The Beth Elohim Synagogue and Solomon Nunes Carvalho

Immigration

Most of us know about the massive Jewish immigration to the United States from Central and Eastern Europe that started in the late 1800’s.  But less is known about earlier movements to North America.   

Jews began to settle in Charleston, South Carolina in 1695, 25 years only after the English founded Carolina.  These Jewish immigrants were mostly Sephardim who came to Charleston from England, by way of the Caribbean islands. They were attracted by the burgeoning commercial opportunities but also for the religious freedom and personal rights offered and tolerated by the colony’s Lord Proprietors. (Virtual Jewish Library.)  

Ca. 1812 drawing, KK Beth Elohim Synagogue, built 1792-1794, burned 1838. In 1825, South Carolina architect Robert Mills wrote, “It is a remarkably neat building, crowned with a cupola.”

The first Charleston synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (KKBE), or Holy Congregation of the House of God, was opened in 1749.  The congregation followed the Sephardic minhag (liturgy) of the Spanish-Portuguese communities of London and Amsterdam.  By 1764, the synagogue had moved to a third and larger structure. (College of Charleston.) 

One of the KKBE congregants was Solomon Nunes Carvalho. Carvalho was born in Charleston in 1815 to parents who were themselves born in England, and had moved to Barbados, then to the United States.  Solomon studied photography – a new technology back then! – with his father who opened workshops in Charleston and then Philadelphia.  Solomon was also a gifted painter who later studied with famed artist Thomas Sully

The Great Fire and a Heartwarming Gift 

On Friday evening April 27, 1838, fire broke out at the corner of King and Beresford streets in Charleston, soon ravaging more than 1,100 buildings of all kinds – dwellings, tenements, boarding houses, stores, workshops, kitchens, stables and sheds, and four houses of worship. Synagogue Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim was one of them.  

Solomon Nunes Carvalho. Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, Interior, 1838; Oil on canvas. Collection of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

Twenty-three year old Solomon immediately started to paint a highly detailed picture of the interior of the synagogue from memory.  A few months later, he presented the canvas to the Beth Elohim trustees “for such compensation as the Board may deem proper to allow”. The sum of fifty dollars was sent to Carvalho by the Congregation!

I had the thrill of seeing this amazing painting and 10 other works of art by Solomon Nunes Carvalho as part of the Princeton University exhibit “by Dawn’s Early Light – Jewish Contribution to American Culture from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War“.  In the exhibit catalog, Dale Rosengarten, co-curator of the exhibit and curator of the Jewish Heritage Collection at the College of Charleston Library remarked:

“The young painter had captured a haunting memory of the beloved temple: light pours through two rows of compass-headed windows evenly spaced along the side walls… The muted tones of the empty sanctuary capture a mood of sanctity and loss”

Solomon’s Ultimate Calling 

Carvalho continued to paint and to develop his photography business.  In June 1849, he opened a gallery in Baltimore offering both oil portraits and a variety of daguerreotypes—a new process that brought the cost of photography down.  In 1853, Solomon Carvalho was invited by Colonel John C. Frémont to join him on his fifth crossing of the continent. The primary objective of the expedition was to pass through the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada Mountains during winter to document the amount of snow and the feasibility of winter rail passage along the route.  Almost every day of the expedition, Carvalho made daguerreotypes, photographing not only the landscape but also the Native Americans and their settlements.  Fremont was thrilled with Carvalho’s work.

“We are producing a line of pictures of exquisite beauty, which will admirably illustrate the country,”

he wrote to his wife, Jessie Benton Fremont. Only one of these daguerreotypes remains. 

Freedom!

Solomon’s family fled Portugal, Amsterdam, London and the Barbados in search of a better and freer life.  The United States provided them with the religious freedom and the economic opportunities they were seeking.  Solomon’s artistic talent and his business flourished.  In an unselfish act, he left his business behind to join Colonel Frémont’s fifth Continental exploration,  leaving an undelible mark on the Country’s history.  In 1856, John Charles Frémont, now Governor of California, became the first candidate of the Republican Party for the office of President of the United States.

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A haunting rendition of Lu Yehi by Yaron Herman and his trio

Israel is fertile ground for jazz.  I have covered some of the Israeli jazz scene in a previous post.

