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Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Jewish Cemetery at Newport

(interior of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island)

In August, 1790, President George Washington visited the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. He later wrote to Moses Seixas, the warden of its congregation, reaffirming the religious freedom that made it possible for the members to practice their faith:

“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.... May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

He wrote these words more than a year before Congress ratified the Bill of Rights in 1791, with its first amendment to the constitution that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The first Jews had arrived in Rhode Island in 1658, fleeing religious persecution in Europe. Many had Spanish and Portuguese roots. Here they found a colony with a tradition of religious tolerance. They met in private homes until they dedicated their first house of worship in 1763. This synagogue is now the oldest surviving one in North America.

Longfellow wrote this poem the summer of 1852, after he walked among the gravestones of the Touro cemetery.


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 such 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.

~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), American poet

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