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History of the Great Synagogue

Chapter XVI



DURING the course of the past generation, there had been heard from the Continent, at first only dimly but ever more loudly as the years passed, the rumbling of a movement for reform in Judaism.1 In its most moderate form, this was only a question of improving the decorum of the service of the synagogue and making its execution more consonant with the standards of the age. With this idea, the Great Synagogue was in general agreement, and even in the eighteenth century certain practices which seemed to create disorder and confusion had been suspended - for example, the circuits with the scrolls of the law on the eve of Simhath Torah, as has been mentioned above. From time to time, attempts were made to introduce other minor reforms of a similar nature.

However, even those which were unexceptionable in theory turned out sometimes to present difficulties in execution. One of the recurrent complaints, for example, concerned the interposition of monetary offerings during the service. Every person summoned to the Reading of the Law was not only expected, but at that time also compelled, to make an offering or offerings on behalf of the Synagogal funds and charities, "for the well-being" of those of his relatives and acquaintances whom he desired to honour.2 In order to prevent persons from scattering compliments broadcast at bargain rates, it was stipulated that only five names might be mentioned in each benediction (Mi sheBirach: literally, "he who blessed", the initial phrase), at the minimum scale, a further amount having to be offered for additions to this number. The presiding officers of the Synagogue had to receive special mention, either individually or collectively, as was also the case with the Chief Rabbi, the offering made on whose account could not be less than sixpence. Optional "donations" might also be made for the material advantage of the Readers, choristers and Shamash, while persons not summoned to the reading of the law could, if they desired, have benedictions recited in their name at a later stage in the proceedings. Accordingly, what should have been one of the most impressive parts of the service was punctuated by an interminable series of formulas, of purely personal interest, enlivened only by speculations as to the amounts involved.

In May 1820, a number of members of the Synagogue signed a petition to the Presiding Officers in which they called attention to the evils of the "prolonged Meshabirach", [sic] which they desired to have curtailed. "It is pitiful", they maintained, "to behold how indecently our solemn prayers are hurried on, particularly during the sacred holidays, in order to allow time for a system of finance which, however beneficial in its operation, is certainly inconsistent with decorum and public order." This document was formally presented to the Committee at its meeting of May 4th by Mr. Judah Cohen (not one of Levi Barent Cohen's numerous and devoted brood) in the name of twenty-one signatories.

Their arguments were incontestable. But those on the other side were also strong. The synagogue partly depended for its financial stability at that time on this system, which, if it played to some extent on personal vanity and desire for publicity, was at least effective. Moreover, it was a question of the upkeep not only of the synagogue itself, the interests of which could perhaps be safeguarded by some other means, but also of various subsidiary charities for which this was a principal source of income. This consideration proved to be of overwhelming force; and, after prolonged discussions and several adjournments, it was decided that "from the manifold distresses of the poor and the consequent claims, it is inexpedient to hazard any experiment by which the revenue is likely to be diminished." Seven years later, the revised Laws of the congregation crystallised the system as it stood; and though later on it was modified, it was in fact never abolished.

A serious obstacle in the way of the anglicisation of the outward forms of the service was that the officiants were without exception foreign-born and foreign-trained, and introduced to the Synagogue a style of rendering which was exotic without being necessarily Jewish. At a general meeting held on October 20th, 1822, a resolution was passed to the effect that "it would be the means of promoting true piety, and most essential to the interest of the rising generation of the Jews, if a certain number of young men were to be trained and educated so as to render them capable of filling the situation of Hazan." A sub-committee of seven was appointed under the chairmanship of Isaac Lyon Goldsmid (the other members were Hyman Cohen, Lyon Samuel, Peter Salomons, Michael Joseph, Abraham Hart, and Dr. Joshua van Oven) to see how the resolution could best be carried into effect. Their conclusions were a little nebulous. They considered that the small attendance at Synagogue (a recurrent complaint then as now) was in some measure to be ascribed to the manner of rendering the service. They recommended that the Hazan should restrict himself as far as possible to simple chanting and not embark on elaborate musical renderings. They considered that it would be desirable to educate two suitable youths as Reader, though this would prove a wasted effort unless it were possible to determine on some fixed and regular mode of officiating. The crux of the whole question, they sagely concluded, lay not so much in the manner of rendering the service as in the problem of education, for "the Reader... would have considerably less difficulty to encounter in exciting a proper devotion, if his audience were well acquainted with the Hebrew language, in which prayers are delivered." Another cause for complaint was the fact that the City Synagogues, fearful of opposition which would lose them their more affluent members while leaving them with the burden of the poorer, did everything possible to obstruct the organisation of any place of worship outside the City area, though the tide of fashion and of wealth was rapidly flowing towards the West End. Hence the old communal regulations, which had prohibited the establishment of rival congregations in order to secure unity, were now employed to enforce a highly inconvenient spiritual monopoly.

