Funeral Rites and Burial Practices of Italian Americans and Hasidic Jews
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This paper explores culture and personality using a comparative analysis of Hasidic Jews ...... More...
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This paper explores culture and personality using a comparative analysis of Hasidic Jews and Italian Americans in the area of funeral rites and burial practices. The paper compares these characteristics in each culture before analyzing how each influences these practices due to its respective culture.
Culture and Personality Italian American and Hasidic Jew Funeral Rites and Burial Practices Introduction A study of particular characteristics of different ethnic groupsoften leads to greater insight and understanding of how culture influencesother aspects of existence The close-knit nature of both Italian Americanand Hasidic Jewish communities is clearly evident from a study of therespective funeral rites and burial practices of each culture The funeralrites and burial practices of both ethnic groups encompass a variety ofbeliefs values and behaviors For instance Hasidic Jews
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The burial rituals of the Hasidic Jews are elaborate and filled withsymbols. Mintz (2 7) reports the statement of one Hasidic Jewsupon learning that a recently departed member of the community was skilledat law, "A person that wins three such law suits in my court is of suchmerit that I should go to his funeral and pay my respects" (p. Italian American & Jewish Cultural Influence on Funeral Practices Time and again in the ethnographic documents available at HRAF it isapparent that both Italian American and Hasidic Jewish cultures influencefuneral rites and burial practices. Retrieved 15 Apr 2 7 at eHRAF: http://ets.umdl.umich.edu.libproxy.csun.edu:2 48/cgi/e/ehraf/ehraf- idx?c=ehrafe;page=boolean,Johnson, C. Retrieved 15 Apr 2 7 at eHRAF: http://ets.umdl.umich.edu.libproxy.csun.edu:2 48/cgi/e/ehraf/ehraf- idx?c=ehrafe;page=boolean,Poll, S. In Hasidic Jewish community, those responsible for preparing thedead for burial are typically a closed group of Jewish men and women whoprepare the bodies according to Jewish religious law. The Italian Americans also hold a vigil for the deceased and some ofthe rules regarding activity after a person dies have evolved othertraditions related to funeral rites or burial practice, "Out of respect,all other activity ceased, a restriction which brought the traditions of'feeding the family'" (Johnson, 1932, p. One of the reasons burialclub members prayed for the deceased was in keeping with the Catholicdoctrine regarding purgatory (Cowell, 2 7). A. Thepreparation of the body is particularly associated with religious law amongHasidic Jews. One undertaker hung signs in every Hasidic house of worship"calling to the attention of the community that people 'should arise fromtheir sleep and try to do justice to the person who has passed away' andthat this last rite for the dead (immersing the body in a ritual bath]according to religious law" (Poll, 2 7, p. Growing up and growing old in Italian-American families. For Hasidic Jewishcommunities, these rites and practices primarily derive from classicalJudaic texts like the Torah. 98). Retrieved 15 Apr 2 7 at eHRAF: http://ets.umdl.umich.edu.libproxy.csun.edu:2 48/cgi/e/ehraf/ehraf- idx?c=ehrafe;page=boolean,Mintz, J. Showing the bodyproper respect and the ritual cleansing of the body and dressing for burialare the main tasks of this group. Poll (2 7) points out that undertakers often relied on thisinfluence when trying to convince Hasidic Jews to use them whenever someonepassed away. In order to pay respect to this loss, the death of anItalian American sets off a wave of other practices like "sending food andflowers, giving money, congregating at the home of the deceased, and, ofcourse, eating" (Johnson, 1932, p. 98). Relations among community members like the domuses ofItalian Harlem or among members of Hasidic communities also influencevarious practices related to funerals and burial. The funeralrites and burial practices of both ethnic groups encompass a variety ofbeliefs, values, and behaviors. Orsi (2 7) reports thewords of one Italian man in 1934 regarding his missing a funeral of arelative, no matter how distant, "I would be ostracized and actually hatedby all East Harlem residents who know me." In Hasidic Jewish communities,the same kind of respect is expected by members of the community when arelative or close acquaintance passes. Kinship influences the funeral rites and burial practices ofeach culture, like Jewish mothers tearing their clothing over their heartto show their loss and pain but other family members tear a differentsection of clothing. Italian Americans also have atradition of sharing the costs of a funeral or helping provide for thoseleft behind, which influences the giving of money to the immediate familymembers of the deceased. 