When People Held 'Plague Weddings' in Cemeteries to Try to Ward Off Disease

Imagno/Getty Images
Imagno/Getty Images

In some ways, the wedding of Harry Fleckman and Dora Wisman in November of 1918 was traditional. The elaborate ceremony in Winnipeg, Canada, had been a month in the making. It featured music, scripture readings, and two rabbis as officiants.

But despite the familiar customs, it would have been hard for guests to forget why they were there. The solemn grave markers, the sounds of a nearby funeral, and the ever-present specter of Spanish Influenza were all reminders that the ceremony wasn’t a typical wedding. The ritual was part of a decades-long tradition that was more about preventing illness than celebrating a holy union.

'Til Death Do Us Part

Various religions throughout history have responded to pandemics by praying to or trying to appease a higher power. During the Black Plague, the Christian Brotherhood of the Flagellants marched through Europe whipping themselves with scourges to earn God's mercy. Muslims reacted to the same pandemic by giving greater importance to communal forms of prayer, like processions and mass funerals. In some Eastern European Jewish communities, one plague-fighting ritual that took root was the graveside wedding, which came to be known as the plague wedding.

Plague wedding—also called black weddings, or shvartze khasene in Hebrew—likely originated during the cholera outbreaks that ravaged Europe throughout the 19th century. The thinking behind a shvartze khasene was that holding a sacred ceremony among the dead would make the participants and witnesses more likely candidates for divine intervention as, in the Jewish tradition, weddings bring people closer to God. Even accessories associated with the ceremony were believed to hold spiritual properties. Another old Jewish folk remedy for combating illness involved covering a sick woman with a wedding gown

For plague weddings, the bride and groom exchanged vows in a cemetery because being surrounded by death was thought to make the holy ritual even more appealing to God. There’s no textual basis for this obscure practice, though, so it was likely interpreted many ways. An alternative explanation is that seeing what should have been a joyful ceremony in such a dreadful setting would provoke pity from God, who would then show mercy by ending the pandemic.

Plague weddings were also notable for who was getting wed. According to Itzik Gottesman, a folklorist at the University of Texas at Austin, the community arranged marriages between people who were “difficult to marry off,” which usually meant they were poor, orphaned, or disabled. The organizers may have viewed this as an act of charity, thus boosting their favor with god, but such matches—which were often between two total strangers—tended to be dehumanizing. These marginalized people were typically viewed as property of the community, and thus didn't have much say in whether they wanted to be props in the ritual.

New Plague, Same Tradition

Though it was then spoken of as an ancient practice, the black wedding was a relatively modern invention that never expanded beyond the fringes of Jewish society. When they were practiced during the cholera outbreaks of the 1860s, Jewish leaders in Eastern Europe condemned the practice and tried to suppress it. But with cholera claiming millions of lives in Russia alone throughout the 1800s, any source of security, even if it was symbolic, was hard to stamp out.

The tradition could be applied to any new plague Jewish people faced. During World War I, at least one black wedding was held in Warsaw, Poland, to fend off typhus. There’s even evidence of the ceremonies being performed to combat locust swarms in the Middle East.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that plague weddings landed in North America. When Jewish immigrants came to the continent, they found a new pathogenic menace in the form of Spanish Influenza.

The Spanish Flu was one of the deadliest pandemics ever to sweep the globe. Between 1918 and 1920, a third of the world’s population was infected and 50 million people died. Many public spaces, including synagogues, closed in response to the threat. Meanwhile, some immigrant communities took the new scourge as an opportunity to revive an old superstition from Europe.

The 1918 wedding between Harry Fleckman and Dora Wisman in Winnipeg was one of a handful of black weddings recorded in North America during this period. A report of the event in The Winnipeg Evening Tribune described the scene: "The ancient Jewish 'Song of Life' was played. On the west side of the cemetery at the same time, Jews were chanting the wail of death, as a body was committed to the grave."

That same year, two strangers were wed in Mount Hebron Cemetery in New York City. Another such wedding took place in Philadelphia around this time. When Fanny Jacobs and Harold Rosenberg were married under a chuppah installed at the first line of graves in a cemetery near Cobbs Creek, Philadelphia, more than 1000 guests were in attendance.

