Tuesday, December 15, 2015

December 15, 2015--Ladies of Forest Trace: Mt. Lebanon

We visited my mother on Sunday at Mt. Lebanon Cemetery. It was a little more than five months since her death. It was a beautiful, unseasonably warm day and she was at rest amid the graves of her parents, among her bother, sisters, and their spouses, and next to my father.

Being there reminded me of earlier times at Mt. Lebanon. In truth, often happy, secure times for me when I was a young child. I wanted nothing more than, in one way or another, to be with my family.

I thought to share again something I wrote a few years ago about her final resting place, the family plot in Mt. Lebanon Cemetery--

Shuttling between cemeteries is the way I spent much of my childhood.  One was Mount Hebron, my father’s family’s place of final rest; the other, my mother’s family plot at Mount Lebanon.  Just three miles apart, in the borough of Queens.  It felt like being pressed between the pincers of two grim parentheses.
My mother’s family, the Munyas, arrived in the America in about 1912 from a shtetl town in central Poland, Tulowice.  Her father, Laibusya Munya, was a paymaster in a forest.  This was a job for Jews—they were trusted with the money but not the physical labor of cutting down trees.  That was for the goyim.  Grandpa Laibusya went into Warsaw each week to pick up zloties and brought them back to the forest to pay the men who cut down the trees and schlepped the logs to the river.  With his wife, Frimet, my eventual grandmother, he lived in a log house with his six children, including my infant mother.  When the pogroms became more frequent and bloody, he began to make plans to leave.  As with so many before him, he went first on his own to the New World, established himself as a baker on the Lower Eastside, saved money by existing on rye bread, and then sent for the rest of the family.  They settled within a community of other Polish Jews, most of whom came from the same part of the Pale of Settlement.
They moved from apartment to apartment whenever the landlord raised the rent, but once they were all huddled safely in America, they found a more permanent place to live (a rent controlled third-floor walkup in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn), a store for groceries (Beckman’s, down the block), a butcher (Fleishman’s, next to Beckman’s), a fruit store (Willy’s, across the street), and of at least equal importance, they formed a burial society—a Landsmanshaftn, or a home town association.  There was no time to waste—as my grandfather would say in Yiddish, one never knew when having a plot would come in handy.  And through the years it turned out to be as he predicted--before I was of legal age more family members resided in Mt. Lebanon than Bensonhurst.
Even before finding suitable burial sites, the members of the Landsmanshaftn elected officers—a president, vice president, secretary, and especially a treasurer.  Especially, since the treasurer was responsible for what little money there was—money to pay the cemetery the annual maintenance fee and to write checks for the “perpetual care” for the ground around and on the graves.  Also, the treasurer, because of these fiduciary responsibilities, was the only one who was compensated.  At first five dollars a year.  And thus it was a coveted honor and contested fiercely, particularly as time went by and the annual stipend was raised to $25. Real money when a dollar was still a dollar.
The Tulowice Landsmanshaftn somehow managed to strike a good deal with Mt. Lebanon in spite of great demand-side pressure: Jews were arriving in New York in such numbers during the first two decades of the twentieth century, and dying at such a rate thanks in part to the unchecked influenza, that more and more dairy farms in Queens were being converted into cemeteries and plots were gobbled up as fast as pastures could be converted into graves. 
Mt. Lebanon was established in 1919.  Perfect timing for the Tulowicians who were able to get in on the ground floor during the year of the most virulent and deadly flu epidemic.  They were able to buy a reasonably contiguous cluster of thirty or so plots in a desirable, hilly, shady corner.  It came with a pine tree and a view of the new Interboro Parkway.  As evidence of how desirable a location, Richard Tucker, the famous cantor turned Metropolitan Opera star came to occupy a nearby plot of his own as did Nathan Handworker, founder of Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island.  So the family was in good company and assured of eternal upward mobility.
Exactly what they had come to America for. The streets may not have been paved with gold, but to forever be across from the “biggest” tenor and the hot dog king showed that they had “arrived.”
On the other hand, the Zwerlings, my father’s family, claimed they came to America from Austria, not from the downscale Pale in Poland (although there are in fact no extant papers to prove this assertion).  Full of pride they boasted they were from Vienna, spoke German, and arrived well before those Eastern European shtetal Jews showed up at Ellis Island with their cardboard suitcases.  In fact, unlike the Munyas, who had the good fortune to have had an Irish immigration officer convert Munya to Mooney, the Zwerling needed no such transmutation—the German-sounding “Zwerling” was fine just as it was.  Though hardly of the Our Crowd crowd, the Zwerlings prided themselves on the fact that they were born in America, owned their own house, and didn’t understand Yiddish, much less speak it.  So when it came preparation for dying, they had a different approach than the Malones. 
