In a hidden corner of Jaffa, between Yefet Street and the sea, between hummus Abu Hassan and the luxury housing complex Andromeda Hill, behind a high concrete wall stands dozes the Cemetery for the Jews of Jaffa. Not many people know of this old cemetery, which was established in 1840 and is the site of about 800 graves, the last of which was dug in 1986. Now that relatives of the deceased are no longer visiting the place and its gate is locked, an attempt is underway to rescue the site and the history connected to it from oblivion.
The Tel Aviv-Jaffa Hevra Kadisha (burial society ) will invest NIS 10 million in preserving and reconstructing the cemetery at the corners of Yehuda Hayamit Street and Yehuda Meragusa Street, with the aim of transforming it into a tourism site that will tell the story of the Yishuv - the Jewish community in Palestine - prior to the establishment of Tel Aviv and the State of Israel.
"This place is where Tel Aviv was in fact born," says burial society head Avraham Manela, "and our aim is for visitors to feel respect for the figures who settled the city and helped establish it in a daily battle with disease and the difficult living conditions that prevailed in the region."
The first burial was in 1849. Until then the Jews of Jaffa, most of them Sephardic, transported their dead to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, which entailed great expense and hassle. Among those buried in the cemetery are Jaffa's first rabbi, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi Meragusa; Moshe Beck, one of the founders of Tel Aviv; Rabbi Aharon Azriel, who was one of the great Sephardic kabala sages in Jerusalem; and Rabbi Nissim-Yaakov Sorizon, a rabbi in the Jaffa community about 180 years ago.
From 1928 on there was a dramatic decrease in the number of burials there, but the cemetery ceased to operate entirely only 26 years ago. The burial society's stimulus to initiate this project was the success of another project in recent years, the preservation of the Trumpeldor Cemetery in central Tel Aviv.
"After the work at Trumpeldor was completed, it seemed people were becoming familiar with the subject of historic cemeteries, so then they started talking about Jaffa," says preservation architect Rotem Zeevi, who has been advising the burial society since the Trumpeldor project. Among the projected activities are the reconstruction and mapping of the tombstones, establishing new paths and lowering the wall in order to expose the view to the sea. Scores of students at hesder yeshivas - programs combining religious studies with military service - in Jaffa have become involved in the project and for abut four months have been helping to document the graves. Graves have been discovered beneath vegetation and professionals have concluded that there are many more graves, apparently beneath piles of dirt in the compound.
The inscriptions on the graves have been revealed, along with details about the people buried there as well as whole stories about the tough conditions with which the community coped, about the poverty and the diseases at the time of the end of Ottoman rule and about acts of hostility by Arab neighbors. For example, on the grave of Rabbi Yehuda Meragusa there is the following inscription: "Mourning and lamentation have increased in the house of Yuda [a somewhat garbled quotation from the Book of Lamentations, 2:5, describing how mourning spread in Judea] and he shall complain in the shadow of the Almighty until he comes back to life."
On the grave of Aryeh Leib Ben Moshe Avraham Hacohen Beinstock, who died in the Hebrew month of Tishrei in 1894, the story of his immigration from Russia is told: "From the north of Russia to the settlement of the south he came, his reputation is great also in Judea having come there, as head of the Jaffa Committee of the Tillers of the Earth he brought blessing to them and their labors."
According to Zeevi, the preservation of historical cemeteries as well as of abandoned synagogues, of which there are many in Tel Aviv, is an area that is only in its beginnings in Israel, both because of lack of interest and lack of profitability.
"In Israel we preserve either all kinds of war sites," she says, "or private structures that are of interest to developers."
According to her, the preservation of synagogues and cemeteries should be promoted as soon as possible. "There's a whole history in them. They were spiritual and cultural centers before there were modern places of entertainment like the cinema. Tel Aviv, despite all its engagement with preservation, isn't dealing with this at all, nor are other bodies. This falls every time because it isn't worthwhile economically. This isn't real estate that can be sold."