This is the story of a challenging and noble time in the first year of our Cleveland Jewish community. It is a foundational story, to be remembered and passed along.
His first name was Alexander, a name given to Jewish boys since 329 B.C.E. (explanation).
His surname was Kahnweiler, which identified him as a Cohen. Our searches, which include old Willet Street Cemetery records at Mayfield Cemetery, have not found a document with his name.
The burial of Alexander
In the 1840s and 1850s many young immigrant Jewish men began their lives here as peddlers. They hoped to save money and then open a small store, marry and raise a family. That was a dream that life in Bavaria did not support. It was a vision so compelling, they would leave family and friends and come to America to pursue it.
On Thursday August 6th, 1840, though many of our pioneer Jews were out selling, there were more than a few here when a wagon arrived, its driver asking where the Jews were.
Lying in the wagon was the dead body of Alexander Kahnweiler. The driver explained that he had been found dead in a rural area. We know he was Jewish and thought you would wish to bury him in the custom of your people.
The Jews who took charge of the body recognized Alexander. He was a peddler who observed Shabbat and would not sell on Saturdays. On Sundays most of his customers respected their Sabbath and would not buy. So he would stay in Cleveland on weekends, then on Monday mornings, his pack loaded with goods to sell, he would leave again.
Alexander's friends, shocked and grieving, now began to worry. Not about how to bury him, for in those days there were no people to hire to perform a Jewish burial. As it had been in Bavaria, it would be a personal service by members of the community. They knew what to do.
They also knew where they would bury him, for only a few weeks before they had agreed to buy a burial ground, a one acre lot on Willet Street, a half mile west of the Cuyahoga River. It was less than two miles from where they lived, which was where our baseball stadium stands today.
Their concern was when they could bury him. Jewish tradition called for prompt burial, but they could not bury him until the cemetery land was legally theirs. That would be after they paid the seller, Josiah Barber, in full and he went to the county office where land records were kept and had a deed created in the name of their group, the Israelitic Society.
The deed (see a copy on our pages) shows that Josiah Barber came to the county recorder on Public Square on Thursday, August 6 (presumably in the afternoon), and that the deed was recorded on Friday August 7 (presumably in the morning).
Now they could bury Alexander Kahnweiler before sundown that same day, Friday August 7, 1840, when Shabbat and Tisha B'Av, the most solemn day of the Jewish year, would begin.
With Alexander now laid to rest in a Jewish burial ground, these pioneers could welcome Shabbat with the confidence of having succeeded as a community, and nourished by having given the highest form of charity: a gift with no expectation of a return.
They would remember the day of the first Jewish burial well. Many now thought of themselves as people of loving kindness. You ask how I can say that. Because the next year, when they formed our first congregation, they named it Anshe Chesed which means people of loving kindness.
In this story of Cleveland's first Jewish burial are the dramatic elements of a play, cantata or short opera It is a tale that should be told and re-told. Perhaps some day a cantor or a Jewish youth group will enrich us with such a work.
Arnold Berger August 5, 2023
published report of the first burial
In The Israelite of August 20, 1858 its editor Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise writes about his long visit here. His story included Simson Thorman's memory of the first burial, 18 years earlier.
Rabbi Wise's account has the wrong burial date. It was on the 8th of Av. The 9th was Shabbat, when burials are not permitted. As for the surname, we believe Thorman said Kahnweiler, but Rabbi Wise heard or wrote Kanweiler, or perhaps the "h" was lost when the rabbi's notes were set in type.
August 4, 2023 Kahnweiler
On August 4, 2023, during the Friday evening service at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, his name was included in the Yahrzeits. It will be read each year. It was another act of Loving Kindness.
The economic importance of
Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise
Kahnweiler or Kanweiler?