I found this written on the last page of the ledger book of Solebury Doctor Jonathan Ingham, now in the collection of the Bucks County Historical Society. The account book dates to the 1780s, and the rest of the book is a straightforward record of Ingham’s accounts.
While I was surprised to find 18th century Hebrew script in the archive, it was not a total shock. Ingham was multilingual, with some knowledge of Greek, Latin, German, France, and Spanish, and he was supposedly able to speak to the Lenape in their own language. He was also said to be a student of Hebrew, which he studied under Samuel De Lucena, a member of the Mikveh Israel congregation in Philadelphia, the oldest continuously operated synagogue in the United States. Ingham’s relationship with De Lucena was so close that Ingham named his son Samuel Delucenna Ingham in his honor (Samuel would later become a US Senator and serve as secretary of the treasury under Andrew Jackson before resigning during the Petticoat Affair.)
I asked my friend who speaks modern Hebrew to take a look at it, but she determined that the text is actually Yiddish and could only give me a partial translation. Luckily, another friend of mine is a student of Yiddish, and he was able to translate it for me. The transliteration is as follows:
bikh far shraybn
which translates to:
Book for Writing
I asked him if the two words translating as “book” carried a different sense, and he explained that “bikh,” used in the first line, is a variation of “bukh,” related to the German “buch.” On the second line, Ingham uses the work “sefer”, which is derived from Hebrew. My friend explains, “‘sefer’ (Hebraic) is in a higher register than the more quotidian “bukh” and I’d be inclined to think that ‘sefer zikaron’ would almost always mean a memorial book.”
I Googled the term “sefer zikaron,” and I found that it was in fact used in the context of a written memorial for someone who has died. I also found the term used in the titles of memorial books dedicated to Jewish towns that had been destroyed in the Holocaust. It’s unclear why Ingham wrote this Yiddish phrase in the back of his ledger, but it doesn’t appear to relate to the book’s content. Perhaps he was practicing the script in preparation for another text.
The fact that this text is in Yiddish is interesting. This makes sense because Hebrew was only used for religious texts and rituals in this period and had not yet been revived as a spoken language. However, it is somewhat curious that De Lucena taught Ingham Yiddish because Mikveh Israel was founded in the 1740s by Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugual who would not have spoken the German-influenced Yiddish. De Lucena appears on a list of congregants from 1780s, and while De Lucena and others have surnames of Iberian origin, others have clearly Germanic names. It’s possible that as Ashkenazi congregants joined the community the language they used to speak to one another shifted as well.