HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW
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Longfellow and the Jewish Cemetery at Newport

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Interior of the Touro Synagogue

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Interior of the Touro Synagogue / Maine Historical Society

They lived in narrow streets and lanes obscure,
Ghetto and Judenstrass, in mirk and mire;
Taught in the school of patience to endure
The life of anguish and the death of fire.

All their lives long, with the unleavened bread
And bitter herbs of exile and its fears,
The wasting famine of the heart they fed,
And slaked its thirst with marah of their tears.


Obviously moved by and sympathetic toward the historic plight of the Jews, Longfellow was still eerily prescient in writing these verses. His well-educated, enlightened mind could surely not have imagined the persecutions and suffering which were to come for the Jewish people.

In Colonial America, most Jews worshipped privately in their homes. In 1730 a small Jewish community in New Amsterdam (now New York) was allowed to purchase land and build a small structure for worship.

Later the Touro Synagogue was designed by the well-known architect Peter Harrison, who apparently did the work free of charge (and never having built such a structure).

When constructed, the synagogue included a centrally-located, emergency trap-door in the floor (leading to the cellar beneath). Presumably this was never needed, but a long history of persecution probably necessitated the measure for simple peace of mind. Perhaps the trap-door was meant as a reminder of the long history of persecution the Jews had faced before finding refuge in Rhode Island.

In any case, the hideaway ultimately may have offered refuge and safety in the 19th century, when runaway slaves are rumored to have been sequestered within.

(Photo thanks to Dr. James L. Yarnall)

 

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