Remnantology

Dedicated to the examination of the remnants. Phil Levy's words in reference to history, archaeology, Judaism, academe, music, outdoorsing…

Category Archives: Graves

What’s in a Date? Or, Barbados Time.

Washington had a hard time reckoning time while he was on Barbados. Many of the dates he listed in his diary are off—and not even in a single predictable way as if he had miscounted by a day or two and pushed the error forwards. Instead, he was off by two days and sometimes four in November, and then one day off in December and so on. On top of that, we have to factor in the great change from the Julian calendar to the currently prevalent Gregorian one (with apologies to Ethiopia) in 1752 that pushed dates eleven days ahead. Washington was born on the 11th of February before the date change which makes us think of his birthday as the 22nd. Likewise, the dates in the diary also have to be pushed forward if were interested in commemoration for example.

One has to have a good reason to keep a close reckoning of the passing of time. The long term cycles—months and years for example—pass by slowly enough to be missed. They matter in agricultural settings, but primarily as seasons. 11days8.jpgThe fact that today for example is the 14th and not the 17th will not cause to miss my planting or harvesting. The coming and goings of commerce give months and dates a bit more immediate consequence as certain expenses must needs be met at certain times or ship arrive and set sail (weather and tides permitting) at certain days. Confusing the 14th for the 17th in this case could cause me to miss a ship’s sailing. The actual days of the week though are rather more immediate and easier to keep a handle on. Even today, we can ask on a given Tuesday “what day of the month is it?” and not get the odd looks we might get if were to walk up to someone and say “what day of the week is it? For that reason it is easier to believe Washington when he said that he dined with the Clarke’s on a Wednesday even if his November 6th was really the 10th. It is hard to pin down just what caused this error. It may that he was jus wrong about his dates. It also may be that he filled in some details later (as we know is did on some parts) and just made errors along the way. It also may be that the whole “original” is a copy of a lost older original and things just got confused in the interim. In any event, it is clear that Washington’s sense of the calendar was a rather dynamic object.

There is another reason that made it easier to keep the days of the week in focus, and that reason is spiritual. The Sabbath marks a break with the routines of the week, and even when Washington did not attend St Michael’ s Anglican parish church in Bridgetown, the change in the larger community regime would have marked Sunday as distinct and made it easy to know just were one was day-wise for the rest of the week. The spiritual calendar is another reason as well an individual or a community might pay close attention to the passing of dates and months. The cycles of religious devotions that must happen at certain times require constant counting.

For these reasons I found it interesting that Washington wrote that he was “strongly attacked with the small pox” on Saturday, November 16, 1751. I believe him when he claimed the disease overtook him on a Saturday, but it was more likely the 20th than the 16th given his miscounting. That fateful Saturday would have had a totally different set of calendar and spiritual meanings for a community of Barbadians living only a mile or so from where Washington lay suffering.

The Jews of Barbados had their own calendar and reckoned it with great care. While experts in England were already discussing the merits of exchanging their Roman calendar for a newer Christian one, the Jews world wide were still using the same counting system they had for millennia. By that reckoning of time, Washington fell ill on the 2nd of Kislev, in the year 5512.

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Treating the “Speckled Monster”

Even if Washington was having a hard time keeping his dates straight—the Jews were not. Restricted to something very much like a ghetto in Bridgetown and limited by law in their trading options, the community maintained the count of days and marked the significant ones as they came and went. As Washington lay ill, the “holy month” of Tishrei would have only recently ended and the Jews would have completed a holiday routine that begins with a new year, and ends with restarting the annual cycling of reading weekly sections of the Torah—the Five Books of Moses. In the middle of that was a fast day in which they would have tried to look all of their misdeeds in the face, accept upon themselves the guilt for having done them, and plead with God to postpone the well-deserved execution sentence for one more year. “Who in the upcoming year would die by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by illness” they had asked in solemn liturgical tones. There would have been no answer yet, but they could take comfort in the verse reminding them that that prayer, repentance, and charity lessen the harshness of heaven’s judgment. They also would sing three times a prayer that would exempt them from future vows when those vows were or a certain nature. This rather distinctive request was originally penned to provide a backdoor way out for Jews forced to accept Christianity at sword point or on pain of the flames—an experience all too familiar to the great grand parents of many of Bridgetown’s Jews. Coming out of that intense, absorbing, and emotionally roller coaster of a month, Bridgetown’s Jews were settling into a long period with no significant holidays—only the weekly reading of the Torah made the counting of spiritual time obvious on a day-to-day basis.

