Alan Greenbaum: Pioneer Jewish cemeteries of Nevada County
Special to The Union
The best-remembered quote of George Santayana is, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”
But it also may be true that those who do learn history — the uplifting events — are more likely to repeat it. In a good way.
That is the caveat of this story.
At the outset of the Gold Rush era, there developed two active Jewish communities — one in Nevada City and the other in Grass Valley. Each organized to facilitate and strengthen Jewish life.
In both cities, this involved the purchase and dedication of land to service as sacred soil for the purpose of burying the dead.
According to the historian Susan Morris, “By 1854, the Nevada City Hebrew Society was founded and land bought for a cemetery; the first known burial was that of Caroline Himes in 1856.” (A Traveler’s Guide to Pioneer Jewish Cemeteries of the California Gold Rush, p. 47)
Perhaps as a sad wake-up call to the importance of this religious and civic duty, the same year as that burial was when a parallel organization was formed in Grass Valley — the Shaar Zedek (Gate of Righteousness) Hebrew Benevolent Society.
Morris cites in that same book an article, which appeared in the Feb. 13, 1857 edition of the San Francisco Weekly Gleaner, announced, regarding this cemetery, “…a fine, wellfenced cemetery, with a substantial building on it, with all the implements required by our rites. May they never be wanted.”
But alas, wanted it was that same year.
And so began in Nevada County, the local extension of the ancient and sacred Jewish practice of dedicating cemetery space for proper Jewish burials.
As was typical for most cemeteries, the locations were on the outskirts of town related to the demographics of the times.
Today, both locations exist.
The Nevada City site is near King Hiram Lane; the Grass Valley site is on Second Street.
Neither cemetery is “active” — no longer allowing additional burials — as they are considered historical sites.
The current Jewish burials take place at the cemetery located at Hooper and Weaver Mortuary.
During the interim years, the respective communities of Nevada City and Grass Valley have grown far beyond the cemetery locations and so they no longer are on the “outskirts.”
This has posed challenges for both locations.
The Nevada County site is surrounded by an apartment complex; the Grass Valley location by a gathering of houses.
The two cemeteries are under the oversight of The Commission For The Preservation Of Pioneer Jewish Cemeteries And Landmarks In The West (http://www.pioneerjewishcemeteries.org/), although the local synagogue, Congregation B’naim Harim, looks out for the welfare of these two sites on a weekly basis.
Although these cemeteries are no longer active, they remain precious to the local Jewish population.
Their stories are reminders of history at its best: Of how timeless Jewish values can be preserved; of the Jewish pioneers who participated in this chapter of local history; and of the community that chose to honor them in death as they did in life.
May that legacy continue.
Alan Greenbaum is the retired Rabbi of Congregation B’Nai Harim in Grass Valley.
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