University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Simon Tuska's "The Stranger in the Synagogue"

Volume XIV · Autumn 1958 · Number 1
Simon Tuska's The Stranger in the Synagogue

The Rochester Daily Democrat of June 5, 1854, carried the announcement:

"The Jewish Worship -- Darrow & Bros. have issued a volume of fifty pages entitled 'The Stranger In The Synagogue; Or The Rites and Ceremonies of the Jewish Worship, described and explained.' It is compiled 'by Simon Tuska, a son of the Rabbi of the Congregation Berith Kodesh, of the City of Rochester.' For sale by the publishers."

Thus the community learned of the first published work by a student or alumnus of the University of Rochester.

The Jewish periodical press of the time took notice of the appearance of this slender volume. Isaac M. Wise'sThe Israelite announced its publication and added:

"By sending thirty-cents in postage stamps to the author S. Tuska, Rochester, New York, a copy neatly bound in cloth will be sent free to any part of the United States. 1 dozen for two dollars." 1

The Israelite and its editor being of the Reform wing in Judaism agreed with the author's presentation of Jewish "rites and ceremonies," but the traditionalist Isaac Leeser did not. In a review in his The Occident, the editor takes Tuska to task for "a sort of anti-Talmudic confession of a scriptural Judaism, in our opinion quite unnecessary to his subject..." He credits the author with making moderately good use of his material, notes that the author is "yet a mere youth" and it would therefore "be absurd to expect any great profundity. . ." He holds forth the hope "that he will study carefully all accessible sources of Jewish literature, and arrive thereby at a correct appreciation of the value of the rabbinical institutions and labors in behalf of Judaism, as it is not safe to be guided in this respect by what our opponents say of us." Leeser concludes with a salute and admonition. "We shall be pleased to meet Mr. Tuska hereafter in the fields of literature, when he has labored in the manner we have indicated, as his attempt to diffuse some light betokens, at all events, a laudable ambition." 2

Stranger in the Synagogue is a slim volume of fifty-two pages, comprised of an Introduction, fourteen chapters, an Appendix, and Index. The Introduction discloses the author's purpose to be:

" explain the rites and ceremonies observed on the Sabbath and other festivals of the Jews, to those who are led either by interest or curiosity to attend the synagogue on such days. Without such an explanation they will rarely be able to receive a clear idea of the services from mere sight, especially as these are wholly conducted in Hebrew. But to make this work interesting to readers in general, it has been thought fit to intersperse and affix several interesting Jewish usages."

The author then presents a concise description of the Jewish holidays and how they are observed in the Synagogue. He also describes and explains the talit (prayer shawl), phylacteries, and the Jewish marriage ceremony. The Appendix consists of the Thirteen Articles of Faith of the medieval Jewish scholar and philosopher Maimonides.

Tuska goes beyond description. He is critical of certain customs and usages. "In many synagogues," he writes in the Introduction, "some unsocial customs ordered by the Rabbins are reformed, and the vain traditions of theTalmud rejected. . . most of the ceremonies prescribed in the Talmud are more interesting to Christians than they are approved of by the majority of the Jews. . . ." These strictures against Talmudic law drew the censure of Leeser.

An unsigned letter to the editor of The Occident tells us more about young Tuska, and the reason for his undertaking the publication of Stranger in the Synagogue. It states:

"In this city [Rochester] there are many distinguished American Christians, who are deeply interested in witnessing the services of the Synagogue; almost on every Sabbath and festival, some are led by curiosity, others by interest, to enter the Synagogue. Our acquaintance with these, however, is mostly owing to our Rabbi's son, whose good standing in the University of this city has gained him the friendship of many educated Christians. To show the real character of a refined and educated American, we were told, in a conversation with Mr. Tuska (the son), that never, during the two years that he has now spent in the University did any professor or student desire to discuss the topic of religion. Mr. Tuska is a promising youth of seventeen or eighteen, and ere this greets the eye of your readers, will probably have given to the public a work entitled 'The Stranger in the Synagogue'. This work he had undertaken at the request of many Christians who felt a deep interest in the rites and ceremonies of Jewish worship. The young author, however, in writing the book, did it with an eye to his brethren in faith also, and expressed his conviction that he endeavoured to make his work of equal, if not of more utility to Jews.. . " 3

Tuska dedicated his work to "the

whose profound acquaintance with the Hebrew Literature, has made 
his name known and honored
wherever the Language and Literature
CHILDREN OF ISRAEL  are cultivated."

The volume also carries a recommendation from "Henry W. Lee, Rector of St. Luke's Church" of Rochester.

