Jewish Rural Cemeteries and Local Constructions of Citizenship in 19th-Century New York City

Friday, January 5, 2018: 9:30 AM
Columbia 9 (Washington Hilton)
Allan Amanik, Brooklyn College, City University of New York
This paper treats New York City’s first Jewish rural cemeteries in the 1850s. It highlights their duality as markers of social belonging to New York’s emerging middle class, while also representing important symbols of ritual and communal separation. On the one hand, still-recently-arrived Jewish immigrants eagerly participated in the city’s sprawling cemetery movement, laying out some of New York’s most lavish grounds alongside Protestant peers. On the other, although new Jewish cemeteries were closer than ever before in aesthetic and proximity to Christian burying spaces, the synagogues always clustered together, set conscious physical barriers like gates or roads between Jewish and Christian grounds, and maintained strict prohibitions against non-Jewish interment.

Aware of their increasing social acceptance in the United States, Jewish congregations celebrated their costly new cemeteries as secure and long-lasting roots that they could lay down in American soil. They also strategically chose to border Protestant counterparts, taking great pains to establish physical distance from contemporary Catholic cemeteries. Each move played a key role in Jewish New Yorkers’ reception as white Americans of European descent. In the United States, this came at a time when racial hierarchies proved all the more important to constructions of citizenship and the nation. For Jewish friends and family who remained overseas, lengthy processes of civic emancipation and an emerging racial conception of Jewishness would challenge their access to European society on pseudo-scientific grounds. Within that larger context, this paper casts these local New York cemeteries as sites to explore the interplay of ethnicity, race, and religion in the construction of mid-nineteenth-century American identity. At the same time, it comments on the fluidity of each of those categories in conceiving of the nation.

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