My Dad used to take us for long walks around Downtown Manhattan. Whenever we’d pass by Chatham Square, he would bring us to Oliver Street and tell us the story of how he lived there with his family as a kid. Then he would walk us over to First Shearith Israel Graveyard and tell us to look at the sign – this is the first and oldest Jewish Cemetery in Manhattan.
Little did he know he would spark an interest of mine for life. Growing up in Chinatown was hard. As a multi-generational Chinese person whose family dates back to the 1870s (still working on digging up our American history) – it wasn’t easy growing up in Chinatown. All I ever wanted was to fit in but I never looked Chinese enough (I have 18% other which is Scot, Swiss and Polynesian – not much of anything but enough to look different enough to others) so I didn’t have many friends in elementary school and always got made fun of, ate lunch alone a lot and didn’t have many people to play with.
Junior high was a different story. I went to school on the Upper East Side and that first day I made so many friends. My last name is pronounced “Jew.” A lot of my new friends were non religious Jews. They knew I was mixed and at the time my family assumed our white blood was German so my friends would joke and ask, “Are you sure you really aren’t part German Jew?” It felt so good to be accepted. This is one of the other reasons why I am very fond of Jewish history. My new friends who happened to be Jewish accepted me for who I was. They made me feel like I belonged, like I was one of them. There was a small period I considered going to Hebrew school but decided quickly against it because I suck at learning languages; 5 years of beginners French.
The Lower East Side is seeped in immigrant history. I used to see Hasidic and/or Orthodox Jews all the time. They constituted a good portion of the population; now they aren’t as numerous but still live in the area. As a kid I knew the men with curls and yarmulkes (skullcaps) were Jewish. Seeing them would make me think of the cemetery my Dad would tell us about.
First Shearith Israel Graveyard doesn’t look like much but is dear to my heart. It’s down the street from where my Dad grew up, in the neighborhood both my parents grew up and a place I walk and still continue to walk by. It’s a tiny graveyard and the oldest of three Jewish cemeteries in Manhattan. It is maintained by Congregation Shearith Israel which is the oldest congregation in North America.
It was in use from 1683-1833. The original graveyard was on a hill overlooking the East River. It was north of the British-Dutch colonial settlement. In 1682 Joseph Bueno de Mesquita bought the plot. The cemetery you see in a tiny portion of what it used to cover. In the 1700s the cemetery expanded and covered Chatham Square to the Upper part of Oliver Street and to Bancker Street (now Madison Street).
Development and erosion reduced the size. In 1855 a large part of the cemetery was seized by eminent domain to expand the Bowery. 256 graves were removed.
All practicing Jews in NYC from 1656 to 1825 belonged to Shearith Israel and were buried here. There are 22 American patriots from the Revolutionary War. Dr. Walter Jonas Judah was the second known Jew and the first native born Jew to attend King’s College medical school (now Columbia University). Jewish patriots that reside here are: The first American born Jewish spiritual leader Reverend Gershom Mendes Seixas (1745-1816), Jonas Phillips, Hayman Levy, Simon Nathan and others. Every year, the Sunday before Memorial Day, a small ceremony is held in the cemetery. Descendants that are still active in the congregation are often seen partaking in special services; they recite prayers and plant flags.
Today you can only get access by appointment only.
Trinity Churchyard at Wall Street is the oldest burial ground in Manhattan and First Shearith Israel Graveyard is the second oldest.
If you are ever in New York and walk by, just remember this was part of our colonial history.
There’s another story about this spot. This is one of those places where I was taught “street smarts”. Back in the 1980s to mid 90s, it was a mugging hot spot in the early morning. Homeless people used to sleep here. They weren’t doing the robbing, they just needed a place to stay and shelters are not exactly the safest places. People would hide behind them. So it was the place to avoid certain times of day. The rule was – always walk on the other side of the street. It’s not like that anymore. A gate was put up and no one can sleep there. There are benches for people to sit on and a mural was painted a long while back.
Now it’s a quiet spot that overlooks gridlock traffic during busy times of day. A place that’s long forgotten by most people except the descendants of the congregation, the congregation and real lovers of the Lower East Side.
*This cemetery was around during the infamous days of “Five Points,” the notorious slum which existed around the 1820-1890s. America’s original melting pot, the first African American settlement, a neighborhood that invented tap dance, a neighborhood very rich in history. The African Americans, Irish, Germans, Anglos, Jewish, Italian, Chinese and Hispanics have all left their marks. Five Points is now part of the Civic Center and Chinatown area. The old slum is another childhood passion seeded by my Dad. I’ve been mapping what streets and buildings exist and/or look the same when Five Points used to exist. I’m so proud America’s original melting pot was and always will be my home.