A home between death and life: mausoleums as liminal spaces of memory for classical reform Jews of Temple Emanu-El, 1890-1945.

Author:Lufkin, Sophia C.
Position:Essay
 
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In early twentieth-century New York City, members of the Classical Reform Temple Emanu-El led lives of splendor. (1) They lived in stately townhouses in Manhattan and worshipped at their cathedral-like, jewel-box synagogue at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 65th Street on New York's Upper East Side. (2) When they died, members were buried a few miles away at the temple's Brooklyn cemetery, Salem Fields. In death, these families transitioned from worldly homes of high taste to equally exquisite deathly homes: luxurious family mausoleums, which were made of marble, mosaics, and stained glass; and furnished with lounges, tables, and Persian rugs. Salem Fields Cemetery stands today as a rich repository of memorial art, including about six hundred of these family mausoleums, which date roughly from 1890 to 1945. (3) Each is a record of social status, artistic taste, and family memory. The mausoleums of Salem Fields are liminal spaces, standing at the intersection of several spheres of transition, identity, and culture: life and death, home and temple, and what it meant to be German-American, Jewish, and Classical Reform.

Salem Fields was designed as a landscape of repose, with rolling hills, flowers, and trees. It was part of the "garden cemetery" movement, a trend in nineteenth-century American burial practices in which new cemeteries were built outside city limits. Many of these new cemeteries were beautifully landscaped and, like public parks, they served as havens from city life. For many people, including Jews and Christians alike, this setting carried theological implications for the fate of the deceased, as gardens seemed to promise a peaceful rest. Salem Fields is unusual among garden cemeteries, though, since it was laid out in a curving grid of burial plots. In this way, it bridged the earthly world of Manhattan society to an otherworldly "city of the dead."

Inside each mausoleum, ethereal stained glass and home furnishings made for a liminal space between the domestic and the sacred. Nearly all mausoleums at Salem Fields have stained glass windows, and these were created in a range of styles and designs, from symbolic landscapes to religious heraldry. Their soft glow adds an otherworldly and sacred element to each space. In addition, many mausoleums were furnished with lounges, tables, chairs, and Persian rugs. These furnishings echo the late nineteenth-century ideal of dying at home--which was seen as a "good death"--and in this way, they anchor the mausoleums as spaces of transition between this world and a world to come.

All the while, the patrons of these mausoleums walked a thin line between embracing their Jewish identity and assimilating into American culture. These questions of identity are reflected in the designs, motifs, and very existence of these memorials. Most members of Temple Emanu-El were German-American, and in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, their place within American Jewry was shifting. Since their arrival in the early nineteenth century, many German-American Jews had achieved economic success and relative social integration into American society. They practiced Reform Judaism and lived largely secular, assimilated lives. Many Reform congregations in New York City were founded on the Lower East Side, but they moved uptown as soon as they could afford it. Congregations such as Emanu-El, Rodeph Sholom, and Beth-El--with which Emanu-El merged in 1927--built grand, spacious synagogues along the affluent, tree-lined streets of the Upper East Side and Upper West Side. (4) Like other wealthy Reform congregations, Emanu-El counted socialites, influential businessmen, and patrons of the arts among its members. Culturally, German-American Jews aspired to the American mainstream elite, feeling that they differed from their Protestant neighbors in faith alone. Whenever possible, they refrained from outwardly announcing themselves as Jewish.

At the end of the nineteenth century, their place began to shift as great numbers of Eastern European Ashkenazi and Eastern Sephardi Jews arrived in the largest wave of Jewish immigration to the United States. This final group of Jewish immigrants, because of their greater number, relative poverty, and cultural isolation, assimilated far less easily into mainstream Protestant American life. To their dismay, German-American Jews found themselves a minority within American Jewry, and quickly sought to distinguish themselves from their Eastern European counterparts--just as their ancestors in Germany had done generations earlier. Beginning in the eighteenth century, German Jews had aspired to assimilate into elite German gentile culture, whereas Eastern European Jewish immigrants tended to remain culturally isolated from local Christians. German Jews spoke German and insisted on a separate, unique German-Jewish identity, while Eastern European Jews typically spoke Yiddish and embraced a "pan-Ashkenazi" identity. The fact that German and Yiddish are so similar, and that Germany is so close to Poland and Russia, only spurred German Jews in their desire for cultural separation. (5) A similar trend was at work in American Jewish culture. German-American Jews sought to differentiate themselves culturally, by assimilating further into WASP society; and religiously, by transforming their practice of Reform Judaism into high Classical Reform Judaism, sometimes referred to as "Cathedral Judaism." (6) Classical Reform Judaism is a uniquely American movement that was designed to "promote a distinctly awesome sense of the sacred" by reintroducing a sense of awe and grandeur into the liturgy of the service and into the architecture of synagogues' sacred spaces. (7)

