rows of vandalized headstones
A view of the vandalized St. Louis-area Jewish cemetery (Screenshot from KTVI)

Why has the overturning of Jewish headstones spooked us so?

I wondered about that after reading about the nearly 200 headstones that were knocked down at the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, Missouri, near St. Louis. I get it, of course, that it was an act of vandalism. It isn’t clear whether this was an act of random violence, or anti-Semitism — though deep down, we know what this is.

But what is it that gives us this feeling? It’s not just the destruction of property that sends us waves of psychic alarm and pain when we hear about trouble at a Jewish cemetery. It’s something more, especially if we have loved ones buried there.

Standing outside the cemetery, Karen Arosty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League for Missouri and Southern Illinois, began to give us an answer. “It’s just sad,” she told the St. Louis Jewish Light. “When you see something that represents somebody’s’ soul being damaged that way, with such carelessness, it’s outrageous.”

But is it just the desecration that gets to us? Speaking of the wave of recent bomb threats to Jewish community centers, Arosty added, “Everybody is feeling this as a Jewish community. Everybody is feeling the tension and anxiety. These sorts of incidents only add to that fear of intimidation.”

Arosty’s comments mostly answered my question: It’s not just the destruction that is so disturbing, it’s the willful desecration and the fear that acts like this are building, if not checked, into something worse, that has many of us nervously paging through the history books for a flash of what could happen next.

Yet, if we choose to dig deeper, there’s more to why we feel the way we do about the cemetery desecration. Beneath every headstone there is not just another Jew, but an individual who was loved, and missed; someone who, according to Jewish law, must be treated with kavod ha-emet, or “respect for the dead.”

When you see something that represents somebody’s’ soul being damaged that way, with such carelessness, it’s outrageous.

Enlarging some of the online photographs of the overturned headstones, and reading the names, brought the real people whose graves were disturbed into focus, and connected me to the source, I think, from which our anger and sadness flows: Rebecca Pearl, who lived from 1886-1937; Jacob Weinstein (died 1945), who was buried next to his wife Anna (died 1947); and Max Levinson, born in 1863 during the Civil War, who lived until 1936.

Also keeping our feelings real was the discovery that some of those whose headstones were knocked down had descendants who are very much alive.

When a woman identified as “Myra” first heard about the cemetery incident, she told USA Today, “It was the anniversary of my grandfather’s death 60 years ago.” Myra, who has three generations of family buried at the cemetery, asked, “How could people have so much hatred?”

Moving the incident closer to home, my mother-in-law, Shirley, who is originally from St. Louis, was also concerned that a headstone of one of her relatives had been knocked over. Going to a website where you can search by name for those interred, I found that at least three of her grandparents, two aunts — including “Sheina” the one that she is named after — and a couple of cousins, were among those buried at Chesed Shel Emeth.

“It’s really scary,” said Shirley, “it just brings back the Holocaust. Are we as Jews going to have to live through this again?”

When I called the cemetery office the next morning, I was told that none of her family’s headstones had been vandalized.

Others were not so fortunate.

Sally Amon, another relative with a loved one buried at the cemetery, her grandmother Anna Ida Hutkin, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that when she woke and heard the news, she “thought her grandparents’ graves had been disturbed” but wasn’t sure why she felt that way.

“Maybe she sent me a message,” said Amon, speaking of her grandmother whose headstone was knocked over. If so, it was a message many of us are just now receiving: of pain, of violation, of anger, and of apprehension about the possible things to come.

Edmon Rodman
Edmon J. Rodman

Edmon J. Rodman writes about Jewish life from his home in Los Angeles and is the author of the weekly Guide for the Jewplexed on virtualjerusalem.com. Contact him at edmojace@gmail.com.