Family roots: A visit to the Mount of Olives

I knew from past experience that finding a grave on the Mount of Olives was like looking for a needle in a haystack. One had to do some homework first.

mount of olives 311 (photo credit: Steve Linde)
mount of olives 311
(photo credit: Steve Linde)
When relatives from South Africa, Maureen and Paul Rome, flew to Israel this month for the brit mila of their grandson, Yonatan Flax, I suggested that I take them to the Mount of Olives to see the grave of Yisrael Yona Shagam. He had lived in Mea She’arim and was buried in 1907, just seven years after his arrival in Palestine from Lithuania.
Shagam was baby Yonatan’s grandmother’s grandfather’s grandfather, or to make it simpler, Maureen’s great-great grandfather.
I knew from past experience that finding a grave on the Mount of Olives was like looking for a needle in a haystack. One had to do some homework first.
The Mount of Olives is the world’s oldest Jewish cemetery. It has served as a Jewish cemetery for more than 3,000 years, beginning in the First Temple period, and contains an estimated 150,000 graves. Among the notable Jews buried here in biblical times were, according to tradition, Zechariah, Haggai, Malachi and Absalom, the rebellious son of King David. In the modern era, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, author Shai Agnon, Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold and prime minister Menachem Begin and his wife Aliza were laid to rest on Har Hazeitim, as it’s called in Hebrew.
One way to find a particular grave is via the Mount of Olives website (, which has begun mapping out the thousands of graves. An initiative of the Elad Association, it is constantly updated and provides an aerial view of the cemetery to help you search for a particular grave.
But the easier way to find a grave, especially if you want to visit it, is to call the Hevra Kadisha at (02) 538-4144. The person who answers the phone is usually very pleasant, and will arrange for a security guard from the burial society to accompany you to the grave, once it has been located.
In our case, we discovered that Yisrael Yona’s grave was in the middle of the cemetery, and was number 19 in Row 3, Section B. The Hevra Kadisha man, armed with a gun, met us at the entrance to the cemetery, and guided us directly to the spot, weaving our way through the small spaces between the tombstones.
He was very professional, and suggested that we try to complete our visit before the children in the nearby Arab schools came out, “because they like to throw candy at us,” he said, smiling, referring presumably to rocks.
The cemetery has recently undergone extensive renovation following a spate of attacks on tombstones by vandals.
The Mount of Olives is situated near the predominantly Palestinian neighborhood of A-Tur, and just below the popular Seven Arches and Mount of Olives hotels. But it is also just a stone’s throw away from the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus camps.
The panoramic view from the Mount of Olives is one of the most spectacular in Jerusalem, and you can literally look down into the Old City and the Temple Mount.
“Jews have sought since antiquity to be buried on the Mount of Olives, where according to the Bible (Zechariah 14:4) the resurrection will begin when the Messiah comes,” the Ministry of Tourism website proclaims. “Among the many legends surrounding this sacred mountain, it is said that in the End of Days, people will tunnel underground from all over the world to rise up here.”
Maureen Rome was clearly excited by their visit to Yisrael Yona’s grave. “I am Yona,” she exclaimed, referring to her Hebrew name. “I am named after him.”
But even if you don’t have a relative buried on the Mount of Olives, it’s definitely worth a visit.