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Salem Fields Cemetery is a window into a previously unexplored part of American Jewish history. The cemetery's design reveals underlying questions and ideologies about identity and theology, and it reflects the ontological beliefs of this German-Jewish community as it carefully strove to define itself. Although historians have long studied cemeteries in order to explore the fears, hopes, and beliefs of those who came to be buried there, studies of Jewish cemeteries are rare. (8) Founded in 1851, Salem Fields was a top tourist destination at the turn of the twentieth century, but the cemetery is not well known today. Nonetheless, it is critical to understanding the history of Classical Reform Jews of that time, because for a community so outwardly polished, successful, and assimilated, its memorial art reveals a unique inner dialogue and tension over identity that is not usually apparent.

Congregation Emanu-El was the first Reform temple in New York, and today, its Romanesque Revival building is the largest Reform synagogue in the world. (9) Its cemetery is an important record not only of the congregation's history, but also of American Jewish culture--especially the taste, aspirations, and identity of Classical Reform Jews as they defined their place in American society. (10)

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Congregation Emanu-El and the German-American Reform Style

In the early twentieth century, the members of Temple Emanu-El represented the peak of American Jewish assimilation, yet the aesthetic styles of their worship and memorial spaces reveal a complex relationship between their two competing identities: were they primarily American, or primarily Jewish? In the way they were designed, both Temple Emanu-El and the mausoleums in Salem Fields became arenas for this expression of religious and cultural identity.

In order to make sense of their design aesthetic, it is important to first understand the cultural factors governing German-American Jewish life at that time. Most German-Jewish immigration to the United States had happened in the mid-nineteenth century. Along with their Sephardi Jewish forerunners, these German-Jewish immigrants and their descendants assimilated relatively easily into Protestant American culture." Many German-American congregations like Temple Emanu-El, practiced Reform Judaism, a liberal rethinking of observance begun in Germany in the early nineteenth century, which modernized and updated ritual practice. (12) Many Emanu-El members were successful in business, although most still faced cultural antisemitism in America's Protestant-dominated social and business world. (13)

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Many affluent members made their homes on Manhattan's Upper East Side, in sumptuously furnished townhouses, mansions, and apartments. For example, Benjamin Guggenheim, a prominent temple member and the brother of the art collector Solomon R. Guggenheim, built and lived in a handsome townhouse on East 72nd Street until his death in the sinking of the RMS Titanic. The congregation also included Felix M. Warburg, whose stately 1908 French Chateau style mansion at 1109 Fifth Avenue now houses the Jewish Museum. These homes were outwardly indistinguishable from those of their gentile neighbors; indeed, in almost all ways, German-American Reform Jews blended into American Protestant culture.

Since its inception, Reform Judaism has struggled against defining its members as ethnically Jewish. In America, prominent nineteenth-century reformers such as the Jewish lay minister Isaac Leeser encouraged Jews to "eliminate distinctively Jewish habits of speech, gesture, and emotional expressiveness." (14) This translated to sacred ritual as well and, in many ways, Classical Reform Judaism approximated the high church ritual and feel of an Anglican or Episcopalian church. Worship services were conducted in English, with hymns and psalms sung by a choir. (15)

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This ambivalence is visible in the design of contemporary synagogues, which were often elaborate and beautiful, but only discreetly Jewish. Because of their members' success in business and industry, many Reform congregations could afford to build grand new synagogues, with elegant architecture, stained glass, and mosaic interiors. These were often designed in revival...

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