I was lucky enough so that my first visit to a cemetery was at my Zayda’s funeral when I was 17. He was 87 and had a healthy life, born in Polish poverty and dying in a home he built and owned in Newark NJ. I don’t remember much about the burial so that when I visited the cemetery with my husband and cousin Jody a couple of years ago, I needed to do research to find it and was appalled at the horrible neglect we found there. It was abandoned and the overturned stones were not due to vandalism but to forgetfulness. We, and our community, stopped burying people in North Arlington and so the cemetery ran out of income and was unable to survive. We forgot Zayda and all of his chevrah kaddisha buddies. And all of those other groups that shared this hallowed ground. Yes, even in death there needs to be survival so that someone is left to take care of the cemetery. I don’t know how to rectify this situation which exists in many other Jewish cemeteries as well. But I do snicker when I see the sticker on the stone for perpetual care. The only living creatures on site to insure perpetual care are the various species of wild life who co-exist with each other.
But Zayda was far luckier than he would have been had he stayed in Poland. He would have been an already old man in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He would have had less than a minuscule chance of survival and there would have been no grave, no stone and no cemetery for his descendants to visit. No matter how abysmal his burial site is, it still has his remains and we can visit. And, of course, we are alive because he left Poland.
I have no clue as to the whereabouts of Zayda’s wife, my grandmother. I am named in her memory but she does not lie next to him. But I do know where my maternal grandparents are, both of them, Pop and Peshka. They lie together in one of Long Island’s cemetery cities. These are huge places with street names, maps and websites. So far the facility and their graves are still well maintained. I cannot speak to what they will be like a century hence. But, not only do my sabim lie there but so do two of their sons, my dear Uncles Dave and Charlie, with their wives. So, when we visit, it’s like a family reunion, reliving memories of the mundane daily lives we shared until we, over time, lost them all. My grandmother, who I remember as an ancient woman in a wheelchair, was 62 when she died, at least according to her stone. I would have thought she was much older…….from my vantage point as a 77 year old! Uncle Dave, a healthy man, died suddenly at 57 in his prime. His wife, Fannie, was very sick throughout her life until she died in very old age. Who can explain life?
Years ago my husband and I went to Poland to find the graves of our ancestors. It was coincidence that all of our grandparents came from the area near Bialystok so we were able to hire a driver and visit the towns they had lived in and search out the Jewish cemeteries. We found no one and nothing. Somewhere they lie since they were all buried before the Shoah but the remnants of the towns they lived in got us to the cemeteries but not to the graves we sought. What we did learn was that my maternal grandmother, Peshka, who had come from Augustow, a Polish resort town, may have been influenced by her childhood to open a Catskills hotel herself. And that the shul Zayda attended as a boy was now a movie theater. No Jews live in any of those towns today. Suffice to say,.
My parents, both of whom reached old age, are buried in the old Herzliya Cemetery. A few years ago a new replacement Herzliya Cemetery was opened and one can only hope that the remarkable standards of loving care will continue on the other side of Ha Rav Kuk Street. The old cemetery is as much a place of the living as of the dead. People are always there even if there is no funeral or sheloshim ceremony. It’s often in the neighborhood of family members, near their homes, so it’s not a big appointment only deal to pop in and visit. The stones are often creative. One, of a too young boy, has a basketball hoop attached. Others show the spirit of Israel, the kibbutz galuyot, ingathering of exiles. From the stones’ etchings you can tell where these Jews wandered before their final rest in the holy soil of Eretz Yisrael. Different customs, brought from the diaspora. Different names. Different alphabets and languages. And all sadly protected by the souls of the many many graves in the military section. Mainly young men who died to ensure that Eretz Yisrael, with its cemeteries, and its vibrant cities and towns for those yet living, will remain a holy Jewish place.
Soon my husband and I will visit my parents graves. We will walk down a neat path, almost to the rear wall of the cemetery. Then we will turn left, greeting the graves of those we have passed so often as if they were our friends. We will, yet again, see their ages and be saddened by the youth of some and then moved at my parents’, especially my father’s longevity. He, who never doctored, and smoked cigars for at least 70 years, and ate liver and numerous other unhealthy delights, died in his prime at almost 98!
We will go to their graves because we have news for them. We always go to share news, happy or otherwise. I don’t believe they hear us. I’m not so mystical. But, then again, maybe they do. And, if they do, I need to tell them that my husband and I have become great-grandparents to a young, very very young, man called Noam Yair. And that he was given the name Noam because he is so pleasant. How they would have celebrated with us, and with their very own first great-grandchild Eitan, the new father, and with their very own first grandchild, Amy, the new grandmother. They would wish good health and long lives to all of their descendants and they would have rejoiced. As do we.