Shvartse Khasene – A Graveyard Wedding to End the Plague
August 12, 2021
After a year and a half of COVID, our community looks forward to better days ahead. More than 100 years ago, as the influenza pandemic swept the world, some Jewish communities invoked God’s mercy via a superstitious practice imported from the old country. The general idea was that a graveside wedding would appeal to the dead who would then intercede with God to end the plague. In Winnipeg, a large group of Jews gathered at Shaarey Zedek cemetery, along with many non-Jews in November of 1918 to practise this odd ceremony. Thank you to Daniel Stone, JHCWC Chair of Programs and Exhibits for his research on this fascinating story.
Shvartse Khasene: Influenza and the Wedding of Death
On Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, more than a thousand Winnipeg Jews gathered to put an end to another deadly conflict – the influenza epidemic that killed almost 1300 Winnipeggers, 500 of whom lived in the North End. The severity of the outbreak can be seen in that day’s numbers: 427 new cases and 27 deaths. A Jewish crowd, along with quite a few Gentiles, assembled at the Shaarey Zedek Cemetery on Main and Anderson to witness what the Winnipeg Tribune called “The Wedding of Death” and Free Press termed the “Sacrificial Wedding.” A better-known phrase was the “Black Wedding” that Chief Rabbi I.I. Kahanovitch and Rabbi I.D. Gorodsky conducted jointly for Dora Wiseman and Harry Fleckman, two North Enders, putting aside their conflict over kashrut. Free Press observers reported that “the usual marriage ceremony was chanted according to the strange Jewish customs, and soft music, with an element of mysticism and weirdness, was heard.” An unnamed “old gentleman” made an impassioned appeal for help that “brought tears to men’s eyes and women sobbed and moaned audibly.” Even those who “were ignorant of the Hebrew language” (undoubtedly Yiddish) were moved by his eloquence. Nothing is known of the bride and groom who were reported to live near Selkirk and Salter. Strangely, neither appears in census records, Henderson’s Directory, Manitoba’s marriage records, or the Jewish Heritage Centre’s comprehensive list of Jewish burials.
The Yidishe Vort criticized the failure to practise what we now call social distancing at the cemetery. The paper accepted the effort to use “miracles and wonders” as cures but warned that relying on them alone would lead to unnecessary deaths. It admonished the rabbis “to warn everybody not to neglect the medical attention necessary to end the epidemic.” What the rabbis thought about the modern medicine of the day is unknown – there is no reason to think they opposed it – and a Jewish Aid Committee was struck that, together with mutual aid societies and landsmanshaftn, provided nursing assistance, financial relief, and, sadly, burial to the stricken community. Many Jewish women volunteered as nurses, sometimes under the auspices of the Red Mogen David Society that had been formed in 1917 to help Jewish Legionnaires fighting alongside General Allenby to conquer Palestine from the Ottoman Empire.
Memory of the Black Wedding probably remained in the community for several decades and inspired Adele Wiseman to start her novel, Crackpot, with the old country cemetery wedding of a hunchbacked bride and a blind groom during a late 19th century epidemic. The shtetl quickly tired of supporting the couple and arranged for a Winnipeg relative to sponsor them here where the protagonist, Hoda, was born.
The Black Wedding was not a Winnipeg invention. It was first noted in Russian Poland in the late 19th century during one of the cholera epidemics. Celebrants hoped that providing a lavish cemetery wedding for a poor, orphaned, or disabled couple that would otherwise be unlikely to marry would put an end to the epidemic. Immigrants brought the practice with them to the New World and used it in Chicago, Philadephia, and New York as well as Winnipeg. The ceremony persisted after the great flu. At least one Black Wedding took place during the Holocaust, and the Haredim held one in 2020 in Bnei Brak, Israel.
Esyllt Jones, Influenza 1918: Disease, Death, and Struggle in Winnipeg (Toronto 2007)
Esyllt Jones, “Jews in Winnipeg’s Influenza Epidemic, 1918-1919″, presented to the JHC, video tape in JHC archive
Manitoba Free Press, November 11 and November 12, 1918
Winnipeg Tribune, November 11, 1918
Israelite Press, November 22, 1918
YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, “Weddings,” on-line
“We Used to Conduct Weddings in Cemeteries to Fight Epidemics – Really,” The Forward, March 16, 2020.