These premonitory rumblings reached their climax only some years later. In 1836, a number of members of the Spanish and Portuguese congregation petitioned the Mahamad for the introduction into the service of "such alterations and modifications as were in the line of the changes introduced in the reform synagogue in Hamburg and other places." Prolonged and unfruitful discussions followed. At length, in 1839, a further address was presented, laying particular stress on the need for the abbreviation of the liturgy, a more convenient hour of service, sermons in the English language, the introduction of a choir, and the abolition of the observance of the second days of the holydays. This, too, meeting with no success, the reformers requested permission to erect a branch synagogue in the West End, near their homes, in which the desired changes might be introduced. Finally, the breach came, at a meeting held on April 15th, 1840, at which the new "Reform" congregation was definitely organised. One of the points which had attracted attention at that time (it seems petty and indeed ridiculous today) was the time-honoured distinction in the liturgy between the Sephardi and Ashkenazi elements, reflecting their distinct background and history. Accordingly, the leaders of the new community determined to abandon this differentiation: and with the eighteen members of the Spanish and Portuguese community who led the secession there were associated a handful of gentlemen belonging to the Ashkenazi bodies, most, if not all, being members of the Great Synagogue. Three of them belonged to the Goldsmid family--Aaron Asher Goldsmid, Francis H. Goldsmid, and Frederick D. Goldsmid: the others were Albert Cohen, Montague Levyssohn, and Solomon Lazarus. (A little later on, they were followed by Benjamin Elkin, who played a prominent part in the literary defence of the movement; when he died in 1848, the Synagogue imposed such stringent conditions before consenting to bury him at his wife's side that the ex-warden, Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, by now a baronet, also resigned and transferred to the new congregation the legacy of £3,000 that he had intended for his ancestral place of worship.)

Previous to this the controversy had been an internal affair of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue; now, the Ashkenazi synagogues were inevitably drawn into it. It happened, moreover, that there was at this time an interregnum in the office of Haham of the older community. Raphael Meldola, who had occupied the office since 1805, died in 1828, and his son David filled the functions of Ab-Beth-Din only. Hence Rabbi Hirschell was the unquestioned head of the English Rabbinate, and it became his duty to face the emergency. He was by now an old man, nearing eighty years of age, his once-powerful frame wasted by continuous fasting, his mentality hardly attuned to the requirements of the English-born generation that had grown up during his period of office. Had the crisis occurred a few years earlier, he might have been able to master it and to prevent the schism. As it was, he found himself driven, somewhat reluctantly, to an extreme policy of which he is thought not to have entirely approved. The first official reaction in the Ashkenazi community was in April 1841 when the vestries of the Great and other City synagogues resolved that no person who did not conform in religious matters as hitherto and did not recognise the established ecclesiastical authorities might henceforth be elected a member of the Board of Deputies. In this, Hirschell took no ostensible share. However, on September 9th, 1841, a meeting was held at his residence under the chairmanship of Sir Moses Montefiore, which was attended by the wardens and honorary officers of the Metropolitan synagogues and members of the Board of Deputies, and a declaration was drawn up to the effect that persons who rejected the authority of the oral law could not be permitted to associate with observant Jews in any religious rite or ceremony. With some difficulty, the Chief Rabbi was induced to affix his signature to this "caution ", though he rightly feared that it might make the breach irreparable. He succeeded indeed in having its publication withheld for a time. But he was unable to bridge the rift. Preparations for opening the West London Synagogue of British Jews (as the reformers called their place of worship, in order to abandon the distinction between Ashkenazi and Sephardi) were being pressed forward; an old Dissenting Chapel in Burton Street, off Euston Road, having been adapted for the purpose. On January 27th, 1842, it was consecrated. Five days previous, on January 22nd, the "caution" was read publicly by the respective Secretaries in the Great Synagogue and other Jewish places of worship in London (except the Western Synagogue) together with proclamations to the same effect from their own governing bodies.

