Tell me - who's buried down there, anyway?

The narratives concerning the tomb in Sheikh Jarrah are truly a matter of whom you ask.

sheikh jarrah 88 (photo credit: )
sheikh jarrah 88
(photo credit: )
Shimon Hatzadik was one of the last surviving members of the Great Assembly, the high priest who replaced Ezra - who had led the Jews back to Israel from the Babylonian exile - and the man whom Alexander the Great is said to have prostrated himself in front of, explaining that that it was his image that he always saw leading him to victory in battle. "But that's not who's buried down there," said a woman residing in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on Wednesday, pointing toward a slope where a group of religious Jews were walking. "That's the grave of Suleiman al-Hijazi's grandfather, and he wasn't a Jewish holy man." The narratives concerning the tomb that lies at the heart of a territorial dispute in this enclave are truly a matter of whom you ask. While the woman denied any Jewish connection to the grave site, centuries of Jewish pilgrimage to the tomb paint a starkly different picture. "The woman who lives next door told me that she used to pray here all the time," said Rabbi Mevorach Yosef, a resident of Sderot who travels back and forth to Jerusalem daily to manage the site. "She's still there," Yosef said, pointing toward the home of the woman quoted above. "She's over 100 years old, and she's a Muslim. But she told me personally about all the times she came here and prayed, and how those prayers were answered. Every time the Arabs have tried to burn this place down, she put out the fires." "It's not the first time we've heard that Shimon Hatzadik isn't buried here," chimed in a young man standing nearby, his sidecurls hanging long past his shoulders. "[MK] Ahmed Tibi came here a few years ago and tried to say that there was a sheikh buried here." "But when this place was refounded, after '67, one of the first things we found was a mikve [ritual bath] here," Rabbi Yosef continued. "Are you going to tell me there were sheikhs that used a mikve?" Yosef went on to say that Jewish artifacts - menorahs and Hebrew prayer books, among others - had been found deep inside the tombs. The holiness of the tomb - shared by a neighboring structure that is said to house the graves of students of the Sanhedrin - was unrelated to plans by a Jewish group, Nachalat Shimon International, to demolish Palestinian homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and build a 200-unit apartment complex, he said. "This place has been holy since the righteous were buried here," Yosef said. "Nothing can ever change that." While the site is said to have been known long before, it was revealed, or agreed upon, by the Arizal, master Kabalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, who lived in Safed some 450 years ago. Since that time, the tomb has been a traditional site of pilgrimage for Jews from around the world. "This is Rabbi Shimon we're talking about!" Yosef said excitedly. "The world stands on three things, Torah, divine service and acts of loving kindness. That's Pirkei Avot, and he's the one who wrote it." Still, the Jewish connection to the tomb did little to excite the Arab residents of the neighborhood on Wednesday, who lamented the Jewish presence at the site as nothing more than a disturbance. "They're always down there, dancing and singing. I don't understand what all the commotion is about," one woman said. But deep inside the tunnels of the first tomb, where the Sanhedrin students are said to be buried, all was quiet on Wednesday, as two young men stood attentively reading prayers. "I come here nearly every day," one of them said. "And I'll keep on coming as long as I can."