Among the Stones

My friend Russell shares my taste for all things historical, but he’s a hard man to visit, in the recent past working two jobs to pay the rent.  Notwithstanding the pressures of his life, his brain remains as big and always open as a barn door. A complicated relationship he has, with memory and honor, and thus we’ve become brothers and good friends. I’ve never met a man so well read, his nose always in a weighty tome when I used to drop into the liquor store in Gowanus where he tended the evening shift, proffering pints of MD 20/20 to winos and cheap booze to hipsters alike, among the occasional BoBo arrivistes searching for a fine cepage. We became fans of each other through his comment on one of my blog pieces years ago; I can’t remember which. I read some of his work and was duly impressed with his sense of place and his ability to spin a gilded tale from nothing, Rumpelstiltskin spying an un-noticed store-front, or a piece of blowing guttered trash. A nice friendship has grown, two older scribes who’ve been through the wars, personal and professional, battle-scarred iconoclasts who still manage to smile.

Two and a  half years ago we donned winter coats and hats and at Russell’s suggestion, visited the grave of one of our distaff-side heros, Barbara Tuchman in Hastings-on-Hudson.   Tuchman’s place in the world of history writers remains un-paralleled. It took her seven years to find a publisher for her first book, The Bible and The Sword, a work of staggering proportion about the relationship between Palestine and Britain from the year 1000 until 1918. The world then knew a thorough scholar and a raconteuse of the past. Tracing and illuminating the theological, social, religious and political history of these two kingdoms, the work is a basic text for understanding both the medieval world and current politics. Tuchman’s story-telling flair is apparent from the first page, gleaming bright from the The Guns of August, her most famous work about the origins and start of World War I. Russell and I idolize her skills, and our consonant passion drew us to her gravesite to pay kneeling homage.

Finding her grave was simple enough once we found the cemetery itself, but that search was no easy task. Temple Israel Cemetery sits on a hillside off Saw Mill River Road in Hastings, a winding two lane road that parallels the Saw Mill River Parkway for much of its length in Westchester County. Once a peaceful ex-urban outpost, the cemetery now sits within a stone’s throw of the many garages, small factories, and warehouses that bedeck the roadsides. The forces of commerce and “progress” have walled in this lush and well-tended site, much as is the case with so many cemeteries in urban areas. Once inside the gates though, the dice of chance encounters with legendary figures, some remembered, some grown dim, are thrown, their spell cast.

The burial ground’s proprietor, Temple Israel of the City of New York, was founded in the 1870 as Congregation Hand-in-Hand.  The congregation was located in Harlem until the 1920’s when it followed the migration of uptown Jews in New York City to the Upper West Side. Forty years later, the synagogue again relocated to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where it continues today as a vital Reform congregation. From its very founding, above a printing shop on East 125th Street, Temple Israel was an eclectic mixture of adherence to principle and reflection of the changing needs of its membership. Its mission: preserving the continuity of Jewish tradition, strengthening the Jewish community, and assisting those in need in the community at large. Remarkably, Temple Israel went through many transformations in membership without varying its purpose.  According to early descriptions, its founders were “people of moderate circumstances, many of them having small stores on Third Avenue and living behind their shops, according to the Temple’s website.






















Those original members were of German origin, traditionally observant Jews. It took more than a decade before progressive Judaism became the norm of the congregation. Those who founded Temple Israel took their Jewish responsibilities seriously and understood the broad sweep of Jewish history. They devoted their energies and resources to ensuring that Temple Israel would become an enduring institution. One of their first acts was to establish a religious school called “The Gates of Learning” which grew as rapidly as the congregation. By 1876 the congregation was in its third temporary home on 116th Street between First and Second Avenues. Fund raising efforts such as a grand Chanukah dress ball held at the Harlem Casino in 1887 (shown above in a 1908 photo) occupied a great deal of the energies of the leaders.  It was estimated that 2,000 elegantly costumed ladies and gentlemen attended the event. A great deal of money was raised for the Hebrew School of Harlem.

The Columbia College and Emanu-El Theological Seminary student, Maurice H. Harris, appointed in 1882 as the congregation’s first permanent Rabbi, turned out to be an inspired choice. Dr. Harris, over a 48-year rabbinical career, transformed Temple Israel into a major cultural institution and became one of the most prominent spokesmen of progressive Judaism. During his ministry, Congregation Hand-in-Hand became Temple Israel of Harlem and ultimately, Temple Israel of the City of New York. The dynamism of the rapidly growing community moved them first to a former church at 125th Street and Fifth Avenue, then to construction of a grand limestone building which still stands at 120th Street and Lenox Avenue; and, still during the Harris rabbinate, to 91st Street and Broadway on the Upper West Side.

