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The Demands of the Times.

by Isaac Leeser

In the last part of the discussion which we laid before our readers on this important subject, we treated on the necessity of a ministry fully qualified to be a light to our people. We had hoped that the discussion would have been taken up by some of our friends, and that it had sunk sufficiently deep in the public mind, not to have passed away without leaving a permanent impression. We regret that, as yet, no one has stepped forward to offer us his thoughts for publication on our article, whilst we are sure that it has not been without some effect in drawing the general attention to this momentous subject. We are not, however, much disappointed, that as yet we have found no echo in the general voice; for, grave as the matter may be, it is not easy to apply, or even to find, the proper remedy. Every thing which is to be permanent must be of slow growth; and that which is born in a night, is apt to perish in a night. We are, therefore, not very favourable to a fanatical excitement, which urges masses on to move in a particular direction—which soon evaporates by exhausting itself, and leaves matters in a worse position than it found them. But we still hope that the public mind may be gradually influenced, and that a state of thought may be ultimately produced, which will express itself naturally and deliberately in consonance with its own feelings; and that, then, the remedy for the evil will be the spontaneous effect of this new state of the public views. We fear, however, that under present circumstances, perhaps for years, there will be insurmountable difficulties in the way, which will repress our energies, no matter how much the individuals may labour; and these are chiefly owing to want of concert among us, especially in America. We know not, indeed, whether the election of a new chief Rabbi in England may tend to produce unity of action there; but, we are sure that, in this country, we can see such a state only in the dim distance; and we fear that it will take a long time to bring it into successful practice.

We will give our reason for our fears, in the undefined hope that, despite of our forbodings, they may not be verified, and that the result may contradict our anticipations. It is true, that in the last twenty years the number of Jews in America has greatly increased. They have emigrated from various countries—some, to fly from persecution; others, simply to improve their condition. But, in place of uniting themselves with the congregations already existing, or, at least, of coming to an harmonious understanding with them, they have established independent associations, generally upon the model of their native land, and without any concert with other religious establishments already existing. Not alone this: most of these emigrants are from Germany, and are entirely unacquainted with the English language. All these circumstances have produced this effect, that there is an entire isolation between our communities, and that we are perfectly unacquainted with each other’s positions and wants. We alluded to this fact in the beginning of this discussion, last year, and we regret that no improvement has taken place since that time. We know of no means at present to speak to all our people by the same organ, owing to the want of a uniform language, and the great difference of condition discoverable among them, and without this there can be no thought of union.

The fault may have been owing, in part, to the Jews originally settled here, and to the laws of nearly all the congregations, which require some time, longer or shorter, as the case may be, before any new comer can become a member of the corporation. Then, the comparative small size of our old Synagogues, which seem, for the most part, to have been calculated for the few Israelites formerly in America, and left, consequently, little room for the many who lately came over. But above all must the cause be sought in the fact, that all the old congregations, with but one exception, were of the Portuguese form, consequently not intelligible to the greater portion of the new immigrants. We are free to confess, and say so candidly, and hope not to give offence to those of our readers who belong to the German and Polish rituals, that, to our view, the Portuguese form is better adapted to the Israelites in America, owing its greater simplicity and the absence of the long poetical prayers, than the other two, and that, could our advice avail, we would honestly counsel every new congregation to adopt from choice the prayer-book of the Sephardim. But we do not look forward to such a result, much desirable as it may be, as, unfortunately, prejudice is, for the most part, too great to allow persons to think dispassionately, and many would thus look upon the adoption of a new form of prayer, new, at least, to them, as a change of religion. Be this as it may, the fact is so, that nearly all the new congregations have adopted the German or Polish form of prayers, and have copied, also, the form of government incident to the same in the old world. The consequence has been, that the new settlers seldom come in contact with the original inhabitants, and they are unacquainted with each other as though the ocean were still rolling between them. We acknowledge with pleasure, that acts of charity know nothing of this division, and that small as was the number of our people hitherto, the poor have ever found support and kindness, no matter how many there were who needed relief. Individual and combined beneficence have sought out the humble abode of the needy, to replenish their little store, to kindle a fire upon their cold hearth, and to provide garments for the sick and the children; but charity, alas! has hitherto been the only bond, powerful as it may be; and even in this, it is not rare that different congregations of the same city have established charitable societies, consisting almost exclusively of their own members, owing to some alienation of feeling produced by the diversity of interests necessarily resulting from independent action in the different bodies.