"Benighted Superstition"

As had been the case in Europe, the black weddings of North America continued to sow discord in Jewish communities. Following that October 1918 ceremony, the newspaper The Jewish Exponent published an editorial criticizing the practice. “The wedding held in a Jewish cemetery last Sunday for the purpose of staying the ravages of the epidemic was a most deplorable exhibition of benighted superstition,” it read. “Unfortunately the publicity given to the occurrence will convey to many people that this is a custom sanctioned and encouraged by the Jewish religion. The people who do such things do not know what Judaism means.”

Plague weddings did nothing to staunch waves of disease; in fact, it's possible they helped to spread them. In some cases, all it takes is one carrier to infect a large group of people, as “Typhoid Mary” Mallon demonstrated when she caused a typhoid fever outbreak at the summer house where she cooked in 1906.

There are no reports connecting plague weddings to outbreaks, but similar events contributed to the Spanish Flu pandemic. A 1918 Liberty Loan parade led to thousands of Spanish Flu infections in Philadelphia—the same city where a plague wedding was documented the same year. Large gatherings like weddings were known to be vectors for the virus, which prompted some cities to ban them completely. Fortunately, like a virus unable to find a host, the tradition of plague weddings appears to have faded away. 

12 Creative Ways to Spend Your FSA Money Before the Deadline

stockfour/iStock via Getty Images
stockfour/iStock via Getty Images

If you have a Flexible Spending Account (FSA), chances are, time is running out for you to use that cash. Depending on your employer’s rules, if you don’t spend your FSA money by the end of the grace period, you potentially lose some of it. Lost cash is never a good thing.

For those unfamiliar, an FSA is an employer-sponsored spending account. You deposit pre-tax dollars into the account, and you can spend that money on a number of health care expenses. It’s kind of like a Health Savings Account (HSA), but with a few big differences—namely, your HSA funds roll over from year to year, so there’s no deadline to spend it all. With an FSA, though, most of your funds expire at the end of the year. Bummer.

The good news is: The law allows employers to roll $500 over into the new year and also offer a grace period of up to two and a half months to use that cash (March 15). Depending on your employer, you might not even have that long, though. The deadline is fast approaching for many account holders, so if you have to use your FSA money soon, here are a handful of creative ways to spend it.

1. Buy some new shades.

Head to the optometrist, get an eye prescription, then use your FSA funds to buy some new specs or shades. Contact lenses and solution are also covered.

You can also buy reading glasses with your FSA money, and you don’t even need a prescription.

2. Try acupuncture.

Scientists are divided on the efficacy of acupuncture, but some studies show it’s useful for treating chronic pain, arthritis, and even depression. If you’ve been curious about the treatment, now's a good time to try it: Your FSA money will cover acupuncture sessions in some cases. You can even buy an acupressure mat without a prescription.

If you’d rather go to a chiropractor, your FSA funds cover those visits, too.

3. Stock up on staples.

If you’re running low on standard over-the-counter meds, good news: Most of them are FSA-eligible. This includes headache medicine, pain relievers, antacids, heartburn meds, and anything else your heart (or other parts of your body) desires.

There’s one big caveat, though: Most of these require a prescription in order to be eligible, so you may have to make an appointment with your doctor first. The FSA store tells you which over-the-counter items require a prescription.

4. Treat your feet.

Give your feet a break with a pair of massaging gel shoe inserts. They’re FSA-eligible, along with a few other foot care products, including arch braces, toe cushions, and callus trimmers.

In some cases, foot massagers or circulators may be covered, too. For example, here’s one that’s available via the FSA store, no prescription necessary.

5. Get clear skin.

Yep—acne treatments, toner, and other skin care products are all eligible for FSA spending. Again, most of these require a prescription for reimbursement, but don’t let that deter you. Your doctor is familiar with the rules and you shouldn’t have trouble getting a prescription. And, as WageWorks points out, your prescription also lasts for a year. Check the rules of your FSA plan to see if you need a separate prescription for each item, or if you can include multiple products or drug categories on a single prescription.

While we’re on the topic of faces, lip balm is another great way to spend your FSA funds—and you don’t need a prescription for that. There’s also no prescription necessary for this vibrating face massager.

