Saul Yanofsky (or Yanovsky, as his name seems to be spelled everywhere except his tombstone) was apparently "one of the most renowned Jewish anarchists of the day in New York" during the late 1800s and early 1900s. His epitaph reads:
His life was ardently and unselfishly devoted toward establishing human society on principles of no coercion and no exploitation.
Sholem Aleichem, the beloved Yiddish author known as "the Jewish Mark Twain", died on May 13*, 1916. The NY Times estimated that 100,000 people lined the sidewalks of Manhattan's East Side to watch his funeral procession. He was initially buried in neighboring Mount Neboh Cemetery and was later moved to this plot in Old Mount Carmel.
* His date of death is somewhat ironic because, according to his daughter, he had a superstitious aversion to the number 13. She recalled that he "never marks a page [in his manuscripts] with the number 13—it is always 12a." It's been said — even in the NY Times — that his headstone lists his date of death as May 12a, but that is untrue. The dates given on the stone for his birth and death are from the Hebrew calendar.
From her 1998 NY Times obituary:
Ms. Abzug represented the West Side of Manhattan for three Congressional terms in the 1970's. She brought with her a belligerent, exuberant politics that made her a national character. Often called just Bella, she was recognizable everywhere by her big hats and a voice that Norman Mailer said "could boil the fat off a taxicab driver's neck."
She opposed the Vietnam War, championed what was then called women's liberation and was one of the first to call for the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon. Long after it ceased to be fashionable, she called her politics radical. . . .
"There are those who say I'm impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash and overbearing. Whether I'm any of these things or all of them, you can decide for yourself. But whatever I am -- and this ought to be made very clear at the outset -- I am a very serious woman."
(We're now in Old Mount Carmel Cemetery
, our final cemetery of the day.)
We're now in Mount Neboh Cemetery, the penultimate burial ground on today's tour through seven of the seventeen cemeteries that make up the "great verdant necropolis" spanning the middle of the Brooklyn-Queens border.
Joel Goldenberg was one of the original members of Goldenberg Brothers & Co., once one of the country's largest lace importing firms. His nephew Samuel Goldenberg, author of the illustrated Lace: Its Origin and History, was a Titanic survivor whose large canvas bag was reported by the NY Times to be the only piece of luggage saved from the ship and to have somehow never even gotten wet during the whole ordeal. Perhaps worried that people would assume he used his wealth to secure a spot on a lifeboat for his bag instead of another passenger, he wrote a letter to the Times explaining that he didn't save any of his luggage from the Titanic, but that he purchased the bag in question and all its contents once aboard the rescue ship.
Two of the three Straus brothers, Oscar and Nathan, are buried here in Beth-El Cemetery. I was unable to find them — but I did come across this mausoleum with an extra S. As we've seen, the third brother, Isidor, is buried in an unusual tomb at Woodlawn Cemetery. He famously died aboard the Titanic with his wife Ida: he turned down a place in a lifeboat, seeing that there were still women and children on the ship, and Ida refused to leave his side.
Oscar, who served as Secretary of Commerce and Labor under President Theodore Roosevelt, was the first Jewish member of the US Cabinet. (He wasn't the first Jew to be offered a US Cabinet position, however. President Grant — who, by the way, had ordered the expulsion of all Jews from his military district during his time as a major general in the Civil War — asked Joseph Seligman to be his Secretary of the Treasury, but Seligman declined. And President Cleveland offered Oscar's brother Isidor the job of Postmaster General, then a Cabinet-level post, but Isidor turned him down as well. Oscar was also not the first Jew in America to serve in a Cabinet. That distinction belongs to Judah P. Benjamin, who held three different Confederate Cabinet positions.)
Nathan and Isidor were business partners and very successful merchants who came to own two major New York department stores: Macy's and Abraham & Straus. Nathan was also a noted philanthropist, and his signature cause was "pure milk". He suspected that many of the diseases killing large numbers of young children In the late 19th century were being contracted from contaminated raw milk. Starting in 1893, he and his wife Lina set up milk depots in the city to provide poor families with pasteurized milk at low cost. Their efforts were credited with playing a large role in the precipitous decline of the city's child mortality rate over the following 25 years, during which an estimated 240,000 children's lives were saved.
We're now in Beth-El Cemetery (apparently once known as New Union Fields Cemetery), which, like Salem Fields Cemetery, is owned by Temple Emanu-El. It previously belonged to Temple Beth-El, which merged with Emanu-El in 1927.
The headstone above stands in a section of the cemetery largely populated by the laser-etched portrait stones that, as we've seen, are in vogue among Jews from the former Soviet Union.
Fall in Machpelah Cemetery
We've now moved on to Machpelah Cemetery (where, coincidentally, Joseph Banzer of Banzer's Cypress Hills Park was for years the superintendent). The "daunting, abandoned building that was once the cemetery office", seen in this video, was demolished in August 2013.
Harry Houdini, the legendary illusionist and escape artist, was buried here in 1926 following his death at the age of 52 from a ruptured appendix that may or (more likely) may not have been caused by a young man punching him in his stomach to test his abdominal strength. While Jewish custom dictates that the dead be interred in plain wooden coffins, Houdini was reportedly laid to rest in a metal-and-glass casket he had specially ordered for use in one of his stunts. Buried with him, as a pillow for his head, was a collection of letters that his late, dearly beloved mother had sent him over the years.
In case you're wondering, the colorful circular mosaic above depicts the logo of the Society of American Magicians, which Houdini presided over from 1917 to until his death. Every year, magicians from the Society hold a "broken wand ceremony" here to commemorate his death. The ceremony used to be held on Halloween, the anniversary of Houdini's death (on the Gregorian calendar), but around 1994 Machpelah's manager decided to start closing the cemetery on Halloween in an attempt to ward off vandals. The magicians now hold the ceremony on the anniversary of Houdini's death on the lunisolar Hebrew calendar — the 23rd of Cheshvan (which was November 16th this year) — except when that date happens to coincide with Halloween.
The bust of Houdini on the pedestal above is the latest of several to grace the monument; the others were all stolen or destroyed. From 1993 on, for almost two decades, the pedestal stood empty except during the annual broken wand ceremony, when the attending magicians would show up with a portable bust. The bust above has been in place since 2011, when a trio of "Houdini commandos" from the Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania swooped in and installed it in an (initially) unsanctioned operation.
One other grave-related note: one of the smaller gravestones in front of the monument bears the names of both Houdini and his widow Bess. However, Bess is actually buried in Gate of Heaven Cemetery, a Catholic cemetery, in Westchester County. It's not entirely clear why the plans were changed and she didn't end up here in Machpelah, but I found one article that said her sister, "upset because Bess had given up her Catholicism to marry the Jewish showman", was the one who decided to bury her in Gate of Heaven instead.