Opinion

A Desecrated Cemetery Ended 150 Years of Confidence in America

When heavy headstones, fortified by metal rods, were overturned in the Mt Carmel cemetery where generations of my family are buried, I wonder where my place is.

The grave of Blanche Reisman.
Courtesy of Beth Kissileff

My daughter has a game where one person says a common Jewish first name, and then someone else a last name. Do you actually know someone with that combination? Like Amy Weiss. Oh yes, we do know someone with that name. Ari Weinstein. Check. I feel the same way in a Jewish cemetery. 

Plotkin, Margolis, Grinberg, Adelsky, these could be names of congregants, relatives or people who went to summer camp with me. Nathanson, Brent, Newman, Sheinbaum. I like to wander and look at the names, wondering who they might be, what their stories are. Wherever I’ve been in a Jewish cemetery, I enjoy the element of the familiar, names that seem like family, that those resting in Jewish cemeteries are in some way my family. Ashkenazi Jews, the majority of those interred in America, share the same DNA from approximately 330 people  - so there is indeed some essential connection among us.

When I travel, I like to visit Jewish cemeteries too. In Prague I found the newer one, where Kafka is buried, particularly intriguing. The oldest cemetery in Prague is from 1439 and was used for 348 years; the newer graveyard opened in 1891 and houses 25,000 graves to the 12,000 of its predecessor. 

Most poignant here is that those buried, in either place, are the lucky ones. They have known graves, and were buried with honor and dignity in a space dedicated to their memories. They were buried with prayers and rituals and mourners, not dumped in a mass burial spot after being shot or incinerated in a demonically methodical way, the number of bodies that could be processed in a certain amount of time calibrated just so, the fate of Jews deported from the nearby Terezin to Auschwitz. Seeing those Jewish graves in Prague carefully marked and preserved, it was an unavoidable feeling that those who shared the place of their graves with Kafka (who died in 1924) were fortunate not to have lived to see what the future held.

A sign at Mount Carmel Cemetery.
Courtesy of Beth Kissileff

The cemetery of my own ancestors, the branch that has been in the U.S. longest, is in North Philadelphia. The neighborhood around it has lost its Jewish population; the Jewish community isn’t nearby to protect it.  

My forebears buried here came from Sacheroff in Germany and Munkacs, Hungary in the 1860’s and founded a successful business, the Kensington Carpet Company. I am named Beth Pearl, Pessl Baila, after my great grandmother Bertha Grossman Reisman, born in Philadelphia, in 1879; her youngest daughter Julia Reisman Kissileff, my grandmother, was born in 1914. Bertha and her husband Harry had a millinery store. My grandmother said Bertha was exceedingly good at finding the right look of hat for each customer. Harry died in 1928, when my grandmother was a teenager.  

A few years later when my grandfather asked his future mother-in-law for permission to marry her youngest daughter, Bertha set the conditions: that my grandmother finish her studies at the college for women at the University of Pennsylvania, and get her driver’s license. As the mother of three daughters, Bertha was committed to education and self-sufficiency for women.    

Bertha is buried, along with her husband, two of her daughters, her parents and many of her family members, in Mount Carmel Cemetery. 

This part of my family has lived in America for over 150 years. Yet, now that graves in that very cemetery have been desecrated, and heavy headstones with metal rods running through them to give stability and durability overturned.  I wonder where my place is. The familiarity and comfort of being in a Jewish cemetery feels contaminated and broken, along with the shattered stones toppled on the ground.

The first year we were married, my husband and I were students in Jerusalem and we decided at some point that we wanted to be buried in Israel. Now, I am certain that is what I want. Even those spots that have housed Jewish bones in a city first settled by Jews in pre-revolutionary times, in the now ironically named “city of brotherly love,” are under threat. I am ready to be not just in a cemetery of familiar names but a whole country full of them. 

I don’t want any of my descendants contemplating my grave and saying, as I said in front of Kafka’s, how lucky those in the ground are not to know what has taken place above it.

Beth Kissileff www.bethkissileff.com is the author of the novel “Questioning Return” and editor of the anthology “Reading Genesis.” Follow her on Twitter: @bethkissileff