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Visiting the Dead

A visit to New York’s Mount Carmel Cemetery highlights how far American Jews have drifted from their immigrant ancestors, geographically and ritually

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Gravestones at Mount Carmel Cemetery.(Molly Surno)

In the period before the High Holidays, it’s traditional for Jews to visit the graves of departed family members and recite kaddish, the mourner’s prayer. In the New York area, many of the sprawling Jewish cemeteries date back at least a century and were chosen by immigrant communities seeking a burial place for their landsmen for generations to come. Rabbi Andy Bachman, of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, knows these graveyards well—he often officiates at funerals in Queens and Brooklyn. He took Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry (and photographer Molly Surno—see gallery below) on a tour of Mount Carmel Cemetery in Queens, the final resting place of some 85,000 Jewish New Yorkers including Bella Abzug, Abraham Cahan, and Benny Leonard, and he talked about how changes in burial customs over the past several decade reflect broader shifts in Jewish American life.

 

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Jessie Ivry says:

Yes! In the afterlife you will have to be married.
Great podcast. Very moving. Thanks for doing this story.

Why, Jessie Ivry?

Ellen Levitt says:

You can learn a lot by visiting cemeteries. Doing so helped me with the research of my book THE LOST SYNAGOGUES OF BROOKLYN, and with my next edition.

Ellen–shoot me an email and I’d love to see the book and invite you to the Shul. Shabbat Shalom~Andy

Cemeteries can be a great source of history. In Israel, the history of cemeteries is even more ancient.

Thank you for the wonderful information.

Kaya Stern-Kaufman says:

This was a wonderful podcast. Kudos to Sara Ivry for exploring a subject usually avoided by most. On the subject of death and burial practices, and the changes in culture over time, consider viewing the Japanese film “Departures.”

Charles says:

Very interesting….thanks for this.

For more information about Jewish cemeteries, see

http://www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/cp-main.htm and

http://www.iajgsjewishcemeteryproject.org/

Among many other resources on the Internet, searchable online burial indexes are available for several Jewish cemeteries in the NYC area (including Mt. Carmel), Illinois, and Michigan. The JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR) is an international index and includes many gravestone photos. Other gravestone photos are also posted on the commercial web site JewishData.

See also A Field Guide to Visiting a Jewish Cemetery: a spiritual journey to the past, present, and future, by Rabbi Joshua L. Segal (c. 2005).

Cemeteries are rich with history and culture. As the Director of Educational Programming for the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts, I conduct cemetery educational tours for youth and adult education groups in our area during the spring and fall. Our organization owns and manages 105 out of 209 Jewish cemeteries in Massachusetts. It is our goal to educate and enlighten the community about the act of remembrance. Through education, we hope to impart to others the historic significance of Jewish cemeteries, the artistic elements and symbolism found on cemeteries and the importance of educating and maintaining our customs and traditions that make our heritage so meaningful and healing.

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Visiting the Dead

A visit to New York’s Mount Carmel Cemetery highlights how far American Jews have drifted from their immigrant ancestors, geographically and ritually

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