Our Israelitish Brethren

"Our Israelitish brethren are now subjected to a trial peculiar to themselves. From being persecuted everywhere, they are beginning to be honored and sought."

Upon returning home, after the service, the father and his sons find their abode decked in its brightest attire, the table set in its goodliest array, the ladies in handsome Sabbath costume, and on the mantel-piece of the principal room the two wax-candles lighted, to symbolize the light and warmth shed on Israel by the Sabbath.  In some families the old-fashioned "Sabbath lamp," with seven burners, is retained, and lighted only on this joyous evening.  The family being now all assembled, the father places his hand upon the heads of each of his children, and invokes upon them the blessing of Jacob.  Then they kiss one another, and each wishes the others "Good Sabbath," as we say "Merry Christmas."  All join in a Sabbath hymn; after which the father pays honor to his wife by chanting the fine description in Proverbs of a Virtuous Woman, whose price is above rubies, in whom the heart of her husband doth safely trust, who looketh well to the ways of her household and doth not eat the bread of idleness.  Next he takes a small silver cup, kept for the purpose, and pours into it some pure home-made wine, of grapes or raisins, and pronounces a blessing on the wine; after which he breaks a piece of bread, and utters the prescribed blessing upon the bread. A formal and longer grace is said for the meal, and then the family take their places at the table.

All this ceremonial, which seems long when it is related, occupies but a few minutes, for the Hebrew is a compact language, and our Israelitish brethren have little conception of what we understand by the word solemnity.  There is something off-hand in the usual religious acts of the orthodox Jews. When the meal is ended, the family rise and remain standing about the table while a thanksgiving is pronounced and a hymn sung. In many families the father relates to his children on Friday evening some legend of their race, of which the stock is inexhaustible, for there are fifteen centuries of persecution to draw from, without counting the ages during which Israel had a national existence and a recorded history. Hence the collection of Jewish stories, recently republished in New York from the columns of the Jewish Messenger was happily entitled "Friday Evening." During the Sabbath no musical instrument is heard in the house of an orthodox Jew, nor does he entertain any company beyond the circle of his relations and nearest friends. But this seclusion of families has nothing in common with Sabbatarian gloom and isolation. It is more like a Christmas reunion, when families are happy enough without other friends, than a Sabbatarian withdrawal from cheerful society.

On Saturday morning the service at the orthodox synagogue begins it eight and lasts till twelve. It differs little in character from the service of the evening before, except that toward the close the minister, accompanied by two of the congregation, descends from the platform and walks slowly to the chanting of the choir to the closet where the scrolls of the Law are kept, the doors of which have been previously opened by two of the members. The scroll containing the portion of the Law to be read that day is taken from its place and carried slowly to the platform, where its gay covering is removed and the scroll laid out flat upon the broad desk. After the portion has been read, one of the gentlemen who has assisted in its conveyance from the "ark" lifts it by the ends of its two rollers, and holds it up, open, as high as he can reach, and turns it in various directions, so that all the congregation can see the Hebrew characters written upon it.  It was perhaps this holding aloft of the Sacred Object which suggested the elevation of the Host in the celebration of the Mass. Indeed, there is many a rite, ceremony, and usage, of both Protestant and Catholic worship, the idea of which was furnished by the people whom Protestants and Catholics have agreed to revile and torment.  Little boys, for example, assist in unrolling and rolling up again the scroll of the Law; and one boy stands upon the platform, in the course of the morning service, and pipes with his shrill tenor a few Hebrew sentences. Doubtless it was this usage of the Israelites, this habit of associating their boys with them in every religious act and ceremonial, that suggested the employment of boys in the altars of Christian churches.

The sermon is not regarded by orthodox Jews as a very important part of the Sabbath service. In some synagogues no sermon is preached; in others a short one is delivered in the German language; but it is rare indeed that a sermon in English is heard; for, to the present hour, no Rabbi lives in the United States who was not born and educated on the Continent of Europe.

Four hours seem to us impatient mortals a longtime to spend in a religious service; but only a small part of the congregation attends during the first hour the synagogue does not fill up before ten o'clock; and some leave soon after the service has reached its climax in the elevation of the scroll. A few sturdy old gentlemen are punctually in their places at eight, and go through the whole,—rising and sitting down, responding and reciting, bowing and standing erect, never faltering or shrinking, to the last amen.  The secret of this persistence is, that the congregation take an active part in the worship. They do not sit passive more than four or five minutes at a time. At the conclusion of the services the assembly breaks into groups of cheerful talkers, and so drifts down stairs through the vestibule into the street, where there is abundant handshaking and friendly merriment.  There is a short afternoon service, which is not more numerously attended than that of Christian churches; for after the bountiful Sabbath dinner, our Israelitish brethren are apt to abandon themselves, as we do, to the noble work of digestion.

