How strange it seems! These Hebrews in their graves,
Close by the street of this fair seaport town,
Silent beside the never-silent waves,
At rest in all this moving up and down!
Originally drawn to Rhode Island because of the colony's tradition of religious tolerance, the first Jews (Sephardic) had arrived in 1658. Fifteen families of Spanish and Portuguese descent came from the Dutch West Indies, and soon others followed.
In 1677 land was purchased for a Jewish cemetery. In the mid-1700s about 60 more Portuguese Jewish families arrived after the disastrous Lisbon earthquake of 1755.
Over the decades, this small congregation met in private homes (legally, a rare privilege in the 17th-18th centuries) until 1759, when they undertook to build a synagogue.
The Congregation Yeshuat Israel dedicated the synagogue in 1763, appointing the young cantor Isaac Touro, recently arrived from Amsterdam, as rabbi.
However, by the turn of the century virtually all of the Jews had left Newport, the old cemetery occasionally being revisited for a burial.
Longfellow and the Jewish Cemetery at Newport
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How strange it seems! These Hebrews in their graves,
The trees are white with dust, that o'er their sleep
Wave their broad curtains in the south-wind's breath,
While underneath these leafy tents they keep
The long, mysterious Exodus of Death.
At the time of Longfellow's Newport visit, it undoubtedly did seem strange to find a Jewish cemetery in the town. Newport had been financially devastated during the Revolution (when the British occupied the town, seizing ships and other resources).
After the successful resolution of the war, most prosperous merchants left for cities such as New York and Savannah, which by then had supplanted Newport as commercial centers.
The island community of Newport was left behind by the rapid forces of industrialization, and the successful Jewish merchants had moved on as well.
By the time of Longfellow's visit, there were very few Jews in the town, though their numbers would soon be increasing.
And these sepulchral stones, so old and brown,
That pave with level flags their burial-place,
Seem like the tablets of the Law, thrown down
And broken by Moses at the mountain's base.
The very names recorded here are strange,
Of foreign accent, and of different climes;
Alvares and Rivera interchange
With Abraham and Jacob of old times.
Having traveled extensively in Europe, including Spain and Portugal, Longfellow would have recognized the ancestry of the names he saw on the gravestones.
Although he was visiting Newport in July, seeing the exotic names and words on the grave markers undoubtedly transported Longfellow back to the "exotic climes" he had experienced in his overseas travels, quite different from that of New England.
Longfellow notes a unique feature of Newport's Jewish community here in his lines about the names. Abraham and Jacob are of course ancient Hebrew names, but he notes that, on the gravestones he views, those "classic" Jewish names are mingled together with Portuguese and Spanish family names.
"Rivera" was a prominent name in the colonial Jewish community of Newport. Jacob Rodriguez Rivera was a wealthy dry goods merchant.
Rodriguez suffered financial problems, and wound up in considerable debt. Later, having regained his financial security, he hosted a party, at which he presented each of his creditors with the full sum due to him, plus interest.
The elderly man who escorted Longfellow around the cemetery may have known this story, and may have made a point of indicating the family graves to the poet.
"Blessed be God! for he created Death!"
The mourners said, "and Death is rest and peace;"
Then added, in the certainty of faith,
"And giveth Life that nevermore shall cease."
By the mid-19th century, there was a less grim view about death (versus during the colonial period, when religious dogma indicated that few would be "saved" in the afterlife).
People began to look on death as "rest and peace," and felt more assured of reunion with loved ones in the afterlife. In fact, the habit of exploring cemeteries became popular for tourists such as Longfellow, and even local cemeteries were seen as places for meditation and spirituality.
However, these perspectives were peculiar to Christians, not Jews. The words that Longfellow imagines the Jewish mourners saying reflect the Protestant theology of his day, not the Jewish perspective on death, which does not encompass a concept of "eternal life."
Closed are the portals of their Synagogue,
No Psalms of David now the silence break,
No Rabbi reads the ancient Decalogue
In the grand dialect the Prophets spake.
During the years the synagogue was closed, it was preserved and protected with funds from the Touro family, beginning with a bequest from Abraham Touro at his death in 1822.
He left a sum of $10,000 for the maintenance and protection of the synagogue, to be held in trust.
