Nashville’s Jewish Cemetery, An Often Overlooked Reflection Of Religious History

In the old part of the cemetery, clasped hands were used to symbolize friendship or farewell. The Temple cemetery has more than 2,200 people buried there; another 1,500 or so are buried across the street, where two other Nashville synagogues have their cemeteries. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

In the old part of the cemetery, clasped hands were used to symbolize friendship or farewell. The Temple cemetery has more than 2,200 people buried there; another 1,500 or so are buried across the street, where two other Nashville synagogues have their cemeteries. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

Ralph Levy can visit four generations of family by walking a few hundred feet.

His great-great-grandfather, buried in 1880. His great-grandfather, buried in 1923. His grandmother, buried in 1977. His mother, buried in 2011.

And when his time comes, he’ll be buried here too.

A Final Resting Place

The Jewish community in Nashville began to take root in the 1840s, when immigrants came over from Germany and Poland, and three early settlers purchased the land for a Jewish cemetery in 1851 — what is today Temple Ohabai Shalom’s cemetery — in North Nashville.

The main gates, off of Clarksville Pike, are rarely used anymore. Not only is the cemetery unknown to many people in Nashville, but even many Jewish residents don't not know it exists, says Temple president Ralph Levy. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

The main gates, off of Clarksville Pike, are rarely used anymore. Not only is the cemetery unknown to many people in Nashville, but even many Jewish residents don’t not know it exists, says Temple president Ralph Levy. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

Levy, the Temple’s president, says the location was likely chosen because it was cheaper, outside of downtown Nashville, but easily accessed by a trolley.

“People would take the trolley out to the cemetery and pack a picnic lunch,” Levy says, “and picnic in the cemetery as they reflected on their ancestors.”

The first burial was in 1854; a few years later, another synagogue purchased land across the street. Now, after more than 160 years, the cemeteries are the final resting place for more than 3,500 Jewish Nashvillians.

Except for the occasional groundskeepers and funerals, the land stays undisturbed. Standing inside the cemetery gates, you can almost forget that there are houses and busy roads outside — the primarily African American neighborhood of Buena Vista.

And outside the gates, you can almost forget what’s inside. Felicia McNeal, who works at a gas station across the street, says she knows it’s a Jewish cemetery, but nothing else about it.

“It’s just sitting there in the neighborhood,” she says.

Rocks, Not Flowers

Levy’s great-great-grandfather is buried in the historic section of the cemetery, and his limestone obelisk is so weathered that it’s hard to read the Hebrew lettering at the top.

Ralph Levy's great-great-grandfather is buried in the historic section of the cemetery — the original three acres purchased in 1951. In the background is the grave of one of the cemetery's founders, Michael Powers. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

Ralph Levy’s great-great-grandfather is buried in the historic section of the cemetery — the original three acres purchased in 1851. In the background is the grave of one of the cemetery’s founders, Michael Powers. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

Back then, family members weren’t buried together. “There were no lots purchased on a pre-need basis,” Levy says. “We think it was for superstition.”

He points to the nearby graves. “Some of them had clasped hands, which would represent friendship or goodbye. Some of them are of a lamb — the lamb would indicate that it was a child buried there,” he says. “Typically, there are no human depictions on any of the tombstones.”

We walk over to his family’s section, a collection of flat grave markers next to a headstone engraved with LEVY.

Levy pulls a smooth stone out of his pocket and sets it on his father’s grave. It’s an ancient Jewish tradition to leave rocks rather than flowers — a more permanent way to mark that the grave was visited.

The tradition of putting rocks on gravestone instead of flowers doesn't have a clear explanation. Some say it has biblical origins, or there's a superstitious one: to keep the souls of those buried underground. Nevertheless, the tradition continues to this day. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

The tradition of putting rocks on gravestone instead of flowers doesn’t have a clear explanation. Some say it has biblical origins, or there’s a superstitious one: to keep the souls of those buried underground. Nevertheless, the tradition continues to this day. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

‘Overwhelmed With Emotion’

Walking through the Jewish cemetery is kind of like walking through any other old cemetery, except with more Jewish names and Hebrew letters and without the crosses.

It’s filled with history. There are three Confederate soldiers buried here, two on the Union side, four from World War I, eight from World War II.

Some of the stones are engraved with prominent names of Nashville’s past: the May family, which founded the May Hosiery Mills south of downtown; the Werthan family, which owned the Werthan Bag Company in Germantown; Sidney Mttron Hirsch, who helped catalyze the Fugitive literary movement at Vanderbilt in the 1920s; the Kuhn family, whose retail chain was sold to Walmart in 1981.

Any paper with the name of God on it should be buried rather than thrown away, according to tradition. Credit: WPLN / Emily Siner

Any paper with the name of God on it should be buried rather than thrown away, according to tradition. Credit: WPLN / Emily Siner

For some people whose families have moved out of the area, Levy says, the cemetery is a genealogical treasure. And for him, the history is personal.

Take the Nashville clothing store his great-grandfather founded in 1855 — it’s still in the family, and everyone who ran it who has died was buried here. His mother helped put together a tour of the cemetery — the family buried her with the guidebook she wrote.

“Sometimes I’m overwhelmed with emotion” when he visits, he says. “I’m very proud of my family’s heritage.”

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