Today was the first day of the New York Jewish Music and Heritage Festival. Taking place from September 7-14, the byline reads A one-week cultural celebration of the 350th Anniversary of the first Jews in America. The schedule features lots of Klezmer music, a Cantorial celebration of the Yiddish art songs, performances by Neil Sedaka, Lisa Loeb, Jill Sobule, Philip Glass and David Broza performing the music of Carole King (??). Sweet huh?
Yes. But totally wrong.
See the first colonialist era Jews in America were predominantly Sephardic. They didn’t know Yiddish from Swahili. Yiddish speaking Ashkenazic Jews did not come to America in significant numbers until the 1880s. The byline of the festival should really read A one-week cultural celebration of the 124th Anniversary of the first Yiddish speaking Jews in America.
Granted there is some Sephardic content in the festival. For instance, we have Smadar playing tonight at Satalla (Moroccan Gypsy music). On the 8th we have Divahn – they rock out to authentic “Middle Eastern/Sephardic grooves” from their home base of err… Austin, Texas. Everything else is all Klezmer-Yiddish-Ashkenazic stuff that has little to do with the rag tag gang of Sephardic Jews from Brazil who first set foot on these desolate shores 350 years ago.
So desolate and isolated were these shores in fact that they called their first congregation “Shearith Israel” – the remnants of Israel (more commonly known as the Spanish and Portugese).
Jewlicious spoke to Rabbi Marc D. Angel, Senior Rabbi at Congregation Shearith Israel for his take on the “Ashkenazo-centric” orientation of the New York Jewish Music and Heritage Festival. He stated:
The festival is run by the 92nd street Y and they’ve drawn on talent that appeals to its own constituency. They haven’t really devoted much attention to Jewish music that would have been heard in the America between 1654 and 1880. Most of the festival’s music is that of the later arrivals from Europe in the 1880s when Jews of Yiddish background first came to the US in large numbers. But as with anything that promotes Jewish culture, I wish them well!
Shearith Israel, a Sephardic congregation founded in 1654 in New York is the first Jewish congregation in North America and the only one till the 1730s. It would have been very appropriate for anyone doing a program on Jewish music in America to do a serious program on the Jewish music that would have been sung in America during colonial times – that was the only Jewish music that was here!
Oh well. Maybe next year guys?
It was from Recife on Sept. 7, 1654, that a group of 23 Dutch-speaking Sephardim set sail for New Amsterdam in a desperate effort to escape the Inquisition imposed by Portugal, which had defeated Holland for control of Brazil.
Shortly after arriving, these 23 immigrants â€” the first Jews to land on American shores â€” established Shearith Israel, the first synagogue in New Amsterdam, the colony that eventually became New York.
The article goes on to describe contemporary Jewish life in Recife. It’s a good read…