Longfellow and The Jewish Cemetery at Newport

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In the summer of 1852 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, vacationing with his family in Newport, Rhode Island, happened one day upon the old Jewish cemetery, established in 1677. Impressed by the quiet of the ancient burial ground amid the bustle of the busy seaport, he persuaded “Mr. Gould the Tailor, a polite old gentleman who keeps the key,” to admit him into its silent serenity. The now-famous poem at right resulted from his walk among the crumbling tombstones.

Isaacs, Judah, Moses, Alvares, Rivera…these first Jews of Newport had arrived in the New World in 1658, fleeing religious persecution. The settlement of Newport, then only nineteen years old, welcomed them…and, later, a group of Spanish Portuguese Jews who fled the Inquisition.

In 1759 Newport’s Jewish community built one of the first synagogues in the New World, naming it Touro for its first rabbi, whose descendants lie buried beneath the graceful monuments on the opposite page. They, and the humbler Jews whose names adorn the more modest graves on the following pages, repose in surroundings little changed since Longfellow found them “at rest in all this moving up and down.” But their dead nation, contrary to Longfellow’s expectations and in a manner beyond his ken, would rise again.

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!

 

The trees are white with dust, that o’er their sleep

Wave their broad curtains in the southwind’s breath,

While underneath these leafy tents they keep

The long, mysterious Exodus of Death.

And these sepulchral stories, 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.

‘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.’

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.

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.

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?

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.

Anathema maranatha! was the cry

That rang from town to town, from street to street:

At every gale the accursed Mordecai

Was mocked and jeered, and spurned by Christian feet.

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.

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.

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.