Commentary Magazine


Isaac Leeser

To the Editor:

Jonathan D. Sarna’s fine review of the book I edited, Jewish Life in Philadelphia, 1830-1940 [Books in Review, October 1984], is deeply appreciated. He caught the main thrust of the book: the interesting partnership that developed between Philadelphia’s intellectual and cultural Jewish leadership and the more business-oriented New York community in building the institutional structure of Jewish life in this country in the crucial period between the 1880′s and the 1920′s. I must respectfully differ with Mr. Sarna, however, on what he calls my “boosterism” with regard to the extraordinary role played by Isaac Leeser and the publication he edited, the Occident. Perhaps I should have been more precise, but the fact is that Leeser did introduce the first regular English sermons in this country. As for the Occident, it was for almost six years the only Jewish publication in the U.S., and for eleven years it had little competition. On Adon Olam I indeed wrote poorly, but the fact remains that the musical notation for the hymn was first published in the Occident. But Leeser does not need any defense from me. What he does need is a biographer.

Murray Friedman
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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Jonathan D. Sarna writes:

I am grateful to Murray Friedman for his kind words and helpful clarification. This time, though not in his book, he does seem to have his facts right about Isaac Leeser. Adon Olam, however, remains a problem. While I am no expert in the history of Jewish music, I find in the Encyclopaedia Judaica that the great Italian Jewish composer Solomon de Rossi’s music for Adon Olam was published in Venice as early as 1622. How then can it be a “fact” that “the musical notation for the hymn was first published in the Occident,” which did not appear in Philadelphia until 1844?

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