By Cindy Mindell
The traditional attitude of Judaism was not to encourage excessive grave visitation. The rabbis were apprehensive that frequent visits to the cemetery might become a pattern, preventing the bereaved from placing their dead in proper perspective and attending to the matters of living. The rabbis wanted to prevent mourners from making graves into a sort of totem, where the living would pray to the dead rather than to God, thereby violating one of the cardinal principles of Judaism: God is One and there are no intermediaries between a person and God.
Today, Jews traditionally visit the graves of their loved ones over the High Holidays, with most congregations holding a communal memorial service on the Sunday between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
We asked Connecticut rabbis to explore this tradition and talk about how they and/or their respective congregation practice the custom.
“Don’t worry, they won’t write on your tombstone that you got a C on your math test.”
My father, Louis Cantor, alav hashalom, used to comfort me frequently with these words. “Don’t worry, Debbie, they won’t write on your tombstone that…” and then he’d fill in the blank with whatever disastrous thing was bothering me at that moment. I was a kid; what did I know about tombstones? Yet, I always found my father’s words very reassuring. Maybe because they were usually accompanied by a hug. Maybe because I knew how much he loved me.
But there was another reason: my father was actually quoting someone he greatly admired. He always prefaced his tombstone comment by saying: “My engineering professor, David Leekoff, used to say: ‘Louis, they won’t write on your tombstone that you didn’t get an A on this exam…’” If Dr. Leekoff’s wisdom had helped my father, I reasoned, it might help me as well.
Twelve years ago, a year after my father died, our family gathered to decide on the wording for his tombstone. Dr. Leekoff was right; we did not mention his long-ago C in calculus. We did not mention any of his many academic honors either. We simply asked the stonecutter to inscribe under his name the words: “Beloved husband, brother, father, ‘Papa Louie’.”
The fact is, we do not need to come to the cemetery to remember our loved ones. We think about and miss them every day. We come to the cemetery to visit their memorial stones, to see what is inscribed, to add our own small stones of remembrance. And the words written on these stones – even if they are just names and dates – remind us of what our loved ones stood for, what values they cherished; they remind us of their love and the legacy they left us.
We visit the cemetery to ponder, as well, what will be inscribed on our own tombstones. Not the petty things we mistakenly believe matter so much. Not the disappointments or the hurts or the mistakes. Not the number of things we owned or miles we traveled.
And we wonder, as we prepare to enter the Yamim Noraim, the High Holy Days, what will be our epitaph? What will be our legacy? How will we be remembered?
We visit the cemetery at this season to set our priorities straight, to remind ourselves about what truly matters, what remains long after we have left this earth: the good we did, the words we shared, the comfort we offered, the relationships we nurtured, the acts of kindness we performed, the times we asked forgiveness, the times we forgave, the love we freely gave and received.
That is why we visit. To reconnect, to remember and to go forth on our journey towards this fresh New Year, determined and inspired to live better lives. As Prof. Leekoff and my father taught, we need to remember what will truly be inscribed on our stones.
L’shanah tovah tikatevu – may you be inscribed for a good, sweet, peaceful, healthy and meaningful 5775!
Tradition tells us visiting graves in the month of Elul, the preparatory time to the Days of Awe, is an old custom. We may … “offer prayers at the graves of the departed so that they may ‘intercede on behalf of the living,’” according to Moses ben Israel Isserles, Polish decisor of halacha (c. 1525 -1572). We moderns may think of this as having more to do with superstition, but as our thoughts turn to family and the beginning of a new year, we also think to honor our past and loved ones who are no longer living.
Many congregations hold a communal service because they have dedicated cemetery space where congregants are buried. Psalms are recited and some prayers, more communal in nature recalling leaders and members may be added. In addition the El Molei and Kaddish prayers are said. Attending this service and/or visiting the graves of our beloved dead is meant to bring kavod, honor to the one who has died and comfort to us, the living.
The earliest source in a halachic work I found is from a comment of Rabbi Moses Isserles, known by his acronym, the Remah, in Shulchan Aruch, section 1, Orach Chaim. In the section, Ha-Mapah (The Tablecloth), the inline additions to the Shulchan Aruch, written by Rabbi Joseph Karo (1488-1575), the Remah writes (translation mine): “On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, it is the custom of many communities to go (after morning prayers) to the cemetery to pray at the graves of the righteous and give charity to the poor.”
Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried (1804-1886), in his work, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (chapter 128, paragraph 13) writes (Art Scroll translation), “to arouse the holy righteous ones who are interred there in the earth to advocate for our good on the Day of Judgment. Additionally, because it is the burial place of the righteous, this place is holy and pure and prayer is more readily accepted there since it is on holy ground and the Holy One, blessed is He, will act with kindness in the merit of the righteous.”
The author continues: “However, one should not direct his heart toward the dead that lie there because this borders on being included in the prohibition, “Requesting assistance from the dead” (Deuteronomy 18:11). Rather, one should request from HaShem (God): “Blessed be He that He should have mercy on him in the merit of the deceased righteous.”
Upon entering the cemetery, I recite aloud the traditional blessing [addressing the deceased] that one says if they have not been to a cemetery in the past 30 days, thereby fulfilling everyone else’s obligation. A short presentation is given by the rabbi explaining the custom. Selected chapters from the book of Psalms are chanted together, some in English and others in Hebrew. We conclude with the traditional memorial prayer, Kail Molai Rachamim.
I have found that, as far back as 13th century, the original custom of visiting the cemetery was designated specifically for the Eve of Rosh Hashanah and not before. I don’t know exactly when the custom was modified, but over time, communities would schedule their visits at convenient times that worked for them, up to a month before the New Year holiday. Typically, it would be on a Sunday a week or more before.