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Map of Bridgetown showing the synagogue marked with a red star. Thanks to Colonialgyrabbit.com for the image.

The day Washington took ill was Shabbat, the 2nd of Kislev. That week the Torah Parsha (weekly reading from the Five Books) was Parshat Toldot—the sixth division of the first book which began with the creation of the world. During those weeks, the Jews of Bridgetown had been reading some of the most familiar stories in the Bible. Since the creation, God had flooded the earth and seen it repopulated with people. Avraham has met God and Sarah had a child despite her age. Avraham and his son Isaac showed what faith meant and also showed that God abhors human sacrifice. In Parshat Toldot we begin to see the growth of Isaac’s family—the people for whom he dug all of those wells. Early in Toldot there is a passage in which God tells Rivkah that she is going to have twins. The congregant singing out the weekly reading would have intoned the words for all in the Bridgetown synagogue to hear (my guess is that he would have sung it at about 10am), and they are as follows:

[Bereshit/Genesis 25:23] And God said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two kingdoms will separate from your innards, and one kingdom will become mightier than the other kingdom, and the elder will serve the younger.”

These are the words the Children of Isaac heard in synagogue that Shabbat morning in 1751/5512 as George Washington took ill only a mile or so from the constrained world they called home. The younger kingdom will become mightier than the other. What a line! I would not want to suggest that this was prophetic—maybe poetic is a better way to see it. No one could have connected that line in the Parsha with the nineteen-year old off-islander settling into what could easily have been a fatal illness, but time has allowed us to. I write this in a year in which the 2nd of Kislev was once again on Shabbat, and as in 1751/5512, Parshat Toldot was once again heard in synagogues the world over.

I need to think more about just what it means that Washington had his dates so wrong. But it helps to keep mind that there were others in that world carefully counting dates, and hours, and moon phases to make sure that times were reckoned correctly and that promises were kept and that words were sung in their appropriate times.

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Barbados, Day Two

Today began very gray but cleared up. I got up early and rushed back to town to try to recover my glasses which I had left on a wall in the cemetery. The Shul was open when I got there, so I had the pleasure of saying shacharit (albeit alone) in the beautiful old Nidhai Israel shul. It is very much like a British shul with the same type of stying and pillars holding up the women’s gallery. One difference was that the Bimah (raised reader’s table) was in the back and not in the center. I am a big fan of facing bench seating in shuls–in my mind it plays down hierarchy in favor of communalism.

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The Bimah in Nidhi Israel

This building dates to about 1831 when the great hurricane demolished much of older Barbados. This new shul sits on the foundations of the original which dated to the mid seventeenth century.

Some visitors came through and they must have thought that I was some sort of museum display set up for effect and authenticity. When I was done, Emerson, the tender, directed me to meet Benny Gilbert, a retired local property developer and one of the community’s elders. His wife is an Altman—one of the oldest Ashkenazi families on the island. Mr. Gilbert invited me back to his office for coffee and a chat and so we walked though the crowded Bridgetown streets having the kind of conversation one would have any where in the world after saying “shalom alechem – alechem shalom.” Mr. Gilbert had much to share about the island, its Jews, and his life as one of them. He explained that the original Spanish community was all but gone by the end of the 18c and that the Ashkenazim came in waves, many spending a few generations here and then fading away only to be replaced by new families. This was much the same as I had seen in some places in England—wandering, to paraphrase perhaps the most famous (sort of I guess) English Jew, Shylock, is the badge of all of our tribe.

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The shul is on the left, and the mikveh newly built is on the right.

I returned to the Shul after my visit and got there in time to see that the guide had brought visitors in to see the mikveh. This 1650s bath was discovered archeologically a few years ago and once the stone rubble had been removed, the water returned. It requires no filtering—it is fresh, clear, and tapped into the water table.

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Newly rediscovered mikveh

They have built a very lovely building over it from the removed stone rubble and it is quite a gem. I waited and listened to the talk about how the 17c Jews here used the mikveh—a description based largely on 17c travel narratives. The mikveh is not formally open to the public (vistors can look in with the guide), but religious exceptions are made from time to time. A few weeks ago a pair visiting Chabniks went in and today it was my turn. The water was clear and cool and the stones 17c. It was a remarkable experience.

When I was done I went back to looking over the grave stones to find specific people I was curious about. In looking around, there seems to have been some surface level change though. Some nearby construction has left some holes and poked around a bit just outside the footers of the old cemetery wall.

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Construction and stones.

