This post (the first of two) is by Sarah Levy, an intern at the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, who is compiling a bibliography of Judaica printed in America from the early colonial period until the mid 1800s.
The first Jewish prayer book to be published in North America was also the first ever complete Jewish prayer book to be translated into English. When Jewish merchant and scholar Isaac Pinto (1720-1791) of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York looked around his synagogue and realized that congregants could not understand the Hebrew service, he knew something had to be done. In 1766, he completed a translation of all the prayers recited on the weekly Sabbath and the yearly holidays. His book, written exclusively in English, followed the custom of the Spanish-Portuguese Jews and even included a prayer for King George III and the royal family of England. As Pinto wrote in the preface, services would still be conducted in Hebrew, “the sacred tongue with which God chose to reveal himself to our ancestors,” but now, at last, those members who did not understand Hebrew could follow along in English.
In Europe and the Ottoman Empire, translating Jewish texts had been a source of controversy for centuries. Even in the 1700s London community leaders forbid the translation of the prayers into English. Ottoman rabbis from the same time period, like Jacob Culi in Constantinople, worried even about the permissibility of translating into Ladino, a Hebrew-Spanish hybrid language. By contrast, Americans readily accepted vernacular translations. But that’s not to say American Jews didn’t have their own share of disagreements about Hebrew, especially regarding the problematic fact that fewer and fewer people were attending synagogue schools or learning the sacred language at all.
Daniel Peixotto, in a speech given at an annual charity benefit dinner in New York in 1830, declared that preserving Hebrew was necessary for preserving the Jewish faith. He claimed that equally important to giving money to the poor was dispensing knowledge to the ignorant. He wanted to make a school to properly educate teachers who could then reach out to the youth of the community and teach them Hebrew. To reverse the decline of Hebrew, Peixotto believed, providing more and better access to education was the solution.
Others, however, thought Jews should embrace the future instead of clinging to the past. Isaac Harby, the first to advocate for Reform Judaism in America, called on Congregation K. K. Beth Elohim in Charleston in 1824 to modernize the service instead of blindly following in the footsteps of their ancestors. He asked that each Hebrew prayer recited aloud be immediately followed by an English translation, that the rabbi deliver a weekly sermon in English, and that new prayers reflecting contemporary life be added. Equating himself to Martin Luther of the Christian Reformation, Harby also called for the abandonment of the oral law (regarded as equally important to traditional Jews as the written Scripture) and for the installation of an organ in the synagogue (something the rabbis had ruled was forbidden).
As Americans Jews negotiated their new identity and debated the values of tradition and assimilation, the place for Hebrew was sure to play a part.
Goldman, Yosef, and Ari Kinsberg. Hebrew Printing in America: 1735-1926: a History and Annotated Bibliography. 2006. page xii.
Harby, Isaac. A discourse, delivered in Charleston, (S.C.) on the 21st of Nov. 1825, before the Reformed Society of Israelites : for promoting true principles of Judaism according to its purity and spirit, on their first anniversary. (Charleston [S.C.] : Printed by A. E. Miller, 4, Broad-street, 1825).
Peixotto, Daniel L. M. (Daniel Levy Maduro). Anniversary discourse : pronounced before the Society for the Education of Orphan Children, and the Relief of Indigent Persons of the Jewish Persuasion. ([New York] : Published by order of the society 1830 (New-York : Printed by J. Seymour).
Pinto, Isaac. Prayers for Shabbath, Rosh-Hashanah and Kippur, or, The Sabbath, the beginning of the year, and the Day of Atonements; : with the Amidah and Musaph of the Moadim, or solemn seasons, according to the order of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews. (New York: Printed by John M. Holt, A.M. 5526 ).