158). For instance, Hasidic Jews go through abereavement process derived from Judaic religious texts like the Torah,though the details and practices involved often vary from one Jewishcommunity to the next. For Hasidic Jews the values of respect for the dead are based on lawsagainst desecration of the body in rabbinical text. Cowell (2 7) explains that "all these attempts toreduce the gruesomeness and fearfulness of death and to stress its beautyand beneficence also acted to reduce its reality as well as its sting" (p.14). The funeral rites and practices of Italian Americans revolve largelyaround the concept of respect. Italian Americans, for instance, participate in funeralprocessions that denote status of bigness that is important to Italians.As Johnson (1932) explains, "There is great pride in the 'bigness' of theevent which is usually stated by the numbers of cars in the procession" (p.3). For the Italian Americans, the aspect ofshowing respect for the deceased is one of a number of long-establishedtraditional values held by the ethnic group. We see that Hasidic Jews sit Shiva, a period of seven days ofmourning for the dead. In the Italian Americanpreparation of the body, burial clubs made up of guild members "helpeddefray the expenses of funerals, prayed and showed respect for the deceasedand family" (Cowell, 2 7, p. This analysis will provide a comparison of the funeral rites andburial practices in Italian American and Hasidic Jewish communities. This is true in terms of bringingvalues of each culture into the process of bereavement, rather it is theItalian American feasting and offering of food because families are not toengage in other activities when a loved on dies or the Jewish practice ofeating hardboiled eggs and other round and oblong foods because of OldTestament practices by Abraham in the wake of a death of a friend. There are three steps in the preparation of thebody for burial in the Hasidic Jewish community: 1) washing; 2) ritualpurification; and 3) dressing (Poll, 2 7). In the Hasidic Jewish community, the death of a member of thecommunity is also a highly emotional event as in the Italian Americancommunity. As views on death and thefuneral practice changed for Italians, the life-integrated funeral rite ofpassage in the Italian home shifted to a less familiar and more aestheticprocess in America. One distinction is that at the time of death a vigil is heldwherein a person (not usually a relative) is designated to sit with thedead body and recite psalms the whole time until burial takes place.Honoring the deceased and making sure no harm or desecration comes to thebody are the two main purposes of holding the vigil in Hasidic Jewishcommunities. (1932). In Europe, Italian Americans would place the prepared body in apine box after the wake. Thefuneral rites and burial practices of the Italian Americans and HasidicJews clearly show that each culture brings to these characteristics of lifeaspects derived from cultural tradition. A tradition is followed where family members and friends helpfill up the grace with dirt using a shovel that they place in the soilafter throwing dirt into the grace, to keep from passing their grief to thenext individual. 764). While there arealways differences and distinctions in the characteristics of existence ofdifferent cultural groups, this analysis also illustrates that in manyinstances there are a number of significant similarities in suchcharacteristics between different cultures. Even in America, however, the Italian tradition of respect andfamily unity endured even in funeral practices. One specificinstance of this is the craftsman who used to fashion pine boxes fordeceased Italian Americans. 1).Colleen Leahy Johnson (1932) notes that death among Italian Americansrepresents a "great social loss" and the typical wake lasts three or fourdays (p. In Italian American communities, Catholic doctrine serves as theguiding foundation of all funeral rites and burial practices as do theclassical Judaic Torah and rabbinical texts. 9). 