I recently found a comprehensive work on laws and customs called Nitei Gavriel by Rabbi Gavriel Zinner. In “The Laws of Rosh HaShanah,” (Chap.18, page 139) the author mentions, “Today the custom is to go on the first day of Silichot” (this year on Sept. 21). In footnote 5 in this exceptional work, Rabbi Zinner writes, “the custom has changed because of the difficulty of communities scheduling their visitations on the eve of the festival due to their necessity of preparing for the upcoming Rosh HaShanah festival.” The author concludes that others would go on any day in the month of Elul.
We meet at the cemetery and form a long line – arm to arm – at the far end. Everyone is given small, polished stones. We move in a line, slowly, slowly, slowly. When any of us gets to a grave marker, we read the name out loud. We then kiss a stone and place it on the marker.
In this way, we make sure that everyone buried there is remembered.
There is something about actually vocalizing each name which is deeply spiritual.
We often say that we take the deceased of our community in with our own. We rarely do it.
This is the prelude to our cemetery pilgrimage service.
All are free to join us.
The power of curiosity
How one man helped salvage Jewish cemeteries in Hartford
By Cindy Mindell
HARTFORD – In 1975, West Hartford resident Barney Miller learned something interesting about his family history: the woman he had always thought was his grandmother – wasn’t.
The aunt who untangled the story started Miller off on a 40-year quest to understand his family’s genealogy.
He and his wife Elizabeth went to the source, walking the Hartford Jewish cemeteries – Zion Hill, Mahl Avenue, Garden Street, Tower Avenue – looking for family graves. He found ancestors in the tiny Austrian Hebrew Cemetery, part of the Old North Cemetery on Main Street. He wrote his genealogical findings into a self-published book, which he distributed to family members. (“My concern was what would happen if I died and someone threw away all my research,” he says.)
As Miller got to know the Jewish burial grounds, he saw vandalism and neglect, a frequent consequence when descendants move away and fraternal organizations die out and there’s no one to maintain the cemeteries.
When he retired, in 2000, he took his concerns to the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, thinking that the organization was responsible for maintaining the Jewish cemeteries.
That was partly true: in the late ‘90s, the Federation did take over some cemeteries established by defunct associations and synagogues. But the costly endeavor limited the scope of the work.
Miller kept lobbying. Philanthropist Henry Zachs stepped in with financial assistance and the Federation appointed Lisa Vaeth as director of the newly-formed Association of Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Hartford.
Miller continued to walk the old cemeteries, reporting any problems he noticed to Vaeth. He saw gravestones cracked and worn out by the elements. Using an inventory of gravestones collected by Rabbi Edward Cohen of West Hartford in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Miller identified the areas with large numbers of damaged and missing headstones.
In 2008, the Millers created a fund at the Jewish Community Foundation dedicated to preserving Jewish history and heritage by restoring damaged and obliterated headstones at the Zion Hill Cemetery, where several of Barney’s ancestors are buried.
In 2010, he decided to photograph as many stones as he could, to keep the engraved names from disappearing completely. To date, he has documented some 7,000 monuments, which he submits to Vaeth and to the International Jewish Cemetery Project, a database maintained by the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies.
In May, Miller was named Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford Cemetery Volunteer of the Year. He is still working with Vaeth and association co-chairs Henry Zachs and Jeff Bergen on ways to use Jewish community resources and volunteerism to keep the legacy of Jewish Hartford from vanishing.
The Association of Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Hartford provides proper care and ongoing maintenance in perpetuity to 28 cemeteries that were once affiliated with now-disbanded congregations or organizations. Funds are raised for lawn and tree care, snow removal, tombstone resetting, fencing repairs, burials, and general upkeep. The association also provides families with information on the location of loved ones’ gravesites and assists in managing the burial process.
Field of Memories: Connecticut’s Jewish cemetery associations
Many synagogues and Jewish organizations maintain their own cemeteries. Others, including now-defunct congregations, benevolent organizations, and fraternal societies, are cared for by three cemetery associations in Fairfield, Greater Hartford, and Greater New Haven. These organizations rely on grants and donations to maintain the burial sites, some of which have no living descendants or organization members to tend to the properties.
Association of Jewish Cemeteries, Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford
For more information, contact Lisa Vaeth, Jewish Cemeteries Director, before Sept. 23: (860) 727-6143 / LVaeth@jewishhartford.org
Jewish Cemetery Association of Fairfield County
The Jewish Cemetery Association of Fairfield County maintains several cemeteries on Burroughs Avenue, Black Rock Turnpike, Reid Street, and Shepard Street in Fairfield and recently took title of the Congregation Adath Israel (defunct) section of Park Cemetery in Bridgeport. Info: Martin Green, Cemetery Manager, (203) 452-1221
The Jewish Cemetery Association of Greater New Haven, Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven
The Jewish Cemetery Association of Greater New Haven has title to nine cemeteries throughout the region. This year, with the closing of Congregation Kol Ami in Cheshire, the association acquired the Kol Ami-Beth Israel Synagogue (Bristol) cemetery property on Lake Avenue in Bristol.
In addition, the association is responsible for the upkeep – shared or complete – of some 40 cemeteries, which it funds through grants from the Jewish Foundation of Greater New Haven and private donations.
The association maintains a database of some 25,000 burials, housed on the Yeshiva of New Haven website, which also lists area Jewish cemeteries and directions to each: yeshivanewhavensynagogue.org/cemetery.asp
For more information: Andy Hodes, Coordinator, email@example.com / (203) 387-2424, ext. 303