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Longfellow and the Jewish Cemetery at Newport

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Ancient Graves in the Cemetery

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Ancient Graves in the Cemetery / Maine Historical Society

<em>And these sepulchral stones, so old and brown,
That pave with level flags their burial-place,
Seem like the tablets of the Law, thrown down
And broken by Moses at the mountain's base.

The very names recorded here are strange,
Of foreign accent, and of different climes;
Alvares and Rivera interchange
With Abraham and Jacob of old times. </em>

Having traveled extensively in Europe, including Spain and Portugal, Longfellow would have recognized the ancestry of the names he saw on the gravestones.

Although he was visiting Newport in July, seeing the exotic names and words on the grave markers undoubtedly transported Longfellow back to the "exotic climes" he had experienced in his overseas travels, quite different from that of New England.

Longfellow notes a unique feature of Newport's Jewish community here in his lines about the names. Abraham and Jacob are of course ancient Hebrew names, but he notes that, on the gravestones he views, those "classic" Jewish names are mingled together with Portuguese and Spanish family names.

"Rivera" was a prominent name in the colonial Jewish community of Newport. Jacob Rodriguez Rivera was a wealthy dry goods merchant.

Rodriguez suffered financial problems, and wound up in considerable debt. Later, having regained his financial security, he hosted a party, at which he presented each of his creditors with the full sum due to him, plus interest.

The elderly man who escorted Longfellow around the cemetery may have known this story, and may have made a point of indicating the family graves to the poet.


Item 3 of 13