20 November 2007

An early American bris

A math professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, Dr. Yitzchok Levine contributes to The (New York) Jewish Press. His glimpses into American Jewish history are interesting, and his latest focuses on Colonial-era circumcision rituals.

Levine discusses the rite of brit milah - circumcision - performed on male infants on the eighth day after birth by a mohel (ritual circumciser), and also discusses Conversos of the 15th-17th centuries in Iberia and elsewhere who could not follow this rite, adding that those men the Inquisition discovered circumcised would likely be burned at the stake. It was common practice for those who managed to escape the Inquisition - to Amsterdam, America and elsewhere - to have themselves and their sons circumcised on arrival.

The article focuses on Colonial America and quotes from the works of Rabbi Malcolm H. Stern, Stanley F. Chyet and Jacob Rader Marcus.

Writes Stern:

"Most Jewish functionaries of the colonial era were laymen. While an occasional rabbi [hakham to the Sephardim] found his way to these shores, few remained. The Jewish communities were too small, and often too struggling to support professional clergy. As congregations became established and synagogues were built, the demand for ritual functionaries grew. The reader, or chazzan, who knew the ritual chants, became especially important."

For those who lived far from a major city such as New York (with only some 300 members of the tribe in 1790), finding a mohel wasn't easy, and it wasn't that easy for the mohel to get around to the far-flung Jewish families who required his services. Depending on the weather and his other responsibilities, it could take months to reach the infant. This is what happened for the bris of Joseph, son of the Portuguese refugee merchant Aaron Lopez (1731-1783) in Newport, Rhode Island.

"Sometime during the summer of 1756 Aaron wrote to Abraham Isaac Abrahams (1720-1796) of New York and urged that rarest of eighteenth-century Americans, a Jew of Lithuanian descent, to undertake Joseph’s circumcision. The Newporter may have previously favored others with that request, only to be disappointed; we do not know."

Most lay leaders had two occupations, the Jewish ritual performed and another one or more that paid the bills. The article relates that Abraham was "the best known circumciser in New York during the 1750’s." He was also a tobacconist, distiller, schoolteacher, shopkeeper and synagogal precentor, and he performed his Jewish responsibilities across New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, as well as New York's Long Island and Westchester County.

When Abraham was 36, in June 1756, he began recording the brit milahs he conducted; the first was his own son. Although he was invited by Lopez in the summer, he didn't get to Newport until February 12, 1757, when he performed and recorded two Lopez family rituals.

For more, click here.

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