Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 'The Jewish Cemetery at Newport': An Enigmatic Musing on Jewish History and Culture
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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Jewish Cemetery at Newport" is an enigmatic musing on Jewish history and culture. On the one hand, Longfellow makes sure to display his feelings that "Hebrews" are "strange." In the first line of the poem, Longfellow uses the word "strange" in the same line as "Hebrews," and then suggests that it was strange to see a Jewish cemetery "close by the street of this fair seaport town," (line 2). This is as if to say that the Jews were not welcome in a "fair seaport town," with emphasis on the word "fair" connoting white as well as attractive. The association between Jews and strangeness continues as the poet states directly, "the very names recorded here are strange / Of foreign accent, and of different climes," (lines 13-14). The names referred to are Sephardic, "Alvares and Rivera," which does substantiate the connotation with Jews and not being "fair" of skin (line 15).
Yet just before Longfellow starts to come across as being anti-Semitic, the poet begins to lament the phenomenon of anti-Semitism in Europe. "How came they here? What burst of Christian hate, / What persecution, merciless and blind, / Drove o'er the sea" (lines 29-31). Longfellow then demonstrates sensitivity to the fact that Jews in the old country lived "in narrow streets and lanes obscure, / Ghetto and Judenstrass," (lines 33-34). Jews have been "mocked and jeered, and spurned by Christian feet," too, states Longfellow (line 44). Moreover, the poet demonstrates some