The Hinda Amchanitzky: Curious Mystery of the Sidewalk Tombstone

Source: NYT, 7-8-10

….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 of the deceased, most of the writing on the tombstone 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 Hinda Amchanitzky on 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 brick tenement 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, Coopers and Massouds.

Jeanine Massoud, who is 49 and lives in California, said Hinda was her great-great-grandmother. Ms. Massoud grew up in Massachusetts and 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, Mrs. Amchanitzky wrote what is described as the first Yiddish cookbook published in America. A copy is in the Library of Congress.

The introduction to her “Manual of How to Cook and Bake” (“Lehr-bukh yi azoy tsu kokhen un baken,” translated for The Times by Samuel Norich, the publisher of The Jewish Daily Forward) said that the 148 recipes she presented (including French cutlets and “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 branch. 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 fully carved tombstone had remained in the basement workshop. It might have been a sample (the workshop was steps from a tiny 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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1 Comment

  1. zetty anzarouth

     /  July 20, 2010

    This is an amazing story, I would love to buy a cook book by her.
    Please lit me know were I can get one. Thanks so much to this gentleman.


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