98). For example, the chief aims of the funeral rites andburial practices of both Italian Americans and Hasidic Jews are to showrespect for the dead and to comfort those in the community left behind. A study of various characteristics of existence of different ethnicgroups is useful because if often highlights just how often our culture orethnicity influence our values, beliefs, and practices. R. It would be impossible to deny the respective religious influenceson funeral rites and burial practices within both the Italian American andHasidic Jewish communities. Such significance is placed on funeral rites and burialpractices that Hasidic Jews often make a statement regarding the deceasedas to just how closely traditional practices are carried out. Ultimately both Italian American andHasidic Jewish cultures turned to undertakers to perform such duties inpreparation for burial. Fromconcepts of community and unity to concepts of kinship and religion, thevalues of both these cultures are highly evident in their funeral rites andburial practices. While Cowell (2 7) points out that thepeasants in Southern Italy viewed the church as one more exploitativesocial institution and used the family as the final authority on allmatters including funeral and burial practices, in America Italians reliedheavily on the church as an important component of their funeral and burialpractices. In Italian Americancommunities, Catholic doctrine also plays a significant role in influencingvarious rites and practices associated with funerals and burial, especiallythe Catholic Mass and the practice of saying a prayer for the dead atreligious services on the anniversary of their passing. In theseinstances, even when sons who had left the fold died, Mintz (2 7) tells us"Although the families were extremely upset, no one sat Shiva, the sevendays of mourning the dead" (p. 578). While the funeral ritesand burial practices of different cultures are often guided by religiousauthority, it is readily apparent from this analysis that differentcultures also shape and influence them.ReferencesCowell, D. Like customs and activitiesdifferent among different Hasidic Jewish communities, so too Italians oftenselected a funeral home based on its observance of their own customs. While the Hasidic Jews mayfast where the Italian American feats within the funeral practice, each iscarrying out such behavior not just because it is a cultural tradition orcustom but also to pay respect for the departed. This is seen in the announcement to HasidicJews in Williamsburg that a new chapel had been erected "able to satisfythe most zealous of the zealous persons...to keep the honor of thedeparted, and do the taharah [purification, washing, and dressing], and theguarding of the dead person's body until the funeral is performed by piousfuneral attendants, observers of the Torah and commandments" (Poll, 2 7,p. D. During these times rituals are observed likesitting on the floor to show one has been brought low or covering mirrorsto refrain from any inclination toward vanity during mourning. As Robert Orsi (2 7) explains, this was a commonpractice in the domus communities of Italian Harlem, "People were expectedto contribute to the expenses of the funeral in amounts relative to theirintimacy with the deceased, a custom that allowed for the expression of thepriority of relations among family members and between the domus and theother domuses of the community" (p. 98). Roman Catholic beliefs also shape the primaryrites and practices of Italian American funerals and burial. Retrieved 15 Apr 2 7 at eHRAF: http://ets.umdl.umich.edu.libproxy.csun.edu:2 48/cgi/e/ehraf/ehraf- idx?c=ehrafe;page=boolean Jerome Mintz(2 7) maintains that Jews who converted to Lubavitch put their families ina difficult position, because keeping their other children safe from suchconflicting views meant breaking family ties if need be. 764). Solomon Poll (2 7)explains that in the Hasidic community it common practice to aid otherHasidic Jews in the funerary industry by patronizing their establishments,"Besides having this superb religious service, the undertaker argues, it ismore practical, more sanitary, easier, more kosher, and cheaper. Inaddition to all these advantages, people will perform the great mitzvah ofhelping one's brother by using this funeral parlor" (p. As the Italian Americans began to adapt their family centeredness,funeral customs, and cosmology to the "New World," practices, customs, andeven occupations associated with funerals and burial evolved. 4). 539). In the New World this would evolve as anoccupation but also create a more elaborate funeral. Hasidic people: A place in the new world. AsJohnson (1932) notes, "Families select them according to which funeraldirector knows their own regional customs and social activities centeringaround the wake" (p. Legends of the Hasidim: An introduction to Hasidic culture and oral tradition in the New World. 