In the bitter winter of 1888, as New York’s poorest and loneliest Jewish immigrants were increasingly buried anonymously in potter’s field, without regard for their dignity or Jewish tradition, the Hebrew Free Burial Association was formed to take responsibility for every Jew too poor to be buried like “a mensch.” It purchased six acres on Staten Island in 1893, and within 16 years Silver Lake Cemetery was filled to capacity with 13,000 Jewish souls, including thousands of children. The dead were brought by ferry and by horses and buggies clip-clopping over dirt roads through the hills of Staten Island.
More than a century after its last funeral, who remembers, let alone visits this crowded tenement of a graveyard? Time has been a vandal; some graves are without stones, with poor water drainage below the soil and wild vines and poison ivy above it. With the help of a donor or two, the Hebrew Free Burial Association, still alive, brought in experts to heal and renovate and map the graveyard: geo-physicists, archaeologists, landscape architects, using old maps and yellowed ledger books — and goats. For several weeks, over these last two years, 22 goats were brought to Silver Lake to happily eat the thick shrubbery and poison ivy (to which goats are immune).
It is Elul, days, hours, before Rosh HaShanah, and the clock is ticking on the living. Each week's candle lighting is earlier: 7:08; 6:56; 6:44… In the vespers of a year losing its light, there are few Elul customs more compelling than visiting the dead. After all, as the prayers remind us, some of us will be among them before September comes again.
Is there anything more Jewish, more comforting than the “klor vays tsigele” (the small white goat) of tender Yiddish lullabies like Rozhinkes Mit Mondlin (“Raisins and Almonds”), in which the goat sleeps under Yidele’s cradle, before Yidele and the goat go a-wandering? Or the goat of our seders, returning us to childhood, Chad Gadya, the goat that daddy bought for two zuzim, the two Tablets. Who better to visit, comfort and charm the dead than these goats?
Last week, a little over five miles from Silver Lake, at Mount Richmond Cemetery (Hebrew Free Burial’s “new” cemetery that opened in 1909 after the first cemetery was filled), Rabbi Shmuel Plafker, the HFBA chaplain, was explaining why the month before Rosh HaShanah is the month to visit the dead.
Rabbi Plafker, slender and gracious, says, “We’re not permanent residents in this world. In Elul, we’re asking our Landlord to extend the lease for another year. The Shulchan Aruch says, on Erev (the eve of) Rosh Hashanah we should go to the graves of tzadikim [the most spiritually pristine]. Perhaps they can channel our prayer in the right direction,” testifying for us in the Heavenly Court. “And if not tzaddikim, perhaps our parents or grandparents were on a higher spiritual level than we are.”
Even if we only know our deceased relatives to have been less than tzadikim, the mystics remind us that the dead have a higher consciousness in the Other World that is a kaleidoscope of revelation, stripped of the doubts and weakness that corrupt us in this one.
Hebrew Free Burial’s Mount Richmond is the resting place of Jews whose lives ended in the poorest and sorriest circumstances. Surely, here we could visit a Lamed Vuvnik (one of the 36 essential tzadikkim upon whom the fate of the world rests). They are said to be “hidden,” doing their earthly wonders anonymously, disguised as beggars or drifters, the despised or unnoticed, precisely Mount Richmond’s clientele.
“You can stop at any stone and not know how holy is the soul that you’re talking to,” says the rabbi. “Any one of them could have been a lamed vuvnik. They all had a Yiddisheh neshama (a Jewish soul). We don't know what they did in this world; perhaps they saved a life,” either physically or by reviving another’s spirt.
In the cemetery refrigerator, cooled to 42 degrees, Albert Irwin Ewen, dressed in shrouds, awaits his afternoon burial. It would be the cemetary’s fourth funeral of the day, and there wouldn’t be a minyan for any of them.
There was no Shomer (or spiritual guardian) for Albert Ewen. The Shomer’s responsibility was once to protect the body from thieves or rodents, but according to tradition, the soul is itself disoriented in the hours between death and burial. The Shomer reads Psalms to ease the soul, so I whispered Psalm 126 to Albert, how one day “this will all seem like a dream.”
Who was he? Did he ever know family? Did a girl ever have a crush on him? Did he “summer” in the mountains? There was not a single friend, not one family member as he was lowered in his grave to the whisper of Psalms.
Adjacent to the refrigerator that is large enough to hold ten bodies, is a fully equipped Tahara room where bodies are ritually prepared for burial. A week-long shiva candle is lit within the Tahara room, and always is. Even when no one is there? “We always have someone,” said the rabbi. “It's a rarity when we don’t.”
Twenty empty pine caskets are at the ready … for one of us? “We’re a little low,” said a cemetery worker, “but tomorrow we’re getting 12 caskets coming in,” from J & R, a casket company in Long Island City. “We keep a month’s supply of shrouds” in every size imaginable, dozens line the shelves. “All sizes, 5x, 3x, you never know who we’re going to get.”
Not everyone’s Hebrew name is known. According to Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, the HFBA’s rabbinic adviser’s policy is that names carry serious spiritual significance and at funerals the name must be exact. No guessing. If someone’s secular name is Joseph, he should not be called “Yosef” unless that name is certain. If no name is known, then Avraham or Sarah may be used, but better to say “Yosef ben-Stanley,” for example, than identify Yosef’s father by an incorrect Jewish name.
The day before funerals, Rabbi Plafker e-mails or telephones some 80 Jews in the vicinity in the hope that at least a minyan could come to a funeral, so Kaddish can be said. It would seem less lonely.
One volunteer, Robert Diament, 75, retired from the Board of Education, takes his own attendance: “How many funerals? Well, there are two today, so that’s 428.” Bert Migdal, 78, a retired accountant, counts 526. “You take care of your own,” says Migdal. “Everyone deserves the dignity. Sometimes its 17 degrees and just three of us, maybe, can get here, but you do what you can.”
Rabbi Plafker says, “I try to print out a small bio (of the deceased), provided by our (Manhattan) office, information we may get from a relative, social worker or friend, so [the minyan can know] whose funeral it is. Not always. But we always know the two most important things about anyone we bury. One, they’re a human being, and two, they’re a fellow Jew.”
If all that is known is that the Jew was once a soldier, then even if no one attends the funeral but the rabbi and the gravediggers, the HFBA will call the Veterans Administration to have a military honor guard come and play “Taps,” as was the case last week.
There is no better tune than “Taps” on the eve of Rosh HaShanah.
All is well. Safely rest. God is nigh.