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April 17, 2014 / 17 Nisan, 5774
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘cemetery’

My Machberes

Friday, January 20th, 2012

Madrid's vice mayor with Rabbi Elyakum Schlesinger and Jules (Yitzchok) Fleischer.

Jews And Spain

Jewish history in Spain dates back more than 2,000 years. Jewish scholarship began to flourish there beginning in the 8th century. Spanish rulers, whether Christian or Muslim, valued their Jewish subjects and, with fluctuations, generally granted them wide tolerance. Torah scholarship was valued and codification of Jewish law began there. Sadly, the Edict of Expulsion of 1492 brought an end to Jewish communal life in Spain.

Today, Jewish communities, which were bolstered in the 1970s by a considerable influx of Argentinian Jews, mainly Ashkenazim, are multiplying in Spain.

The Jewish Cemetery of Toledo

Efforts to contain defilement at the Jewish cemetery in Toledo have achieved notable success. Dating back more than 700 years, the Jewish cemetery there, like cemeteries in other Spanish cities, are snapshots of the Golden Era of Jewry prior to the expulsion of 1492 and the subsequent inquisitions. Several hundred such cemeteries are known to exist, none of which has had a new interment since those times.

When the municipality of Toledo decided to expand the facility of a school constructed in the 1980s, human bones were unearthed during construction. Upon further examination and investigation, the ground was determined to be that of a Jewish cemetery. Experts further ascertained that several leading Torah scholars were interred in that cemetery.

A number of international campaigns focused on convincing the local Spanish municipality, as well as the federal Spanish government, of the unique sanctified character of Jewish cemeteries. Violating a Jewish cemetery is sacrilege. Unless a grave is in physical danger, re-interment is never a consideration.

Some of the campaigns overlapped and actually hampered communications with Spanish governmental officials. What should have been campaigns of education and negotiation sometimes lapsed into condemnations and confrontations. Denouncing potentially cooperative officials, whether at the local or federal level, is counter-productive. Receptive Spanish officials suddenly found themselves being publicly vilified.

The Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe (CPJCE) is the international organization led by the widely respected London rosh yeshiva Rabbi Elyakum Schlesinger. Beginning in the summer of 2008, when the defiled cemetery was determined to be Jewish, CPJCE began its outreach to Spanish governmental representatives in Spain, England, Israel, and the United States.

In December of that year, the Jewish federation of Spain, consisting of 13 traditional and Orthodox congregations and operating three Jewish day schools, contacted CPJCE by letter, asking for help in the matter of the Jewish cemetery in Toledo. Using its decades-long diplomatic connections, PJCE established a dialogue with parties both in the local government as well as on the federal level.

L-R: Rabbi Sholom Eliezer Teitelbaum, Hon. Fernando Villalonga, and Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum.

Bones unearthed from graves in the cemetery were placed into sealed containers for later disposition. A noted historian and cemetery expert from Israel came to Toledo to study the situation. The historian is also a greatly respected architect. The building efforts were put on hold until a mutually satisfactory agreement could be reached by all parties.

The Jewish cemetery, because it had not been used for more than 600 years, was not on any register of sensitive sites. Further, some in the local municipality insisted that the school’s immediate need for more space superseded what many considered an unimportant, old, out-of-service, undocumented burial ground. The historian-architect who determined that it was, indeed, an important old Jewish community cemetery, submitted a redesign of the school expansion that would not be desecrating the cemetery.

The architectural redesign was acceptable; however it had an additional cost of $1.3 million, which the local underfunded municipality could not possibly provide. After protracted negotiations, the Spanish federal government announced it was willing to underwrite half of the additional cost.

Meetings In New York

A New York Congressman arranged for a meeting between representatives of UJCare of Williamsburg, the Hon. Jules (Yitzchok) Fleischer, member of the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, and Spain’s then-Ambassador to the United States to meet in May 2009 with Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, Satmar Rebbe, at his study in Kiryas Yoel.

The then-Spanish Ambassador, Fernando Villalonga, advised the Satmar Rebbe that the Spanish government was developing an agreement with municipalities on a protocol to follow should similar issues arise in the future. Villalonga also told the Rebbe that the Spanish federal government was in the process of returning all remains from the Toledo cemetery for reburial before the end of June 2009.

