The Cemeteries of the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue Shearith Israel
On March 31, 1492, Spain ordered that all Jews living within the kingdom either convert to Christianity or be expelled. Portugal did the same less than five years later.
Some of those Spanish Jews converted and remained in Spain, either secretly practicing their faith or genuinely converting (even some of those, however, continued to face persecution). Many more, however, fled Spain and Portugal for North Africa and the Ottoman Empire, Holland, and eventually the New World. Some of these Sephardic Jews (Jews with roots in the Iberian peninsula who spoke Ladino, a cross between Hebrew and medieval Spanish and Portuguese, and whose religious customs and cuisine bore distinctive traits connected to these origins), eventually ended up in New York, becoming the first Jewish settlers of our city, long before the flood of Ashkenazi Jews (Jews with roots in Germany who settled in Eastern Europe after their expulsion from the German lands, and who spoke Yiddish — a cross between Hebrew and medieval German) in the late 19th and early 20th century, who form by far the majority of New York’s and America’s Jewish population.
The evidence of these pioneering Spanish and Portuguese Jews can still be seen in our city, perhaps most poignantly in the three historic Spanish & Portuguese Shearith Israel Cemeteries located in Lower Manhattan, the second of which is located on West 11th Street in Greenwich Village.
According to the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture:
“Shearith Israel was the only Jewish congregation in New York City from 1654 until 1825. During this entire span of history, all of the Jews of New York belonged to the congregation. Shearith Israel was founded by 23 Jews, mostly of Spanish and Portuguese origin. The earliest Jewish cemetery in the U.S. was recorded in 1656 in New Amsterdam where authorities granted the Shearith Israel Congregation “a little hook of land situated outside of this city for a burial place.” Its exact location is now unknown. The Congregation’s “second” cemetery, which is today known as the FIRST cemetery because it is the oldest surviving one, was purchased in 1683.”
That “First” Cemetery of the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, Shearith Israel- also known as Chatham Square Cemetery– was established in 1683 at 55-57 St. James Place in Lower Manhattan. 122 years later in 1805, when the cemetery had started to exceed their allotment and push against development in Lower Manhattan, the Second Cemetery plot was purchased and established on a much larger plot that had extended into what is now 11th Street. This plot operated until 1829; during that time the establishment of the Manhattan grid system began its process of cutting through 11th Street, which once again ran aground with the bodies in that cemetery space.
A Third Cemetery space was then purchased on 98-110 West 21st Street, where those displaced bodies were re-interred. The third plot was in operation up until 1851, right before the law was passed banning burials within New York City limits (then Manhattan). Further burials post-1852 from this and its future surviving congregations took place in Glendale, Queens. A section from a 1928 New Yorker article discussing the cemeteries sums up the spaces’ histories while also highlighting their importance and reverence within their community:
“There remain two cemeteries to visit, built by descendants of the first Portuguese Jews. One of these is the tiny triangle with twenty headstones familiar to Greenwich Villagers, on Eleventh Street, east of Sixth Avenue. The cemetery of those who died by plagues, particularly the dread yellow fever of 1798, it once covered many acres. The second, on Twenty-first Street, west of Sixth, has perhaps a hundred and fifty tombstones. Burials were made here as late as 1851, although it was against the law then, and several of the bereaved families had to pay a fine of two hundred and fifty dollars. The Portuguese Jews formed the Congregation Shearith Israel whose present congregation – their synagogue is at 99 Central Park West – has repeatedly rejected offers of hundreds of thousands for the Twenty-first Street site. Once a department store wanted to arch a building over the cemetery, leaving it undisturbed, but that plan was rejected, too.” — (The New Yorker “Where Time Has Stopped,” 25 February 1928).