In 1849 when the Jewish congregation of Rochester numbered eighteen members, it invited Mordecai Tuska, a recent arrival from Hungary, to serve as its first spiritual leader. 4

The Rev. Mr. Tuska arrived in Rochester in April of that year accompanied by his wife Rebecca and their son Simon. 5  Simon, who was born in Wesprin, Hungary, was then fifteen years old. Only two years later theRochester Daily Democrat announced that "The Board of Education after a very patient examination of some fourteen candidates, selected Thomas Dransfield, Ephraim Gates and Simon Tuska for admission to the Rochester University." 6  The Rochester Daily Advertiser added the pertinent information that these young men were admitted for "gratuitous education" at the University. 7 The young Tuska, after only two years of schooling in Rochester's public schools, was awarded one of the first scholarships to the University of Rochester.

At the University, Tuska specialized in Greek and Latin and was an excellent student. Dr. Martin B. Anderson, President of the University, speaking in 1871, called him one of the best scholars the University had graduated.8  Dr. Anderson took a personal interest in this promising student, and at his request Tuska wrote "an essay on the Hebrew idea of the immortality of the soul, which was published in a denominational journal at Andover, Mass." 9  The two became close friends as well, and spent so much time together that their relations became "somewhat like father and son." 10  Tuska was graduated with the Class of 1856.

The lifelong ambition of Simon Tuska was to follow in his father's footsteps and become a rabbi. Dr. Max Lilienthal, a noted rabbi of New York and Cincinnati, recalled that Tuska, when yet a boy, informed him of his desire to become a rabbi. "I will devote myself to the sacred cause of my religion, of humanity, of my country," he is quoted by Lilienthal as saying. 11 Isaac Mayer Wise, who was later to found the Hebrew Union College for the training of rabbis, encouraged him when Tuska was yet a young student at the University "to study for the ministry." 12  When Wise visited Rochester in April, 1854, he was told that the elder Tuska was teaching his son Rabbinical literature. "At the University," Wise reports, "he enjoyed the particular favor of Rev. Dr. Conant, the excellent Hebraist. . ." 13    Tuska assured Wise that he was preparing himself for the pulpit. Wise's interest in Tuska continued. He encouraged his literary efforts and urged him to continue to prepare himself for the rabbinate.

Tuska sent Wise a sermon he had prepared and Wise hastened to reply:

"I perused it with delight, and cannot depress the ardent hope to see you take hold on the Jewish ministry. As regards Hebrew learning, your father will instruct you so far, as to go on alone. I will give you a full plan to do so whenever you require it.

If you would come to this city [Cincinnati], I would offer you every opportunity to finish your education in this capacity." 14

Though Tuska turned to teaching upon his graduation from the University, he never gave up his ambition to enter the rabbinate. In a letter to Isaac M. Wise, dated August 11, 1856, 15  he writes that upon his graduation he made up his mind to study theology "intending to take the Lectures of Dr. Robinson, Professor of Systematic Theology." The Catalogue of the Rochester Theological Seminary for 1857-58 lists Simon Tuska as a special student "Attending Theological Lectures." 16

Lest Dr. Wise be disturbed about the prospects of a prospective rabbi studying theology at a Christian Seminary, Tuska reassured him: "I have become so fully convinced of the fundamental principles of our faith, that I do not fear to confront in personal debate, the arguments of the most learned of Christian divines." 17 As for Dr. Robinson's lectures, Tuska confided that his plan was to "Take out the cream, leaving the whey for others." 18

Tuska's reasons for not attempting to find a pulpit upon his graduating are interesting and informative about Jewish congregational life in America in mid-nineteenth century. He felt he was too young for the rabbinate, being only twenty-one years of age. But his chief reservation seems to be the recognition of a language barrier. Most congregations at the time conducted their services in Hebrew, with German as the language for congregational readings, preaching, and instruction.

"If I am ever to accomplish some good by sermons," Tuska writes, "they must be delivered by me in English; and there are few congregations in this land, who can fully appreciate an English discourse. This will not cease to be the case until the rising American-born generation will have come to manhood. Then, no doubt, a fair field of labor will be spread before the English preacher. Till then it will be my task to instruct the young, hoping thereby to become one day enabled to instruct the old.19

"Till then" Tuska accepted an appointment to teach languages at the Collegiate Institute at Brockport. He assured Wise that he will continue during his leisure hours to devote his attention to "the study of Jewish Philosophy and Religion; for I confess a great degree of pleasure in these pursuits. . ." 20

Wise's response is a plea to Tuska "Forget us not!" He writes:

