Joy comes in the morning, the psalmist tells us, but this pandemic feels like a never-ending night—indeed, a nightmare—and certainly not a time to celebrate a wedding. And what kind of celebration is a wedding in a cemetery?
Yet a shvartze chasene—a wedding in a cemetery as it is called in Yiddish—is precisely what East European Jews sometimes organized when cholera, typhus, influenza, and other epidemics would strike. A black chuppah (wedding canopy) was set up in the midst of the graves in the town’s cemetery, the rabbi performed the service, and the townspeople rejoiced and brought gifts of everything the new couple might need to set up a household.
The shvartze chasene was also distinguished by the bride and groom: not an engaged couple in love, but two people chosen by town elders, often impoverished orphans, marginalized and neglected by society, as Natan Meir describes in his new book. The first shvartze chasene seems to have occurred in late eighteenth century Ukraine in the town of Berdichev, famous for its Hasidic rebbe, Levi Yitzchak (1740-1809), continuing during repeated cholera epidemics in Eastern Europe, in America during the 1918 flu epidemic, and also during the Holocaust. The most recent took place in Israel in March of 2020, and the custom lives on in Jewish memory, film, art, and Yiddish literature, including stories by I. B. Singer and Mendele Mocher Sforim.
Some rabbis like to blame sin, especially by women, and violations of Jewish sex rules for death. A wedding supposedly restores hegemonic heteronormativity. Still, the custom is absurd: no wedding ever brought an end to an epidemic, yet it touches a chord. Its weirdness mirrors the horror of an epidemic. While an epidemic demands quarantine, the shvartze chasene requires leaving home, celebrating together, and bringing two marginalized people into the community.
Epidemics frame Jewish historical identity. The Jewish story begins with the biblical Exodus of the Israelites liberated by God from enslavement by Pharaoh in Egypt, a liberation that occurs after God inflicts ten plagues on the Egyptians. That is the Bible’s version. Hellenistic writers tell a different story: Egypt had been hit centuries earlier by an epidemic, and the king was advised by an oracle to expel the Israelites, accused of spreading leprosy and false religion. Moses then led the Israelites through the desert to start a new religion, monotheistic and aniconic. For the Egyptians, rejection of idolatry was a dangerous plague. The Bible inverts that danger, making idolatry and immorality punishable by God with plagues. In the Talmud, however, epidemic is brought by the Angel of Death. While the Bible commands quarantine for the ill, the Talmud (Baba Kamma 60b) warns the healthy: in times of plague, stay home! The Angel of Death is prowling the streets and makes no distinction between pious and wicked; all can be its victims.
The Talmudic warning was reinforced through the centuries by rabbis during the innumerable epidemics, from undefined plagues to influenza, typhus, and cholera: stay home, care for the sick, give to charity, wash yourself and your home, recite psalms, pray with devotion—but do not go out. Safeguarding life takes precedence over praying in the synagogue. Even eating on Yom Kippur during a cholera epidemic was permitted by great rabbis, including Akiva Eiger, Moses Schreiber (Hatam Sofer), and Israel Salanter. Staying home could also make Jews targets during epidemics. Associating Jews with leprosy was revived in Southern France and Aragon in 1321 with the Shepherd’s Crusade that brought murderous pogroms to Jews and lepers. Those pogroms set the stage for attacks against Jews during the Black Death that spread through Europe in the mid-fourteenth century and led to a European pandemic of torture and horrific execution of Jews, “unprecedented in their extent and ferocity,” which eradicated over a thousand Jewish communities.
Jewish memory of the Black Death was less of death by plague than of death by pogrom. The attacks were so rampant that it remains unclear if more Jews were killed by the disease or by the marauding Christians. A medieval glossator on the Talmud states that roads out of the city were as dangerous as the plague, since those who flee are susceptible to marauders and thieves. By contrast, Thomas Devaney has shown that when the Black Death hit Cyprus, Christians organized religious processions to plead for God’s mercy and invited Jews to join. Alexandra Cuffel relates that in Cairo, Muslims included Jews and Christians in religious processions. Violence against Jews was episodic, not continual, and the recurrence of epidemics throughout the world, over and over again, was only sporadically accompanied by violence.
Rabbis understood the terror of a plague. In his sixteenth century commentary, Rabbi Shmuel Edles (1555-1631, known as Maharsha) advises leaving a city when cholera strikes because fear itself damages one’s health. In his parable, the Angel of Death claims he has taken five thousand lives while another ten thousand have died of fear.
Fear is a miasma of disease. The pandemic of nightmares accompanying Covid-19 makes us realize that sober, rational advice is never enough. The horror of an invisible virus, the uncertainty of the future, the looming financial collapse, the dread of not knowing if one has been infected, the fear of super spreaders, like the Angel of Death, passing by: How do we cope? Thinking they can conquer fear with gender manipulation, some politicians blather that masks are “emasculating” Americans. In hopeless defiance of the virus, some Americans smother fear by gathering in pool parties, clustering at the beach, swarming the bars, in Bakhtin’s carnival of the human psyche, a rebellion against the nihilism of the coronavirus, their very own danse macabre.
