts],” noting that he had himself, as a congregational rabbi, on occasion been “compelled even to go to the Christian hymn-books to select there from some of the old hymns.”

Those deliberations concluded with a resolution calling on all member rabbis to send their favorite hymn texts to the recently established Cantors Association of America (CAA), which would be asked to organize a process for either setting them to music or locating suitable existing melodies. The CAA was initially reluctant, fearing that the CCAR as a body might in the end reject text submissions of its individual members who would have acted on their own according to individual preferences. Thus the Cantors Association stalled over the next year, and in 1893 the CCAR voted to issue on its own a collection of whatever music for the Union Prayerbook the rabbis could put together themselves—with or without the official participation of the cantors. If that vote was meant as a strategy to exert pressure and move the cantors to action, it succeeded. Under Cantor Kaiser’s direction, and his editorial as well as compositional pen, an interim edition of the hymnal was produced while work continued on the actual one.

In 1895, when the full draft of the hymnal was supposed to be ready for review and then publication, Kaiser—by then the president of the Cantors Association—complained that there had been insufficient time to accomplish the task and that the Cantors Association had not even been furnished in a timely manner (i.e., by or before 1894) with a complete text draft of the Union Prayerbook that would replace the unsatisfactory and virtually withdrawn 1892 version by Rabbi Moses. Warning that the quality of the hymnal reflected its hasty completion, he in effect denigrated in advance the very volume he had himself edited and over which he had presided (the actual 1897 Union Hymnal), describing it as having “little of permanent value.” His reservations and self-critique, however, seemed—according to the CCAR—to matter little to the member congregations. The perception was that the interim 1895 hymnal was already being received enthusiastically, even before the “complete” one, about which Kaiser was equally unhappy, which would not come off the presses until 1897.

In fact, upon review of the manuscript of the full hymnal in 1885, before it was prepared for actual publication, the CCAR reported favorably that it contained tunes that were “so simple as to enable the congregation to join in the singing.” As for those hymns that might not so easily lend themselves to congregational singing, they could be “used for private edification and devotion.”

When the Union Hymnal was finally issued in 1897, it was the first to bear the insignia of the Reform movement in an official capacity, which naturally implied approval of its contents as well as encouragement of its use. So titled to suggest its function as a companion to the Union Prayer Book that had been published three years earlier, as well as to underscore its connection to the Reform movement, the Union Hymnal was reissued in a second, revised and expanded edition in 1914. The musical as well as poetic contents of the two volumes are similar if not identical in style, character, and quality. Of the hymns recorded by the Milken Archive for inclusion here as samples, all appeared in the original 1897 volume, and some were retained in the 1914 edition.

The extent to which Kaiser was under any mandate or other pressure from the CCAR regarding his specific melodic selections for the initial Union Hymnal is unknown. Apparently he felt comfortable in inserting only a few melodies by, or attributed to, Sulzer and Lewandowski and one by Emanuel Kirschner—a disciple and chorister of Lewandowski’s who became one of the leading German cantors and synagogue composers of the next generation. In addition, covertly or otherwise, Kaiser managed cleverly to seize on a number of long-standing traditional Ashkenazi tunes (see Union Hymnal Selections), misinai tunes as well as others of minhag Ashkenaz—which may or (more likely by then) may not have been recognizable to the average Reform worshipper—and to use them for adaptations to mostly insipid, unrelated English hymn texts. He did the same with the Sulzer and Lewandowski melodies. These provided a minimal and probably subliminal link to tradition, but the rest of the hymns were drawn from Christian church sources and a few German folk tunes. In light of what we know about Kaiser’s own musical standards, as well as his preference for authentic Jewish materials, this effort must have represented a major compromise on his part, with which he could not have been pleased. Perhaps he chose for that reason to be uncredited in print as the editor/compiler, although this remains a matter of conjecture. (It is generally known that Cantor William Sparger was also involved in the process, and his name, too, is missing.)

Success or Silence? The Hymnal’s Use: After the publication of the Union Hymnal, the CCAR at each of its conventions continued to express dissatisfaction with the state of synagogue music. In 1909 the rabbis observed that thus far, the effort to encourage congregational singing had been a failure. Many rabbis expressed unhappiness with the Christian origin of many of the hymns, even though Christological content and references had been removed and replaced in order to render them universal in character and sentiment. They thus resolved to appoint “someone” to scour European sources, including archives and repositories, to “examine all the literature of devotion and poetry in German, English and French that is at all accessible,” with the hope of finding a sufficient amount of authentically Jewish material that could be used in the American Synagogue. That mission seems never to have occurred.