"We must inform our friend, that there are many congregations in this country, who would gladly employ the service of a minister, who preaches but English. Besides this we know how extremely easy it would be to him, to acquaint himself sufficiently with the German, to enable him to preach in this language. Forget us not young man! The Synagogue is poor in this country, lacking talent and devotion. We have plenty of Hazzanim, [Readers of the Service], Shochtim, [ritual slaughterers], etc. also old fashioned Rabbinists, who have no idea of the learning and wants of our age; but we have not sufficient literary men. Forget us not!" 21

Wise, who was deeply convinced that Jewish religious life in America needed Americanization, was, no doubt, greatly excited about the possibility of a graduate of an American university entering the rabbinate. Later in life he established a Theological Seminary for the training of American rabbis, now at least he wanted an American university graduate in a Jewish pulpit. This to him would represent the first step in the making of the Americanrabbi. Such a thing had not yet happened. Tuska seemed to him to be the most likely prospect of fulfilling his hope and becoming the first graduate of an American university to serve as a rabbi. So Wise continued to encourage him in his Jewish studies and interests. Thus on November 19, 1856, he sent Tuska a warm and laudatory letter urging him to go ahead with his contemplated translation of Saalshuetz's Das Mosaische Recht(a work in Biblical jurisprudence), and assuring him that he was fully competent to do it. "Go on," he urges, "it will be a valuable contribution to American literature and especially to the students of law and theology." 22  Dr. Max Lilienthal adds his warm recommendation, stating: "I have no doubt that this book will prove a desirable acquisition to the entire ministry in the United States." 23

Wise's continuing interest and urging bore fruit. The soil was made fertile by Tuska's deep interest in Jewish life and learning, in "Jewish Philosophy and Religion" from which he derived "a great degree of pleasure." Tuska decided to go abroad to prepare himself for the rabbinate. Wise was delighted to announce this in the January 8, 1858, issue of his Israelite.

Tuska reached his decision late in 1857. In October of that year, he almost gave up his plans, when he was "elected Professor of Hebrew in the Union Theological Seminary (Protestant) of Rochester, New York." 24  When Tuska discovered that the "Rev. Dr. Riggs was willing to serve in this capacity. . . [he] voluntarily resigned. Rev. Dr. Robinson then wrote these facts in a letter, with the remark 'In all his intercourse with me, the conduct of Mr. Tuska was that of a gentleman and a scholar.' " 25

"Our young friend Tuska of Rochester, has now decided definitely, to go to Breslau, in Prussia, to study Hebrew theology," Wise joyfully announced to his readers. This was a decision of great importance in the history of Jewish religious life in America, for as Wise pointed out: "He is the first American Israelite who goes to Germany for the purpose of studying Hebrew theology...." Besides wishing Tuska well, Wise expressed the hope that "other young men will soon follow his example." 26

On the way to Breslau, Tuska visited his native country Hungary. His impressions of the country, its institutions and people, he sent on to the Israelite and to Moore's Rural New Yorker in the form of "Letters." 27  The letters disclose Tuska to be possessed of a fine literary style, graceful and lucid.

In October 1858 he finally arrived in Breslau and began his studies at its famed Jewish Theological Seminary. The Seminary was then the leading institution of its kind in the world. It was founded and headed by Dr. Zacharias Frankel, an influential religious thinker and a leading scholar. On its faculty were some of the world's leading authorities in Jewish theology, literature, law, and history. Tuska was deeply impressed with and very fond of his professors, particularly Frankel and Heinrich Graetz, the great Jewish historian. "But," Wise confides, "[he] heartily disliked everything else." "A professor to be again a student under seminary discipline and a liberal-minded American to submit to all those forms of orthodoxy, is a difficult task," Wise explains. 28

Tuska remained in communication with Wise during his stay in Breslau. Wise continued to guide him. In a letter to Tuska sent April 21, 1858, Wise assures him:

"Your Letters are read here with deep interest, and are partly republished in London. . . If you thus continue, you will on returning be received here with open arms; for every man, woman, and child in the U. S. already knows your name." 29

We should forgive Wise his exaggeration, for it was brought on, no doubt, by his sincere interest in Tuska, and his fervent desire that he return to the United States and accept a rabbinic post. He offers some good advice in the same letter:

"I would advise you to write some exposition on a literary or scientific theme occasionally. You have the best chance for it in Breslau, it will do you good here." 30

Some valuable professional advice is also included. It was, no doubt, of real benefit to Tuska, as it is of value to the student of American religious life in mid-nineteenth century:

"I doubt not, that you study much, as you know that a Rabbi here must have more universal knowledge than one in Europe, he being closer connected with the world at large and being placed in a juxtaposition with the whole community.

