American cousins arrive in Jerusalem on a brief trip with their Jewish Federation. Ed, a cousin-by-marriage, mentions that he's only recently learned that his great-grandfather was buried on the Mount of Olives. He's not sure of the year, but estimates between 1905 and 1915. Is it possible to locate his grave?
According to Jewish tradition, the Redemption of the dead will begin on this mountain ridge east of Jerusalem, which has consequently been a preferred place of burial for Jews. The name might mislead you: this is not a cemetery with abundant fruit trees, neat rows, lavish flowers and grass. The graves occupy stark, dusty hillsides, some in rows, others in asymmetrical patterns. There are 150,000 of them. Among the better-known of those interred on the Mount of Olives are the prophets Zechariah, Hulda, Haggai and Malachi; Rabbis Ovadia of Bartenura, Yehuda Hehassid, Shalom Sharabi and Haim Ben-Attar; modern leaders like Rabbi Isaac Abraham Kook and Henrietta Szold.
But my cousin's great-grandfather isn't famous and our information is sketchy. They'll only be in Jerusalem a few days.
Nonetheless, I'm willing to give it a try. That's because I have great faith in a feature of Israeli life: the informal information network. A side-effect of our tumultuous national history is the willingness of strangers to go out of their way to help you find old friends and relatives. This turns out to be true for relatives who have passed away as well.
MY FIRST source is the burial society, one of a dozen in Jerusalem, whose good and kind services I've used personally. But their records only go back to the 1940s. They direct us to a municipal office where there's a copy of Helkat Mehokek, a hand-written docket of names and sketches created between 1906 and 1913 by Rabbi Asher Leib Brisk. Although his ledger has recently been transcribed, the city doesn't have the search index.
Another tip leads us to the General Burial Society, also known as Prushim, established in 1855 by the new-immigrant students of the Vilna Gaon. It was headed by the legendary rabbis Shmuel Salant and Yosef Haim Sonnenfeld, whose great-grandson Shmuel Gelbstain answers the phone.
The society had enough walkie-talkies in 1967 to lend them to the army, and they've had computers since the early 1980s. The records and notes of their activities in Jerusalem have been computerized. Within minutes, the computer produces the section name, row and plot number of Cousin Ed's great-grandfather. Also the year: 1913.
THIS IS thrilling news, but now we have to find the grave. I warn my cousins this won't be easy, but they're game. My personal connections include the phone number of the caretaker of Henrietta Szold's grave, but it's Friday, a day of prayer for Abed, and he doesn't answer. Early in the morning, we drive through the Old City and reach the foot of the cemetery. A booth marked "information" is shuttered. I approach Palestinian workers in the cemetery for help. A lad responds with alacrity and traverses the hillside, making numerous inquiries in Arabic while we wait. He agrees to show us the way and we climb roads so narrow that even in my diminutive Toyota Yaris we are forced to pull over for downhill traffic to pass.
He gets us to the correct area, where two Jewish young men are standing guard, and returns to join the work crew. The guards suggest we consult the burial society, available even on an early Friday morning. This time, Shmuel's brother Ya'acov answers when I call on my cell phone. He directs us back to the main road, and tells us to enter the cemetery directly across from the gas station and to call back.
"NOW WHAT do you see?" he asks. I describe the closest grave, reading the name on the tombstone. "Excellent," he says, and directs us through right and left turns until we arrive at a row of graves abutting a metal fence.
These graves have no tombstones. Even nine centuries ago, travel writer Rabbi Binyamin of Tudela records desecration on the Mount of Olives. Crusaders used the tombstones to build houses. The desecration of the graves before us is more recent. Between 1948 and 1967, the tombstones were used for home construction, the section plowed under to make way for a Jordanian road. After the Six Day War, Shmuel and Ya'acov's grandfather Rabbi Mendel Gelbstain gathered 50 men to dig out the graves. It took four years of working with old maps and records to put the puzzle together. They think they got it about 90 percent right.
"The grave you are looking for is either the first or the second in the row," Ya'acov tells me.
My cousins have followed the morning's procedures with fascination. We experience a moment of triumph, but it yields quickly to the piercing poignancy of this moment, as Ed stands before his great-grandfather's grave. I have a psalter in my purse. "In Jerusalem, you can never tell when you need one," I explain.
King David's offspring are buried in this cemetery, too. His words are a balm as Ed reads, "Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies, Thou anointest my head with oil, My cup runneth over."
The sun is coming out from behind a cloud. The scent of Jerusalem - a mix of thyme, pine and yes, olives - fills the air. I check my watch. The morning journey has taken less than an hour. My cousins can catch up with their tour group.
Ed doesn't know much about his ancestor. That is another trail we to explore.
Shmuel Gelbstain later tells me that the cemetery is a frequent source of connectedness. Ours is one of some 30 calls a day he receives. Visitors often link up with other unknown living relatives who make inquiries.
"We're the end of the thread," he says, translating a Hebrew expression - "Or maybe the beginning."