I stand on the Mount of Olives and face West, toward the Temple Mount. The Dome of the Rock loafs on the opposite ridge, behind the Old City’s nearer retaining wall, golden and blue, bulbous, immense. Legend recalls the sixth day of the new world, when, out of the ready dirt of this very ridge, God manifested the form of First Man, realizing at last the light-thought asleep in his basic eyes. Years later, when the Mount was named Moriah, Abram and Isaac, his son, traveled for three days to the center of its summit. A patch of knotty twine grew there. An imperfect stone early laid by the Lord to demark the ground of Adam waited beside it. In supreme devotion, the father bound his son to the stone. He held his son’s perspiring forehead to the stone. He looked across the mountain to the East and beheld the lavender smoke rising from the Valley of Hinnom. It was mid-day, and Abram removed his dirty robe and then his sandals softly from his feet, bending then to do the same for his son. He with a tug removed a small dagger from a slit in the side of the stone. He held its sharp side over his son’s neck. As light reverting through a prism, his own figure appeared to Abram in repose on the stone, a blank, brilliant figure, the absence of the world, purely light, writhing. Through the same blade, Isaac saw his father above him in undifferentiated lavender. Abram lifted his heaped robe and wiped down the dagger’s blade. He held it once more over his son’s neck. He then plunged it swiftly into his torso, which was suffused with light from inside, like a lamp, from an undetermined dark place, and plunged it again and once more. With the skill of a mason, with the dagger’s tip, Abram traced the lineaments of his rib cage. Then, he returned the dagger to its prior slit. He robed himself, then. Then, with a small, still voice, Abram summoned his son to stand, and he did, and the two men followed their blank eyes down the mountainside.
Another legend, which in antiquity blossomed amongst that twine, holds that, on the day of the coming of the Messiah, the hundred-thousand dead waiting in this mountainside will rise and soar, speeding through space, in the direction of that mountain. Abram will stand there with Isaac to greet them. The blaring noise of the end of days shall deafen every man still in life, and the earth shall seize and unfix all which is fixed. The entire sky shall disappear in light. Then, as the radiant, ecstatic souls flow toward their place of final rest, the force Gog and the force Magog, whose mythical conflict sustains this world, shall at last resolve themselves in the valley below. The valley is Yehoshaphat, for what shall then transpire here is the prosecution of the Lord’s final judgment.
I stand on the mountain in the heat of the morning sun. I stand mid-way between its parabolic crest and its base, barely in the crack between two supine marble graves, toeing the dry dirt, eyeing their etching. Another hundred thousand graves of the same marble unfurl low across the face of the mountain, like the imprint of a ragged lithograph. The face of the visible earth is white, a hot, dry winter, a sea-shell in the sand. No tree stands here to offer shade. No brook meanders from the summit.
Somewhere on the face of this earth my great-great-grandfather, the Rabbi Yosef Michel Newberger, is buried and has been since November 1, 1933. His grandson, my grandfather, Phillip, whom I never met, was three days from his fourth birthday; more than six decades later, nascent I would also be three days from birth, awaiting respiration and first sight. When I first knew anything, I knew that I shared my grandfather’s birthday, but only when I began researching to visit Yosef Michel’s grave did I discover his end was so nearby. On the lunar Hebrew calendar, I found it was in fact the same day, the eighth of Cheshvan. I was caught. I wondered about the significance for my self of this arrangement, the present, spiritual implications of this ancestry, the aura of early November. Christianity has famously taught the meaning of its three days. And, in Judaism, the first three days of shivah—the initial mourning week—have their grief endowed with an aspect of cosmic sundering. I feel not myself asunder from their memories. I feel and hardly feel myself bound to them invisibly, as though by an invisible twine, as though by two thin filaments from Eden, which in those who breathe may fasten themselves only in the soul of souls. For perhaps years stack on top of one another, aligning the same days. Or perhaps generations do. Perhaps the souls of kin already constellate themselves closely in heaven, and in the gestating core of things. Perhaps these sons know certain grandfathers and those know certain others more intimately, for, indeed, I take my Hebrew name from the Yiddish name of my paternal grandfather, the same Phillip—and what does that mean? Suppose each time I am summoned by it his spirit breaks through into this world, or, perhaps, there opens an abyss into the space where he now resides, which then illuminates my life for a week. His name was Avraham Feivel, Feivel in that language a candle. My name is Avner, uniting the words for father and candle, each of us, in differing ways, by it becoming in my ongoing life father-of-light. My own father, by blessing me with it, carried his eternal candle into my deepest places. Perhaps my grandfather, Phillip, knew my name before it was. Perhaps he and Yosef Michel imagined my being before they could no longer breathe, and it was out of those dreams that I became. Perhaps I became in their final breath. Perhaps, perhaps, so much perhaps, but I do not worry. Who could deny the weight of a name, when in such light it comes soaring on? Who would deny the real weight of this inheritance? My very fingers are heavy from it having typed.
