Gershom Mendes Seixas

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Gershom Mendes Seixas, America’s first native-born Jewishclergyman, did not, in fact, bear the title rabbi, as is sometimessaid. Indeed, America was not to have an ordained rabbi until 1840.Rather, it was as hazzan—cantor, but also a leader, preacherand communal representative—that Seixas served New York’sCongregation Shearith Israel for forty years.

Seixaswas born out of the controversial marriage of an Ashkenazi woman anda Sephardic man. His father, Isaac Mendes Seixas, a strugglingmerchant who’d set out from London to the Caribbean, eventuallyreaching New York in 1738, was of an elite Sephardic lineage. Hismother, Rachel Levy, belonged to afamily of merchants, who as Germans, however successful, were in theeyes of America’s Sephardic majority socially inferior. “ThePortugueze here where in a Violent Uproar abouth it,” is how thescene around the Seixas-Levy union was described by AbigailFranks, Rachel’s half sister. Gershom would certainlydisplay the markings of this ‘mixed’ marriage—Yiddish wordswould dot his letters over the years, all the while serving as thehazzan of a Sephardic synagogue (admittedly New York’s onlysynagogue at the time.)

Seixas’education was at a small Hebrew parochial school, lasting most likelyno later than age thirteen. He probably also received some Talmudicinstruction from his father but was otherwise self-taught in Jewishand secular literatures. He worked for several years as an apprenticeto a craftsman until, at twenty-two, he was elected hazzan ofShearith Israel.

In1775 he married Elkaleh Myers-Cohen. However, these proved difficulttimes. Three weeks after his first child was miscarried, Seixas andhis wife made the choice to flee New York as the British were poisedto occupy the city. They stayed in Stratford, Connecticut for severalyears. There, Elkaleh gave birth to their second child, SarahAbigail, who some believe was her father’s favorite and who wouldmarry future American Jewish leader, IsraelBaer Kursheedt.

In1780 they quit Stratford for the revolutionary capital, Philadelphia.Here Seixas presided over America’s second oldest congregation,Mikveh Israel. When the war ended, and displaced New Yorkers began toreturn, it was not without a struggle that Mikveh Israel allowedSeixas to leave Philadelphia. But leave he did; New York was to behis home for the rest of his life. He was to have two more childrenwith Elkaleh and ten with his second wife, Hannah Manuel.

Hisduties as hazaan were by no means limited to leading prayers;he was responsible for education, circumcision and slaughtering, andserved as the leader of New York’s small and tight-knit Jewishcommunity. Seixas also functioned as a representative to the secularworld. From 1784 to 1815, he served along side Alexander Hamilton andJohn Jay as a Regent of Columbia College, the first Jew to hold sucha post.

Characteristic of Seixas’ service at Shearith Israel was hisdelivery of sermons, not something a hazzan had traditionallydone. This was, no doubt, the influence of American Protestantism, aswere the titles by which Seixas was most commonly known—minister orreverend. His sermons too, spoken in English, displayed thetheological impact of Protestant thought as well as liberalEnlightenment ideals. Not to say that this was a conscious fusion;Seixas was echoing a process, or series of processes, well under way.Spanish, the communal language of Sephardic communities forcenturies, was giving way to English as Ashkenazi Jews began tooutnumber Sephardi, and as American Jews developed a greater feelingof comfort in this new country. And therein lies the ultimatesignificance of Seixas’ mixed lineage, indeed of his tenure atShearith Israel: the emergence of distinct forms of American Judaism.

Gershom Mendes Seixas

c. 1770