A thorough course of natural science and history would benefit you decidedly." 31

And Wise does not forget that the prospects of a position are always alluring. He informs Tuska:

"Louisville is waiting for you, and I can manage it, that they wait till you return." 32

Louisville was apparently not sufficient a lure, but Temple Emanuel in New York apparently was. The rabbi of the congregation was Dr. Samuel Adler, a respected scholar and spiritual leader. Adler's language was German. The day Tuska looked to "when the rising American-born generation will have come to manhood" -- those "who can appreciate an English discourse" -- was now at hand. The Emanuel Congregation needed a rabbi who could preach in English, for to the sons and daughters of the German-speaking immigrants who founded Emanuel, English was their native tongue. In 1860, when the congregation advertised for an English lecturer, "Tuska returned to this country and preached a probationary sermon." 33  Wise recalls that "he failed in giving satisfaction to that community, more probably by his feeble voice and small stature than by any other cause."

Tuska's own account is somewhat different. The rumor was apparently current in Rochester that Tuska had become the English lecturer at Emanuel, for he wrote to Dr. M. B. Anderson from Memphis, Tenn., on July 19, 1860:

"You will observe from the date above that I am not English lecturer of the 12th St. Temple in New York. My voice for the present not yet fully developed cannot, without too much exertion, fill every part of that lofty and spacious edifice. I, therefore, did not apply as Candidate for that place at all -- though my trial-lecture pleased those who heard it -- but resolved to wait for some favorable opportunity in a smaller locality." 34

Such a smaller locality was Rochester itself. On March 8, 1860, The Rochester Union and Advertiser, announced:

"Preaching By Rabbi Tuska -- The Rev. Simon Tuska who has lately returned from Europe, where he qualified himself as Rabbi, will preach a sermon in the English language at the synagogue in St. Paul Street, on Saturday next at 10:15 A. M." 35

The ancient saying "A man is not a prophet in his own city," was prophetic about Tuska and Rochester. Simon Hays, a leading member of Congregation Berith Kodesh disclosed after the death of Simon Tuska:

"When he returned [from Europe] it was expected that the Flour City would be his abiding place. But it is said great men do not have honor at home. Some little prejudice prevented his staying here. . . ." 36

The "little prejudice" referred to apparently was that Tuska was too radical in his religious views for the congregation.

As we noted from Tuska's letter to Dr. Anderson, Memphis, Tenn., proved to be the "smaller locality." Tuska describes his candidacy and election to his friend and former teacher:

"Not long after that I received an invitation from the Hebrew Congregation of this young, but flourishing city, [Memphis, Tenn.] to come and lecture before them, as, from the recommendations they obtained concerning my capacities, they had little doubt I would be elected as their Minister. Preliminaries having been arranged, I left New York the latter part of June, and I stopped only over Sunday in Rochester (to see my dear parents). I did not make any calls and could not consequently-what I very much regret-have a personal interview with you, Dr.

I arrived here June 29th, preached the day following in English (afterwards in German) and on the first inst. was unanimously elected for three years as regular preacher in the Synagogue and Instructor in the Religious School connected therewith." 37

Simon Tuska's election to the pulpit of the Memphis congregation is an important landmark in the history of Jewish religious life in America and a significant "first" for the University of Rochester. Tuska was the first American rabbi who was graduated from an American university, and Rochester is the first American university to give an alumnus to the rabbinate.

Tuska further reports to Dr. Anderson:

"The congregation being composed of members hailing from different countries of Europe, I preach every Sabbath in English or German alternately, and find it a very pleasant duty, as the Synagogue here is not larger than in Rochester. I hope here to cultivate my voice so as to be soon able to speak with sufficient loudness and distinctiveness in much larger halls." 38

Tuska's ambition to speak "in much larger halls" was never realized. He was destined to spend the remainder of his all-too-brief life in Memphis. He led his congregation through the very difficult war years, and through the equally trying period of Reconstruction. In the latter sixties the congregation flourished so that Isaac M. Wise called it "one of the best organized and most peaceful Reform congregations of our country." 39

Rochester ever remained close to the heart of the young Rabbi. The Rochester Union and Advertiser reports on September 24, 1862, a "Resolution of the Trustees of the Hebrew Congregation":

Whereas, The Rev. Simon Tuska, on a recent visit to our city has favored us with two able and eloquent lectures for our benefit and instruction, and Whereas, He being a fellow citizen of ours and associated with us from his infancy, we take a peculiar interest in his happiness and welfare and in every step leading to his advancement and success. . .

