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First published on JCR-UK: 2003
Latest revision (formatting) : 16 July 2014

THE JEWISH TOMBSTONES OF SOUTH-WEST ENGLAND

by Rabbi Dr. Bernard Susser
formerly Rav of the Brighton and Hove Hebrew Congregation


A year or so after I was appointed to minister to the small Jewish community in Plymouth in the 1960s the late Prof Cecil Roth suggested to me that I should record the tombstone inscriptions in the old Jewish cemetery on Plymouth Hoe. Most of Plymouth's 200 or so Jews who then lived there had never even visited it, and only a few knew exactly where it was. When I first visited it I could only see the tops of a half dozen tombstones, the rest were drowned in a sea of weeds, brambles and rubbish. Eventually, I approached the local probation service who arranged for youths doing community service to tidy it up. The experiment was not a success, one lad saying that he would rather do a fortnight inside than tear himself to pieces on the brambles. The members of the congregation took a similar view, except a righteous Gentile (he attended service every Shabbat morning after having been attracted by the sound of our singing as he passed by in the street) who, single-handed, cleared it and kept it spotless thereafter.

In all, I was able to decipher 146 inscriptions, though there were another dozen or so which might have been read if one were to spend two or three hours on each stone. Around 1900 the Revd Dr M. Berlin made a transcript of the main information from 95 tombstones, but 50 of these had totally disappeared by the time I transcribed those still extant in the 1960s.

It did not take long for me to realize that here was a valuable insight into the nature of the Plymouth Jewish community and the lives of the men and women who belonged to it a hundred and two hundred years ago. Trying to discover more about the individuals whose tombstones gave only a bare minimum of information kindled in me a desire for more and more knowledge of the Jewish communities of the South West of England, until my research was rewarded by a doctorate from the University of Exeter.

Tombstone inscriptions in the South-West Jewish cemeteries clearly demonstrate the process of acculturation. At first only Hebrew was used on the stones. In 1840, English appears for the first time: "Our lives are in thy hands O God/ And the length of our days/ Are as nought before thee./ [] /For 50 years a member of the Congregation of this town./(1) From 1850 the Jewish name is retained in Hebrew but the secular name as well as the Jewish date appear in English. There were isolated uses of the common era year in the first six decades of the nineteenth century but after 1870 it appears invariably. Surnames themselves may be an indication of the assimilatory process - Kennard, Palmer, Harding, Walter. Hebrew names ending in [] indicating a convert are similar indicators. Perhaps the ultimate stage in the process is represented by a tombstone in the Torquay Jewish cemetery in Paignton which is a railed off part of the municipal cemetery. There is, or was, a stone which when approached from the Jewish section displays on its front a magen david but when looked at from the municipal part has on its rear a cross!

Until the third quarter of the nineteenth century religious sentiments are to be found. On the tombstone of Mary Nathan (died 1858) is inscribed:

[]

Her poverty was no exaggeration. In 1827 her husband had written to the "Congeratation ... I am Drove to the last Extramity, without a farthin in the world having disposed of Everything I could make money of - so as my wife and sevon children should not starve ...."(2) Shortly after this he became a constable, rising to Superintendent of Police in 1851. A real belief in [] is evidenced by inscriptions such as: [] on the stone of Woolf Emden (died 1867) and on the stone of Reichla, widow of Naphtali Benjamin, who died in 1817:

[]

Pride in being native-born, whether of the city in which the cemetery was situated or elsewhere in Britain, is often to be inferred. On the tombstone of James Jacob Hart, for example, is inscribed: "...late her Majesty's consul for the kingdom of Saxony. A native of Penzance. Died London 19 February 1846." The stone of Abraham Emden, a Town Councillor of Plymouth who died in 1872, proclaims: [].(4) The stone of Andrew George Jacob who died in 1900 reads: "... born at Falmouth, Cornwall. Died at Exeter".(5)

A former place of residence in Britain is often given. Thus Miriam Jacobs (died 1850), born in Devon in 1771, is described in Hebrew and English as " ... wife of Nathan Jacobs, formerly of Dartmouth".(6) David Moses (died 1812) was "from Norwich". He was born in Saarbruck in 1737, landed in Harwich in 1759, went straight to Norwich where he stayed until 1793, and then moved to Plymouth where he spent the last 19 years of his life. Similarly, her tombstone in the Exeter cemetery tells us that Rachel (died 1826), wife of Gershon Levy, was "of Guernsey".(7) The tombstone of Moses Solomon (died 1838) tells us that he was "from the city of London which was the city of his birth and formerly of Scotland".(8)

Immigrants often had their former town or country recorded. Thus we are told that the Reverend Moses Horwitz Levy (died 1834) who ministered to the Exeter Hebrew Congregation for 42 years was "from Danzig",(9) David Jacob Coppel (died 1805) was "from Bialin(10) in Polin", in 1832 a "Ze'ev ben Judah from Shatwinitz in the country of Polin died of the plague",(11) Jacob Phillip Cohen (died 1832) was "from Lontschotz",(12) and Esther, wife of Lazarus Solomon who died in 1831 was "from the holy congregation of Lublin in the state of Polin".(13)

It is, perhaps, noteworthy that foreign provenance is always recorded in the Hebrew part of the inscription, whereas British former residence or place of nativity generally appears in the English part.

The stones which record an East-European origin are of interest inasmuch as they indicate an immigration from Eastern Europe much earlier in the nineteenth century than has been generally recognized. The trend is corroborated by an examination of the decennial census returns from 1851 onwards.

