Often called “The Queen City of the West,” Cincinnati was also described by historian Henry Howe as “a sort of Paradise for the Hebrews.” The exclusive excerpt below, a continuation of Shabbat Shalom’s mini-series on Jewish communities across America, is courtesy of Dr. Saul Landa, a New Jersey dentist with a passion for photography, author of “A Timeless People” (Gefen Publishing), which highlights the history of 18 Jewish communities across America.
Dr. Landa’s four-year odyssey began with his participation in the OU’s 2006 Emerging Jewish Communities Fair, and resulted in a coffee-table sized book of 380 pages with more than 1,000 photographs (a combination of photos taken by the Dr. Landa and archival images from the featured communities), which he dedicated to the Orthodox Union.
“You Will Forget Your G-d!”
It is October 1816, and Joseph Jonas has just arrived in New York harbor from Plymouth, England. He is young man from a traditional Jewish home. Unlike other immigrants, he is not interested in New York or Philadelphia, the Northeastern centers of Judaism at the time. He has read a good deal about America, and he is intrigued by descriptions of the Ohio River, where few explorers have gone. He is determined to settle on its banks, in a place called Cincinnati — a city not twenty years old, but full of beauty and economic opportunity.
He had been warned, somberly and emphatically, by his Jewish acquaintances in Philadelphia: “In the wilds of America, entirely among gentiles, you will forget your religion and your G-d!” Yet he feels that the area’s isolation is all the more reason to strike roots there. His response is, “A new resting place for the scattered sons of Israel should be commenced; …a sanctuary should be erected in the Great West dedicated to the L-rd of Hosts.” Solemnly promising never to forget his religion or forsake his G-d, he leaves for Cincinnati, hoping to plant there the first Jewish congregation west of the Alleghenies. He arrives there just before Passover.
Writing about his “errand into the Wilderness” in 1845, Joseph implied that he was following the tradition of the Children of Israel going into the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt. Trekking into a region unknown to them, they will yet become a strong nation.
From the first day he entered the town, he was quite a curiosity. One old Quakeress asked, “Art thou a Jew? Will thou let me examine thee?” She turned him round and round and at last exclaimed, “Why, thou art no different from other people!”
True to his word, Jonas remained Orthodox. One day, a farmer brought him a watch and left it to be repaired. (Jonas had opened shop as a “mechanic” — a watchmaker/silversmith.) He came back a few days later and, to his surprise, found the store closed. Either Jonas went bankrupt, he thought unhappily, or he ran off with my watch! Then he met a neighbor who told him that Jonas was a Jew who kept his store closed on this day, for Saturday was his day of rest. When the customer went home and told his mother, she hurried to Jonas and asked if he was, indeed, Jewish. When he answered yes, she lifted her eyes towards the heavens and cried, “Thank you, o L-rd that I have lived to see a descendant of Abraham before my death!”
Despite the formation of synagogues, traditional Judaism found few supporters in Cincinnati. Jonas wrote that, “Religious laxity was the rule with little interest in spiritual matters,” and ultimately confessed his fear that perhaps Judaism would not be able to survive in this wilderness.
Joseph Jonas once wondered what great things might happen, “If only a few…[Jews] would commence, sincerely, keeping the Sabbath and the festivals.” When most of the traditional-leaning synagogues in Cincinnati merged to follow the Reform movement, this seemed like a pipe dream in the wilderness.
When Jonas struck the spark of the first Orthodox community west of the Alleghenies, he could not have foreseen all of the challenges that would arise. Through the prophet Jeremiah, G-d praised the Children of Israel when they left Egypt on the very first Passover, more than 3,000 years ago: “I remember the kindness of your youth… following Me into the desert in a land not sown.”
I feel sure that Joseph Jonas, too, would have been proud of his people who sojourned in this wilderness and, like their bold ancestors, never lost sight of G-d.
Dr. Saul Landa has been a photographer of Jewish subjects for over thirty-five years. He is also an avid athlete, traveler and hiker, and throughout his life has explored the world, including summiting Mount Kilimanjaro.
An associate clinical professor in Dentistry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine as well as an ordained rabbi, he resides in East Brunswick, New Jersey, with his family.
Dr. Landa is available for guest speaking engagements and you are invited to contact him or provide information about your own community at: email@example.com, or to visit his website: A Timeless People.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.