I had come to the Mount of Olives to find Yosef Michel’s grave—to see and touch it, to relay its engraving to my father and great-uncle, to ensure its upkeep for them. When in past years I traveled to this country, I did not muster the energy to visit it. Leaders of school trips in 2006 and two years later who forbade West Bank and lonesome amble, and the gun-slung security that everywhere accompanied, erected fear before everything before every instinct. The Mount of Olives is in East Jerusalem and is disputed and, they said, dangerous. So, though a relative who knows the whereabouts of the grave thereabouts resides and offered to guide, I decapitated myself and did not go. Other friends have spent weeks in Hebron and Bethlehem and Jenin. I once lengthened one toe across a bridge across a sewage crook demarking the Green Line and retreated quickly. But unaccompanied Tel-Aviv last summer and Jerusalem this have eased this negativity in me. I wander the country unworried, now, blithe, unburdened. Ascending and descending the present mountains and descending into the craters and tunnels, I possess joy as it was first possessed. I pass by all sorts of fellows and wave. I play soccer each night with Israelis and with Arabs, twin blind Lordly same-speaking indigenous nations, and do not speak and do run and grunt and drink water from the same fountain of water as them, and my body is harder and more vigorous each day. In the markets of the city, I delight in Mehjool dates from East and West in equal measure, and in the sweet honey and the paste they sweetly give forth. My teeth are strong, and so I delight in figs. I delight in fried chick peas and chick peas and fava beans, and I dip them in the olive oil pooling on my plate. I delight in tomatoes and cucumbers and onions finely cut. I can see the very ground from which they came. In the evenings, I eat fresh pastries of honey and filo dough and fruit and cheer in them, too. I dine with others and alone and all is well if I am alone and also if I am not.
But my wandering remains bounded, for I laze and live well in imaginations. Worlds which exist only in the word and thought of any single man or woman—I—which being timeless and pure are surely the strongest worlds, are the first destination of the adventuresome aspect of my mind, which exposes their strength by riding their endless unraveling into reality. Such is the worldly strength of the imagination that in every moment it grips between thumb and forefinger the so-called real world of ordinary life and swiftly shucks it, disclosing—to the astonishment of the spectator—the presence of the world it created on its own accord, the very world the spectator had rejected as ‘ideal’. Reading and thinking shuck the closest shells. The world that was thought to be known, the world visible from the minor limit of sight to the midnight boundaries of the ferry-bed, is perennially revealed as a shell; and each time the world of the recent imagination in fine color emerges.
On this understanding, holding, out of the evocative fruit of the Mountain’s name, a strong interior image of it and the grave, with a grip that was often in need of hasty reinforcement, I had believed that the loss in mind a step on its ground would inflict would exceed the gain in mind brought on by the sight of the ground itself—of the grave itself. In those earlier years’ travels, Emerson had not yet taught me the imaginative worth of the concrete world, nor had I read the Russian filmmaker Tarkovsky—who was more influential—insisting on simple, direct observation of the material world as the inward pressure through which the ordinary self might be transcended, the realm of the spirit then being accessed. Tarkovsky illustrates this process of condensation by haiku-quote:
Reeds cut for thatching
The stumps now stand forgotten
Sprinkled with soft snow.
As lonesome wandering had begun to expel my fears, these men deflated my idea of the imagination and linked its more vital remnants with an idea of perception. In this recent shade, of a year or so, I was receptive to, and indeed interested in, visiting the Mountain. Coincidentally, Menachem Begin—the unfortunate, political man I am researching this summer, a former Prime Minister of the State—happens to be buried on the same mountainside as my great-great-grandfather, though in a different ridge, apart from the general scrum. Shirking West Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl and trees, where nearly every other Prime Minister lies in distinguished repose, he wished to be buried in the hot shell of this Mount alongside the corpses of two men, Meir Feinstein and Moshe Barazani. Feinstein and Barazani, like Begin, were members of the terrorist underground who fought the British occupation in this land before 1947. They were caught and sentenced to death. Feinstein and Barazani preempted that judgment and, embracing in their cell, disintegrated their own flesh with the ignition of two fresh oranges packed with explosives, hidden until then in the crook of the back corner. What flesh remained made its way in serpents in caskets to this conspicuous hillside at night. In their honor, Begin had his body deposited in the same ground. My research group decided travel to Begin’s grave in his honor, to see it and, I suppose, to pay what respect we had.