Rabbi Elyakum Schlesinger was in Brooklyn at that time and met at Beis Medrash Vayoel Moshe in Williamsburg with a number of rabbis involved in the negotiation process, and favorably reviewed a report by Rabbi Moshe Hershaft, a London member of CPJCE, stating that he had personally visited the Toledo cemetery and inspected and approved the designated places in the cemetery where reburial of the exhumed bones would be re-interred; visited the safeguarded bones that were being kept in sealed containers in an honored and secure storeroom under guard; and received a certificate of authority to remove and re-inter the bones.

The Evolving Security Scene in Eastern Jerusalem: A View from the Arab Neighborhoods

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

For the past year and a half, I have become a student of security issues that relate to preserving the 3,000 year-old holy cemetery of the Mount of Olives. This resulted from my involvement with the International Committee for the Preservation of the Mount of Olives, a broad-based group my brother Avrohom founded. His initiative came following a critical report in May 2010 by Micha Lindenstrauss, Israel’s State Controller, criticizing successive Israeli governments for neglecting the Mount of Olives for 43 years (at the time) since its capture in the Six-Day War of 1967. (I am actually writing this on the yahrzeit of my father Chaim Pinchas Lubinsky zt”l, who is buried on the Mount of Olives along with my mother Pesa o”h).

Despite a dramatic improvement in the past year, including the installment of 80 surveillance cameras, thanks in large measure to the committee, graves are still frequently randomly destroyed and visitors and mourners occasionally stoned, albeit with far less frequency than before the committee swung into action. There are still areas of the legendary mountain that are without cameras, a small mosque near the main entrance of the Mount of Olives (and just several feet from the gravesite of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his wife Aliza) was being significantly expanded despite a Stop Order from the Municipality, police deployment while promised is still sorely lacking, and broad support for a new bill imposing stiff new penalties for violence perpetrated in cemeteries is still elusive. In addition, there is concern for the continued budget allocation specifically designated for the Mount of Olives.

Most of the violence perpetrated on the Mount of Olives emanates from the three Arab neighborhoods that hug the sprawling mountain: Ras al Amud, A-Tor, and Silwan. The struggle to preserve the Jewish character of eastern Jerusalem extends even to the name as the Arabs consider the Mount of Olives, despite its obvious Jewish historic significance, as part of the Ras al Amud neighborhood. The controversial mosque is also known as the Ras al Amud Mosque. Arab vehicles and schoolchildren routinely use the cemetery as a thoroughfare, not to speak of the thriving drug trade in some areas.

While the committee has focused on the sanctity of the Mount of Olives and the kovod hameis (respect for the dead) of the nearly 135,000 people who are buried there, including three Nevi’im (prophets), many see the struggle for the Jewish character of respect for the dead as central to the larger battle of keeping Yerushalayim united under Jewish control, a pronouncement often made by Israeli leaders but not always accompanied by action. It is unconscionable to most Jews that the Mount of Olives should not be accessible to any Jew who wishes to daven (pray) there. How could it be that a state that prides itself in providing access to all religions should tolerate Jews being stoned as they seek access to the holy the Mount of Olives? Shouldn’t Jews in their own homeland at least have the same right as Christians and Muslims.

We already know what happens when the Arabs control our holy sites. The Jordanians, who should never have been awarded part of Jerusalem in the first place, did not allow access to the Mount of Olives or for that matter the Kotel (Western Wall) despite signing the Armistice Agreement of 1948 which explicitly provided access to Jews.

A View from the Lion’s Den

To better understand the security issues that face the Mount of Olives, I accepted an offer from Mati Dan, the chairman of Ateret Kohanim, to tour the nearby Arab neighborhoods, some of it in an armored vehicle, which is a story onto itself. Ateret Kohanim is bent on settling Jews in homes in eastern Yerushalayim, as part of the just Jewish claim to the entire city. The tour of these neighborhoods offered a glimpse into everyday living in the predominantly Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. These neighborhoods are a blend of shabbily built houses, some with red roofs, old stone structures and here and there some magnificent villas (illegally built). There is also what could best be described as low-rise apartment buildings. We toured much of A-Tour and even Ras al Amud in a regular vehicle, but transferred to a beat up white armored vehicle for the trip into Silwan, the scene of many riots in the past few years and the source of much of the disturbances in eastern Jerusalem.

