Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Jewish Burial of Allen Ginsberg by Karen Alkalay-Gut

The Jewish Burial of Allen Ginsberg
Karen Alkalay-Gut

Allen Ginsberg's father's grave

My friend Professor Karen Alkalay-Gut has written and filmed her tour of poets' graves. She sent me the Allen Ginsberg set of the series.

When will you look at yourself through the grave?”
---Ginsberg, “America”

At five in the morning we landed in Newark airport. It was still too early to go to visit family or check into a hotel. Our closest and safest welcome could come from the cemetery, the cemetery that Allen Ginsberg described in his poem, “Don’t Grow Old,” and “Death and Fame,” B’nai Israel Cemetery, on the border of Elizabeth and Newark.

It was an easy ride even in the dark, driving right along the border of the airport. Maybe because we’d been there before we seemed to know the way. Maybe the GPS found it. Maybe it was Ginsberg himself who directed us. His “Don’t Grow Old” poem with his anticipation of his father’s funeral the next day echoed in my head.
Near the scrap yard my Father'll be Buried
Near the Newark Airport my father'll be

Okay, so which way do we go, Allen?

On Exit 14 Turnpike NJ South
Through the tollgate Service Road 1
The gate loosening from its hinges swung open, the brick guard house, windowless and empty greeted us. We walked straight ahead towards the “green painted iron fence”
Some directions were no longer relevant. There was no Winston Cigarette sign, and the Pennick chemical factory he mentioned was probably what is now Pittney-Bowles, but the sign he mentioned from the Budweiser Anheuser-Busch brick brewery shone red in the blue dawn and the Penn Central power Station transformer wires hummed overhead. Planes were landing, trucks were whizzing by on the highway, trains clanging. It seemed like the center of the world instead of a deserted graveyard.

It was becoming daylight and we soon began to see familiar names. Ginsberg’s father Louis, indeed, lay “next to Aunt Rose/Gaidemack, near Uncle Harry Meltzer/one grave over from Abe's wife Anna.”

The simple grave is inscribed with two lines of a poem by Louis himself. “The Answer of Death” ends with “Death has one answer/One alone: Explaining a riddle/ With a stone.” When he supervised this addition, Allen must have realized that he would someday see to having a few lines of his own engraved on his paired monument.

Where was the mother for whom Allen wrote his best known poem, “Kaddish?” Where was Naomi? Her absence seems to reinforce the sense of peace in the family plot. Naomi who had died on June 6, 1956, was buried in Beth Moses Cemetery in West Babylon on Long Island, with no Kaddish said over her grave. But even if someone had insisted that she be brought to the family plot, there would not have been room for Naomi. Instead Louis’ second wife, Edith, would much later be placed on Allen’s other side. The woman who had brought stability, peace and love to Louis, to Allen, and to the rest of the family, she was perhaps more suitable to accompany Allen in his eternal rest.
And Allen is indeed here part of a loving family. His stone is almost identical in size to the surrounding stones of his family. It is just a bit more crowded. There is an additional title and a longer quotation from his work.
An earlier verse of “Don’t Grow Old” written for Louis Ginsberg’s death closes Allen’s own epitaph. He had published them separately, sung them, and chanted them, and thought of these lines as the fruition of his Buddhist training.

The first time we visited Allen Ginsberg’s grave a few years back I saw none of the surrounding elements. Only the Hebrew heading startled me. 
There can be no exact translation, because the phrase doesn’t quite make sense. “The poet of the generation – seeks unity,” or “the poet of the generation that sought unity,” “The Poet of his Generation, In Need of Unity.” Something like that. “Who wrote that?” I asked Bob Rosenthal, Allen’s secretary. “Probably Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shlomi,” Bob wrote me. I asked my brother, Joseph Rosenstein, who knew the Rabbi, to find out. He saw it as meaning "singer of the generation" and as "seeker of unity." The dash between the two phrases, my brother told me, was intentional. The rabbi was a good friend and had given Allen the tallit in which his ashes were wrapped.

When I die,” Ginsberg began his last poem, “I don't care what happens to my body,/throw ashes in the air, scatter 'em in East River/bury an urn in Elizabeth New Jersey, B'nai Israel Cemetery.” But cremated bodies cannot be buried in Jewish sanctified ground. And the ashes had been divided to be scattered in Jewel Heart, Gelek Rinpoche’s sangha in New York, with another third brought to a memorial at Shambhala Mountain Center, to be later shared with his life partner Peter Orlovsky.
But by the time of Allen’s death, the cemetery had fallen into the hands of the stonecutter who had no particular interest in Jewish laws, and the Rabbi instructed Bob Rosenthal to bury the remaining ashes in the prayer shawl, with the tassels removed, and Kaddish was said for the poet. Bob kept a tablespoon to scatter years later on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, according to instructions.

So he remained a wandering jew, even in his death, and yet every touch his remains made with the earth at last was deliberate, was part of his great-ness, every ash reminding one of what a human being needs.

Karen Alkalay-Gut
Professor Emerita
Department of English
Tel Aviv University
Ramat Aviv

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for these heartfelt words. Just yesterday I had read Nadine Gordimer's wisdom to artists, "We must eventually write from the freedom of the grave," — very close to Allen's question from America, "When will you look at yourself through the grave?"

    I miss Allen but he is always near. Somone once asked him why he thought Blake was still popular (relevant) after two hundred years. He said some poets have wide temporal bandwidths (my paraphrase) and there message is still reaching us loud and clear. I believe that will be true of Allen.