In the Jewish section of the large municipal cemetery in Moscow, numerous tombstones are engraved with an insignia indicating that the deceased was an honored member of the Communist party. What motivated individuals so entrenched in this political/national ideology to desire to be buried among religious brethren? Amanik, in his excellent history of Jewish death and burial in New York from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries, raises the same question when he asserts, “Despite…pivotal changes, one stark continuity…remained…: Jewish commitment to be separate in death.” To some degree, this circumstance is even more curious on American soil, where no clear record of excluding Jews from public burial exists. Indeed, this “drive to separate” stands in contrast to the exceptional degree to which Jews focused successfully on becoming key partners in forming New York's multicultural mosaic.
Amanik is a meticulous social historian adept at featuring individuals or events that illustrate overall trends or unique phenomena. He is not, however, an anthropologist, a philosopher, or a theologian. Thus, little space is dedicated to explaining why New York Jews remained insistent on maintaining their own cemeteries for so long. Yet this fact serves as a provocative foil to the majority of the content in the book, which excavates and then narrates the vicissitudes and evolutions in the dynamics surrounding Jewish death rites, funerals, and cemeteries in the New York area.
The story begins with the small cadre of original Jewish settlers that found refuge in New Amsterdam/New York from the 1650s. Intent on adapting the modes of their Spanish–Portuguese origins to the New World, they dominated Jewish life on the Atlantic coast through the early nineteenth century. The next chapters trail the major waves of Jewish immigration in the mid-nineteenth century and throughout much of the twentieth century. First, the book chronicles the conflicts and adjustments related to the arrival of thousands of primarily German-speaking Jews—some of them having been exposed to early European Reform Judaism—and then the major transformation that emerged after millions of mainly East Europeans made New York the largest Jewish metropolis in the world. The volume, to be sure, is far more than a specialized study of Jewish expiration and interment. Rather, Amanik demonstrates that this issue not only reflected overall reworkings of Jewish life; it often spurred them.
Among the themes that feature prominently are the initial authority of synagogues regarding the acquisition of grounds, ritual treatment of the dead, and entitlement to, and location of, burial; the rise of burial fraternities that wrested the monopoly from the synagogues (many of these fraternities transforming into major benevolent societies that provided “insurance” to surviving family members); publication of death and mourning guides that facilitated wider access to specific life-cycle customs and traditions; the closing of burial grounds in Manhattan in favor of massive “rural” cemeteries for Jews in the outlying boroughs; the advent of the private funeral industry and its eventual dominance of what was once an intimate aspect of Jewish life; new roles for women in burial services beyond sewing shrouds, eventually resulting in distinct hevra kadisha burial sisterhoods; rabbis, lay leaders, and denominational organizations cultivating and reforming cemetery rituals and reasserting the synagogue as the proper vehicle for funereal functions; and more recent efforts to entrust sacred customs with Jewish individuals again rather than professional frameworks. Throughout, Amanik selects key junctures to note parallels with other religions and societal issues that contextualize the Jewish developments within wider schemes.
This learned tome ends its main narrative in 1965. Yet, contrary to the brief epilogue that highlights the overall continuity of central trends in subsequent decades, two major digressions from prior accepted practice during the past half century challenge the ongoing viability of the “drive to separate” as a major constant. The first is exogamy/intermarriage, the initial “spike” of which was first recognized in the 1960s, and which today pertains to between 50 and 60 percent of all Jews in the United States. When so many “Jewish” families include members who do not identify as Jewish, the very idea of limiting burial to “Jews” is no longer possible, or even desirable, for many. This reality confronts congregations whose cemetery charters explicitly permit only Jewish burial on the grounds. A common solution is the purchase of additional space in which both Jews and non-Jews may be buried. Will this rising integration of non-Jewish spouses and children forever change the underlying premise of the “Jewish” cemetery in New York/America?
The second issue that complicates the prior norm is the growing number of Jews who are cremated rather than buried in the traditional manner. Although cremation does not automatically preclude interment in a Jewish cemetery, it sometimes meets with strong disapproval, if not outright prohibition. Even liberal denominations can object out of respect for the millions who were incinerated in Nazi crematoria. Many Jews, however, choose cremation for economic and ecological reasons, questioning the rationale for Jewish cemeterial “footprints.” Nonetheless, the Orthodox-affiliated National Association of Chevra Kaddisha dedicates considerable effort toward educating Jews about the ongoing importance of traditional burial, regardless of personal religious lifestyle, often citing the Nazi crematoria as boundary-marking symbols. The Association raised substantial funds to create a cemetery in southern Florida, the home to thousands of expatriate New York Jews, that offers free burial services to those willing to forego cremation.
The “drive to separate” in death that appeared axiomatic to most mid-twentieth-century Jews—be they in Moscow or New York—seems to be losing its potency among today’s American Jews.