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!

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