By Harriet P. Gross
Guess where I was so recently, on Halloween? In a cemetery! But not an eerie, ghostly one: a Jewish cemetery. The old Jewish cemetery in Charleston, S.C. I was one of a group of visitors tromping very carefully over its uneven terrain under Rhetta Mendelsohn’s very watchful eye.
Rhetta is a local guide whose specialty is Jewish tours. During three days, she took 23 of us on explorations of the center city, shepherded us through a couple of outlying plantations, served us refreshments in her home and gave us a personal view of her own temple, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim. Established in 1749, now in a building erected after Charleston’s great fire of 1838, it was designated a National Historic Landmark almost 35 years ago as both America’s founding Reform congregation and the oldest U.S. synagogue in continuous use. But more about houses of worship another time. Let’s talk now about this fascinating, holy burial ground.
The temple’s Coming Street Cemetery, also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is the oldest Jewish burial ground in the South; its more than 500 graves include 10 where Revolutionary War soldiers found their final rest, and there are stones memorializing a half-dozen others who fought in the War of 1812.
The first burial here was that of Moses Cohen, in 1762. He was only 53 years old when he died, but in those years he had become well known to all: a prosperous colonial merchant, a learned Jew and a founder of that earliest congregation, also serving as its first ritual leader.
Penina Moise was born in Charleston 35 years after Moses Cohen passed away, and was buried in this same place in 1880. She is known as America’s first published Jewish woman poet, but her work may actually predate that of any male Jewish poet as well.
Her stone bears her own poetic inscription: “Lay no flowers on my grave. They are for those who live in the sun. I have always lived in shadow.” Striking, and apt — Penina Moise was blind her entire life.
Out of 600 Charleston soldiers wearing the uniform of the South during the Civil War, eight are buried here; the impressive stone of Mark Cohen is etched with a cannon (plugged, to indicate death) and the crossed flags of South Carolina and the Confederacy. There are also 13 graves marking the final resting places of Jews who fought and died for the North.
Move through this place, and your feet meet history with every step. Here are markers for four of the 11 founders of Masonry in South Carolina: “Solomon’s Lodge,” these Masons named it. Here is the grave of statesman Bernard Baruch’s great-grandfather, his stone inscribed, in the Reform Jewish fashion of the time, as “Reverend” rather than “Rabbi” Hartwig Cohen. Born in 1763, died in 1861, he was an early rabbi of Beth Elohim — one of a half-dozen who served this congregation and now rest here. Along with them are 18 past presidents of the temple; Valentine Isaac, an early president of Charleston’s Hebrew Benevolent Society; and an ancestor of New York attorney and U.S. Supreme Court jurist Benjamin Cardozo.
Some graves tell curious tales. There is a wordy, flowery inscription for a 26-year-old young man hinting at the fact, but never really saying, that he took his own life — probably a way to legitimize the burial of a suicide on this Orthodox-consecrated ground. And there is a smaller plot within the larger one, cordoned off from it, where the original temple’s contractor, builder David Lopez, lies near his wife; he was Jewish, she was not, and no words were able to mask that exclusionary fact.
Two other curiosities, as well: First, I could find only two headstones with any Hebrew inscriptions at all; remember that the language was out of fashion with many early Reform Jews. And second, Beth Elohim itself is located in close proximity to a major Catholic church; the building across from its old cemetery, once the shop of a kosher butcher, became the site of Immaculate Conception church before its recent transition into condos for the Catholic elderly.
As we walked between the stones, Rhetta kept reminding us to be careful, to watch our steps; navigating the cemetery is treacherous because many old tree roots are now exposed, thrust up on the surface of the ground. A lot of buried roots are here, indeed, in this place — such an important repository of history, and a resource for so many ancestry-tracing American Jews today.