Despite its original assumption of the hymnal’s success, the CCAR had come to the realization by 1911 that its self-congratulation had been premature. It was determined that more than 10,000 copies had been purchased for the purpose of furnishing them to worshippers along with the prayerbooks. Yet most congregations did not appear—based on feedback from many rabbis—to be making adequate use of them. By most accounts, worshippers remained passive, even if they enjoyed hearing the hymns sung by the choir.

For its 1912 conference, the CCAR arranged for an address by Rabbi Israel Aaron of Buffalo, New York, on “The Reintroduction of Congregational Singing.” He recounted its history and its once common occurrence (as best he knew it), finding it strange that the “endeavors to reinstate congregational singing have been so discouraging,” and describing that a dozen or so scattered and courageous souls may hum along with the choir, but there is hardly a suggestion of the full-volumed joyful noise we have a right to expect. There is a well-defined feeling that the choir should do all the singing because they can do it better and because they are paid to do it.

That same year, a survey was conducted, the results of which revealed that the Union Hymnal “is even less generally used than has been assumed.” That finding, however, concerned congregational singing, not performances by choirs of the hymnal’s contents or the favorable reception or enjoyment by silent worshippers. In any case, the CCAR proceeded to authorize a revised, second edition of the hymnal, which came out two years later.

Beyond Hymns: Liturgical and Quasi-Liturgical Settings

Zimrath Yah: Kaiser’s attempts to introduce to Reform worship a higher level of music in Zimrath Yah appear not to have met with wide success, apart from several of its German settings and one rather odd adaptation in German and Hebrew—to a melody by Handel—of the concluding passage of the alenu l’shabe’ a la’adon hakol prayer text, bayomhahu (And on that day the Lord and His name, adonai, shall be [acknowledged as] One and exclusive). Zimrath Yah was a well-intended but curious mélange. The preface to its first volume stated that “the traditional melodies as well as compositions of our best composers . . . have in part [been] retained in their original forms—in part coupled with texts suitable to modern progressive views,” and that [the editors and compilers] have selected the best English metrical versions to the various hymns . . . impelled by the belief that they are contributing toward maintaining the elevated character of our service—toward propagating our peculiar sacred music on the American soil.

Among the contents of Volume 1 are quite a few settings in German arranged or composed by Cantor Samuel Welsch (one of the coeditors), including one based on a German translation of mi khamokha by Rabbi Dr. Adolph Hübsch that appeared in his own prayerbook; a German hymn from Rabbi Einhorn’s prayerbook set to a Sulzer melody; an adon olam version claimed to be from an unpublished Sulzer manuscript, with an alternate text underlay in German; four Hebrew responses by Sulzer (for bar’khu, kaddish, k’dusha, and hallel) and one of his versions of ein kelohenu; adonai malakh and vay’hi binso’a aharon settings by Naumbourg, along with the melody of one of his mi khamokha settings adapted to a German hymn text printed in Einhorn’s prayerbook, Ewige Wahrheit; two adapted entries by the pre­–modern era legendary eastern European virtuoso cantor Solomon Weintraub (Kashtan), which, if nothing else, indicates something of the editors’ serious knowledge of cantorial history at a time when only a few learned cantors would have known of Kashtan or his music; and a number of new pieces mostly by the editors/compilers themselves, together with a few by colleagues and others.

As expected, all the classic compositions or settings by Sulzer, Naumbourg, and Weintraub, which were written a cappella for orthodox contexts, were given original organ parts—some of which lacked the necessary simplicity and interfered with the choral writing. Still, the apparent failure of these classic pieces to find wide use might have been a factor in inducing Kaiser to dilute his standards for the sake of acceptance when he considered and planned the content of the Union Hymnal more than twenty years later.

