In Chatham Square, a few minutes from Chinatown and behind the shadows of the Old Broadway elevated, crowded tenements and unsightly factory buildings, is the tiny old cemetery first used as a burial place for Jews two centuries ago.
It is a place that seldom attracts visitors and never passersby, so securely fortified are its few ancient stones by the altitude of tall buildings and the platitudes of wash lines which swing gracefully from kitchen windows. Yet “The Jews’ Burial Ground”, its title-name established in 1656, claims a history as long and romantic as the neighborhood in which it lies.
Everything about the New Bowery Cemetery, including Watchman Perry who for more than twenty years has stood guard over its slowly decaying memories, is moss-covered and hoary with years. Only a few flags placed over the tombs of Jews who served their country, in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, or the later conflicts, proclaim that this small acre of land has not altogether been forgotten. Some few bushes and a grass patch here and there, kept green by the not over-attentive watchman and the sunshine which manages somehow to steal into the chasm between tenements, are the only signs of life. But then too, there is the recurring roar of the trains overhead and the raucous honks of automobile trucks and the human voices which proceed in varying degrees of violence from the apartments adjoining.
THE IRON PLAQUE
New Bowery Cemetery announces its identity on a black iron plaque which peeps out from behind a black iron fence:
“The First Cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, Shearith Israel, in the City of New York, 1656-1833”.
A winding brush-covered path twines in and out the stones which seem to resent the intrusion of visitors, so still and unassuming and uncomplaining they stand. A few are flat on the ground covering the graves and they appear better to have weathered the ravaging effect of the years. Daughters of the American Revolution and Veterans of Foreign Wars insignia are frequently to be seen mounted on iron which has been used to reinforce the dilapidated rock. But several of the stones are worn smooth, a few bear signs of vandal chipping. Some look queerly chiseled and have personalities of their own, which bear legends inscribed in Hebrew, Spanish, Portuguese and English.
PERRY DOES HIS BEST
Perry the watchman, who is Italian, explained that his job is to usher visitors through the cemeteryâ€”that he lived nearby and doesn’t know how to read or write. Nevertheless in broken English his words haltingly personified many of the tombstones, “the oldest”, “a famous old rabbi”, “this one fought under Washington”.
More fascinating than all of his staccato sentences, and considerably more explicit, were the archives in which the writer found voluminous detailed information with regard to the cemeteryâ€”how and where and why it was acquired, and who is buried there, and the folklore born of its establishment. It was no little surprise to learn that investigators, including Naphtali Phillips, Charles P. Daly, Leon Huhner and Rosalie S. Phillips, as well as others, spared no effort in attempting to gather data that would prove the cemetery had not been a grant of the Dutch of New Amsterdam to the early Jews in America but the gift of two enthusiastic, wealthy Jews, William Merrett and Mrs. Joseph Bueno, to their race. These writers uncovered from dust-laden files of deeds and papers of the City of New York figures and facts which were apparently of interest, and importance. All of their research, published in the papers of the American Jewish Historical Society, is a strange compound of historical intelligence some of which must prove of interest to readers of the article.
FULL POSSESSION IN 1701
Two hundred and seventy-eight years ago, in July, 1655, the handful of Jewish settlers in New Amsterdam where they had come from Europe a few years before to find religious freedom and peace, applied to the Dutch authorities for permission to purchase a parcel of land. They were to use this land as an exclusive burial place for their dead. They were denied the privilege, and once again, on February 22, 1656, appealed “that consent may be given” for the purchase.
Not until 1701, according to one authority, was the burial place amortized and did then go into the exclusive possession of New Amsterdam Jewry. Reads the original deed:
“7th August 1701. By Indres of this date between William Merrett and Margery his wife of one Part, and Joseph Bueno of the other Part, reciting a Deed from the said Joseph Bueno in the year 1681-2 for a certain parcel of land therein described lying at the Fresh Water (today Baxter Street on the east and Park Street, on the west Elm Street and on the south Reade Street), in length about 52 feet, and breadth about 50 feet, and that it was purchased by said Bueno for a Jew Burying Place, with free Liberty of passage from the Highway thereto to carry their dead. . . . In virtue thereof the Piece of Land continued from the Time of the first Grant aforesaid in 1681-2 the sole burying place for the Jew Congregation of the City of New York, until the year 1729, when it was thought proper to purchase an addition thereto for the same use.”
The Cemetery was originally, as the second of the plaques declares, “outside City limits”. There was (it is hard to believe history sometimes) a dense forest extending for two miles towards what is today Chatham Square. The land to the west was broken with low hills, swamps, marshes and large water deposits. Chatham Square, states one reliable geography, was “the southern limit of a range of high hills, or an elevated plateauâ€”extending to what is today Mulberry and Canal Streets. The plateau was adapted for cultivators and meadows below were excellent for pasturing of cattle, the whole was parcelled among early settlers into farms, or as Dutch called them, Bouweries.”
The farms were leased by Dutch authorities to settlers who wanted them. Indian raids and devastating attacks made residence outside the walls of the City a hazardous affair. The reluctance of the Dutch to surrender this land to the Jewish populace was therefore quite inexplicable. Nevertheless it was acquired, to have and to hold, receiving in 1730 a sum of money willed by Louis Gomez.
The oldest decipherable inscription in the Cemetery is over the grave of Benjamin Bueno de Mesquita, interred in 1683. The translation reads:
(“Beneath this stone is buried He who was Benjamin de Mesquita Diesâ€”and from this world was taken On the fourth of Heshvan.
His blessed soul
Here from the living separated.
Wait for thy God! who will revive The dead of His people in mercy To enjoy without end Eternity.”)
When the New Bowery Cemetery was opened by authorities of the Common Council of the City of New York, for the purpose of extending the Bowery to Franklin Square, in 1856, the Congregation Shearith Israel was compelled, upon the City’s request, to remove 256 graves to its cemetery on Twenty-first Street, a little west of Sixth Avenue, which was purchased in 1829. Rev. Jacques J. Lyons, the revered Hazan of the Congregation, superintended the removal and reinterment of 70 known bodies and 186 unknown. The remains were deposited in separate coffins, three of which were re-interred in the present burying ground of the congregation of Long Island. The graves, in many instances, are marked by tombstones brought from the old cemetery when the New Bowery was opened.
But the list is too lengthy for publication. The oldest of them are as follows:
Abraham Haim de Lucina, died Menahem 26, 1669.
Sara, daughter of Saul Pardo, Sivan 19, 1690.
Mordecai, son of David Abendanon, died Nissan 21, 1690.
Bianca, daughter of Isaac Henriques Granana, died Iyar 1, 1690.
Joseph, son of Saul Pardo, Nissan 29, 1690.
Bilhah, daughter of Isaac and Rachel Marquis, died Tebet 3, 1697.
Elihau Ilhores, died Ab 3, 1699.
Sara, wife of Isaac Henriques Granana, Adar 28, 1708.
Sarah Bueno de Mesquita, October 24, 1708.
Ischak Pinhas, 1710.
Sara Rodriguez Riveria, Elul 21, 1727.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.