Grave hopping and soul searching

Looking for love? Feel like singing an old tune? Yes, cemetery tours are 'in style' right now.

british war cemetery 284.88 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
british war cemetery 284.88
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
'Cemetery tours" have become all the rage. No, not the ones to pray at the graves of venerated sages in and around Safed and Meron in Galilee or to the tomb of North African Jewry's sainted Baba Sali in Netivot. Nor the stream of thousands of hassidic Jews who return to Israel after spending the High Holy Days at the grave of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav in Ukraine. These cemetery tours are a predominantly secular phenomenon (although some modern Orthodox take part): "pilgrimages" that take groups of all ages on trips to old graveyards located in the heart of major cities and in the periphery - from Tel Aviv to Tel Hai and Rosh Pina, from Zichron Ya'acov to Kibbutz Kinneret. Not all are to Jewish cemeteries, either - one Jerusalem tour is devoted to the Templer Cemetery on Rehov Emek Refaim, which dates back to 1878. Yaakov Merkel, a veteran tour guide and author of Tel Aviv's Pantheon - a book about one of the most popular sites, Tel Aviv's old Trumpeldor Cemetery, named after its location at Rehov Trumpeldor 19 - says he has been conducting tours of Trumpeldor Cemetery for over two decades, but has upped the number of tours he offers from one a month to one a week to meet demand. Often, there are several tours at Trumpeldor at the same time, he says. Other guides report that during high season they can encounter a dozen different groups at once visiting the historic Kinneret Cemetery, where composer and songwriter Naomi Shemer is buried. Many tours are organized by private licensed guides, most of whom charge NIS 45 to NIS 80 for a walking tour of several hours. Other cemetery outings are hosted by organizations as educational opportunities. And despite the challenge of negotiating the treacherously narrow and uneven paths between the graves, a few tours take place at night, with participants armed with flashlights or lanterns to intensify the eerie effect. One entity is the Tel Aviv Municipality's Tourism Association, which hosted a free nocturnal visit to the Trumpeldor Cemetery (as well as daytime tours) as part of the July 3 dusk-to-dawn Laila Lavan (White Night) festivities that included street performers and other cultural events at key venues around the city. Another is the World Union for Progressive Judaism. In recent years, Beit Shmuel, the Union's Jerusalem cultural center, has not only conducted tours along the seam line between east and west Jerusalem and into various "hidden" aspects of haredi life, including shtreimel repair; it boasts a rather pricey NIS 125 tour in the dead of night entitled Laila im Shochnei Afar (A Night With Those Who Lie in the Dust). Billed as a tour "for all ages," it's an inclusive, whirlwind affair: participants "grave hop" across Jerusalem, from the tomb of the prophet Samuel to the graves of venerated scholars in Mahaneh Yehuda, from the final resting place of Anglo-Zionist leader Herbert Bentwich and his family on Mount Scopus to the Muslim cemetery at Malha, and from the cemetery of the American Colony to the Protestant Cemetery on Mount Zion. Ghoulish? Perhaps. But nighttime adds to the thrill. "Israelis are attracted to all sorts of weird nighttime tours, not just the cemetery ones," according to an employee with the Beit Shmuel tour unit. "Reporter Buki Naeh, who covers the police and crime beat for Yediot Aharonot, conducts a walking tour of murky bars and brothels in Tel Aviv." Most graveyard tours are designed, first and foremost, to educate participants about Zionist history through the life stories of those who shaped Israeli society. Old cemeteries provide a rich tapestry of stories peppered with colorful personalities, including piquant details of their public, personal and political rivalries and private lives. National poet Haim Nahman Bialik's longtime mistress, the artist Ira Yan, for instance, is buried in the same cemetery as Bialik, a "discreet" distance from the poet and his wife - and Bialik was only one of a host of luminaries of the time who led more than one life, according to Merkel. Sometimes a newcomer can increase traffic. The Kibbutz Kinneret Cemetery at the southern end of Lake Kinneret, established in 1911, is filled with interesting people from the Second Aliya, but only after Naomi Shemer died and was buried there in 2004 did the cemetery become such a popular pilgrimage spot. On some of these trips, a specific graveyard is the destination - particularly the tours that target the Trumpeldor Cemetery in Tel Aviv. In many others, the cemetery serves as the climax of a tour itinerary that traces the life of a much-loved personality, such as the tours of Binyamina that began spontaneously in 2005 following the death of composer Ehud Manor at age 64. Some of the outings are "singing tours." Dr. Itai Plaot - a biologist turned tour guide - leads tours entitled "In the Footsteps of the poet Rachel and Naomi Shemer" and "Binyamina Days" several dozen times a year. Guitar in hand, Plaot often attracts some 50 participants at a time. Such tours retrace the imagery that appears in Manor's songs, tying them to actual sites, and end with a visit to the Binyamina cemetery, to Manor's grave and those of his immediate family - including his brother Yehuda, who fell in the War of Attrition in 1968 and was memorialized in one of composer's most poignant songs, "Ahi Hatza'ir Yehuda" (My Younger Brother Yehuda). While tour guides like Plaot say cemeteries are a perfect setting for an endless stream of good stories - and many participants would, no doubt, say their motivations for signing up for a cemetery tour, with or without the music, is the desire to "do something different" - on a deeper level, one cannot help but notice how many participants are secular, middle-class Ashkenazi sabras aged 40-plus, and wonder whether the growing popularity of such trips doesn't reflect other needs. With or without Shemer's lyrics and Rachel's poems, the Kinneret Cemetery, Rosh Pina, Zichron Ya'acov, Tel Hai and a host of other graveyards that such tours visit are filled with those who paved the way to a Jewish state. There lie leaders who set the compass, countless young people who died of malaria or heat prostration or from being kicked in the head by a mule, who were killed by Arabs or took their own lives in despair rather than return to the Diaspora. Even if the tour participants and guides might not affirm it, these cemeteries seem to serve as a source of solace and inspiration, adoration and identification - in effect, a form of reaffirmation of one's Zionism.