The Pinkas of the Chevra Kadisha

"Old Book": The Yiddish/English Chevra Kadisha ledger from 1913-19934.

The unassuming exterior of the pinkas.  In case you weren’t sure, this is an old book!  Click to enlarge.

I do not exaggerate in telling you that when I discovered this book, I jumped up and down and ran around the archives making everyone look at my discovery.  The next day I posted pictures of it on Facebook to share my excitement with everyone I’ve ever met.  41 likes and 33 comments later, I knew it wasn’t just me.  This book is genuinely awesome.

Its bare-bones entry in the finding aid for the Homestead records, “Chevra Kadisha Record Book, 1915-1934,” betrayed no hint to its uniqueness amongst the sixteen boxes of other such books I had already spent months familiarizing myself with.  Its exterior kept quiet about its contents, too — what I pulled out of the box looked like every other synagogue record book — a standard ledger with numbered, lined pages filled out back-to-front.  But when I first opened it, I beheld the following after a few humdrum pages of names and addresses written in Yiddish and English:

Pinkas of the Chevra Kadisha of Homestead, 5677. Click to enlarge.

“Pinkas of the Chevra Kadisha of Homestead, 5677.” Click to enlarge.

My heart leapt at the sight of the calligraphy and the illumination.  Nowhere else in the Homestead records was such attention lavished on otherwise workaday records.  To me it appeared a literal hiddur mitzvah, a beautification of the commandments to show respect to the dead and provide comfort to mourners.  The special care they took with these records suggested to me that the Chevra Kadisha (“holy society,” the common name for a Jewish burial society) must seen their work as unusually sacred amongst all the sacred work involved in running the congregation.

I was also struck by the choice of name, Pinkas.  At the sight of this word threads zinged out in my mind connecting this simple book to many periods throughout Jewish history.  Today speakers of modern Hebrew use this word to mean notebook.  Centuries ago the rabbis of the Talmud used this term, which they got from the Greeks, to refer to the wax-covered writing tablets they used for note taking.  Decades ago survivors chose this word to title the memory books they created for their destroyed communities, because this term hearkened back to the former practice in these towns of keeping community record books called pinkasim.  And it was from these Eastern European pinkasim to the Homestead pinkas that I saw the strongest thread, because the Homestead pinkas, other than being a 20th c. American creation, has all the traditional features:

In the shtetlach (Yiddish for “small towns” or “villages”) of Eastern Europe, Jewish life was organized into chevrot, associations having specific religious, charitable, or trade functions.  Each chevrah recorded its rules and regulations, the names of its founders and members, and the minutes of its meeting in a pinkas, or register.  The members of the community treated the register with veneration.  Because of their importance, the pages of early European pinkasim were often parchment and bound in fine leather with gold letters…Professional scribes, or sofrim, often entered the proceedings of the chevra in the register, something employing the same style of lettering used in scrolls of the Torah.  The title pages and section headings of a pinkas were frequently illuminated with fine ornamentation and drawings, fanciful folk figures of animals and zodiacal signs, and decorated Hebrew letters.  A key to the communal affairs of Eastern European Jewry in the United States, the pinkas frequently represents a striking example of folk art itself. 1

Register of a chevra?  Check.  Torah-like lettering?  Check.  Illuminated pages?  Check.  Names of its founders and members?  Rules and regulations?  See below — check and check.

Names of the men of the Chevra Kadisha

“Names of the men of the Chevra Kadisha.” Click to enlarge.

Right: Names of the women of the Chevra Kadisha. Left: Regulation of the Chevra Kadisha

Right: “Names of the women of the Chevra Kadisha.” Left: “Takanot (regulations) of the Chevra Kadisha.” Click to enlarge.

The minutes?  Check, after the regulations they fill up most of the rest of the book, followed by lists of the deceased, both chronologically and by burial location.  (Years 1913-1924 are in Yiddish and 1925-1933 in English.)

But before the names and rules and minutes, something quite unexpected appears: a three-page poem!

First page of the poem from the pinkas

First page of the poem from the pinkas. Click to enlarge.

Second page of the poem from the pinkas

Second page of the poem from the pinkas. Click to enlarge.

Final page of the poem from the pinkas

Final page of the poem from the pinkas. Click to enlarge.

