Washington’s Message to R.I. Jews Echoes More than 200 Years Later

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Hazzan David Tilman, director of Shir KI (adult and professional choirs); Cantor Jonathan Comisar, composer; Cantor Amy E. Levy; and Andrew Senn, pianist. Photo provided

The first president wrote a letter to the Jewish community of Newport, R.I., in 1790.

“May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land,” George Washington wrote, citing a passage from Micah 4:4, “continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

These words struck a chord with Cantor Jonathan Comisar, a composer who lives in New York City, when he first read the letter as a teenager.

Today, they strike a more literal musical chord, as he was commissioned to use these words in a cantata, “To Bigotry, No Sanction: An American Jewish Cantata,” which will be performed at a heritage Shabbat service at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel at 7 p.m. on March 3. The performance will commemorate the synagogue’s 170th birthday.

The piece’s name draws from a famous line from Washington’s letter: “ … the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance … ”

The letter, which can be viewed at the National Museum of American Jewish History, was a response to a letter the Jews of Newport had initially written to Washington shortly after his first inauguration, according to Rabbi Lance J. Sussman.

The Jewish communities of the time were working on a coordinated letter of congratulations, he explained, but ran short on time as Washington announced he was heading to Newport. The Jewish community there, instead, wrote him a letter and he wrote back.

“It was truly revolutionary in the sense of an American revolution being a revolution for Jewish people,” he said. “In many ways, it’s the American-Jewish version of the Declaration of Independence or even the Emancipation Proclamation, saying this was really going to be home to Jews and Judaism in an unqualified way.”

“We’ve always been a synagogue that believes in making new Jewish music and bringing light to Jewish composers,” said Keneseth Israel’s Cantor Amy E. Levy, who was a classmate of Comisar’s at Hebrew Union. “We felt it was important and historic to do something a little different for our 170th.”

As for the meaning of the piece, Levy said it’s universal.

“That message of bigotry given no sanction and persecution no [assistance] is so important because it’s really about love for all people, and we should remember this message is also one of our own people,” she said. “For me, it’s very powerful to see and to hear and to feel all of our community together celebrating our anniversary in a musical way … and a way that really brings our history to life.”

For Comisar, composing this music over the last six months has allowed him to travel back in time and “get to know” George Washington. He found several parallels between 1790 and present-day America.

“It’s significant that our founding father, George Washington, was thinking about embracing the Jews as a people in the new republic, and there’s a universal message to this letter as well,” Comisar said. “On the face of it, it’s about the Jews but really the message is about all people who will come to America in the future, the immigrants.

“It’s interesting, when we spoke about this piece in the fall, the election was brewing, but it was not as highly charged as it is now with real anxiety and concern about civil liberties and the threat to the well- being of immigrants in America,” he said. “We Jews know all too well the experience of being ‘other’ and … in so many ways we’ve lived the American dream and in our best moments have stood up for others, too. So this letter has spoken to me in so many ways.”

Writing the nearly 12-minute piece that echoes the sounds of Colonial America with a fife and drum element — the piece is scored for piccolo, percussion, French horn, violin, cello and piano, as well as adult and children’s choirs — was a welcome challenge.

“Writing a piece of music based on a letter is not an easy matter,” he said. “It’s not like setting words from a sacred text or poem or lyrics to a Broadway song, which have natural rhymes and natural rhythms. This is setting something in very formal late 18th-century prose. So I had to be very creative and selective about which passages were to be set and how I would approach the creative rendering of the text into music.”

He chose excerpts from the letter that he felt were appropriate for a musical setting and inserted the original Hebrew passage, as well as the line that states “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree.”

That is also represented in the crescendo of the piece, he said, which features an American-style hymn and blends the Jewish and American elements.

“That’s what I was aiming for: something Jewish, something American and yet something that has a universal quality and a universal message,” he said.

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