Friday morning Conn, Davide, and I spent time in a basement room of Shearith Israel’s amazing synagogue on 70th Street and Central Park West. Our tasks were to verfiy the information we had from several secondary sources and to determine which volumes from the synagogue’s offsite archives should be retrieved for further investigation. All this thanks to Conn’s diligence (and temporarily flexible schedule)!
Thankfully Conn was able to devote a significant part of the day to this work, and when he was finished he had a list of 95 members of the congregation who died between 1805 and 1830, the period the 11th Street cemetery was active. Once the archive volumes arrive, we will be able to dig deeper, as it were, to learn (we hope) who was definitely buried there, where they lived, when they were born, and other information we can glean about their lives.
Before Davide and I left, the sexton Zach Edinger gave us a tour of the synagogue’s two amazing sanctuaries, and some of its “relics” (including two millstones that are among the oldest colonial-era objects in the city). The current building dates from 1897, but most of the furnishings in the “little sanctuary” were taken from the original 18th century synagogue on (then) Mill Street. The main space is not so little: it includes what looked to be a 60-foot ceiling, with three walls of Tiffany windows that are themselves about 25 feet tall. Zach invited us up to the ark, where the Torahs are stored, and took one out and unwrapped it so we could examine it closely. I asked him how old their oldest Torah is. The answer: very old! It was a gift from the synagogue in Amsterdam to the first congregants in the 17th century, and was then considered to be an antique. So it’s at least 500 years old, but possibly dates from pre-expulsion Spain (i.e., before1492).
It was interesting to note the numerous resemblances – both physical and ritual – to Catholic churches. Zach pointed out that until they left Spain – and later, Portugal – most of the Jewish refugees in Amsterdam and Brazil had been forced Catholic converts, also known as “crypto-Jews.”
Taylor is jumping into the tech side of things with apparent gusto, which I am grateful for. When we started, we had all more or less expressed interest in learning more DH technologies and being involved with the design, rather than keeping to discrete roles that wouldn’t leave much room or time for learning or doing new things. I’m hoping we can build in a little overlap once things are set up, so that everyone gets to experience something besides the main thing each of us are doing.