Still Life: Sephardi, Ashkenazi, and West African Art and Form in Suriname's Jewish Cemeteries

By Ben-Ur, Aviva | American Jewish History, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Still Life: Sephardi, Ashkenazi, and West African Art and Form in Suriname's Jewish Cemeteries


Ben-Ur, Aviva, American Jewish History


Introduction: The Iconography of Tombstones

Tombstones represent a recently recognized yet still largely neglected source for unraveling the historical past. Cemetery and gravestone study is "increasingly multi-disciplinary, involving the arts, humanities, and social sciences, and while studies date back more than 100 years, it is still an emerging field." (1) The investigation of Jewish sepulchres also commenced in the second half of the nineteenth century. Its development continues to be hampered by an academic print culture that regards sculpted stones and cemeteries as largely peripheral. The destruction of Jewish cemeteries through the ages, which has "obliterated most ancestral records and monuments," has also contributed to the scholarly neglect of medieval and early-modern death memorials. (2)

The historian's focus on the written word has also meant that stone imagery is at most a secondary consideration. Research on Jewish sepulchres has thus focused on inscriptions, and has been primarily concerned with local community history, genealogy of distinguished members, and linguistic aspects. (3) The primacy of epitaphic textual study over art is partly due to the dearth or absence of iconography on the earliest tombstones of Europe. In the Middle Ages, illustrative imagery on Jewish funereal slabs diminished in quantity and halted developmentally, resulting in the "forbidding and ascetic look" of diasporic cemeteries. (4) More recently, the methodological approach of the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement, with its generally exclusive attention to manuscript and published texts, has since the nineteenth century dissuaded investigators from considering ornamental stones as historical evidence. (5)

Only in the early twentieth century did serious consideration of commemorative imagery develop. Even when modest attention was drawn to these artifacts as objects of art, carved images were largely ignored because of the disdain among art historians for so-called folk art. (6) Modern historians, too, have been reluctant to consider stone pictographs as either aesthetically worthy or as narrative repositories. David de Sola Pool summarily dismissed the iconography of New York's oldest Jewish tombstones as failing to exhibit "high artistic worth" and as betraying "primitive simplicity." (7) Studies adorned on their front covers or inside pages with photographs of elaborately decorated stones devote little if any discussion to these non-verbal testimonies, treating ornamental tombstones as pleasing to the eye, but implicitly impenetrable or unworthy of in-depth analysis. (8) In the last decades, a handful of scholars, most notably Minna Rozen, Michael Studemund-Halevy, and Rochelle Weinstein, have developed theoretical approaches to the iconography and form of Jewish sepulchres. (9) Such studies demonstrate that pictorial depiction provides information that inscriptions and conventional archival sources often do not, including evidence of cross-cultural influence, religious worldview, aesthetic sensibilities, social status of women and children, and how all these aspects changed over time.

The present essay examines from a historical viewpoint the art of selected tombstones from Suriname's oldest Jewish burial plots, which date from the late seventeenth through the early nineteenth centuries. Particular attention is given to influences resulting from the interactions of Jews with blacks and European-origin Christians, and Sephardim with Ashkenazim, identities that frequently converged in this frontier society. (10) Since knowledge of the Hebrew, Portuguese, and Spanish languages is almost completely absent among Suriname's contemporary population and tourists, the most intellectually accessible aspect of Jewish tombstones is not their epitaphs but rather their accompanying art. The aim here is both to suggest ways to approach the iconographic results of a thorough cemetery inventory, particularly to visitors and guides utilizing these burial grounds as outdoor museums, and to demonstrate how these findings may illuminate the past and inform larger historical studies. …

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