There are snippets of information to be gleaned regarding the character and activities of some individuals. Thus, we are told that "Samuel Cohen (died 1860) was of the stock of martyrs ... hastening to his prayers evening, morning and noon".(14) From the chronogram [], Moses ben Isaac (died 1780) must have been a mohel.(15) The description of men variously as [] indicates that they were an outstanding scholar, a president of the congregation, and a philanthropist respectively. [] is used to describe both bachelors and married men, though in the Sephardi tradition the term is reserved for elderly bachelors of high repute.

The hardships of foreign travel, even post mortem, are brought to light, as the following inscription (in translation) indicates: "The bachelor Issacher Behrman the son of the President Joshua Levy the righteous Priest from the holy congregation of London, died Yom Kippur 5565 [= October 1804] in the Island of Madeira and was buried here in Plymouth on Friday, the eve of Sabbath, 6th 16 Iyyar 5565 [= May 1805]".(16) The dead man was the son of Levy Barent Cohen, the progenitor of the distinguished Cohen family of nineteenth-century London. One of Issacher's sisters, Hannah, married Nathan Meyer Rothschild, whilst another, Judith, married Sir Moses Montefiore. The Plymouth Hebrew Congregation still uses a magnificent silver ewer and bowl for the use of the cohanim presented by his widowed mother and brothers in 1807 "for the loving kindness bestowed on the bones of her son". The dangers of travelling the countryside is illustrated by another inscription (in translation): "Joshua Falk the son of Isaac from Breslau. He was slain in the place of Fowey by the wicked man Wyatt and drowned in the waters 14th Kislev 5572 and buried on the 17th thereof [= 30 November 1811]".(17) Isaac Valentine, as he was called, became the shochet of the Plymouth congregation in 1811 when he was paid £25 per annum. He augmented his wages by acting as an agent of the Joseph family of Plymouth who in turn were agents of the London bankers Goldsmid buying up for the Government golden guineas for paper money during the Napoleonic Wars. Valentine was enticed to bring £260 to Fowey by an innkeeper called Wyatt who murdered him and dropped his body into the dock. Wyatt was hanged at Bodmin in the presence of a large crowd which flocked in from the surrounding countryside.

Tragedies of a different nature are recorded on war graves. In the Plymouth Hebrew Congregation's Gifford Place cemetery there is a tombstone erected to "John Lithman, late of the Judeans 38/40 Royal Fusiliers, died 8th January 1919/5679 aged 16 years and 9 months" and in the Hebrew inscription [](18). I wondered how a lad who was sixteen and a half years old lad when the war ended in November 1918 came to be in the army at all, and whether he died in the post World War I flu epidemic. I made enquiries at the War Office but they had no information other than his army number and that the War Graves Commission knew of his grave. Enquiries at Bet HaGedudim, the Museum near Netanya devoted to the history of the Judeans which became the Jewish Brigade and which in turn developed into the Israeli Defence Force were similarly fruitless. But a speculative phone call to a person bearing the same surname was answered by the statement, "I was his brother, and remember that as a young boy I attended his funeral". Later, he told me that his brother had falsified his age to get into the army and had died in some kind of accident.

Why should we take an interest in our past? Well, perhaps a lesson I learned from Rabbi Dr Louis Rabbinowitz [] will answer this question. He had returned to South Africa and made time to visit a young man who had been in a coma for more than ten years. As the patient could have no knowledge of his visit, I asked why he had bothered? He told me that he once conducted a funeral and before he left the cemetery he visited the grave of a rabbi who had died many years ago and who had left no family, and there he recited a short psalm. As he made his way back to his car, he said, he happened to look back. He saw a cemetery groundsman go over to the grave at which he had paused, clear away some grass and weeds which had overgrown the tombstone and wash it down. "Because I had taken notice of that grave the groundsman realized that it was of some special significance, and took an interest in it. If I visit that unconscious patient perhaps the nurses will take more interest in him, perhaps they will tidy his sheets so that he will lie more comfortably!" If we do not want others to vandalize and rubbish our sacred places, perhaps we should show the way and demonstrate our own respect for them.


NOTES

 

Exeter tomb. = Number of tombstone in a transcript of the Jewish Cemetery, Magdalen Street, Exeter, in the possession of the writer.

Penzance tomb. = Number of tombstone in a transcript of the Jewish Cemetery, Leskinnick Terrace, Penzance, in the possession of the writer.

PlyGP tomb. = Number of tombstone in a transcript of the Jewish Cemetery, Gifford Place, Plymouth, in the possession of the writer.

PlyHoe tomb. = Number of tombstone in B. Susser, 'An account of the Old Jewish Cemetery on Plymouth Hoe' (Privately printed, Plymouth, 1972).

(1) PlyHoe tomb. B4.

(2) Original letter in writer's collection.

(3) Penzance tomb. 26.

(4) PlyHoe tomb. B112.

(5) Exeter tomb. 101.

(6) PlyHoe tomb. B48.

(7) Exeter tomb. 45.

(8) PlyHoe tomb. A92.

(9) Exeter tomb. 36.

(10) PlyHoe tomb. B22

(11) PlyHoe tomb. B2

(12) PlyHoe tomb. B26.

(13) PlyHoe tomb. Berlin 010.

(14) PlyHoe tomb. B71.

(15) PlyHoe tomb. Berlin 9/10.

(16) PlyHoe tomb. Berlin R24.

(17) PlyHoe tomb. Berlin Q24.

(18) PlyGP tomb. 022.

 

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