Mon August 26, 2013
Where is the oldest Jewish cemetery west of the Allegheny Mountains?
Just a few blocks behind Music Hall, tucked in a tiny alcove behind a large, leafy tree in the West End lays an unassuming collection of worn gray headstones. Enclosed by ivy-covered brick walls and a chain-link fence, the Chestnut Street Cemetery sits almost hidden from the world. But this small plot of land is actually quite historic.
"It's the oldest Jewish Cemetery west of the Allegheny Mountains," says Ed Marks, past president of Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati.
In 1821, a man named Benjamin Leib contacted the the town's small community of Jews and asked to be buried in consecrated Jewish ground.
Marks picks up the story. "Well, there was no Jewish Cemetery. So these six Jewish men purchased a lot from Nicholas Longworth and the back part of the cemetery, farthest from Central Ave. became the Jewish Cemetery."
The Chestnut Street Cemetery opened in 1821 and there are 85 people are known to be buried within its walls. It closed a few short decades later in 1849 following the cholera epidemic.
"We have a list of those who are known to buried here. They may be a couple of others. There are not 85 stones here. So there are a number of people, including Mr. Leib, who's graves aren't marked by stones. Whether that's because the stones have disintegrated over time or because there never was one... Remember, that he had no other family and he may not have made arrangements to have a stone cut."
The cemetery is not very big, only about 50 x 75 feet. Marks is particularly fond of the brick walls and the serenity he finds here. There are some concerns about how much longer the bricks will last. They buckle in places and some stones have collapsed along the outer sidewalk. Marks would also like to replace the chain-link with something more inviting.
Marks notes the headstone inscriptions are a mix of English and Hebrew. He points to an obelisk, "The closest thing you'll find in any Jewish tradition to a human being is in the emblem that's on (this obelisk). It's two hands holding a pitcher and basin. There's a tradition of washing the hands when you enter a Jewish cemetery."
The Jonas family's obelisk is perhaps the most prominent grave marker. Joseph Jonas is one of the cemetery's founders. He's also famous for helping establish Rockdale Temple, the oldest Jewish Congregation west of the Alleghenies, and one of the founding congregations of American Reform Judaism.
Looking around, the lawn is neatly mowed, a few rose bushes grow in one corner and, following an ancient Jewish custom, small rocks sit atop several of the stones. Marks says whoever placed the rocks must have done so out of respect because the people buried here have no known family remaining.
"That's one of the sad things," he says. "We believe there are a couple of families in St. Louis who went further west from Cincinnati but we haven't been able to contact any of them to let them know that they have ancestors buried here. We haven't been able to find them."
Sitting at the intersection of Downtown, Over-the-Rhine and the West End, Marks says this unexpected gem is well respected. He cites a chance encounter with a neighboring homeowner a few years ago. He says neighbors tend to keep an eye on it and like having it there.
"The neighborhood has been very, very respectful and helpful toward this. You'd expect a lot of paper and trash would come over the fence or the wall. It doesn't happen. There's very little."
The cemetery is not open to the public, though you can easily see all of it though the fencing. Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati will arrange tours for interested parties.
Marks says he'd love for more people to visit and experience the same sense of peace he finds here.