Thursday, December 8, 2011

Going to Elmont

Last week, I wrote about memory. And this week I propose to write to you about time. What is this, an undergraduate course in Too Big Ideas? (I suspect that question probably has more to do with the way I remember my undergraduate experience—for some reason I to this day cannot contemplate the nature of Being without reaching up to see if my mutton chops have grown back—than with anything else, but I want to write this week about time, not memory!) So let me start by asking out loud some questions most of us really haven’t asked ourselves since we really were back in college. What actually is time? Does it really exist? Or is it just something humanity has made up to help explain the universe, to impose order on events that would otherwise exist as discrete spheres of experience related to each other only by content and not by sequence or temporal proximity. Those really are questions only an undergraduate could love. But I had an experience last week that left me feeling outside time in a way that I’ve only occasionally experienced. And that’s what I’d like to write this week.

Regular worshipers at Shelter Rock have heard me say from the bimah many times, especially as we prepare for Yizkor, that time—the concept of “time” itself—is just a midrash. By that, I generally mean that we need to remember that the boundaries between time-past and time-present are more porous than we generally allow ourselves to imagine, that the historically dead are not necessarily the experientially dead, and that the ghosts are no less real for being unreal. I teach that lesson because it truly is reflective of my own experience of the world and the way I feel I have successfully—or at least semi-successfully—brought the evidence of my own perceptive consciousness to bear in deciphering the universe. The reality is that I miss my parents all the time. But the reality is also that they’re not quite as gone as I recall once thinking they were going to be. The French word for ghost, revenant, literally means “one who has returned.” I like that. The English “ghost,” is related to the German word Geist, meaning “spirit.” I like that less. And, in fact, the ghosts I’ve experienced in my life are far less relatable-to as spiritual constructs or as otherworldly metaphors than simply as revenants, as people who, turning out to be less done with the world than they (and their people) may well once have thought, come back for a brief—sometimes the briefest—return engagement.

One of the mysteries of my life was where my grandparents were buried. Both my grandfathers died before I was born, but I knew both my grandmothers. My father’s mother, though, died when I was only four years old. I remember her a little—her voice mostly, a little bit how her skin felt, plus some olfactory memory I can never quite pin down that must be related to some kind of perfume she liked to wear or to some kind of cooking or baking I associate with her for some by-now-long-forgotten reason—but not really much. But my other grandmother, my mother’s mother, I knew well. She lived in Bensonhurst. I’ve written before about watching the Verrazano Bridge being built in the course of innumerable Sunday visits to her home on 84th Street in 1963 and 1964. She died, regretfully, just before my bar mitzvah. That whole incident, I remember clearly. To say her death in February overshadowed my bar mitzvah in May is not exactly correct, but it’s not exactly incorrect either. (I only ran into her ghost years later, though…and at my actual simchah she was as spectrally missing as she was physically absent.) So she died that February during a teamsters’ strike and was brought to her grave in a rented station wagon rather than a proper hearse. (Isn’t it funny how you really do remember these things over the years, almost as though they really mattered!) But where that grave was, I had no idea. The funeral was somewhere in Brooklyn. The burial was somewhere else…but where that somewhere was I wouldn’t have known. How could I have? I was an upset little boy being schlepped along by events that any child would find at least mostly unfathomable. Nor did I ever undertake later on to find out exactly where that cemetery was.

If my mother visited her parents’ graves, I never heard about it. Or I never thought I did. (See below.) Probably she would have gone from time to time, but I was certainly never taken along. (My parents were a bit odd in that regard: a big part of their parenting concept was shielding me not only from death, but even from the reality of disease. My parents, both of them, even attempted—in this only semi-successfully—to shield me from the details surrounding my mother’s final illness. But I’ll write about that another time. Or maybe not, given how painful that whole sequence of events was for me then and still, at least in some attenuated way, is for me today even just to recall.) And then she died. If my father ever visited my mother’s parents’ graves after he became a widower, I never heard about it. Maybe he did. Maybe not. And then Joan and I left New York and were away for almost twenty years. Eventually, we came back. But by then whatever information my father had taken whatever information he had to impart on the matter to his own grave, yehi zikhro varukh.

And so I was left not only not knowing where my own grandparents were buried but also having no one to ask. My mother’s sister predeceased her, as did her brother-in-law. She herself had no contact with her father’s family, just as I eventually lost contact with hers. As a result, I knew no one at all who might have remembered. Plus, obviously, in the meantime a long time had passed. My grandfather died in 1948, my grandmother in 1966. We came back to New York in 2002. Even if I somehow was successfully somehow in resurrecting some sort of relationship with one of my mother’s first or second cousins—who’s to say that they would have remembered where my grandparents were buried? And how exactly was I going to find them anyway? Wisely or unwisely, I let the matter go.