Although Ateret Kohanim bought the vehicle new in 2005, it pretty much carried the history of the rampant violence in the area. Its original green color was replaced by an assortment of colors, the paints thrown on the vehicle by Arab rioters. The glass in front of the armored pane was completely shattered from the many rocks it has received. In short, the totally beat-up vehicle looked much more like one of the remnants of the armored vehicles from the 1948 War of Independence that are displayed along the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway than a 6-year old new vehicle.

Is Change Finally Coming to the Mount of Olives?

Monday, January 9th, 2012

It was, to say the least, a disturbing sight on a bright Sunday morning the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. As I turned to say Kaddish [mourner's prayer] marking the yahrzeit [day of passing] of my father (Harav Chaim Pinchas Lubinsky zt”l), I faced an entire row of destroyed kevorim [graves], apparently by boulders hurled from above. The scene on a level just above where my parents lie was one of more destruction, including hollow grave sites with their matzeivos [tomb stones] strewn about. Although the area was repeatedly targeted by Arab hooligans, it is the first time that it came so close to the graves of my parents. Turning away from the kevarim were Arab houses, one with a newly posted flag of Hamas. (I learned later that Hamas was on a flag campaign in East Jerusalem.) In fact, during an earlier tour of nearby Arab neighborhoods with Ateret Kohanim, some of it in an armored jeep, I noticed several Hamas flags, perhaps on par with the number of Palestinian flags.

The destruction that had apparently occurred a month or so ago, explained the officials that I subsequently met with, was because there was still no coverage by the rapidly growing number of surveillance cameras being installed on the Mount of Olives, thanks to the efforts of the International Committee for Har Hazeitim [the Mount of Olives], headed by its founder Avrohom Lubinsky (my brother). While some 80 of a planned 137 cameras were already in place, 60 were functioning with the others still undergoing tests. Officials promised that within a few weeks some of the additional cameras would be installed on the Kollel Polen section as well as the area that includes the maareh [cave] where three rabbeyim of Ger lie, also frequently targeted by Arabs.

In the newly built fortified command center with its high tech monitors, three security agents monitor the screens 24/7 for any signs of abnormal activity. Just last week, the camera captured an Arab in his late 20’s sitting on a step and conversing on a cellphone. He soon rose, moved over to a nearby grave, and labored to push a headstone to a nearby valley where it shattered in pieces. Obviously preparing for his next act of wanton destruction, the security people in the monitoring station summoned the Mount of Olives security team who within minutes pounced on the thug, holding him until police arrived. In early December, he was sentenced to 3 months in prison. What was perhaps most disturbing is that he told investigators that he was paid NIS 1000 by the handler with whom he had apparently been conversing prior to perpetrating his act. The police were ostensibly investigating who the handlers were.

As I toured the Mount of Olives, I found some areas completely covered by many cameras while other areas like the Kollel Polen section were only sparsely covered. While officials promised additional cameras, it is unclear that even after all the cameras are installed that the huge sprawling mountain would be entirely covered, but officials guessed that more than 75% would be seen by the cameras. Significantly some of the new cameras that are installed are advanced models with day and night infrared capabilities and others are thermal cameras that detect body heat.

An important piece of the security puzzle will be filled in when a police garrison finally begins functioning on the Mount of Olives in addition to the small private security force that these days provides mostly escort services to visitors and mourners. The committee is working with officials on details of such a deployment that includes both short-term and long-term logistical planning.

The no-nonsense policy pursued by the incoming new police leadership in Jerusalem, headed by Niso Shaham, will hopefully have a positive effect on security on the Mount of Olives as well. Police are dealing harshly with any signs of disturbances in neighboring A-Tor, Silwan, and Ras al Amud, significantly reducing violence in the area. This is significant since it will mean better security for those visiting the Mount of Olives. Avrohom and members of the committee feel that they have turned the corner on security but make no secret of the many challenges that still lie ahead.

