Home is Where the Heart is...

In the Hunts Bay Cemetery in Jamaica, there is a small fragment of a gravestone, belonging to Esther ("De Ester"). The rest of the fragment reads "fil...," probably filha, daughter in Portuguese. The size of the stone and the identification of the deceased as a daughter (rather than wife) suggests this was probably a child's gravestone. What intrigues me most about the fragment, however, is the house inside of the wreath at the top.

It is unusual to find gravestones with houses carved on them either in the Jewish Atlantic World or in colonial American cemeteries more broadly. On some level this is surprising. In Hebrew, the euphemism for a cemetery is "Beth Haim" (house of life). Also many scholars have noted that the traditional upright markers of colonial cemeteries look like doorways. Usually this is understood as a symbol of the grave as a portal into the afterlife. An actual house is a different matter, though, as it symbolizes the family and protection, not the world to come. Some argue that the house is an inherently feminine space: it is not only the domain of women, but also a place of security and shelter. It interests me that the house also appears on the stone of Esther de la Pena (Amsterdam 1697), a detail of which is shown below.

This exquisite stone from Beth Haim Ouderkerk features the family coat of arms at the top; below is an inscription and a depiction of the family's country estate shown above with sailing ships in the background. (Esther's husband Daniel was a shipping magnate, and surely it is trade that bought the beautiful estate.) At the very bottom of the stone is a reference: Psalm 128:3 ("Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine, in the innermost parts of thy house; / thy children like olive plants, round about thy table"). On one level, the country house seems like a status symbol; on another level, however, it is a moving metonym for the deceased wife: she is like the "innermost" part of the house, a private, familial space.

The house motif is more commonly found in American women's poetry than on gravestones; however, here too graves, houses, and women are conjoined. Emily Dickinson made analogies between poems and houses, not only because of the associations of houses with femininity and domesticity, but also because both are about enclosure or restriction. For Dickinson, being in the house was similar to the suffocating "constriction" of a tomb. Literary critic Leslie Wheeler argues that for Dickinson, possessing a body ultimately became so restrictive that death signified a welcome release, and that "the narrowness of the tomb yields a paradoxical freedom" (The Poetics of Enclosure 15). I somehow think this is not what the carvers of these stones meant: Both the Pena house and the house on young Ester's tomb face outward, windows open. The Pena house is surrounded by five vibrant trees (the children?); although it faces away from the bay (mercantile life) towards a more private vista, it hardly looks like a mausoleum. Rather it is a prosperous, sheltering space, reassuring in its solidity.

Gravestone of Esther de la Pena (Amsterdam 1697), Beth Haim Ouderkerk

All photos by Laura Leibman, 2009-2010.

Graveyard Cats

This post is dedicated to the felines of the Atlantic World: those sun-loving souls who spend their days (and nights) lounging in the cemeteries that grace the Atlantic Rim. This week I feature two cemetery cats: Wunzie (Newport) and Iyar (Ouderkerk aan de Amstel) as well as their sepulchral companions, the lions carved onto Beth Haim Ouderkerk gravestones.

Cat Number One: Wunzie. Officially, Wunzie lives down the street from the Trinity Church Cemetery in Newport, RI. Last time I was in Newport, however, Wunzie spent most of her time sunning herself on table stones and chasing bugs among the upright markers. A black and white DSH (domestic short hair: veterinary speak for "cat mutt") with a sparkling personality, Wunzie likes to ham it up for the camera. Here are a few shots of her in her favorite haunt. If anyone in Newport knows how Wunzie is doing, let me know!

Wunzie Modeling a "Table Stone," Trinity Church (Anglican) Cemetery, Newport RI

Wunzie Catching a Bug, Trinity Church (Anglican) Cemetery, Newport RI

Cat Number Two: Iyar. Iyar is an official graveyard cat of the historic Portuguese-Jewish cemetery in Ouderkerk aan de Amstel in the Netherlands. She lives in the Caretaker's House with her younger cat companion and her master, Dennis Ouderdorp, who knows more about Jewish Cemeteries than anyone I have ever met. (Because I lack social graces, I only have a picture of Dennis's cat, and not Dennis himself.) Named for the Hebrew month of Iyar (meaning "Rosette" or "blossom"), Iyar is the matriarch of the cemetery. You will notice that like Wunzie, Iyar is a black and white DSH. Coincidence? I think so. The day I was in Ouderkerk ann de Amstel it was pouring rain, so I don't have quite as many photos of Iyar as I'd like, but here is another of her on one of the flat Sephardic table stones.

