A Home between Death and Life: Mausoleums as Liminal Spaces of Memory for Classical Reform Jews of Temple Emanu-El, 1890–1945
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A Home between Death and Life:
Mausoleums as Liminal Spaces of Memory for Classical Reform Jews of Temple Emanu-El, 1890–1945

In early twentieth-century New York City, members of the Classical Reform Temple Emanu-El led lives of splendor.1 They lived in stately townhouses in Manhattan and worshipped at their cathedral-like, jewel-box synagogue at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 65th Street on New York's Upper East Side.2 When they died, members were buried a few miles away at the temple's Brooklyn cemetery, Salem Fields. In death, these families transitioned from worldly homes of high taste to equally exquisite deathly homes: luxurious family mausoleums, which were made of marble, mosaics, and stained glass; and furnished with lounges, tables, and Persian rugs. Salem Fields Cemetery stands today as a rich repository of memorial art, including about six hundred of these family mausoleums, which date roughly from 1890 to 1945.3 Each is a record of social status, artistic taste, and family memory. The mausoleums of Salem Fields are liminal spaces, standing at the intersection of several spheres of transition, identity, and culture: life and death, home and temple, and what it meant to be German-American, Jewish, and Classical Reform.

Salem Fields was designed as a landscape of repose, with rolling hills, flowers, and trees. It was part of the "garden cemetery" movement, a trend in nineteenth-century American burial practices in which new cemeteries were built outside city limits. Many of these new cemeteries were beautifully landscaped and, like public parks, they served as havens from city life. For many people, including Jews and Christians alike, [End Page 121] this setting carried theological implications for the fate of the deceased, as gardens seemed to promise a peaceful rest. Salem Fields is unusual among garden cemeteries, though, since it was laid out in a curving grid of burial plots. In this way, it bridged the earthly world of Manhattan society to an otherworldly "city of the dead."

Inside each mausoleum, ethereal stained glass and home furnishings made for a liminal space between the domestic and the sacred. Nearly all mausoleums at Salem Fields have stained glass windows, and these were created in a range of styles and designs, from symbolic landscapes to religious heraldry. Their soft glow adds an otherworldly and sacred element to each space. In addition, many mausoleums were furnished with lounges, tables, chairs, and Persian rugs. These furnishings echo the late nineteenth-century ideal of dying at home—which was seen as a "good death"—and in this way, they anchor the mausoleums as spaces of transition between this world and a world to come.

All the while, the patrons of these mausoleums walked a thin line between embracing their Jewish identity and assimilating into American culture. These questions of identity are reflected in the designs, motifs, and very existence of these memorials. Most members of Temple Emanu-El were German-American, and in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, their place within American Jewry was shifting. Since their arrival in the early nineteenth century, many German-American Jews had achieved economic success and relative social integration into American society. They practiced Reform Judaism and lived largely secular, assimilated lives. Many Reform congregations in New York City were founded on the Lower East Side, but they moved uptown as soon as they could afford it. Congregations such as Emanu-El, Rodeph Sholom, and Beth-El—with which Emanu-El merged in 1927—built grand, spacious synagogues along the affluent, tree-lined streets of the Upper East Side and Upper West Side.4 Like other wealthy Reform congregations, Emanu-El counted socialites, influential businessmen, and patrons of the arts among its members. Culturally, German-American Jews aspired to the American mainstream elite, feeling that they differed from their Protestant neighbors in faith alone. Whenever possible, they refrained from outwardly announcing themselves as Jewish.

At the end of the nineteenth century, their place began to shift as great numbers of Eastern European Ashkenazi and Eastern Sephardi Jews arrived in the largest wave of Jewish immigration to the United [End Page 122] States. This final group of...


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