The cemetery they selected and in which they bought real estate (that is how they viewed it—as a real estate transaction), Mt. Hebron, was founded by assimilated German Jews in the late 1880s.  In contrast to the other Mount, there were no burial societies, none of the carving on the tombstones were in Hebrew--everything in Mt. Hebron was ostentatiously in English--the roads weaving among the graves were wider (Mt. Hebron families had cars), there was abundant parking, the above-ground mausoleums were more elaborate and spacious, and there were even well-tended restrooms.
However, though in all other ways the Zwerlings and Mooneys lived cultural worlds apart, they did share one thing in common—an absolute obsession with illness, dying, death, and above all their final arrangements.  And no one was more obsessed with final matters than my father. 
But first I need to say more about how my mother’s family devoted themselves to their sixteenth of an acre of American soil.  First, with a name like Mooney they had to convince the Mt. Lebanon authorities and that they were in fact Jews and thus eligible to be laid to rest in ground consecrated exclusively for people of the Old Testament.   With their Irish-sounding name they were suspected of being goyim and had to show not only their Ellis Island papers but also those they brought along with them from Poland that identified them as Munyas, and thus Jews.
After successfully making that case to the Mt. Lebanon council of rabbis and being allowed to erect a tombstone with the gentile name “Mooney” chiseled on it, they then needed to consider how to care for the plot itself.  There was the “Perpetual Care” option, but neither the family nor the Landsmanschaftn as yet had the hundred dollars necessary to arrange for it.  That would come later when Uncle Jac did well enough and could afford to underwrite the tending of all thirty plots.  Even then, because of their experiences with pogroms and subsequently the Holocaust, the Mooneys were suspicious of institutions, including cemeteries (after all they too were businesses) and thus were congenitally incapable of trusting them to provide care perpetually (enough of them by then knew English sufficiently to understand how long perpetual in truth was) much less trust the cemetery owners not to run off with the hundred dollars before the clock on perpetual ran out.
Thus, during the spring and summer growing season, we went to Mt. Lebanon every Sunday.  Not to visit Grandpa and Grandma Mooney, who at the time were the only ones in permanent residence, but to care for the gravesite itself.  As the youngest and most agile that meant I was designated to crawl around among the tombstones to pull weeds and cut grass with the pinking shears my Aunt Tanna always had in her pocketbook.
Sitting on the bench to supervise, her sister, my Aunt Fay, would watch with pride as I scampered from head- to foot-stone, kvelling, “Look at him, look at how little Steveala is clipping Papa’s grass and plucking Mama’s weeds.  He has such hands.  With those hands one day he could be a surgeon, be rich,  and make everyone proud.” 
At her older sister’s words praising my skills and predicting my promising future, my mother would swell with maternal satisfaction and say to me, “When I am buried here, Steven, with the family, I know you will come to take good care of me.  And you will tell me about your own wife and your own children and grandchildren.  And about your patients and their appendectomies. Just like I talk to Mamma and Poppa.” 
Though this was more than I wanted to contemplate, any aspect of it—I was already burdened at school with spelling and the six-times table--I nodded and continued to clip away. I moved among the grass and weeds as if born to the task, wielding the pinking shears, which I was told were the only scissors in the family with enough heft to cut through thistles.  So when I had completed my pulling, chopping and cutting with those slotted shears it looked as if the grass had been Marcelled.  As a result, the Malone wavy gravesite was reputed to be the envy of the two burial societies that owned adjacent plots.
In truth I loved this first adult responsibility.  And since none of us had the wherewithal to ever get to real mountains during the hot weather, going to Mt. Lebanon was our version of a trip to the country. 
While I scooted among the tombstones, my aunts would sit on the bench and talk to their Momma and Papa, telling them about what had happened during the week.  There was a lot to report since the family apartment was the site of a constant shuffle of relatives and friends from the Camps in Europe, distant New Jersey, and even the occasional refugee on the way to Palestine.  For the latter, Aunt Tanna would collect money for their passage or to help them buy a car or icebox.  All that news was duly recounted to my grandparents at rest nearby.  But since it was in Yiddish, I could gather little of what they reported.  My ears perked up, however, and my nearly non-existent Yiddish improved, when they whispered about “That Rifka. Not quite a relative but a distant cousin of a friend of my grandparents, Rifka was someone they referred to as a nafke, which even with my limited Yiddish I knew meant tramp.  I made a mental note that when I was old enough I would make an effort to meet that Rifka.
My father’s obsession with his family’s cemetery, however, was of quite a different sort. 
Among the Zwerling, he was the only one preoccupied with the family plot.  To the others it was just that place in Queens where they might eventually have to be taken after marrying off the children and retiring to Florida.  But to him it represented a different order of reality.  Again, in the tradition of the Zwerling, it was more about real estate than visiting the departed and reporting to them life’s quotidian events. To him it was a matter of being sure there was a physical place for everyone entitled to be there.  And that the arrangement of those places, the individual gravesites, were appropriately hierarchical. 
