THE TORAH BELLS OF MYER MYERS cont'd
The Western Sephardic Tradition
Shearith Israel in New York was part of the Western Sephardic tradition. So too were the other four congregations in Colonial America. Although the Jewish community in New York was composed of both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews, the Sephardic tradition prevailed.
The Western Sephardic tradition developed primarily in Amsterdam and other Western European centers. These communities were established largely by ex-conversos who were returning to Judaism, after having lived in the Iberian Peninsula as crypto-Jews. Upon returning to the Jewish fold, they developed communities that were characterized by orderliness and decorum in the synagogue; commitment to Jewish tradition; involvement in the life of general society. Professor Mair Jose Benardete has referred to them as Renaissance Sephardim, priding themselves on their culture and social grace.
Rev. Ezra Stiles, President of Yale University, was a friend of a leading Jewish merchant of Newport, Aaron Lopez. In describing Lopez, Rev. Stiles underscored qualities that were characteristic of the Western Sephardic civilization: In honor and aptitude of commerce, there was never a trader in America to equal him. In business he dealt with the highest degree of seriousness and clear-sightedness, showing always an affability in manner, a calm urbanity, an agreeable and sincere courtesy of manners. Without a single enemy, no one is known who was more universally loved.
In their History of the Jews of Philadelphia, Wolf and Whiteman observe that the Sephardic contribution to early synagogue life in Philadelphia lay in a tradition of organization, of rules and regulations, which dominated Mikveh Israel and produced a form of prayer, a method of government and a system of keeping records. Synagogue records were kept in elegant style out of respect for orderliness and the written word.
When I first began serving Congregation Shearith Israel, in 1969, I spent many wonderful hours reading through our early record and minute booksgoing back to 1728. I was profoundly moved by the seriousness of purpose reflected in these documentsgracious calligraphy, solemn invocations of Gods name, descriptions of the activities and concerns of the Congregations leadership.
Orderliness and dignity were ideals of synagogue life among the Western Sephardim. Not only were the prayer services conducted in a decorous manner, the synagogue structures were noted for their grace and architectural neatness. The synagogues of Colonial America reflected a commitment to a high standard of aesthetics. Growing up in this cultural milieu must certainly have been a strong influence on the aesthetic sense of Myer Myers.
Each Congregation saw itself as the corporate voice of the Jewish people of its community. It was responsible for the needs of its members, and maintained rules for the proper internal governance of the Jewish community. As we have noted, Myer Myers was very much involved in formulating and reformulating the rules governing Shearith Israel in New York.
Among Western Sephardim, each member of the Congregation is known as a yahid, an individual. This title conveys a sense of pride, honor and self-worth. In the earliest extant constitution and by-laws of Shearith Israel, there is a provision that anyone who caused an affront to an individual was to be fined. Respect and courtesy were to be maintained.
It is clear, then, that Myer Myers was raised in a community that valued beauty and gracefulness, that respected individuality, and that encouraged its members to participate actively in general society. The Western Sephardic tradition did not isolate itself within physical and spiritual ghettos.
The Communal Context
Rev. Gershom Mendes Seixas (1746-1816) was the spiritual leader of Shearith Israel for a period spanning nearly fifty years1768-1776 and again after the Revolution 1784-1816. Myer Myers, who was president of the Congregation in 1770early in the career of Rev. Seixascontinued to be an active leader of the Congregation during Rev. Seixas tenure. Indeed, Myers and Seixas were related by marriage. Seixaslike Myersgrew up in New York and attended the Shearith Israel school. He was a product ofand later a teacher ofthe ideals of Judaism as espoused by the Western Sephardic tradition.
The historian Jacob Rader Marcus noted Seixas insistence on Western dress, decorum, dignity . Seixas had wide intellectual interests and was active in communal affairs. In 1784 he was elected to serve on the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York. He was one of the incorporators of Columbia College, originally known as Kings College. He served as a trustee of the college from December 1784 through July 1814. He mingled with the intellectual, religious and business leaders of New York. Christian scholars of Hebrew sought his instruction. When Seixas died, the funeral was held in the Mill Street Synagogue of Shearith Israel, and he was eulogized by Jacob de la Motta, a leader of the Congregation. De la Motta stated that Seixas, from an early period in life, was endowed with no commonplace intellect pursuing undeviatingly the most correct deportment; admired by all; esteemed alike in every grade of society . [He prosecuted] uninterruptedly a line of conduct that obtained for him the love, respect, and esteem of all sects.
The qualities of Seixas that de la Motta chose to emphasize, were precisely those qualities that were valued so highly by the Jewish community of New Yorkbreadth of intellect, correct deportment, respect from all segments of society. These were the virtues that imbued the Jewish community, including, of course, Myer Myers.
In 1768, Isaac Moses (who was later to serve as president of Shearith Israel) was among the founders of the New York Chamber of Commerce. Sampson Simson (also a future president of Shearith Israel) drafted the constitution of the Chamber of Commerce. In 1792, Benjamin Mendes Seixas, Ephraim Hart and Alexander Zuntz were among the founders of the New York Stock Exchange. And Myer Myers, as has been mentioned, served as president of the Gold and Silversmiths Society of New York.
During the 18th century, Jews in New York worked in various occupations: merchants, bookbinders, chocolate manufacturers, coppersmiths, a grocer, insurance broker, mariner, druggist, carpenter, boatman, and a curer of rheumatics.
Lewis Moses Gomez made his fortune as an importer and exporter. The Gomez family was the dominant family in the leadership of Shearith Israel during the eighteenth century. Lewis Gomez and his sons Daniel and David were traders with the Indians, and they set up a business outpost on the Hudson River. He built a stone trading post in Orange County, six miles north of Newburgh, for fur trading. The building still stands and is known as the Gomez House; it is operated as a historic site and museum.
Myer Myers brother-in-law, Hayman Levy, was also a merchant who sold all sorts of merchandisefoods, linens, clothes, soap, European and India Goods, beaver and deer leather. He also had extensive business dealings with Indians, and sold merchandise that he bought from them. Hayman Levys place of business was on Mill Street, not far from the synagogue. A contemporary said of Levy: The great respect they [the Indians] entertained for him and the universal confidence they had in him, were due to his thorough knowledge of their character, habits and wants, and to the fact that he was, in all his relations with them, and with others, an honest and highminded merchant. From his extensive connection with them, he became the largest fur trader in the colonies and one of the most opulent merchants in the city.
Another of Myer Myers contemporaries was Uriah Hendricks. After the Revolution, when the community was reorganizing itself, Hendricks and Myers were elected to superintend the Jewish cemetery and do what was necessary to keep it in proper condition. Hendricks was a successful merchant, and he was especially noted for his copper goods. His son, Harmon Hendricks, had ongoing business dealings with Paul Revere. It was Harmon Hendricks who in the early 19th century bought the Soho copper mill and the estate at Belleville, New Jersey. As Maxwell Whiteman pointed out in his book Copper for America: the Hendricks Family and a National Industry1755-1939, the move by Harmon Hendricks to mine, refine and roll copper in America gave him the distinction of being the first copper merchant in the United States to step outside of the mercantile role to explore the path of industry.
Myer Myers knew and worked with these people, and others like them. He was part of an energetic, outward looking Jewish community, eager to play their roles and establish their good reputations in the emerging American society.
< Previous | Next >