15,000 Graves Restored; 60,000 to Go

In the Kidron Valley, not too far from Yad Avsholom, tractors were busy clearing debris from large areas, under the close supervision of Gadi, a private frum contractor hired to supervise the effort, and assisted by the Chevra Kadisha. Using maps from the Chevra Kadishas that go back to the early 20th century (and perhaps well before that), Gadi’s team does the painstaking work by hand of clearing every kever [tomb]. If a partial matzeivoh [tomb stone] is by chance found, an effort is made to complete the matzeivah. Most of the matzeivahs were used to build the roads leading to the Inter-Continental Hotel built by the Hashemitte Kingdom in the 1950’s. Instead of honoring the 1948 Armistice they signed allowing access to the cemetery, they perpetrated the largest mass destruction of graves in history without ever compensating the families or the Chevra Kadisha to rehabilitate those graves. What Gadi tells me next is most shocking. “I believe that there are still 60,000 more graves that have to be rehabilitated,” he says. If he is correct, it would mean that the Jordanians destroyed 75,000 graves, a number impossible to imagine and probably unprecedented in history, including the Nazi period.

My Machberes

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

Kohanim ‘Do Not Fly’ Determination

Leading rabbinical authorities in Israel have issued a proclamation prohibiting kohanim from being on planes ascending from or landing at Ben Gurion Airport from 1 a.m. to 2 a.m. The pronouncement is the result of the rerouting of jumbo jets leaving and arriving at that time. Those flights are routed over the cemetery of Cholon. The ruling was issued by Rabbi Nisan Karelitz of Bnei Brak; Rabbi Moshe Bransdorfer, rav of Heichal HaTorah and Badatz Dayan in Jerusalem; and Rabbi Moshe Shaul Klein, member dayan of Beis Din Shevet Levi.

The cemetery in Cholon has been problematic for more than ten years. Kohen protection groups have an ongoing open dialogue with Ben Gurion Airport and similar problems have been resolved in the past. In addition, halachic solutions have been contemplated, including issuing plastic body bags to kohanim that would separate them from their immediate environment. The bags have been determined to be impractical.

Protecting Kohanim

It is told of the Vilna Gaon, himself a firstborn son, that he gave five silver coins to every kohen he met, hopeful that one of them would indeed be a genuine kohen, to ensure that he would be redeemed under the rules of pidyan haben as proscribed in the Shulchan Aruch. In January 1999, the Jewish media reported widely on scientific findings identifying consistent patterns in the DNA of kohanim worldwide, distinguishing them from other Jews. Science now supports the longstanding assumption that today’s kohanim are in fact decedents of Aharon HaKohen, proof that the privileges granted and responsibilities assigned to today’s kohanim are not misplaced.

Jewish monument, Green-Wood Cemetery.

However, kohanim also have special restrictions. They cannot participate fully in funerals, nor can they marry divorced women. As a single male kohen gets older, his pool of potential marriage partners is greatly reduced. Further, if he divorces his own wife, Heaven forbid, he cannot remarry her.

A group of prominent rabbis, many of them kohanim, convened in October 2001 and established Vaad Mishmeres Kehuna, an organization whose express purpose is dealing with contemporary problems confronting kohanim. Since the mitzvah of maintaining and honoring the holiness of kohanim is biblical and obligatory upon every Jew, it is of interest to us all.

Notable among the participants were the venerable kohanim Rabbi Avraham Pam, zt”l (1913-2001), Rosh Yeshiva Torah Vodaath; and Rabbi Avigdor Miller, zt”l (1909-2001), Rosh Yeshiva Bais Yisroel. Also participating ybch”l were the brothers Rabbi Usher Anshel Katz, Viener Rav; Rabbi Chaim Leib Katz, Serdehaly Rav; and Rabbi Shlomo Zalmen Katz, Toldos Aharon Rav of Williamsburg. Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, Karlsburger Rav and prominent posek, was also present.