6. Fill your medicine cabinet.

If your medicine cabinet is getting bare, or you don’t have one to begin with, stock it with a handful of FSA-eligible items. Here are some items that don’t require a prescription:

You can also stock up on first aid kits. You don’t need a prescription to buy those, and many of them come with pain relievers and other medicine.

7. Make sure you’re covered in the bedroom.

Condoms are FSA-eligible, and so are pregnancy tests, monitors, and fertility kits. Female contraceptives are also covered when you have a prescription.

8. Prepare for your upcoming vacation.

If you have a vacation planned this year, use your FSA money to stock up on trip essentials. For example:

9. Get a better night’s sleep.

If you have trouble sleeping, sleep aids are eligible, though you’ll need a prescription. If you want to try a sleep mask, many of them are eligible without a prescription. For example, there’s this relaxing sleep mask and this thermal eye mask.

For those nights you’re sleeping off a cold or flu, a vaporizer can make a big difference, and those are eligible, too (no prescription required). Bed warmers like this one are often covered, too.

Your FSA funds likely cover more than you realize, so if you have to use them up by the deadline, get creative. This list should help you get started, and many drugstores will tell you which items are FSA-eligible when you shop online.

10. Go to the dentist.

While basics like toothpaste and cosmetic procedures like whitening treatments aren’t FSA eligible, most of the expenses you incur at your dentist’s office are. That includes co-pays and deductibles as well as fees for cleanings, x-rays, fillings, and even the cost of braces. There are also some products you can buy over-the-counter without ever visiting the dentist. Some mouthguards that prevent you from grinding your teeth at night are eligible, as are cleaning solutions for retainers and dentures.

11. Try some new gadgets.

If you still have some extra cash to burn, it’s a great time to try some expensive high-tech devices that you’ve been curious about but might not otherwise want to splurge on. The list includes light therapy treatments for acne, vibrating nausea relief bands, electrical stimulation devices for chronic pain, cloud-connected stethoscopes, and smart thermometers.

12. Head to Amazon.

There are plenty of FSA-eligible items available on Amazon, including items for foot health, cold and allergy medication, eye care, and first-aid kits. Find out more details on how to spend your FSA money on Amazon here.

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Anti-Pasta: When Italian Futurists Tried to Ban Pasta in Italy

A pasta vendor in Naples during the late 19th or early 20th century.
A pasta vendor in Naples during the late 19th or early 20th century.
Carlo Brogi, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While speaking at a multi-course banquet in Milan on November 15, 1930, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti presented his fellow Italians with an incendiary call to action. Pasta, he said, was a “passéist food” that “[deluded people] into thinking it [was] nutritious” and made them “heavy, brutish,” “skeptical, slow, [and] pessimistic.” As such, it should be abolished and replaced with rice.

So began an outrageous crusade against the country’s most beloved carbohydrate. Not only did Marinetti's movement elicit passionate reactions on both sides, but it also had some less-than-tenuous ties to Benito Mussolini's fascist regime.

Mr. Rice Guy

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (center) and his fellow Italian Futurists in Paris in 1912.Proa, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Marinetti’s initial statement spread so widely because he himself loomed large over society at the time. His 1909 “Manifesto of Futurism” launched the Futurist movement, which championed a shift away from the slow, outmoded processes of the past and toward the sleek technologies of the future. Though originally specific to art, Futurism was a nationalist cause at heart—a way for the newly unified country to catch up to other world powers—and it aligned with Mussolini’s fledgling political campaign. In fact, the two men collaborated closely while establishing their respective political parties (Marinetti’s Fasci Politici Futuristi and Mussolini’s Fasci di Combattimento) as World War I came to a close. Marinetti had distanced himself from Mussolini by the early 1920s, but he still invoked Il Duce’s policies when they served his goals.

For the pasta prohibition, they did. To make Italy less reliant on imported wheat, Mussolini’s administration had started promoting rice—which was much easier to produce domestically—over pasta. In the late 1920s, he established the “National Rice Board” and even declared November 1 to be “National Rice Day.” As Philip McCouat writes for the Journal of Art History, the dictator never went so far as to ban macaroni, but citizens were already familiar with anti-pasta sentiment by the time Marinetti began his smear campaign.