Sigmund Schlesinger: Of all those who wrote for the liturgy (apart from simple hymns) during the heyday of Classical Reform, none achieved the degree of acclaim and acknowledgment that accrued to Sigmund Schlesinger. He appears to have been the most prolific, and his music was the most widely disseminated and used—even before its publication. His influence lingered into the 1950s and even later in his adopted Deep South and in other regions where Classical Reform or its remnants still persisted—not only through continued use of his music but also in the imitations of his style by a number of inferior, self-styled composers who attempted to throw their hats into the ring of synagogue music and whose names are now forgotten. The unmistakable operatic echoes in Schlesinger’s own compositions are decidedly French and, to a slightly lesser degree, German, but often they resonate with amateurish application. In addition, as the erudite composer and scholar Hugo Weisgall once aptly observed, his music betrays overall a “weakened Anglo-German oratorio style and German sentimentalism.” The harmonic language of Anglo-American Protestant hymns also protrudes conspicuously from his scores, and his melodic contours often seem uninspired. He shunned nearly all elements of Ashkenazi musical tradition, and in those few cases in which he recalled them, he characteristically altered their modality from minor (or minor-related modes) to simple major, ignoring even the unique features of traditional Ashkenazi major-related modes—for which he and others were later accused of “Occidentalizing” the Ashkenazi musical heritage.

Schlesinger’s enormous popularity and his sway over the music of Reform worship were probably factors in impeding and delaying its development.

Fortunately, the Reform movement’s essential openness to change and evolution, and to continual reconsideration and synthesis, eventually provided fertile ground for the worthy developments that began to occur in the 1920s—which paved the way for the exciting, full-blown renaissance of the 1940s.

In a way, however, Schlesinger merely represented and encapsulated the objectively assessed mediocre quality of most original music for Classical Reform, certainly until after the First World War. Yet until almost the end of the 19th century that situation was in some ways emblematic of the state of American music in general, which was only then beginning to find its way, to fashion an artistically legitimate identity, and to enter the mainstream of Western musical culture. Perhaps it would have been unreasonable to expect more of American Jewry.

Issues of Artistic Quality

In the end, it was not that Reform congregations were especially attracted to—or deliberately sought out—inferior or mediocre music to express the liturgy, to facilitate their prayer, and to enhance their synagogue experience. To the contrary, they were regularly exposed in their concert life outside the synagogue, in large numbers, to the best music of the European masters—although some (and only some) of the repertoire that was immensely popular in the 19th century later fell out of fashion in America and by the middle of the 20th century had become the stuff of historical revivals. (Gounod’s Mass settings, for example, are no longer generally known outside rarified musicological circles whose field of specialization centers around 19th-century French sacred music. Indeed, it can come as a surprise today even to the most avid and knowledgeable classical music aficionados to learn that he wrote no fewer than seventeen Masses, in addition to much other Roman Catholic Church music.)

It was at least partly the familiarity among Classical Reform congregations with what were then considered peaks of the classical music canon (which, in the late 19th century included some of what today is often dismissed as “salon music”), and the perceived or accepted unavailability of suitable synagogue music of equal or similar artistic merit, that drew them to the burlesque, mawkish adaptations from opera, oratorio, instrumental concert works, and Protestant as well as Roman Catholic sacred music.

Quaint as those expropriations might seem today, they represented the respectability of high European culture, of whose qualitative analogue in the work of composers for modern, culturally forward-looking synagogues in Europe they remained unaware: Sulzer, Naumbourg, and, especially for their purposes, Lewandowski in the western and Central European realms; other learned cantor-composers in the German-speaking orbit such as Hirsch Weintraub, Eduard Birnbaum, Emanuel Kirschner, and Leon Kornitzer; and Western-oriented synagogue composers in the eastern European sphere such as Eliezer Mordecai Gerovitsch, A. Dunayevsky [Dunajewski], or David Nowakowsky—all of whose music would ideally have been more in line with the standard to which Reform worshippers were accustomed in their secular cultural life. Had that modern European corpus been properly introduced in time to forestall the attachment to locally composed music of far less merit, it might, for them, like the European concert and operatic music they adopted, have become American.

