Manhattan, NY – Hebrew Tombstone Found on Sidewalk Against a Fire Hydrant Posed a Mystery


    Hinda Amchanitzky’s grave, in an unmarked plot, above, in the United Hebrew Cemetery on Staten IslandManhattan, NY – You can find just about anything on the sidewalks of New York, so when John Lankenau happened upon a tombstone while walking his dog one night a few years ago, he took his grim discovery in stride. Then he did what any self-respecting citizen would do: He carted the two-and-a-half-foot-high granite marker, home for safe-keeping.

    “I didn’t think it would last long there until it got vandalized or dogs urinated on it,” Mr. Lankenau recalled. “It once meant something to somebody. I just couldn’t imagine someone’s life sitting on the street.”

    But a tombstone is not the sort of missing object people ordinarily claim. So Mr. Lankenau kept it, first in his apartment on the Lower East Side, not far from where he found it, and later in the garden behind his building, a tantalizing totem of urban anonymity and fleeting mortality.

    His own life as an artist and a part-time cook went on. But he was periodically sidetracked by the puzzling questions his discovery posed: How did a tombstone wind up propped against a fire hydrant on East Fourth Street between Avenues C and D? And who was Hinda Amchanitzky?

    She was 87 when she died, according to the stone. The date was May 15, 1910, when the Lower East Side was the most densely populated spot on the planet, and 41 percent of the city’s residents were foreign-born.

    Besides the name on the tombstone, most of the writing on it was in Hebrew. Mr. Lankenau, who was brought up as a Lutheran, canvassed local synagogues and called Jewish genealogical societies, but to no avail.

    “People said this is a mitzvah,” he recalled, using the Hebrew expression for a good deed to describe his quest.

    Mr. Lankenau and a neighbor bought a copy of a death certificate from the city for someone with a similar name. But it turned out not to match the details on the tombstone. He searched online and found a reference to an author, H. Amchanitzki, in the Library of Congress catalog, but could not verify whether there was any connection to the tombstone. A few weeks ago, Mr. Lankenau, who is a part-time caterer, recruited a New York Times reporter who is an occasional customer, in his search.

    Brian G. Andersson, the city’s commissioner of records, was enlisted, and his staff found a death certificate dated May 15, 1910, under the name Amachanitzky. She was described as a widowed housewife who was born in Russia, emigrated around 1895 and died in Beth Israel Hospital. The certificate gave her age as 60.

    Her last address was listed as 156 East Broadway, a four-story building on the Lower East Side near Rutgers Street that now houses a Chinese supermarket.

    The death certificate said she was buried in “Sec. U.H., Ocean View Cemetery” on Staten Island, which opened in 1908. The initials apparently stood for the United Hebrew Cemetery there, but its staff had no record of anyone by that name.

    By then, Mr. Lankenau was confronted not only with a mysterious tombstone, but also a missing body.

    When a genealogist, Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, was contacted, she constructed an Amchanitzky family tree that included Amshers, Shanits, Paleys, Lamports and Massouds.

    Jeanine Massoud, who is 49 and lives in California, said Hinda was her great-great-grandmother. Ms. Massoud was only vaguely aware of a family connection in New York, but her mother suggested that she search her grandfather’s family journal.

    Sure enough, Ms. Massoud said, he wrote that his “father’s mother was an excellent cook and she published an excellent cookbook that was sold in New York and Philadelphia.”

    Not just any cookbook. In 1901, she wrote what is described as the first Yiddish cookbook published in America. A copy is in the Library of Congress.

    The introduction to Mrs. Amchanitzky’s “Manual of How to Cook and Bake” (“Lehr-bukh vi azoy tsu kokhen un baken,” translated for The Times by Samuel Norich, the editor of The Jewish Daily Forward) said the 148 recipes she presented (including “chicken zup mit macaroni”) were “consumed in the finest Jewish homes in Russia, Galicia, France, England and America.”

    She wrote that her “45 years’ experience in cooking, baking, frying and roasting have taught me to prepare all meals very economically,” and that it “protects children from dyspepsia and other adult diseases.”

    “Here was the voice of a working woman,” said Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, an affiliated professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, “a professional cook and restaurateur, who offered the best of Jewish food in a language her immigrant sisters could understand – a Yiddish that was exact and clear.”

    Now that Hinda Amchanitzky’s identity was established, what about her body?

    After Ms. Smolenyak asked the cemetery to check its records by date instead of by name, it turned out that an H. Anachowsky (an apparent misspelling) was buried in May 1910 in a section operated by the United Hebrew Community of New York, which is at 201 East Broadway, less than two blocks from Hinda Amchanitzky’s last address.

    Her gravesite was found, but it was unmarked. Though the cemetery was vandalized in 1979 and hundreds of tombstones were toppled, the cemetery president, Arthur S. Friedman, said there appeared to be no evidence that Mrs. Amchanitzky’s grave had ever been marked with a monument. No one ever complained that a marker was missing.

    Mr. Lankenau found the marker in front of 326 East Fourth Street, which for decades has housed the Uranian Phalanstery and First Gnostic Lyceum, an artists’ collective and burial society founded by Richard Oviet Tyler and his wife, Dorothea. The three-story double-width brick town house, which was just sold for more than $3 million, contained a small synagogue for a congregation of immigrants from Knyahynychi, now in Ukraine.

    As it turns out, Mrs. Amchanitzky’s tombstone was left outside the East Fourth Street town house deliberately. It was a gift to Dorothea Bear Tyler from a fellow artist, Andrew Castrucci, who lives on East Third Street. He had seen workmen carting broken granite slabs from the basement of a building near Avenue C that had once housed a monument maker’s workshop and was being remodeled for a bank. He salvaged some of the rubble and also two intact tombstones, including the one that Mr. Lankenau happened upon.

    “It was late at night, and I put it in front of Dorothea’s building as a surprise,” Mr. Castrucci said. “It fit in with her other religious articles and the old shul.” When it was gone by the next morning, he assumed that it had been stolen.

    But it is anybody’s guess why the tombstone had remained in the basement workshop. It might have been a sample (the workshop was steps from a courtyard where sample monuments were once displayed for sale). It might have been rejected because of a misspelling. It might have been ordered and never paid for.

    A century later, Bruce Slovin, chairman of the Center for Jewish History, which is in the process of digitizing historic cookbooks, has agreed to pay to unite Hinda Amchanitzky’s plot on Staten Island and her tombstone.

    As for Mr. Lankenau, he has become a believer in fate. “It’s so cool that I would find the stone of a woman who wrote a cookbook,” he said the other day, while preparing chicken with Calvados.

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