The prohibition of kohanim coming into contact with cadavers, or human body parts, extends to cemeteries, funeral homes and hospitals. Airplanes carrying cadavers to be buried overseas also pose great problems for traveling kohanim. In the New York City area, several highways adjoin or travel through cemeteries. Overhanging trees may possibly prohibit kohanim from using these streets and highways. The Boro Park-Williamsburg route is adjacent to the Green-Wood Cemetery, one of the most prestigious cemeteries in the United States. In addition to famous governors, generals, authors, and politicians, Jews too are buried there, requiring serious attention to the permissibility of Kohanim using McDonald Avenue and Fort Hamilton Parkway, the main artery of Boro Park-Williamsburg travel.

Leonard Bernstein gravesite, Green-Wood Cemetery.

Encompassing 478 pastoral acres, more than 600,000 gravesites are presently found in Green-Wood. Recently, two plots were being made available by private parties in its Jewish Section. In fact, the cemetery is non-sectarian. The noted composer Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) is buried in Green-Wood.

Driving up 20th Street along Greenwood Cemetery, approximately 100 feet from 7th Avenue toward 8th Avenue, one can easily see a monument gravestone that has a Star of David and Hebrew lettering spelling out the name of the deceased, the name of his father. Joseph (Yosef ben Shmuel) Bausch was 47 years old when he died on June 13, 1942 (28 Sivan, 5702), and he was buried in lot no. 31394 on Border Avenue within Green-Wood Cemetery, corresponding to the opposite side of 400 20th Street, which houses a car wash. Several trees have branches overhanging both the street and the gravesite, definitely precluding ordinary travel there by kohanim. The entire perimeter of the 478-acre cemetery poses the potential of the same problem.

The Vaad Mishmeres Kehuna has worked with the cemetery to have those tree branches, and similar problematic branches along McDonald Avenue and Fort Hamilton Parkway, busy thoroughfares used by Jewish commuters, cut in such ways to avoid problems for kohanim.

Flights Over Cemeteries

In October 2001, the problem of flight patterns of planes leaving Ben Gurion Airport and flying over the cemetery in Cholon came to public attention. Previously, since maps of those flight patterns were generally unavailable to the public, a definite determination could not have been made. Those maps became available around that time and were presented to leading rabbis for review.

Where Flowers Bloom Red From Jewish Blood

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

The place that holds the record for murders in a day – even over such ghastly places as Auschwitz and Treblinka – is Babi Yar. A ravine on the outskirts of Kiev, it is today incorporated within the urban, inhabited sector of the Ukrainian capital. The events described here took place seventy years ago, in 1941, on Rosh Hashanah.

The famed Russian poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko wrote one the most chilling and powerful elegies to the place. Shostakovich, the renowned Russian composer, dedicated one of his great symphonies, the 13th, to Babi Yar. Both men were non-Jews who succumbed to the pain that came from contemplating man’s infinite capacity to inflict pain and suffering on his fellow man.

* * * * *

The Russian frontier exploded on June 22, 1941, when the German attack was unleashed without warning. Nine million fighting men joined the battle from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The Wehrmacht conquered Kiev on September 19, 1941. Ten days later, on September 28, notices were posted all over walls, billboards, fences, printed on bad wrapping paper. The notice read:

“All Jews in the city of Kiev and its environs must appear on the corner of Melnikov and Dokhturov Streets (beside the cemetery) at 8 a.m. on September 29. They must bring their documents, money, valuables, warm clothing, etc. Jews who fail to obey this order and are found elsewhere will be shot.”

The text was printed in three languages: Russian, Ukrainian and German. Anatoly Kuznetsov, a resident of Kiev, 12 years old at the time, wrote years later: “Many Jews lived and worked in a cluster of clay huts, small barns and cowsheds…two doors from our house. I peeped in and found them in the grip of a quiet panic, rushing from hovel to hovel, assembling their bundles.”

The Jews were distressed and frightened. The helplessness they felt was heightened by the absence of able-bodied men, who were serving in the Russian army. Mothers had to take care simultaneously of their children and their elders who were often incapable of fending for themselves. They had to make sure documents were in order and see to it that valuables were secured for a possible long trip and resettlement. They had to prepare food for at least a few days and pack clothing for family members while not even knowing what climes they would be moved to.

