Exit Ramp: Our search for our grandfather’s grave

Exit Ramp: Our search for our grandfather’s grave

Last year I got a call from my cousin Jody, who lives in Livingston. She is 12 years my junior — practically a kid the way I see her — although she’s 65. She wanted to know from me — for her, the voice of almost another generation — where our Zayda was buried. I should have known the answer; I grew up in the house that Zayda built and lived in until the day he died at age 87, when I was 17, and his was the first funeral I ever attended.

But I did not know. Prompted by Jody’s inquiry and by extreme guilt, I did some research, which led me to the North Arlington Jewish Cemetery, less than half an hour from our home in West Orange — and light years away.

My husband and I made a date with Jody to visit Zayda’s grave. I had a map of the burial grounds, and it looked like it would be easy to find. The cemetery was compact, not one of those mammoth cemeteries where you would need a computer to help find the resting place of a loved one. There appeared to be only a few hundred graves, and Zayda’s was shown to be in the section established under the authority of the Chevra Kadisha of Rodfei Shalom, our old shul on Clinton Place in Newark. 

We have been to many cemeteries in Eastern Europe and in Israel, where we are citizens. My parents are buried in the Herzliya Cemetery, an immaculate and organized site. People have added things to remember their dead — a basketball hoop here, a constant daily change of flowers there, inscriptions in every tongue of those who came to Israel through kibbutz galuyot (the ingathering of the exiles). And of course there’s the profoundly moving section filled with the graves of members of the military, tragically taken before their time. 

Eastern Europe is something else. The cemeteries we’ve visited there are full of overturned gravestones, markers used for walkways — and abundant desecration and disrespect. 

And of course we have been to numerous New Jersey and Long Island cemeteries, with their street signs displaying biblical names and busy maintenance crews.

Nothing prepared us for the shock we got when we arrived at Zayda’s cemetery. It appeared to have been abandoned: Gravestones were contorted. Some grave sites were so disturbed that it was possible to see the coffins, rotting and revealing their contents. Perpetual-care stickers were obsolete, scattered and ignored.

We found no building with a hand-washing station and an office staff to lead us to our destination. The structure that had once served that function was damaged beyond repair, haunted by the spirits of families who had visited to arrange to bury their dead. The building appeared to be sinking into the earth to join the bodies of the lost souls.

We saw other living things in the cemetery: a snake reared its head from the ground to inspect us. A family of rabbits frolicked among the twisted stones. The animals had found a peaceful, undisturbed place; we humans not.

We tried to find Zayda, but the map was useless. With everything overgrown, the pathways were obscured. We found a broken sign inscribed with some of the letters of the name Rodfei Shalom, but it wasn’t near the graves; it was pushed off to the side.

We climbed up and down a knoll that appeared to be the place we were seeking, but we became exhausted and were ready to give up. I had to rest for a few moments and leaned on a nearby marker. Suddenly my husband asked me to turn around and read the name on the stone. It was Zayda’s! We couldn’t find him so he, mystically, found us. He was still, after all those years, taking care of his young — or not so young!

What to do about the North Arlington Jewish Cemetery? It’s not in a Third World country desecrated by war and anti-Semitism; it’s in New Jersey. My Zayda does not rest in peace. He deserves better, and so do all the long-lost members of Rodfei Shalom and the many others buried there, abandoned and forgotten.

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