Yaron Herman

Yaron Herman is ירון הרמן‎ is a French-Israeli jazz pianist now living in Paris. After a few years of piano study, he attended the Boston, MA Berklee College of Music at age 19. He then moved to Paris, France, where he began his recording career at age 21.  He is inspired by such jazz legends as Keith JarrettPaul BleyLennie Tristano and Brad Mehldau – my favorites too!   His website can be found at http://yaronherman.com/ 

BBC’s Kevin LeGendre reviewed Herman’s Muse album, where Lu Yehi is featured, in 2009. “Melodically gifted as he is, Herman is no slouch as an improviser and a fleet, precise right hand unfurls a number of sparkling, at times Chick Corea-like statements in which the Spanish-Arabic flourish is strong.”

Herman’s cover of Lu Yehi follows the song’s haunting melody but introduces a jazzy dissonance that evokes the hurt, chaos and uncertainty of war.

Lu Yehi

The famous Israeli song LU YEHI – לוּ יְהִי  (May It Be) was written and composed by Naomi Shemer during the Yom Kippur War (1973).  Naomi also famously wrote “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” (“Jerusalem of Gold”) in 1967 after Israel won the Six-Day War.  In “Lu Yehi”, Naomi Shemer hopes for a quick end to the war and for the safe return of IDF soldiers (“This is the end of the summer, the end of the road, let them come back.”)

Lyrics in Hebrew and English (from Hebrewsongs.com)

Od yesh mifras lavan ba’ofek
mul anan shachor kaved
Kol shenevakesh – Lu Yehi.

Ve’im bacholonot ha’erev
Or nerot hachag ro’ed –
Kol shenevakesh – Lu Yehi.

Lu Yehi, Lu Yehi, Ana, Lu Yehi
Kol shenevakesh – Lu Yehi.

Ma kol anot ani shomei’a
Kol shofar vekol tupim
Kol shenevakesh lu yehi

Lu tishama betoch kawl eileh
Gam tefila achat mipi
Kol shenevakesh lu yehi

Lu yehi…

Betoch sh’chuna ktana mutzelet
Bait kat im gag adom
Kol shenevakesh lu yehi

Zeh sof hakayitz, sof haderech
Ten lahem lashuv halom
Kol shenevakesh lu yehi

Lu yehi…

Ve’im pit’om yizrach mei’ofel
Al rosheinu or kochav
Kol shenevakesh lu yehi

Az ten shalva veten gam ko’ach
Lechol eileh shenohav
Koll shenevakesh – lu yehi

Lu yehi………

There is still a white sail on the horizon
Opposite a heavy black cloud
All that we ask for – may it be

And if in the evening windows
The light of the holiday candles flickers
All that we seek – may it be

May it be, may it be – Please – may it be
All that we seek – may it be.

What is the sound that I hear
The cry of the shofar and the sound of drums
All that we ask for – may it be

If only there can be heard within all this
One prayer from my lips also
All that we seek – may it be

May it be…

Within a small, shaded neighborhood
Is a small house with a red roof
All that we ask for, may it be

This is the end of summer, the end of the path
Allow them to return safely here
All that we seek, may it be

May it be…

And if suddenly, rising from the darkness
Over our heads, the light of a star shines
All that we ask for, may it be

Then grant tranquility and also grant strength
To all those we love
All that we seek, may it be

May it be…

Rabbinic Judaism: A Missed Opportunity?

This post is a companion to my post on twenty notable rabbis coming later today.  One of the conclusions of my research for the 20 rabbi post is that Rabbinic Judaism, with a few notable exceptions, missed an opportunity to make significant contributions to World theology and to mankind, and at the same time, isolated the Jewish people and failed to protect it from persistent persecutions from other nations.

In the beginning…

The genius of Judaism, or Hebraism (Note 1) I should say, is the idea of One God.  Maybe the original Hebrews borrowed the idea from another place or another tribe in Canaan or in the Euphrates region, but Abraham and his cohorts made it work.  Monotheism became and is now the leading and most successful World theology.  The Rabbinic system of Judaism took off after the second destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 BC and replaced the priestly system that was in place then. The early rabbis felt that they needed to rebuild the religious foundation of a people who had just lost its land, power and temple for the second time in 600 years.  One of their priorities was to write down and discuss Jewish laws (Halakha).

The good…

Positive

Rabbinic Judaism has some important and positive attributes: it values intellectual honesty and justice, it is (or was) largely a merit-based, democratic system (no central authority.) Rabbinic Judaism formed the basis of a Jewish education system long before other nations, providing opportunities for dissenting opinions, and generally advocating a positive, life-affirming approach.

