Jewish Senior Travel: Newport, Rhode Island
By Mrs Blanche Gewirtz
Located on Aquidneck Island, 30 miles south of Providence, Rhode Island, Newport is renowned for its magnificent mansions. For many years the rich and famous congregated and partied there in the summer season, engaging in water sports and contests of all types. I first went there about 30 years ago with three of my children. It was an easy drive from Connecticut, and we enjoyed our peaceful retreat there.
I went there again in the summer of 2004. The reason? It was 350 years since Jews first came to the United States, and shuls and organizations all over the country were holding special events to commemorate the occasion. I decided to make a little pilgrimage and try to go to the cities that had the first shuls: New York City; Richmond, Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; Newport, Rhode Island; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Before visiting the Newport shul, I called ahead. I wanted to ask the Rabbi a question. As soon as I said my name, Rabbi Eskovitz said, “I know your husband. He was a year ahead of me in Telshe Yeshiva.” Rabbi Eskovitz was a very warm, caring person, and he asked what he could do for me.
If you read the last Binah article, about New Orleans, you know that I came across a shul cornerstone and then did research on Judah Touro. I told Rabbi Eskovitz, “I know that Judah Touro died in New Orleans in January of 1854, but I can’t seem to find a newspaper article about the funeral of such a wealthy and philanthropic man. It seems amazing to me that there is nothing in the New Orleans paper about his funeral and burial there. Is he buried in Newport?”
Rabbi Eskovitz assured me that yes, indeed, Judah Touro was buried in Newport, in June of 1854, with great fanfare.
“In June?” I asked. Silence descended as we contemplated the matter. Then I said, “You know, Rabbi, when we lived in Connecticut, the ground was often frozen. It was very hard to have a burial in the wintertime. Perhaps Judah Touro was originally buried in New Orleans, and then in the springtime, when the Mississippi thawed and the weather was better, his body was put on a boat and taken from the seaport of New Orleans to the seaport of Newport?”
The Rabbi had no idea. I had no idea … well, I had ideas, but no proof. Since we knew that Touro had become frum toward the end of his life, he must have been buried somewhere, rather than embalmed or in some way kept waiting six months for burial.
The wonderful staff at the Historic New Orleans Collection came through for me after I had spent much time looking at microfiche records, and Siva Blake, the woman who was helping me, found a little notation in the newspaper: “Judah Touro was buried temporarily in the Hebrew cemetery on Metairie Ridge.”
There was our answer. Judah Touro was indeed laid to rest in New Orleans, the day after his passing, with the understanding that he would be brought, as per his request, to his final resting place near his mother in Newport. It reminded me of Yosef HaTzaddik, who said, “Take my bones with you when you leave Mitzrayim.”
A month or two after speaking to Rabbi Eskovitz, I came to Newport. The Rabbi had given me the name of a kosher bed-and-breakfast, and while there I met several nice people who had driven up from New York to spend a few days in Newport.
I soon set off to see the beautiful mansions. I found them amazing: The Breakers, Marble House, The Elms were some of the names of the mansions I visited. Some of them had gilded ballrooms. Some had an elevator. Some had so many employees that they had charts to record their household help. One had a magnificent Japanese-style outdoor tearoom in a separate building; and they each had attractive gift shops! Some of the homes had furnishings by Tiffany, before Louis Comfort Tiffany became famous as a jeweler. There were beautiful embellished glass walls; for these people, money had been no object.
That evening, I went down to the dock. There was music, charming little shops to look at, and interesting things to buy. Then I saw a sign: “Boat Rides.” I decided to go on a sunset cruise the next evening. Ticket in hand, I reappeared at the dock the next evening and a small boat (I think we had about 20 people aboard) set out to cruise the harbor. The sky was blue and gold as we set sail. It was magnificent – the colors of the sky, the other sailboats passing by, people waving. It was a wonderful experience.
