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Three cemeteries belonging to Shearith Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in North America, are tucked away in Manhattan, a visible legacy of New York City’s long-ago Jewish past

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The Third Cemetery of the Spanish and Portugese Synagogue Shearith Israel, New York City. (Len Small/Tablet Magazine)

There’s a small Jewish cemetery tucked away on an unlikely block in Manhattan, behind some condominiums on West 21st Street. It’s just a few minutes from Tablet Magazine’s new office on Tin Pan Alley, and I recently stumbled upon it. As it turns out, it has two siblings further downtown, and, taken together, the trio offer a window into the history of both the city and its Jewish community.

The three historic Manhattan cemeteries belong to Congregation Shearith Israel, a Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in Manhattan and the oldest Jewish congregation in North America, established in 1654. They are perhaps the most durable legacy of New York City’s long-ago Jewish past. The Shearith Israel congregation was founded by 23 Jewish refugees, descendents of Spanish Jews, exiled during the Inquisition, who fled from Recife, Brazil, after it was taken from the Dutch by the Portuguese. They were fleeing anti-Semitism but were greeted coldly by Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch director-general of the colony of New Netherland. From 1654 until 1825, Shearith Israel was the only Jewish congregation in New York City. In its long history, membership of the congregation has included Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, three founders of the New York Stock Exchange, and the poet Emma Lazarus, whose famous words from “The New Colossus” are affixed to the Statue of Liberty. Shearith Israel—the name translated is “Remnant of Israel”—owns a Torah that dates to the American Revolution.

The First Cemetery of Shearith Israel is in southern Manhattan, above the first neighborhoods of New York City; it is the oldest Jewish cemetery in North America. The lot sits near Chatham Square in Chinatown and is lined with the graves of, among others, 22 veterans of the American Revolution and the first American-born rabbi. It was once a place where residents of nearby tenements would hang up their wash, and its trees provided cover for George Washington to hide a battery of guns from the British during the American Revolution. The cemetery, which operated from 1683 until 1828, is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

If you walk north, in the direction the city grew, the Second Cemetery is easier to miss. It sits on a small tract on West 11th Street, just east of 6th Avenue, amid perfectly maintained Greenwich Village townhouses. Established in 1805, the cemetery was cut significantly in size when the expanding city built 11th Street on the city grid as a part of the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811.

Twenty headstones from the original Second Cemetery are still standing on 11th Street, beside an old red brick building that was once a Civil War tavern known as The Grapevine, where Union officers would carouse and Southern spies eavesdrop—the origin of the phrase “I heard it through the grapevine,” made famous a century later thanks, variously, to Gladys Knight, Marvin Gaye, and a cartoon box of singing raisins.

Of Shearith Israel’s three historic cemeteries, it’s the third that is the most visibly disjointed from its urban enclosure. Unlike the Second Cemetery, an elfin triangle tucked away on a small tree-lined street in Greenwich Village, or the First, which blends in with the nondescript stacks and ramshackle structures of Chinatown, the Third sits on an anonymous block of 21st Street, just west of 6th Avenue. The lot for the Third Cemetery was purchased in 1829 for the then-princely sum of $2,750. Like for the others, at the time of its purchase, the area surrounding the Third Cemetery was still considered to be the outskirts of New York City.

Buildings on three sides make the tract appear diminutive and boxy, like a missing tooth. Large black gates block public entrance from the street. The cemetery operated until 1851, after which a law was enacted forbidding burial anywhere south of Manhattan’s 86th Street. The Third Cemetery has about 250 graves, some of them still legible, others too effaced to read.

To the east of the graveyard once stood the third iteration of the Shearith Israel Synagogue. When the synagogue moved to its present location on an erstwhile duck farm on Central Park West, the old building became Hugh O’Neill’s Dry Goods Store. The O’Neill Building later came under the ownership of the El-Ad Group, an Israeli company whose American real-estate arm converted the building into condominiums, as it did with the Plaza Hotel after purchasing the landmark in 2004. To the west of the cemetery stands another condominium. Nearby, on Seventh Avenue, is the storefront of New York’s newest Trader Joe’s, which is fittingly, among other things, a dry-goods store.