On December 28, 1930, the Futurist followed up his dinner speech with the “Manifesto of Futurist Cooking,” co-written with the artist Luigi Colombo (known as “Fillìa”) and published in Turin’s Gazzetta del popolo. In it, they described pasta itself as an “absurd Italian gastronomic religion” and pasta lovers as being “shackled by its ball and chain like convicted lifers or [carrying] its ruins in their stomachs like archaeologists.”

In short, they believed that pasta weighed Italians down and prevented them from achieving any kind of greatness. The ultimate solution was for the government to replace all food with nutritional pills, powders, and other artificial substitutes, but until the chemists could create such innovations, the Futurists would settle for swapping out pasta with rice. “And remember too,” they wrote, “that the abolition of pasta will free Italy from expensive foreign wheat and promote the Italian rice industry.”

Starch Enemies and Allies

While Marinetti’s initial speech had incited a small uprising among Italians, his written manifesto gave the issue a global audience. “Fascist Writer, All Wound Up in Health Subject, Begs Countrymen to Swallow New Theory,” the Chicago Tribune summarized in an article titled “Italy May Down Spaghetti,” which hit newsstands just two days after Marinetti’s manifesto.

Smaller presses covered the bombshell, too. “No, signor. We beseech you, call off your holy war,” Ernest L. Meyer pontificated in Madison, Wisconsin’s The Capital Times. “Would you abolish macaroni and all its tunefully christened cousins—macaroncelli, foratini, maglietti, ditalini, vermicelli—and reduce Italians to the ugly dissonances of beans, cabbage, chops, chard, and chewing gum? Fie, signor, there is no poetry in your soul, and your palate lacks wit.”

Pasta drying in the streets of Naples in 1897.J.F. Jarvis, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

People living everywhere from France to Australia commented on the matter, but nowhere was the response more impassioned than in Italy. Women in the city of L’Aquila sent Marinetti a protest letter, and the mayor of Naples went so far as to proclaim that “the Angels in Paradise eat nothing but vermicelli with tomato sauce.” (Marinetti later retorted that this was simply proof of “the unappetizing monotony of Paradise and of the life of the Angels.”) But Futurism wasn’t unpopular, and the pasta ban had ardent advocates of its own. Italian writer Marco Ramperti, for example, lambasted the beloved repast in a highly imaginative op-ed.

“[Pasta] puffs out our cheeks like grotesque masks on a fountain, it stuffs our gullets as if we were Christmas turkeys, it ties up our insides with its flabby strings; it nails us to the chair, gorged and stupefied, apoplectic and gasping, with [a] sensation of uselessness …” he wrote. “Our thoughts wind round each other, get mixed up and tangled like the vermicelli we’ve taken in.”

The Movement Loses Steam

Marinetti collected the best testimonies from scientists, chefs, and literary firebrands like Ramperti and reproduced them in 1932’s La Cucina Futurista (“The Futurist Cookbook”), which also contained Futurist recipes and instructions for hosting various kinds of Futurist dinner parties. But the 1930s were an exceptionally tumultuous decade for the country—which faced the Great Depression, Adolf Hitler’s growing influence, a war with Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War, and eventually World War II—and Italian citizens were focused less on what they were eating and more on simply eating.

Two Neapolitan boys eating plates of pasta, date unknown.Bain News Service, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Furthermore, Futurism soon ran afoul of fascism. In 1937, Hitler decried modern art as “degenerate,” anti-nationalist, and somehow inherently Jewish. Though Marinetti spoke out against these associations, anti-Semitism had already infected Italy, and fascists started condemning the Futurist movement. Since Mussolini was courting Hitler as an ally, his regime’s ties to Futurism could easily have become a political liability. In 1939, when Marinetti published a fiery denial of Hitler’s accusations in a Futurist journal called Artecrazia, the government forced it to shutter.

So, by the 1940s, Marinetti was no longer spewing consistent vitriol against pasta, Il Duce was no longer supporting the Futurist movement, and the world at large was consumed with much greater threats than linguini-induced languor. And if Marinetti ever entertained fantasies about resurrecting the cause after the war, he never got the chance—he died of a heart attack in December 1944, just months before the deaths of both Mussolini and Hitler the following April.