And then, a few weeks ago, I found myself rooting around for some reason in my father’s papers and found my grandmother’s death certificate. (Why do I remember that my parents had tickets for the Broadway production of Peter Weiss’ play, Marat/Sade, for the night my grandmother died and that they never did get to see the play? Is that important?) I hadn’t known my father even had a copy, let alone that I did. I certainly hadn’t ever seen it or read it. But I read it once I found it…and found out all sorts of interesting things. For one thing, I learned what my great-grandmother’s maiden name was. (My grandmother’s mother was born Jennie Mehlman). But far more arresting was the detail at the bottom of the form that noted that my grandmother’s burial was to take place at…of all places…Beth David Cemetery in Elmont. I’ve been there a thousand times in the course of my years at Shelter Rock. Maybe ten thousand. It couldn’t be closer. In fact, no cemetery is closer to here, I don’t think. But who knew? Sometimes the challenge really lies more in knowing the right question to ask than finding its answer.

And so Joan and I set out to find my grandparents’ graves just last Sunday. After all those years of not knowing where to go, they were almost eerily effortless to locate. When I got to the office at Beth David, there was no line to stand on. When I asked the fellow at the window if he could locate my grandmother’s grave, he asked for her name and when she died. About fifteen seconds later, he was handing me a printed-out map of the cemetery with the location of my grandparents’ graves circled in blue ink. We got into the car, drove to the corner of Sinai and Wilson. (Someone, not myself, will eventually write an interesting essay about the names they give to streets in Jewish cemeteries.) The gate into the section owned, or at least once owned, by the Zembiner Benevolent Society was just where the man in the office said it would be. And there, in the row of graves furthest from the road were my grandparents’ graves.
This was last Sunday. I was twelve years old the last time I stood in that spot. The graves were tidy and neat, the yews trimmed and healthy-looking. (My mom must have paid for perpetual care, although there weren’t any stickers on the stones saying so.) I don’t know what I expected. I had hoped more of my family’s graves would be there, but it was just them. I had hoped the stones would say more about them, but they only note their names, the dates they died (weird that my grandfather died in 1948 on what would nine years later be the day Joan was born), and that they were loved by each other and by their children. (My grandmother was loved by myself as well, but I suppose there wasn’t room on the stone to go into that much detail. Or perhaps my mother and her sister were over-valuing the concept of the two stones having symmetric legends.) Nothing more. The phrase “Sinai and Wilson” sounded vaguely familiar to me. We had no friends or family in Elmont, but the expression “going to Elmont” also has a familiar ring to it—maybe that’s what my parents, zealous to a fault to shield me from the reality of death, called it when they actually did go visit my grandparents’ graves. What did I know? They certainly didn’t mean they were going to the track.

And so I was left with more questions than answers. Why the Zembiner Society? My mother once told me that she thought her father was born in Odessa. (Only in retrospect does it seem odd to me that she couldn’t say for sure where he was from.) Zembin, I’ve learned this last week, is a town in Belarus about forty miles from Minsk, the capital. Is that where my grandfather was from? (The Jews of Zembin, along with the Jews of nearby Borisov, were annihilated during the war. The site doesn’t suggest that there is a Jewish community there today. And even if there was, would they still have records from so long ago? If my grandparents were alive, they’d both be 128 years old.) Or did my grandmother just buy burial plots from them after my grandfather died? And where are all the other graves—the gravesites of all my grandparents’ siblings, for example, or my great-grandparents’ graves? Joel and Jenny Kaufman, née Mehlman, lived on East 113th Street in Manhattan. But where they’re spending the rest of eternity, I have no idea. I suppose I should have asked at Beth David if they were in the data bank too. Next time!

The whole experience was, as noted, not what I had hoped it was going to be. (One thing I do know about the ghosts, however, is that they rarely show up where and when you’d think.) Still, I’m glad I went. There was certain peacefulness in that place, a certain sense of undisturbed-ness and permanence. I have my grandfather’s name as my middle name. Somewhere, I think I have his naturalization papers. I have quite a few of my grandmother’s paintings—she was quite a good artist—and, I think, some of her jewelry. The rest is all gone…but their graves aren’t gone at all, it turns out, as are also not their ghosts. This being real life and not a Hollywood movie, however, their ghosts just weren’t there haunting their own graves while they waited for over forty-five years for their sole living descendant (other than my children) to wander by for a visit. That part, I think, ghost story writers just made up.

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