Likely Namesake Of KGH’s Aguilar Avenue? An English Jewish Poetess

Likely Namesake Of KGH’s Aguilar Avenue? An English Jewish Poetess

By Sergey Kadinsky

The two-block road connecting Parsons and Kissena Boulevards in Kew Gardens Hills is heavily used because of the popular Aron’s Kissena Farms supermarket.  It also stands out for its defiance of the local grid and Hispanic name in a neighborhood of numbered streets.  “Aguilar Avenue is named after Grace Aguilar, the Sephardic Jewish author,” wrote Andrew Gordon, who grew up in the neighborhood.  “The circumstantial evidence makes it probable.  Grace Aguilar’s name was chosen to go on four library branches in Manhattan, funded by Andrew Carnegie early last century.”

The Avenue

The origins of Aguilar Avenue date to the colonial period, when it was part of a longer road running between the settlements of Flushing and Jamaica.  This centuries-old path can be traced by Kissena Boulevard, Aguilar Avenue, and Parsons Boulevard.  Aguilar’s curved route was designed to avoid Gutman’s Swamp, a 140-acre marshland that occupied much what is now Kew Gardens Hills.

In 1911, Queens Borough President Maurice E. Connolly directed the borough’s Topographical Bureau to design a numbered grid system to connect road segments across Queens.  The 271 streets and 165 avenues ignored local topography, waterways, and other natural obstacles.  In 1918, most of Gutman’s Swamp was drained by the city, and Kissena Boulevard was straightened to link up with Parsons Boulevard at 75th Avenue.  The redundant curve in the old colonial road was then named Aguilar Avenue.  “It is possible Aguilar was the name of a local resident in Queens, but it’s a Spanish/Portuguese name and there is no one of Hispanic origin in that time period who would warrant a street name,” wrote Gordon.

Aguilar Libraries

As mentioned, Aguilar Avenue isn’t the only instance of this name on the city map.  The Aguilar Library in East Harlem dates to 1886, becoming part of the New York Public Library in 1905 with support from Carnegie.  In a 1996 profile of this library, New York Times reporter Christopher Gray noted that the library had its start under Jewish auspices.  Established by the trustees of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association and the Hebrew Free School with state funding, its mission was to Americanize the Eastern European Jewish newcomers through English classes and popular American books.

Its namesake was the most famous Jewish English writer at the time, one who was proud of her Jewish heritage and was respected by readers throughout the British Empire and the larger English-speaking world.  In the minds of the trustees, Grace Aguilar was an ideal example of an emancipated western Jew.  She was an educator, reformer, historian, and novelist, the most published Jewish woman of the 19th century.

At the turn of the 20th century, there were four Aguilar Library branches in Manhattan.  After their acquisition by NYPL, only one Aguilar Library was allowed to retain the name, and to this day it is the branch at 174 East 110th Street, a Hispanic name in the heart of East Harlem but with a Jewish past.

The Namesake

At the time that Aguilar Library was founded, the massive wave of Jews fleeing persecution in the Russian Empire was in full swing.  They came in numbers so large that they soon outnumbered the established Sephardic Jews whose families had arrived earlier to the United States, Great Britain, and Turkish-ruled Palestine.  Belonging to this earlier immigration wave, Emanuel and Sarah Aguilar fled the inquisition in Portugal for England, where they could practice their faith openly.  In 1816, their daughter Grace was born.  Emanuel’s stories of ancestors keeping mitzvos in secret inspired her romance novels, for which the father provided editing.

At the time, there was no English translation for the Tanach and Grace attended sermons in Protestant churches, which was quite rare for an observant Jew.  Missionaries claimed that she was inspired by the Gospel, while some members of her community felt she was borderline Protestant.  In truth, the sermons inspired her to write about the redemption of the Jews and to combat the work of missionaries in the Jewish community.  Her romantic poems and novels were also influenced by her contemporaries, Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron.

Impact of Aguilar in America

Although Grace Aguilar had never crossed the Atlantic, her letters to prominent American Jewish educators left an impact lasting nearly a century.  Among her pen pals were Isaac Lesser, Rebecca Gratz, and Miriam Cohen.  They relied on her works Vision of Jerusalem, The Wanderers, and Women of Israel for their Sunday Hebrew schools.  In total, Aguilar published 12 books, along with numerous essays and poems that have since become lost.

Death of Aguilar

Throughout her life, Aguilar suffered various illnesses and never married, focusing all of her strengths on education and writing.  In the spring of 1847, her condition deteriorated. but she was determined to visit her brother Emanuel who was studying music in Frankfurt.  Not far from this German city were mineral spas, and Aguilar visited them in the hope of improving her health.  But her condition got worse and she died on September 16 at age 31, buried in the city’s Jewish cemetery with a quote from Eishes Chayil on her matzeivah.  In the weeks following her death, condolences were sent from the far corners of the Jewish world.  Politicians and Christian leaders also mourned for Aguilar, regarding her as a leading moral voice of the time.

In Conclusion

Adding to the street’s Jewish character, the Aguilar Gardens co-op apartments are largely Jewish and had an on-campus Hebrew school in its early years.  “Apparently I was a good student because all my grades were in the 90s,” wrote Gordon, who took his bar mitzvah classes there in 1961.  “The teacher was an old woman who had trouble controlling the small single class she taught.  But she taught us how to read, write, and speak in Yiddish and Hebrew.  Because I stopped attending, however, I have barely retained knowledge of either language.”

Andrew Gordon first posted his namesake guess on the Facebook group Fresh Meadows 360, administered by local history enthusiast Scott Aronofsky.  Along with his other group, Queens Back in the Day, he promotes discussions of neighborhood history and trivia.

Aronofsky recalled the unsuccessful effort in November 2015 before Community Board 8 to co-name this avenue after former Aguilar Gardens co-op president Shirley Weinstein.  “It would have diminished the importance of Grace Aguilar,” wrote Aronofsky, while adding a conciliatory note.  “Is it just me or do these two bear a strong resemblance to each other?”

Without a doubt, Grace Aguilar is the most famous individual to carry her last name and, as there were no landowners, politicians, or community leaders in New York named Aguilar, it is safe to presume that Gordon’s guess is a very educated one, and a fitting one for a neighborhood with a large Jewish population and its largest kosher supermarket located on Aguilar Avenue.

By Sergey Kadinsky

 

 

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