Ornate Gravestones Tell Stories of Soviet Lives

Faces of Jewish Immigrants Laser-Etched on Black Granite

Soviet Chic: Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union brought a taste for gaudy laser-etched photos on — of all places — headstones.
claudio papapietro
Soviet Chic: Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union brought a taste for gaudy laser-etched photos on — of all places — headstones.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published January 20, 2013, issue of January 25, 2013.

How do you pick the life-sized photograph to have engraved with a laser on your father’s headstone?

Boris Shtern’s survivors chose a portrait of him with a moustache as thick as Groucho’s to go on his gravestone at Brooklyn’s Washington Cemetery. Yefiv Sheynin looks like a 1950s Vegas playboy in his portrait in granite. Boris Yanov, a few plots away, wears a Red Army uniform.

The three are part of a cultural revolution that has tossed aside decades of homogeneity in American Jewish headstones. Instead of identically cut granite slabs, Jews from the Former Soviet Union are picking flashy, highly polished black stones of varied sizes and shapes engraved with portraits of the departed.

“I tell them just give me a good-quality photo,” said Joel Lelonek of Monuments by Riverside, a dealer of laser-engraved stones. “And then I say to pick something that’s meaningful to you.”

Suggestions like Lelonek’s are broadly interpreted. On his stone at Washington Cemetery, Mark Shenderovich, who died in 1990, smiles broadly. Betya Balagula, who died in 1997, is severe. Some are pictured in their old age, others as young people. On one couple’s headstone, the wife is dressed in her best while the husband’s shirt isn’t buttoned all the way up.

The new-style stones are highly polished and black, and are cut in exotic shapes. They’re now common among Bukharian, Georgian and Russian-speaking immigrant Jewish communities. The names, written in English, are often elegantly italicized. Poems or epitaphs appear below, often in Cyrillic script. The key features, though, are the portraits, rendered slightly smaller than life size.

The faces reference an Old World tradition that didn’t exist when earlier generations of Jewish immigrants came to the United States. Rabbi Itzhak Yehoshua, a leading rabbi in New York’s Bukharian Jewish community, said Bukharians started putting portraits on gravestones in the 1950s, when they were still in Central Asia. Yehoshua said he suspected that the Soviet practice of building statues and monuments to the dead influenced the practice.



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