Iyar on an unidentified Table Stone, Beth Haim Ouderkerk

Iyar and her companion aren't the only cats in Beth Haim Ouderkerk. Although the earliest gravestones at Beth Haim Ouderkerk are free of images of living things, by the 1650s the use of vegetation appears, followed by death’s heads and human hands in the 1660s. By the 1680s animals, angels and biblical scenes with humans appear. One of the most popular animals to grace the stones are lions, several styles of which can be found in the cemetery. Lions are an important Jewish symbol, and often appear on Jewish ceremonial art, such Arks, Torah crowns, and menorot. The JHOM speculates that, "It is possible..that these lions, particularly those on many Torah Ark doors and curtains, are symbolic replacements of the original cherubim that once adorned the Ark of the Tabernacle in the Mishkan (portable Temple in the wilderness) and the Temple in Jerusalem." Lions—associated with the tribe of Judah and the Davidic monarchy—evoked the messiah and hence are an important eschatological reference. Lions are also associated with the Spanish-Portuguese name "Leon" (literally "lion") and are a common heraldic symbol (for example they are found on the coat of arms for "Castile and Leon," Spain and the Netherlands). Many of the lions in Beth Haim Ouderkerk are on heraldic lions (for example above right, gravestone of Benjamin Senior Teixeira, 1744). They can also be found, however, in biblical scenes, such as the one below depicting Daniel and the lions.

Detail of Gravestone Depicting Daniel and the Lions, Beth Haim Ouderkerk

Photo Credits: All Photos Laura Leibman, 2007-2009. Courtesy of Beth Haim Ouderkerk aan de Amstel.

Gravestone Symbols: the Hand of God

According to Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed, belief in the corporeality of God is a heresy. Why then do gravestones from the Jewish Atlantic World often feature the hand of God cutting down the tree of life? In even more extreme cases, God was presented on gravestones as a fully anthropomorphized figure, such as on the gravestone of Samuel Senior Teixeria (Amsterdam 1717), and the gravestones of Yosiyahu Raphael Castillo (Barbados, 1698) and Esther Hana de Meza (Cassipora Cemetery, Suriname 1745).

The Hand of God has a long history in Jewish art. One of the earliest examples has been found in the wall paintings of the Synagogue at Dura Europos. Created around 244 CE, the synagogue at Dura Europos (Syria) was uncovered by archaeologists in 1932. The rich wall paintings were remarkably well preserved, because the synagogue had been filled in with dirt in an effort to protect the town from a Persian attack in 256 CE. Although at first the artwork made archaeologists skeptical skeptical that the structure was Jewish, today the wall decorations are considered one of the most famous examples of early synagogue art. Many of the frescoes are widely reprinted, particularly a Purim Procession featuring Mordechai. Less commonly reprinted, and perhaps more troubling, is the Akeidah (binding of Isaac) scene from above the Torah niche which features the hand of God staying the sacrifice (figure above at right).

Whereas the hand in the Dura Europos fresco prevents a death, the hands featured on the tombstones from the Jewish Atlantic World usually represent a life being ended. The motif can also be found in Kabbalistically-influenced Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe from the same era, though more commonly a flower is being picked, rather than a tree cut down. This is probably an illustration of the verse from Shir haShirim (Song of Songs) 6:2, “My beloved has gone down into his garden…to gather lilies.” Ruth Ellen Gruber provides an example from the Sadagora Cemetery in the Ukraine of the flower motif. The cut flower motif can also be found on gravestones in the Jewish Atlantic World, usually for those who died young, and occasionally the hand of God is replaced either by a putto (as in the example at the left from the gravestone of Marius Penso (1889, Beit Haim Berg Altena, Curacao; photograph Laura Leibman) or the angel of death (see example below)

Although cut flowers also represent a life cut short, the cutting of the tree has a slightly different resonance. As scholar Aviva Ben-Ur notes, the tree of life has particular importance in Jewish mysticism. As "an ancient, widespread symbol representing the `promise of immortality and everlasting youth,'" the tree of life "variably signifies in Jewish tradition Judgment, the return to Edenic paradise, the future Temple, and Messianic Jerusalem" (Still Life: Sephardi, Ashkenazi, and West African Art and Form in Suriname’s Jewish Cemeteries, 56).

Detail of Gravestone of David Raphael Hoheb (1756)
Old Sephardi Cemetery, Paramaribo, Suriname.
Photo by Laura Leibman.

Scholars have offered several explanations for the hand of God motif including Kabbalism, conversos' Catholic upbringing, the antinomian ("against the law") influence of the messianism practiced by Sabbatai Tzvi, and the lack of religious rigor in the colonies. I am curious what explanation seems most likely to readers of this blog.

Book Review: Houses of Life

I have a new favorite book: Joachim Jacobs' Houses of Life: Jewish Cemeteries of Europe. This book is a must have for anyone interested in either Jewish History, Genealogy, or Gravestone Art. Several things make this book fantastic: one, it provides a history of European Jewish cemeteries from the early Roman period through today. Two, it is beautifully illustrated: in addition to featuring some of the most important artwork created about these cemeteries (including the cover illustration by Chagal and the Prague Cycle), it is richly illuminated by the photographs of Hans Dietrich Beyer. I also appreciated the range of cemeteries they uncovered: although I own a book by Minna Rosen on the Haskoy Cemetery in Istanbul, I liked being able to see the photographs of that cemetery next to ones from the same era from elsewhere in Europe and hearing how it differed stylistically from other Sephardic cemeteries. The city maps with the cemeteries highlighted are awesome, as are the archival photographs.

