Mt. Zion 1 – imps of the perverse
– photo by Mitch Waxman
What would appear to be a Jewish section of the vast funerary complex that is 2nd and 3rd Calvary Cemeteries, is actually a distinct cemetery organized as and referred to as Mount Zion.
It made a convenient hiding spot for me one day when a group of children on Maurice Avenue took notice of me and began to follow me around. The possibility of some vaguely malign intention toward me, on their part, caused a near faint and I ran away- here’s what happened.
Narrow, juvenile faces, their appearance and aspect were dominated by a toothy grimace- much wider than the usual proportion- and oddly jowled chins. The corners of their mouths stretched to mid cheek and passed well beyond the bulging center point of those widely set and unblinking milky blue eyes- which I attribute to the possibly mutagenic qualities of the chemical pollution of that nearby extinction of hope called the Newtown Creek.
A little girl amongst them, barefoot and carrying a polydactyl calico which was buzzing with attention, pointed me out and all the other odd looking children turned and stared in my direction. A vast physical coward, and unable to withstand even the thought of defending myself against a crowd of 10 year olds, your humble narrator screamed a shrill shriek and broke into a clumsy run to make an escape to hallowed ground.
Mount Zion Cemetery encompasses an area of 78 acres. This cemetery is located in Maspeth, Queens near the Manhattan Border. When this cemetery was first established the surrounding area was considered to be rural. There was an ongoing need for burial spaces to accommodate the explosion of the immigrant population in not only Queens, but also the nearby neighborhoods of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Mount Zion Cemetery has more than 210,000 burials on its 78 acres making it one of the more interesting burial grounds.
note: Mount Zion has come up once before, in the shot above from a Newtown Pentacle post of June 22- called Newtown Grafiti
– photo by Mitch Waxman
Once within the iron gates of Mount Zion, I enacted an old Brooklyn “run away and hide from pursuers strategy” which basically boils down to running around at full speed in a completely random manner and finding something to hide behind or in. Luckily, the tightly packed environs of this Cemetery make for good cover, and I was dressed in a black fedora and black raincoat- making the perfect camouflage for blending in with other visitors at Mt. Zion.
Once, this panic stricken series of turns and circles was called “cheese it”, and the modern English would call it “Leg it”. I knew a guy who once fled from the cops through 4 blocks of brooklyn backyards, hopping a six foot chain link fence every 30 yards, ran across Flatbush, through a golf course, then ran across the Belt Parkway, and dug himself a sand dune hole to spend the night in near Plum Beach. Brooklyn thing.
– photo by Mitch Waxman
There are distinct sections in Mount Zion, organized by burial society. Jewish Burial Societies are usually connected either to a Temple Congregation or Secular Association. The Secular ones would often be organized by a labor union, or by a brokerage business that sought to buy a large number of plots at a discount and sell them at a profit. Much information is available online about these societies if one can read hebrew or yiddish. There is also a modern and ancient division.
Some parts of the place date back to the 19th century, others have fresh interments. Unlike other faiths represented nearby, Jewish tradition calls for a single occupant in a grave. As such, the organization and placement of funerary rite and remains demands much lateral sprawl, and like most older Jewish cemeteries- Mount Zion seems crowded and claustrophobic.
But, it’s a good place to hide from those weird Maspeth kids, if you lords and ladies of Newtown don’t mind- let’s just hang out here a little while- OK?
That little girl with the maladapted and curiously 9 toed cat, she said something to the oldest boy that sounded like a name… Y’ha-nthlei?
A headstone (tombstone) is known as a matzevah (“monument”). Although there is no Halakhic obligation to hold an unveiling ceremony, the ritual became popular in many communities toward the end of the 19th century. There are varying customs about when it should be placed on the grave. Most communities have an unveiling ceremony a year after the death. Some communities have it earlier, even a week after the burial. In Israel it is done after the “sheloshim”, the first thirty days of mourning. There is no restriction about the timing, other than the unveiling cannot be held during certain periods such as Passover or Chol Ha’Moed.
At the end of the ceremony, a cloth or shroud covering that has been placed on the headstone is removed, customarily by close family members. Services include reading of several psalms (1, 23, 24, 103), Mourners Kaddish (if a minyan is available), and the prayer “El Malei Rachamim.” The service may include a brief eulogy for the deceased.