The unsuspecting Jews came out of their homes when it was still dark, hoping to be the first to board the trains and find seats. With wailing children, the old and the sick, some crippled and limping, some virtually crawling, Jewish tenants spilled out into the street carrying rope-tied bundles, battered wooden suitcases, patched carpetbags, pushing handcarts, baby carriages with three or four infants in each, helping each other, supporting one another.

“I could not, of course,” wrote Kuznetsov, “miss such an event as the deportation of the Jews from Kiev, and ran out into the street…to follow the events. A great crowd was ascending toward Lukyanovka, the cemetery district, a sea of heads. Suddenly there was a great troubled stir. People were saying that one could go only forward, but the return is cut off. This frightened me. I was afraid I would not manage to get out of the crowd and would be driven off with them. I pushed hard against the people, and made my way home.

Kuznetsov continued:

When I came home I saw Grandfather in the middle of the yard. He stood there with a finger raised, straining to hear the sound of firing far away.

The Portuguese-Jewish Cemetery In Ouderkerk aan de Amstel

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Beth Haim, the Portuguese-Jewish cemetery in Ouderkerk aan de Amstel

Kerkstraat 10, 1191 JB Ouderkerk aan de Amstel

http://www.bethhaim.nl/

 

 

There is something profound and soothing in the ancient Jewish practice of using the euphemism beit chaim, “house of life,” to refer to a cemetery. It is as if the rabbis did not even want to coin the phrase beit mavet, “house of death,” for fear of inviting the evil eye.

 

Walking on a cold and rainy day through the Portuguese-Jewish cemetery in Ouderkerk, about five-and-a-half miles south of Amsterdam, it was impossible not to appreciate the euphemism on a completely different level. Somehow, the cemetery Beit Haim, which dates back to 1614, is still very much alive.

 

 

 

Most of the 6,000 marble memorials in the oldest part of the cemetery (the full cemetery contains more than 27,500 tombs) have sunk into the ground. Walking through the cemetery and later over tea in a house on the burial grounds, Dennis Moshe Ouderdorp, caretaker of the cemetery, and Jewish tour guide Vera Querido agreed that the 17th century Sephardic Jews who introduced the marble stones must have known they would sink. Perhaps the transience of the heavy stones embedded into the unstable ground even appealed to them, Querido suggested.

 

            What is clear is that the cemetery is home to an impressive group of Dutch Jews, from Menasseh Ben Israel, a diplomat who petitioned Oliver Cromwell to permit Jews to return to England and who was a close friend of Rembrandt’s, to Baruch Spinoza’s parents (Spinoza himself is buried in a church in the Hague) to Eliahu Montalto, French queen Maria de Medici’s doctor.

 

 

 

 

It is common knowledge that several artists, most famously Jacob van Ruisdael (1628-1682), painted the Jewish cemetery at Ouderkerk. Two pieces by Ruisdael, which are partially imaginative (ruins of a castle in the background are completely manufactured), even include Montalto’s tombstone.  In an interview about five years ago, Ruisdael scholar Seymour Slive, Gleason professor of fine arts emeritus at Harvard University, called Ruisdael’s imagination one of his strengths, adding that his “genius is that he is not an ape of nature.”

 

Slive, who claimed that Ruisdael did not paint the cemetery for Jewish patrons (both Ouderdorp and Querido agreed with that assessment), called the painting an allusion to the “transience of all life, and the ultimate futility of humankind’s endeavors.”

 

Despite puddles of water obscuring the faces of the tombstones, it was easy to see transience everywhere. Several stones contained skeletons (one full skeleton swings a sickle) and hourglasses, often with wings – all symbols borrowed from non-Jewish artistic traditions and adapted to Jewish memorials. The double tombstone of Rebecca Ximenes (died 5453 or 5454) and her daughter Esther features similar iconography.

 

 

 

 

            Rebecca’s stone shows her namesake, the biblical Rebecca drawing water for Eliezer’s camels (Genesis 24), while the stone for Esther, who died a mere 27 days after her mother, shows a pair of arms emerging from the clouds using an axe to chop down a tree. The symbol suggests that just like the tree, Esther’s life has been cut short. Two putti weep at the bottom of Rebecca’s stone; a winged hourglass resting on a skull and cross bones appears at the top of Esther’s stone.

