Before Rosh HaShanah, mystics say, “the King is in the field,” no ticket needed to pray or talk. All the world is His “overflow service.” He’s looking for grace, in laundromats with garish light, in all-night diners where the waitress calls you “Honey.” His throne is the stoop of a single-room occupancy. He rides the interstate Greyhound like Elijah’s chariot. And He goes to the cemetery, for “field” (feld) in Yiddish is a euphemism for that “field of stone,” where gravestones sprout like grass. Before the holidays we’re told to visit the dead. They’re expecting us.
As the liturgy warns, soon will be inscribed “who will live and who will die; who at his pre-destined time and who before his time … who will rest and who will wander … who will be degraded and who will be exalted.”
In 1888, the Hebrew Free Burial Association (HFBA) was founded on the Lower East Side, to take care of Jews who might die without even a few dollars for a grave; Jews “who will wander… who will be degraded,” dying without anyone to claim their bodies, otherwise destined for the mass indignity of burial in the city’s Potter’s Field. Since 1888, more than 65,000 Jews have been buried in the HFBA’s two cemeteries, Silver Lake and Mount Richmond in Staten Island — and nearly 400 since last Rosh HaShanah. The idea is that everyone, no matter how down on his luck, was created in the image of God and should be treated accordingly, even in death.
This is Derek Jeter’s final season, but there are those among us who are in our final season, too, in the more dire sense. Anyone who ever saw Jeter in Yankee Stadium is familiar with the “roll call,” when the Yanks in the field are greeted by a rhythmic chant (“De-rek Je-tuh”) of their name, one by one, courtesy of the “Bleacher Creatures.” Udi L., a young Israeli working in technology, moved to New York and became a “Creature of the highest regard,” known for his “smile, humor and a stiff drink every time,” according to “River Avenue Blues,” a Yankees blog. “Udi was a sweetheart.” About a year ago, people said that Udi “lost his job, became depressed and started drinking.” One night, earlier this year, Udi’s friend “Bald” Vinny sent a note to the other Creatures: Udi passed away “earlier [in the] week, suddenly.”
Some suggested that he be cremated, his ashes scattered over Yankee Stadium. His sister in Israel knew that Jews aren’t cremated; it’s disturbing to the soul. Instead, Udi was buried by HFBA in Mount Richmond.
A few yards away, there are 22 graves marked March 25, 1911, a Shabbat afternoon when a fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory killed 146 workers, most of them young Jewish and Italian women and girls, their exit blocked. They jumped rather than burn. Amid the flames, witnesses saw a gentleman appear in the ninth floor window, helping a young woman to the ledge. He held her hand as if for a minuet, or to help her board a trolley.
The gentleman took a woman by the waist, held her in the air, and dropped her. Then a second girl. Then a third. A fourth put her arms around him and kissed him. Had they been lovers, this kiss their last? Or, in life’s final minute, had she decided to experience what she never could or would?
Hebrew Free Burial saw to the funerals of 22 Jewish girls who died in the fire, including horse-drawn carriages draped in purple and black. The mystics say that souls hover around their graves, and visitors can ask them to intercede for us. They hover around the 22 stones of March 25, 1911.
April 9, 2010; Scott Diamond, 50, who works in pharmaceuticals, remembers the date. A call went out to Staten Island synagogues that there was going to be a funeral at Mount Richmond, “a cemetery most of us,” even in Staten Island, “had never heard of,” says Diamond. A man had died “suddenly” (a word that appears with such inexplicable regularity in HFBA literature that one wonders if it is a euphemism for suicide.) The deceased seemingly had no friends, no family, and would be buried by Hebrew Free Burial.
There was concern from the informant that there would be no minyan at the grave for Kaddish, a prayer requiring a minyan. Instead, “Over 50 people showed up,” says Diamond.
At the funeral, notes Diamond, Rabbi Shmuel Plafker, the Mount Richmond chaplain, says, “‘This is really nice. For over a third of the levayot [funerals] nobody shows up.’” When some of us heard that, says Diamond, “it was the genesis for a group of us to commit to go to HFBA funerals if they ever needed a minyan. It started with 19 Staten Island Jews; now 95 have volunteered to be notified. Diamond says they make a minyan at 65 to 70 percent of the funerals. Of course, funerals are held on short notice, on workdays and inconvenient times, but Diamond is aiming to provide a minyan whenever Rabbi Plafkar calls.
One of the first to volunteer was Diamond’s son, Zachary, now a student at Brandeis University. “When he was younger, he would come with me,” says the father. “When he learned to drive, he would go one his own. The Friday before he left for Brandeis there were three funerals. He was at all three.”
Lee Brosnick, 15, a freshman at Tottenville High School, is another volunteer. “I wasn’t sure what to expect,” he says. “It was nice to know I was helping someone.” He goes to Mount Richmond approximately every other week, mostly on Sundays. “My Dad and I go together. I started doing it after my bar mitzvah.” His grandmother wondered about it, but Lee told her, “Grandma, it’s a good thing to do.”
Lee’s father, Kevin, says many funerals are now in the “back area,” up a hill, the ground pocked with deep ruts and track marks. “At the grave,” says Kevin, “Rabbi Plafker, or someone who knew the deceased, speaks of the life. The body is lowered and we shovel the dirt,” often heavy clay and rocks, “making sure the coffin is completely covered.”
Funerals happen several times a week at Mount Richmond. The volunteers often gather at the cemetery, in what looks like an old wooden waiting room in a western railroad station. There is a faucet to wash hands after funerals, as is the custom. “Last year,” says Kevin, “I was at several funerals where there was snow on the ground; very stark and cold. You’re trying to concentrate on the service but you watch some of the older gentlemen, bundled up, in their hats, scarves and gloves, stomping the ground, rubbing their hands, mostly quiet and respectful, a sense of reflection.”
When the recently deceased first came into the world, says Diamond, “there was someone to say ‘Mazel Tov’ on the birth of the little boy or girl. And now, to be laid to the rest without anyone who cares would be sad. Instead, the deceased are surrounded by a minyan who cares about them, who cares that they get the proper honor of a Jewish funeral. Diamond adds, “I consider it a privilege, and I thank Hashem that he’s given me the opportunity to find out about this organization and get involved.”
If a member of the family who would be sitting shiva is present, a special Kaddish is recited, similar to the celebratory Kaddish said when one concludes study of a tractate of Talmud. After all, at every funeral in the loneliness of Mount Richmond a life is concluded, and whose life is not a tractate all its own, full of questions and legends?