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Where We Keep Our Dead: Hebrew Cemetery

Published on May 7, 2013 by

Hey, there everyone!  Sorry for the long pause in writing!  I am looking forward to getting back on track as the weather becomes increasingly warmer and the days last increasingly longer.  Huzzah to spring!  With that said, I’d like to share with you my latest exploration.  In this chapter I visit the burial grounds for the Churches of Peace and Love.

Hebrew Cemetery - Richmond, Virginia

Like… far out, man…

By Peace and Love, I mean Shalome and Ahabah.  If you haven’t figured it out yet, I visited the Hebrew Cemetery which is a dedicated Jewish burial ground for the congregations of Beth Shalome and Beth Ahabah,  House of Peace and House of Love in English.

First, a little personal background…  I look back on my Jewish childhood with some fondness.  I can still remember making dreidel cookies, decorating presents in blue and silver, and spouting out Yiddish epithets as I schmeared my bagel and complained about my mother.  The confusing thing (for everyone else, at least) was the fact that I was not Jewish.  In fact, the majority of the Hebrew that I knew was probably picked up from Mike Myers as Linda Richman.  You know, no big whoop.  So suffice it to say the customs and traditions of the Jewish people have a special place in my heart, though I could not tell you why.  (One day I’ll tell you about my year as an Amish Exchange Student.)

Hebrew Cemetery was founded in 1816 by the Common Council of the City of Richmond on top of Shockoe Hill.  The cemetery was specifically marked for Jewish burials and “subject to their rites and laws”.  The first burial was in 1817 and was one of the founding fathers of Kaal Kadosh Beth Shalome.  In 1843 Beth Ahabah was given equal rights to burial in the cemetery.  The 1-acre cemetery has since expanded to 8.4 acres of burial grounds and is a green space in the middle of a bad neighborhood across the street from Shockoe Hill Cemetery.

A robin seeks refuge.

A robin seeks refuge.

Perhaps my favorite part of visiting Hebrew Cemetery was seeing the rocks and stones placed on headstones.  I knew this was a Jewish custom, but had to remind myself as I wandered the granite garden.  The origins of this tradition are obscured by history, but my favorite explanation was that the stones are placed on the tombstones helps to hold the departed spirit down to Earth and protect it from demons and golems.  I even saw some headstones with bricks balanced on them.

Using stones to hold people down?  Reminds me of my Italian heritage!

Using stones to hold people down? Reminds me of my Italian heritage!

Of special interest is the Soldier’s Section which marks the graves of 30 Jewish Confederate Soldiers who died in or around Richmond during the War of Northern Aggression.  In 1866 the Hebrew Ladies’ Memorial Association commissioned the ornate wrought iron fence that is there today.  The fence is designed to look like Civil War muskets and sabers and was designed by Major William Barksdale Myers who is buried in Hollywood Cemetery.  (See, it ALL comes back to Hollywood Cemetery!)

The original designs had 30 individual tombstones and has since been replaced with 1 tombstone to rule them all...

The original designs had 30 individual tombstones and has since been replaced with 1 tombstone to rule them all…

Rifles and Sabers in Wrought Iron

Muskets and Sabers in Wrought Iron

In 1816 funds were raised to build a matahar house, used for burial preparation which has since been replaced by a Mortuary Chapel.

Shown here.

Shown here.

The cemetery is the oldest, continuously used Jewish cemetery in the South and is an important reminder of the influence the Jewish people have had on Richmond’s history.  The tombstones and monuments have inscriptions in Hebrew and many of them include Jewish icons such as the hands presented in the traditional blessing of the Kohanim, Jewish priests.

Also shown here!

Also shown here!

Interested in exploring the area?  It can be found at the intersection of Hospital and 4th Streets.  A couple “fun facts” about cemeteries in Richmond (from City Code):  It is illegal to enter a cemetery from anywhere but an open gate.  It is is illegal to visit a cemetery after sunset.  It is illegal to bring your dog to a cemetery.  And it is illegal to bring food or drink into a cemetery!

Hebrew Cemetery looks down on Bacon's Quarter Branch Valley

Hebrew Cemetery looks down on Bacon’s Quarter Branch Valley

These rustic tombstones are really quite interesting!

These rustic tombstones are really quite interesting!

So, Richmond?  Where would you like to see next?  I’m always open to your suggestions!  Hit me up at nick@photorva.com or leave me a comment!

 
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