Proximity to the family patriarch, Louis, his father, my grandfather, and mother-grandmother, Anne, was, as it should be, where the hierarchy began, with the sons and their wives and the sisters and their husbands arranged in descending tiers by birth-order and gender.  As the oldest, the first-born male of a first-born father, this meant my father would reside right below his father and mother, and so on down the Zwerling family genealogy.
An awareness of the shape of the Zwerling Family Plot would immediately see that the task my father set for himself was not so easily accomplished.  If they had been able to purchase a plot with hierarchy and primogeniture in mind, they would have bought something more in the shape of a pyramid.  But in the gridded-out reality of Mt Hebron, obtaining a family plot in this anthropological configuration was impossible.  So my father, the arranger, had to work with the rectangle that was bequeathed to him by his father, Grandfather Louis.
He spent endless hours with an outline of the full plot inscribed on a large sheet of oak tag, and within it, using an architect’s triangle and ruler, drew a series of perfectly scaled grave-shaped rectangles, in various combinations and permutations until he had it laid out as appropriately as he could, considering the restraints imposed on his grand design by the unyielding boundaries of the plot.  And when he had his plan worked out as much as possible in primogeniture order, he made a final rendering, using draftsman’s indelible ink; and at a series of family meetings with his brothers and sisters and their spouses, he got each to initial the rectangle assigned to them until all were duly filled in and signed off on.
And thus the responsibility his father bequeathed to him was done. . . . 
That is until his sister, my Aunt Madeline began to upset the scheme by marrying a series of husbands who in turn died shortly after each wedding, and, most critically, were buried, one by one by one, side-by-side in the Zwerling plot.  
By the time Husband Number Three was interred, my father began to worry.  As you by now would expect, he worried not so much about his carefully crafted plan, but, in frankness, more about his own eventual fate.  If Madeline mainatined her current pace, by the actuarial time my father would need the full services of Mt. Hebron, there would no longer be room remaining for him.
Thus, he convened an urgent Zwerling family gathering and laid out the issue squarely and frankly.  Madeline was understandably distraught, having lost her third husband, Morty, just the previous month. He had jumped off the roof of their apartment building—it was well known that she was not easy to live with. 
But in spite of Madeline’s grief, with at least the appearance of sympathy, my father was able to forge ahead and succeeded in mobilizing a majority of sibling and spouse votes to let Madeline know there were no more places at Mt. Hebron for subsequent husbands.  That is unless she was willing to relinquish her own plot.  Or, perhaps she would prefer to have my father arrange to move one or two of her husbands to a different part of the cemetery. 
Considering her options, Madeline agreed that though there would likely be more husbands (that was not open to family discussion) there would be no more places for additional deceased husbands.
That should have been the end of the story.  But again there is more.
As it turned out, there would be room for two more husbands because my father, when his time arrived, did not after all require his place in Mt. Hebron. Nor would my mother.
When a Jewish person dies, it is considered desirable that the person be buried as quickly as possible.  The dust-to-dust imperative is very strong indeed and thus the sooner the better.  As might be expected, to expedite the process, my father had arranged for a prepaid funeral. For him it was also an opportunity to shop for his own casket and arrange for the limousines and memorial service, including that there be nothing that involved a rabbi or any prayers in any language—he was an outspoken lifelong atheist.
His place next to his father’s side at Mt. Hebron awaited, but my mother had a different plan in mind—something more indelible than the ink he had used to make the oak tag diagram.
During their 60-year marriage, she had participated in dozens of discussions about Mt. Hebron.  Or, to put it more appropriately, my father’s plans for them at the Zwerling plot.  She had only hinted to my father how much she did not look forward to spending eternity with The Zwerlings.  It was an era when wives hinted at things that concerned them. She, in truth, dreaded the thought that she would not be with her parents and her real family.  She also hated the idea that she would have to spend her afterlife listening to the Zwerlings arguing, talking simultaneously at the top of their voices, literally forever. 
And so she directed the funeral director--“Let’s put him in Mt. Lebanon.” 
Fortunately there was still room.  Again, in the informal shtetl ways of the Tulowice Landsmanscahftn, without the existence of a notarized plan, she was able to get her remaining siblings to agree to find a space for him and one beside him for her. 
She did feel some guilty that this new arrangement placed him right next to his family rival, brother-in-law Harry.  They had been in a series of failed businesses together and had not only fought about money but about such things as how many spare light bulbs to have on hand—my father thought six were enough; Harry always believed in buying by the gross. She knew, as a result, that there would be family tension right there at Mt. Lebanon. About light bulbs and also who was at fault for driving customers away from their last deli. (She personally blamed my father.)
But she also knew she would be in the warm vicinity of Mamma and Papa. And, when her time came, being separated by my father from Harry, would bring her more peace than she was accustomed to in life. In any case, she assertedly thought--Who cares. Let them fight.

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