The bad…

Here are some areas where, in my opinion, Rabbinic Judaism fell, and still falls, short:

  • NegativeWith a few exceptions, discourse in Rabbinic Judaism has been narrow, focusing as I said above on conduct and obedience (Halakha).  Rabbis have spent millions (perhaps billions!) of hours on minute and obscure details of little or no importance to the Jewish as a whole.  One could argue that Rabbinic practices contributed to the isolation of the Jewish people.
  • I mentioned intellectual honesty as a plus, but Rabbis often use(d) convoluted, illogical and obscure arguments such as numerology or “miracles” in order to  make a point.
  • The Rabbis created a closed system of Yeshivoth where deep religious knowledge was shared and discussed within the system and rarely outside of it.  Those who attended yeshivoth often came from wealthy families who could support the students (Note 2).  successful rabbis were often connected in the community and politically astute.  They competed for lucrative positions in wealthy Jewish communities.
  • The Rabbis’ focus on halakhic minutiae has, in turn, hindered or precluded them from addressing important religious issues that could benefit all nations in the areas of morality, equality, oppression of minorities, compassion, interfaith unions, personal choices, etc.
  • To complement this thought, it is my observation that the most impactful rabbis and sages are the ones who were able to bring into their closed loop environments non-Jewish sources of knowledge, and integrate this knowledge into their own work.  For instance, Sa’adia Gaon integrated components of Greek philosophy, Maimonides was heavily influenced by Aristotle, and David Hartman used modern philosophy which he integrated with his Talmudic knowledge (Note 3).

A modern creed…

Modern-Space-Living-Room-Window-DesignCaring for strangers is mentioned more times in the Torah than any other commandment.  Yet morality is a topic seldom addressed in Rabbinic Judaism, except in the context of the law.   Early Christianity, on the other hand, was able to address some of the social and moral issues of the time while leveraging Judaism’s overall framework (Note 4.)

The Rabbinic “us versus them” model likely contributed to Jewish isolation in the World and missed an opportunity to share the strength and true meaning of the original biblical message.  Today, Judaism needs a new framework in tune with our science and fact-oriented world, a framework that focuses more on values and morality than halakhic details.  Morality has the power of truth, said Maimonides.  Judaism needs to become an open and moral religion, a modern room with windows. “Judaism beyond the (kosher) kitchen” as David Hartman said (Note 3).

Notes:

(1) One idea, attributable in part to Rabbi Leon Askenazi is that Ever (the original Hebrew), grandson of Noah, is really the founder of Judaism.  I will post on this. later.

(2) Just an example:  “At age fifteen, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi married Sterna Segal, the daughter of Yehuda Leib Segal, a wealthy resident of Vitebsk, and he was then able to devote himself entirely to study.”    Rabbi Akiva married the daughter of the Ben Kalba Sabu’a, a wealthy citizen of Jerusalem, etc.

(2) It is no coincidence that I mention Rabbi David Hartman who created the Shalom Hartman Institute.  Rabbi Hartman was a philosopher and leader of the Modern Orthodox Movement .  Some of the ideas in this post originate with his teachings and vision.  The first post on this blog was devoted to a short but critical essay by Rabbi Hartman called “Auschwitz or Sinai“.

(3) Early churches met almost exclusively in homes. These gatherings became close, supportive communities that shared resources, including money, when someone was needy. They became surrogate families. Not only that but they were radically egalitarian—something novel in the Roman world of that day. Paul made his ringing announcement that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

***

To Life! – Le’ Chaim!

Recent scientific news tell us something our ancestors already knew:  life is precious, life is rare!   On this day of remembrance, let us praise life.  Let us praise the Godly and magical concept of life that brings us all here together: humans and animals and plants.

Let us acknowledge that we are all products of life, first and foremost by smiling at one another!  Today! Smile at your goldfish, at your tomato plant, at your neighbors and at strangers.,

Let us remember kindly those who brought us life, our parents and their parents and their parents.  Let us remember the innocents of all nations and all faiths who perished at the hands of others,

Let us acknowledge our difference of opinions but recognize the miracle of life that unites us all.

To life, Le’ Chaim!

Anti-Semitism being ‘normalised’ in Poland, Jewish Congress warns

Source: Anti-Semitism being ‘normalised’ in Poland, Jewish Congress warns

The European Jewish Congress expressed “grave concerns” Thursday over an increase in anti-Semitic acts in Poland under the rightwing Law and Justice government.

“There has been a distinct normalisation of antisemitism, racism and xenophobia in Poland recently and we hope that the Polish government will stem this hate and act forcefully against it,” EJC president Moshe Kantor said in a statement.

The group cited a proliferation of “fascist slogans” and unsettling remarks on social media and television, as well as the display of flags of the nationalist ONR group at state ceremonies.

