This is part one of Mr. Hoffheimer’s history of David Israel Johnson. Stay tuned for part two, which will run next week.
Sometime around the turn of 1800, a young man named Phineas Israel left his home in Plymouth, England, to seek his fortune in the New World. Skipping New York and the East Coast, he headed directly westward to the frontier of Indian Territory and the tiny towns of Connersville and Brookville of what today is Indiana. Phineas Israel was attracted to the wealth he heard was to be made in the fur trade. In that frontier outpost, the locals dubbed him the more American and pronounceable “Johnson,” and the name held. Phineas wrote back to his family in Plymouth of the opportunities to be had, so his brother David Israel left England for America with his wife, Eliza, and infant child. This threesome stopped off in Cincinnati on their way to meet Phineas. While in what Henry Wadsworth Longfellow would later dub “The Queen City,” the leading Jewish citizen, Joseph Jonas, tried to persuade David Israel to stay in the just budding Jewish community. Jonas was at work to welcome Jews to Cincinnati. However, David and family decided to continue westward, and they made it to the frontier station in 1818. Learning that the locals had renamed his brother “Johnson,” David also took the name for himself and his family. David Israel Johnson he would be, and thus began the Jewish Johnson family down to the present day.
The David Johnson family welcomed another child, a son, in Connersville, the first Jewish child born in the western frontier. But life in the fur trading west proved too harsh for this young and growing family, so in 1820, David Israel Johnson relocated with his family back to the relative metropolis of Cincinnati in the new state of Ohio. Cincinnati then had a population of about 6,000 souls, and not much more than a minyan, if that, of Jewish men. On June 2, 1821, David and Eliza, welcomed yet another son, the frst Jewish child born in Cincinnati, named Frederick A. Johnson. There followed a daughter, Selena, the first “Jewess” born in Cincinnati, in 1823. Frederick and Selena made their lives and livelihoods in Cincinnati, Frederick living to 1893 and Selena even longer. Each of their lives tells an important story about Jewish civic contributions.
Even before David Johnson moved back to Cincinnati in 1820, he helped Joseph Jonas forge the kernel of a Jewish community. Three more Jews arrived in Cincinnati in 1819, and under Jonas’s leadership, in that year David Johnson participated in the first High Holy Day Services held in Cincinnati, even without a traditional minyan and certainly without clergy. Although the congregation Kehal Kodesh Bene Israel (today Rockdale Temple) dates its founding by Jonas and others to 1824 — and thus is marking its bicentennial next year — the year 1819 is marked as the date of the first Jewish religious services in Cincinnati. Even without a minyan, and in contravention of traditional Jewish law, this too-small group of Jews were so in need of performing their religion, that even before he moved his family to Cincinnati, David Johnson traveled from Brookville to Cincinnati for the Ten Days of Awe in 1819.
As is well understood, the first task of a Jewish community is to make a Jewish cemetery so Jews might be buried according to custom. A Jewish community might establish a synagogue, but a Chevra Kadisha (Jewish burial procedure) comes first. And so it was that in 1821, one Benjamin Leib (aka Lape), who had lived privately without public Jewish custom, came to the few Jews in Cincinnati to say he was dying and that he earnestly desired to be buried as a Jew. The community immediately sought grounds to be purchased as a cemetery. They went to Cincinnati’s leading citizen and land owner, Nicholas Longworth, for help. Longworth promptly offered the reasonable price of $75 to sell the Jewish community a small plot at the corner of Chestnut Street and what later was named Central Avenue. The deed was signed on November 6, 1821, and Mr. Leib was buried according to Jewish tradition as he had wished, the first such recorded burial of a Jew in Cincinnati, Ohio, or the Northwest Territory. The deed from Longworth names David I. Johnson, along with his fellow community members, as a trustee of the cemetery land to be held for the use and benefit of the “Jewish church of Cincinnati” forever. In 1826, Longworth sold some additional land adjacent to the original plot to David Johnson and his colleagues in trust for the Jewish community. Still insufficient to accommodate deaths in the ordinary course of the Jewish community, again in 1838, some additional adjacent land was purchased by Johnson and the others. These parcels comprise the cemetery that today is seen at the corner of Chestnut Street and Central Avenue in Cincinnati’s West End. In 1922, Cincinnati celebrated the bicentennial of the cemetery with complete renovation of the grounds, the creation of a patio and memorial plaque, and the placement of a cenotaph in honor of Joseph Jonas, Cincinnati’s first Jew and primary leader in the establishment of this, the oldest Jewish cemetery west of the Allegheny Mountains. Jonas is not buried here because in his old age he moved to be cared for by his daughter in Alabama, where he died and is buried.
By 1850, this Chestnut Street Cemetery was full, and the community purchased the land still in use on Montgomery Road in Walnut Hills. Both locations are now part of the unified Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati, as are almost all the remainder of today’s many Cincinnati Jewish cemeteries.
Stay tuned next week for part two on David Israel Johnson.