The Rabbi was very kind and invited me to spend Shabbos with him and his family. They served delicious food. Guests from Boston, and other locales, stopped by and helped add to the interesting conversation at the Shabbos table.
The Rabbi’s home, 1 School Street, is a big old house, and staying there, I felt as though I were stepping back in time. There is no central air conditioning, but they had set up a fan that kept my large yet cozy room comfortable. The window was open an inch or two, just enough to let the cooling night breezes in. During the night I heard the sounds from the dock, just a short distance away. I heard music playing and people calling to each other, and I felt as people must have felt 100 years ago, with the dock being the center of Newport, and the sound carrying into all the old homes with open windows.
On Shabbos morning we went to shul… a beautiful, historic, simple yet elegant shul. I looked again at the large windows and the chandeliers that I had seen many years before when I visited Newport with my children. I looked at the unique centuries-old sefer Torah they had in the aron kodesh, along with the other sifrei Torah, and enjoyed seeing the traditional Sephardic configuration of the shul, the simplicity of the benches painted a soft grey. For security reasons, pictures were not allowed to be taken in the shul – even during the week.
The Rabbi had told me that there was to be a wedding on Sunday in the shul. “Can I be there?” I asked. “No, I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s a private affair.” I said, “I understand.” What a sight that must be, a wedding in a historic shul. .. As I sat beside a friend in shul on Shabbos, a young woman sat down beside me. Who do you think she was? Why, the bride, of course! I asked if she thought I could take a few photos of the shul during the wedding, and she said, “Oh, yes, that would be fine.” So I was able to take a few photos of the shul after all. Miracles all the time!
The Rabbi got up to speak then, and we all listened intently. To my utter surprise, he finished his Shabbos speech by saying, “Blanche Gewirtz is here. She is a researcher. Ask her why Judah Touro died in January and was buried in June!” After shul, people gathered around me, and I was able to answer their questions. Best of all, I didn’t nosh on one thing at the kiddush because I was busy talking.
There was a little door in the floor on the bimah. It looked like a trapdoor, and I was told that every Sephardic shul built around the same time had one. After all, the people who had founded the Jewish community in Newport were originally from Portugal and had lived as Marranos for 200 years. Presumably, it was to be used to hide Sifrei Torah or as a place for people to hide when danger approached.
I was told that many of these old shuls look like churches because the architects had never built shuls before. That made sense, and it also explained all the buildings from that period looked the same.
It is hard to imagine it now, but Newport, Rhode Island, was once an industrial leader, and for many years it surpassed New York in terms of commerce.
Many of the city’s factory owners were Jewish. For example, Jacob Rodriguez Rivera came from Portugal in 1745 and introduced the manufacture of sperm whale oil. Newport soon had 17 different factories making oil and candles, and Newport had a monopoly on that trade; before the advent of electricity, oil and candles were the only light sources, so this was a very important industry.
I was really interested in seeing the cemetery where Judah Touro and his family were buried. One weekday, the Rabbi kindly walked with me up Touro Street and unlocked the gate so I could see the tombstones, take pictures, and pay homage to those who had gone before. The cemetery, just a few blocks up from the Touro shul, is a small grassy plot, maybe a third of a block in size. It is protected by a black wrought-iron gate that Judah had installed around it and has a tall granite entranceway.
Leon Huhner’s book on the life of Judah Touro recounts some interesting things: For one thing, it tells us that the Jewish cemetery at Newport dates from 1677 and had been preserved by Judah and Abraham Touro during their lifetimes, and still is, through provisions in their wills. At Judah’s request, his personal papers and correspondence were burned, so that those who benefitted from his bounty would not be known. In July of 1852, before Judah Touro’s passing, a famous poet visited the cemetery with a caretaker – it was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and the little cemetery in the quaint town of Newport made such an impression on him that he wrote the poem “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport.”
