The oldest synagogue in America is 70 miles from my home, so it was a given that at some point I would make the trip. On Friday night, prodded by the congregation’s website that seemed to indicate that services would end on March 6, I rushed to Newport after work, taking a phone call on the way.
Rhode Island’s reputation for religious tolerance in the face of intense intolerance by the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies is renowned — fostered by the liberal attitudes of Rhode Island’s founding governor Roger Williams, who also established the nation’s first Baptist church. Touro is the only example of a Colonial synagogue, the oldest Jewish structure in America and, as I said, the oldest synagogue. Visiting was a privilege, because if not for this project I doubt I would have had cause or inclination to set foot inside other than to admire the historical furnishings and architecture. As it was, I witnessed a moving, solemn orthodox shabbas service, met my first shabbas goy, and had a good historical experience.
The Jeshuat Israel congregation can be traced back to 1658 when Sephardic Jews arrived in Newport (then the capital of Rhode Island) from the Caribbean island of Curacao. Sephardic Jews emigrated — fled is more accurate — Spain and Portugal during the Spanish Inquisition, when Catholic jurists forced the conversion of or put to death most Jews. An excellent, if exhaustive history on this topic is B. Netanyahu’s Origins of the Inquisition in the 15th Century. Those Jews who pretended to convert to Christianity, but continued to practice Judaism in secret, are referred to as Marranos.
For the first 100 years of their existence, the Newport Sephardim worshipped in private homes until 1750, when a wealthy merchant, Aaron Lopez, son of Portugese marranos, funded the design and construction of the Touro Synagogue (so named for its first cantor, Issac Touro). Lopez became the wealthiest resident of Newport through his diverse business interests, but most notably his focus on the spermaceti candle industry — spermaceti being the waxy substance found in the head cavity of a sperm whale.
Lopez’ business interests in the whaling industry put him in close proximity with the Quaker whaling merchants of New Bedford and Nantucket, another religious minority subject to persecution by the Puritan/Pilgrim theocracies in Massachusetts. Peter Nichols in his excellent Final Voyage, describes the role the Jewish leadership of Newport played in establishing the state’s reputation for religious tolerance, as well as the profitable cartel Lopez formed with the Howlands of New Bedford and the Coffins of Nantucket.
The synagogue’s architect was Peter Harrison and is considered his best work. Being an architectural moron, I won’t compare the structure to any other examples, but it is distinctive and unlike any other building I’ve seen from the 1750s.
The synagogue made it on the National register of historic places in the 1940s, and has been lovingly restored. It is now part of the National Trust and National Park Service.
I drove the 70 miles from Cape Cod and arrived 30 minutes before the 6 pm shabbas service on Friday night. Parking was a bit of a challenge — lots of one-way cow paths abound in that part of the old town — but I nailed one right behind the building and walked around the Loeb visitor center to the entrance on Touro Street. The gate has this strange device carved on it with three Hebrew characters.
I walked up the steps to the entrance and ran into a jovial man who asked me straight up: “Are you Jewish?”
“No. Just visiting, ” I said. “Why?”
“I’m not sure we’ll make a minyan tonight [the quorum of 10 worshippers] but come on in.”
He explained he was the shabbas goy, the non-Jew who performs tasks for the faithful on the sabbath when labor of all kinds — including the turning on of lights — is forbidden. We stepped inside and the room was sublime, a large space with a balcony overhead for female worshippers as the congregation pray segregated by gender, the men on the ground floor, women above. The space was brightly lit by a constellation of chandeliers which hung down from star-shaped sconces on the ceiling high above. The walls were painted a curious green — almost the color of old hospitals — but the effect was very soothing. The balcony was supported by 12 magnificent columns denoting the 12 tribes of Israel — each topped with a Corinthian capitol, and each carved from a single tree.
My guide pointed out that there is a trapdoor beneath the bimah and that it may have led to the harbor. Legend hold that is was used by the Underground Railroad during years of the anti-slavery movement. The bimah is the raised dais where the Rabbi presides.
I took some pictures, but the goy told me while it was okay, to make sure I got them in before the service started. More people began to arrive, it appeared a minyan would be achieved. Women were steered to the upstairs balcony, the men — most older than me — seemed to know each other well and took a prayer book from the shelves behind the bimah.
I availed myself of a yarmulke (four-panel loaner, not the coveted six-panel described so well by my friend Glen in the comments to my Cape Cod Synagogue visit). Because of a recent haircut, the skullcap fit fine. I took a seat on the bench along the back wall, behind the bimah, and greeted each with a shalom shabbas.
The Rabbi, Mordechai Eskovitz arrived, wearing a great Borsalino hat. He greeted his congregation, and without much delay started the service.
I won’t go into the details — I took no notes out of respect to the congregation which was small and aware of my presence and non-participation. The Rabbi did most of the chanting, pausing to direct the worshippers to the appropriate page of the Siddur. I followed along, but foolishly forgot my reading glasses and was unable to follow the English translation of the Hebrew. At one point I did realize the congregation was chanting the words to the famous 23rd Psalm — “The Lord if my shepherd, I shall not want …”
During the service the shabbas goy read a detective novel behind a screened off area on the back corner of the temple. At least one woman worshipped from up on the balcony.
The service last only 45 minutes. Several members participated in the readings, and when it was over I made my way out the door and back to my car for the long ride home. I’m very glad I had the chance to visit this treasure of a holy place.
- I wonder if the congregation maintains an Eruv, or virtual holy enclosure, in Newport. The New York Times had a fascinating article on this phenomenon.
- I could spend a lifetime in and around Aquidneck Island — home of Newport — because of the amazing historical role that region played in the early development of the colonies (refuge during the King Philip War) and religious tolerance.
- I would strongly recommend any visitor to Newport to make a special visit to this gem of a historical building. While the “cottages” of the town are world famous, The Breakers, Marble House, etc. — Touro is amazingly elegant.
- I continue to be impressed by the amazing barrier to comprehension and participation posed by Hebrew.
Next week: thinking Church of Christ Scientist …..