J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Follow by Email


Thursday, September 13, 2012

Widmer on Religious Tolerance in Cambridge, 19 Sept.

On Wednesday, 19 September, Ted Widmer, director of the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, will speak at Cambridge Forum on “A Test Case for America: Washington, Longfellow, and the Jewish Community at Newport.” I’ll be moderator for the evening.

This event was originally announced for last June but had to be postponed due to illness. The topic of religious tolerance in American politics has only grown more timely since.

President George Washington’s part of that history is a 1790 letter to the head of Newport’s Jewish community in 1790, quoted here. The original letter was recently taken out of storage and put on display in Philadelphia.

This webpage from Henry W. Longfellow’s birthplace explains that in the seventeenth century Jewish families began to settle in the new colony of Rhode Island, explicitly founded without an established faith. Most came from Caribbean islands colonized by Spain or Portugal.
In the mid-1700s about 60 more Portuguese Jewish families arrived after the disastrous Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Over the decades, this small congregation met in private homes (legally, a rare privilege in the 17th-18th centuries) until 1759, when they undertook to build a synagogue. The Congregation Yeshuat Israel dedicated the synagogue in 1763, appointing the young cantor Isaac Touro, recently arrived from Amsterdam, as rabbi. However, by the turn of the century virtually all of the Jews had left Newport, the old cemetery occasionally being revisited for a burial.
Providence had eclipsed Newport as Rhode Island’s political and economic center. Most of the congregation moved to New York, which was even more vibrant.

As a result, when Longfellow visited Newport in 1852, he viewed the cemetery as a relic from a vanished community and a reminder of the persecution those Jews had faced:
How strange it seems! These Hebrews in their graves,
Close by the street of this fair seaport town,
Silent beside the never-silent waves,
At rest in all this moving up and down!
The trees are white with dust, that o’er their sleep
Wave their broad curtains in the south-wind’s breath,
While underneath such leafy tents they keep
The long, mysterious Exodus of Death. . . .
Here’s the whole poem.

Just two years after Longfellow’s visit, however, a son of Isaac Touro died, leaving a bequest to restore and maintain the site. In 1881 it became an active house of worship again, and in the mid-20th century the Touro Synagogue was designated a National Historic Site.

Ted Widmer’s talk on that history and the issue of religious tolerance in American politics is free and open to the public. It starts at 7:00 P.M. at First Parish in Cambridge, half a block from the Harvard T station. The talk will be followed by a question-and-answer session which I’m supposed to manage. The evening will be recorded and edited for broadcast on the Cambridge Forum network.


Anonymous said...

Sounds very interesting, are you going to bring in to the discussion the memorial and remonstrance against religious assesments by madison... no clearer document about seperation of church and state... roger williams would be proud.

J. L. Bell said...

I don’t know where Ted Widmer will take the story. Back in 1790, Americans were still working out the issues of religious tolerance and freedom. Washington and Madison were on the liberal side, to be sure. But the Congregationalist establishment in most of New England was still decades from ending—hence the equivocal wording at the start of the First Amendment.