In view of the self-imposed great “Atlantic divide” in Jewish cultural consciousness that appears to have separated American Reform Jewry so substantially from its liberal, nonorthodox, and even Reform European counterparts, it was only natural to seek an entirely new “native” repertoire from those who were professionally involved in the music of their synagogue and who already had the motivation—for the most part, the organists and choirmasters who presided. Unfortunately, neither native nor immigrant composers who had serious gifts for composition and were devoted to—or ready to devote themselves to—Judaic liturgy had yet emerged on the scene in the important formative years of Classical Reform. It was not until the 1930s and 1940s that émigré composers, many of them either directly or indirectly refugees from the Third Reich, began to create a vastly upgraded and more sophisticated level of music expressly conceived for worship, in what came to constitute the neo-Reform phase.

Also, by the turn of the century, when the ingrained standard repertoire was already coming under fire as pedestrian in more artistically demanding circles, and when a few cantors did indeed attempt to introduce a higher level by invoking appropriate and usable or adaptable music of European composers, the music of American Reform had become so established—reinforced for younger generations by nostalgia—as to have the imprimateur of tradition. It is no new thing, after all, to find comfort in music to which one has long been accustomed, even when it necessitates suspended objective judgment of its quality.

Contemporaneous Sensibilities and Expectations

There is another, intersecting cultural plane on which the musical tastes of Classical Reform might be understood: the extramusical contemporaneous mores and sensibilities of its social environment and what was once called “polite society,” coupled with the cultivated, lofty, and in some cases religiously neutral sentiments to which congregations aspired. A perusal of the 1914 edition of the Union Hymnal, for example, can be revealing in this regard. The “Subject Index” of its hymns is divided as follows: Adversity; Almsgiving; Anniversary of Congregation or Minister; Holy Days (including “Pentecost” [read Shavuot], “Tabernacles” [Sukkot], “Feast of Lights” [read Hanukka], and “Feast of Lots” [Purim]—even though the last two are not in fact “holy” days; Brotherhood; Calmness; Charity; Confirmation; Courage; Dedication of Temple [i.e., synagogue]; Evening; Faith; Life Eternal (funerals, memorial services…); God: His works in nature; His majesty; His providence; His Fatherhood and love; His unity;  Gratitude and Love; Israel [people of Israel—not in any way related to the Land of Israel or any Zionist ideas]; Kingdom of God; Search for Knowledge; Patriotic Hymns; Penitence and Confession; Praise; Purity; Resignation; The Righteous Life; Marriage; International Peace; Holy Scriptures: The Word of God; For Those on the Sea; The Seasons; Thanksgiving and Harvest; Trust and Confidence; The Word of God; Worship.

At the same time, that second edition of the hymnal also reflected the already vocal demand from, among other quarters, the CCAR itself for a greater representation of Jewish literary sources. These now ranged from medieval Hebrew to such American Jewish poets as Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Eleazer Kallir, Yehuda Halevi, and Penina Moise, along with others who contributed texts such as Felix Adler (the founder of the Ethical Culture Society), Marcus Jastrow, Israel Zangwill, and Isaac Mayer Wise himself—eighteen such Jewish sources in all. However, the number of non-Jewish text sources was simultaneously increased to include several more of the most prominent American poets and literary figures, including John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, and William Cullen Bryant, as well as Havelock Ellis and former president John Quincy Adams. There were just a few additional melodies by (or attributed to) Jewish liturgical composers, such as one by Israel Meyer Japhet, the choirmaster of the neoorthodox synagogue in Frankfurt am Main and the composer of most of its music; Moritz Deutsch; and Marcus Hast, a London cantor in its orthodox community. But the preponderance of the tunes remained non-Jewish in origin, such as the Dutch national anthem (to a new text by a non-Jewish author), several added French and German folk melodies, more tunes drawn from classical concert and operatic repertoires, and a church tune from the Scottish Rite.

Internal Criticism

Apart from the issue of hymn singing, the musical path of Classical Reform was not without its internal critics. In retrospect we can see that the reliance on certain aspects of the repertoire was not universally endorsed from within even before the rabbinical deliberations of the 1890s. As the century wore on and proceeded to the next, there were those among the rank and file of the laity and the rabbinical leadership who questioned whether some of the less Jewishly grounded habits and tendencies, especially the purloined elements, really contributed to their cherished Erbauung (elevation, or edification). As early as 1887, The American Hebrew (admittedly a traditionally oriented periodical) printed one observer’s condemnation:

It is sometimes absolutely grotesque to hear the tunes associated with amorous or dramatic passages in operas sung to words of religious import. The most ridiculous lack of aesthetic taste is displayed. Seldom is there any true solemnity or other natural emotional force expressed by the choirs. Nothing but declamatory phrasing and sensational yelling utterly at variance with the character of the service.

