Jewish Geography—Six Feet Under

By | Jun 01, 2022
History, Latest
a gravestone in a Jewish cemetary

As I biked along a quiet, bucolic New Jersey country road on a warm afternoon in the spring of 2015, I found something unexpected—a large, and very well-maintained, Jewish cemetery. On the stately entrance gate, the text read: “In memory of the first colonists who migrated from Russia to the woodlands of South Jersey and on May 9, 1882 founded Alliance, the first Jewish farm colony in the United States.”

Cemeteries are historical markers, links to the past. Jewish communities move on or move out, sometimes leaving a trace (the old synagogue now a church) and sometimes not. Except for the cemetery—in the United States, these are rarely tampered with. The history of American Jewry is thus carved in granite.

Alliance was cofounded by the German Jewish businessman and philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch. In the late 19th century, Hirsch funded many Jewish agricultural cooperatives around the world, trying to ameliorate the plight of the persecuted Russian Jewish masses. Many of the experiments failed within a few years, although Alliance persisted for more than half a century. However, about the only trace left of Alliance today is this cemetery.

Also in 2015, another rural Jewish cemetery was named to the National Register of Historic Places. Like Alliance, this cemetery served a Jewish agricultural settlement, but unlike Alliance, this one was far from any Jewish population center. The McIntosh County, North Dakota Jewish homesteader community, initiated around the same time as Alliance, and one of several in the state, comprised about a hundred homesteads populated by immigrants from Russia and Romania. As with the Alliance cemetery, the Ashley Jewish Homesteader Cemetery, located on a barren prairie, is the only remaining physical presence of this once-vibrant community.

These rural Jewish cemeteries in the United States are the exception to the general rule. Unlike in Eastern Europe, where for ages Jewish settlements dotted the countryside, in the New World in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, Jews flocked primarily to cities. By the 1950s, Jews sought greener pastures in the suburbs. Thus, Jewish cemeteries are relatively rare in the American countryside.

As was the case with Alliance, I have encountered many Jewish cemeteries while biking. I like to cycle in different places throughout the U.S. and coming across the unexpected is one of the pleasures of this hobby. Among the unexpected sightings are Jewish cemeteries located in unlikely places, which can serve as windows into the past.

How many Jewish cemeteries are there in the U.S? The question is not as straightforward as it might seem. One answer comes from the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR), which lists 3,129 U.S. cemeteries. However, the actual number depends heavily on what one considers a distinct cemetery, versus just part of a larger entity. For example, JOWBR lists 79 Jewish cemeteries in Baltimore. Examining the list, though, there are only about 20 named cemeteries, but most have multiple entries for different sections, where the sections typically correspond either to a congregation or a landsmannschaft, association of Jews from the same Old World town. A typical landsmannschaft in the early 1900s was organized initially as a Chevra Kadisha, or Jewish burial society.

Counting only the larger entities on the list, not the individual sections, I came up with a rough estimate of about 1,400 cemeteries. This generally includes non-Jewish cemeteries that have Jewish sections, which are common in places with smaller Jewish populations. Another registry, the International Jewish Cemetery Project (IJCP), lists a similar total number of cemeteries, but again, with many on the list corresponding to sections of a larger cemetery entity.

a grave in a Jewish Cemetery

Baron Hirsch Cemetery, in Staten Island, NY.

New York City would hardly be an unexpected place for a Jewish cemetery. However, this one was on Staten Island, the borough I associate least with anything Jewish. On a 2013 ride, I discovered the sprawling Baron Hirsch cemetery, founded in 1900. Most of the nearly 500 sections in this necropolis are organized according to landsmannschaften. In contrast to the humble landsmannschaften, the “High Reform” German Jews who brought Reform Judaism to the South and Midwest held services on Sunday, forbade head coverings, preferred the more innocuous demonym “Hebrew” to the fraught “Jew” and employed the term temple instead of synagogue to denote allegiance to their home country (their “temple” was not in Jerusalem, but where they lived).  Hence Temple Cemetery, founded in 1851 and also on the National Historic Register, which I came across while cycling in a quiet Black neighborhood near Fisk University in Nashville that same year, and Hebrew Cemetery, in what is now a poor, inner-city neighborhood in Norfolk, Virginia that I chanced upon a few years before.

A gate at The Workman's Circle Cemetery, outside of Baltimore, MD.

The Workman’s Circle Cemetery, outside of Baltimore, MD.

In Baltimore, I recently happened upon a Workmen’s Circle cemetery tucked into a residential neighborhood. From its humble beginnings in New York in the 1890s as a mutual aid society, the organization evolved in the 1920s and 1930s into a popular movement promoting Yiddish culture and socialist politics, with chapters in numerous cities and a membership close to 100,000. I hadn’t known that they also had their own cemeteries. This cemetery was near Dundalk, a blue-collar, mainly white suburb southeast of the city. Several other Jewish cemeteries were nearby. These days, most Jews in greater Baltimore live in the northwest part of the city and the surrounding suburbs. Several other cities also have Workmen’s Circle cemeteries, including Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo, Albany and Hartford. Though the Workmen’s Circle (now Worker’s Circle) still exists, these cemeteries serve as tangible, physical reminders of an organization that was once a household name for many Jewish families.

Temple Cemetery, Nashville, TN.

Lancaster, Pennsylvania is more known for the Amish than for Jews, though most of the Amish are in the surrounding countryside and the city is largely Puerto Rican now. Biking around the city in 2020, I spotted the Sharaai Shomaym Cemetery tucked in tightly between rows of houses. The plaque at the gate stated that it was the third oldest Jewish cemetery in the country. In the 1740s, a few Jews settled in Lancaster and soon bought land for a burial plot. However, with too few Jews to be sustainable, the community had disappeared by the turn of that century. Jews returned around 1850, started Sharaai Shomaym synagogue and began using the cemetery, which is still operating today.

