History’s Lessons: Jewish Couple Wed in Graveyard to Stop 1918 Flu Pandemic

painting of people at a wedding in a graveyard
Mayer Kirshenblatt’s ‘The Black Wedding in the Cemetery’ from ‘They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust,’ by Mayer Kirshenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (University of California Press 2007)
| Courtesy of Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

The wedding of Harry Rosenberg and Fanny Jacobs was unusual for several reasons.

For one, the bride and groom didn’t know each other prior to the ceremony. For another, their nuptials attracted 1,200 guests, though they didn’t have the money for a big party.

But perhaps the strangest aspect of their union was that it took place in a cemetery near Cobbs Creek in the hopes of stopping a deadly pandemic.

Rosenberg and Jacobs were part of a shvartse khasene, a custom created to save the Jewish people when all seemed lost. On Oct. 20, 1918, influenza was ravaging populations all over the world, and the Jewish immigrant community of Philadelphia was no exception. The ritual, known as a black wedding or plague wedding in English, was a desperate attempt to bring down God’s mercy.

During a shvartse khasene, the Jewish community collectively pays for the graveyard wedding of a poor or disabled couple who may not have the resources to get married on their own. The custom originated in Eastern Europe and gained popularity during 19th-century cholera epidemics in Russia, Poland and the Pale of Settlement. In his new book “Stepchildren of the Shtetl: The Destitute, Disabled, and Mad of Jewish Eastern Europe, 1800-1939,” Natan Meir, Lorry I. Lokey Professor of Judaic Studies at Portland State University, argues that the origins of the shvartse khasene can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

“It’s a wonderful example of a very rich religious ritual that religious studies scholars and anthropologists can look at from many different angles and keep discovering new things,” he said.

Meir said some scholars have interpreted the rite as a good deed designed to end God’s divine wrath. Cholera was a terrifying disease that could kill people within hours, and by fulfilling two mitzvot — helping the poor and facilitating the creation of a Jewish family — Eastern European Jewish communities may have hoped to end divine wrath.

Press samples from the time period that describe the plague weddings as raucous and joyous affairs suggest another reason for the celebration.

“It was a theory in the 19th century that you could be more susceptible to cholera if you were afraid and if you were anxious,” Meir said. “And therefore, there was a popular understanding that you should try to ward off the fear and anxiety that came with a pandemic in various ways. And so I suggest that the cholera wedding might have been a way for ordinary Jews to try to bring some joy to a very very bleak situation, which we understand very well today from our own circumstances.”

Another more sinister possibility, Meir argued, is that the wedding served as a symbolic sacrificial ritual.

“These disabled people, these marginalized figures within Jewish society in Eastern Europe, were often perceived as half-dead,” Meir said. “Of course, they’re living people, but there’s something about them which was perceived as very liminal, which is kind of on the border between this world and the other world.”

Widespread discrimination against the physically and mentally disabled may have meant it was considered permissible to use them as spiritual scapegoats to carry the burdens of the Jewish community as a whole. There is no evidence that the selected couples were asked for consent about participating in the ritual and, even if they did agree, they may have been pressured by a sense of obligation from having received charity.

When these Jewish immigrants arrived in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they lived in tight-knit communities that preserved the old traditions. Faced with the deadly 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed 12,000 Philadelphians in four weeks and almost 700,000 Americans in two years, they turned to these customs for guidance.

“At the time of Harry and Fanny’s wedding in the fall of 1918, the Spanish flu epidemic was at its peak,” wrote Charlie Hersh, administrative assistant at Jewish Learning Venture and a former education specialist at the National Museum of American Jewish History, in an article for My Jewish Learning. “Public gatherings were banned while social groups, including synagogue congregations, donated time and supplies. In an atmosphere of desperation, a handful of Jewish couples hoped this tradition from the ‘old country’ might make a difference.”

While the Cobbs Creek plague wedding attracted huge crowds, many American-born Jews were horrified by the superstitions the ceremony was based upon. Shortly after the wedding took place, the Jewish Exponent ran an opinion piece denouncing the event.

“The wedding held in a Jewish cemetery last Sunday for the purpose of staying the ravages of the epidemic was a most deplorable exhibition of benighted superstition. We are told that the custom originated in Russia. It and the participants should have been permitted to remain there.

Unfortunately the publicity given to the occurrence will convey to many people that this is a custom sanctioned and encouraged by the Jewish religion. The people who do such things do not know what Judaism means,” an outraged contributor wrote.

One month later, the paper published a slightly more flattering announcement about another shvartse khasene that took place in New York.

The ceremony was held in Mount Hebron Cemetery and joined Rose Schwartz and Abraham Lachterman in matrimony.

“The tradition on which the couple acted is one which declares that the only way to stop a plague is to hold a marriage ceremony in a cemetery. When Miss Schwartz and Lachterman consented to offer themselves to stop the influenza epidemic, the neighbors were so grateful that they provided food, taxicabs, a wedding gown and even the furnishings for a flat. Two thousand persons cheered the courageous pair as they started for the cemetery,” the announcement read.

The influenza pandemic eventually came to an end in the spring of 1920. The couples who volunteered to be wed in Philadelphia and New York were honored for their service to their communities.

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