Henry Pereira Mendes was, at various times, a hazzan-minister and a preacher, as well as a teacher at New York’s Western Sephardi synagogue, Congregation Shearith Israel [the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue]—America’s first and oldest continuously functioning Jewish congregation, dating to the first organized Jewish community that emerged shortly after the arrival of the initial group of Jews in New Amsterdam in 1654.
A member of his family from an earlier generation, Benjamin Pereira, had served the congregation as its hazzan from 1748 until 1757, prior to the Revolutionary War, when New York was still a British colony. He had moved from New York to Richmond, Virginia, but was persuaded to return to New York to fill that post. Owing to poor health, he retired to Jamaica, then part of the British West Indies.
Mendes was born in Birmingham, England, to a family that could boast a long line of Judaic learning, scholarship, and religious leadership among Western Sephardi Jewry. His father, Abraham Pereira Mendes, was a minister of the congregation in Birmingham. Mendes’s grandfather, David Aaron de Sola, both hazzan and preacher at the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ (Bevis Marks) Congregation in London and a composer of liturgical melodies, is credited with being the first to preach English-language sermons in England. He translated into English both Sephardi and Ashkenazi prayerbooks and wrote scholarly works not only in English and Hebrew, but in German and Dutch too. An uncle, Samuel de Sola, was a hazzan at Bevis Marks as well. Another uncle, Abraham de Sola, was a professor of Hebrew and Spanish literatures at McGill University in Montreal, as well as rabbi at that city’s Spanish and Portuguese congregation. In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant invited de Sola, who had remained a British subject in Canada, to deliver the invocation for that year’s session of the U.S. Congress—a gesture intended to signify publically a relaxation of tensions that had existed between the United States and Great Britain since the War Between the States. Mendes’s older brother, Frederick de Sola Mendes, became a rabbi and served the pulpit at Shaaray Tefila in New York. On his mother’s side, through his maternal grandmother’s family, Mendes was descended from thirteen generations of rabbis (in Italian communities as well as in Bayonne, France, and Amsterdam), down to his great-grandfather, Raphael Mendola, who was Chief Rabbi of the Sephardi Jews in the British Empire.
From the age of twelve, Mendes was educated at Northwick College, a boarding school that his father founded and directed in London. For two years, from 1870 to 1872, he attended University College, London, and continued his Judaic and Hebraic studies privately with his father and with the Reverend H. L. Harris (whose son, Maurice Harris, was a rabbi in New York). In 1875, Mendes assumed the pulpit as hazzan-minister and preacher in the recently founded Sephardi synagogue in Manchester, choosing it over another offer (by the Chief Rabbi of the Sephardim in the British Empire) of a pulpit in St. Thomas, then part of the Danish West Indies.
In 1876, when Shearith Israel’s preacher, Rabbi Henry Samuel Jacobs, left the congregation (reportedly owing to tensions related to less than full support from the hazzan’s longtime followers), it sought a replacement—even though there still remained those members who questioned the need for a preacher-rabbi or lecturer as a distinct permanent pulpit position. Rabbi Frederick de Sola Mendes, who filled in temporarily from time to time, recommended consideration of his younger brother. After delivering a series of guest sermons as an audition and demonstrating his musical and vocal abilities with regard to delivery of the services (with, we may presume, the historically expected accuracy vis-à-vis the western/Amsterdam Sephardi tradition of liturgical melodies and chant patterns, as well, of course, as the biblical cantillations), Henry Pereira Mendes was elected to the post. Officially, he was to be the preacher and teacher (de facto rabbi in congregational leadership terms), who could also function when needed as an assistant to Shearith Israel’s principal hazzan, the Reverend Jacques [Julius] Judah Lyons. But shortly after Mendes arrived from Manchester to assume the pulpit, in 1877, Lyons died. The role of hazzan, with its full range of duties, fell to Mendes as well for a time, until the congregation engaged David Haim Nieto in 1878 as an assistant hazzan (or one of its hazzanim). His tenure lasted only eight years, however; and even during the periods of service of successive hazzanim (beginning with Abraham Haim Nieto in 1886, followed by Isaac A. H. de la Penha in 1902, Isaac A. Hadad in 1911, and Joseph M. Corcos in 1919), Mendes continued and solidified that established custom of the preacher sometimes also conducting—viz., chanting (or “reading,” in the Sephardi terminology) services and biblical selections.
Mendes also became increasingly involved in the musical life of the congregation. He composed incidental songs for some of the Purim plays he wrote. One such drama, based appropriately on the Book of Esther, was written specifically as a warning against intermarriage with non-Jews.
During his early years in New York, Mendes also studied medicine, continuing another family tradition (one 17th-century forebear had been a physician to the Duke of Mantua, and another had been court physician to William V of the Netherlands). He graduated from New York University’s medical school, but did not establish a practice, electing instead to focus on the congregation, the wider Jewish community, and his own prolific literary and scholarly pursuits. His pedagogic interests led to his position as superintendent of the Polonies Talmud Torah School; and much later, from 1917 to 1920, he taught homiletics at the Isaac Elchanan Yeshiva. He was instrumental in founding the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1887 (which only later came to be perceived as outside orthodoxy, and still later to be affiliated with the Conservative movement per se), heeding through vocal support and active efforts Sabato Morais’s call for an intellectually enlightened and oriented modern orthodox Jewish seminary and rabbinic educational institution. Initial meetings for this project, as well as the commencement of formal classes of the new seminary, were held at Shearith Israel. When Morais died, in 1897, Mendes held the reins temporarily as the seminary’s acting president. Following the seminary’s reorganization, Solomon Schechter assumed the helm. For many years Mendes continued his affiliation, as a professor of Jewish history and as president of its advisory board.
