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Jewish Studies Research Guide

Featured Book from the Collection

אברהם אלכסנדר בר יוסף רפאל, סדר התפילות לראש השנה ויום כיפור כמנהג ק"ק םפרדים (בק"ק טשארלסטון סוט קעראלינא, תקס"ה)

Abraham Alexander Bar Yosef Rafael, Seder Haefilot L’Rosh Hashanah veYom Kippur Keminhag K”K [Kahal Kadosh] Sefardim (B’K”K Tsharleston South Carolina, 5565) – Mahzor for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur according to the Sephardic Holy Congregation’s Rite (Holy Congregation of Charleston, South Carolina, 1805)

The prayer book in the Rose Library’s holdings displays its author Abraham Alexander’s learning. It is written for followers of the Sephardic rite, such as the founders of the oldest congregations in the U.S., such as Charleston’s Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim. The book’s elegant binding matches the solemnity of the high holidays and is fashioned after prayer books published in English. Its contents, however, are entirely written in Hebrew square characters. Their miniature size of which might have presented difficulty of reading for its owner.

Abraham Alexander, was born in London, England, in 1743 and immigrated to Charleston, S. C. in around 1760, according to the book Notes on the Alexander family of South Carolina and Georgia, and connections on the family history by Henry Aaron Alexander, a late descendant of Abraham Alexander. It is unclear if Abraham Alexander had any formal rabbinical training  or he was ordained as a rabbi (his father was a rabbi): scholars argue that before the nineteenth century, there were no trained rabbis in North America. Until then, men with outstanding knowledge in Jewish law and rabbis from the Middle East or Europe appointed to travel to the Western Hemisphere would provide legal guidance and leadership to Jewish communities in the Americas. Other important roles in the community, such as the hazzan (cantor) who leads the prayer, have been regularly filled by local leaders. Between ca. 1766 (or even earlier, 1764) until 1784, Abraham Alexander was the hazzan of Kahal Kadosh (holy congregation) Beth Elohim in Charleston, one of the oldest congregations that has been present in North America since before the founding of the United States. Alexander resigned from his position because of the (continuing) friction between the Ashkenazic and Sephardic members of the congregation.

Outside the congregation, Abraham Alexander worked as a clerk. In Charleston, during the Revolutionary War he fought on the side of the colonists as lieutenant and remained in the city during the British occupation. In 1801, he was a founding member of the Supreme Council of the Ancient and Accepted Order of Scottish Rite Masonry. Praised for his handwriting as a “Calligraphist of the first order,” he was elected as the Society’s Grand Secretary General. His miniature portrait is displayed in the webpage “Mapping Jewish Charleston.” After the war, he worked as a government employee, the auditor, in the Custom House at Charleston between 1802 and 1813. He died on February 21, 1816 and was buried in the Coming Street Cemetery in Charleston.

He married twice, the second time a non-Jewish woman, who converted to Judaism, but ultimately was denied the right to be buried in the Jewish cemetery of Charleston. Some of his descendants moved to Atlanta.