The shvartze chasene is not a rebellion against disease, nor an attempt to end the epidemic, but a chance to address the terror. A wedding, a moment of joy, is held in a place of death and sorrow. A wedding is organized at a time when disease is hovering over every household. Why a shvartze chasene? Certainly, it is an effort of the community to do a good deed, an appeal to God to lift the epidemic. Perhaps it is intended to fool the forces of evil into thinking they have no power. Or perhaps it is a way to deceive one’s own emotions, rejoicing when the heart is filled with mourning.
What of the bride and groom? Are they beneficiaries of social largesse or are they sacrificial lambs, too unimportant to protest? They are the neglected, forgotten, rejected of society, unloved and unwanted, now transformed: in Jewish understanding, a bride is the Shekhinah, the presence of God, and the groom is King David. From the detritus of society, they are turned into householders, members of the Jewish community. In one of the many Yiddish stories that describe a shvartze chasene, Jacob Opatoshu describes the community presenting gifts to the bride and groom as an act of transfer, “From me to you,” each one says, as if the wish is to transfer the sickness and suffering of one’s home to the wedded couple. Are they protected from disease as newly married beneficiaries of charitable munificence or are they scapegoats, pathetic victims of the town’s matchmaking? Or is all this simply a communal performance of hope in the den of despair, not to trick or dispel the Angel of Death but to draw down the Shekhina into its midst.
American Jews have no scapegoats or sacrificial lambs to offer in response to Covid-19 nor desire to hold a shvartze chasene. But we do have a moral crisis of enormous proportion that is as fearful as the virus: a federal government refusing to protect us from a tornado of virus- and police-inflicted death, and a president who combines ignorance, moral vapidity, and racism in his cruelty. It is not only the president.
In early June, I listened to a panel of white Jewish leaders discuss the impact of Covid-19 on the American Jewish community. A renowned journalist bemoaned that Jewish summer camps might not reopen this year. Another praised Jewish day schools for handling online learning so effectively. A rabbi enthused about his daily Zoom religious service that now attracts a larger group than had attended in person when his synagogue was open. A communal official rejoiced that his grandfather can listen to Torah study all day every day from his home. One might think the pandemic was a gift to be celebrated. They were cheerleaders for Jewish life: Torah study, day schools, synagogue services—all on Zoom, while masses of people endanger their lives working in hospitals, factories, grocery stores, and pharmacies, using public transportation, enabling the lives of those who stay at home. All are disproportionately black and brown people. Is the United States becoming one big slave plantation?
The panel discussion came two days after we learned the police murdered George Floyd. Nothing was said about that murder and the epidemic of police murdering African Americans. Nor a word about the millions who have lost their jobs and might lose their homes and pensions, who have no health insurance, nor that African Americans and Latinos are dying at twice the rate of white people from Covid-19, nor that Asians are accosted on the streets and blamed for causing the epidemic, nor that some government officials say it is better for the elderly to die than damage the economy.
By now, most Jewish organizations have condemned the “death” (murder) of George Floyd, and even the right-wing New York politician Dov Hikind organized a demonstration. While Jewish institutions cultivate police protection, the danger for African Americans parallels what Jews experienced in Tsarist Russia: systemic, institutionalized danger. If our conscience has not turned to stone, do we not forfeit the right to our Torah if we do not act on its fundamental principle that there is no justice if it is not justice for all?
The central question is whether Jews have anything to contribute to ending our racism crisis or whether we have rendered ourselves irrelevant. Without mobilizing principles of justice, we will emerge from this pandemic in a far deeper epidemic, sickening and bringing death to Jewish principles. Perhaps fear of the virus made these panelists unable to mobilize their conscience. We may look down at the foolishness of a shvartze chasene, but perhaps it is alerting us that fear must not smother moral courage.
Epidemics are inversions, turning our lives upside down by destroying the security we expect from family, home, and community. The shvartze chasene seems like madness because it inverts the social order: weddings in cemeteries, celebrations during epidemic, society’s rejects turned into bride and groom, impoverished orphans becoming householders. By inverting the inversion of an epidemic, the shvartze chasene turns death, the end of life, into a wedding, the beginning of new life. Our society is also inverted. Police, sworn to uphold the law, lynch people in front of video cameras. The president foments violence while holding Bible for news media. The eyes of justice wink at the politicians, and pride gloats where shame should drown us.
I’m not advocating a revival of the shvartze chasene but take a lesson: that all the rational advice of doctors, epidemiologists, and virologists is not sufficient. Racial terror and the terror of mass death are also epidemics needing our attention. There is one cure for the epidemic of fear: justice, the assurance that we live in a society rooted in moral values, that health is the concern of all, that everyone’s family is secure and will never be abandoned, but always cared for, and that all human beings are equally precious.
Inversion of the natural order must never extend to inversion of the moral order. Persecutions have often led to radical changes in Jewish self-understanding. The destruction of the Second Temple propelled the creation of rabbinic Judaism, Chmelnicki pogroms spurred Sabbatianism, and the Shoah cemented Zionism. Epidemics, by contrast, have not altered Jewish thought. We have remained firmly rooted in Judaism despite disease and death, no matter how overwhelming the terror. At stake now is our survival as human beings on this earth. For Jews, this includes the survival of Judaism’s integrity.
This nightmare will end. Will joy come in the mourning?