Tucked away on about 20 acres off Penn Avenue in Richfield, about a minute’s drive from Southdale, there is a cluster of cemeteries, located side-by-side. The older and larger is the Minneapolis Jewish Cemetery, founded in 1890 and home to 4,500 graves. The other large one is the United Hebrew Brotherhood Cemetery, founded a few years later. The two others are smaller cemeteries managed by Conservative congregations. All are the final resting places for large numbers of the city’s Jewish population, which grew from only about 100 locally at the time of the cemetery’s founding to a peak of 44,000 statewide in the 1940s.
The presence of such old cemeteries in the heart of south metro suburbia, some with graves dating back to the late 19th century, seems incongruous at first. It’s a reminder that the suburbia surrounding the cemeteries is quite recent; when the first men and women were buried here in 1890, Richfield was farm country, far away from the urban core of Minneapolis. Even Soldiers and Pioneers Cemetery, located on Lake Street in what is now the heart of urban Minneapolis, was generally considered to be the sticks when it was founded a few decades earlier. Imagine how rustic Richfield must have seemed to the Jewish families predominantly settled 12 miles north around Penn Avenue in the heart of Jewish Minneapolis on the northside. The electric streetcars had just been introduced, and would soon shrink the city considerably. But that’s still a ways down from the old neighborhood.
I spoke to Michael Morris, who manages three of the cemeteries, including Minneapolis Jewish Cemetery. He told me that the tradition in Judaism is for the cemetery to be located outside the city limits; the plot was probably purchased from farmers, and the suburbs grew up around it. In fact, Richfield didn’t become a chartered village until 1908. The practice in Judaism is that after the preparation of the body and wrapping it in a shroud by members of the community, there is a long processional where the deceased is escorted to the place of burial.
The low-rise office buildings of Edina’s central business core around the Crosstown shimmer in the distance, but the cemetery itself is stunning in its quiet timelessness. There is, in a cemetery, a sense of order and density – the word “necropolis” is a poetic name for resting places, literally meaning a city of the dead. These cemeteries feel much like a city. The headstones are in tight rows, packed in together without regard for height and chronology. It feels somehow almost lively, with the oldest 19th century gravestones, their marble faces almost illegible after a century of exposure, just feet away from very recent gravestones.
All sorts of styles, colors, heights, and ages are bunched together, with English, Hebrew and the occasional Russian or Cyrillic alphabets in the mix, with some gravestones even bearing all three. Each one has the deceased’s name and date of death in English, and then their name in Hebrew, with their birth and death dates according to the Hebrew calendar. The gravestones are well cared for. In the Jewish tradition, stones are placed atop tombs by visitors, and many here have small piles of stones, showing that a person – a relative, or even someone who might not have known the deceased – has been by recently, and taken a moment to acknowledge the site. Morris tells me it’s a way to rededicate the grave, to show respect and honor in the months, years and decades after the burial.
Many of the gravestones are wonderful artifacts. Each one tells a little story about a life, some in more detail than others. If the person was a member of the priestly tribe, the grave is marked with two hands making what is called the Shin gesture. Often, a symbol of that person’s occupation decorates the grave: a camera for a photographer, or livestock for a farmer. There are several with photos embedded into the marble. I catch the handsome visage of a fellow named Julius Fidell, who died in 1942 just shy of his 50th birthday. According to the 1940 census, Julius was a traveling salesman who sold women’s apparel, and lived on Thomas Avenue in North Minneapolis. His portrait is poised and confident; he looks terrific in a suit and tie, sitting in a photo studio probably somewhere on the northside, in between sales calls.
One poignant grave with embossed images belongs to Yakov Perelman and Riva Sapoznikova, together on a polished black marble headstone. Mrs. Saponznikova died in 2007 at the age of 92; her husband passed away in 1942, only 33 years old. Riva is portrayed as a smiling, elderly woman, photographed probably in her 80s. Yakov is pictured next to her. He is portrayed as a young man, certainly no older than about 30, forever next to his wife in a state of eternal youth. A large pile of stones surround the grave. I find this very sad and very beautiful.
Not all the stories one comes across are sad, of course. One of my favorites is David (pronounced “Doveed,” his headstone points out) Ackerberg, in the Hebrew Brotherhood cemetery. He was born in Poland in 1901; his headstone is ringed by abstract businessmen with fedoras and briefcases. Indeed, as the image suggests, Ackerberg was, like Fidell, a traveling salesman, according to the 1940 census – they lived within six blocks of each other, in fact, so who knows, perhaps they knew each other from the traveling salesman circuit; perhaps he attended Fidell’s funeral in this very cemetery, if that’s not getting too speculative. Ackerberg is reported in the same census as working 52 weeks a year, and here he seems to be in a state of perpetual motion, circling endlessly, always on the go. He had a long life, passing away in 1985. He also clearly had a great sense of humor. It’s an amusing image, and one that stands out from its neighbors. His wife Eva (Chava) is buried next to him, having passed away only a few years before him, and her headstone also bears some similarly distinctive bas-relief flowers.
Like writer Peter Schilling, who penned a beautiful piece on Lakewood Cemetery for this column a few weeks ago, I love going to graveyards. Besides being quiet places where you can reflect on the oldest, weightiest issues of what it means to be a human, they also provide a direct and immediate link to the past. It would be one thing to merely read about Julius Fidell the traveling northside salesman in the online 1940 census. It is quite another to stand so close to his remains, look at his portrait, place some stones on top of his grave, and think about what his life might have been like, and how the city he lived in has changed in the decades since he died.
What would Julius Fidell make of Minneapolis today? What would he make of the fact that Minnesota, once regarded as notoriously anti-Semitic, has had no small number of Jewish mayors and senators in the decades since he died? Would he recognize his old neighborhood? All the questions are not of the life-and-death variety, either. For example, what would Julius Fidell, seller of woman’s apparel, make of the “shops of distinction” at the Galleria, just a few minutes away?
There is very little I can add to the subject of death and dying that hasn’t been said much more eloquently in the past by other writers. Toward the end of my stroll through the cemetery, I come across the gravestone of Aaron Rosenblet, who was born in 1897 and died in 1928 at the age of 31. His epitaph is a few lines from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s short poem “Break, Break, Break,” published a little less than a century before Aaron’s death. Most of the people who might have had memories of Aaron are likely now dead, but those two lines express the most aching and familiar sense of longing in a way that cuts right across the years: “But O for the touch of a vanished hand / And the sound of a voice that is still.”