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'God Delivered the Pilgrims—and My People'

3:43 PM, Nov 22, 2013 • By DANIEL HALPER
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Meir Soloveichik, writing in the Wall Street Journal:

The once-in-a-lifetime convergence of Thanksgiving Day with the first day of Hanukkah has inspired culinary fusions like deep-fried turkey, song parodies and clever T-shirts. One enterprising lad has even invented the "Menurkey": a menorah (candelabrum) in the shape of a turkey. Humor aside, one group of American Jews—the members of New York's Congregation Shearith Israel —have reason to find in this year's calendrical happenstance a source both of institutional memory and of profound pride. Of all American synagogues, Shearith Israel has been celebrating both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving from the very beginning.

As with the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, the origins of Shearith Israel trace back to a small group of religious freedom-seekers and a treacherous ocean passage to the New World. In September 1654, 23 Jews set sail from Recife, Brazil, where the Portuguese Inquisition had made practicing Judaism impossible. Intending to return to Europe but captured by pirates mid-voyage, they gave themselves up for lost—until, as a congregational history puts it, "God caused a savior to arise unto them, the captain of a French ship arrayed for battle, and he rescued them out of the hands of the outlaws . . . and conducted them until they reached the end of the inhabited earth called New Holland."

Once arrived safely in New Holland, better known as New Amsterdam, the refugees formed the first Jewish community in North America. From the start, they remained loyal to their faith: praying together, ensuring the availability of kosher meat, and observing their holidays. For these individuals, the symbolism of lighting the Hanukkah candles in the dark of winter must have been especially resonant, at one with the dawning presence of Judaism in the New World.

At the beginning of the 18th century, Shearith Israel—the name means "the remnant of Israel"—was importing its clergy from Europe. But by 1768, it was ready to hire its first American-born minister, Gershom Mendes Seixas. And it is here that the story of Shearith Israel becomes forever intertwined with the story of Thanksgiving—and of America.

Whole thing here.

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