Whilst, therefore, there are no elements of union, it is impossible to effect any improvement upon a large scale; and whilst the diversity of language prevails to the great extent it does now, it will be futile to attempt to produce a fusion of the masses. Even preachers, as we are now constituted in this country, unless they could speak both in English and German, must be comparatively useless, since in mixed congregations some would not understand the discourse from a want of knowledge of the language employed by the speakers; and assume that they could express themselves correctly in both tongues, it would be utterly impossible to arrange it so that both portions could be benefitted alternately by an English and German discourse. Besides, were it even practicable, we should, for one, be opposed to establish a multiplicity of tongues for the use of our public speakers. The country is essentially English in its tastes, habits and predilections, and it appears to us absolutely requisite that Jews should conform as nearly as possible, consistent with their religion, to the manners of the people among whom they live. In addition to this, the children of German parents insensibly learn the English, and know but little of the language of their parents. Hence, it would be evidently a work of supererogation to gratify the parents who just come to this country, by providing in the old congregations speakers, who, day by day, would become less useful to the rising generation. There are, indeed, some communities consisting entirely of emigrants from Germany, and among these German preachers may be of service for the present. But here, too, the progress of change is constant, though apparently imperceptible. The Jews are nearly all settled in commercial communities, with but few exceptions in the agricultural districts; hence the younger members will naturally be brought in contact with the Anglo-Americans, however much pains may be taken by parents to instruct them at home in the German language. In a country like this, where the intercourse between distant parts is so rapid and general, it is idle to presume that the greatest watching can preserve a language different from that spoken by the majority; for, if even the parents should be indifferent to learn the language of the country whither they have emigrated, be this disinclination owing to a too greatly advanced age or constant association with their own kin, the children will have so many inducements to act differently, that they will sooner learn the language spoken in the streets than the one they hear, or which is forced upon them, within doors. We believe, for these reasons, that it would be worse than useless, nay, injurious to our interests both political and religious, to attempt importing our religious teachers from Germany, or to do the least to keep up instruction in that language, elegant and forcible as it is, on the continent and in the islands of America. We fear that we may give offence to some of our readers, who are ardently attached to the literature and language of their fatherland, and who imagine that they will be able to transplant its characteristics and literature into their new home. But a little reflection must convince them, that it would be unwise to attempt it; for they cannot for a moment imagine, that the natives of the country would forego the use of the English, or to allow the association of the other in public worship, especially as the German is to them more inaccessible than the English is to the immigrants. No one will, however, pretend to say that a uniformity, or an approximation thereto, is not of the highest importance; and we appeal, therefore, to the sound common sense of our people to endeavour to do something to bring about a state as near uniformity as the circumstances of the case will permit. We have no fear, that that in the course of twenty years from this a numerous native Jewish population will be spread over America, who, being born to the soil, will have more congeniality of feeling and of language than there is found among us now. But we must not wait so long, although the evil we complain of will then cure itself; for we must take care that the separate congregational organization produce not a permanent estrangement of feelings and interests. We, for our part, cannot help deploring the unmeaning distinction between the Southern or Portuguese, and the Northern or German rituals. They were the products of the dark ages, when each division of Europe, from the very isolation existing between the Israelites residing therein, developed through its own poets and writers of devotional works, a separate character for its own Israelites. Had the intercourse been as unrestricted as it is now, we honestly believe that we should never have known any thing of the Sephardim and Ashkenazim customs, and should then have been spared the unnatural divisions which on their first approximation by the settlement of Spanish refugees in Holland, Hamburg and London were so palpably developed, and which we, at this day, when the fusion of these portions of our people has been partially effected, can scarcely believe to have existed. We moreover believe, that most rightly thinking persons agree with us in stating that these sectional differences had better be removed, or that, at least, every thing ought to be done to lessen their injurious effects. We, therefore, maintain that we must take care that these differences, transplanted among us from Europe, and only come to maturity within the last eighteen years, shall not produce a permanent estrangement of feelings and interests. But if we proceed as we have hitherto done, especially if that unfortunate rage for useless reforms should be excited in our communities to the extent it prevails in a few places in Europe, it requires no prophet to predict, that we never can have any union among us in the western hemisphere, and that more still than hitherto, each little assemblage of Jews will proceed in its own way of action, regardless of what other communities may say or do. We are not an alarmist: we do not despair of our people; nor do we believe that they will not ultimately act correctly when they come to their “sober second thoughts;” for if this were not our settled conviction, we would throw by our pen in utter hopelessness, and leave the evil unattended to by our advice or interference. No! We go by the old saying: הנח להם לישראל אם אינם נביאים בני נביאים הם “Let Israel alone; if they are not themselves prophets they are the sons of prophets;” and we, therefore, presume to speak to them on a subject which many, no doubt, have frequently thought upon; and we will persevere in urging their attention, in the hope, we are almost tempted to say certainty, that something will ultimately be done. The only misfortune is, that it is no one’s business in particular. Every body is alike interested, and so every body leaves it to others to move in the premises, thinking it time enough to follow after others have taken the lead. But if we wait at this rate, nothing will ever be done, and year after year will leave us precisely where we stood, if the flood of circumstances should not have carried us upon the retrograde track. It is true, that the remedy for our want of cohesion is not very apparent; but one thing is to a surety evident to the commonest discernment—that, if the children of our people be brought in contact, and form bonds of friendship in early youth, they will when they grow up have a greater degree of sympathy for each other, than if reared without such friendly intercourse in early years. Persons may laugh as they please at school-boys’ friendship; but no one can look back upon the sunny days of his childhood and boyish years, when he could laugh with unrestrained mirth, and play at games befitting youth with his school companions, without emotions of pleasure. Let him call up before his memory the bright intellects that contended with him for academical honours—let him revert to the warm hearts, that now are chilled in death—the friendly bosoms, that now lie still beneath the green mounds in some distant sepulchre—or let him hear from those who, having with him entered life, are now among the honoured of the earth: and can he avoid feeling emotions of sadness, or of pleasure and joy, that such as these had been his companions, his friends? And who will not feel himself stimulated to advance upon the thorny path of life, when he knows that others who know of him and value him, are also advancing, or, at least, to endeavour not to he left behind in the race for improvement?

