It seemed appropriate that one of my first functions as Rabbi of Bevis Marks Synagogue should be to pay my respects to the congregation’s bygone parishioners. I was given just that opportunity by the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain as they invited me and the congregation to participate in their annual cleaning of the Novo Cemetery in the East End of London. The Novo, or ‘new,’ cemetery dates back to the 1730s, and it was still in use until the beginning of the twentieth century. I plan to visit the older, ‘velho,’ cemetery from the seventeenth century on another occasion.
The cemetery today is a fraction of its original size. Several German bombs hit it during the Blitz (marked by large concrete circles). Then, in the 1970s the synagogue reinterred many of the graves to make way for an expansion of Queen Mary University. The University now surrounds the remaining portion, and has even invested in making the story of the Jews buried there known to its student body. Several panels describe the significance of the cemetery, and also make it visible to passersby.
Over time moss grows on the stones, so volunteers gather once a year to try and hold it at bay. While in the past only about five people showed up, thanks to our PR on the Bevis Marks Facebook page, this year there were twenty! Just one stone took me over an hour to clean, and not perfectly at that. Still, what I discovered was no doubt a positive omen. I uncovered the stone of Moses Brandon, likely a descendant of the eighteenth and nineteenth century well-to-do Spanish & Portuguese Brandon family. I recently heard a lecture concerning this very family from historian Dr. Laura Leibman of Reed College (see her most recent book here) when she spoke at Shearith Israel in NY just two months ago. What truly moved me though, was that Moses passed on August 30, 1899, which is the exact calendar date that I was cleaning his stone!!
I was honored to recite the Hashcaba memorial prayer for all those buried at the Novo. Before doing so, I spoke of the Sephardic custom to visit the graves of loved ones before Kippur. I commented on the significance of visiting this cemetery, likely with few descendants that continue to do so. Our commitment to care for their stones shows our appreciation for them and for all that they did to keep Bevis Marks Synagogue alive throughout the vicissitudes of time. Indeed, it is up to us to ensure that future generations of Jews will always find Bevis Marks Synagogue as a place for prayer, study, and meaning.