Black Weddings: Marrying in The Time of Cholera

May 5, 2020 2 comments

shvartse khasene

Last month, a peculiar wedding ceremony took place at a cemetery in Bnei Brak, a city in Israel, just east of Tel Aviv. With government regulation prohibiting large gatherings in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic, the wedding was a small affair with only a few attendants huddled under a small black canopy, the chuppah. The groom was an orphan and while the identify of the bride was not disclosed, she was probably an orphan herself. The two had never met before, never known each other. These essential strangers were the unwilling participants of a ritual known as shvartse khasene (black wedding) or mageyfe khasene (plague wedding), where the local Jewish community forcibly marries off two of the most marginal residents of the town in an effort to ward of diseases.

Different communities react differently when faced with a crises, like a pandemic. Some seek medical help, others solicit comfort in superstition. In old times, people believed that calamities and epidemics were the result of curses put on communities as divine punishment for not conforming to God’s teachings, and somehow the blame invariably fell on women committing adultery and on homosexuals. During the 1863–1875 cholera pandemic that ravaged the world, a rabbi in Uman, in central Ukraine, declared that Jewish women wearing crinolines and earrings were to blame for the epidemic. Following the denouncement, many self-styled public health guardians began to attack women ripping off their crinolines and beating them. One frightening story from the turn of the 20th century, tells about a town’s rabbi and his few rabid supporters who went on a killing spree, murdering alleged adulterers to stop the disease from spreading.

In light of these extreme examples, black weddings were very benign and a charitable initiative. It was not like two physically- and mentally-sound individuals were dragged out of their homes and coerced into marriage with each other. The bride and the groom were carefully selected. They were often orphans, homeless, or physically disabled, and who had no decent chance of contracting a marriage. The weddings were financed by the wealthy members of the community. After the marriage the community pledged to support the couple, and in return, they hoped the souls of the deceased would reward their efforts and intercede to block the evil decree. This is the reason why the weddings were held in the cemetery.

shvartse khasene

A black wedding during a cholera epidemic in 1892.

The first historical account of plague wedding goes back to 1831 Russia, during the cholera pandemic. Another written reference to such a ceremony is dated to 1849 in Krakow, Poland. Some historian argue that the tradition is older still, crystalized over several centuries of practice. In any case, the ritual became firmly entranced in Jewish communities of the Russian Empire during the 1892 cholera outbreak. Over time, the ceremonies became more elaborate. Hanna. Wȩgrzynek writes of “several instances” where parts of the cemetery was demarcated as a symbolic gesture of closing off the affected area. Some ceremonies were accompanied by feasts and dancing. At least one newspaper, Gazeta Lubelska, described a disturbing ritual—in Lublin's Jewish cemetery two weddings took place in 1892, where four young women were harnessed to a plough and made to plough around the town limits. Additional strange rituals were undertaken by local Lublin Jews. The water from the local pond was secretly released, and the chains of the ponds' barrier were buried at the cemetery. According to local lore, the epidemic subsided a few days later.

When Jews from Eastern Europe immigrated to the United States, around the turn of the 20th century, they brought this custom with them. During the devastating Spanish Flu epidemic desperate Jewish communities across America married off dozens of young couples. One of the most celebrated and widely reported black weddings took place between Harry Rosenberg and Fanny Jacobs in October 1918 at a cemetery near Cobbs Creek in Philadelphia. The event was attended by over a thousand.

Unfortunately, genealogical research suggested that neither Harry nor Fanny survived the Spanish flu, perishing along with 50 million others.

References:
# Tablet Mag, https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/plague-weddings
# My Jewish Learning, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/black-wedding-marrying-the-spanish-flu-away/
# Kikar, https://www.kikar.co.il/abroad/351824.html
# Hanna Wȩgrzynek, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/290628536_Shvartze_Khasene_Black_weddings_among_Polish_Jews

Comments

  1. Jews have the craziest amount of completely unscriptural rituals and practices...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It practically makes sense what you say in an age where wearing ripped jeans is considered a normality.

      Delete

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