Let us then have such emulation among our own youth in this extensive republic, where mind will always be valued, whatever the alarmists may say to the contrary. Here we have a field for development as no Israelites have in the whole world besides: we are unmolested in our pursuits, both in religious and civil life, and we too could reach eminence if we would but advance with judgment and a determined will. Our Christian neighbours have shown us us an excellent example in their endeavours to let the benefits of religious education reach every hamlet and every house in the country; and the very errors which they occasionally commit, by over-exciting the public mind on abstract questions of church policy, are almost excusable by the benevolent motive from which they originate. They wish to propagate what they believe the truth; and hence, though we do, as we must, condemn the means, we cannot but respect the undaunted courage and perseverance which many display in their labours, for which no earthly reward can be rationally expected by them. Let us imitate them in their endeavours to diffuse education. The task is not so difficult as it was formerly; we have at least a few school-books, though they are confessedly, as yet, too few to be called a system of education; still there are some; and it is not impracticable to collect the children, at least once every week, in a body, to give them if even no more than an outline of their duties and the doctrines of their religion, in the language of the country. A double benefit will result from this course; first, the children will receive such education as their parents cannot obtain for them in the common schools; secondly, by learning their religion from persons speaking English, they will ultimately, when grown up, be accessible to the voice of the public teacher, and thus become gradually confirmed in their duties and faith, as soon as the number of congregations will be sufficient to demand, and what is next, will obtain duly qualified ministers, who will be required to expound the law and watch over the progress of religious education. We do not wish to be understood as recommending nothing more than one day’s instruction; far from it; we are well aware that such education must be very superficial and defective in more points of view than one; but we are not of those who, because they cannot obtain all, will therefore take nothing. We however hope, that when people have seen the benefit of religious education, and the happy results arise from bringing our children together under the same roof, they will not rest till the one day’s teaching shall be replaced by a regular school, open to all, where the rich and the poor alike shall have access, and be instructed in the elements at least of the sacred tongue, no less than the the other branches of science.

For the present, we gratefully acknowledge, that in several places, both here and in the West India Islands, the friends of our religion have assembled round them the children on the first day of the week, for the purpose of affording them gratuitous instruction in religion; and we believe that, in the seven years since the commencement of these so-called “Sunday Schools,” much wholesome knowledge leas been diffused, and a greater degree of friendly intercourse been promoted among the children of various congregations and the different classes of society. In these efforts have mainly been active the “daughters” of Israel; and to their unpurchased services, and to their heartfelt piety, is it owing that in many places a renewed love for our religion has been excited, which, we fervently trust, will not remain without producing fruits to correspond with the promises already given. We are well aware that the progress has as yet been slow, and we may hereafter enlarge upon the causes; but we speak advisedly when we say that, for all this it has been sure. At least the effort has been sufficient to encourage us to hope for better things, and to urge our friends who now labour to persevere, and to redouble their efforts in the field wherein their labours are now exerted.

There are, however, several communities as yet, wherein the number who receive instruction is far smaller than those who actually are ripe for education. We urge upon these to arouse themselves to the task, and to endeavour to do something in the premises. The adults, we know, are not accessible by the means just spoken of; but the children are. Let them then assemble these to listen to the word of instruction, and to omit no efforts till their duty has been discharged in this important matter. They may find that, at the first outset, the labour will scarcely be repaid by their success; but a perseverance, constant and unwearied, will at length overcome difficulties much greater than these.

No doubt many deplore the little union there is among us; but a community of education will excite a community of feelings, and, when this is achieved, we may then proceed to unite harmoniously to develop our religion on a firm and secure basis. Sectional jealousies will vanish when people have learned to think and feel alike; and thus a greater degree of uniformity in religious observance will be produced, when one friend will urge another by the ties of school-years’ friendship, and by the bond of love for some revered teacher removed from the earth, to swear fealty to the law of Heaven, which they both imbibed in those years, and under the same guide, when their hearts were innocent, and their aspirations were redolent with purity.