Miles to go before he slept
The discovery in Paris of the bones of a distant relative, a distinguished 19th-century rabbi, plunged my otherwise totally secular Israeli family into a rather mystical, Hasidic adventure.
Of all the roads on which Rabbi Joshua Heschel Lewin journeyed during his lifetime, his favorite was the one leading to the Land of Israel. Although this sentence sounds like a cliche, it should not be dismissed out of hand. Indeed, in the case of Rabbi Lewin, such a declaration is based on solid fact: During his lifetime, he traveled to places all over the globe, by ship, railway and carriage, and on foot, but cherished Eretz Israel most. It is quite likely that his relatives - including my great-great-grandfather Shmuel Lewin-Epstein - were particularly saddened to learn that the rabbi, of all people, died in Paris after a serious illness and was therefore buried far from the only land he truly loved.
Nobody could have known back then, in the winter of 1883, that the journeys of the energetic rabbi, known as "the young genius," had not ended and that although he was not originally buried in Eretz Israel, he would eventually reach the land - through an amazing chain of events that unfolded over a period of more than 125 years.
This is an opportunity for me to request the forgiveness of my readers for giving away the ending so early in my narrative; however, in this bizarre story, past and present necessarily intermingle. Leaps backward and forward in time did not trouble the man in question during his lifetime. Certainly they would not have been of concern to him after the journey that eventually led him, in late 2008, to the loftiest spot on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, where he could finally rest in eternal peace (at least, so we hope, although no one really knows for sure these days).
I first learned of Rabbi Lewin's life story and the circumstances of his burial when, on Saturday morning, May 9, 2008, shortly before Independence Day, a phone call reminded me of a forgotten chapter in my family's history. The caller was one of my great-aunts, who told me she had recently received a strange call from an ultra-Orthodox Jew in Ashdod, who asked for her help with regard to a relative who had passed away in Paris and whose body had to be transported to Israel. She did not know to whom he was referring and asked me - the lawyer in the family - to find out. My naturally suspicious nature got the better of me and I began to think this had all the signs of a con job: Someone wanted to convince an elderly woman who could barely speak Hebrew to part with a large sum of money.
I waited until the Sabbath was over and called the man from Ashdod, Shaul Reiner. He told me that a few days before, he had read in one of the newspapers published in Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox community that a search was under way for descendants of Rabbi Joshua Heschel Lewin, of blessed memory, and that the matter was urgent because the "bones of this rabbi are lying in a moldy box in Paris and must be buried immediately."
Reiner decided he would do a mitzvah, and began perusing books to find out who Rabbi Lewin was and discovered that our branch of the Lewin-Epstein family was related to him. He found my great-aunt's number in the telephone book and she in turn contacted me. Reiner explained to me that, according to French law, 99 years after burial, a person's remains are removed from his grave and relatives must arrange for their reinterment. To the best of his knowledge, Rabbi Lewin was buried in 1883 in Montmartre and his bones, removed from his grave in 1982, were now in a small cardboard box that had been transferred to Paris' huge Pere Lachaise cemetery - waiting for us, his relatives, to redeem them. We became even more suspicious when we started to investigate further.
The elder of our "tribe," Shoshana Linzenberg, vividly remembered Rabbi Lewin's name and recalled that his photograph had hung on a wall in her father's study in Haifa, in the 1930s. After she confirmed that there was in fact a very distant relative by that name in our family (my grandfather's great-uncle), a member of my family who lives in Paris was asked to look further into the matter.
He spent a considerable amount of time checking with the Paris police, City Hall and the umbrella organization of local Jewish communities, and received responses that were a mixture of incredulity and pity; people wondered about the bizarre person engaged in a wild goose chase involving some distant relative who had passed away 120 years ago. However, my relative did come up with solid facts: Rabbi Lewin seemed to have come back to life and was indeed waiting for us at Pere Lachaise - not far from the grave of Jim Morrison, soloist of The Doors - to "rescue" him.
Rabbi Yirmiyahu Cohen, the then-recently appointed head of the rabbinical court in Paris, had immediately begun to investigate the cardboard boxes holding the remains of deceased Jews that had been removed from graves. Among these boxes, Rabbi Cohen discovered one bearing the name of Rabbi Lewin, with which he was well acquainted. The late rabbi's books included two celebrated works, "Aliyot Eliyahu" (1884) about the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, and "Tziyun Yehoshua," about the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds.
