Hidden behind buildings and walls is England’s oldest surviving Jewish cemetery. It was established after the 1656 resettlement. I visited there with congregant and friend Jack Shlomo. With wisdom he brought along a bin bag so we could tidy up whilst walking around the historic, holy, and now rubbish-free grounds.
The land was leased by Abraham (Antonia) Fernandez Carvajal. It represents the first meaningful act of the then newly emergent Jewish community. Carvajal was also instrumental in founding the community itself. Prior to 1657 he technically lived in London as a Spaniard, and so when hostilities broke about between his old and new home, his ship was seized. He petitioned the English government for it to be restored to him on account of that he wasn’t really a Spaniard, but a Jew! His argument was accepted and his goods returned. No one seemed to bat an eyelash that he had openly declared himself a Jew living in London. It set the stage for the formation of Shaar Hashamyim, London’s S&P Sephardi Community. In 1657 he leased the land for the cemetery and also leased the building on Creechurch lane where the community then set up its first synagogue.
On the far end of the grounds, my predecessor, and the first rabbi of Bevis Marks Synagogue, David Nieto, is laid to rest. He played a crucial role in forming an independent and dynamic Anglo Jewry. It was a thrill to recite the hashcaba memorial prayer in his memory and honour. Next to him is the resting place of another Bevis Marks rabbi, Raphael Meldola. Other partially legible stones include two other rabbis from 17th century London, Joshua de Silva and Jacob Abendana.
Today, the cemetery is tucked away behind the Queen Mary University campus on Mile End Road. Immediately in front of it is the S&P community’s former old age home, the Albert Stern House. Further up the road is the community’s second cemetery, the Novo, which I visited last year. The Novo is open to the public, but entry into the Velho requires access from campus security.
Most of the stones in the cemetery are no longer legible, other than those few which seem to have been restored in the past century. Most appropriately the very few preserved for posterity are the resting places of Carvajal, and the aforementioned rabbis. While it was disappointing to not be able to read the the vast majority of the stones, I found a certain peace amongst the anonymity. In death we are all equal.