Academic journal article Shofar

"All Will Be Fine, Jewish and Promptly Attended": Tradition and the Rise of New York Jewish Undertakers, 1890-1950

Academic journal article Shofar

"All Will Be Fine, Jewish and Promptly Attended": Tradition and the Rise of New York Jewish Undertakers, 1890-1950

Article excerpt

"'Is that an undertaker shop?' was the amazed exclamation. 'And do people down here use unpainted pine coffins for their dead?'"1 On Hester Street in 1895, visitors to lower Manhattan puzzled over a carpenter's shop that also sold Jewish funeral wares. Tailors' pressboards, washboards, and clotheshorses surrounded bare coffins of varying sizes. Visitors recoiled. Coffins "had no lining," they remarked, "there were pine shavings in the bottom of some . . . [neither] planed or smoothed with any care." Pity overcame one young woman: "How pathetic for these exiled Jews to be so poor that they must bury their dead in this fashion!" "Not so; not so," the carpenter corrected, "they might buy better, but they believe that it is right to have the coffin plain and to have a poor funeral . . . they don't make anything of funerals down here." Although simplicity characterized most Jewish immigrants' approaches to death at the turn of the century, a robust Jewish funeral industry would emerge in New York City in just a few decades. By the 1920s alone several Jewish liverymen whose early businesses had centered on transportation to Jewish cemeteries across the East River even expanded their operations into some of the city's largest and longest serving Jewish funeral parlors. Modern and professional, with state-of-the-art amenities, these undertakers quickly recast New York's emerging Jewish funeral economy. They also fundamentally transformed the ways that Jews of all stripes engaged with centuries-old funeral practices in America.

And yet, even as Jewish New Yorkers accepted an ever-refined and everAmerican standard of death by the middle of the twentieth century, most did not lose sight of key Jewish funeral customs. Instead they reimagined them, bowing at times to tradition while at others addressing new legal, medical, commercial, or professional demands reshaping the city's funeral industry along with its Jewish subset. Some longstanding Jewish practices faced new obstacles, such as the ability (or desire) of Jewish laywomen and men to perform the last rites on their own in light of new city laws or industry demands calling for greater professional involvement. Other core values endured among Jews of all backgrounds such as the impulse to bury apart in ethnically or religiously exclusive cemeteries, or the drive to turn over the dead to Jewish hands for final care. Whether immigrant, native-born, traditionally inclined, or adamantly secular, most Jewish New Yorkers typically honored these practices while also aspiring to modern American funeral sensibilities. A new class of professional Jewish undertakers emerged at the turn of the century to help navigate that process. Some specialized in punctilious performance of the Jewish rite while others commoditized their willingness to offer mortuary services as Jews without imposing religious practice. All embraced a professional and dignified air they felt fitting of American undertakers. Together then, Jewish funeral directors as much as their clients all forged new ways for Jews to deal with death in America. At the same time, they created a framework that not only preserved core aspects of Jewish funeral practice into the future, but they did so, perhaps ironically, through that most modern of American ideals: market consumerism.

The Endurance of Close-Knit Jewish Burial Societies

Although most Jewish undertakers emerged in New York City in the early twentieth century, their rise hinged on similar forces that had driven the nation's broader funeral industry several decades earlier. Greater emphasis on organi- zational skill, medical and scientific expertise, and increasing city regulation over the treatment and transport of bodies encouraged Americans to look to professionals to help lay the dead to rest. Communities in the nation's larger cities especially faced that need as they grew more anonymous and as urban development pushed local cemeteries farther away from town centers. …

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