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.
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.