Friday morning Conn Mac Aogain, Davide Colasanto, and Lisa Hirschfield spent time in a basement room of Shearith Israel’s formidable synagogue on 70th Street and Central Park West. Our tasks were to verfiy the information we had from several secondary sources and to determine which volumes from the synagogue’s offsite archives should be retrieved for further investigation.
Conn was able to devote a significant part of the day to this work, and when he was finished he had a list of 95 members of the congregation who died between 1805 and 1830, the period the 11th Street cemetery was active. Once the volumes arrive, we will be able to dig deeper, as it were.
It was quite thrilling to have the burial register—dating back to the mid-18th century—in hand, to turn the pages, feel the paper, trace the lines of the script, and put our collective (if amateur) paelography skills to work to decipher some of the entries. The card catalogues of birth, marriage, and death records seem to date from the 1950s, and the death records contained more information than we expected, including notes about locations of burials within the cemetery, and of members not buried locally.
Given the general prohibition against delayed burial in Judaism (as well as the lack of refrigeration at this time) it is no surprise that Jews who died away from home were laid to rest where they fell, metaphorically speaking. As the first Jewish congregation in North America, Shearith Israel naturally had close ties to the four other major communities active in the 18th century—in Charleston, Philadelphia, Newport RI, and Montreal—and some members of these communities are buried in Shearith Israel’s older cemeteries. Likewise, the death records of Shearith Israel members who died outside of New York indicate they were visiting some of these other Jewish communities; we can therefore assume they were buried by those congregations. Such community connections were as critical in death as in life. Mrs. Rachel Hays, who died in Boston on September 20, 1810, was laid to rest a long day’s travel away in Newport, Rhode Island, by Yeshuat Israel, Shearith Israel’s sister congregation.