“Better to go to the House of Mourning
Than to the wedding hall” 2
What does the Joy from Feast bring?
Asks Kohelet! (King Solomon)
Yet this society is called
Gomel Chesed Shel Emet (Acts of True Kindness)
Who carries the dead man
From the World of Falsehood to the World of Truth
For such is the way of all dwellers on earth
All of mankind together
The wealthy and the poor, scholars and the wise
The fool and the ignorant
All of them after their days
Leave the world of the Living
Their Spirit and Holy Soul
And purity ascend to the Heavens
Only the body only remains behind
What benefit is it for man; for his end is in the grave
His face shines; as long as his spirit is within
But when the spirit leaves; he remains mud and soil
Yet the Wisest of Men said (King Solomon)
The day of death is better than the day of birth 3
For his End is better than his Beginning
A son of earth should remember from birth
That when his time comes, he will return to his origin
Hence we, the Chevra Gomel Chesed Shel Emet
Attend to the needs of the dead
Purify and clean him; and dress him
Only in certain clothes; white and not black
For we are the Chevra Gomel Chesed Shel Emet
Bearers of the dead man
From the False World to the World of Truth
Truth appears white
And falsehood appears black
Falsehood is Darkness
And truth is Light
Master of the Universe!
Who dwells on high
Provide a sure rest
In the shadow of the Wings of the Divine Presence
Those whose souls shine
May they rest in the Garden of Eden
And find peace in their resting place
AND LET US SAY AMEN 4

The Chevre Kadisha was established
Wednesday, Parshat Vayishlach, 16th of Kislev, 5672 [12/7/1911]

I asked Aaron Housman, who graciously translated the poem (and wrote me afterwards, “Ok, I’m thoroughly spooked out now…”), to what degree he thought it was an original composition.  Clearly the footnoted lines come from other sources, but I suspected there were far more borrowed phrases than I could recognize.  He replied, “My quick assessment would be that it is semi-original, meaning most of it is pieced together from different verses. Then again, it all rhymes in Hebrew so it must have been created by a learned person.  On the other hand, and this is why we need to really study Jewish burial societies in the US, this might have been a standard thing to put into a pinkas and many society secretaries would copy it.”  (This was the case with the English speeches!)

So, while the poem may or may not be unique, such American pinkasim, though previously unfamiliar to me, are not unheard of.  The essay I quoted previously elaborates:

Upon the arrival in the United States of large numbers of Eastern European Jews that commenced in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, communal organizations modeled on European patterns were established in American Jewish communities…Most American pinkasim are standard large blank journal or account books purchased from commercial stationers…It was in the nature of American life that other forms of community organization would quickly supplant many traditional chevrot, but pinkasim recording their activities survive. In one example from 1911-1912, which documents a group within Philadelphia’s Congregation Atereth Israel, the artist, Benjamin J. Wexlar, surprisingly substituted a pair of northwest coast Indian totem poles as a decorative element in place of the more conventional columns.

By the end of the first half of the twentieth century, many traditional Jewish folk art practices were lost, the result of assimilation and acculturation. In some cases, the production of folk art did not survive the immigrant generation. 5

I cannot make out from this essay or from Google where this pinkas or any other American pinkasim are located, but as Aaron mentioned in his conversation with me, we must look at a number of these pinkasim together to better understand Homestead’s in context.  6When I was first soaring on the clouds of this discovery, I got carried away with my ideas about hiddur mitvah, but now that deeper investigation has brought me back down to earth, the explanation behind these pages could be as straightforward as:  this is what everyone did.  This book was created when the Chevra Kadisha first began to keep records, so they fashioned it as Jews had fashioned record books since time immemorial.  7 Moreover, I judged these pages as unique against the hundreds of other Homestead pages, but only now does it dawn on me that my sample is incomplete, because the earliest minute books for the congregation are gone.  It is entirely possible — even likely, I begin to think — that the first volume of the congregation’s minutes began with pages similarly illuminated.