Rabbi Cohen was also familiar with Rabbi Lewin's other activities: for instance, his proposal for and promotion of the creation of a national Jewish library in Eretz Israel, as he wrote in Jerusalem's Havatzelet newspaper in 1872 - "to establish a national repository of [Jewish] books that would be a monument and a place for the collection of all books produced by our people." In addition, Rabbi Lewin had also served as the chief rabbi of Paris. Rabbi Cohen thus resolved to end the disgraceful situation of the esteemed rabbi's remains. Since, according to French law, only the deceased's family can authorize the transfer of bones for reinterment elsewhere, Cohen published a notice in newspapers in Israel, hoping it would reach Rabbi Lewin's descendants.
Nonetheless, we were still skeptical: It was not easy for our family to find itself suddenly plunged into what appeared to be a rather mystical, Hasidic adventure. Indeed, for the past four generations, my family has declared itself a bona fide member of Israel's secular Jewish community, and has devoted itself to a single cause: championing human rights and dignity.
Our suspicions deepened when we understood the complexities of the legal procedures required for reinterring "Uncle Joshua's" remains here and the considerable sums involved. We were asked to sign a seemingly endless number of forms, requests and declarations, including affidavits stating that we were in fact Rabbi Lewin's relatives, and an agreement to grant power of attorney to representatives in Paris (including, first and foremost, that city's chief rabbi) to act on our behalf. There was also an official request certified by a notary public for the removal of the deceased's remains, and another document authorizing their removal from France. In addition, we were supposed to pay for shipment and burial in Israel.
People knowledgeable about such affairs only heightened our fears with such statements as "The French authorities may sue you for the expense of transferring the 'rabbi's cardboard box' to the Pere Lachaise cemetery and for keeping it there ... because the cost of rental in a place like that for 25 years - even for a small box - could cost tens of thousands of euros." Someone else warned that reinterment in Israel would cost a small fortune, while a third jokingly suggested we might end up being sued for negligence and for having not properly seen to an elderly relative's welfare. And so on and so forth.
At a certain point, one of the representatives of the Jewish community in Paris proposed in all seriousness that we "send someone to Paris to smuggle the bones in a suitcase from France to Israel - it will cost you far less." None of us was particularly enthusiastic about the idea of orchestrating such a daring rescue operation, although we had all grown up on the stories of the heroism of the Israel Defense Forces in Entebbe.
I jokingly announced that my great-grandfather had appeared in a dream and had ordered us not to disturb Rabbi Joshua Heschel Lewin in his eternal slumber, to support the feeling that we should really be exempt from this escapade: It was our belief that the case was closed regarding our dear rabbi's travels and that he would have to spend the rest of his posthumous years in that moldy carton in far-off Paris.
However, Shoshana Linzenberg could not put Rabbi Lewin's picture out of her mind. Seeing that she was not getting the kind of cooperation she wanted from us, she began to work on her own to bring his remains for burial in Israel.
Among the righteous
I won't bore you with the hardships she encountered and will simply cut to the chase: Thanks to her efforts, the leaders of the Paris Jewish community announced that the cost of flying Rabbi Lewin's remains to Israel and the reinterment would be covered by their local communal organization; furthermore, they even managed to arrange, through former Parisian Jews living in Jerusalem, to find a plot among the graves of righteous rabbinical and other figures on the Mount of Olives.
On the evening of September 9, 2008, representative of my family in Paris, accompanied by two police officers and a municipal official, went to Pere Lachaise. After signing a declaration on the family's behalf stating that the "act of transferring the body is traumatic and we solemnly promise to carry out such an act only under the supervision of experienced gravediggers," the bones of our esteemed relative were wrapped in a shroud - and he resumed his travels.
First, he was transferred to a synagogue in the Marais, the Jewish quarter of Paris, where a large crowd assembled to honor his memory. Distinguished leaders of the community delivered eulogies and people recited the Kaddish. The coffin, accompanied by a representatives of both our family and the Jewish community, was then sent on to Orly airport and then ceremoniously placed aboard an El Al plane.
On Wednesday, September 10, 2008, Rabbi Lewin finally reached the shores of Israel for the last time. At the funeral home in Jerusalem, dozens of rabbis and yeshiva students assembled, and more eulogies were offered. The funeral procession then made its way to the Mount of Olives, where the bones of Rabbi Lewin were interred; from his grave, he has a lovely view of the Temple Mount.
A few weeks after "Uncle Joshua" returned to the fold of our family, as it were, I obtained a copy of his book on the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds. In one chapter, he discusses the issue of transferring bodies of Jews who have died in the Diaspora to Eretz Israel for burial - an issue that both versions of the Talmud deal with extensively, as far as I understand. My newly discovered relative argued in his book that the commandment to bury these Jews here is based not only on the belief that burial in Eretz Israel is a form of asking for atonement, but also on the belief that, when the Messiah arrives, the first persons to arise from their graves will be those buried here.
If the rabbi is right, his journeys have not yet ended. In fact, perhaps, they have only just begun.