My maternal grandfather counselled my parents to join his Jewish burial society shortly after they married, when they were both 21. My grandfather, like many of his generation, viewed it as his solemn duty to enlist his children in a fraternity established by fellow immigrants who had their roots in the same region of Eastern Europe. My grandfather escaped Poland by the skin of his teeth and met my grandmother on the Lower East Side. Together, they struggled to raise their large family and earn a livelihood here. They, and tens of thousands of others, believed it de rigueur to band together to purchase grave sites. They paid annual dues and the men took part in society meetings, held in Yiddish and English and concluded with a raised glass of schnapps. Their l’chaim may have been a salute to the only future rest they could imagine.
Not all of my grandfather’s 10 children joined the society. My parents complied, and my father made the purchase with good cheer. The site of his “real estate,” as my dad referred to it, was a cemetery in Queens called Mount Hebron, the namesake of the revered Cave of the Patriarchs in the ancient rolling hills of Judea. The cemetery, established in 1909, is near a maze of highways, not far from the Jewish elementary school my sister and I attended. It is around the bend from Main Street, a thoroughfare that was (and is) a strip mall of sorts for kosher food shoppers, a bountiful mecca for observant Jews.
When I was a child, we often passed Mount Hebron on our sojourns across Queens. From his driver’s seat in our family car, Dad would point out the proximity of the family plot to our favorite kosher pizza and falafel shop.
“Isn’t that convenient,” he would say with a laugh. “After you visit our graves, you can go out for pizza.” He blithely ignored my mother’s scolding, “Why do you talk that way to the children?” My sister and I became accustomed to this oft-repeated exchange between our parents. For my part, I was oddly at ease with my father’s cheerful dark humor.
Naomi’s Pizza and Falafel was a modest restaurant owned by a hardworking family that had emigrated from Israel. Their roots were in Yemen, and the restaurant’s decor reflected their allegiance to their heritage. Murals with biblical tableaux and landscapes of 20th- century Israel were framed by arches in the dining area.
Patrons ordered pizza, falafel and soft drinks at the counter, and paid at the cash register before carrying their trays to sturdy tables and chairs. Naomi often sat opposite the counter while her husband oversaw the kitchen. Their teen children worked diligently rolling pizza dough and frying crisp falafel balls. I still recall the texture of the warm blueberry and cherry pastries we ordered for dessert.
Our pilgrimages to Naomi’s restaurant predated the revolution in kosher cuisine. We didn’t give much thought to the fact that there were few restaurants to choose among. It was simply a family treat to eat there.
My childhood memories of my father’s joviality, my backseat view of Mount Hebron’s remote rows of ash-colored graves and the aroma of tehina sauce poured over finely diced vegetables became blended together. Years later, I moved to Israel, and when I drove my own car along Israel’s highways, I’d look out at the beckoning landscapes and recall the murals of Naomi’s.
Over time, tragedy, terror and, eventually, middle age, drew me to sad journeys to cemeteries an ocean away from Mount Hebron in Queens. My genetic disposition to whistle past the graveyard led me to track the distances between cemeteries and eateries. The sprawling Har Menuhot cemetery, at the gateway to Jerusalem, is too far from the fast food restaurants of Givat Shaul. The distance between the Etz Chaim cemetery and the strip malls of Beit Shemesh is even less convenient.
Four years ago, on a trip home, I took the saddest journey of all. Accompanied by my mother and sister, and family and friends, we buried my beloved father in the family plot alongside his father- and mother-in-law.
Because I live in Israel, I have few opportunities to visit my father’s grave. But I found myself here a week before the Hebrew month of Elul, a traditional time to visit cemeteries and beseech the departed to be our righteous advocates during the days of repentance.
I visited Mount Hebron Cemetery with a dear friend whose parents are buried there. It was bittersweet to travel from the cemetery to Naomi’s. I discovered that the restaurant looks exactly as I remembered it. Naomi’s son Emanuel is now the proprietor. A modest photograph of his parents adorns the wall. He tells me business is swift in Elul, as his mother predicted when they chose the location.
I am grateful to Emanuel’s mother, and to my father. My friend and I savour a meal flavored with our unlost legacy.
Eva L. Weiss is a writer living in Jerusalem.