 

Biblical figures and episodes appear in several other stones. A double stone for Mordechai Franco Mendes (died 5448/1687) and his wife Sara Abendana (died 5456/1696) contains four biblical narratives: the binding of Isaac, David playing the harp, Jacob’s dream and Abraham forging a peace treaty with Abimelech’s general Phicol.

 

Four crying putti figure into the double stone of Rachel (died 5455/1695) and Hana Vega (died 5461/1701). Rachel’s stone contains an illustration of the meeting of the biblical Jacob and Rachel, as Rachel tends her father Laban’s sheep. Hana’s stone includes a depiction of the biblical Chana, mother of the prophet Samuel.

 

 

 

 

King David playing his harp appears prominently atop a stone for David Da Rocha (died 5469/1708), and an inscription identifies the deceased as not only someone who shared the biblical king’s given name, but also a fellow musician. The gravestone of Moses de Mordechai Senior (died 5490/1730) might be the most ambitious in its depiction of 11 biblical scenes: Moses with the Ten Commandments, Haman leading Mordechai, David playing the harp, Abraham looking heavenward, Jacob’s dream, King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, Sara, Rebecca, Rachel, Judah and Benjamin.

 

Despite all the biblical characters, it was hard not to compare many of the tombstone illustrations with a work displayed at Museum het Rembrandthuis, Rembrandt’s house-turned-museum. Jan Ewoutsz’s 1537 woodblock print, “Allegory of Human Transience,” shows a skeleton with his hand on a man’s shoulder. The man holds an hourglass in one hand, and his other arm is wrapped around a very muscular looking baby. The skeleton points to an inscription: “Nascendo Morimur,” “As we are born, we die.”

 

With minimal rearrangement and massaging, Ewoutsz’s work could look exactly like the tombstones of the cemetery at Ouderkerk some 100 years later. On the one hand, this means that there is nothing unique in the artistic program of the tombstones. Like the old Jewish cemetery in Prague, there are even nudes depicted on the stones, which suggests an open-minded approach to the sacred burial process.

 

But it would also be a mistake to focus exclusively on the derivative nature of the stones. Whether or not their designs and motifs were innovative, the Portuguese Jews of 17th century Holland saw importance in decorating their tombstones lavishly. It should not surprise us that such a burial ground attracted the attention of artists like Ruisdael and Romeyn de Hooghe. And if Querido is right that the use of imported marble might have been some kind of postmodern (or pre-postmodern) attempt to arrange for even the stones themselves to decay and sink into the water, that would be a very interesting artistic approach to their burial program indeed.

 

 

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

 

 

I am indebted to L.A. Vega’s Het Beth Haim van Ouderkerk: The Beth Haim of Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, which provided much of the background on the cemetery. This article is the first in a series on Jewish Amsterdam and The Hague, which is based on a trip sponsored by the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions.

Paper Clips And Cemetery Stones

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

Small things make a difference. For example, as an old folk tale has it, a pebble in your shoe can cause more pain than a rock in your pocket.

And wasn’t it New York’s Mayor Giuliani who demonstrated that big city crime and grime could be reversed by first righting the little things – the broken windows of urban blight and the “squeegees” at red traffic lights?

So, too, every alert businessman knows that profitability depends on controlling costs, and that discipline includes – indeed, begins with – the small things. Things like paper clips.

Take a moment to think about it. After outfitting any office with the ordinary staples of daily usage, such as notepads, pencils and, yes, staples, at least one such item might never (or, at the least, hardly ever) need re-purchasing: paper clips. Treated properly, they come with a limitless life expectancy and infinite usages. Even when abused, as when a small one is used to grope too thick a bunch of papers, paper clips often will rebound into a somewhat fit, albeit crippled, shape.

Almost weightless and normally untethered, there is a permanence of place for clips and their box. Applied without intrusion and removed with nary a scar, availability is nevertheless maintained in rough balance despite random flows in and out. It all works with awesome, wondrous spontaneity due, I would suppose, to the existential nature of the paper clip.