447). The shovel is kept pointed down to contrast death fromlife. Friends would carry the coffin to the churchcemetery "preceded by a village band, if available, and buried by thefamily who also marked the grave with a small stone or cross" (Cowell,2 7, p. Family members of the deceased often tear a piece of clothing tosymbolize the pain and wound they have experienced. In many instances attending thefuneral of the departed in the Hasidic Jewish community is first andforemost about demonstrating respect for the deceased and those he or shehas left behind. As Cowell (2 7)explains, "The skilled furniture or cabinet maker for whom making plain,pine-box coffins had bee a sideline, gradually came to make these hisspecialty; he began to professionalize both his demeanor and services,while beautifying death and burial" (p. Despite bringground in classical religious texts, both the Italian American and HasidicJewish culture influence funeral rites and practices. In most instances, a process known as a"wake" was held where the dead body lies in the home of the deceased inwhat Daniel David Cowell (2 7) calls a "kind of ritual farewell involvingmembers of the immediate family" and close friends of the departed (p. R. With the Italians, the bonding nature of communalmeals is highly evident during and as a major part of the bereavementprocess. Culture and Personality: Italian American and Hasidic Jew Funeral Rites and Burial Practices Introduction A study of particular characteristics of different ethnic groupsoften leads to greater insight and understanding of how culture influencesother aspects of existence. The mass that precedes theburial of the Italian American also stems from Catholic doctrine andtradition. L. Whether based onancient religious texts or deriving from long-established communitytraditions, the elements of funeral rites and burial practices of ItalianAmericans and Hasidic Jews show just how much culture influences thecharacteristics of existence of different ethnic groups. The strong influence of the rabbi in the Hasidic communitydemonstrates influences on funeral rites and burial practices. The close-knit nature of both Italian Americanand Hasidic Jewish communities is clearly evident from a study of therespective funeral rites and burial practices of each culture. As Solomon Poll (2 7) explains, "InEurope, every Jewish community had a ritual society, the so-called hevrahkadishah (holy society), which took care of all the rituals connected withthe preparation for burial" (p. At all times, respect is amain theme in the funeral rites and practices of the Italian Americans andHasidic Jews, both for the deceased as well as those in the community leftbehind. 4). The Madonna of 115th street: Faith and community in Italian Harlem, 188 -195 . For ItalianAmericans, the belief that touching the body of the deceased brings closureto earthly life because the soul of the departed is now being prepared forHeaven or the alternative in purgatory. The Hasidic community of Williamsburg. Retrieved 15 Apr 2 7 at eHRAF: http://ets.umdl.umich.edu.libproxy.csun.edu:2 48/cgi/e/ehraf/ehraf- idx?c=ehrafe;page=boolean,Osri, R. Conclusion This analysis clearly demonstrates that culture is often a means ofshaping the beliefs, values, and practices of different ethnic groups. Retrieved 15 Apr 2 7 at eHRAF: http://ets.umdl.umich.edu.libproxy.csun.edu:2 48/cgi/e/ehraf/ehraf- idx?c=ehrafe;page=boolean,Mintz, J. 233). Hasidic Jewish funeralrites and burial practices are devout and complex in the sense that theymust adhere to rigid restrictions regarding the preparation of the departedfor burial and actual burial. A conclusion willdemonstrate why the study of cultural characteristics like funeral ritesand burial practices leads to an increased understanding of how cultureinfluences beliefs and behaviors. Anemphasis will be placed on demonstrating the cultural influence of eachethnic group on funeral rites and burial practices. The Hasidic Jews burying theirdead as soon as possible, for instance, stems from the fact that in Ancienttimes in the Middle East the extremely hot weather demanded quick burial.Decomposition would have occurred quickly and this would have been a showof "disrespect" to the departed. Funeral Practices in Italian American & Hasidic Jewish Communities A number of different ethnographies and the professional literatureon the customs, practices, and behaviors of ethnic communities reveal agreat many distinctions in the funeral rites and burial practices ofItalian American and Hasidic Jewish communities. Despite a number of distinct differences between the funeral ritesand burial practices of Italian Americans and Hasidic Jews, there are manysimilarities shared between the groups related to this particularcharacteristic. Funerals, family and forefathers: Italian-American funeral practices.
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