April 8, 2024
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The Caretaker at Har HaMenuchot

Before visiting Har HaMenuchot, I had never been to a cemetery that I would describe as beautiful. But there was a certain beauty to Har HaMenuchot. Instead of being marked with foreboding gray tombstones, the graves were marked with rectangular, low headstones made of tan Jerusalem stone. Given its size, the cemetery stretched out all over the side of the mountain, surrounding us with graves as we trekked onward. The place felt peaceful; “Har HaMenuchot” roughly translates to “the mountain of the resting,” and the name felt appropriate.

On our way up the mountain, we encountered Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s grave, which was next to a covered area where a few men in ultra-Orthodox garb were praying and learning. Har HaMenuchot, we knew, was the last resting place of countless Jewish luminaries—and here was one; we were in search of another. We stopped for a moment to say some psalms, and then continued our ascent. Looking for signs at the side of the path, we soon wound up at Gush Bet (bloc 2) and at the grave we were looking for, the grave of Rabbi Meyer Schwartzman.

After his name and honorifics, this was the inscription on the gravestone, which was written in Hebrew:

Born in Zagarow, Poland

Passed away on 21 Marcheshvan 5729 [1969] in Winnipeg, Canada

Brought to burial in Jerusalem on 25 Marcheshvan 5729

All of his days he was famously involved with Agudat Israel and he brought over many hearts to the service of Hashem Who is blessed

He authored the book of Meir Einei Yesharim, a likut [gathering of commentary] on the Torah

My friend—Rabbi Schwartzman’s great-grandson—touched the grave, silent. His face was scrunched up. I watched, snapping some pictures, but kept quiet. This was, in a sense, a family reunion, and I didn’t want to intrude.

I heard the sound of footsteps—a man had walked up to us from the left. He had tanned skin, a wrinkled face and wore a blue baseball cap with the logo of the Jerusalem municipality. He started to speak to us, in Hebrew, introducing himself as Shalom.

“I’m the one who was asked to keep that grave clean,” Shalom said.

Interested, my friend and I looked at him. He must’ve been a caretaker for the cemetery; he seemed confident and warm, as if he knew this labyrinth well. “You were told to keep this grave clean?” I asked in Hebrew. I had never heard of someone having been ordered to clean a specific grave.

Yes, the caretaker replied. He said that a woman named Yehudit Schwartzman had given him the task. I looked at my friend and saw his eyes widen in shock.

“Yehudit… Schwartzman?”

My friend said he had never heard that name before. I caught my breath.

It’s worth noting that my friend was extremely invested in learning about and preserving his family history. He had constructed family trees, filled out online genealogy pages and often spoke about family heirlooms. He undoubtedly knew of his living relatives, even those in Israel—and yet here was a name he had never heard.

Maybe, my friend and I reasoned to each other (in English), he had her number or some way to reach her. Choosing my next words carefully, I asked the caretaker if he by any chance had a way to get in touch with this Yehudit. I began to wonder if I was setting up an unexpected family reunion, purely by chance.

Shalom said that he might have her number. I expected him to pull out a cellphone, but instead he reached into his breast pocket and pulled out two pocket-sized notebooks. He began to flip through them—they were littered with Hebrew names and phone numbers—and soon found the number he was looking for.

In the midst of this all, the caretaker told us a tiny bit about himself. His family had lived in the Old City of Jerusalem, he said, before the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. My friend and I found that particularly interesting because our yeshiva and current residence was in the Old City as well.

My friend and I took down “Yehudit Schwartzman’s” number on our smartphones, and I convinced my friend to place the call. What’s the worst that could happen? If it turned out Yehudit had no connection to his family, he’d apologize and hang up. But perhaps it would be a chance for him to connect with a family member he had never met. After all, Yehudit had tasked Shalom with caring for the grave—it would make sense that she was related to Rabbi Meyer Schwartzman.

My friend dialed the number. Surrounded by countless graves and eons of Jewish history, the three of us waited with bated breath. I’ll never forget the moment; in this restful, beautiful place, with the tree-lined Jerusalem hills in the distance, we were about to make an astonishing discovery.

“Hello, is this Yehudit Schwartzman…? It’s me…” He briefly introduced himself. “I’m standing at Rabbi Meyer Schwartzman’s grave now… on Har HaMenuchot…”

He went silent, listening to the voice on the other line. Then his eyes lit up with recognition. “Oh, it’s you…! Hello… Yes, I’m in yeshiva…”

“I think he knows who he’s talking to,” I said to Shalom quietly in Hebrew. Shalom remained silent, watching my friend closely.

The phone conversation continued: yeshiva was going well… He was visiting the grave of Rabbi Schwartzman… yes, he’d have to come for Shabbos at some point… When he finally hung up, I was bristling with anticipation. “What happened?” I blurted out. “Who was it, in the end?”

It turned out, my friend explained, that he did know the mystery relative—a first cousin twice removed who lived in Beit Shemesh. He knew her by her English name, Judy, and her last name wasn’t Schwartzman, but he had been in touch with her before. The surprise family reunion I thought I was helping set up turned out to not be so out-of-the-blue after all.

We thanked Shalom for his help; he bid us farewell and we left the gravesite.

My friend was, understandably, a little bit abashed. He had greatly appreciated the chance to visit his great-grandfather’s grave again and pay his respects, but had thought he’d be connecting with an unknown family member. As for me, I couldn’t shake my astonishment—because of the caretaker.

Shalom had made it clear how much he cared about his job; he remembered who had tasked him with caring for the grave and even held onto her number. He performed chesed shel emet, “lovingkindness of truth,” every day—the type of lovingkindness done in honor of the dead, who can’t express their gratitude. And he had helped my friend connect with his family through the countless numbers he safeguarded in his pocket.

But more personally for us, through Shalom the caretaker and Har HaMenuchot, my friend and I found ourselves connected, through the intersection of memories, family and language, to the Jewish people. It was the first time I found myself seeing the Jewish people not just as a people with a common language, but as a nation. My friend and I, two American Jews, had been connected to his Polish and Israeli relatives thanks to an Israeli Jew who cared about connections to other Jews. I had helped build these connections myself by speaking the ancient language of the Jewish people.

This had to be what it felt like to be a part of an ancient, storied, interconnected people, and it shifted my perspective on Judaism forever.

By Oren Oppenheim

 Oren Oppenheim is an aspiring journalist and author. His writing has appeared in The Jewish Link of New Jersey (including his popular “A Teen’s Perspective” column, which ran for over two years) and Tablet Magazine. He is an alumnus of the Ramaz Upper School and Yeshivat Orayta, and will be attending the University of Chicago this fall. This summer he is currently working as a vocational coach for the Camp Moshava Ba’ir Yachad vocational program.

 

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