In 1842 Judah Touro (brother of Abraham, son of Isaac) provided funds to fortify the fences and gates around the cemetery. Longfellow visited the cemetery after this endowment by Judah Touro.
Judah Touro was orphaned by age 12, and raised by a merchant uncle in Boston. He became an accomplished merchant himself, and a noted philanthropist (he was one of the major donors for the Bunker Hill monument, among other things).
Despite his life-long philanthropy, upon his death, he still left half a million dollars to charity, including more money for the Jewish cemetery at Newport, and also money to pay the salary for a rabbi for the congregation of the Touro Synagogue (his father's post from 1760 until the Revolution).
This bequest was made in 1854, just after Longfellow's visit, although it was several decades before the synagogue reopened.
(Photo thanks to Dr. James L. Yarnall)
Gone are the living, but the dead remain,
And not neglected; for a hand unseen,
Scattering its bounty, like a summer rain,
Still keeps their graves and their remembrance green.
Although substantial funding for construction of the Touro Synagogue came from other Jewish communities outside Newport, members of the local congregation paid for much of the project, and donated many beautiful sacred objects and artworks to the synagogue.
Although Longfellow didn't write of them (and may not even have known they existed), the interior of the synagogue was originally decorated with beautiful chandeliers, candlesticks, and artwork, most of which can still be viewed today. At the time of his visit to the cemetery, however, these were dispersed to other synagogues for safekeeping.
The synagogue itself was maintained by caretakers from the Gould family, paid for from the trust established by Abraham and Judah Touro.
(Photo thanks to Dr. James L. Yarnall)
How came they here? What burst of Christian hate,
What persecution, merciless and blind,
Drove o'er the sea -- that desert desolate --
These Ishmaels and Hagars of mankind?
Longfellow's musings on what might have led the first Jews to Newport in the 17th century indicate that he knew a bit of their history.
Although there is debate regarding from whence the first families came, they were apparently mostly Portuguese (as were Judah Touro's ancestors).
In 1658 Mordecai Campanal and Moses Pacheco arrived from Barbados, and other families soon followed them from the West Indies.
Many of the first Jewish families on the East Coast of the United States were fleeing the Inquisition, which had recently spread to Brazil.
The religious tolerance offered in Roger Williams' Rhode Island, and only in Rhode Island, was a real lure. More than two centuries later, the community would again swell, this time with Askenazic Jews emigrating from Eastern Europe.
They lived in narrow streets and lanes obscure,
Ghetto and Judenstrass, in mirk and mire;
Taught in the school of patience to endure
The life of anguish and the death of fire.
All their lives long, with the unleavened bread
And bitter herbs of exile and its fears,
The wasting famine of the heart they fed,
And slaked its thirst with marah of their tears.
Obviously moved by and sympathetic toward the historic plight of the Jews, Longfellow was still eerily prescient in writing these verses. His well-educated, enlightened mind could surely not have imagined the persecutions and suffering which were to come for the Jewish people.
In Colonial America, most Jews worshipped privately in their homes. In 1730 a small Jewish community in New Amsterdam (now New York) was allowed to purchase land and build a small structure for worship.
Later the Touro Synagogue was designed by the well-known architect Peter Harrison, who apparently did the work free of charge (and never having built such a structure).
When constructed, the synagogue included a centrally-located, emergency trap-door in the floor (leading to the cellar beneath). Presumably this was never needed, but a long history of persecution probably necessitated the measure for simple peace of mind. Perhaps the trap-door was meant as a reminder of the long history of persecution the Jews had faced before finding refuge in Rhode Island.
In any case, the hideaway ultimately may have offered refuge and safety in the 19th century, when runaway slaves are rumored to have been sequestered within.
(Photo thanks to Dr. James L. Yarnall)
Anathema maranatha! was the cry
That rang from town to town, from street to street;
At every gate the accursed Mordecai
Was mocked and jeered, and spurned by Christian feet.
Fortunately, by Longfellow's day, the Jews had not been "spurned by Christian feet" at every gate. It may have helped that, during the Revolutionary years, the synagogue built by the Jews of Newport served as a civic meeting hall.