The Providence Journal of June 5 and 6, 1854, describes the pomp and ceremony of Judah Touro’s funeral. He was held in such high regard that almost every shul in the country said Kaddish for him. Over Judah’s grave is a simple stone engraved with the words, “The last of his name, he inscribed it in the Book of Philanthropy to be remembered forever.”
The next day, I was strolling along a nearby street and looking at some of the shops. All of a sudden, I noticed a dollhouse and miniatures shop, right there on Touro Street, close to the shul. You may recall that I love dollhouses. I have several of them, including one that has many Jewish miniatures: a tallis and tefillin, mishloach manos, a shofar with apples and honey, a Havdalah set and other items. The owner of the dollhouse shop in Newport told me that she once had a Pesach Seder table set up in the front window.
“It was beautiful,” she said. She had created family members sitting around the table and had put much work into it. Someone from New York came and bought it almost right away.
I visited the Redwood Library, which is an unusual building, because it looks cozy and homelike inside and not formal and spare, like most libraries. That was one of the institutions for which Judah Touro left a bequest in his will.
Newport has a whole street full of captains’ houses. The captains held a special place in society, and the homes, which overlook the water, are charming and full of Victorian gingerbread (an ornate wooden decoration). One of them was open for tours, and I was able to go through it. There were other big houses that faced a rocky bay in a different section of Newport. I admired the houses and the beautiful, exclusive neighborhood near Cliff Walk.
One of the Rabbi’s Shabbos guests had lived in Connecticut, as I had, and we struck up a friendship. A very sweet and warm person, she related that she and her husband had met the Rabbi and decided to buy a home in Newport and be around him as much as they could.
This woman picked me up one bright Sunday morning (we had wonderful summer weather) and we drove to an outdoor fair. On the way, we passed a huge field where a very creative kite contest was taking place. Anything outdoorsy, or to do with water, seemed to be the norm here.
As we strolled between the booths at this crafts fair, we were a short distance from the blue water and the multitude of white sails in the marina on this sunny day. The delightful breezes, the sunshine, the beautiful mansions I had seen and the historical information I had gained from what I had seen, all combined to make an exquisite collage of unforgettable memories for me as I left beautiful Newport, hoping to return again one day soon.
George Washington’s Letter
The week before I visited Newport’s Yeshuat Israel Synagogue (the Touro Synagogue), they held a wonderful outdoor Shabbos lunch on the shul grounds, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court Justice, addressed the congregation. It was the occasion of the annual reading of the George Washington letter, the famous letter that Washington wrote to the shul. In October 1779, after the Revolutionary War – which decimated business in Newport and caused many Jewish families to move to other seaports – the British left Newport and, a year or two later, many of the Jewish families returned. In September of 1780 the General Assembly of Rhode Island met, for the first time after the British left Newport, in the Touro Synagogue. In August 1790, three months after Rhode Island had joined the United States by ratifying the Constitution, George Washington came to Newport to rally support for the new Bill of Rights.
As part of the welcoming ceremonies, Moses Mendes Seixas, then president of Congregation Yeshuat Israel, had the honor of addressing the president of the United States. In his letter of welcome, Seixas referred to the congregation as “the children of the stock of Abraham” and expressed the congregation’s pleasure that the G-d of Israel, Who had protected King David, had also protected General Washington. Seixas said he beheld in the United States “a government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Washington’s letter used Seixas’s ideas, and even actual words, and replied that “the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.” He went on to say later in the letter, again using Seixas’ term, “May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while everyone shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
It is a wonderful letter and was signed simply “G. Washington.”
References: The Jewish Virtual Library; American Jewish Historical Society; Leon Huhner’s The Life of Judah Touro; Ambassador Loeb Visitors Center at Touro Synagogue; Wikisource.
Mrs. Blanche Davids Gewirtz, a”h, longtime Binah writer, was niftar on 17 Iyar. This is one of several articles that were written by Mrs. Gewirtz before her petirah that she asked her family, days before her passing, to forward to us for publication.
Reprinted with the kind permission of Binah Magazine, November 11, 2013.