Hearing about the recent desecration of headstones at Jewish cemeteries across the US hit a really personal nerve for me. Exploring and collecting the life stories of my ancestors is important to me, maybe more so than the average Millennial. Look, there were times when I asked myself why I care so much about people who I never knew. I didn’t always care. As a teenager, visiting my ancestor’s graves was a nice ideal – an auspicious thing to do before the High Holidays – but not worth time away from my burgeoning present and future. As I think back today though, on my great-grandfather’s yartzheit, I feel that it is my duty and responsibility to ask my fellow Jews, both in the Diaspora and in Israel, to learn more about who they come from and to go visit their gravesites.
It was the beginning of the next chapter of my life. After of a year of working and saving, I was finally beginning college. My family wasn’t spared from the negative effects of the Recession, so instead of enrolling in university right after my gap year in Israel, I took a detour in the name of fiscal responsibility.
Another detour that I wasn’t thrilled about was the one to the National Capitol Hebrew Cemetery at the border of where D.C. and Maryland meet. My Bubbie and I were in the middle of a five day road trip from her condo in Florida back up to her house in Upstate New York. The deal was this: I’d help her pack up and drive her pristinely kept 1995 Nissan Maxima back Upstate, and at the end of our journey, the car was mine for keeps. With my college career starting along the winding, expansive roads of Rockland County, New York, this was a definitely deal worth taking. Beginning my 20’s with a bank account full of cash, next-to-no-tuition (thank you, Rockland Community College), and a pair of wheels? Yes, please.
I had begrudgingly agreed to visit her father’s grave on our way up Route 95. Begrudgingly because I had a life to start in New York: college most days and evenings, and a part-time job at a New Jersey Jewish day school twice a week. Taking a pit stop in our fine country’s capitol meant missing the first days of both. My 20-year old mind had no patience for the past when the future I so anxiously awaited was nearly in my reach.
Still, I understood that I owed my grandmother the respect of paying respects, especially since she was giving me her car afterward. She’d mentioned that it had been at least 25 years since see last visited her father’s grave. Twenty-five years…nearly half of the amount of time since his passing in 1963. During that trip, she was determined to document his memory for generations to come, bringing along her camera. Accidentally, she left the camera in the rental car. She was crushed.
My great-grandfather, Armand Amram Levy, passed away when Bubbie was 16. They’d been living a simple yet idyllic life in Silver Spring, Maryland, enjoying a Jewish-ish suburban life in a two-bedroom apartment. When he suddenly collapsed from a heart attack, life as they knew it changed. My great-grandmother, Libby, packed up my Bubbie and her younger sister, and resettled near her parents in an even smaller two-bedroom apartment, in Albany, New York. Life left her – and her young family – with a gaping hole. My Bubbie described to me how, after her father died, she felt like an orphan, floating through life on her own. Without the resources or support system to help her, visiting his grave wasn’t even an option: her mother worked full-time, they didn’t own a car, the price of bus fare was too vital for their everyday needs. She could only dream of confiding in him, being close to the place that still kept his memory in this world. For many years, it was just a dream; a longed-for moment to anticipate for another time, another day.
When we finally spotted his gravestone, the dream became reality.
Suddenly, the lively, funny lady I knew so well was a girl, crying, “Daddy, Daddy. I miss you.” She rested her head on my shoulder, her warm tears falling onto my hair. Suddenly, the hard-nosed, laser-focused college student was softened and affected. I too began to cry, and felt something I’d never felt before.
It’s hard to put those feelings into words, but the first one that comes to mind is ‘timelessness’. Though I had two feet in this world and in the year 2010, I was also highly aware of my connection to a line of life that started long before me and will please G-d exist long after. There we were, great-grandfather, grandmother, and grandchild, all existing in the same moment. Together. In that moment, I knew deeply in my core, and without a doubt, that I’m not alone in this life, and that my part in it matters…my life story is eternally bound to those who came before me. With this eternal binding and embrace also comes great onus and responsibility: to continue the story and legacy vested within every generation, in my generation.
I got to school and work a day late. It didn’t change my life. Visiting my great-grandfather’s grave did. It’s a moment that will stay with me forever, and still serves as a guide and grace when I feel life is too big for me to deal with alone. If you know where your ancestors are buried, go visit them. Make a statement to those who want to erase our loved ones’ memories on this earth, and make it known, that though they might bring down their gravestones, they won’t bring down our loved ones’ legacies. Show the generations past, present, and future that you -and they- are a part of an eternal embrace, an epic story that is still unfolding. Have your own timeless moment for yourself, for your family, and for our future.
Just this week, my uncle, Bubbie, and cousins mounted plaques in memory of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother in our shul there, Congregation Beth Abraham Jacob. May their memories be a blessing and inspiration for years to come.