Wednesday, March 26, 2008

So, You're Dead Already

Beth Israel

All geography is divided into two part: physical and cultural. The study of cemeteries is a branch of cultural geography. Cultural geography is the social sciences in situ.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, we can go on to the cemeteries.

You’ll recall in blog one, when I lamented the dear departed Stew Albert, that I promised more on Jewish cemeteries. This is it.

Not unlike geography, all Jews — well, almost all Jews — are divided into two parts, Sephardic and Ashkenazi, which roughly correspond to Mediterranean and Eastern European. The Mediterranean Jews are, more or less, those left over from the diaspora, whereas no one really knows how the Ashkenazi came about. There are competing theories. There are far-flung Jewish outposts in places one would never suspect, such as China and India, and even — to everyone’s utter surprise — South Africa, where a tribe insisted forever, to their neighbor’s ridicule and amusement, that they too, despite being totally like their neighbors in behavior and appearance, were Jewish; only to discover in this time of miracles and DNA analyses, that, not only were they Jewish, but that they were Cohens, an upper, priestly class of Jews. Suffice it to say that American Jews are, for the most part, either Sephardic or Ashkenazi, though that distinction is lost on the average American.

What it means in terms of cemeteries is that Jewish cemeteries are both religious and ethnic enclaves. That you don’t get one without the other. Which is not the case in your average cemetery. Even the most tightly religious Christian or nonaligned cemetery counts among its interred people from all parts of the world and backgrounds. You can be a Hottentot and be buried in the highly Scandinavian Svensen Pioneer Cemetey, for example, and while you may have to be a Catholic to be buried in St. Wenceslaus, you don’t have to be Bohemian. Which all goes towards making Jewish cemeteries unique: they aren’t like other cemeteries.

Beth Israel

They aren’t like other cemeteries in a lot of other ways, as well.

[But, again, before I go any further, I have to issue my standard disclaimer: what follows is local knowledge. How the Jews manage cemeteries in Fort Lauderdale or Scarsdale, I have no idea. I’m talking Oregon here. And not all of Oregon at that.]

For one thing, they’re hard to find. I spent months tracking down Neveh Zedek, even though it’s on street maps. Even when you find their names and addresses, they aren’t the easiest places to locate. Only Beth Israel is visible to the casual passerby, all the rest require driving out of the normal flow of traffic to find them.

There are seven Jewish cemeteries in the Portland metropolitan area, five independent and two as elements of Metro pioneer cemeteries. The five independent cemeteries are all distinguished by having live-in caretaker/guardians. A long history of cemetery desecration has undoubtedly led to that practice. The East Side Jewish Community of Portland (that’s their name) maintains a small enclave within Douglass Pioneer, which is exposed but in a cemetery that is unexpectedly located and not given to vandalism; while, as mentioned in “Stew, I Hardly Knew Ya,” Havurah Shalom hides in the secretive Jones Pioneer, another Metro cemetery.

Shaarie Torah

Ahavai Shalom shares Portland’s Boot Hill with River View, Riverview Abbey, Greenwood Hills, Beth Israel, and the GAR Cemetery, but it’s at the end of SW 1st St., a street you’ll never have cause to drive down, unless you’re heading knowingly for that cemetery. It, Beth Israel, and Neveh Zedek all share common features. Each is very well maintained, the lawns are lush, the plantings pristine, and the monuments are clean and well cared for. Unlike their neighbors, they tend to scrunch their burial plots together, leaving broad open spaces for the future, rather than filling in randomly from all over, which is the normal practice. They both sport endowed chapels. As one would expect from Jewish cemeteries, they have the appearance of attention to detail, respect, pride, and good taste. Many markers are piled with pebbles as a customary reminder of someone’s visit. Epitaphs tend to extol the virtues of family, good works, and modest self-appraisal.

Kesser Israel

The same could be said of Shaarie Torah, another Jewish cemetery on Portland’s east side. It shares the traits of care, live-in protectors, endowed chapels, and clustering of stones. It also shares its grounds with another Jewish cemetery, Kesser Israel, and there is where the uniformity, and perhaps the stereotype, breaks down. Kesser Israel is anything but well-cared for, well-maintained, or properly arranged. They do have a live-in protector, but that house is as ramshackle as the cemetery and looks to depend on pit bulls instead of people to do the job (though to their credit, I saw none). The graves here are more or less strung out in lines, but the open space, instead of being a greensward waiting for its intended use, is a wasteland and junk pile waiting for reclamation. One would be ill-advised to saunter here. Beware the rusty nail. The monuments, too, are often unlike any others in the state, much less in other Jewish cemeteries. A chain-link fence divides Kesser Israel and Shaarie Torah and there is no gate between them — you have to go “out and around” if you want to visit them both — and Shaarie Torah on their side has covered the fence in ivy so that their neighbor isn’t visible. Surely there’s an uncomfortable history hidden here somewhere.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say one cemetery represents the Ashkenazi and one the Sephardim, but at the least they demonstrate that what from the outside might appear to be a monolithic culture, Judaism, is in reality a fractured, multifaceted, and sometimes divisive community, just like yours and mine.

What the Jews do for a living is reflected in their cemeteries, just like in yours and mine, as well. The geography of cemeteries is intimately tied to occupation. It’s not an accident that most Jewish cemeteries are in the Portland area while most Finnish cemeteries are in the woods or along the water. Finnish tombstones are engraved with images of log trucks and fishing boats. Jewish tombstones are… Well, they don’t engrave tombstones with desks or shop counters, at least not that I’ve seen. But occupation is reflected, not only in tombstone design, but in tombstone location. Jewish cemeteries cluster in Portland because Jewish occupations in America are traditionally urban and there has to be a thriving business, financial, or intellectual community before enough Jews arrive to require their own burial ground.

Which leads us to the non-Portland, Jewish cemeteries in Oregon, of which I know three; one of which, Temple Beth Israel’s enclave within Eugene’s Masonic Cemetery, mimics the arrangement with Portland’s Metro for Havurah Shalom and the East Side Jewish Community. The other two, though, are almost defunct. One is part of Jacksonville’s history cemetery (sorry, I have no photos) and the other is Albany's Waverly Jewish Cemetery, which does boast a fairly new grave. They’re interesting because they mark the location of former Jewish communities, which implies that both towns had times of former glory, which they did.

Waverly Jewish

As the southern Willamette Valley fills up and the university continues to grow, perhaps someday Eugene will boast its own, independent Jewish cemetery. But maybe not for a while. I suspect that its Jewish community is closely tied with the traditions of Jewish activism which populate Havurah Shalom rather than the more commercial Jewish occupations, and that the idea of mingling with ones fellow intellectuals in an eco-friendly display cemetery appeals to its sensibilities. Regardless, it takes a good Jewish cemetery or two before one can say they’ve “arrived.” For Eugene, perhaps, the harbor is in view.

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