My underlying curiosity around Homestead’s traditional pinkas has to do with discerning the blend of the old and the new in the congregation’s formation.  The Chevra Kadisha got traditional takanot (regulations) in 1912 where the main congregation had American-style bylaws since 1902.  Why?  In 1940 the Chevra Kadisha proposed to create its own constitution and by-laws, presumably to replace the original takanot. 8  What had changed?  In Homestead’s early organization I see elements of the traditional kehilla (institutionalized Jewish community) the founders had left and the American fraternal groups a surprising number of them joined at a fairly early date.  How exactly did these qualities weigh against each other in Homestead at the beginning and in later periods, what does that shifting balance say about our ancestors, and how did Homestead’s shift compare to other such communities?

And more bewildering, while it’s understandable how the community’s founders would have known to put in place structures they had experienced in the towns of their youth, who knew to make this pinkas in this way?  Given how these record books were venerated, it is my understanding that they were closely guarded by community elders in the shtetlach.  9 But, the men who started the Homestead congregation were young.  How in their youth before they left the Old Country would they have learned about these semi-private traditions well enough to enact them without elders to guide them?  All of these questions I would have asked even had there been no pinkas — there’s enough to wonder about in the boxes of English records and the rituals they record — but because it exists, this beautiful pinkas has become the clearest focal point for my awe and admiration at how these young men managed to reconstruct so much of the world they had left behind.


 

The list of members uses everyone’s Hebrew names. In cases where I know the English first name the people commonly used, I added it in parentheses.

Judging by the Chevra Kadisha‘s meeting minutes, there were many more members than who were listed here.  This list was not kept up-to-date for very long after it was written.

Names of the Men of the Chevra Kadisha Names of the Women of the Chevra Kadisha
Rabbi Samuel Widom
Mr. Yosef (Joseph) Lasdusky
Mr. Mendel Margolios (Margolis)
Mr. Nachum (Nathan?) Schwartz
Mr. Chayim Glick
Mr. Yitzchak Podolsky
Mr. Shmaryahu Margolios (Margolis)
Mr. Schbe Grinberg
Mr. Moshe (Morris) Grinberg
Mr. Moshe Dov (M.D.) Weis
Mr. Aharon Weiss
Mr. Shalom (Sam) Rosenthal
Mr. Dov (Bernhardt) Hipsch (Hepps)
Mr. Yosef (Joseph) Kardon
Mr. Aharon (Adolph) Hipsch (Hepps)
Mr. Moshe Faigel
Mr. Tsvi Glick
Mr. Asher (Usher) Magram)
Mr. Baruch Lev Schwartz
Mr. Benny Markowitz
Mr. Menachem Eskovitz
Mr. Yosef (Joseph) Freed
Mr. Moshe Tsvi Schwartz
Mr. Yitzchak (Isaac) Samuels
Mr. Tsvi Haupt
Mr. Shlomo Mervis)
Mr. Yisrael Yaakov Goldstein
Mr. Chaim son of Shmuel Moskowitz
Mr. Avraham son of Yaakov Moshe z”l
Mr. David Fisher
Mr. Yosef (Joseph) Weinberger
B. Mermelstein
Meyer Grinberg
Yitzchak (Ignatz) Grossman)
B. (Benjamin) Friedlander
R. (Reuben) Schermer
Yosef Katz
Mordechai (Mark) Fishel
Mrs. Rabbi Widom
Mrs. Lasdusky
Mrs. M. Margolios (Margolis)
Mrs. N. Schwartz
Mrs. Ch. Glick
Mrs. Podolsky
Mrs. S. Margolios (Margolis)
Mrs. M. Grinberg
Mrs. M.D. Weis
Mrs. A. Zeiger
Mrs. A. Hipsch (Hepps)
Mrs. Rosenthal
Mrs. D. (Bernhardt) Hepps
Mrs. Kardon
Mrs. M. Faigel
Mrs. A. Weiss
Mrs. Ts. Glick
Mrs. O. Magram
Mrs. B.L. Schwartz
Mrs. B. Markowitz
Mrs. Eskovitz
Mrs. Freed
Mrs. Y. Ts. Schwartz
Mrs. Samuels
Mrs. Bluma Frankel
Mrs. Klein
Mrs. Yizrael (?)
Mrs. Seigle
Mrs. Bluma Gross
Mrs. Bluma Glick
Mrs. B. Friedlander
Mrs. Tobia Grinberg
Mrs. Grossman
Mrs. Weinberger
Mrs. A.L. Hipsch (Hepps)
Mrs. D. Seigle

  1. Encyclopedia of American Folk Art, p. 304.

    Examples of member pages from Eastern European pinkasim. Taken during a lecture at IAJGS 2012 with Iryna Serheyeva, "The Pinkasim that the Vernadsky Library holds." Click to enlarge.

