Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Homeless in the Cemetery

Well, this was one of the weirdest cemetery experiences I have had. I was photographing Mikveh Israel Cemetery in west Philadelphia (55th and Market Streets) through the fence the other day and this guy came up to me saying his name was Marco Polo. He kept telling my friend John and I that he walks past this cemetery every day on his way to work and that we should call Channel 29 television about the deplorable conditions in the cemetery. Other than some uncut grass, it really didn’t look that bad.

Mikveh Israel Cemetery, 55th and Market Streets, Philadelphia

John (L) and "Marco Polo"
So after taking a few photos of some monuments and headstones, Marco Polo finally told us why he likes this cemetery so much. “I slept in here when I was homeless - by that red bush over there.” We didn’t ask how long he camped out in the cemetery, but we all agreed that he was safer inside than he would have been outside. He seemed to have a genuine fondness for the cemetery and would not stop talking about how it should be "fixed up."

Market Street wall and gated entrance to Mikveh Israel Cemetery

If you know Philadelphia, you know that 55th and Market is right under the elevated train tracks that follow Market Street. And you might also guess this is inner city at its best (or worst, depending on your point of view). As in most major cities, this is where you find the cemeteries with the most character. Congregation Mikveh Israel keeps the grass cut and the fencing in place, which is about all that is needed to keep troublemakers out. 

Building near 55th and Market Streets, Philadelphia

The original Mikveh Israel Cemetery (the first Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia, established in 1740) is located at Eighth and Spruce Streets in Philadelphia, near Pennsylvania Hospital (the nation’s first hospital, established in  1751 by Benjamin Franklin). Two additional plots of ground were added by Congregation Mikveh Israel – a second one at 11th and Federal Streets and a third one, which is the subject of this blog, at 55th and Market Streets. While I can find no information on the years in which the second and third cemeteries were established, the 55th and Market Street cemetery has headstones marked from as early as 1868 to as recent as 2008. This cemetery is actually labeled “inactive” on the website of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Philadelphia (JGSGP). 

The tall marble obelisk you see in the photo above marks the grave of Rev. Isaac Leeser (1806 - 1868), "the most famous leader and spokesman of traditional Judaism in Antebellum America" (ref). He was a minister in Congregation Mikveh Israel, as well as founder and publisher of The Occident, a monthly anti-discriminatory periodical "devoted to the diffusion of knowledge on Jewish literature and religion." He translated the Hebrew bible into English in 1853.

 If you’d like to visit any of these three Jewish cemeteries, please note that you cannot actually get inside any of them without either A) having someone from Congregation Mikveh Israel unlock the gates (good luck with that); or B) climbing over the fence or wall (which I would not recommend). All three cemeteries are quite secure, though not actually guarded. All are well-maintained.

Further Reading and References:

Find-a-Grave link to each of the three Philadelphia Mikveh Israel cemeteries in Philadelphia

History of Philadelphia’s Congregation Mikveh Israel Cemetery