The mysterious Jews of Mount Auburn Cemetery
Why have hundreds of notable Jews chosen to be interred in these Cambridge, Massachusetts, non-denominational burial grounds?
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — Long hailed for terraced landscapes and mournful statues, the sprawling Mount Auburn Cemetery is also a non-denominational melting pot, where former slaves and Civil War veterans have staked out plots for eternity — alongside an unlikely mix of notable Jews.
True to Mount Auburn’s multi-cultural credo, these 174 hallowed acres are the final resting place for some of America’s best-known Jews, even when they did not want to be identified as such. Among them, Polaroid founder Edwin Land said he fled Judaism “for business reasons.”
Of the name-brand Jews buried here, the Vienna-born Felix Frankfurter usually tops the list. According to Helen Abrams, who has given tours of Mount Auburn’s monuments of deceased Jews, the former Supreme Court justice’s cremated remains rest below Story Chapel, a historic 19th-century structure that was built in 1898 and today serves partially as the cemetery’s visitor center.
Like some other Jews interred here, Frankfurter’s spouse was not Jewish. According to Abrams, mixed marriage burials have occurred here — in part — because of their ban in Conservative and Orthodox Jewish cemeteries. More than one monument in the 1831-founded cemetery features both a Star of David and a crucifix.
‘I came into the world a Jew, and although I did not live my life entirely as a Jew, I think it is fitting that I should leave as a Jew’
“I came into the world a Jew, and although I did not live my life entirely as a Jew, I think it is fitting that I should leave as a Jew,” said Frankfurter. “I don’t want to turn my back on a great and noble heritage,” added the Zionist, who advocated for creating a Jewish state during the 1919 Versailles peace talks.
Starting after World War II, Jewish Americans “became more comfortable identifying as Jews in a non-Jewish setting,” said Abrams. Around this time, symbols like the menorah, Torah and the priestly Kohanim hands started to appear on Mount Auburn monuments, she said.
But by the 1960s, “Jews were very happy to identify with being Jewish, just as other ethnic groups were embracing their roots,” said Joshua Segal, a rabbi and expert on Jewish burial practices.
“These Jews were sitting on the knife edge between remaining a Jew and becoming an American,” Segal told The Times of Israel in an interview. Segal wrote the 2007 book, “A Self-Guided Tour of Monuments of Jews Buried in the Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.”
Although Mount Auburn’s Jews chose to bypass traditional halacha upon burial in a Jewish cemetery, most of them were not ashamed of being Jewish, according to Segal. To the contrary, Jewish symbols, Hebrew dates, and even Yiddish words pepper many of the almost 50 monuments he identified as belonging to Jews. The pluckier figures include trapeze artist and clown Carl Meltzer, and firebrand anti-war activist Erna Rosenberg.
Jewish American war veterans also chose Mount Auburn, including German-born Hans Loeser, a volunteer with the “Ritchie Boys” against the Nazis, and veterans of D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge. Loeser’s wife Herta — an author and advocate for women in the work force — is buried alongside her husband.
The most fabled Jewish agitator buried at Mount Auburn might be Benno Weiser Varon, who survived a 1932 brawl with Nazis. Four decades later, as an Israeli diplomat posted to Latin America, he dodged an assassination attempt by Palestinian terrorists. The battle-hardened Weiser Varon authored “Professions of a Lucky Jew,” in part about his harrowing escapes from death.
In choosing a non-denominational final resting place over a Jewish cemetery, Jews like Weiser Varon opted for the eternal company of stand-outs like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and other three-name luminaries.
Meticulously landscaped grounds and dozens of celebrated, death-inspired statues were also a draw, not to mention the array of Hobbit hole-like family tombs, nestled into hills surrounding Mount Auburn’s ponds.
Mount Auburn: the nexus of the American-Jewish identity
Nearly half of Mount Auburn’s four-dozen identified Jews are buried close to each other, surrounding the cemetery’s Willow Pond, where the monuments are generally flat and simple. Other Jews are buried near the Egyptian Revival-style main entrance, and among the hills near two chapels, where families once visited to picnic and commune with the spirits of loved ones.
“I was a Harvard professor and Mount Auburn is a place where Harvard professors are buried,” explained Segal as to why so many “public” Jews chose — and continue to choose — these British garden movement-inspired burial grounds over Massachusetts’ numerous Jewish cemeteries.
Mount Auburn has never officially recorded the religion of its deceased residents, so it was not easy for Segal to identify what he estimates to be several hundred Jews interred among the cemetery’s 100,000 graves.
According to the author, Mount Auburn’s first burial of an identifiable Jew took place in 1893, when Julius Eichberg, legendary violinist and founder of the Boston Conservatory, was interred far from his German homeland. Segal said some of the European-born Jewish musicians buried at Mount Auburn had undergone fake conversions to Christianity in order to practice their art.
“If you wanted to be in the Vienna orchestra, than you could not be a Jew,” said Segal, who also wrote “A Field Guide to Visiting Jewish Cemeteries,” now is in its fourth printing.
Well represented among Mount Auburn’s Jewish residents are people of letters, including “freedom of dissent” supporter and journal publisher I.F. Stone, as well as “The Natural” author Bernard Malamud, whose flat grave marker says, “The master of stories,” in Yiddish.
The Morse family has several members buried at Mount Auburn, including Jacob Morse — the first noted Jewish sports writer — and his uncle Leopold Morse, who built a fortune on selling 5,000 Civil War boots in Boston. Morse later served Massachusetts in Congress and created foster homes for Jewish children, who until then were often placed in non-Jewish homes.
In keeping with New England’s penchant for reformers, some top Jewish activists are buried at Mount Auburn, including Gisela Warburg and other founding women of “The Window Shop,” a cooperative to help Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany gain an economic foothold in Boston. Warburg also helped thousands of Berlin’s Jewish children escape the Nazis through the Youth Aliyah movement.
A public service legend from the other end of the century is Eli Segal, whose monument has the largest display of Hebrew at Mount Auburn: “Them that show a person the way,” is written across the side of a stone bench next to Segal’s grave marker.
Having hired former president Bill Clinton to work on the 1972 McGovern presidential campaign in Texas, Segal later implemented Clinton’s presidential service agenda by founding AmeriCorps. He also headed “welfare to work” partnerships, and brought CityYear to South Africa after meeting Nelson Mandela, according to Abrams.
For Segal and other Jewish Americans in the public sphere, the historic and horticultural wonders of Mount Auburn helped “self-actualize” and blend a number of identities and value sets. Buried here in 1970, Abraham Maslow — the founder of humanistic psychology — might have entertained such a needs-based thesis.
“A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself,” wrote Maslow, known for mapping an individual’s “hierarchy of needs,” through which self-fulfillment is achieved.
Although he was born in Brooklyn and died while jogging in California, Maslow chose the epic Mount Auburn for interment, an ultimate “peak experience” for the psychology giant.
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