Sacred Land

0913-Arts-2As published in B-Metro magazine.

Hidden in plain sight, the Knesseth Israel/Beth-El Cemetery, the oldest Jewish cemetery in the city, is situated at the top of Enon Ridge in the Fountain Heights neighborhood of north Birmingham. Modest wooden houses built during the 1930s line the cemetery on two sides. Center Street runs through the middle, with Knesseth Israel on one side and Beth-El Cemetery on the other. A strip of woods screens the peaceful grounds from the sounds of cars and trucks roaring by on I-59, constructed during the late 1960s as part of Eisenhower’s urban renewal plan.

Growing up a few blocks away, Cleophus Riles roamed the cemetery as a child. He often sat on the cobblestone wall perched above what’s now an empty ravine, where the streetcar once ran. He and his buddies gathered here as teenagers. With their slicked back “Cole hair” and dreams of appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show, they practiced singing like Nat King Cole. At the time, a full-time caretaker lived in the house next to the cemetery’s entrance.

Today, Riles, known as “Mr. Happy,” lives across the street overlooking the cemetery. Most days, he dresses in a suit. Strolling around the cemetery, he hopes to serve as a role model to the young folks in his community, who often see him on their ways to and from school. “If you look like a million bucks, you feel like a million bucks,” his mother used to tell him, but he says he’d rather be a poor man with love than a rich man with money. Besides, he doesn’t want to wait until he dies for someone to dress him in his good suit.

Barbara Bonfield, author of Hallowed Ground: A History of the Knesseth Israel/Beth-El Cemetery, published in 2009, has spent many hours at the cemetery as well and formed a close friendship with Riles while researching her book. The daughter of a Jewish father and Protestant mother, who grew up in Lincoln, Alabama, Bonfield became fascinated with cemeteries while helping Miss Mattie Lee Tee, a Samford librarian, catalog a cemetery in St. Clair County, where her mother was raised. “Cemeteries are a link to the past,” Bonfield says. “They keep lives and contributions from being obliterated. They’re a way to honor the past.” In 2004, Bonfield even traveled to Ciechanow, Poland, in an unsuccessful search of her great-grandmother’s grave. During World War II, the Nazis destroyed the cemetery and paved the streets with the headstones, she says. In Birmingham, however, Bonfield’s family history is well-documented, as her husband’s family are founding members of the Knesseth Israel Synagogue and the cemetery and are buried here.

Of the 1,600 existing graves, the oldest recorded burial in the cemetery dates back to 1891. One of the last people buried here is Rabbi Cyndie Culpepper, a Catholic who’d converted to Judaism. Over the course of two years, Bonfield interviewed 60 families. The who’s who list of Jewish family names reflects the vibrant and vital contributions of the Jewish community in the Magic City. The headstones tell the tales of this city and documents immigration patterns and, often, the hardships they faced. The list of prominent and familiar names in the cemetery evokes a rich and varied community of merchants who arrived here with nothing, many peddling wares from their backpacks, eventually opening stores downtown and serving the steel mill communities such as West Blocton and Bessemer.

Even before the Civil War, a wave of German Jews had settled close to downtown and Southside. They established Temple Emanu-El, whose congregation donated land for the cemetery in 1890. Beginning in the late 1800s, an influx of Eastern Europeans fleeing pogroms in places such as the Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, and Russia arrived. Later, more fled Hitler’s Germany.

Maintaining the customs and practices of the “Old Country” was important to many in the newly settled communities, and one of the first things you notice when you look around the neatly kept grounds is the headstones are engraved with Hebrew text. You also realize there aren’t any flowers. Look even closer and you’ll see stones scattered and piled on headstones. These stones reflect the Jewish custom to say a prayer and place a stone on the headstone as a way of honoring the dead in lieu of flowers, which eventually wilt and die. The stones, Rabbi Eytan Yammer explains, not only show the permanence of love from the person who left them, but also symbolize the permanence of the loved one’s soul. “A person’s essence is eternal,” he says. Another Judaic tradition to honor the dead is to dress the deceased in white clothing. “We’re all the same in death,” Yammer explains. “A fancy suit and Rolex are meaningless in a casket.”

The manner in which people are respected in death also applies to holy books. In the far corner of the cemetery sits the Genizah, a stone house full of buried, worn-out prayer books. The holy books are vehicles for a person’s highest calling in this life, the capacity for doing good. “We treat the holy books with honor and respect the same way as we treat a person,” Yammer says. “They are buried on holy ground with holy people forever.”

The “Northside” or “Old Cemetery,” as it’s sometimes called, reflects an important chapter concerning the cultural and religious diversity in Birmingham. It also highlights the unique histories and experiences of individual families, their triumphs, and their sorrows. Striking for its size, one headstone, broken in half, is believed to have been broken deliberately, a monument to the broken hearts of the Roseman family, who lost their son, Norman, in an accident at the young age of 14. Headstones can also serve as historical markers reconnecting dispersed family members long after families have scattered to different parts of the country. After Bonfield’s book was published, a rabbi in New York showed it to a man he knew named Norenstein. Through the preservation of the cemetery and Bonfield’s documentation, this man discovered cousins he never knew lived in Birmingham, Bonfield says.

Ironically, in the overgrown area below the stone wall, where rats, snakes, and wildlife thrive in the underbrush, sits another cemetery just as old: The Enon Ridge Pioneer Cemetery. According to a document Riles unearthed through his research, this forgotten cemetery was established in 1886 by the Enon Ridge Episcopal/Methodist Church. Many of Birmingham’s prominent African-American families are buried on this overgrown, city-owned property.

Since the 1950s, most of the burials for the Jewish community—the Orthodox Knesseth Israel Congregation, the conservative synagogue Temple Beth-El, and the Reform synagogue Temple Emanu-El—have taken place in the Jewish sections of Elmwood. On Mother’s Day this year, Riles says only 15 or so people paid their respects. Years ago, there would have been at least 50 people. These days, Riles goes to the cemetery every morning to meditate under a tree. Sometimes he sits on the wall by the Genizah near the hidden cemetery. Later, he walks the grounds. During the day, when he’s home, he keeps a watchful eye on who comes and goes, a guardian determined to keep trouble from disturbing this peaceful, holy ground he’s considered sacred all his life.

For more information or to order Hallowed Ground: The Knesseth Israel/Beth-El Cemetery, contact Barbara Bonfield at bbonfield226@gmail.com.


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