13 August 2010

Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?

3 Elul 5770

"Why are you always walking around cemeteries!?" my father-in-law exclaimed to me this morning, looking over my shoulder as I was sorting through some pictures of my latest cemetery walk, through the Baron de Hirsch Cemetery in Montreal. 

Good question.

We return to certain texts--written or sculpted, as it were, in order to orient our sense of reality.  There are places that center us, focus us on what matters.  As a kid, it was a particular tree in my yard or a baseball diamond or the basketball court.  Each place held my attention--its singular smells and design; the echo of sounds off their surfaces; the nature of the silence I encountered which fostered whatever introspection I may have sought in less philosophical days.  And ever since 1973, when we buried my grandfather and I started the practice of visiting family graves (it's been 37 years and counting) I feel very much on my home-court in the graveyard. 

Despite most people's fear of death--a universal fear that priests and prophets and rabbis and imams and philosophers and psychologists have been trying to alleviate for generations--I have found facing it, touching its reality encoded in granite and marble and stone to be one of the single most rooting experiences I know.

I highly recommend it.

Anyway, to share something interesting:  In a couple of sections of the cemetery at Baron de Hirsch yesterday, I saw some stone designs I've never actually seen in a New York cemetery before--proud displays of communism right alongside symbols of Judaism.   Rather than see one's personal identity with roots in religion as inherently contradictory of one's political beliefs, these stones melded them together with pride, for eternity.  Given their years of carving and the fear of the spread of communism in the United States, I can't imagine Jewish stone-carvers agreeing to such designs but I am eager to investigate.

In the meantime, enjoy the following pictures.  Michael Buhay, here pictured, was the first Communist city councilor of Montreal, who died in 1947.  He's in the Jewish Assistance section of the cemetery, begun by leftists who broke away from the Workmen's Circle.  For a time, this aid organization was known, dramatically, as the United Jewish People's Order.  The broken chains linking, strongly, the Jewish Exodus narrative, the daily prayers to free the captive, and in the narrative of the workers' movement, to free the worker from the exploits of capitalism.   Abie Berman, you'll notice, is called in Hebrew "bachur," which one must understand not only as "brother" but as "comrade."  The juxtaposition of Mann, his photo in a heart of pink stone, hovering above the hammer and sickle, is truly incredible.  Sheva Godvan's is a classic design of its era.  Really great stuff.

Movements may come and go; their preservation and therefore the ideas they represent, are never so easily removed.  Here that movement represented is a particular form of Jewish communism as it was made manifest in Montreal in the early mid-twentieth century.  But it could apply to any number of social and political and cultural movements, making these walks, wherever we happen to be, so crucial for knowing who we are and where we come from.

1 comment:

jhh1822 said...


recently explored a cemetery on the South Side of Chicago, home to a monument for the thousands of Confederate (!) soldiers buried there

very disturbing yet also beautiful to see the older Jewish section of that cemetery, where the gravestones are crowded together, some falling over, among weeds

thanks for capturing the beauties of graveyards