I decided with ease to travel with them. But I traveled earlier than they, so I could see my great-great-grandfather’s grave and then meet them at Begin’s. It was Wednesday morning. A friend and I took an eight-thirty cab from this German Colony, all around the Old City, through East Jerusalem and halfway up the Jericho Road, which is cut halfway into the side of the Mount. A small shack proclaiming itself an Information Center there stood, but it did not inform. It only allowed us to peek askance over the near railing. There, I saw the Christian graves’ soft and grassy bed. We crossed the road and entered the Jewish cemetery’s central gate and began up its central stone path, the Path of the Kohanim, separated from the cemetery itself by strong, tall walls, for the Jewish priests—the Kohanim—were kept by religious prohibition from walking among the dead. We quickly came to a locked gate, a forestry green and not shell, which pronounced the Prophets’ Section as its preserve. I vaguely recalled this as the preserve of my great-great-grandfather. I pulled and pushed on the gate. It was locked.
Below its grand heading, a smaller sign, a true kindergarten sticker, said to call a man named Abed. Below this one, another quietly offered the phone number of the chevra kadisha, the ritual committee in charge of burials. I called Abed. A man picked up and quickly began speaking quick Arabic. He said what he said with increasing volume. The more considerate request I had devised made somewhat inappropriate by his introduction, I, flustered, in slow Hebrew, over and again asked him to please—calm down, and to please—come open the Prophets’ Section for me, so I might visit my grandfather’s grave. Please, I said—the gate is locked; the gate says you have the key; please—come open the gate. [Perhaps there was something pleasing to our rhythmic interplay, his voice, accelerating and constant, and mine, an intentional, intermittent molasses to it.] He slowed himself gradually, a process inverse to him listening and understanding my request. Ah!—he had understood. He would come shortly.
The sun was out. The wall was tall but never enough. The shell began to burn as the graves. My mozzarella skin began to burn and turn rosy. We stood tightly against the retaining wall, which was cold, but my unfortunate head peeked over and burned. We waited fifteen minutes, and Abed did not come. I called again. Panting, he said he was on his way. We waited another fifteen minutes. He came then, sweating and panting, a long rag wrapped around his neck and dark face, tucked under a baseball cap, protecting him from the sun. He was short. The rag dangled halfway to his waist, streaked with dust and sweat admixed. The rag and the shirt he wore and the pants he had crammed its rim into were white, or had been, or maybe never had been, having already accumulated this land’s universal dust into its cotton stitches’ thin interstices on the shelf of the shop of the merchant, who in search of impeccable air would never close his door. His mustache bushed from nose to lip, like a row of fat black shrubs, wasted on a hill in the borderlands nearby. Where it was exposed, his skin was various shades of too-toasted toast.
Two toasted Frenchmen passed us on the path and muttered. Muttering under his bush-lip, Abed passed us and unlocked the padlock on the gate and unlatched it and, opening it, seized from my hands the pack of folded papers I held, unfolding them then. They were the directions, the variety of directions, to the grave, which I had found—online—or been given—by my great-uncle, who had visited many years prior. They were written in English, and in the quick, teetering script of my right hand. Abed, unfamiliar with the language, struggled to understand what was written, scoffing and discarding the sheets in turn. At the bottom of the papers was, however, a single map of the cemetery, where I had inkily marked what I supposed to be the location of the grave. At this, he nodded. He pointed far ahead in the plot; we, three, followed his finger.
The white graves were everywhere before us, by their surfeit or poor deployment having long ago abandoned any strict principle of organization. Their stones did not stand, as they did in the American cemeteries I knew; instead, they rested flat, on a solid block of different stone, parallel to the ground and the sky. There was no space for grass to stand between them and bless them and lend shade, as respectful blades often would back home. There was hardly room for families to confer respects. I squinted to see how they might.
Often opposingly angled, such that a left arm of one dead man may once have contacted a another’s right nostril, and pluming dust from their misalignment, the graves, which in this section alone numbered in the tens of thousands, were nonetheless an irrefutable manifestation of serenity—the serenity of death, of the last repose. I alone, I, the sweaty visitor, sweaty searcher, kinsman, pilgrim, knew their designed anxiety, for they were at ease. For me, hot, white stone was all. For me, the graves ran together and ignited with speed. I could not rest as they could, as the stones could, as what remained below the stones could, and, furthermore, as the long-indifferent mountain could, and as could the sun, lazily sitting, profligately, irreverently beaming itself. And yet the bothers of this mountainside—the dust, the heat and sun, endless death concealed—could not bother and, though appearing in every blink, did not enter into my second, deeper mind. I observed them as though I were dead or asleep. I knew little of the sweat of the valley of my back, of the disorder, and even less of the many dust which would so otherwise often bring on a wheeze. The shade of my great-great-grandfather, which was long, slung itself on me and before me, and, in this calm optimism, I forwarded a foot.
