Volume 79, Number 40 | March 10 - 16, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Photo by davidjmartin.com
From the outside, looking in

The Oldest Spot in Town 
Time stands still at First Cemetery (1656-1833)


If you don’t count the rock outcropping in Central Park; or the waters encircling us; or the sky above; or the Inwood Hill Park caves — then I’m standing beside the oldest tangible and enduring piece of our city.

As far as white civilization goes, this is as far back as we can get on the island of Manhattan.

This small piece of earth — maybe a quarter acre and at one time on the furthest outskirts of New Amsterdam — has never been built on, cleared, and built on again. It’s enclosed by tenement walk-ups and apartment complexes (except for its street-side).

Here is a very old four-foot high stone wall ten yards long with an equally old, paint-peeling iron spiked fence atop it. We might miss it as we rush downtown, since right ahead are the mighty ramps of the Brooklyn Bridge.

If we’re heading uptown, then our eyes are easily lured to the pastels and exotic designs in Kimlau Square (once Confucius Square, and Chatham Square before that). But if we pause a moment and peer through the bars above the wall, we’ll see National Historic Landmark #80002689 — a small cemetery populated by several sarcophagi and a few dozen headstones with dates and letters nearly invisible, most of the stones white and worn — like the last shards of melting snow. Somehow, this small yard has remained this way for over three and a quarter centuries.

The cemetery is just off one of those brief streets in New York lasting sometimes for only a block. This one is St. James Place — though it was known as New Bowery until 1947 (the name was changed to honor our beloved Al Smith — once an altar boy at St. James Roman Catholic Church around the corner).

We’re at one of those complicated entanglements before the Grid Plan straightened all that out; but the Grid commenced blocks uptown and years after these streets wound through lower Manhattan. Down here, streets and avenues converge. Park Row turns to Bowery at East Broadway and all of it uncoiling from deep in the crowded neighborhoods of narrow streets but — as Five Points once did — coming together to form an opening, a square. Amid this whole aggregation of concrete and change is a preserved piece of the past, just like those souls still interred in the little patch of original Manhattan soil.

It’s fitting that white people’s oldest remaining creation and artifact on the island is a cemetery with the remains of a few of our earliest citizens. I’ve always liked those people who keep their dead close by — to continually remind us we too are mortal. There are a few other cemeteries on Manhattan, but this one came first.

At Chatham Square, shaded and obscured,
In the shadow of the Bowery and East Broadway,
Lies between narrow houses secured,
Hidden from people’s eyes, strange and faraway,
The first Jewish cemetery in the U.S.A.*

In fact, it’s the second cemetery of the city’s first Jewish congregation, the actual first probably somewhere just north of Wall Street but lost to time. Those buried here are the physical remains of the earliest Jews to arrive in the New World, exiles from the Spanish Inquisition; driven from Europe to Brazil, but later expelled from there too before sailing for that most tolerant Dutch port of New Amsterdam (which, despite Peter Stuyvesant’s objection, accepted the 23 refugees. That was 1654).

Persecuted, came over the deeps
To be able to start a life once more.

Within the earth of this new world, they soon buried their dead — initially at the first cemetery, and soon after in this one: “The First Cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue Shearith Israel in the City of New York” reads the inscription on the dim plaque along the fence.

Congregation Shearith Israel (which means “Remnant of Israel” in Hebrew) is New York’s oldest congregation, still in town though now up on 70th just off Central Park West. A century and a quarter ago, Emma Lazarus sat in its sanctuary as a member, well-aware that the doors may not have always been golden but they were always open. What began as a small trickle into this Dutch town eventually became wave after wave of Jewish people; squeezing into the Lower East Side, learning the language, and loving the city where they would establish unprecedented influence in custom and culture, spirit and survival. This is Jesse Jackson’s “Hymie Town” and what Hip-Hop poet Kevin Coval implied when he wrote that in New York “even Italians know how to make good bagels.” Here, more than any place before the formation of the State of Israel after World War II, the wandering Jews found a home:

open, free…

For the people alien and homeless.

These words were written by Naftali Gross. He was seventeen when he arrived here in 1913 from Kolomea, a town in that abused part of the Ukraine continually invaded from east and west. He worked as a typesetter at the Jewish Daily Forward just a few blocks down on East Broadway and did a Yiddish translation of the Bible. “The effaced tombstones row by row,” he wrote,

Lie spread out…as though they hear

Deep underneath the times long passed away…

The city isn’t exactly scurrying by the cemetery. Few people drive and even fewer walk St. James Place; and no one’s been buried here for over a century and a half. But that’s the way cemeteries should be; quiet and remote from the rest of our lives. Congregation Shearith Israel has received bountiful offers for this small place. It has refused and always will, for the land preserves something more than marketable real estate. Beneath that ancient Manhattan earth, perhaps a necklace with a Jewish star attached still dangles among bones wherein lies the most fundamental and enduring spirit of our city — a spirit of tolerance, resiliency, and hope.

*Translated from Yiddish by Jehiel B. Cooperman and Sarah A. Cooperman


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