Jewish Heritage Europe

Art & Poetry

We find it fascinating to look at how artists and writers have been inspired by the power of place and imagery of Jewish heritage sites over the centuries — including Jewish cemeteries.

The examples are legion.

The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague became the haunt of Romantics after it was closed to interments in 1787 and  has continued to be a source of inspiration to this day.

The 19th century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote an evocative poem about the Old Jewish Cemetery in Newport, Rhode Island — and Emma Lazarus wrote a poem about the old synagogue in Newport. The 20th century British poet Tom Pickard wrote a poem about the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery. The American poet Jehanne Dubrow wrote about tourism and the Izaak synagogue in Krakow.  The American poet Jerome Rothenberg has frequently used Jewish — and imagined — Jewish heritage imagery. And so on.

We posted in April 2015 a watercolor water color sketch of the long-neglected Kerepesi Jewish cemetery in Budapest, which was sent to us by the painter,  Lindsay Topping, a retired school teacher from Bristol, England.

Kerepesi Jewish cemetery, Budapest, by Lindsay Topping. Published with the permission of the artist.

One of the most famous paintings of a Jewish cemetery is that painted in the mid 1650s by the Dutch painter Jacob van Ruisdael, now in the Detroit Institute of Arts, of the Beth Haim cemetery at Ouderkerk, near Amsterdam.

Ruisdael jewish_cemetery

The writer Harvey Rachlin spins a fascinating tale about this painting and the cemetery and persons buried there, in an  article in the Jewish Press.

Not far from Amsterdam, in the village of Ouderkerk on the River Amstel, lies the Portuguese-Jewish cemetery called Beth Haim. Here in this pastoral necropolis repose the remains of Jews who fled the Iberian Peninsula in the wake of the Inquisition, exiles who chose banishment over baptism, who had fortuitously managed to survive the torture chambers or dodge the stake in the relentless drive by the Roman Catholic Church to cleanse the land of heretics.

To the Mennonite Dutch landscape painter Jacob van Ruisdael, the Jewish burial ground seemed a propitious setting for an allegorical work incorporating themes of the ephemerality of life, the power of nature, human limitations, and eternal optimism. Beginning in 1655, he began to set down his vision on canvas, locating it in the graveyard but making the landscape his own by altering the scenery, creating the mood, and inserting some of his own artistic inventions.

In his Baroque-style painting, Ruisdael depicted ominous skies, a glistening rainbow, soaring birds, massive clouds, ancient ruins amid thick verdant underbrush, a naked fallen tree arching over a rippling brook, bereaved visitors, and assorted tombs. Ruisdael highlighted one tomb near the center of the painting in bright white, a lustrous cynosure in the otherwise somber graveyard scene. This was not just another anonymous monument perched in the placid forest glade of Ouderkerk, for in real life enshrined in this radiant 

marble mausoleum were the remains of a distinguished man who was connected to a special story that in itself was an allegory reflective of those painted by Ruisdael.

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