Although some of the ground covered in this book has also been explored by Hannelore Kunzl in Judische Grabkunst von der Antike bis heute, Jacobs' book will have the strong advantage for most American readers of being in English. Given the large number of color photographs and images and the large number of communities and cemeteries it covers, this book is extremely well priced at $65 USD. Several communities in the Jewish Atlantic World are covered in the work including London, Sepharad (Iberia), Amsterdam, and modern Portugal.

My favorite piece of trivia from the book is that several European Jewish cemeteries had a stable or fenced-in pen for the bechorim (first-born kosher animals that couldn't be eaten except by Cohenim). What a great solution to a vexing problem!

Jewish Death Rituals: the House of the Rounds

As my twin sister will attest, since an early age I have had an extreme fear of dead bodies. Once I was asked to be part of the women's Chevra Kaddisha (Jewish burial society) in Portland, and although I was (briefly) tempted, I had to decline, as I knew I would never sleep again. I am not sure why this is. When I say I am afraid of "dead bodies," I mean dead people. Although I like live animals much better, I am not completely freaked out by dead animals: when I worked as a veterinarian's assistant, I had to deal with dead pets all the time. Sure I cried a lot, but once when asked to do so, I had to lump it and wash and prepare a dead schnauzer for an open casket funeral. It made me sad (and I felt like I needed to be paid more), but I went home, tucked myself into bed, and slept just fine. Dead people, however, are something else. I don't even like to work in cemeteries with recent burials, which for some reason I find more "creepy." Conveniently my research is mainly before the civil war, so I can usually avoid this problem. Jewish mysticism would say I am right to be wary of recent graves: according to Kabblah, there are at least three parts of the soul (nefesh, ruach, and neshama). After death these three parts of the soul suffer different fates, and the nefesh remains in the grave with the body until the body turns to dust. While in the grave, the nefesh undergoes the “pangs of the grave” (hibbut ha-kever). This means as well as being ritually impure, Jewish cemeteries are unhappy places.

Research interests aside, my fear of dead bodies is unfortunate, as one of the most important duties in Jewish life is to take care of the dead and prepare them for burial. Judaism has many rituals to help transition the body and soul of the deceased. In the Jewish Atlantic World one of the important places where these rituals took place was the "House of the Rounds" (Casa de Rodeos or Rodeamentos). This building served the same purpose as the tahara house in Ashkenazi cemeteries: it is where the ritual washing of the body occurred. A good depiction of this washing ritual was memorialized by the Prague Burial Society, which commissioned a series of paintings that depicted the various rituals performed by the Chevra Kaddisha (burial society) from sickbed to burial. In the Spanish-Portuguese rite, the eighteen members of the burial society also made seven circuits (hakafot) around the coffin.

“The Seven Circuits,” Bernard Picart (1673-1733), c. Royal Library of the Hague

Picart's eighteenth-century drawing depicts one such ceremony in the House of the Rounds in Amsterdam's Beth Haim Ouderkerk. The original seventeenth century tahara house was replaced in 1705 by the current building which still stands and was renovated in 1966 (below). One of the thoughtful features of this house was the wooden extension for Cohenim. Although most Jews could visit the dead after burial, those descended from the priestly family (Cohenim) are not permitted to walk in cemeteries. As Joachim Jacobs notes in his fabulous book Houses of Life, the extension allowed the Cohenim to "follow the hakafot through a window, without being under the same roof as the dead person (69)" Near the house, and right next to the entrance to the cemetery by the canal, is the separate section for the Cohenim that allowed them to see their relatives' graves without entering the cemetery proper.
Exterior of the Beth Haim Ouderkerk House of the Rounds;
the Cohenim's wooden extension (black) is on the left
(Photo L. Leibman)

Interior of the House of the Rounds today with the
Death's head and washing stations shown in Picart's drawing (Photo L. Leibman)

New Cohenim Section near the House of the Rounds,
Beth Haim Ouderkerk (Photo L. Leibman)

Many other cemeteries in the Jewish Atlantic World used a House of the Rounds in the cemeteries. Few remain today, though two exquisite examples occur in Curaçao, one in the older Jewish cemetery (Beit Haim Bleinheim), and one in the newer Jewish cemetery (Beit Haim Berg Altena). Like Amsterdam's Beth Haim Ouderkerk, the older Jewish cemetery in Curaçao paid attention to the special needs of the Cohenim and even built a special house from which they could visit the dead and yet not violate Jewish law. The presence of the House of the Rounds is an important ritual element of the Jewish Atlantic World.
House of the Rounds, Beit Haim Bleinheim, Curaçao (Photo L. Leibman)
House of the Cohenim, Beit Haim Bleinheim, Curaçao (Photo L. Leibman)

House of the Rounds, Beit Haim Berg Altena, Curaçao (Photo L. Leibman)

Image at top of page: Benjamin Senior Godines, “Vanitas Picture: A Memento Mori,” (1681).