The Well of Memory

The look on Rocki’s face is almost comically endearing, what they might call “soft,” as they and I flip through two centuries’ worth of deeds to funeral plots. We skim through death notices together that make us frown with sympathy––stillbirths, cholera victims, strokes––and watch money change hands as Jews of nineteenth-century Cincinnati made preparations for their families to lie in eternal rest together. Once Rocki reaches the 1860s, they stop short. Deeds #140 and #141, drawn up in flourishing cursive, are the burial plots of Isaac Mayer Wise and Max Lilienthal. These titans of American Reform and lifelong friends bought their plots on the exact same day. 

Such a find prompts romantic visions of how that day in June 1862 played out. Both plots were bought for a nominal fee of $1 (about $18 in today’s currency) and likely granted as a matter of form to Wise and Lilienthal, long-established in their pulpits by then. But Rocki and I imagine a more moving scene. Perhaps Wise, who planned his funeral decades in advance, convinced his friend to join him on his visit to the United Jewish Cemetery that morning so they could ensure that their final resting places would be close together. 

This is just one example of the surprisingly sentimental archive work I did in the course of my fellowship at the Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati (JCGC). 

Jewish tradition magnifies the importance of memory. The Torah exhorts us to remember Shabbat (Exodus 20:8), to remember Amalek (Deuteronomy 25:17), to remember G-d’s covenant with us (Deuteronomy 8:18). When a loved one passes away, we say Zichrono l’vracha, or “May his memory be for a blessing.” We remember the act of creation each Shabbat and the exodus every Passover. Special significance is placed on remembering the Shoah and its victims––the Pew Research Center’s 2013 study reported that the most popular answer to what it means to be Jewish was “remembering the Holocaust,” at a whopping 73%.

It is because of this emphasis on memory that my archival work this summer, accomplished with my co-fellow Rocki Schy, has begun to take on an element of holiness that rises above the mundane trawling through old newspapers and falling down document rabbit-holes. Our assignment was to research cemeteries under the purview of JCGC, discovering notable interments and confirming establishments and mergers. Since our fellowship lasted through the summer, our final research and analysis document was passed on to the new fellows in the fall as they prepared for the bicentennial anniversary of the oldest Jewish cemetery in Cincinnati, Chestnut Street Cemetery. Our work will be incorporated into future research and tours. 

But our work very quickly became less about the research and more about the revival of memory. We were on a search to recover the dead, people whose names have faded from headstones, whose families moved away decades ago. Sometimes our work uncovered a bit more of the humanity of well-known Cincinnati Jews. A biographical account by Joseph Jonas, the first Jew in Cincinnati, echoes with his initial loneliness, being one-of-a-kind in a new city, and had us laughing over an anecdote that a Quaker woman was surprised, upon meeting him, to see that Jews look like normal people! An afternoon spent reading Lilienthal’s obituary brought us close to tears over how many times the journalist reported that Wise stopped his eulogy to weep over the loss of his friend. 

Sometimes our work brought us close to someone utterly forgotten by history: a young German couple who died within days of each other, a mother who always donated to the free lunch program at her children’s school, a wife whose singing was much missed by her bereaved husband. We found everything we could in the archives about them and felt thwarted when the picture was still incomplete, for it felt like an injustice. On afternoon strolls through Walnut Hills Cemetery, we spied names on graves and said, “I read an article about his brother!” “I saw his granddaughter’s picture in The American Israelite!” “Do you suppose they’re related?” “Do you think they knew each other?”

Each effort was a shout into the immeasurable well of Jewish history. It said that we take our responsibility to remember seriously. It said that we will try as long and as hard as we can to keep names and memories alive. It said that each Jew in our cemeteries, from the famous to the forgotten, played an important role in the story of the Jewish people. 

Rachael Houser is a second-year rabbinical student at the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion.

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