The Sabbath to the Jews is wholly joyous!  In all the tales, essays, treatises, catechisms, of this interesting people, which lie heaped up before me at this moment, I can find no hint of that strange institution which the Puritans called Sabbath. To the good Jew the Sabbath means rest, mental improvement, domestic happiness, cheerful conversation, triumphal worship. From a tract recently issued, entitled "The Sabbath, an Appeal to the Israelites of New York," I copy a short passage, to show how pious Jews regard their sacred day, and why they urge its observance.

"The family," says its writer, "in which the Sabbath is a stranger, -as it is, alas! the case with such a large number of our co-religionists,—is bereft of those beautiful ties which make the Jewish home a paradise to the poorest of its professors, is a desert with no oasis, an ocean of ever-contending waves, with no haven or shelter. O ye who yet remember the Sabbath eve in the old European home,—and there are many of you,--conjure up before your vision the little chamber with the seven-armed candelabra lit in honor of the Sabbath bride; the table spread, the spotless linen, your father coming home from the synagogue, his eyes beaming with satisfaction, his countenance expressing happiness and contentment, not a ruffle on his forehead which would indicate that care had ever dwelt in that soul, placing his hand on your head, blessing you, and then singing songs of welcome to the regular returning guest, the bride beloved so well! Did ever happiness enter your soul so unmeasured since you gave up all for a heap of gold? Will your children ever feel as happy as you did on that Sabbath eve, will your wife ever know the beatitude your mother felt, when she saw her husband joyous and happy?"

Here we have all that was good in the old Puritan Sunday, without its gloom, restraint, and terror. There is no terror in the religion of the Hebrews, no eternal perdition. They are all Univeralists. The Puritanism of two hundred years ago, as we find it in the works of the Mathers, was Judaism plus the doctrine of eternal perdition.

That was a happy touch of Mr. Henry Ward Beecher's, the other week, in his newspaper, The Christian Union, where, after having given the news of the various Christian denominations, he concluded by a few paragraphs, headed thus—


Whether we regard this as a mere stroke of journalism, or as a recognition of the claims of other religions to the regard and respect of Christians, it was worthy of the intelligence of the editor. Nothing is more startling to a student of religions than their likeness to one another, and the similarity of their effects upon the various minds. Men who have lived in the Eastern world, in Japan, Siam, India, China, and in the great islands of the Archipelago, have often remarked that the religions of those lands, however they may differ in name, usages, rites, costumes, traditions, have much more in common than they have of difference; and under them all can be found the same varieties of religious and irreligious character: the sincere and lowly worshipper; the man who expects to be heard for his much speaking; he who affects devotion, and lie who affects indifference; the rogue who uses religion as a cloak, and the politician who employs it as capital; the dealer in religious merchandise, who believes in religion as the servants of the Cataract House believe in the sublimity of Niagara;—all these characters, we are assured, can be found under all the religions of the Oriental world.

And, what is more interesting, it seems as if the religions of the world were in the same state of transition, and at about the same stage of progress. They are all anxious, all excited, all in movement.  Orthodox, heterodox, ritualists, infidels,—we find them at Calcutta, in Japan, in China, in Barbary, as we do at London, Berlin, Paris, New York, and Boston. English residents in India tell us that in the higher society of Calcutta there are native young men who take precisely the same tone with regard to the Brahmins and the Hindoo sacred books so many of our young pagans do at Pads, Oxford, Cambridge, London, Boston, when the Christian religion is the subject of discourse,—a tone not of contempt, by any means; they are beyond and above that. They speak of the religion of their fathers as the son of an ancient house might descant upon the old family coach, which was excellent in its day, but is now done with, and kept as an interesting relic. Nor are there wanting, in those remoter capitals of the world, young men who surprise their companions, as some of our young ritualists do, by a sedulous imitation or revival of ancient methods and forgotten rites.

