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Cleveland's First Jewish Burial

Alexander Kahnweiler  •  Friday, August 7, 1840

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.

The line above in the Access Jewish Cleveland Cemetery Database shows who is buried in the first grave in our first Jewish cemetery. His name was Alexander, a name given to Jewish boys since 329 B.C.E. (explanation).

in Hebrew  >

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.

Alexander Kahnweiler headstone
Image courtesy of Paul Klein
click to view larger image

click for larger image

The burial of Alexander Kahnweiler
— a tale of tragedy, tension and kindness

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.

The wagon held the body of Alexander Kahnweiler. The driver explained that he had been found dead in their 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 knew Alexander. He was a young man from Bavaria who worked as a peddler. He observed Shabbat and would not sell on Saturdays. Many of his customers respected their Sabbath and wouldn't buy on Sundays. He would stay in Cleveland Saturday and Sunday, then Monday morning, his pack loaded with goods to sell, he would leave for rural areas where there were no stores.

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 their Israelitic Society (in German they would have said Israelitische Verein) had agreed to buy a burial ground, a one acre lot on Willet Street, a half mile west of the Cuyahoga River. They lived downtown, near where our baseball stadium stands today. The burial ground was two miles away ─ a 40-minute walk or only 20 minutes if you could drive, which meant you had a horse and carriage.

Their concern was when they could bury him. Jewish tradition called for prompt burial, but they could not do that until the cemetery land was legally theirs. That would be after they had paid the land owner Josiah Barber in full and he went to the county office where land records were kept and had a deed of sale to the Israelitic Society recorded.

The deed (see a copy on our pages) shows that Josiah Barber came to the county recorder on Public Square on Thursday, August 6 (probably 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 tragic 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 done their religious duty and knowing they had given the highest form of charity: a gift with no expectation of thanks.

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


The first 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 remembered

On August 7, 1840 some of Cleveland's Jewish pioneers laid the body of Alexander Kahnweiler to rest. His was the first burial in our first cemetery, on Willet Street.  The next year they would organize our first synagogue, Anshe Chesed.

During the service of Friday evening August 4, 2023 at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, Kahnweiler's name was included in the Yahrzeits. It will be read each year. It was another act of Loving Kindness.


Learn more:

The peddler's dream not attainable in Bavaria
A stagnant economy, with the right to marry limited to one male in a family. For more, read Peskin "This Tempting Freedom"  

The economic importance of Jewish peddlers
Read Professor Hasia Diner's essay on German Jews and Peddling in America

Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise
The great organizer of Reform Judaism

Kahnweiler or Kanweiler?
Until 2022, the deceased's surname was recorded incorrectly as Kanweiler.
Avotaynu's Dictionary of German-Jewish Surnames has 31 entries for Kahnweiler and no entries for Kanweiler.

The 1840 deed to the Willet Street Cemetery
Note "Willet Street" in the legal description of the property.

People of Loving Kindness
On the website of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple

Thanks to Simson Thorman, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, Paul Klein, Russ Maurer and Sylvia Abrams.

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