[This is the second part of my post about the weekend in New York. If you haven’t read the post about the Lower East Side, that is Part One. This is Part Two.]
Before I write about my trip to Mt Zion and Mt Hebron cemeteries, let me tell you that I have never been someone who understood why people go to cemeteries, and it always seemed a little creepy to me. I don’t believe in an afterlife, and it seemed to me that you could remember those who had died without standing over the place where their bodies were buried.
I initially saw a cemetery trip this time as a way of doing more research. Then when I realized that Joseph was not buried near any of his children or his wife, I felt badly. It was likely no one had been there for a hundred years. Did that matter? Joseph didn’t know, so why did I care? I am not sure, but somehow I felt compelled to pay him honor. In fact, once I received the photos of the headstone and footstone from Charlie Katz, I no longer needed to go for research. I was going for some emotional reason that was mysterious even to me. The trip to Mt Hebron, which is only ten minutes away from Mt Zion, then seemed like an obvious addition to the trip to Mt Zion.
So off we went on Sunday morning, first to Mt Zion. It is one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in New York City, and the graves are very close together with almost no open land left. I knew from Charlie Katz that it would be hard to find Joseph’s gravesite. The stones are so close together that it is very difficult to walk between and around them, and without Charlie’s directions, we might never have found it. But then suddenly we spotted it.
I stood there, not really knowing what to do or to think. I thought of his life, thanked him silently for bringing his family here, tried to imagine what he looked like. Did he have red hair? No idea. Then I left on the headstone one of the beach rocks I had collected the prior weekend. I had decided to bring a piece of something I loved to leave at the graves, and the beach is the place that always makes me the happiest. I left feeling that I had at least done something to honor his memory.
Then we went on to Mt Hebron, a much larger and much less crowded cemetery. The section where Bessie is buried is across the road from the section where my grandparents and Sam are buried. [What I didn’t know then is that Frieda is also buried there, but that’s a story for another post.] I saw Philip’s headstone right away, but did not realize that Bessie’s was right behind it, as you can see in the photo below.
It took some counting and looking, but finally Harvey spotted it. I felt the same way standing at Bessie’s grave—grateful and wistful. I found myself drawn to her name—both in Hebrew and in English—and rubbed my hand over the name Bessie, saying, “That’s my name.” I also was very touched to see that the Brotman name was included on her headstone, not just Moskowitz.
I left one of my beach rocks there as well and then walked across the street to the other section.
In that section I first saw Sam Brotman’s headstone. I never met Sam, and I really felt badly about that, given that he lived until I was 22 years old. I left a beach rock on his stone, saying, “I am sorry I never met you.”
In the row behind Sam’s grave I found my grandparents’ grave. The headstone was covered with ivy, which looked pretty but made reading the inscriptions impossible. I gently tore away the ivy so I could see the stones.
My grandfather died when I was almost five, so I have only the vaguest memories of him, but have heard lots of stories about him—how funny he was, how smart he was (he knew several languages), and how opinionated. He walked across Romania to escape oppression and poverty. I wish I had had a chance to know him better. There was a rock left on his headstone when we arrived. Who could have been there? I don’t think it could have been anyone recently, but perhaps it had been there for many years. I placed mine next to it and rubbed his name.
Seeing my grandmother’s headstone was the most difficult for me. She lived until I was 23, and when I was a little girl I loved her very much. She was fun and loving with her grandchildren, despite having had a difficult and often sad life. I have thought of her so many times while doing this research and learning what her life was like, but standing there, thinking of her, I suddenly was overcome with emotion and found myself sobbing, thinking of her and her life and the memories I have of her. As I did with Bessie and Isadore, I found myself rubbing my hand over her name, Gussie, feeling some unexpected emotion in doing so. I left my beach rock, specially selected for her, and wished I had asked her more questions while I could have.