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B'siyata d'shmaya - With the help of Heaven


Reverend Abraham Lopes Cardozo z"l (1914-2006)

By Shelomo Alfassa

The Jewish Voice - March 3, 2006

Reverend Abraham Lopes Cardozo, Hazan Emeritus of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in the City of New York passed away Feb. 21, 2006 at the age of 92. Reverend Cardozo was one of the spiritual leaders of Congregation Shearith Israel for 60 years, he was a leading figure of Sephardic Jewry around the world.

Born in Amsterdam, Holland, Cardozo was the great-grandson of the Chief Rabbi of the Sephardic Congregation and the son of Joseph Lopes Cardozo, musician, and leader of the boy's choir of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. Reverend Cardozo was a link in the chain of Sephardic Jewry that stretched back to pre-Inquisition Iberia.

In the years after 1497, numerous Portuguese Jews converted, (many under duress to save their lives). Over succeeding decades, many Jews made every attempt to slip out of the country that had locked them in. Some made it to France, others to Brazil (then a Portuguese colony) and yet others to the Dutch Netherlands. It was in the Netherlands that the Spanish and Portuguese Jews could openly return to Judaism without fear of persecution. Because of their Iberian origins and Portuguese language, the Jews of Amsterdam are known as Spanish-Portuguese Jews.

In September 1654, shortly before the Jewish New Year, 23 Jews that were fleeing growing anti-Jewish intolerance in Brazil, arrived in New York City. At the time, the Dutch colony known as New Amsterdam was nothing more than a small port for ships with a few storehouses surrounded by the forest. This was the beginning of the history of Sephardic Jews in North America. These 23 refugees founded a congregation known as Shearith Israel, the Remnant of Israel. This was the congregation that Reverend Abraham Lopes Cardozo served prominently from 1946-2006.

The members of Shearith Israel, friends, family, and members of the public all came together to pay their last respects and to express their love and gratitude to a man that was revered on the highest level. The funeral was held inside the magnificent synagogue of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, surely the grandest of all synagogues outside of Europe. Inside the stately sanctuary, Reverend Cardozo's casket was draped with his Tallit (prayer shawl) as a single candle solemnly burned at the head end which is Jewish tradition.

Facing the teva (readers desk), eulogies were given by several rabbis as well as family members. Most notably, how in 1939, Reverend Cardozo was appointed by Queen Wilhemina of the Netherlands to be the Rabbi of the Sephardic Congregation in Paramaribo, capital of the country of Suriname in northern South America.

Reverend Cardozo became a faculty member of the Yeshiva University Sephardic Studies Program, where he taught as a Sephardic hazzan. Thirteen years after coming to the United States, Reverend Cardozo published, Music of the Sephardim. In the early 1960's he participated in recording the melodies of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. In 1987 his major work, Sephardic Songs of Praise, was published, as well as Selected Sephardic Chants in 1991.

Rabbi Albert Gabbai, the rabbi of Congregation Mikveh Israel of Philadelphia gave a touching tribute to Reverend Cardozo, speaking about him with the reverence of a son. He endeared the late Hazan as one of his teachers, someone who helped teach him learn the Spanish and Portuguese tradition. Someone who was an influence in his life.

Rabbi Marc Angel, long time leader of Congregation Shearith Israel spoke eloquently and from his heart, of the man who he said was influential on him becoming rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. Rabbi Angel used the Hebrew term shaliah sibur to describe Reverend Cardozo. He said the rabbinical sages of the past dictated that the man chosen as the shaliah sibur, the emissary of the congregation, had to be of upstanding character with a high reverence to his community and his faith, this describes Reverend Cardozo.

Reverend Cardozo was a remnant of a community in the Netherlands that was devastated by the Nazis. In 1939 there were some 140,000 Dutch Jews living in the Netherlands. In 1941, the majority of them were living in Amsterdam. By 1945 only about 35,000 of them were still alive. Reverend Cardozo proudly represented, taught and kept alive a culture and musical tradition that had come with the refugees of the Iberian Peninsula and had once again been taken with Jewish refugees, this time from those fleeing Holland.

Rabbi Angel's touching words still resonate as he called Reverend Cardozo, an ember. He said Reverend Cardozo was an ember that survived the ashes of the Holocaust. Making his way to New York, Reverend Cardozo rebuilt his life after losing his entire family in Europe. He then reinstituted his traditions, subsequently passing them along to countless others.

Toward the end of the funeral, the crowded synagogue rose in honor of Reverend Cardozo as the congregation leaders, in their stately black bowler hats, circled the bier several times, as is their tradition. Jews of every stream and philosophy, including leaders of Jewish organization, professors, and colleagues of the late Hazan, together, mourned over the loss of this statesman and elder of the community.

Reverend Cardozo is survived by his wife, the former Irma Miriam Robles of Suriname (former president of the Central Sephardi Jewish Community of America), two daughters, Deborah and Judith, and many grandchildren.