Sunday, December 23, 2018

When Longfellow Erred

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem, "The Jewish Cemetery at Newport", ends with something quite in error:

How strange it seems! These Hebrews in their graves,
      Close by the street of this fair seaport town,
Silent beside the never-silent waves,
      At rest in all this moving up and down!

The trees are white with dust, that o'er their sleep
      Wave their broad curtains in the south-wind's breath,
While underneath these leafy tents they keep
      The long, mysterious Exodus of Death.

And these sepulchral stones, so old and brown,
      That pave with level flags their burial-place,
Seem like the tablets of the Law, thrown down
      And broken by Moses at the mountain's base.

The very names recorded here are strange,
      Of foreign accent, and of different climes;
Alvares and Rivera interchange
      With Abraham and Jacob of old times.

"Blessed be God! for he created Death!"
      The mourners said, "and Death is rest and peace;"
Then added, in the certainty of faith,
      "And giveth Life that nevermore shall cease."

Closed are the portals of their Synagogue,
      No Psalms of David now the silence break,
No Rabbi reads the ancient Decalogue
      In the grand dialect the Prophets spake.

Gone are the living, but the dead remain,
      And not neglected; for a hand unseen,
Scattering its bounty, like a summer rain,
      Still keeps their graves and their remembrance green.

How came they here? What burst of Christian hate,
      What persecution, merciless and blind,
Drove o'er the sea — that desert desolate —
      These Ishmaels and Hagars of mankind?

They lived in narrow streets and lanes obscure,
      Ghetto and Judenstrass, in mirk and mire;
Taught in the school of patience to endure
      The life of anguish and the death of fire.

All their lives long, with the unleavened bread
      And bitter herbs of exile and its fears,
The wasting famine of the heart they fed,
      And slaked its thirst with marah of their tears.

Anathema maranatha! was the cry
      That rang from town to town, from street to street;
At every gate the accursed Mordecai
      Was mocked and jeered, and spurned by Christian feet.

Pride and humiliation hand in hand
      Walked with them through the world where'er they went;
Trampled and beaten were they as the sand,
      And yet unshaken as the continent.

For in the background figures vague and vast
      Of patriarchs and of prophets rose sublime,
And all the great traditions of the Past
      They saw reflected in the coming time.

And thus forever with reverted look
      The mystic volume of the world they read,
Spelling it backward, like a Hebrew book,
      Till life became a Legend of the Dead.

But ah! what once has been shall be no more!
      The groaning earth in travail and in pain
Brings forth its races, but does not restore,
      And the dead nations never rise again.

Ah. But the Jewish "dead" nation did.

A note on the poem:

In fairness to Longfellow, it should be noted that when Longfellow visited Newport in July 1852, the Jewish community seemed to have vanished. In fact, they had dispersed, but not disappeared. The British had occupied Newport from the outbreak of the Revolutionary War until October 1779, turning evacuated wooden homes into fuel for heating during the winters. This led to Newport’s decline and to the removal of many Jewish merchants to such more thriving seaports as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. With the passage of the first Amendment to the Constitution in 1791 and the gradual disappearance of religious establishment in the states, Jews could now feel comfortable living elsewhere in America.Yet the synagogue would be preserved, just as the cemetery had been, by the sons of Isaac Touro, its rabbi at the time of the Revolution. Abraham left a bequest for the upkeep of both, and two years after Longfellow’s visit, Judah Touro left a bequest for their restoration. By the 1880s, a group of Jewish immigrants newly arrived from Eastern Europe reopened the synagogue.Longfellow could not have foreseen the terrible persecution the Jewish people were yet to suffer during World War II. Neither, it seems, would he have expected a resurgence of Jewish nationalistic purpose in the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.


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