cemetery

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In this morning’s lecture about the “problem” of Dutch New York, Cyrus showed a clip from Ric Burns’ New York that recounted the story of 23 Sephardic Jews who came from Brazil to New Amsterdam seeking asylum from the Spanish Inquisition. At the close of the clip he warned students to pay attention to the triumphalist music (he called it “manipulative”) that had accompanied the anecdote’s conclusion, in which the anti-Semitic Stuyvesant is overruled by the Dutch West India Company and told to uphold freedom of religion and what would become New York’s general celebration of cultural diversity.

Here’s how the popular historian Russell Shorto glosses this incident in his The Island at the Center of the World:

In 1654 twenthy-three Jews, some of whom had fled the fall of Dutch Brazil, showed up seeking asylum. You can almost see Stuyvesant shaking his head at being told that, on top of the usual heap of issues he had to deal with, he now had a Jewish population. His reaction was matter-of-fact, and perfectly in character: the Jews were “a deceitful race” that would “infect” the colony if he didn’t stop them. He barred one from buying land, “for important reasons.” He even refused to allow them to take turns standing guard with the citizens’ militia citing “the aversion and disaffection of this militia to be fellow soldiers of the aforesaid [Jewish] nation.” If they didn’t like it, he told Jacob Barsimon and Asser Levy, “consent is hereby given to them to depart whenever and wherever it may please them.” But Abraham de Lucena and Salvador Dandrada, leaders of the Jews, knew their rights in the Dutch system, and appealed to the Dutch Republic. The Jewish community of Amsterdam applied pressure in the time-honored tradition of politics, and won. Stuyvesant’s superiors reminded him loftily of the “each person shall remain free in his religion” law (and added that certain influential Jews had invested a “large amount of capital” in the West India Company), and ordered him to back off.

It’s a story of cosmopolitanism and capitalism working hand in hand, consistent with Shorto’s line on New Amsterdam and with Burns’ throughout his documentary. New York, they tell us repeatedly, is an experiment in which all the peoples of the world come together in the name of making money.

Sort of. The rosy tone of these histories is belied by the very geography of Manhattan’s oldest Jewish historical sites, especially the cemetery of the Congregation Shearith Israel, featured in the Burns clip.

The cemetery, located on St. James Place in lower Manhattan, north of the Brooklyn Bridge and just off Chatham Square in Chinatown, is the oldest remaining Jewish cemetery in the city. There seems to have been one older, now lost: this cemetery dates to the 1680s, but the first extant mention of a Jewish burial place in the city dates to 1656, describing the plot as “a little hook of land situated outside of this city.” The latter part of the phrase is telling, as is the site of the burial ground on St. James Place. These cemeteries were, in fact, out of town.

The Shearith Israel Cemetery on St. James Place would have been well outside the boundaries of the city when it was established. It’s well outside the actual wall on Wall Street. (By contrast, think of the location of Trinity Church and its cemetery.) It’s closer to what was known as the Collect Pond, a swamp in the area that eventually became the Five Points. The Pond was notorious as a place of public execution, including the burning of several blacks and whites accused of fomenting a slave rebellion in 1741, the event that the historian Jill Lepore writes about in her terrific book New York Burning. In other words, Dutch tolerance only went so far, or perhaps we should say it kept its distance.

You’ll find a nice account of Congregation Shearith Israel and subsequent Jewish burial places here. Kevin Walsh’s treasure-trove of a website, Forgotten New York, has a good page, too, which includes a terrific tidbit about a building abutting the cemetery on St. James, related to the origin of the phrase “I heard it through the Grapevine.” (Check it out!) Finally, I love the account provided on the blog Knickerbocker Village, which abounds with local knowledge about the neighborhood surrounding the old cemetery. David Bellel, KV’s author, contextualizes the cemetery’s story in an account of nineteenth-century corpses on the move, as New York’s governmental officials reduced the sizes of — or eliminated entirely — several graveyards in lower Manhattan by exporting bodies uptown or to outer boroughs. The “First Cemetery,” as the Jewish burial ground was known, originally covered several acres, extending from the Bowery to the East River. Jewish leaders refused to remove it entirely, hence preserving the little plot still on St. James, where eighteen Jewish veterans of the Revolutionary War still remain buried. Find the rest of his account here and check out his other posts on the burial ground here.

First Cemetery photos via Flickr user wallyg.

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WNET Channel 13, our local PBS affiliate, recently launched a blog/online video series/vlog, “The City Concealed,” in which they send film crews and producers into New York’s hidden nooks and crannies. (They also take requests for where to go next; and they have a distinguished blogroll to boot!)

Two episodes have appeared so far, the most recent a fascinating underground tour of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery:

Green-Wood Cemetery is best known as the final resting place of
famous New Yorkers like Boss Tweed, the Steinway family, and Leonard
Bernstein, but it’s also a treasure trove of hidden sculpture and
architecture.

Established in 1838, Green-Wood Cemetery became a destination for
American and European tourists. Every year, thousands flocked to the
cemetery to enjoy its lush gardens, rolling hills, and stately tombs.
Unfortunately, during New York City’s financial woes of the late
sixties and early seventies, the cemetery restricted public access and
lost its reputation as an urban oasis of art and nature.

Over the last decade, however, the cemetery has made efforts to
invite the public back inside, hosting concerts, film screenings, and
tours. Still, access to the most fascinating sites — inside the tombs
and catacombs — remains extremely limited. That’s why we called Jeff
Richman, Green-Wood Cemetery’s historian, who wields the massive,
dungeon-like key ring that unlocks the granite portals behind which lie
the dead.

Viewers may be most interested in the peek inside the cemetery’s vault system, whole rooms of family coffins stacked like that final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. (Okay, so not quite that bad; and though the cemetery does host “catacombs,” they’re not quite on the scale or model of the ones in Paris.) The vault system features prominently at other old NYC cemeteries — notably Trinity Church (which is why the graveyard towers so high above Church Street in the rear: it’s hollow and filled with bodies, not the secret underground tunnels of the Illuminati!) and one of my favorite small, private cemeteries, the New York City Marble Cemetery on East 2nd Street (between First and Second), where a good friend was married — not buried — last fall.

In case you were wondering, though: You won’t find Melville at Green-Wood, in spite of the fact that the cemetery’s chapel hosted readings of the Father Mapple sermon last year. No, for a Melville pilgrimage (you know you’ve always wanted to make one!) you’ll have to head up to Woodlawn, in the Bronx, the city’s other magnificent “rural” cemetery.

To arrange your own (live!) tour of Green-Wood, click here. Photo from the Times‘s Paper Cuts blog.

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