In his 1924 book Around the World in New York, Konrad Bercovici writes:
An interesting bit of old New York can be seen at Eleventh Street and Sixth Avenue, back of the French Pastry-shop. It is a small triangle with the ground raised above the level of the street, in which is part of what was once the second Jewish cemetery. When Eleventh Street was cut through to the West Side, the rest of the cemetery was swept away by the street. Another Jewish cemetery was then formed at Sixth Avenue and Twenty-first Street on the West Side. From the rear windows of the dry-goods store which face the street the leaning old gray tombstones can yet be seen, for they are still, in a desultory way, cared for. The Hebrew inscriptions and the dates plainly marked on the tombstones are witness to the early date at which the Jews lived in the city.
These two cemeteries –which were already “old” in 1924– belong to the Congregation Shearith Israel, the oldest Jewish Congregation in the United States. The origins of that congregation can be traced all the way back to 1654, when a group of 23 Sepharadim (descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who had been expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492), re-emigrated from Brazil to Peter Stuyvesant’s New Amsterdam. According to scholars, “Sephardic Jews in New Amsterdam were nearly expelled by the Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant. He sent his request asking as much to the ones who paid the bills–the Dutch East India Company, but they said, No.” Fortunately, since they were not expelled, they were able to found the congregation, which has continued to exist till this day. Over the years, some notable members of this congregation have included Emma Lazarus, Benjamin Nathan Cardozo and Maud Nathan.
The congregation’s oldest existing cemetery, in use from 1682 – 1828, is located at 55 Saint James Place, opposite Chatham Square. The second and third cemeteries, mentioned by Bercovici, were in use from 1805 – 1828 (76 W 11th St) and 1829 – 1851 (21 Street). Sephardic Jews lived in New York throughout the XVIIIth and XIXth centuries; but it was the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire in the early years of the twentieth-century that brought about a large influx into New York of Sepharadim, thousands of whom emigrated from Turkey or the Balkans to Gotham.
The rich history of New York’s ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews intersects throughout the centuries with the history of other Spanish-speaking groups in the city. In 1743, for example, when a group of Spanish slaves was put on trial for allegedly setting fires in the old city, the Sephardi Mordecai Gómez was appointed as the court interpreter. In memoirs, the ladino-language press, and city lore from the early twentieth century, one can find many examples of interesting encounters between Sepharadim and latinos, particularly in the two historic neighborhoods in which they most often commingled: the Lower East Side, and East Harlem.
See, for example, the description of East Harlem in 1916 –on the eve of the first great diaspora of Puerto Ricans to New York– written by the great Puerto Rican activist, community organizer and memoirist, Bernardo Vega, :
“There were Sephardic Jews who spoke ancient Spanish or Portuguese… At the end of our visit to this neighborhood, Ambrosio and I stopped off for dinner at a restaurant called La Luz. We were attracted by the Spanish name, though the owner was actually a Sephardic Jew. The food was not prepared in the style that was familiar to us, but we did notice that the sauces were of Spanish origin… I was impressed by the restaurant because it was so hard to believe that it was located in the United States. There was something exotic about the atmosphere. The furniture and décor gave it the appearance of a café in Spain or Portugal. Even the people who gathered there, their gestures and speech mannerisms, identified them as from Galicia, Andalusia, Aragon, or some other Iberian region. I began to recognize that New York City was really a modern Babylon, the meeting point for peoples from all over the world.”
Or consider this other example: on July 14, 1929, Federico García Lorca would write to his family back in Granada of his visit to the Shearith Israel synagogue:
“I have also been to a Jewish synagogue, the one for Spanish Jews. I heard some extremely beautiful chants, and the cantor was a true prodigy of voice and emotion. But I realized that in Granada almost all of us are Jews. It was amazing –they all looked as if they had been born in Granada. There were more than twenty of them, who ran the gamut from Don Manuel López Saez to Miguel Carmona. The rabbi is named Sola, and has the same pallid complexion as Solá Segura, who is probably his relative. I was doing my best not to laugh. There was a very solemn, beautiful ceremony, but I found it meaningless. To me the figure of Christ seems too strong to deny. (Translated in Maurer)”
What is also interesting to note about the Spanish speaking & sephardic Jewish population in New York is that it is still a robust, thriving population. Around 2009, The Jewish Latin Center was created by Brazilian born Rabbi Mendy and his wife Frumie in Manhattan. It caters directly to the needs of the Spanish speaking Jewish population across the 5 boroughs though. Additionally, Sephardic food is also flourishing. La Vara, which “celebrates the Jewish and Moorish legacies in regional Spanish cuisine,” can take pride in their Michelin Star and their connection to the Sephardic Jewish community here in NYC.
There are now more Sephardic synagogues, restaurants and centers, which are all wonderful additions to this vastly multi-dimensional city. In many ways, these cemeteries that belong to Congregation Shearith Israel ironically represent the beginnings of the sephardic Jewish community here in NYC. It was a tumultuous journey for those Jewish people, but their desire to find freedom led to a more rich and diverse Jewish population, and to a more rich and diverse New York population.