Unfortunately, and more unfortunately for my friend, whose feet in sandals were, Abed had already forwarded a score or so, sprinting as he did, leaping from grave-top to grave-top as though they were roof-tops. I cringed at each landing. A grave was a small sanctum. A rock and a flower were to be placed gently at its head. An absolute, holy, private dominion was to be held over an ancestor’s grave by those who still lived. A foot, a dusty foot, was not to be set upon it. Abed turned from his distant turn and yelled something in Arabic, beckoning with his one hand for us to follow. I divided for a moment. But I supposed the dead would not be bothered below their shields of resolute stone and sediment; and what reservations I had were further loosed when he wandered so heedlessly. I needed to visit my own dead, to confer my particular respects to him while I could, and I needed Abed’s guidance. I began sprinting after him, deliberately falling my feet more gingerly, and on paths where possible.
We came in time to the dusty corner where he thought the grave was. The sun was higher and hotter. The graves were more white, hot. We carefully scanned the sector and could not find it. On the graves, many years’ silt obscured the sense of their writing, and so the scan was slow and arduous and squinting. But it was not there. A yellowing picture of the grave and its inscription my father had sent me from when he last visited, in 1978, served to confirm this, though I had not brought it with me and only remembered. We did find a Yosef Michel—one is bound to in these many thousands—but he was of a different father. Exasperated and exhausted, Abed wiped his brow with the dangling rag and shook his head. He had been certain. He wiped his brow with his thick hand. He summoned by name, Ibrahim I recall, one of the many workers, who were meticulously cleaning the graves in the next sector with miniature pickaxes. Ibrahim gathered his bucket—with pickaxe, paint and brush, and a contact card for the chevre kadisha—and came running to where we were, leaping grave to grave and over the iron fence between. He was stockier than Abed, more burnt in the absence of a headscarf, his off-white shirt and pants dripping the black color he—I later learned—used to vivify graves’ inscriptions for visitors’ pictures. The two men, concerned, conferred. They pointed in many directions with a few fingers. Their pointing fingers rose more slowly each time, more gently, as departed surety and sense.
Soon, the second man ran off. Soon, he returned with a third, a rotund, bearded fellow, who nodded graciously when he came. He pointed up the mountain and said something in Arabic with which the two others concurred. A light began soon to his corner-lip and in the corner of his left eye, and could be heard in the excited “come!” he summoned us with, as he began a familiar sprint across and over and up. We leapt grave to grave, and climbed over a sedimentary retaining wall, passing further workers who chipped away. Eventually, we came to the grave of Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine and still a revered figure among religious Zionists. It was for his friendship with Kook that my great-great-grandfather was afforded the privilege of this burial ground, and he was laid to rest nearby.
I recall strongly my first sight of the stone grave under which Yosef Michel long ago became humble member of the dirt, humble assistant to the earlier passed in fulfilling the sanctification of the soil which is their fate and function, and which will be ours. A moment of reception, when I read his headstone and confirmed, was quickly surpassed by generation. I read his name and his father’s name—Avraham. I read the date of his death, which was the date of my Hebrew birth. The confirmation that this was certainly it freed many imaginaries and colorful images of this aligned man that had been gestating between my skulls, letting their factual bloom in the healthy light of what was engraved. They would be allowed to dance freely in the world. For this land was their self-appropriate land, and it would receive them kindly.
As though preordained, a sudden vision of the greatest stability occupied my both eyes. In its presence, and in my sense of my presence in it, in the extent of its cast and the reality of what motion in it transpires, it has by another vision not once been surpassed. I saw in this second moment Yosef Michel’s burial—on November 1, 1933. The clouds were sat above the old city and here, shading grayly the mountainside. A thin storm threatened and could be smelt. Invisible and weightless, I stood twenty graves across and four graves up from the one that would receive his body. A shuffling crowd of men who surrounded the cut hole yielded to the will of my sight and held the closed casket aloft. Their beards were long and ash. Their draped overcoats possessed in their silk the sky’s impending light, and on each of their heads a precarious fur shtreimel tipped, tall, sleek, square. In that year, vegetation remained on this hard slope, and the darkest reeds—I can imagine the darkest barley, their darker heads—rocked between coattails in the benevolent breeze. A general haze circumscribed the space of these sharp forms and presented them in ever greater relief. Once, a measure of pinkish smoke blended with it to the far South—deep in its dimensions. I cannot be sure, for each remembering has brought a different truth, but as this shade dissolved or was driven off, a herd of ten thousand steeds, as sleek as midnight’s dagger, may have flown swiftly in the same direction, surmounting the cragged ridge and passing without sound into the abyss beyond. The fur of the straggling colts was tinged faintly red.
