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The Modern and the Ancient Order of Things.


I had left New York deeply awakened to the growing influences of our religion; for I had witnessed with pride and gratification the peculiar solemnities which had characterized the recent anniversaries of our festivals, and had marked with hope, the brightness which had just begun to break in diffusive joy over Israel, tinging with light and gladness, the valley of apathy and indifference in which we had so long abided. I was, therefore, not prepared to observe with charity and approval the progress of innovation even with results most brilliant, and it was with such powerful effect that the observation of a day in the Hazel Street Synagogue in Charleston impressed me, that I have loosely thrown together the contrasted views of Crosby Street [Sephardic Shearith Israel] Synagogue in New York under its respected reader, and Mr. Poznanski’s place of worship in Charleston. and it is with no unkind feelings to the latter gentleman that I shall present this picture of the result of his movements; for one, I am not inclined to believe him otherwise than honest in the improvements which he advocates, and candidly opine that his intelligence should command for his views the attention of our people. I entertain too much respect for him to believe that he is so extremely zealous as to contend for the triumph of his doctrines at their apparent extravagant cost, except his convictions were so deep in their correctness, as to reconcile his mind to the full force of the disastrous result of the experiment. It may be that he is “yet only before the age.” Our service may be susceptible of beneficial alterations; yet it is more than questionable if the reader of a congregation would under any circumstances be considered as sufficiently empowered with authority, to add to or expunge from, the service of the entire nation. It is not strange that with a litany descending to us, hallowed in its antiquity, we should be wedded to it, not only by all those influences of a blessed nature which teach us to cherish a religious creed, sacred by veneration, but also from a holy prejudice implanted in our nature for some inscrutable, but doubtless wise purpose. We look upon innovation and reform with fear and trembling. It thus follows that no man however gifted, however honest in his views, can hope by individual opposition to change this grand national characteristic; whilst on the contrary in seeking to do so, dissension and discord will be promoted, friends and foes created, and birth given to violent personal differences.

With these remarks let me present a brief sketch of the Crosby Street Synagogue on שמיני עצרת (eighth day of Tabernacles.)

The Amidah commences for the Musaph, and the voice of the reader is heard in fulness and force: משיב הרוח ומוריד הגשם לברכה “Cause the wind to blow and the rain to descend for a blessing,” and this is succeeded by a solemn stillness which pervades the assembly. You case your eyes towards the galleries: they are filled to overflowing with the bright representatives of the beauty of the daughters of Judah, and now upstanding with their forms turned to the East; they turn over the pages of their books, whilst you may see by their moving lips, that it is no mock-devotion which marks with serenity and peace those countenances of love. You look around the spot where you are standing, and see manly forms with their white Talith occupying every vacancy, the hoary head of age, and the strength of autumnal manhood, the vigour of the prime of life and the activity of spring-time existence, whilst the buoyant forms and bright countenances of the youths of Israel are interspersed throughout.

The repetition begins, and as the reader’s voice closes the opening aspiration, in tones of power comes forth the response from the assembled hundreds. And as he continues and the name of the Deity passes his lips, with one accord the multitude ask that name to be ever blessed, and when the first petition is concluded, with stirring energy the responsive Amen is heard from every lip. And so through that prayer for rain until its last words are recited, the congregation continue to sing forth those strains of praise, and thus devotionally proceed with the residue of the Amidah until its conclusion. Now upstanding the Kadish is repeated, and whilst they re-seat themselves, the reader declares the portion of Israel in futurity. Then comes אין כאלהינו and whilst every voice blends in that assembled choir, sweetly is heard the rich notes from the galleries joining in the strain, for who so literally the “sweet singers of Israel” as the fair daughters of his race. Bowed down in supplication, acknowledging the peculiar duty reserved for Israel to worship the God of truth, and the hymn of majestic praise which concludes the service rises upon our ears. Now from every part of that vast building ascends the chaunt, from youth and age, strength and feebleness, and every voice sends forth its shout. With sweet softness is heard the rich tones of the reader as he repeats the concluding line, and then the massive doors of the ark are closed, and the congregation is dismissed in joy and peace.

Now let us turn to the Hazel Street Synagogue on שבת בראשית (first Sabbath after Tabernacles.)

The building itself is very similar in its construction to the Crosby Street Synagogue, save that the gallery opposite the ark contains the organ and choir. I entered whilst they were reading the Law, and looking around me was chilled at the sight presented. There were some twenty-five or thirty individuals seated below, about one-half of whom wear the Talith. The galleries may have contained about fifty, including the choir. The reading of the Law proceeded as usual, and after it had closed, the chapter and the verse of the Haphtorah was announced in English and read in Hebrew. No responsive blessing was heard when the name of God was mentioned, nor did the Amen even rise into audible distinctness. The prayer for Government was read in English, and then followed the usual service until the laws were carried back to the ark. Instead of the mighty sounds which rise in such majesty in Crosby Street when this hymn is sung, a few feeble female voices are heard accompanied by the organ, whose swelling notes form but a poor accompaniment to the slenderness of those female tones. The reader having returned to the desk, an English prayer of some ten minutes is then recited by him, and I did not perceive that it excited any peculiar solemnity in the congregation. Then an English hymn was chaunted by the choir, which being finished, the Musaph commenced. It was read distinctly and plainly, without any marked emphasis, and on the countenances of some appeared distinct signs that it was regarded as an interpolation which it was expedient speedily to expunge, as not possessing the interest of those English prayers. The choir were again in requisition to sing אין כאלהינו and אדון עולם which was no more effective than מזמר לדוד. The translation of the blessings of the priests was then read in English, and with this invocation the congregation dismissed. Every thing was cold and dull, no animation sparkled forth in the countenances of reader or congregation, and the few who were assembled seemed in the performance of an irksome duty, which did not claim the service of their heart. It would be uncharitable to suppose its inward influences thus deteriorating, and we should remember that decorum and systematic devotion are the principal ends for which these alterations are offered.

I shall not hold myself responsible for any inferences that may be drawn from the facts I have presented; I have certainly no interested motives urging me to misrepresentation, neither have I set down “aught in malice.” On the contrary, personal friendship and esteem for the gentleman who is at the head of the Charleston congregation, would induce any thing but an attack either on himself or the peculiar views of which he is the great advocate; but yet the remarkable contrast which his system and its effects presented were so very striking, that whilst I strove to forget them, memory retained the impressions with unyielding tenacity. I hope that in what I have written, neither he nor his friends, many of whom I claim to be placed in the same category, will imagine that I have intended to cast any disrespectful allusions on their undertaking.—“By your works ye shall be known.”

D. S.

Mobile, Ala. Kislev, 5605.