Saturday, February 18, 2012

The City's Cemetery!

photo by ana traina ~ 2012 ~
I love stories, and therefore I have always been enchanted with the silent and romantic sagas that cemeteries tell. I love looking at all the hand-me-down names, how long the people lived for, how many family members are buried in one site, the ancient and mystical writings, the stones and trinkets left behind by the living, and what particular herbs or flowers are planted near the tombstones... Really, I am not a morbid person!

Now to my story at hand, I first passed this city cemetery many years ago, and I remember just standing there in complete and utter awe... I also remember, that although the cemetery was gated, I could still make out the dates and names written in Old Hebrew and English on many of the tombstones. It was indeed remarkable and thrilling seeing this time-honored cemetery, a bewitching piece of history, amidst all the newer buildings.  Now, here is the most gripping thing I can tell you, when I passed this very long in the tooth cemetery last week, I felt exactly the same spine-tingling thrill of discovering a magical and mystical place where time had stood still among the hustle and bustle of the city, as I had many years ago. So, of course, I just had to find out more... here is what I was able to uncover and discover ~

This cemetery I am talking about is located on 21st Street between 6th and 7th Avenues, in use 1829-1851. Shearith Israel, the first Jewish congregation in North America, was formed in 1654 by Spanish and Portuguese Jews who journeyed from Recife, Brazil, seeking refuge from the Inquisition. While New Amsterdam's city fathers did not recognize freedom of worship, they respected the Jews' right to their own consecrated burial ground. Shearith Israel purchased the cemetery plot on West 21st Street in 1829 for $2,750. It, too, was on the outskirts of the expanding city, which for sanitary reasons had prohibited interment below Grand Street after the yellow fever epidemic of 1822. In 1832 the congregation bought land extending the cemetery east to Sixth Avenue and south to 20th Street. Fifty years later the land was sold to Hugh O'Neal, who built a dry goods store there. Shearith Israel used the cemetery for burials until 1851. That year, New York City prohibited burials south of 86th Street and the establishment of any new cemeteries within city limits.

"There remain two cemeteries to visit, built by descendants of the first Portuguese Jews. One of these is the tiny triangle with twenty
head stones familiar to Greenwich Villagers, on Eleventh Street, east of Sixth Avenue. The cemetery of those who died by plagues, particularly the dread yellow fever of 1798, it once covered many acres. The second, on Twenty-first Street, west of Sixth, has perhaps a hundred and fifty tombstones. Burials were made here as late as 1851, although it was against the law then, and several of the bereaved families had to pay a fine of two hundred and fifty dollars. The Portuguese Jews formed the Congregation Shearith Israel whose present congregation - their synagogue is at 99 Central Park West - has repeatedly rejected offers of hundreds of thousands for the Twenty-first Street site. Once a department store wanted to arch a building over the cemetery, leaving it undisturbed, but that plan was rejected, too." -- (The New Yorker "Where Time Has Stopped," 25 February 1928)

LAST BIT OF ODDS AND ENDS ~ According to legend, the location of the red-bricked building abutting the cemetery has an unusual history of its own. On the site of that building, there was a Civil war tavern known as the "Grapevine". Many Union officers went there including many southern spies, and many incognito newspaper reporters.

Of course everyone knew that everyone else was eavesdropping on conversations there, so the tavern became known as the place where many rumors originated. This became the origin of the phrase "heard it through the grapevine"! The newspapers began using this phrase which is in common use now, and later it made Gladys Knight and Marvin Gaye a lot of money. Source: Willensky and White's AIA Guide to New York City

In the First Cemetery (which I have yet seen but will venture there very soonishly) at St. James Place just off Chatham Square in what is today Chinatown lies Jonas Judah: The first American-born Jew to enroll in medical school ~ here is what his tombstone has to say about him...

In memory of
Walter J. Judah
student of physic who, worn down
by his exertions to alleviate the
sufferings of his fellow citizens
in that dreadful contagion
that visited the City of New York
in 1798, fell a victim to the cause
of humanity on the 5th of Tishri [in the year] 5559. . .

Here lies buried/the unmarried man- /Old in wisdom, tender in years / Skilled he was in his labor, the labor of healing/ Strengthening himself as a lion and running swiftly as a hart to bring healing/ To the inhabitants of this city treating them with loving kindness / When they were visited with the yellow fever / He gave money from his own purse to buy for them beneficent medicines / But the good that he did was the cause of his death / For the fever visited him while yet a youth . . . /