Mr. Beecher may well tell us, then, of "Other Religions"; for they are all in a similar critical condition. To the careless looker-on it seems as if they were all dissolving; but, in reality, they are only shedding their non-essentials, which is a painful and demoralizing process. When in the Arctic seas the sun gains power to soften the ice and melt the snows, the first effects upon the ice-bound fleets of fishermen and navigators are disagreeable, if not injurious. Everything is soft, damp, unstable; the snug snow-packing, which had protected and warmed the imprisoned mariners so long, becomes a source of discomfort; and the ice-roads which had borne them stiffly up are safe no longer. But the thaw is about so act them FREE, and send them careering over the boundless deep.

Our Israelitish brethren, besides sharing in the influences which are mitigating all creeds and liberalizing all minds, are now subjected to a trial peculiar to themselves. From being persecuted everywhere, they are beginning to be honored and sought. The grand example of the youngest of the nations in protecting all religions equally, while recognizing none, has had its effect in improving the condition of the Jews throughout the greater part of Christendom and beyond Christendom. Within the recollection of men still young, Jews have been admitted to the British Parliament, where, I am informed by a distinguished Rabbi, who gloried in the fact, no Jew has ever sided with the party of reaction, except one, and he a renegade. The Jews to-day in the House of Commons vote on important measures with John Bright. The professor of Hebrew in the London University is a Hebrew; and among the Jewish students last year at Oxford and Cambridge, one was a senior wrangler and another the crack oarsman of his college. In London one of the noted clubs is Jewish, and there are so many Jews in the city government that they may almost be said to have the controlling influence. Happily, the Jews are not proselyters, and can be aldermen without using their office to get a sly advantage for their synagogue. Among the seventy-five thousand Jews in London, there are many business men who, despite the double Sunday, hold their own against Christian competitors, to say nothing of the much greater number who have no Sunday at all. There is one Jewish clothing-house in London that has thirteen stores and employs eleven thousand people.

In France the Jews are fortunate in the free Sunday permitted both by law and custom; and as a consequence there is less poverty among them than elsewhere. The Rabbis are paid from the public treasury, as the ministers of the various Christian denominations are and the government courts their good will. The Jewish newspaper in Paris describes in glowing words the manner in which "the Emperor's fete” was celebrated at the principal synagogue. A detachment of chasseurs, commanded by an officer, was stationed in the temple opposite the choir, and while the "Halel" was chanted the edifice resounded with the blast of trumpets from a military band. At the moment when the scroll of the Law was taken out of its sacred enclosure the troops presented arms, the trumpets sounded, and the organ pealed its melodious thunder. Thus the host is saluted on festive days at Notre Dame. In Paris, among a large number of other charitable organizations of Israelites, I find two designed to aid parents who desire to apprentice their children to trades. These are societies for paying the premiums required in Europe when apprentices are taken.

Throughout Germany Jews at length stand upon an equality before the law with Christians,—even in Austria, so long the citadel of conservatism. Austria has abolished all Sunday laws that would prevent Jews from cultivating land, and the Emperor has sought to compliment his Israelitish subjects by appointing two young Hebrew gentlemen to positions on his personal staff. This in Austria, where until 1860 a Jew could not exercise many of the most usual avocations,—could not be a farmer, miller, apothecary, brewer; and in some wide regions and populous places of the empire could not reside at all! In Frankfort, where the Rothschilds originated, the Jews are masters of everything. Those great bankers, as all the world knows, live in luxury more than regal; but all the world does not know that several members of this family are persons of genuine liberality of mind as well as bountifully liberal in charitable gifts.  It is a pity the bead of so conspicuous a house should not set a better example to Christians, by living more simply. But all things in their time. When the time comes for general reaction against the burdensome and immoral splendors of modern life,—such as are described in Lothair,—the Jews will not be the last to adopt a style of elegant and rational simplicity.

Spain, wonderful to relate, joins the nations in restoring to the Jews the rights of man, of which she despoiled them four centuries ago. The Israelites of the world are now joining in a dollar subscription to build in Madrid a temple, worthy by its magnitude and splendor to commemorate the abrogation of the edict of 1492, which silenced Hebrew worship throughout Spain, and dismantled every synagogue. Within these few weeks Sweden has swept from her law books every remaining statute which made a distinction between Jews and Christians and now, except in Russia and the Papal States, there is, I believe, no part of Europe where an Israelite has not the essential rights of a citizen, so far as they are enjoyed by the rest of the people.

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