The breach was now final. The episode was not indeed of such vital importance in the history of the Great Synagogue as it was in that of the Spanish and Portuguese congregation. The terms of the "caution" were not so extreme as those of the Herem which had been automatically incurred by Yehidim of the latter organisation by daring to open a rival place of worship in London. Its loss in membership was moreover trivial, both absolutely and in relation to the total body. On the other hand, the ferment within the community continued for some time. On April 5th, 1842, for example, a meeting of seatholders of the various Ashkenazi synagogues was held at the London Tavern under the chairmanship of Levy Hyman Cohen, at which a memorial was drawn up for presentation to the respective vestries, respectfully drawing attention to various matters connected with rendering of public worship. The existing method of the recital of prayers was described as being "as unaccountable as it is unseemly", and various suggestions for the amelioration of the system were suggested, particular stress being laid on the necessity of a more impressive rendering, English sermons, and the abbreviation of the liturgy by the omission of interpolated passages.

Seating Plan of Great Synagogue, 19th century

As one looks back on the schism, after this long interval of years, it seems in some ways rather insubstantial. The Reformers, though they did not reject the oral law as drastically as their critics alleged, were impatient of the Rabbinic development of Judaism and tended to omit much that was poetic in Jewish worship and beautiful in Jewish ceremonial, simply because it had no Biblical authority. They could not realise that the intellectual world was entering upon a phase when, precisely in their own advanced religious circles, the attitude towards the Bible would change, and they would be driven back to a conception of an ever-developing evolutionary Judaism, interpreted in each era by its religious leaders - "every generation and its seekers, every generation and its teachers" - a conception nearer by far to that of the Rabbis of the Talmudic age than that of the Reformers of 1840. As for the minutiae of worship and the manner of conducting divine service, which a century ago seemed to be the crux of the dispute, improvements were easily and insensibly incorporated, little by little, in the usage of most English congregations, the Great Synagogue generally leading the way. Within a very few years, some of the revolutionary proposals of the Secessionists had become almost a commonplace. A little more patience, a little more imagination, and the schism would have been unnecessary. That this is no exaggeration may be seen from a brochure issued by the Chief Rabbi in 1847: Laws and Regulations for all the Synagogues in the British Empire. In this, without the slightest deviation from orthodox requirements, a considerable part of what had been the demands of the Reformers was met, in fact if not in form. Elaborate arrangements were laid down to secure decorum during service: and even the vexed question of "the prolonged Meshabirach" was solved by stipulating that only one such formula was to be recited for each individual on his being called to the Law. As far as the Great Synagogue was concerned, a modification of the former system of offerings entered into force from the Passover of 1843. At the same time (in imitation of the example set by the Hambro' Synagogue eleven years earlier, and already adopted by most of the more important congregations in the provinces) the companion abuse of the sale of Synagogal honours (Mitzvoth) was discontinued; the pecuniary loss resulting from this, estimated at about £600 yearly, being counterbalanced by a graduated charge on seat rentals. As early as 1841 the Propitiatory Prayers recited on the Day of Atonement were abbreviated, printed papers being circulated to indicate which had been selected; and there was no reason why this precedent should not have been further developed.

