Home page The Occident and American Jewish Advocate Jews in the Civil War Jews in the Wild West History of Palestine The Occident Virtual Library


The Congregations of Charleston.

To the Editor of the Occident.

Rev. Sir—Having announced with commendable and liberal feelings, that the pages of your periodical are always open for the insertion of subjects connected with the several congregations in the United States and elsewhere, the publication of the following will oblige a few of your subscribers.

The writer of the following remarks approaches a subject of national importance—of deep and abiding interest to the Israelites of Charleston. The relation and promulging of religious facts, at all times, are conceded to be part of our duty, and constitute great veneration for a religious injunction. The truth must prevail in despite of the dereliction or prejudice of mankind; and let it emanate whence it may, no one should withhold its avowal whenever good may result, or commendation be merited.

We essay not to enter into the details of a religious controversy about established forms, recognized usage, innovations on customs intended to improve, change, or destroy. We grasp the pen with no disposition to inquire into discrepant notions as to the admissibility or inadmissibility of introducing wind or instrumental music during the service in our Synagogues. We intend no more nor less than to give publicity to facts, as glaring as the light of day, as evident as the divine power exercised for our nation's salvation from Egyptian thralldom, during times "far by-gone."

In referring to certain developments deserving our serious consideration, it becomes essential to our purpose to revert to circumstances of historical worth in drawing a comparative view of the religious feelings and observances of the mass of Jews in this city, anterior and subsequent to the present division in the congregation, designated "Beth Elohim" or House of God.

It is a well-established fact, so perceptible as to challenge contradiction, that the religious zeal and devotional conduct of those who formerly attended, either regularly or irregularly, the place for worship in Hasel Street, are very conspicuously different from what is now observed among the divided parties. Without reverting to remote periods, but confining our remarks to recent years, we broadly advance, that frequent and just cause of complaint was loudly made by the most steady and the most indifferent observers, against the defective devotion during divine service:—namely, late attendance, frequent indulgence in leaving the place of worship, want of regularity in chaunting the psalms and making the responses, great occupancy of time in making free-will offerings, &c. We include in our remarks those periods when the congregation was endowed with regular and permanent readers, as well as at times when some of the members occasionally officiated as such. Frequently have we heard reproaches made by many, who were not merely sticklers for decorum, but its steady supporters; and to lament the deficiency in these particulars. But, while enumerating flagrant improprieties in the internal regulations of the Synagogue, not the less reprehensible was the open violations of the Sabbath by several members who manifested (except on very particular occasions) a total disregard to its solemnities, and respectful observance of this holy day. Transgressions in these respects were manifested by many for several years; and when contrasted with the general and almost universal improvement in the deportment now visible in the Synagogue, and the decent respect to the injunctions laid down in Holy Writ for keeping sacred the Sabbath and other holy days: the change so obvious and so conspicuous, that every where is heard the echo of approbation, and each is seen paying deference to these sacred ordinances that were formerly suffered to be both disregarded and trespassed upon. A spirit of religious respect seems to pervade all classes. Each individual aspires for instruction into, and of obtaining a proper knowledge of the excellence and purity of his religion. Many inquire more closely into its precepts, and follow in the train of those exemplary in their veneration for its principles; and in pursuing the practice, embrace the now proffered opportunity of educating their children, and of having them properly instructed in the ordinary rules of the Hebrew language, and having it taught with the translation into English.

It is both rational and inductive from the foregoing remarks, that the inquiry should follow: "Whence this change, this deviation from the irregular to the more regular observances?" To enter into the cause, or trace the probable source of this meritorious advancement in religion, would be, perhaps, at the hazard of incurring censure: but, when opinions are predicated in an humble conception of the leading incentives to this no less commendable than much to be appreciated conduct, offered as they are with deference to the sentiments of others, we shall be pardoned for our presumption or obtrusive remarks.