Isaac Touro remained in town to protect the structure, opening it up for use as a British hospital at one point. Or perhaps it was due to the fact that so many members of the congregation had a high social standing as prominent business people in the community.
In any event, the Jews of Newport were apparently well received. In fact, Isaac Touro, the synagogue's namesake, was a friend of the prominent Dr. Ezra Stiles, who went on to become president of Yale.
Enamored of the Hebrew language and Jewish religion which he had studied with Isaac Touro, under his tenure at Yale, freshmen were required to study the Hebrew language.
Pride and humiliation hand in hand
Walked with them through the world where'er they went;
Trampled and beaten were they as the sand,
And yet unshaken as the continent.
In 1790 Moses Seixas, warden of the synagogue and successful business man (he was one of the founders of the Bank of Rhode Island) wrote a letter of welcome to President George Washington honoring his August visit to Newport (during Washington's tour of New England, following Rhode Island's ratification of the U.S. Constitution). In the letter, Seixas referred to the persecution suffered by the Jewish people previously, but noting their pleasure at having found a home under a "Government which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance." These words became famous when George Washington echoed them in his own letter to the synagogue. This letter is considered a vital document in American history, guaranteeing religious freedom even before the establishment of the Bill of Rights.
For in the background figures vague and vast
Of patriarchs and of prophets rose sublime,
And all the great traditions of the Past
They saw reflected in the coming time.
And thus forever with reverted look
The mystic volume of the world they read,
Spelling it backward, like a Hebrew book,
Till life became a Legend of the Dead.
As a language professor at Harvard University (though not for much longer, since he retired from teaching in 1854 and thereafter relied upon his writing as his main career), Longfellow would have been familiar with the Hebrew language. Indeed, as a Semitic language, Hebrew is written from right to left, and texts advance from the "back" to front. However, the analogy between the language and the history and perspective of the Jews was a rather negative one. Enjoying his idyllic life at Craigie House in Cambridge, with his lovely family and good income, and with the rest of the country tending toward prosperity as well, the drive ahead for the "American Dream" was already well underway, and it probably seemed the natural way to Longfellow. Jewish reverence for the events and heroes of the far distant past was probably hard to fathom.
But ah! what once has been shall be no more!
The groaning earth in travail and in pain
Brings forth its races, but does not restore,
And the dead nations never rise again.
When Longfellow visited the Jewish cemetery in Newport, there were about 50,000 Jews living in the United States, out of a total population of about 23 million people. Within ten years, the number of Jews had at least doubled, and by 1870 there were about 200,000 Jewish people in the country. The Touro Synagogue itself experienced a revival and regular services were again begun (and continue to this day). Even more surprising to Longfellow would have been the rise of the nation of Israel in 1948, a "dead nation" which is now home to almost 7 million people, over 5 million of whom are Jewish! The Touro synagogue (Orthodox Congregation Jesuet Israel) has been open continuously since 1883, 31 years after Longfellow's visit to the historic site.
Text of the poem with explanatory notes: University of Toronto: Representative Poetry Online
Home Page for the Touro Synagogue: Home Page for the Touro Synagogue
Full text of George Washington's letter to the congregation: Touro Synagogue Website
For information on Jewish immigration to America: The Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art
For Jewish American population statistics: Jewish Virtual Library
PBS series on Jewish history with lesson plans: "Heritage" Civilization and the Jews
International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies: Cemetery Project
Harvard University's Pluralism Project: site offers a good summary of the history of the Jews of Newport and the architecture of the synagogue
For lesson plans related to local cemeteries:
New York Times Learning Network
Wisconson Historical Society's History Hunters Cemetery Tour
Batignani, Karen Wentworth. Maine's Historic Cemeteries; A Historic Tour. Camden, ME: Down East Books, 2003.
Calhoun, Charles. Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004.
Forbes, Harriet Merrifield. Gravestones of New England and the Men Who Made Them; 1653-1800. Princeton: The Pyne Press, 1955.
Jefferys, C.P.B. Newport: A Short History. Newport: Newport Historical Society, 1992.
Lewis, Rabbi Dr. Theodore. "History of Touro Synagogue." Bulletin of the Newport Historical Society 48.3 (1975): 281-320.
Opel, Frank, ed. Tales of Bygone New England. Secaucus, NJ: Castle, 1988.