For most people, a hot weekend in July is best spent on the beach. For Yiddish lovers, it seems, it’s best spent at the cemetery.
On a recent Sunday, more than 30 people gathered at the Old Mount Carmel Cemetery in the Glendale section of Queens, where — loaded with sandwiches, sunscreen and “The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse” — these members of Yugntruf Youth for Yiddish and students of YIVO’s Yiddish Summer Program visited the graves of cherished Yiddish poets, writers, artists and labor leaders.
Descending from the school bus that brought them to the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring section of the cemetery, immediately they were faced with the best seats in the house. They saw the graves of such luminaries as Bundist leader Vladimir Medem, Mr. & Mrs. Abraham Cahan of Jewish Daily Forward fame, and Benjamin Schlesinger, former president of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, whose Yiddish epitaph notes, “He died a martyr for the cause.” (Towering over the Yiddish on the Schlesinger headstone is the Latin motto “Labor vincit omnia,” or “Work conquers all.”) A bit to the side of these canonized leaders of the Jewish labor movement is the resting place of Morris Rosenfeld, the famed “poet of the sweatshops,” whose epitaph has been so worn down that it is nearly impossible to decipher. A rubbing was made of it, which partially revealed a lengthy rhyming-type poem that seemed, to the group, unlikely to have been Rosenfeld’s work.
Most prominent, in that all-important first row rests historic Yiddish literary great Sholom Aleichem. Visitors to Jewish graves traditionally leave stones instead of flowers, and the substantial pile of stones partially obscuring the writer’s epitaph signifies the legions of guests he continues to entertain.
Other resting places are equally affecting: Sculptor Moses Dykaar’s grave is personalized with a miniature carving of a youth in profile leaning across the top of the tombstone, and poet Anna Margolin’s powerful presence can be found in the further reaches of the cemetery. Her haunting poem, written for her own tombstone, evokes the pain of the creative silence she suffered in the last years of her life. Margolin’s epitaph beseeches passersby to “pity her and be silent.”
Moyshe Leyb Halpern’s grave was found in the further recesses of the section, overgrown with ivy and cobwebs clinging to the rough hewn stone. It is engraved simply, with only the poet’s name and his dates of birth and death. In tribute to him, the group sang Halpern’s poem “Di Zun Vet Aruntergayn Hintern Barg” (“The Sun Is Setting”). The song opens with the sun setting behind a hill and eventually invokes Yiddish literature’s emblematic golden peacock, which accompanies the dead to eternal rest. The group’s voices, along with the chirping of the cemetery birds, drifted through the site.