Early on Erev Yom Kippur, aided by sections of Keith Pearce’s and Helen Fry’s book The Lost Jews of Cornwall I took a break to explore the Old Jewish Cemetery in Falmouth, Cornwall. The University of Southampton’s Mark Levene clued me into the fact that it happens to be right on my walk between Penryn and Falmouth across the road from the Sainsbury’s. The eternal and the fleeting cheek by jowl.
I pushed through the overgrowth and crested collapsing stonewalls to find the three-dozen some odd headstones that make up the remains of what was once a strong but small Jewish community. As that celebrated English drizzle fell, I sang Tehilim (psalms) for my bothers and sisters there interred and wished an elevation for each and every one of their souls.
Stones in the Falmouth Jewish Cemetery on the A39.
The stones were mossy and many were toppled and broken, but many were still readable (but Pearce’s and Fry’s work was there to fill in the gaps). Some inscriptions were quite plain providing little more than a name and a wish for external life. Some hinted at family tragedies like the fact that Yissachar ben Yoel HaLevi and his son Levi both passed away in 1791. What a loss for the family as well as for this then quite small band of Jews. An undated stone marked the grave of Yoseph, infant son of Lyon Yoseph and his wife Yehudit. Moshe ben Yisrael who died in 1798 was recalled only as being an unmarried man— the first time Moshe wore a tallit was to be buried. How are we to understand that subtle but nevertheless heavily freighted lament from within a community that had to cling tightly together to survive?
Many of the stones hinted at the process of adaptation that Jews have undergone wherever we have settled. Names—some written in English and some in Hebrew—revealed the workings of that familiar process whereby we have our real names—the ones that function within the community, the names called out in synagogue, first ours and then our father’s (“ben” meaning “son of”) when we are honored or when we are ill and the congregation negotiates with God to heal us (and, as the wonderfully contractual prayer also says “and for all Israel as well, amen”), the names we are given soon after our births and the names that in the end, the stone carver will chisel on our tombstones. This naming game is a brilliant one—intended or not. Their simple familiarity erases time. There is no fashion in these names—nothing to make people seem quaint or antique, nothing to make them seem at all of a different time. No Pheobes or Alonzos, no Winifreds, Theodores, or Gouevenors to make one think, “hmm, don’t see that name much anymore.” Likewise, there are no Ambers, Tiffanys, or Tylers to seem so of the moment. Instead, we use the same names over and over so that people, dead these two centuries, bear names no different that those around us now.
Jacob Jacob of Falmouth painted around the time Darwin was in town.
Yitzhak ben Yoseph (a reversal of my own father’s name), Yishaya ben Moshe, Uri ben Zvi, Yakov Eliahu ben Naftali, Yehuda ben Yehoshua and so on—nothing in these names hints at epoch—they are no different than we hear week after week in synagogues all over the Jewish world. Time and space vanish thanks to a simple paring of a son’s and a father’s name.
But Jews have long lived amidst people with whom we did not share our real names, or frequently people whose naming styles we took up and made real in a new way. The Falmouth stones show us this process at work. Yissachar Behr ben Yoel haLevi conducted his daily affairs in Falmouth as Barnett Levy while Yakov ben Moshe was known to his English neighbors of the early nineteenth century as Jacob Jacob of Falmouth.
The stones also hinted at ethnic and gender differences as well. Whereas the men mostly had biblical names, many of their wives were recalled with altogether less formal Yiddish names. Yetle, Feigele, Gitteleh, and Beila show unmistakable family roots on the continent. But at the same time, names like Saavil on one stone and the de Pass family from South Africa (a Sephardic family noted by Pearce and Fry) show diversity even in this singularly Ashkenazi community.
A few days later I found the old synagogue the community built about 1800 and which Britain’s Chief Rabbi ordered sold off once the community had faded away in 1888. It was a simple but distinctively German style shul with red brick and local stone coynes along the front corners. Its tall windows offer just enough of a glimpse inside to make one wonder what else survives therein.
The Old Falmouth Synangogue, 1808 – 1888.
The shul has a commanding view of the harbor below. It sits at the top of a street called Fish Strand Hill. At the base of this hill there is a plaque that says that Charles Darwin boarded an overland stagecoach at this spot on Sunday October 2nd, 1836 after the Beagle had laid anchor in the harbor. That day was also the 21st of Tishrae 5597—Hoshanah Rabbah (tomorrow), in the last days of Sukkot. At that time Falmouth’s Jewish community was in full flower and would have been in shul carrying lulavim and parading around the bimah. I consider this because I am here writing this during the same week in Tishrae passing Sukkot in Falmouth amid the ghosts of a lost community and their still living names.