    Examples of member pages from Eastern European pinkasim. Photographed by me during a lecture at IAJGS 2012 by Iryna Serheyeva entitled, “The Pinkasim that the Vernadsky Library holds.” Click to enlarge.

    For reference, here is a list of some traditional pinkasim in a library in Kiev.  In July 2012 I heard a lecture from the librarian responsible for them, which is how I learned about pinkasim in the first place.  Such serendipity!  Had it not been for her presentation, I would not have recognized the Homestead pinkas for what it was.

    There are other kinds of traditional pinkasim as well.  If you read Everything is Illuminated, you might recognize the pinkas described here:

    I remember hearing the word pinkes several times when I was a small child. For instance, when an unusual event took place in town, the adults, while commenting among themselves on the events, used to say: “Such a terrible story should be recorded in the pinkes!” On other occasions when things happened that weren’t quite as unheard of, but were nevertheless curious, even the woman used to finish their accounts with: “It was something to write down in the pinkes!” But what this thing called a pinkes was, what it looked like, and where it was to be found, this pinkes which was mentioned in tones of such respect, as though it were something holy – I had no idea, and even in my imagination I couldn’t picture it…

    “Rebe, what is a pinkes? What’s written in it?”

    “A pinkes, Leybele, is a book in which all of the unusual events and occurrences that take place in a town are recorded, both good things and, God forbid, not such good things.” He continued slowly, sipping after each phrase: “The good things are recorded, so that the generations that follow us will learn to behave well and will also perform good deeds. The bad things that happen, may we be spared, are recorded so that people may know not to do them and also so that the One Above will pity us and see that no evil harms us in the future. Amen.”

     

  2. Ecclesiastes 7:2  

  3. Ecclesiastes 7:1  

  4. These last lines are a close approximation of the Kel Malei Rachamim, “God, full of mercy,” prayer recited at funerals and on other occasions when we remembered the dead.  

  5. Encyclopedia of American Folk Art, p. 304-5.  

  6. Pinkas from Congrégation Tifereth Beth David Jérusalem in Québec.  This page has a year of 1922 on it.

    Pinkas from Congrégation Tifereth Beth David Jérusalem in Québec. This page has a year of 1922 on it.

    As of July 2017, the only other American pinkas I have been able to find it this one from Congrégation Tifereth Beth David Jérusalem in Québec, pictured at right.  When I inquired at the Center for Jewish History, they were not aware of this phenomenon.   

  7. Although, I suspect the practice would have originally arisen as a hiddur mitzvah, even if that wasn’t what motivated my Homesteaders.  

  8. Box 13, Folder 3, pp. 82, 86.  This change never happened, because it was deemed inappropriate for a sub-committee of the congregation.   

  9. In the introduction to Nathaniel Deutsch’s revelatory The Jewish Dark Continent:  Life and Death in the Russian Pale of Settlement, the author relates how hard the ethnographer An-sky and historian Simon Dubnow had to work to collect pinkasim from communities reluctant to part with them.  One story:  “A family named Landsberg initially refused to part with a pinkas (record book) that had originally belonged to their ancestor, a religious judge who lived in the shtetl at the end of the eighteenth century… After gathering together the entire Landsberg clan, An-sky delivered such an impassioned plea that with ‘tears in their eyes’ the family members handed him the precious heirloom” (p. 22).

    Whatever judgements one might have about prying such treasures from families, they did their work at a time when the traditional ways of the shtetlach were fading, but before the Shoah eradicated them forever.  It is unclear how much of their collection survived WWII — items are now dispersed throughout Russia and Ukraine, including the aforementioned Vernadsky library pinkasim — but extremely little would have survived had such artifacts remained with their original owners.  

  1 comment for “The Pinkas of the Chevra Kadisha

  1. Devorah Segall daughter of Floence and Frank Segall
    May 22, 2016 at 10:36 pm

    I am filled with awe and gratitude to find this today.My grandfather Harry Solomon was one of the founders of the shul I am searching for info

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