The oldest existing Jewish cemetery in the United States is the First Shearith Israel Cemetery, also known as the Chatham Square Cemetery, located in lower Manhattan and dating from 1683. Somewhat confusingly, this was actually the second cemetery of the Shearith Israel congregation, an institution founded a few decades before by Spanish and Portuguese Jews, but called the first because it’s the oldest surviving one. Chatham Square is also one of the oldest cemeteries, Jewish or not, in New York City. Due to its population density, the city (which then comprised only Manhattan) banned any further burials in 1851, precipitating cemetery development in what are now the city’s outer boroughs, including Staten Island with its Baron Hirsch Cemetery, and numerous large Jewish cemeteries in Brooklyn, Queens and adjacent Nassau County.

When I encounter a cemetery while riding, I check to see if it’s a Jewish one. Usually, a cross on a gravestone or a small sample of surnames tells me pretty quickly. When it does turn out to be Jewish, sometimes it’s a Star of David I notice first, or Hebrew lettering; other times a name or two (“Weinberg,” “Levin”) gives the signal. I then dismount. They are rarely locked. I enjoy seeing the variety of tombstone inscriptions. Does it have the Hebrew name, and if so, followed by Ben (son of) or Bat (daughter of)? The five magic letters: ת.נ.צ.ב.ה—acronym of t’hay nafsho/ah tzrurah b’tzror hachaim—signifying the deceased’s ultimate fate (“May his/her soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life”, taken from I Samuel)? “Here lies” at the top in Hebrew? Any Hebrew lettering or Jewish symbols at all?

In Judaism, the idea that burial places should be marked by gravestones goes back a long way, in fact, all the way back to Genesis 35, where it states that Jacob put a pillar upon Rachel’s grave. Gravestones in Jewish cemeteries, however, probably only became commonplace during the Middle Ages. Jewish law and practice generally dictate modest gravestones, and elaborate displays or mausoleums are rare, though I have encountered some, more commonly in non-Orthodox cemeteries.

After the serendipitous sightings of many Jewish cemeteries across the country, I found renewed interest in the cemeteries of my forebears. All four of my grandparents, and many other relatives, were buried in metropolitan Philadelphia, so I ventured to that area. I would be visiting the dead rather than the living, as almost all of my relatives from the area had either died or long since moved away.

My paternal grandparents’ synagogue in Camden, New Jersey was called Beth El, so when I went past Bethel Cemetery in the summer of 2019, I thought it must be the place. Then I realized that it was a Protestant cemetery; for some reason, making the House of God into a single word transformed it from a Jewish into a Christian reference. A mile or so down the road I found what I was looking for—the Crescent cemetery (actually euphemistically called “Memorial Park” instead of “Cemetery”). My parents both grew up in what was then the primarily Jewish area of Parkside in Camden, and they used to say that it was as if all of Parkside had been uprooted and transplanted to the cemetery; almost every family plot had a name they recognized from the old neighborhood. It was typical in this cemetery to have a large upright stone with the family name and individual smaller stones (often horizontal) for individual family members. On one family stone with my last name (Pinsky), the name was shown in Latin letters on one side and Hebrew letters on the other; for the latter, it was spelled according to Yiddish convention rather than Hebrew, which makes sense given the sensibilities of the time.

My maternal grandparents (and other relatives) were buried in Mt. Sharon Cemetery, in the southwest Philadelphia suburbs. Although about the same acreage as Crescent, this cemetery was about three times as dense, gravesite-wise. It would have taken hours to find the graves I was looking for without a map hand-drawn by my brother, and even with it, after finding my grandparents’ graves, I gave up before finding those of some far-flung cousins. Shortly after that, I met someone who turned out to be a fellow Philadelphian (I was born there but moved to the DC area as a child). Searching for a personal connection, I mentioned that my grandparents were buried near the suburb she was from, in Mt. Sharon Cemetery. “My grandparents are buried there also,” she said. Jewish geography, six feet under.

Alliance Cemetery, near Vineland, NJ.

I had known for a while that my maternal grandmother had spent part of her childhood on a farm. I didn’t know where the farm was, though. After visiting her grave, I tried to get more details about the farm’s location from my mother. “It was ‘somewhere in South Jersey,” she told me, in a town called Norma.” I searched for Norma in an atlas. The dot on the map was a little west of Vineland, New Jersey, right where I had happened upon Alliance cemetery.




Top photo: The author’s grandmother’s grave in Mt. Sharon Cemetery, outside of Philadelphia.

2 thoughts on “Jewish Geography—Six Feet Under

  1. Abby Schmelling says:

    This is a wonderful article! I’m writing a book on Jewish Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park outside Chicago. It is made up of more than 270 separate gates, now consolidated, including Workman’s Circle. The first burial there was in 1873. I love your reference to “Jewish geography, six feet under.” Waldheim like others as you said, reflects what remains of Chicago’s Jewish West Side.
    Abby Cohen Schmelling

  2. There was a set of books published in the mid-1970s called American Jewish Landmarks where the authors travelled to some pretty obscure places seeking references to Jews who were once their. Their finds ranged from place names of sojourners, businesses of Jews that once existed there or still do, and quite a lot of cemetery identifications, as the purchase of land for burial usually preceded purchase of a place to worship.
    In our modern era, the tour of the Jewish cemetery seems to be shifting. As intermarriage became common in America about fifty years ago, those Burial Societies have had to grapple over what to do with the remains of non-Jewish spouses. In my town, they seem to separate a separate section where you can now see matzevot with Magen David or Menorah on one side and a Christian symbol carved into the other side. The Jewish cemetery has always been in transition, and still is, yet always reflects the lives that the people lived.

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