Cemeteries are outdoor museums; a friend and teacher taught me that. The stones, their shapes, size, spatial arrangements, inscriptions, or lack of inscription, tell a lot about the people who came before. How did they want to be remembered, or how did their families want to remember them? Their yesterdays shape our todays.
What if the cemetery is no more. Most are gone, forgotten, plowed under, built over. Are the stories lost?
Sometimes, memory can survive.
The Hoxton Jewish Cemetery, Hackney, London, was established on land purchased by Mordecai Moses (aka Hamburger, aka Hambro) in 1707. Moses was a wealthy gem trader. He repeatedly attempted to found his own synagogue reflecting his own Jewish religious “minhagim”, traditions and customs. His efforts were repeatedly frustrated by the existing authorities.
Moses never gave up on his dream. He would eventually succeed at a very high cost. His synagogue was called the Hambro Synagogue.
In 1707, Jewish life in England was tenuous. Officially Jews had only been permitted to return to England, barely fifty years earlier, by Oliver Cromwell. They would be permitted to return to establish businesses and promote economic activity to benefit England. Cromwell permitted them to have a public place of worship, and a cemetery. They were expected, as deniers, blasphemers, of the divinity of Jesus, to keep a low profile.
Jews had lived in England since Roman times, for over a thousand years. England’s King Edward I banished them in 1290. Religious reasons and expunging his debts to the Jews were contributing considerations.
Moses’ synagogue was not opposed by the Christians. Moses’ synagogue was opposed by the Ashkenazic “Great Synagogue” of London with support from London’s Sephardic Bevis Marks Synagogue. The Jews bitterly opposed Moses starting his own synagogue.
The Great Synagogue appealed to the Christians, to the City of London Aldermen, asking them to deny the establishment of an alternative worship site by Moses. It was astonishing and confusing to the Aldermen. They little understood the differences between Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Jewish minhagim, and Jewish mishugas, (craziness). The Aldermen did not care. The Aldermen had agreed to toleration of the Jews, not their internal regulation.
Tensions rose to a boil between Moses and the establishment Jewish community. Inevitably it led to a vicious schismatic separation. Moses and his growing community of “non-conformists” were excommunicated.
The need for a Jewish burial ground became imperative to the Jewish non-conformists since they were denied access to the existing Jewish burial sites first authorized by Cromwell.
Moses obtained his own Rabbi, who lifted the excommunication of himself and his community. The Hoxton Jewish Cemetery was consecrated and administered as Holy burial land by the newly established Hambro synagogue.
The Hoxton Cemetery continued active interments until the late 19th century. The Hambro Synagogue community and establishment Jewry did not reconcile their differences for centuries. After 230 years, Hambro was admitted into the United Synagogue Community. The Hoxton Cemetery fell into disuse and decay.
1960, the Hoxton Cemetery land lease had expired. The land was repurposed and sold to support the expanding physical needs of New College, Hackney. The internments were moved to the West Ham Jewish Cemetery where the estimated 500 remains were largely reburied in mass graves. The records for the burials of Hoxton were mishandled and lost. The respectful management of the reinterments were very badly handled.
In an ironic twist of history, reflecting on the evolution and development of British freedom of religious expression, and toleration, New College was first established as a Dissenting Academy in 1786 near the Jewish Hoxton Cemetery. Dissenting Academies and the British Dissenting Religious Community had long suffered from severe discrimination and religious intolerance by the Church of England. The Dissenters refused to conform to the Church of England’s religious control and oversight.
Permission to place a historical interpretive marker at the former site of the Hoxton Jewish Cemetery was readily given by New College. The marker was funded by the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, with support from our U.K. branch.
The text of the marker reads:
“On the site of this College, formerly Shoreditch and Hoxton Schools, once stood the Hoxton Jewish cemetery, burial ground of the old Hambro Synagogue in the City, from 1707 till 1960. The remains were transferred to the West Ham Jewish cemetery.
וְנָתַתִּי לָהֶם בְּבֵיתִי וּבְחוֹמֹתַי יָד וָשֵׁם Isaiah (56:5)
‘To them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name’.
Erected 2023 by Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, UK Branch, and New City College.”
Jews have long been perceived as exotic, at times inscrutable, minority to their majority host populations. Jewish internal tensions, not infrequently between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, spill over to the baffled non-Jewish authorities disrupting, the “peace” of the entire community.
The Royal Governors of Savannah, Georgia, Dutch St. Eustatius, and Curacao threatened to have all the Jews locked up and or banished if they did not resolve their internal waring. They needed to learn to live together. Jewish insanity rose to levels of absurdity for example in Curacao where the Jews were willing to “kill” each other over the pronunciation of the blessing over wine, HaGeffen vs. HaGoffen.
Jewish, stiff-necked self-intolerance, unwillingness to compromise, is again in focus as modern Israel struggles with Judicial Reform.
Does it really matter whose Dog sits on top of the hill when Jewish survival is the real question?