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Age-Old Gravestone Art Ban Sparks Lawsuit By Jewish Families

November 4, 1988

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Leon Rader, an artist whose canvas is a gravestone, says the art he brought from the Ukraine to the city in 1980 made him popular for years among Soviet Jews who emigrated to the San Francisco Bay area.

Now he says he’s stunned and angered that his age-old art has been banned by what may be the city’s only Jewish funeral home.

Rader, who learned his craft from an old master back in Chernovtzy, engraves delicate, life-like portraits of the deceased on gleaming black granite headstones.

″This is a Russian Jewish tradition,″ said Ella Portnoy, whose aunt Lia Solganik died last January.

″When you come to the cemetery, that’s how you want to see them, the way you want to rememeber them,″ she said.

Portnoy and the family of another deceased emigre sued Sinai Memorial Chapel; Eternal Home Cemetery; and Sinai director Gene B. Kaufman, charging them in Superior Court with grave desecration. They are seeking $1 million in damages.

Eternal Home’s policy is set by Sinai, a spokeswoman said. The Associated Press could not reach Sinai attorney William E. Joost for comment on Wednesday.

Rader, however, said Sinai officials told him the ban was because it is against Jewish religion to have graven images. Photographs of the deceased are allowed to be placed into the tombstones.

Rader, a tall, talkative man with a rich Russian accent, called the ban ″unbelievable.″

Rader learned sculpture and painting at an art academy in the Soviet Union, later working in an ″artists’ factory″ painting giant canvasses of Lenin and Marx and other murals glorifying the workers’ revolution.

Later, he studied gravestone art with ″an old master working in a cemetery at Chernovtzy, in the Ukraine, near the Romanian border.

″You cannot learn this from nobody,″ Rader said. ″This technique is a secret technique. To do this, you have to be an artist.

″You have to know the material. ... Granite does not forgive a mistake,″ he said.

Rader came to the city in 1980 and in 1984 opened Art Stone Monuments, his business located near Colma, a community of graveyards south of San Francisco.

The dispute began this fall when Rader installed an engraving of a popular member of the Russian Jewish emigre community despite the ban.

According to attorney Richard A. Canatella, Sinai officials were angry and visited Rader’s shop to inspect gravestones for Solganik who died in January at 74, and Simyon Flek, who died in April at 57.

Despite protests by the family that they would use the required stone, cemetery workers dug up huge foundations for gravestones at the head of both graves.

Rader said the Torah teaches that the soul of the dead resides at the grave for 11 months.

″They disturbed her peace,″ said Portnoy, as tears formed in her eyes.

″I can’t even talk about it,″ she said.

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