Cemeteries, Stories, and Strength
By now, my family has become accustomed to my interest in cemeteries. They know that if I suggest a “fun detour” they may very well end up hiking through an overgrown burial ground or fanning out to search for one or more names etched in granite. When I tell others about my fascination, most people look mildly surprised, a few have a distinct get-me-away-from-this-weirdo expression, and some, usually the genealogically inclined, want to hear more.
My interest in cemeteries shares much with my focus on family history. When most people look at a cemetery, they see stones and death. Honestly, I see stories. Each stone marks a person with a life and family. Many of the stones have details of the deceased’s life recorded, whether simply dates, military service, or even some details of their journey. I have been inspired to try and record some of these headstones using billiongraves.com and their user-friendly app.
A few summers ago, I began photographing the Jewish cemeteries in my hometown of Rochester, NY. While most of my time was spent at the main cemetery in use, I made one trip to the Waad Hakollel Cemetery a few blocks away. Yesterday, several news sites reported on the vandalization of that cemetery and many of its headstones. It is entirely possible that this most recent desecration has nothing to do with antisemitism. In my visits, there were often one or two stones toppled, most likely by neighborhood hooligans. But in the context of similar attacks around the country, this incident made the news and fed a general apprehension.
I was moved to look back at the images I captured and, sure enough, I had photographed one of the stones desecrated. Yente Leah Garber, who died in 1924, was just eighteen years old. Vandals pushed her tree stump shaped headstone, a sign of a life cut short, onto the ground leaving those of her parents, William and Regina Garber, standing.
Taking a picture of graves marked with a similarly shaped stone has always felt particularly poignant. Most often, the individuals interred at that spot have no descendants and, in most cases, no relatives are even aware the person lived. Yente was the only daughter of the Garbers who met in America and had lived in Rochester for decades. We can only imagine their feelings at losing their only daughter around her eighteenth birthday and how many tears were shed at the spot where vandals stood so recently. I don’t know for certain that her grave attracts no visitors, but it would be fair to assume few know her story or pause to contemplate the possibilities abruptly halted almost a century ago.
So often, we lose sight of individual lives when facing communal tragedy. It’s hard to focus on how events shift an individual narrative when the larger narrative demands our attention. Jewish cemeteries have been the targets of vandalism for centuries. Hundreds of Jews have had their final resting place disturbed this week, and each individual matters. Yente Garber, who passed away at just eighteen, hadn’t finished her story; another chapter was added when her marker was pushed to the ground.
Looking at the images from Rochester, I found myself trying to think like the vandals. Why choose that particular stone to topple? Yente’s parents’ places of rest were left undisturbed, right next to their daughter’s. I noticed one possible reason for choosing this particular stone: It was an easy target. Smaller and probably lighter, Yente’s stone was the weakest point in her burial block. Appropriately, next week we will read about Amalek attacking the Israelites immediately after the Splitting of the Sea. Who did they target? “The stragglers at the rear.” It seems to be a defining feature of Amalek to attack the weakest part of a group or to attack weakness in general.
I don’t think these vandals absolutely qualify as Amalek. But their actions certainly resemble the Amalekites of old. Amalek’s proclivity for afflicting the defenseless has survived generations and was on full display in Rochester. Let us make no mistake: It is cowardly to attack the weak. We are commanded to remember Amalek because we must, in every situation, act to protect the vulnerable. Amalek, and those who share their values, wait to inflict their craven will on whomever they deem impotent. Only the weak attack the weak. Only a coward would sneak into a cemetery and topple a gravestone.
As a community, we must use these incidents as a moment to put our strength on full display. In Rochester, Jews and non-Jews have been moved to visit the Waad Hakollel Cemetery in numbers not seen in years, working to repair what some have tried to destroy. Our communities across the world must discuss this and all acts victimizing the powerless. As we recall the destructions of Amalek, we will dedicate ourselves to not only remember their story, but the stories of Jews from across the generations who lived courageously. May our renewed spirit be the next page in Yente’s story.