Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Remnant of Spain-Brazil-Amsterdam: The Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, 70th St and Central Park West

There are a couple of things to remember when you go into an Orthodox synagogue. Do not attempt to shake hands with someone of the opposite gender. If you are a man, do not go bareheaded. And whatever you do, remember to turn off your cell phone.

Shearith Israel (“The Remnant of Israel”), alternately known as the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, is the oldest congregation in North America. Not the oldest synagogue building in North America, members are quick to point out. That would be the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island. And you know what? Touro pays Shearith Israel one dollar every year for the privilege of occupying its own building. So really by any standard, Shearith Israel wins.

Sephardic Jews as we generally understand the term, means Jews descended from the vast Jewish community that lived in Spain and Portugal before the Spanish Inquisition. When Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal, a number of them went to Amsterdam and founded a prosperous trading community there, which combined cultural elements of Spanish Jewry with elements of Northern European Jewry who also lived there.

A number of the Dutch-Spanish Jews then went to Brazil. But in 1654, the Portuguese captured Recife, the last Dutch stronghold in Brazil. The arm of the Inquisition, then, extended to the Jews, who were forced to flee on Dutch ships. They intended to go back to Amsterdam. En route, however, a boatload of these Jews were intercepted by pirates. A French ship rescued them from the pirates – and this ship was bound for New Amsterdam, which is now known as New York (factoids from Edward Ross Ellis's History of New York and from tour of synagogue).

Thus, a community of Jews landed in New York in 1654 after what was really by any one’s standards a whole lot of traveling and adventure. And for the 350 years since, they haven’t budged. Their building is “new” (late 1800s) but the ritual practice of the community is virtually identical to what it was in 1654. And for the first 200 years of its existence, this congregation was the only game in town. Emma Lazarus went here. So did Benjamin Cardozo (hear the Spanish-influenced names?)

With my date, I am attending an Ethiopian Shabbat dinner in this building hosted by an American-Israeli exchange/social group that evening. But it says you can come earlier for services, so I do.

At first I can’t figure out how to get inside the building, which occupies almost an entire city block at Central Park West and 70th street. (Shearith Israel has occupied five buildings over the course of its history; each about 20 blocks farther uptown than the one before. It also has occupied three cemeteries in Manhattan, which are all designated historic landmarks). The entrance facing the park is blocked off with an iron fence. Bored people are sitting outside here playing on their cell phones. The real entrance is the side door. I go up inside. People are knotted by the front door, chit-chatting. I don’t know which way to go, but two ladies sweep by me and up the steps, so I follow them.

And it’s a good thing I follow them, because this congregation is sex-segregated; men worship on the ground floor and women worship in the balcony. I actually think the women get the better deal here.

The building is stunning; dazzling. The inside is about five stories high; I’m only about half way up. The walls are variegated golden marble; the balcony is supported with marble Corinthian columns. The seats are golden wood and dark red velvet. Centered on each wall are gigantic Tiffany stained glass windows, in colors that range from emerald green to ice blue to gold. The entire front of the room is devoted to the golden marble doors that enclose the ark, which encloses the Torahs.

In the center of the room is a raised platform, shaped rather like a the front of a boat. It is surrounded by about ten three-foot candles (which are actually lit with gas). The room is dimly lit, so it flickers to the light of these candles.

A rabbi, dressed in an ankle length black gown and a flat-topped black velvet hat, stands in the prow of the ship, facing the ark, leading prayers. Three other rabbis, dressed identically, stand silently behind him, joining in when appropriate. The rabbi sings beautifully, – racing through prayers in a full voiced, easy, ornamented style, without any effort whatsoever.

At the very, very top front of the room, smushed right up against the ceiling, in the right hand corner, stands a choir of about twelve – all men, of course ,since the Orthodox traditionally believe that the voice of a woman tempts a man to sin. The choir stand in a circle, mostly with their backs to the room. They sing traditional prayers in four and five-part styles; in mostly a western style – but at least a couple times in every time, a little thread of eastern harmony creeps in before disappearing.

The vocal interplay between the rabbi and the choir is astounding. It happens so fast. They all sing so beautifully. And the overlap between the rabbi’s eastern melodic phrasings (minor keys, vocal trills and ornamentations) and the choir’s lusty western harmonies, totally blows my mind. I can’t get enough. I’m totally dazed.

When I come to my senses slightly, I check out my fellow worshippers, of whom there are maybe 50 or 60. The majority are in middle-aged are younger. Their dress styles vary much more widely than I would have thought. Some of the men could have come straight from casual Friday at the office (khakis, collared shirt, sweater, kipah), while others wear full “Black Hat” regalia – black pants, baggy black coat, wide brimmed black hat.

The women, too, vary widely in dress. Some wear sweater sets and ankle-length skirts (with no slit, of course), and hats that cover their hair (traditionally, you have to cover your hair if you are married). One even wears a black lace mantilla. Some do not cover their hair at all. And others – quite frankly - look really sexy, in knee-length leather skirts, leather high-heeled boots, fishnets, and lacy camisole tops (though no bare shoulders, of course). I am feeling self conscious until I see one other woman in the balcony wearing pants. She’s an older woman and I wonder what the story is. Clearly nobody is getting kicked out for minor dress mistakes. I make a big show of holding the prayer book and turning the page at the right times so they don’t think I’m totally lost. And I’m not – I can usually follow along, though of course I don’t know the melodies. And the weird thing is, I feel much more comfortable here than I do with B’nai Jeshurun’s worldpop melodies. Maybe I feel more comfortable in a situation where nobody cares whether I’m following along or not. Where I know nobody’s going to try to make me dance. It’s an utterly solid, self-confident tradition. And yeah, I’m stuck in the balcony, but I love it.

As the women vary in dress, so they vary in their interest in the proceedings below. Some sit quietly, follow along, and rock back and forth as they pray. A couple of them blast in late, and spend most of the service talking to each other in not-very-quiet whispers. One woman comes in extra late. She plops her stuff down noisily, picks up a prayer book, and starts praying really fast from the beginning of the service, on her own, rocking extra hard to make up for lost time.

I’m also struck by how young many of these people are. This isn’t a community of old-timers. There aren’t huge numbers of them, but this place is not about to shut down.

The service is barely over an hour long (the heavy duty stuff comes on Saturday morning). We file downstairs, and all of a sudden, the black hats turn into people. Husbands and wives greet each other and schmooze with their friends, dawdling and blocking up the entry hall before they mosey on home.

I take a brief tour of the museum, where they have prayer paraphernalia many centuries old, including an entire Havdalah (Saturday night worship service) kit – hidden in a candlestick – a legacy of the Sephardic community’s centuries of having to hide their religion.

Then I go down to the basement, where the Ethiopian Shabbat Dinner is about to begin.

1 comment:

melinama said...

Oh, next time I come to NY I want you to take me here!

Are we going to get to hear about the Ethiopian dinner too?