It’s not every day that you meet your great-great-great grandparents.
On previous visits to the Old City of Jerusalem, I gazed with intrigue upon the many thousands of white specks that cover the Mount of Olives. For one reason or another, there was always an excuse to delay a visit until a later date. I never imagined that the rocky hill in the distance would provide me with an incredibly deepening connection to my origins and a far greater understanding of what I am and who I am.
Despite Israel being a regular topic of discussion around the dinner table, it was only shortly before my last visit that my father recalled his trip to the Mount of Olives some forty years earlier. Although always interested by family history, somehow I had never known that my paternal ancestors were buried on that mystical mountain ridge.
With my Israel trip on the horizon, I knew I had to find the resting places of my great-great-great grandparents Yehoshua and Rivka, and my great-great grandfather Baruch. Armed only with limited and hieroglyph-like details of their resting places, finding these specific graves on the Mount of Olives, a cemetery since Biblical times, would make searching for a needle in a haystack seem like child’s play.
It was Ramadan, and I found Abed napping under an olive tree next to his rickety but cosy hut on the eastern side of the mountain. Abed is the legendary fourth-generation Mount of Olives caretaker who knows every square inch of the place like the back of his hand. His story merits an article, if not a book, of his own. Undeterred by the sweltering heat and his inevitable hunger, he gave me directions to the area in which my ancestors were resting.
Despite Abed’s instructions, my search was unsuccessful. Deflated, I knew my prospects of success were slim but I needed to return. I could not give up that easily.
Before my return to the Mount of Olives, I received some more information about the lives of my ancestors, and a copy of my father’s photos from his trip to the Mount of Olives when he was but a long-haired 1970s student. For a second time, I set off to search for my family. With their life stories in mind, they had become far more than just names on a piece of paper.
Just like the first time, I struggled to find the two oldest graves amongst the vast swathes of burial plots. I had almost given up hope. Looking back at my father’s photos, I simply started searching for pairs of graves that were similarly shaped – an unlikely task that was almost certain to fail. Yet, somehow, they appeared before me. Although not a particularly religious person, I surely couldn’t have found them alone.
The immediate sense of connection to my own history was overwhelming. I sat down next to Yehoshua and Rivka, with a powerful feeling of having known these ancestors all my life. I could have happily remained there, by their idyllic resting place overlooking the Old City, all day.
I said my ‘goodbyes’ and went in search of Baruch. Since my first visit, I had learnt that his grave was very close to that of Ben Yehuda. In fact, only several places along the same row. Kneeling down next to Baruch’s stone, that indescribable feeling of connection and belonging soon returned.
Of course, I never met Yehoshua, Rivka or Baruch in person, but I had an astonishing feeling of being reunited with long-lost members of the family. It all seemed strangely, but pleasantly, familiar.
With my Aliyah beckoning in the coming months, and with the knowledge that my ancestors also moved to the Jewish homeland, I am truly following in their footsteps. They were dreamers for sure. Yet, to become a citizen of the State of Israel of today would have surpassed their greatest hopes and dreams.
For me, this is far more than mere symbolism or connecting with part of the family tree. ‘Meeting’ my ancestors has been a decisive step in a journey of self-discovery and understanding.