Such incidents “appear to have coincided with the Polish government closing its communications with the official representatives of the Jewish community,” Kantor said.

According to the congress, it has been around a year since a senior Polish minister met with leaders of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland, which represents the fewer than 10,000 people who belong to Jewish organisations in the country of 38 million people.

Poland was once home to Europe’s largest Jewish population, numbering around three million people, or 10 percent of the Polish population in 1939.

But only about 300,000 survived the Second World War after Nazi Germany occupied Poland and set up the death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau on its territory.

Earlier this year, University of Warsaw’s Centre for Research on Prejudice found that acceptance for anti-Semitic hate speech — especially among young Poles on the internet — had risen since 2014.

The study, released in January, found that 37 percent of those surveyed voiced negative attitudes towards Jews in 2016, up from 32 percent the previous year, while 56 percent said they would not accept a Jewish person in their family, an increase of nearly 10 percent from 2014.

Read more: http://www.digitaljournal.com/news/world/anti-semitism-being-normalised-in-poland-jewish-congress-warns/article/501334#ixzz4rN1HVOTz

Shalom Italia

Yesterday, I had the great privilege of attending the World Premiere of Shalom Italia, a brand new documentary by Israeli film maker  Tamar Tal Anati, at the American Film Institute Silver Theater in Silver Springs, Maryland.

shalomitaliaThe movie tells the story of the three Anati brothers, ages 73, 82 and 84, who set off on a journey to find a cave in the woods of Tuscany, Italy.  This cave is the place where they remember hiding as children with their entire family to escape the Nazis. Each brother has a different recollection of the events that took place some 70 years ago, and each brother approaches this adventure differently.  This delightful movie overlays the humorous interaction between the three brothers with a reflection on the importance of memories on our lives.

I could not help but draw a parallel with the story of my parents who were both hidden during the war and survived the Holocaust as well.  My father was hidden on a farm, not unlike the three brothers picture in the movie.  My mother lived under and assumed Christian name while her parents lived hidden in a basement.  Like the Anati brothers, my parents owed their lives to the generosity and courage of Christian men and women who protected them during the war.  My mother kept a very close relationship with her saviors, the George family, until her death.  Like the Emmanuel Anati, my parents and my grandmother were always reluctant to speak about this period of their lives, perhaps repressing these memories.

Following the showing, we had the great fortune of having a question and answer session with Tamar, the film maker and with Reuven who traveled for the Premiere. This was a great moment that added to the significance and pleasure of the event.  The movie is expertly edited, and professionally put together. I would highly recommend that you look for any showings in your area.  In the meantime, enjoy the trailer below 🙂

 

The Antwerp Bible

The Antwerp Bible (its official name is “Biblia Sacra, Hebraice, Chaldaice, Graece et Latine: Philippi II. reg. Cathol. pietate, et studio ad sacrosanctae ecclesiae vsum, Christoph Plantinus excud.“) was printed between 1568 and 1573 by Christopher Plantin in Antwerp (now Belgium.)

The Catholic king of Spain Philip II financed the project and sent Spanish theologian Benito Arias Montano to Antwerp to watch over its translation in five languages.  The Bible comprises eight volumes and was printed in 1100 copies.

  • The first four volumes contain the Old Testament. The left page has two columns with the Hebrew original and the Latin translation, the right page has same text in Greek with its own Latin translation. Underneath these columns there is an Aramaic version on the left-hand page and a Latin translation of this on the right-hand side.
  • Volume 5 contains the New Testament in Greek and Syriac, each with a Latin translation, and a translation of the Syriac into Hebrew.
  • Volume 6 has the complete Bible in the original Hebrew and Greek, as well as an interlinear version that has the Latin translation printed between the lines.
  • The last two volumes contain dictionaries (Hebrew-Latin, Greek-Latin, Syriac-Aramaic, grammar rules, list of names, etc.) that were of value to scholars.

For printing the Hebrew text Plantin used among others Daniel Bomberg’s Hebrew type, which he had received from Bomberg’s nephews. Bomberg was a Christian printer and publisher of Hebrew works. He was born in Antwerp and died in Venice in 1549.  After having learned from his father, Cornelius, the art of printing and of type-founding, he went to Venice, where, from 1517 to 1549, he published many editions of Hebrew works.

A complete copy of the Antwerp Bible is on display at the Plantin-Moretus Museum (the site of the original printing press), including the typefaces which were designed for this project.

Photo: http://drc.usask.ca/projects/archbook/archbook_admin/images/FisherG-10_00137.jpg