Presentation by Guest Speaker Lisa Rosowsky,
May 31, 2015 at Temple Shir Tikva, Wayland, MA
Now Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the LORD showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan, and all Naphtali and the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, and the Negev and the plain in the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar. Then the LORD said to him, “This is the land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.” So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD. And He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor; but no man knows his burial place to this day.
I was invited here today to speak about the Baker Street textile piece. And I’ll get to that, I promise. But first I want to talk a bit about cemeteries.
It is the rare person who has had no dealings with a cemetery—some we visit in times of extreme grief, others for recreation and a shady walk, and some for a peek at history or the graves of the well-known dead. Nervous children whistle past them if they cannot avoid walking by. Lovers tryst in the one place where gossip cannot escape.
My grandfather was a Cohen, and descendants of that priestly tribe are forbidden to enter a cemetery except for the burials of relatives most close to them: mother, father, brother, unmarried sister, or children. It is considered “ritual defilement” for Kohanim to come within about 6 feet of a grave or body, so if you see a mourner lingering outside of a Jewish funeral home while a funeral is going on inside, you may make a reasonable guess that he’s a Kohan. (Unless he’s just a smoker…)
Traditional cemeteries feature rows of headstones (sometimes footstones as well). Often you will see an older section and a newer section; as with the real estate of the living, older graves tend to enjoy the best views and the choicest lots near shade or water. Stones that take the form of standing slabs are technically called “monuments,” while those with angled faces are referred to as “slants.” Stones or metal plaques embedded flush with the ground are called “markers.” Some cemeteries allow only markers, wishing not to mar the sweep of the landscape with a bristle of monuments.
I do not prefer these cemeteries, which, by masking what lies beneath the land, fight against the semiotic of standing headstones. After all, no matter how pastoral or public, a cemetery is not a park, but a place designed for the living to remember the dead—both those they knew and those they did not. Even as we approach the cemetery gates, standing stones semaphore their function; we prepare ourselves with a mindset of respect, grief, or honor, depending on why we have come. How different our response would be if while strolling through a field we came unexpectedly upon a burial site! With cemeteries, as with so much else, context is everything.
And how different, too, the effect of multiple graves together, whether the endless rolling waves of white crosses at Arlington National Cemetery, or a homely cluster of tilted slate headstones in the village green. We are social beings who cannot help but see—and take comfort in—cemeteries as communities of the dead that mirror our own.
The stones’ inscriptions are the voices of the communities’ inhabitants. Some inscriptions are written in the third person: the dead were beloved fathers and mothers, honored soldiers, poets and painters, all gone too soon. But my favorites are those that speak to me directly, most some variation of “here I am and there you are; you’ll be like me someday so enjoy life now.” These “first-person” words were probably composed by others, but I like to imagine that they were truly their voice, the thing they most wanted us to know as they left this world.
. . . . . .
My grandfather finally did get past the cemetery gates, at the age of 102, and was buried next to my grandmother who had died decades earlier. Like many other members of my mother’s family, they lie in the Baker Street Cemetery’s Quincy Hebrew section, so that when I visit I make it a point to stop by and say hello to aunts, uncles, and cousins, some of whom I have never met.
I loved Baker Street, which I recall seeing as a child when my mother visited her mother’s grave—all of those gates, every one distinct, and those adorable brick chapels! Its humble and jumbled aesthetic seemed the opposite of my other favorite cemetery, Mt Auburn, with its pastoral pathways, gracious weeping willows and classical statuary. You could imagine the residents of that august resting place politely offering one another crustless cucumber sandwiches, while the Baker Street hoi polloi grabbed for the pickled herring on rye and talked with their mouths full.
After my grandfather died, I set out to create something to celebrate that special place, so one gorgeous fall day I brought my camera to Baker Street and began to explore, taking about a hundred photos. (Those are what you have been looking at here, by the way.) I wanted to design a quilt that conflated the jumble of chapels, gates, and headstones in order to accentuate the quality I enjoy about Baker Street—namely, its sense of being a community made up of communities.