The call made on the Rev. Mr. Gustavus Poznanski to the distinguished appointment of reader to the congregation Beth Elohim in 1837, as one that met with general approbation. The deportment and qualifications of this gentleman were considered at that period, of that cast, as to entitle him to the respect and approbation of his flock. Respectful demeanour and proficiency in his clerical duties produced an evident improvement in the tone, manner, and general arrangement in the service of the Synagogue. His occasional discourses and appropriate prayers in the English language, acquired and commanded the best attention. Many were induced to attend public worship who were previously neglectful. The indifferent were made to throw off the garb of indifference. The house of God was better attended. The unlettered in our ancient tongue desired instruction. Parents sought to have their children taught, not only the rudiments but the translations; and a more earnest respect for our religion began to pervade all classes of our people.

Progressive time brought to light new incidents, whether, for "weal or for woe," remains to be developed. Several of the congregations desired additional inducement to visit the Synagogue, and the better to impress, as they conceived, on the mind and heart, increased regard for public worship. Under the lofty aspirations of liberal and enlightened views, more improvement was called for. The subject of introducing an organ in. the Synagogue to be used during divine service, derived from constructive opinions and precedent in Europe,* was proposed, agitated, and adopted. This measure produced a division in the congregation. A part, nearly one half of the members, designated The Orthodox, believed it an encroachment on our forms and dissonant with the Minhag Sephardim as formerly practised, and irreconcilable with established usage since the destruction of our Temple and dispersion of the Israelites. The other part conceived it right and desired its introduction. Dissensions resulted,—the minority being opposed to the organ, separated from their brethren, and formed another congregation under the title of "Remnant of Israel."

* See account of the Hamburg temple, and Kohl's Austria, descriptive of the use of organs in some of the temples.

The advocates for the organ having possession of the building in which service was performed, progressed steadily in sustaining their forms, while their opponents, the Remnants, pursued their course with equal devotion and steadiness in the observance of the old customs. The condition of each seemed to give the promise of permanency; but it was otherwise ordained. Apprehensive of further alterations, a portion of the organ congregation who were desirous of no more change, and from other circumstances stances not essential to be named in this statement, are now united with the Remnant congregation, and worship with them.

We now approach the more interesting part of our subject, the consequence of this religious controversy, and its bearing, manifested by the improvement in conducting the service as observed in each Synagogue, or among the divided congregation. Whether such improvements or innovations on old habits are to be considered justifiable or otherwise, we intend not to touch—we record them as mere historical details, and leave the reader to sustain us, or not, in the opinion we have advanced, that devotional conduct and religious veneration have been thereby promoted.

To the Rev. Mr. Poznanski must be awarded the merit of effecting certain chances in the former mode of worship in the Synagogue. The principal or chief is the use of an organ. A brief synopsis of the service will, we trust, not be considered uninteresting. On the Sabbath eve, the usual form of prayers, adopted by the Portuguese Jews, is preceded by a voluntary on the organ, after which the reader or Hazan deliberately chaunts the Psalm of David, "Give unto the Lord," the congregation accompanying in an under tone. The chapter of Mishnah, "Bamay Mawdlikin," is entirely omitted. He then proceeds in the same tone with the "Lecha Dodee," ending, as usual, with the Kaddish Rabbanan. He pronounces audibly "Mizmor-shir-leyom­hashabath;" a Psalm for the Sabbath day. The organ immediately striking up, when the choir, composed of ladies and gentlemen, sings the Psalm, accompanied at pleasure by the congregation, observing regularity and harmony. After which, the reader delivers an impressive and appropriate prayer in the English language. The evening service is continued and said as usual until the commencement of the Yigdal, previous to which another prayer is read in English. taken from the evening service. The choir, with the aid of the organ sing the Yigdal, the congregation joining at pleasure. In conclusion, the reader and congregation rising, the former reads impressively, that portion of the Birchath Cohanim, first in Hebrew and then in English, commencing at "The Lord bless thee, and preserve thee," &c. While the congregation retires, the organ plays a voluntary.

(To be continued.)