Tuesday, April 8, 2014

First and Third Cemeteries of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue

After I visited the smallest cemetery in Manhattan and noticed that it was called the "second" cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, I did some investigating Googling and discovered that there are actually three separate burial grounds associated with the Congregation of Shearith Israel. Once I also learned that both the first and the third cemeteries were still in existence, I knew I had to "collect all three," and this past weekend I did just that.

All three cemeteries are in Manhattan — the first is at 55 St. James Place near Chinatown, the second is on West 11th in Greenwich Village and the third is on 21st Street between 6th and 7th Avenues in Chelsea. The first cemetery dates back to 1656 and is the first Jewish cemetery in the United States (the Congregation is the oldest in North America). It's larger than the second, gated (and locked) like the other two, and raised above sidewalk-level so I had to stand on my tip-toes to get a good look.

The first cemetery is definitely one of the oldest burial grounds that I've ever visited. Although the exact location of the original cemetery is not known, it was established at its current location in 1683 which is still about 200 years older than most of the cemeteries that I've seen. It actually holds the distinction of being the second oldest cemetery in Manhattan, after Trinity Churchyard on Wall Street (and only certain parts of that cemetery are older). Over the years the land has been chiseled away by city expansion and erosion and sadly a lot of the bodies have been disinterred.

The third cemetery was in use from 1829-1851 and is in such a modern/trendy area of town that it definitely looks out of place. There is a Trader Joe's directly across the street, which I'm sure is not what the initial residents had in mind, but being so close to such delicious (and cheap!) food isn't a bad way to spend eternity, if you ask me. It also appears to be the largest of the three, and is the one in the best condition (a plaque on the fence mentions a recent restoration).

The grounds look well-kept, although a lot of the stones are falling or have fallen over and some are in multiple pieces. It was a little hard to see from far away, but it even looks as though one of the pathways in the back is actually just fallen tombstones, lined up one right after the other.

I was kind of annoyed that all three were locked, and I wonder if they're ever really open to the public (from what I have read it seems as if at least the first one is open for a prayer ceremony around Memorial Day). Part of me is thankful that the gates/locks help to preserve the historical sites, but part of me just really loves wandering around cemeteries and looking at the headstones up close. A lot of the stones are worn to the point of being unreadable, some have Hebrew inscriptions and some are separated from the others by miniature fences of their own.

It's still hard for me to believe that I had no idea these three cemeteries even existed until a few weeks ago. I'm constantly surprised by how often I discover something new (to me at least) in this city, especially within the less-than-thirty square miles of Manhattan, alone. I like having a project or a list to complete, so the completionist in me totally loved the thrill of discovering a "set" of cemeteries, and being able to visit them all so easily. Of course just as soon as they had gone on my list I checked them off, but that's the fun of a city like New York — I'm sure there are plenty of other interesting places waiting to be (re)discovered right around the corner.

1 comment:

  1. Oh wow, what an amazing place. That pathway is a bit eerie, isn't it? I love old cemeteries, but I haven't been to any from the 1600s yet!