One point that had been insisted upon by the Reformers was the necessity for regular sermons in English. In the eighteenth century, the pulpit addresses had been on the whole instructional rather than hortatory, and (so far as the Great Synagogue was concerned) always in Yiddish. Solomon Hirschell had naturally continued this tradition, his most important appearances in the pulpit - though not, as has sometimes been stated, the only ones - being on the conventional Sabbaths before the Day of Atonement and the Passover, when he expounded the regulations of those solemn occasions on the basis of Talmudic teaching. Sometimes, on special occasions, he spoke in English. English sermons from other qualified persons - mainly laymen - were not unknown. It is stated that an address delivered by Tobias Goodman at the Denmark Court Synagogue on the occasion of the death of Princess Charlotte, on November 19th, 1817, was the earliest delivered in English in any synagogue in the country, though the same claim is made for a series begun at Liverpool as early as 1806. The exact date when English preaching began at the Great Synagogue is not recorded, but about the year 1830, Dr. Joshua van Oven and Arthur Lumley Davids (the precocious Orientalist) and in 1832-4 Henry Naphtali Solomon (who kept a once-famous school at Edmonton) were among those who gave occasional vernacular sermons in London.3 In 1841, when the Reform controversy was entering upon its most embittered phase, it was resolved to meet one of the criticisms of the Reformers by making arrangements for pulpit instruction in English at the Great Synagogue, and advertisements were published inviting applications from competent persons. The most likely candidate was David Myer Isaacs, who had already given proof of his ability at Liverpool and elsewhere and who, on March 13th, 1841, delivered the sermon at the special service on the triumphant return of Sir Moses Montefiore from his Damascus Mission.3 He was, however, foreign-born, and perhaps because of this no election was made. Not long after, a new Chief Rabbi belonging to the younger generation took it as a matter of course that an important part of his duties was the delivery of regular sermons (in the vernacular, as soon as he could master it), and this old-standing complaint was satisfied.

Another demand of those who sought synagogal reform was the introduction of a choir to replace the traditional Meshorrer and Bassista who had hitherto assisted the cantor on the reading-desk - a system which was not only foreign, but, to English eyes and ears, almost unseemly. After Isaac Polack's death, the congregation had no Hazan of outstanding reputation, it being a period of short tenures and general decline. Moreover, the disturbed condition of the Continent made it impossible to secure the best talent from abroad, as would have been the normal course. For a long time, accordingly, the congregation had to reduce the scale of its requirements and make shift with local talent and the existing functionaries. At the beginning of 1807, it was formally decided to appoint a Hazan, at a salary of £105 yearly, together with living accommodation and taxes, but there seems to have been only one likely candidate in the country - a Mr. Isaac Alexander, who intimated in the following September that he had decided not to apply. At the end of November, it was decided to prolong the time-limit for applications, owing to the interruption of regular correspondence with the Continent, but in spite of this nothing resulted.

Towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars a further attempt was made, and two likely candidates presented themselves: Myer Metz, of Offenbach, and Nathan Solomon, of Gröningen. Each had a considerable following, and as a compromise it was decided to appoint them both: Myer Metz entered into office in 1814 as Reader and Nathan Solomon joined him on the Almemor as Hazan Sheni in the following year. (It was thus that the custom of having two Hazanim at the Great Synagogue began.) They did not give complete satisfaction - on 19th December, 1815, the two were solemnly reprimanded for negligence in the performance of their duties. Thereafter, relations were smoother. In 1815, a portrait of the Rev. Nathan Solomon, "Reader in the Great Synagogue" was exhibited at the Royal Academy by the Jewish artist, Solomon Polack.4 But his tenure did not last for long. His health proved unequal to the London atmosphere, and after only two years he relinquished his post and left the country, the congregation assuming the responsibility for the care of his children. Metz, on the other hand (who on his appointment had a house found for him by the congregation, and furnished at a cost of £200) remained in office for thirteen years. He was assisted on the Almemor, as chorister, by his son Morris Metz, who, however, was subject to the normal chorister's troubles. In June 1821 he submitted a petition to the Vestry informing them that, his voice being on decline, he wished to go to Jamaica; he was granted £10 for the journey and his father was authorised to appoint another assistant. The latter had now become a popular figure. When he passed away in 1827 it was resolved by the Committee "that the funeral be conducted in the most respectful manner", and that "twelve mourning and six Hackney coaches be provided". He was succeeded by Binom Heinich (Enoch) Eliasson, or Elias, of Darmstadt, formerly assistant reader (in succession to Nathan Solomon) who was elected by a majority of one vote over A. M. Voorsanger, of Arnhem. Elias was of a very parsimonious nature, and it is said that for the sake of economy when he first came to England he crossed Europe with his family by barge, taking a fantastically long time over the journey. One of the conditions of his engagement was that he was to bring a boy singer with him; and his choice fell on Julius Lazarus (Israel) Mombach, who was later to play so important a role in the history of English synagogal music. After only two years, in 1829, Elias had to retire, a neglected chill having affected his voice. (He subsequently became Director of Concerts at the Lyceum Theatre.) His place remained vacant for three years, notwithstanding the applications which were received from various parts of the Continent and a constant procession to the Almemor of aspirants to office. It was thus not until 1832 that the congregation decided to appoint Simon Ascher, of Gröningen, a fine, clear tenor, whose florid style of recitative with frequent roulades long remained a beloved memory with London Jews.5 He was assisted by young Mombach, who stood on his right hand as Meshorrer; the Bassista on his left being Jehiel Hanau, who in 1817 had made a brief appearance as Hebrew publisher.