Mendes was also a key player in the founding of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of the United States and Canada, the New York Board of Jewish Ministers (eventually its president), and a branch of the Alliance Israélite Universelle; and he was active on the executive committee of the New York Kehilla (organized community or communal structure), whose aim was the organization of the city’s Jewry and its individual agencies into a unified structure.
Throughout his years in New York, Mendes distinguished himself in the community and beyond through his ardent, relentless advocacy and intervention for Jewish social, religious, educational, humanitarian, and political causes. These ranged from protecting the legal rights and religious interests of Jews to countering overzealous Christian missionary strategies; from protesting unfair or disadvantageous immigration policies to assisting in disaster relief; and from advancing the dispensation of charity to providing for specific groups with special requirements—such as his role in founding and raising the funds for a society known as the Horeb Home and School for the Deaf, over which he presided, as well as the Hebrew Congregation of the Deaf. He did not limit such activities, however, exclusively to the Jewish community, and he cooperated and collaborated on social and other charitable causes with fellow Christian clergy. He readily accepted the request by the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, for example, to work together for the Guild for Crippled Children, leading to the establishment of the Crippled Children’s East Side Free School—which he chaired upon its opening in 1901. Earlier he had lent his active support to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
Mendes was awarded an honorary doctorate of divinity by the Jewish Theological Seminary two years after Solomon Schechter assumed its leadership, and a doctor of Hebrew literature degree from the Jewish Institute of Religion.
Through such devotion to general as well as Jewish causes—in addition to his position at Shearith Israel—Mendes came to be perceived in the political and clerical (Christian as well as Jewish) worlds as a de facto dignitary and leader of New York Jewry, as well as one of the city’s inner circle of high-ranking clergy. The esteem in which he was held is exemplified by such honors as his invitation to open a session of the United States Senate with a prayer; his inclusion among the speakers at City Hall on the occasion of the 275th anniversary of the founding of New York City; and, in 1903, to mark the 250th anniversary of New York’s Dutch precursor, New Amsterdam, as a municipal entity (also at City Hall), his appearance as a speaker in the company of such participating dignitaries as New York mayor Seth Low; Secretary of War Eliyahu Root; Governor Benjamin B. Odell, and Bishop Potter of the Episcopal Diocese. Upon Mendes’s death, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a statement proclaiming:
As rabbi of the historic Congregation Shearith Israel and as a scholar of world-wide repute, Dr. Mendes was long a commanding figure in our religious and intellectual life who will be sadly missed and widely mourned.
And the Jewish governor of New York, Herbert Lehman, remarked that “his spiritual and beautiful life was a constant inspiration to those of our faith, and his example a potent influence in good citizenship.”
Mendes allied himself early on with American Zionist circles and worked to promote the Zionist cause at Theodore Herzl’s behest, becoming one of its first high-profile adherents in the United States. At the Second Zionist Congress, in Vienna (1898), and at the third, in Basel (1989), he was elected to membership in the Actions Committee of the World Zionist Congress, and he served as vice president of the Federation of American Zionists. He also tried to promote his personal notion of what he called “spiritual Zionism,” or “Bible Zionism.” It was reported that on his deathbed he uttered the dictum, “Palestine without Jerusalem is unthinkable.”
The sheer volume, variety, and breadth of Mendes’s writings—contributions to journals, encyclopedias, and periodicals as well as self-contained publications ranging from pamphlets to books and from poetry to pedagogic textbooks—is impressive. These include The First Hebrew Reading Book; Jewish History Ethically Presented; Nishmat ḥayyim: The Breath of Life; Ruaḥ ḥayyim, or Jewish Daily Life Ethically Presented; England and America: The Dream of Peace; Looking Ahead, which anticipated the First World War fifteen years before its launch; In Old Egypt: A Story About the Bible but Not in the Bible, a humorous work for children; Derekh ḥayyim: The Way of Life, a collection of prayers for the home; Bar Mitzvah for Boyhood, Youth and Manhood; numerous published sermons; and an array of miscellaneous verse and plays for school settings. He and Rabbi David de Sola Pool, Mendes’s successor as the rabbi and preacher at Shearith Israel, jointly published two handbooks on mourning rituals and the burial service. And he published hymns for use in Jewish schools.
Mendes also composed settings for the hazzan and choir of Shearith Israel, judiciously retaining the stylistic continuity of the Amsterdam Sephardi musical tradition and preserving its unique aura and melodic character, and some of these settings earned a place in the congregation’s permanent standard repertoire. Such is the case with his setting of uv’nukho yomar, sung to this day at the conclusion of the Torah service after the Torah scrolls have been replaced in the ark, and his setting of Psalm 23. These two pieces were recorded for the Milken Archive in their revised arrangements by Siegfried Landau, the choirmaster at the synagogue from 1953 until 1955, who rearranged most of the choral repertoire he found there—a task that included both revisions and entirely new arrangements.
By: Neil W. Levin
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