Once I had chosen which photographs to work with, I designed a photomontage which was the intended size of the finished piece, about 4 feet wide by 8 feet tall, and divided it into 13” x 19” panels (small enough to print on my printer). The process of printing the photos onto fabric involves a bit of chemistry: I pre-soak a fine cotton fabric in a solution of dyeset fixative and water, dry it and back it with paper, then print on it using an inkjet printer. The fabric cures for 24 hours, is fixed in a different solution of dyeset and water, then finally is dried and ironed. The pigment becomes washable and colorfast, and I am then able to work with it like any other textile. In this case, I used a combination of hand- and machine-quilting, hand embroidery and trapunto (which raises certain areas into higher relief through padding).
There are several elements which I’ll call your attention to. The first is the medallion in the upper right corner of the quilt. When I began to poke around other cemeteries within Baker Street, I discovered headstones that were embedded with porcelain portraits of the dead. How could that be kosher, I wondered, when Judaism forbids us (as does Islam) from making “graven images” of living creatures? The custom of creating porcelain memorial portraits dates back to mid-19th century France. By the beginning of the 20th century it became popular for Eastern European Jewish and Italian families in America to order these for their loved ones’ gravestones. Even Sears & Roebuck’s sold them as “Imperishable Limoges Porcelain Portraits.” But by mid-century, descendants of these immigrants generally wanted to blend in, which included wanting gravestones that looked more like their Protestant neighbors’, so the use of portraits declined. The fact that so many of the porcelain medallions are in disrepair may be one reason why they were allowed on Jewish stones—far from being imperishable, their vulnerability to cracking and damage made them ephemeral enough to get around the graven image taboo.
I’ll also point out the corner pieces of the quilt. Before my day of exploration at Baker Street, I had never seen a genizah, the designated repository for worn-out religious items awaiting burial. It was open, and filled with dusty stacks of old books and papers, tired torah covers, and tattered prayer shawls. The pieces you see in the corners of the quilt are taken from an old woolen prayer shawl, dyed to match the border silk. I was cautious enough about taking it that I checked with my local rabbi, who assured me that, as the tallit was technically “decommissioned,” I was committing no sin in using it for my own purposes! It felt important to incorporate something taken from the cemetery itself, beyond images, and the tallit became that element. Finally, what about the purple window? Everywhere this piece is exhibited, people ask me why in a monochromatic piece I included that one flash of color. The truth is that the chapel window really had purple glass panes in it, and I thought it was cool so I embroidered that section in purple. So much for symbolism.
. . . . . .
The passage from Deuteronomy in which Moses stood on Mount Nebo and saw all that he would not live to see is, to me, the saddest in the Bible. To have traveled so far, to have led and cajoled, encouraged and scolded his people for forty years in the inhospitable desert—only to find out that he would die before arriving at his destination! Scholars have debated endlessly about whether God was unjustly cruel in depriving Moses of the Promised Land because of one thoughtless act of anger; I can’t add anything to centuries of close reading. What strikes me, though, is that God deliberately showed Moses what he could not have, indeed he brought the poor guy all the way up a mountain to do so. God could have allowed him to die at any time during the journey (Moses was surely old enough), but he wanted him to see the rich lands that his people would inherit.
Was God taunting Moses, or could it have been…a gift? Who among us hasn’t wanted to see into the future, past our own deaths, to be sure that our children will be OK, our grandchildren make our children proud, and our descendants flourish? Moses’ vision on the mountain, as heartbreaking as it must have been for him, was also a promise that those who lived on after him would thrive. For all of us, the prospect of death is not unlike being on Nebo: at some point we know that we ourselves can go no further, but we see a landscape which continues to unroll itself for those who come after us. We want it to be a world of milk and honey for the future, although God knows it was never always milk and honey for us. But we have hope. And that’s what cemeteries are: memorials to people who hoped for, and maybe even worked for, better lives for us, the living. Long after the two or three generations of loved ones who knew us personally are gone, strangers may walk past our graves and catch the faint echo of our hopes—for them.
At least that’s what I hear when I visit a cemetery. Perhaps the Baker Street piece will help you to hear those voices too.
About Lisa Rosowsky
Lisa Rosowsky has been on the faculty at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design since 1996, where she teaches graphic design, typography, and book design. She earned her AB from Harvard College and an MFA in Graphic Design from Yale University. She produces mixed-media work in her studio in a converted factory building near Boston.