The Jewish Cemetery at Newport

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486

Here are some quotes from "The Jewish Cemetery at Newport" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
How strange it seems! These Hebrews in their graves,
Close by the street of this fair seaport town,
Silent beside the never-silent waves,
At rest in all this moving up and down!
This is the first stanza of the poem. The narrator of the poem, who is like Longfellow, muses while looking at the Jewish cemetery in Newport, Rhode Island. It is the oldest Jewish cemetery in the nation, but it has been abandoned by the time he visits the cemetery. He compares the business of the sailing town, Newport, with the stillness of the graveyard and launches into a meditation of the lives and deaths of the people in the cemetery.
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.
The narrator of the poem looks at the inscriptions of names on the gravestones. He notes their Sephardic last names—names like Alvares and Rivera—along with their first names culled from the Old Testament. He seeks to understand the histories of the Jewish people who have been buried in the graveyard.
How came they here? What burst of Christian hate,
What persecution, merciless and blind,
Drove o'er the sea—that desert desolate—
These Ishmaels and Hagars of mankind?
The narrator of the poem thinks about what drove the Jews from the Old World to the New World. He is aware that they suffered from anti-Semitism, or a "burst of Christian hate," and he recognizes that they suffered persecution, which was unending and motivated by blind hatred, that drove them to immigrate. He likens their trip over the sea to the Biblical journey of Ishmael and Hagar into the desert. Ishmael was the son of Abraham in the Hebrew Bible. He was born to Hagar, the handmaiden of Abraham's wife, Sarah. When Sarah bore a child, Isaac, she asked Abraham to send Ishmael and Hagar into the desert, where God saved them. Ishmael is, according to Jewish tradition, the patriarch of the Arab people. The Jews' immigration to the New World is likened to Ishmael and Hagar's journey into the desert, where God watches over them.
Pride and humiliation hand in hand
Walked with them through the world where'er they went;
Trampled and beaten were they as the sand,
And yet unshaken as the continent.
The narrator uses a series of contrasts to describe the Jewish immigration to the New World in these lines. He said that they came after being humiliated in the Old Country but were still proud of their heritage. Though they were beaten like the sand itself, they were still strong as the Earth itself. In a later stanza, he says that they were confident that their past would be repeated in the coming time and that their traditions would endure.

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