Monday, June 28, 2010

The Mysteries of Riverside Cemetery

Cemeteries are by their nature mysterious places. They are where the living come to commune with the dead, and where, to some degree, the dead commune with each other. Cemeteries are also museums of the past, containing the earthly remains of people and sometimes, even institutions. The Riverside Cemetery is excellent of this sort of open air museum. Set among rolling hills and tree lined lanes in Saddle Brook, New Jersey, traveling through the grounds, one sees the gates of many New York and New Jersey synagogues and organizations that are no longer. Particularly poignant are the many Harlem congregations and organizations that are now defunct: Beth Israel of Harlem, Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol of Harlem, Harlem Benevolent Association, True Fellowship Society Harlem, Harlem Progressive, Young Men's Aid Society of Harlem, Harlem Kurlander, Harlem Israel Society, and others. There are some congregations that were in Harlem, but have moved out and still exist, such as the First Hungarian Congregation Ohab Zedek, and Temple Ansche Chesed. Of all of them, only our small synagogue, the Chevra Talmud Torah Ansche Marovi, still exists in Harlem.

The Chevra Talmud Torah Ansche Marovi purchased our section of the Riverside Cemetery around the time that it was constructing the synagogue on Old Broadway. The first burial there was of Dora Rubin, who died on October 22, 1922. Since then, our section of the cemetery has become the final resting place of a number of people who were important to the shul, such as past presidents Davis Brown, Isidor Thornschein and William Joachim; Sam and Ida Ratner, who donated the materials and labor for our sukkah, Ferdinand and Klara Mezei, the in-laws of Rabbi and Mrs. Kret, as well as many people who are not so well known.

Moshe Zvi Hirsch ben Reb Aryeh Leyb and Chana Sarah bas Reb Shraga Feyvush are among these. Their names are inscribed on an old marble bench which is in the middle of cemetery section. We have not been able to determine these people were and why there is a modest memorial to their memory. This is our first mystery.

The second mystery and the one that has truly captured my imagination is the one that surrounds that lonely tombstone of Leo Hand. All that we know about poor Leo we know from his stone. He died on August 3, 1926 at age 10. The death of a child is always a tragedy, which one can still feel eighty-four years later. This sadness is compounded by the physical remoteness of Leo's grave. His matzevah stands alone on the eastern side of our section of the cemetery the next nearest tombstone (in our section) is not less than fifteen feet away. It is all so strange and distant, and yet the grave remains, year after year, each time we visit.

But is Leo  really so alone? If one walks thirty feet or so due west, clear into the neighboring section, "Family Section Number 6," one comes across the graves of Isidor and Fannie Hand (Yitzchak and Feigie) who died in 1967 and 1973 respectively. They seem to have been the right age to have been Leo's parents. Indeed, the man's name in Hebrew was Yitzchak, which is listed as the name of Leo's father on Leo's tombstone. Moreover, how common could the name "Hand" be? Could it be a coincidence that they are so close to Leo's grave if they are not related? Finally, if they are Leo's parents, why weren't they buried next to Leo in the Old Broadway section? Was it possible that they wished to be buried in the Old Broadway Synagogue section but were no longer members and therefore not entitled to burial plots? I hope to contact the staff at the Riverside Cemetery to see if they know the answers to any of these questions.

The saddest part of visiting the Riverside Cemetery, at least for me, is neither the Old Broadway Synagogue section, nor the Phoeniz Association section, where my great-grandparents are buried, but the Ansche Chesed section. There, my friend Isaac Meyers lays at rest, after died as a result of a tragic traffic accident three years ago. We visited his grave today, placed some rocks on the tombstone, and recited the 23rd Psalm. We also tried to tell a few jokes, because, he would want it that way. They were not very good. We will have to do better next time.

Our annual visit has been sponsored and organized by Dale Brown, the grand-daughter of Davis Brown and the head of our Cemetery Committee. Dale has generous sponsored our congregational outings to the cemetery for the last decade or so and had been tending to the Old Broadway section of the Riverside Cemetery by herself for many years before that. Each year, Dale provides a sumptuous breakfast for all who come and for the last two years, Daniel Fridman, our talented teacher, has conducted his weekly shiur at the breakfast at the cemetery. I am grateful to Dale for giving us this great opportunity to perform a chesed shel emes, a true kindness, by tending to the graves of our deceased congregants. I also believe, or at least like to think, that those members of our shul who are buried at the Riverside Cemetery see that we remember them, and perhaps also intercede for us with Hashem if need be. Finally, I like to believe that in the merit of our caring for those who are no longer with us, that when our time comes, and we will be buried in the ground, that the next generation will visit our graves, pull some weeds, and remember for a moment who we once were.

Photos from this year's visit to the Riverside Cemetery