Sunday, March 27, 2011

Cemeteries: Who Reads Stones?

One the most important skills to have in the field of Jewish heritage research is the ability to read and understand inscriptions, especially on gravestones. It is not enough to know Hebrew, one must be familiar with different types of Hebrew usage in different places at different times, and know scores of abbreviations and recognize direct quotes, paraphrases of and allusions to scriptural passages. I can usually tell you what kind of stone it is, and whether it will stand or fall; and I'm familiar with most of the iconography one finds on gravestones and can usually tell you the name and sometimes death date of the deceased; but I can't decipher epitaphs and happily rely on those who can.

One of those people is Madaleine Isenberg, and apparently the demand for reading and tranlating Hebrew gravestones is so great that she has been making a career out of it. A recent "On Language" column in the Forward by Philologos considers her profession, and what it should be called. Isenberg calls herself a "stelaeglyphologist," - you can read why. Philologos prefers something a little more direct like "tombstone specialist." Ms. Isenberg is really what archaeologists have long called an "epigrapher."

I don't really care - to paraphrase my grandmother who used say "I don't care what you call me, as long as you call me in time for dinner," I say, "I don't care what the stone inscription reader is called, only that the translation is correct."

The column is a fun read, here it is.

Still, I'll add one note, and send my two cents to Philologos. I never call Jewish matzevot "tombstones." I prefer the Hebrew term, or "gravestone." Why? Well, in most Jewish burials and Jewish cemeteries tombs are avoided, and Jews are simply placed in the ground in simple grave - wrapped in tallit or shroud, or placed in a simple wood box. Tombs suggest stuctures - like those of pharoahs and kings - something most Jews have avoided at most times. Even those elaborate structures one often finds in 19th-century Jewish cemeteries are not really tombs. The bodies are not housed within. They are buried in the ground like all the others, and those "tombs" are really monuments - just fancier matzevot.

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