Even after the second edition of the Union Hymnal, in 1914, congregations were not participating vocally, leaving the collectively intended hymns entirely to their mostly non-Jewish choirs, to which worshippers deferred out of respectful etiquette. In that context, Reform rabbinical support began to accumulate for a much greater degree of connection to more authentic Jewish content—especially in terms of musical as well as literary sources. Eventually those and similar concerns led to the thorough revision de novo of the Union Hymnal for its third edition, in 1932, in which Alois Kaiser, with his earlier objection to non-Jewish substance and his calls for continuity, was ultimately albeit posthumously vindicated.


In addition to the reconsideration of hymn content, the character and quality of new liturgical settings began to show signs of maturity by the late 1920s and early 1930s, though at that stage this process was largely spearheaded from (and often still confined to) New York and the East Coast, primarily through the creativity of two composers: Lazare Saminsky and Abraham Wolf Binder. The entrenched repertoire remained little changed on a national level until at least the late 1930s, with the arrival of several gifted immigrant composers and the dawn of a new receptivity that blossomed in what we may now assess as a musical renaissance. (See the introduction to Volume 4.) Refinement of tastes and jettisoning of old affinities were accomplished more easily and more naturally in some congregations and regions than in others. Unlike the traditional or orthodox scenarios in America (especially in that time frame), in which rabbis did not as a rule concern themselves with, nor claim any jurisdiction over, the nature or quality of musical repertoires, the processes of musical advancement in Reform synagogues were not always left to choirmasters—nor even to cantors in those congregations that retained cantorial positions. Not only could Reform rabbis in many congregations claim and assert authority over musical practice, but they could also, in a positive vein, encourage and even mandate improvement and progress. In many such instances their foresight and critical cultural judgments were instrumental.

Of course, in other cases musical change could also be impeded by those rabbis as well as by lay leaders who were more inclined to leave the status quo undisturbed for a good while longer, no matter how passé or irrelevant it had become. The old 19th-century musical formats could thus outlast other discarded or altered features in particular synagogues even as those congregations proceeded to embrace change in other avenues of ceremony, ambience, and overall outlook. Depending on rabbinical guidance and individual congregational or communal preferences, the time span and turnover of at least a full generation could be required for the transition from the musical adjuncts and persona of Classical Reform to what we have now identified as the rich albeit short-lived renaissance in the music of Reform worship. That heady artistic development accompanied the post-Classical and largely post–Second World War stage of the Reform movement, which, for want of a more appropriate rubric, came later in some circles to be identified as “neo-Reform. (“New Reform” might have been more apt, although it would no longer have been new by the time of the still newer, third, post-1960s/1970s phase; and it would have risked alienating the old guard even further.)

Because the musical renaissance phenomenon of the 1940s–1970s neither received equal reception nor proceeded with equal ease of tempo throughout the Reform world, there were musical vestiges of Classical Reform as late as the 1960s. They lingered even later in individual die-hard congregations—especially (but not exclusively) in the Deep South, Texas, and a few other communities whose cultural conservatism and related nostalgia rendered them less disposed toward musical innovation. Yet even as such aesthetic remnants sputtered on, Reform as a whole was moving simultaneously to reinvent itself in light of—and sometimes even ahead of—the budding and soon-to-explode nationwide aesthetic attraction to ethnic heritages and the preservation of distinct European folk traditions.

Reform continued to reexamine and rethink some of its former, more universal 19th-century tenets and principles—in general and, eventually, as these applied to music. Accelerating a direction that had begun even before the war, the collective complexion of its congregational memberships was by then becoming proportionately less rooted and less informed by the earlier, more homogeneous German or German-speaking Jewry and the cultural predispositions that had spawned the Reform movement in the first place. In that sense, Reform’s inherent ability to engage in ongoing, evolutionary reexamination and searches for authenticity—coupled with its openness to generational adjustment as well as to reincorporation and even rejuvenation of Judaic components and heritage—paved the way for the postwar musical renaissance to take hold for an all too brief period, a few decades, and to give it a new, sophisticated aesthetic personality.


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