In 1841, thanks to the efforts above all of Henry Hyman Cohen, this traditional method was at last abandoned, and an organised choir on English lines was introduced. Ascher selected for training a number of youths with good voices, and they were reinforced by Samuel Lewis, the last Bassista under the old system, who sang in the new choir for half a century. The Meshorrer on the other hand became choirmaster. It proved to be a particularly happy appointment. As a composer of synagogue music Mombach was equalled only by Solomon Sulzer, of Vienna, and a large proportion of the now-famous Anglo-Jewish choral melodies were first familiarised by him and his collaborators. Previously, the Hazan had drawn upon miscellaneous secular sources to embellish his recital. The story is told how Solomon Hirschell was once informed that the reader had introduced "Don Juan" into the service on the previous Friday night. He had never heard of "Don Juan" before, but when the point was elucidated jumped to conclusions, and was more than shocked. "That man be brought to Synagogue!" he exclaimed. "I will not have him or anything connected with him in the place!" At the same time, Hirschell had strong objections to use on the Almemor of what he termed the "Book of Strokes" [i.e. musical notation] and the tuning-fork, and would not permit the repetition by the new choir of the word Hallelujah unless the last syllable, embodying the Divine name, were omitted until the close.

Julius Lazarus Mombach, Choirmaster at the Great Synagogue, 1841-1880

Mombach became an institution. The New Synagogue, too, summoned him to direct its choir, and he divided his time on Sabbath mornings between the two places of worship. He would make his appearance in Duke's Place during the reading of the Haphtarah, and the congregation would rise in his honour as he entered. He was to remain in office until his death in 1880 - fifty-two years after he had first entered the service of the congregation. To him is due in large measure that dignified, simple tradition of sacred music which, spreading from the Great Synagogue, has become characteristic of the Anglo-Jewish synagogal tradition everywhere to our own day.

As regards the other great point of argument in 1840-42--the concentration of the Synagogues in the City, out of walking distance for those well-to-do members of the community who lived in the West End -a solution was similarly not long delayed, becoming inevitable with the growing numbers of the Jewish population and the constant expansion of the Metropolis. But by the time this step was taken the surviving links with eighteenth-century Anglo-Jewry had been broken, and the face of the community had changed.


1 A parallel, but less balanced agitation had indeed developed independently in England. One of the earliest pieces of propaganda in any language for radical reform in Judaism is to be found in an anonymous pamphlet: "A Peep into the Synagogue, or a Letter to the Jews" (London, c. 1790). In this, the author--obviously a member of the Ashkenazi section of the community--after criticising the conduct of the Synagogue and its services in the most virulent terms, suggested the rendering of the prayers in English instead of Hebrew, and even the abrogation of the rite of circumcision.

2 See page 57.

3 Somewhat later (1842/3) occasional sermons were delivered in the Great Synagogue or the Synagogue Hall also by Louis Loewe, B. H. Ascher, D. Asher, I. Issachar (subsequently minister in Jamaica) and Israel Levy (son of "Reb Aron" and subsequently minister in Hull). Weekly lectures of the old-fashioned type were also delivered in Yiddish every Saturday, between the afternoon and evening services, by the Rabbi of the Burial Society.

4 This was presumably the original of the engraving which was to have been distributed to subscribers to Alexander's Mahzor in 1815, no copy of which is however recorded.

5 Ascher's son, Joseph Asher, was private pianist and conductor to the Empress Eugénie, and is remembered as composer of Alice, where art thou? One of his daughters, Flora, a magnificent soprano, was mother of Theodor Fink, the Australian newspaper proprietor, and thus grandmother of the Ranee of Pudakota.

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