Resolved that we appoint a committee to procure some token of regard to be presented to Rev. Simon Tuska. . . " 40

It was the sad duty of Isaac M. Wise, Tuska's friend and mentor to report in 1871:

"Simon Tuska is no more among the earthly pilgrims. The lips which so often and so earnestly pronounced the words of God are closed forever. . . Friday evening last, he conducted the divine service in the Temple as usual, preached a sermon and returned home to his family. A few hours afterwards, he was a corpse, a disease of the heart having suddenly cut short his earthly career. . ." 41

Tuska was mourned by the whole Memphis community; "clergymen..., lawyers, judges of courts, county and city officials, journalists and leading merchants" attended the funeral service. Nor did Rochester forget its distinguished son. A memorial meeting was held at the Synagogue. Among the speakers were Dr. Martin B. Anderson; R. D. Jones, former Superintendent of Schools; and Simon Hays, a leader of the Jewish community.

Tuska was in his thirty-seventh year when death claimed him. During his brief life, and very brief ministry which lasted little more than a decade, he was able to make a number of significant contributions. He was one of America's pioneer rabbis, helping through his ministry to shape the American Synagogue and Rabbi. He was the first American-educated Jew to undertake serious studies for the rabbinate, returning to Europe to do so. Of particular interest to the University of Rochester are the aforementioned facts, that his Stranger in the Synagogue is the first published work by a University of Rochester alumnus (published while he was still a student), and that he conferred upon the University the distinction of being the first American university to give an alumnus to the rabbinate.



  1. The Israelite (Cincinnati), Vol. II, No. 18, p. 147 (Nov. 9, 1855).
  2. The Occident (Philadelphia), Vol. XII, No. 6, pp. 319-20 (Sept. 1854).
  3. Ibid. Vol. XII, No. 3, pp. 167-68 (June, 1854).
  4. Ibid.
  5. Rosenberg, Stuart, The Jewish Community of Rochester, 1843-1925, New York, 1954, p. 22.
  6.  August 27, 1851, p. 2, col. 6.
  7. August 29, 1851, p. 3, col. 2.
  8. Rochester Daily Union and Advertiser, January 11, 1871, p. 2, col. 4 and 5.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. The Israelite, Vol. XVII, No. XXIX, p. 9 (Jan. 13, 1871).
  12. Ibid, Vol. XVII, No. XXVIII, p. 9 (Jan. 6, 1871).
  13. Ibid. Dr. Conant was a professor of the Rochester Theological Seminary, which was then meeting in the same building as the University.
  14.  Letter (mss.), Isaac M. Wise to Simon Tuska, January 15, 1855, American Jewish Archives.
  15. The Israelite, Vol. III, No. VII, p. 53 (Aug. 22, 1856).
  16. Catalogue, Rochester Theological Seminary, 1857-58, Rochester, 1857, p. 7.
  17. The Israelite, op. cit.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21.  Ibid.
  22. Letter (mss.), I. M. Wise to Simon Tuska, Nov. 19, 1856, AmericanJewish Archives.
  23. Ibid. The work was never published.
  24.  The Israelite, Vol. XVII, No. XXVIII, p. 9 (Jan. 6, 1871).
  25. Ibid.
  26. The Israelite, Vol. IV, No. XXVII, p. 212 (Jan. 8, 1858).
  27. Seven letters appeared in Moore's Rural New Yorker. The first was in the Jan. 8, 1859 issue, and the last in June 4 issue of the same year.
  28. The Israelite, Vol. XVII, No. XXVIII, p. 9 (Jan. 6, 1871).
  29. Letter (mss.), I. M. Wise to Simon Tuska, Cincinnati, April 21, 1859. American Jewish Archives.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Ibid.
  33. The Israelite, Vol. XVII, No. XXVIII, p. 9 (Jan. 6, 1871).
  34. Letter (mss.), Simon Tuska to M. B. Anderson, L.L.D., Memphis, Tenn., July 19, 1860, University of Rochester Library.
  35. Page 2, col. 3.
  36. Rochester Daily Union and Advertiser, p. 2, col. 5 (Jan. 11, 1871).
  37. Letter (mss.), Simon Tuska to M. B. Anderson, Memphis, July 19, 1860. University of Rochester Library.
  38. Ibid.
  39. The Israelite, Vol. XVII, No. XXIX, p. 9 (Jan. 13, 1871).
  40. Page 2, col. 4.
  41. The Israelite, Vol. XVII, No. XXVIII, p. 9 (Jan. 6, 1871).