This vision was of mythical time, image following image in its perfect maturation. I did not feel its length. After the herd’s glorious traversal of the scene, the plywood casket was lowered into the ground. In the hands of every man, it appeared to float into the earth, with balanced tension descending. But when it contacted the bottom of the grave and a vital crack transpierced the every valley, a subsequent vital crack contacted the walls of the Old City and rebounded many minor cracks through its lapidary, labyrinthine ways. As though to contain these difficult sounds, the invisible, visible hands of the severe men began sliding the stone over the cut hole, to seal him in, to allow his inevitable communion an early consummation. I had a contravening impulse: a strong sense of soaring toward the closing cut hole overtook me. It was a strong sense of being seized ecstatically and pulled. I did not move, but my body felt afterward like it had, expended. Perhaps the lineaments of my hard form blurred or doubled, posing a question to my concreteness that would allow an internal aspect to escape and return, shivering one me into more like the dying horizon. For in my memories there is a faint sight of the sky intercut by top-hats seen from below, from in the grave, in eternal repose.
In terms of my experience of the vision, I remember only being at one moment in it and at another out, and, anyways, the relationship between these stations was only consequent, never temporal. My transition remains obscure. It brought me briefly into the ordinary, easy world, where my now two companions conversed. There, I had an intense, waking sensation of verticality with Yosef Michel, the same alignment suggested by our similar days. This alignment assumed a physical aspect in my foot-steps in his foot-steps, and in the foot-steps and sight-lines of those who buried him then. I suppose it was mainly a familial sensation. But I had also slotted myself into the ancient processes associated with this cemetery, the relating, the imagining, the searching, the finding—and then the difficult confrontation with the necessary questions of meaning and why.
I then passed briefly into a second, more diaphanous vision, which I experienced as another layer superimposed on this basic one. Its genesis was a faint recollection of the photograph my father had sent me in anticipation of this visit: the photograph he took of the grave on his last visit, thirty-five years ago. It is a simple photograph, taken from a low and sidewound angle. A few small pebbles are scattered in traditional respect on the supine headstone, the bottom of which had already disappeared. A dark growth covers its stump; it still does in my time, though the edge is more jagged. The recesses of the inscription are sharp and legible, though this may have been the enhancement of black paint laid on by a worker or them. The simple image that came of this was of my father, younger—in fact, at my present age—standing beside my great-uncle, the namesake of Yosef Michel and brother of the grandfather with whom I share a birthday yet never encountered in this life. The two are nearly a single figure, so closely do I associate them in their care for this space. They are smiling.
Superimposed on my present, it appeared as though they stood among us. I shivered when I felt this, for in truth, it was out of respect for them, and not for my great-great-grandfather, that I had journeyed there. When, in order to honor their request for documentation, my friend photographed me standing beside the grave, the camera did not capture their presence, nor did it mark my distinct suspicion that my grandfather and my great-great-grandfather were also nearby. But it did capture my colorfully doubling figure and smile, which is the strongest possible evidence of their reality, some-odd vessel of my predecessors as I am: the burnt shade of hair, the cheekbones and grin. And it did capture and correctly frame the square plot of land on which I stood, where once stood my father, and grandfather, and great-grandfather, and on, and where may one day stand my own son or daughter. Certainly, the especial dirt of this earth is migratory, but as certainly it returns whenever we return. It is carried back and forth by the air. And so the air necessarily does the same. Thus, while I do not know about Holy Lands or this city of my dwelling, Jerusalem, I do know the truth of this small, familial sanctum. It is an emotional truth and an historical truth. Like the prior temenos, it has by the sanctity endowed it by burial lopped itself off from its physical surroundings. Like the temenos of now, it has established new, beautiful connections between persons. In it, the fact of kin is made real. The mountainous footpaths between generations are easily traversed. And the possibility of connecting with ancestors who no longer wander and breathe but who retain within is made real, as is the possibility of encountering prior versions of loved ones as they once were. Then, in joy and not sorrow at loss, we can speak to one another in our own voices as our eternal selves and describe better paths for future journeys.