Some might challenge the near perfection of the paper clip, but in my view the re-circulating alternatives fall short of the ideal. The rubber band? Yes, it circulates, but it also too easily stretches out from normal use, or wears down and breaks long before any self-respecting, non-abused paper clip.

The old-fashioned, non-electronic alternative to e-mail known as the “inter-office envelope?” Forget about it. Not the slightest chance that the readily torn envelope and its string enclosure could approach the useful life of the resilient clip.

No, the paper clip represents unrivaled, world-class durability, adaptability, and so much more. This incredibly practical tool suffers from no apparent defect. There’s just nothing to fix or improve, due to its simple, circulatory essence. Which is why I write of it (perhaps too much) here and at this time.

Now is, after all, the traditional time of year when many Jews remember and respect departed family and friends through the ritual of visiting their graves. So much so, that, typically, two or three times each September, Sunday drivers re-enact pre-Quickway Sunday traffic jams of, say, 1949-1952. “Old Route 17″ reappears within the narrowest possible cemetery roads (more precisely, walkways or horse trails) blocked by cars obliviously parked or going the wrong way against one-way streets. If you’re lucky in the course of such anarchic confusion, your car’s progress will stall near an old fashioned “unveiling” where a folding table might offer a shot and a slice. (That’s honey cake, stranger.)

It’s all very personal, how and what one does in front of their deceased. Some touch or lean upon the tombstone, where others dare not; some stand silently, while others speak aloud as if to the living; some pray, others stare, still others cry.

It’s doubtful that such behavior has been studied very much, if at all. Probably best described as highly idiosyncratic, it seems odd that the visitors’ common exercise is for the most part uncommonly performed. Excepting certain prayers said by those who formally pray, for most it appears that their only shared practice is the somewhat quaint act of placing a stone marker atop the visited gravestone.

While its significance is felt, its purpose seems largely unknown. As an exercise, ask around for its meaning or history, and you should hear, with one exception, one uncertain answer after another. The one exception, as you may have guessed, is “I don’t know.”

No matter, what we do know is that stones are left behind, regardless of reason.

For decades, it was the easiest of rituals to perform. No longer, however. Perhaps not yet widely recognized, let this alert you to another shared cemetery experience that in recent years has grown to become a common problem: finding stones. Haven’t you noticed? They’re gone.

Maybe not as catastrophic as an office without paper clips, a cemetery without stones is more than a mere annoyance. Though harmless, it’s still upsetting. Search as you may, other than the smallest and thinnest of pebbles, a reasonably small stone is nearly impossible to find. At least once in the past few years have you not asked yourself (or anybody or nobody in particular) “Didn’t there used to be plenty of stones here?”

A Visit To My Father’s Kever

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

I recently returned from a visit to Eretz Yisrael, where I go yearly for my father’s yahrzeit. As always, my husband, and my sister and her family accompanied me.

On the way to the cemetery, we were fortunate to hail a taxi driver who spoke fluent English. He had made aliyah many years before from East Flatbush, where my husband and I lived.

He told us a story of an elderly neighbor who had recently passed away. Due to various circumstances, he had been unable to pay a shiva call. When it came time for the shloshim, this man’s family happened to hail his cab to take them to the cemetery. He was thankful to be able to honor his neighbor in some way, and commented that it was a lucky coincidence.

They replied, “There are no coincidences.”

My family and I ascended to my father’s kever, where I saw a young chassidic boy saying Tehillim. I realized that this was my great-nephew who was learning in yeshiva in Israel for the year. I was stunned that we both arrived at the same time. He could have been there at any point throughout the day. This “coincidence” brought me to tears.

My sister always arranges a minyan at the cemetery so that someone can recite the Kaddish.

Through my tears I said to my father, “Look at Hashem’s great kindness. Hitler tried to destroy you, but did not succeed. And here, you merited having two great-grandsons – out of many more great-grandchildren – who are taking part in the minyan on your yahrzeit. What a zechus for your neshamah.”

There are no coincidences. May my father’s holy neshamah have an aliyah, and may we all witness techiyas hameisim with the imminent coming of Moshiach.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/jewish-columns/lessons-in-emunah/a-visit-to-my-fathers-kever/2010/05/18/

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