I saw at least four layers including two that appeared to be mostly pavers. The most interesting thing was that this new construction had uncovered a section of the cemetery that had been buried and had had 19c shops atop it. Those shops have been gutted and their floors removed. The result are the most amazingly well-preserved stones in the yard.

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Newly exposed stones. The doorways on the right are at current surface level and lead out to the street.

These are mostly of English Jews, some of whom had adopted the stone styles of their Sephardic predecessors. I am told that the development plan calls for all the graves to be reincorporated into the cemetery which will retake its original size. More on the stones later.

Much of the rest of the day was spent at the George Washington house again, this time looking over the artifacts from the 1999 and 2001 excavations. I have the reports and the artifact lists in them, but the only way serendipity can happen is when you let it. The excavations were primarily in the ravine west of the home. The collections span a large period and of course trying to find 1751 in an assemblage is not an easy task.

Once I was done, I thought it would be nice to get out into the countryside.

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Looking south from the first major rise of land.

I was right. I drove north mostly by zigzagging the road system. The south has a large sloping plain, so that heading north means heading up as well. As Washington observed, the landscape is made so that views of the sea are to be found throughout.

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Drax Hall. In private hands and not open to the public, but still owned by the Drax Family in England as it was in the 17c and still producing sugar.

 

 

 

I wended my way up to Drax Hall—a well known 17c plantation and home just about one third up the island from the south coast. Sugar is still grown here in the hundreds of tons for shipment to European markets. Interestingly though, none of the Bajan plantations produce any molasses. That means that all the Barbados rum is made from imported molasses—not local. There is a metaphor for something in there.

 

 

 

 

Barbados, Day One.

Mid-day arrival. Airport, car, blah blah. Thank heaven I had already driven in the UK and all those trips have made looking right when crossing or turning not an unfamiliar thing. The road to Oistins where I dwell in Bajan fashion (no hotel in other words) skirts the southern coast and that tiny island feeling is pronounced. People are everywhere on the south side and the cars are all small. I got quickly settled and jumped back in the car to make the most of the day.

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Automotive conveyance in the British fashion–on the left.

The drive to Bridgeton was slow but I was glad of that since it I needed the adjustment time. One or two wrong turns and a few pull overs to reconcile to the map that has no street names. I overshot the Washington House on my way in so I chose to forge on to the center of town and find the synagogue first. I circled around and around a few times before I gave up searching by car and just found a parking area and walked. A woman asked me if I was “going to the cemetery?” “Eventually” I replied and she said “well it is straight ahead” ignoring my travel frazzled wit. I did not know just what she meant,

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Downtown Bridgetown

but in a block I saw the pink walls of the Synagogue and realized that the big cemetery is the main feature of the site. My guess is that the only tourists on that side of town are looking for the place.

This was one of those days when the doorway is always on the fourth wall after I walk the other three. In this case, it was an alley that led to the Shul, the museum, the Mikveh, and the cemetery.

On this side of the shul, most of the graves are seventeenth century and early eighteenth with a few more modern ones interspersed. The older ones are in Spanish and Portuguese as well as Hebrew. Some have remarkable art—deaths heads for example, both ornate and simple—that I don’t usually associate with Jewish graves. The whole cemetery has been the subject of a restoration project with great detail on this blog.

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The northern side of the cemetery where most of the graves are Spanish and 17c. The foregrounded ones though are contemporary and are those of the Ashekenazim who eventually replaced the original community. The shul is in the background.

I will be back at the Shul in the morning though and will have more to say after that visit. For today I was driven by the desire to sing Tehillim in the cemetery and visit. There is something very special singing “od avinu chai” (“our fathers still live”—not a psalm) in such a place. IMG_2672.JPGThe seventeenth-century Jews of Barbados lived in a world so different from ours and from the reality of Barbados today just outside the wall. But at the same time, the names and fact of a shul again close the time and make the alien familiar. Visitors’ stones are on many of the graves: a pleasant bond over time and space.

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Some of the stones have very little on them identifying them as Jewish.

And speaking of familiar names, George Washington, the reason for the season. Objective One on this trip is to flesh out what I need to create a full chapter on his Barbados trip for the new book. I already have about three ideas to play out in the chapter, but being here links things together. I made it to the Washington House just before dark and fortunately Martin Miller was still there. We had a great chat and I saw a few of the main sites, including the ravine where the middens were. Tomorrow (ideally) I will get to look at artifacts but I saw one today. It was a classic White Saltglazed Stoneware plate—making it the fourth place I can say that GW was eating off of that sort of plate.

 

Recalling the Jews of Falmouth

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.

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.

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 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.

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