Rabbi Harris was highly regarded as a founder of many major reform organizations. A fearless advocate for progressive Jewish ideals, he was an early supporter of the Allied side in the First World War, even though most of the congregation consisted of German Jews and whose loyalties were initially divided. Dr. Harris was fortunate in having Mr. Daniel P. Hays as President during his tenure (for 33 years). Mr. Hays became one of the outstanding laymen in American Reform Jewry, President of the YMHA of New York, and well-known as the president of the powerful Municipal Service Commission. During their leadership, the Temple attracted many prominent members of the Jewish Community and was progressive at every level of its many activities, electing its first woman trustee in 1921, nine years after Barbara Tuchman’s birth to Maurice and Alma Morgenthau Wertheim  — Our Crowd Jews if there ever were — who became members of Temple Israel at an undetermined date.

In contradistinction to the obstacles placed in front of the majority of educated women in America in the first decades (as well as later ones in the 20th century), Barbara Tuchman’s family saw to her education and empowered her to develop into one of the leading intellectuals of her day.  She was born January 30, 1912, her father was an individual of wealth and prestige, the owner of The Nation magazine (to this day a leading liberal voice), president of the American Jewish Congress, prominent art collector, and a founder of the Theatre Guild. Her mother was the daughter of Henry Morgenthau, Sr., Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and her uncle Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Secretary to the Treasury during FDR’s administration.  Robert Morgenthau, District Attorney of New York County for 35 years, was Barbara’s first cousin.  The list goes on and on.

Educated at the progressive Walden School and at Radcliffe College, Barbara Tuchman eschewed attending graduate school, choosing instead to work after her 1933 college graduation as a volunteer research assistant at the Institute of Pacific Relations in New York. She spent  a year in Tokyo in 1934-35, including a month in China, before returning to the United States via the Trans-Siberian Railway to Moscow and on to Paris. She also contributed to The Nation as a correspondent until her father’s sale of the publication in 1937, traveling to Valencia and Madrid to cover the Spanish Civil War. A long-forgotten book resulted from her Spanish experience, The Lost British Policy: Britain and Spain Since 1700, published in 1938.

In 1940, Wertheim married Lester R. Tuchman (taking his surname), an internist, medical researcher and professor of clinical medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan. They had three daughters, including Jessica Mathews, a former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

During World War II, Tuchman worked in the Office of War Information. Following the War, Tuchman spent the next decade working to raise the children while doing basic research for what would ultimately become The Bible and The Sword.  Despite her intense family connections to the spheres of academic and business power in New York, Tuchman had great difficulty finding a publisher.  The writing began in 1948 with the declaration of independence of the State of Israel.  Tuchman ultimately decided to end the narrative with the issuance of the Balfour Declaration of 1918, feeling uncertain that her ethnicity might influence her role as an historian rather than as a polemicist in re-telling the events of the three decades thereafter that led to the creation of a Jewish State.  Finally, New York University Press accepted the job, and the book was published in 1956 to considerable acclaim.

The intellectual grasp of the work is grand; Tuchman starts in the first two pages of Chapter 1 by recounting a speech given in 1875 by the Archbishop of York declaring that Palestine was his country and it had given him the “laws by which I try to live.” Tuchman expands the narrative and sets the basic paradigm of the work: “For thousands of years already [since 1875] the English had turned toward Palestine in search of their antecedents….Long before modern archaeology provided a scientific answer, some dim race memory had drawn their thoughts eastward…The ancestor image evolved by the English was a dual personality compounded of Brutus, grandson of Trojan Aeneas, and Gomer, grandson of Noah.  He was, in short, a product of the classical legends of Greece and Rome and the Hebrew legends of Palestine; an emigrant from Asia Minor, the cradle of civilization.”  In perfect symmetry, the themes of origins, pilgrimage, the Crusades, the struggles over translation of the Bible into English, to be readable by the common man, Puritanism, imperial clashes in the Middle East, and the roots of Zionism, are interwoven in a way that provides an historical understanding of Balfour as well as the British withdrawal from Palestine in 1948 that is essential to understanding current disputes over that tortured land.

Below in memory, are photos of Russell at Barbara Tuchman’s grave, her parents, and the Wertheim Mausoleum at the Temple Israel Cemetery.  A visit is well worthwhile:-)

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