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Ellen L. says:

When I taught at Murry Bergtraum HS on Pearl Street (in the ’90s) I was right near the “1st” cemetery. Actually there was an earlier cemetery but the whereabouts are unknown.
I am writing about “lost synagogues” of Manhattan now, and the Hazzan’s residence of the next-to-last Shearith Israel is still standing, on West 19th Street (7 W 19) and I will include a photo of that and some info in my book.

I believe the fourth, and current cemetery is in Queens.

Barbara Clark says:

Please note: nice article re cemetaries but I live near the W.11th site and walk past each day-so what should be noted is the ongoing deterioration of the brick wall surrounding the site. The plaster is coming off,it is buckled a bit,and no one seems to care for the burial plots. The wall needs to be fixed. In the past I have called at Shearith Israel synogogue but have meet either with defensiveness or indifference. So much for respecting their historic site.

Harold says:

Interesting and informative article, except for one probable error of fact.

You wrote: “… a Civil War tavern known as The Grapevine, where Union officers would carouse and Southern spies eavesdrop—the origin of the phrase ‘I heard it through the grapevine’ …”

If you enter “origin of the phrase ‘I heard it through the grapevine'” in any internet search site, you’ll see that all the resulting references point not to a tavern but to a phrase that was used to describe early telegraph wires in the 19th century. (The telegraph wires coiled on poles like the coiling tendrils of grape vines.)

Otherwise, a very informative article.

For more on the Jews of Recife, Brazil, who founded this first Jewish community in New York:

The cemetery at 21st and 6th (the “third” mentioned in the article) was damaged in 2006 when debris from nearby renovations scattered over it. The cemetery hasn’t been visibly rehabbed, despite the wealth of the congregation and their supposed concern over its integrity. Maybe that’s why Shearith Israel charges $100 as the fee to gain access; they don’t want anyone seeing how bad a shape it’s in. As Chandler notes in the piece, most of the gravestones are no longer legible. Did he have to pay to gain access, I wonder?

Christopher Orev says:

When I attended the MFA program at the School of Visual Arts from 2000-2002, I worked in a studio across the street from (and a few hundred feet west of) the third Shearith Israel cemetery. I often stopped as I passed the cemetery, longing to be able to enter; the gates were locked then, too. The condos to the west of the cemetery weren’t yet constructed (it was a pay-to-park lot), but I figured that the writing was on the wall for the cemetery, that the city would eventually claim the equivalent of eminent domain and turn its lot, too, into a store or condo. I’m pleased to learn that it still remains, incongruous though it may appear.

I believe the fourth, and current cemetery is in Queens

Actually there was an earlier cemetery but the whereabouts are unknown.

Bennett Muraskin says:

Emma Lazarus may have been a member of Shearith Israel, but probably in name only. She was an avowed secular Jew and well as an early secular Zionist, which would not have made her popular in that congregation.

Dr Robert Lewy says:

Great history, great reporting

I am sure one of those three founders of the New York Stock Exchange was (the gold rush story teller) Bret Harte’s grandfather. His last name would have been Hart.

walter tolub says:

I believe that the synagogue-still pays an annual fee-to the pre colonial land owners.Does anyone have that information ?

joyce helman says:

So interesting- a part of jewish history in america I know little about

Samuel Gruber says:

Nice story, but I think the last paragraph is incorrect…it seems to indicate that the 1860 synagogue on W. 19th Street, sold in 1895, still survives in some much modified form. Maybe this is not be what the author means? The building that may survive behind the cemetery would have been O’Neill’s Dry Goods Store, not the synagogue itself. I’m pretty sure the synagogue was on West 19th St. near 5th avenue, not between 20th and 21st Street near Sixth, where the cemetery is.

Martin Epstein says:

I’m not sure giving these sites to much PR would be a good idea. Too many tourists might ruin it.

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Three cemeteries belonging to Shearith Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in North America, are tucked away in Manhattan, a visible legacy of New York City’s long-ago Jewish past

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