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.

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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Dr. Benjamin Rush Goes to a Jewish Wedding

Back in April 2010, novelist and comics scripter Greg Rucka wrote:
Ok, so...anyone out there have information on Sephardic wedding customs in 1770s America?
Out of gratitude for Gotham Central, I sprang into action.

Finding websites and books stating that the only surviving description of a Jewish wedding in early America came from Dr. Benjamin Rush, I tweeted back that lead.

I didn’t follow that path myself until recently, but here at last is the doctor’s account for his wife of attending Rachel Phillips’s wedding to Michael Levy in Philadelphia in June 1787:
I accepted the invitation with great pleasure, for you know I love to be in the way of adding to my stock of ideas upon all subjects. At 1 o’clock the company, consisting of 30 or 40 men, assembled in Mr. [Jonas] Philips’ common parlor, which was accommodated with benches for the purpose. The ceremony began with prayers in the Hebrew language, which were chaunted by an old rabbi and in which he was followed by the whole company. As I did not understand a word except now and then an Amen or Hallelujah, my attention was directed to the haste with which they covered their heads with their hats as soon as the prayers began, and to the freedom with which some of them conversed with each other during the whole time of this part of their worship.

As soon as these prayers were ended, which took up about 20 minutes, a small piece of parchment was produced, written in Hebrew, which contained a deed of settlement and which the groom subscribed in the presence of four witnesses. In this deed he conveyed a part of his fortune to his bride, by which she was provided for after his death in case she survived him.

This ceremony was followed by the erection of a beautiful canopy composed of white and red silk in the middle of the floor. It was supported by four young men (by means of four poles), who put on white gloves for the purpose. As soon as this canopy was fixed, the bride, accompanied with her mother, sister, and a long train of female relations, came downstairs. Her face was covered with a veil which reached halfways down her body. She was handsome at all times, but the occasion and her dress rendered her in a peculiar manner a most lovely and affecting object. I gazed with delight upon her. Innocence, modesty, fear, respect, and devotion appeared all at once in her countenance.

She was led by her two bridesmaids under the canopy. Two young men led the bridegroom after her and placed him, not by her side, but directly opposite to her. The priest now began again to chaunt an Hebrew prayer, in which he was followed by part of the company. After this he gave to the groom and bride a glass full of wine, from which they each sipped about a teaspoonful. Another prayer followed this act, after which he took a ring and directed the groom to place it upon the finger of his bride in the same manner as is practised in the marriage service of the Church of England. This ceremony was followed by handing the wine to the father of the bride and then a second time to the bride and groom. The groom after sipping the wine took the glass in his hand and threw it upon a large pewter dish which was suddenly placed at his feet. Upon its breaking into a number of small pieces, there was a general shout of joy and a declaration that the ceremony was over. The groom now saluted his bride, and kisses and congratulations became general through the room.

I asked the meaning, after the ceremony was over, of the canopy and of the drinking of the wine and breaking of the glass. I was told by one of the company that in Europe they generally marry in the open air, and that the canopy was introduced to defend the bride and groom from the action of the sun and from rain. Their mutually partaking of the same glass of wine was intended to denote the mutuality of their goods, and the breaking of the glass at the conclusion of the business was designed to teach them the brittleness and uncertainty of human life and the certainty of death, and thereby to temper and moderate their present joys.

Mr. Phillips pressed me to stay and dine with the company, but business and [junior partner] Dr. [James] Hall’s departure, which was to take place in the afternoon, forbade it. I stayed, however, to eat some wedding cake and to drink a glass of wine with the guests. Upon going into one of the rooms upstairs to ask how Mrs. [Rebecca] Philips did, who had fainted downstairs under the pressure of the heat (for she was weak from a previous indisposition), I discovered the bride and groom supping a bowl of broth together. Mrs. Phillips apologized for them by telling me they had eaten nothing (agreeably to the custom prescribed by their religion) since the night before.

Upon my taking leave of the company, Mrs. Phillips put a large piece of cake into my pocket for you, which she begged I would present to you with her best compliments. She says you are an old New York acquaintance of hers.
The bride’s father was actually from Germany, thus perhaps not Sephardic. (He was fluent in Yiddish, and when British authorities intercepted his letters during the war, they reportedly concluded he had written in code.) But the mother of the bride was a Machado, and the groom’s family (from what little we know) were also Sephardic.

Eventually this couple’s descendants would own and restore Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.


Robert S. Paul said...

Pretty amazing how little any of that has changed. My own wedding was not that different.

But then, like Tevye says, "Tradition!"

G. Lovely said...

Last week I happened to attend a wedding at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, home to the Uriah P. Levy Center and Chapel, named for the first Jewish Commodore in the U.S. Navy, and the third child of the couple who's wedding Rush describes. It was Uriah who in 1934 bought Monticello and saved it from ruin, and he was also instrumental in ending the practice of flogging in the U. S. Navy.

Sharon/www.sharonburnston.com said...

It's interesting to read an outsider's account. I suspect that the 20 minutes of prayer before the ceremony was the rabbi and the men grabbing an opportunity for a minyan (quorum) to say daily prayers together, and was not an actual part of the wedding ceremony itself. But Robert Paul is correct, it's remarkable how familiar it all sounds.

meryka said...

Thanks you for this very interesting post!

It is said that the custom of the wedding veil became popular in America in 1799 when Nelly Curtis, Martha Washington's granddaughter, was viewed by her fiancée through a lace curtain. He remarked upon her beauty. Is there any evidence of wedding veils in America by a non-Jewish bride before this time?

J. L. Bell said...

Martha Washington’s children and (some) grandchildren had the surname Custis, which is often mistyped as Curtis. I found the story about Lawrence Lewis, Eleanor Parke (Nelly) Custis, and the veil on many websites and recent books, but my quick look didn’t unearth descriptions from before the 20th century or quotations from primary sources.

J. L. Bell said...

General references book say that bridal veils were out of fashion in eighteenth-century Britain, and thus probably in upper-class America as well. That would have made this wedding in Philadelphia and Nelly Custis’s wedding in 1799 notable, but I’m still looking for a reliable description of the latter.

meryka said...

Thank you so much for looking into this. I haven't found anything yet about veils...just that something called a "wedding hat" was popular in 1770s England.

meryka said...

PS: Sorry about the Curtis/Custis.
My typing mistake!

J. L. Bell said...

Don't worry about the typo; that particular one happens a lot because "Curtis" is so much more common than "Custis." I often have to search for misspelled names in eighteenth-century sources because spelling was more casual then and often phonetic. Now our errors are based on mistyping and get repeated on the internet!

(This might be on my mind more because of the postings I've been researching for tomorrow, both of which involved names with alternate spellings.)

RFuller said...

I think G. Lovely must have mistyped. Flogging in the USN was ended in 1850. see: http://www.navalhistory.org/2010/09/28/flogging-outlawed-160-years-ago-today

Uriah P. Levy must have bought Monticello in 1834, then?

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, the 1934 was a typo. Uriah passed the property to a nephew, a grandson of the couple in this marriage.

Anonymous said...

"my attention was directed ... to the freedom with which some of them conversed with each other during the whole time of this part of their worship."

Oy. Some things never changed.