Jewish Cemeteries in Jerusalem**
by Mathilde A. Tagger
From antiquity, people have chosen a place outside the village or the settlement for burying the dead, with the graves being close to each other. This is how cemeteries were created. Throughout history, Jews have lived in the Holy Land, especially in Jerusalem, the spiritual center of the Jewish people. In time, Jerusalem became holy to Christians and Muslims, as well. Many cemeteries of all three monotheistic religions are located in Jerusalem, all of them outside the walls of the Old City. This article describes the Jewish cemeteries in our 3,000-year-old city.
Mount of Olives Cemetery, the holiest and most ancient Jewish cemetery, is located on the western slope of the Mount of Olives opposite the eastern wall of the Old City. The Kidron Valley separates the Old City from the cemetery. The holiness of the Mount of Olives has been observed for centuries. According to tradition, it was the last place where the Divine Presence resided before leaving it with the destruction of the Temple. According to Zachariah’s prophecy (Zach. 14:4), the End of Days will take place on the Mount of Olives.
For dozens of generations, this cemetery was chosen as a burial place by the Jews of Eretz Yisrael, as well as by Diaspora Jews who came to die in the holy city of Jerusalem. Some tombstones date from Biblical times and are 3,000 years old. The famous 12th-century traveler, Benjamin of Tudela, who traversed the Mediterranean Basin, arrived in Jerusalem in 1173. In his detailed and valuable report of his trip, Benjamin relates that the Crusaders had destroyed many graves and used the stones as cheap building material. This sad situation has continued throughout subsequent generations. In his book, Yerushalayim Birat Israel, Zeev Vilnai cites Sfat Emet (Language of Truth), by Rabbi M. Hages, who wrote in 1707 that Jerusalem Jews had to pay large sums of money to the Arabs in order to ensure that the Arabs did not spoil the tombstones in the Mount of Olives Cemetery.
After the War of Independence in 1948 and until the Six-Day War in 1967, the Mount of Olives was under Jordanian rule. During this period, not only were Jews prohibited from visiting the burial places of their relatives, but thousands of graves were totally destroyed. Since the 1967 war, many graves have been restored, and various hevrot kadisha (burial societies) have rehabilitated some of the plots. The Mount of Olives Cemetery, however, has a major maintenance problem. The cemetery lies in close proximity to the Arab village of Silwan. Especially during the last two years of severe confrontation between Israelis and Arabs, the marble covers of graves have been broken and many graves desecrated.
Restoration of Mount of Olives Graves Project acts from 2009. It has an Information Center where one can get information about the various Mount of Olives sites and the cemetery. Staff members are available to help located the graves and names of people buried on the Mount of Olives. They can also assist you in arranging a memorial service. There are maps and books about the Mount of Olives available for purchase at http://www.mountofolives.co.il/eng/cemetry.aspx?CID=40
The Information Center also coordinated the activities of the volunteers on the Restoration of Mount of Olives Graves Project.
Sambusky Cemetery is situated on the eastern slope of Mount Zion, close to the Zion Gate of the Old City. Rabbi Elazar Gelbstein, deputy director of the General Burial Society (hevra kadisha) in Jerusalem, reports that this cemetery is 300 to 400 years old; the last burials took place 200 years ago. Here, too, many graves were vandalized during the 1948-67 Jordanian rule. No burial society in Jerusalem takes care of this cemetery today.
Rabbi Gelbstein states that as far as he knows, only Doron Herzog, a private researcher, has made a detailed survey of this cemetery. Herzog relates that the cemetery was to have been used primarily for extremely poor people who could not afford burial in the Mount of Olives Cemetery. In 1972, Herzog found 214 extant tombstones with short inscriptions. Asked about the origin of the cemetery name, Herzog speculates that the only plausible answer is that Sambusky derives from sambusek, a typical Jewish oriental food. Sambusek is a salted pastry shaped in the form of a crescent and stuffed with fried onions and mashed, boiled chickpeas, the whole pastry well-peppered. Indeed, this cemetery is shaped in the form of a crescent.
Sanhedria Cemetery is named after the neighborhood in which it is located and where the famous burying places of the members of the Sanhedrin were excavated.* It was situated on the city limit bordering the Jordanian-controlled part of the city. Today the cemetery is no longer on the edge of the city, but is surrounded by the new neighborhoods of Ramat Eshkol, Maalot Dafna and Shmuel haNavi. Opened in 1948 at the beginning of the War of Independence, when funerals at the Mount of Olives Cemetery became too dangerous with Arabs shooting anyone in sight, the first burial at Sanhedria took place in March 1948 for the 42 victims of a car bomb that exploded on Ben Yehuda Street, today part of the downtown pedestrian zone. Soldiers who at that time fell on the Jerusalem front also were buried in the Sanhedria Cemetery. Today, one can find there the graves of many Israeli personalities, and the cemetery is nearly full. The Jerusalem Burial Society also takes care of this cemetery; its records are fully computerized.
Sheikh Badr (or Givat Ram) Cemetery is located near the new buildings of the Supreme Court and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the central-western part of Jerusalem. This cemetery was opened in 1948 when burials in Sanhedria Cemetery became too dangerous because of heavy bombing close to Mount Scopus. Sheikh Badr Cemetery has approximately 2,000 tombstones. When the military cemetery on Mount Herzl was established in 1950, all the soldiers who were buried in the Sheikh Badr Cemetery were reinterred there, except for those whose families opposed reopening the graves. On September 9, 1950, a funeral procession of nearly 200 fallen soldiers crossed the city to Mount Herzl, where they found their final resting place. The General Burial Society and the Jerusalem Burial Society both take care of the Sheikh Badr Cemetery.
Shaare Zedek Plot is located in the yard of the old Shaare Zedek Hospital building, close to the Mahane Yehuda Market on Jaffa Road This cemetery holds about 70 graves, all under the supervision of the General Burial Society of Jerusalem. The first burial occurred on July 20, 1948, and the cemetery remained active for about two years. Since then, few burials have taken place there, the last of the one in 2003. All the computerized records can be found at the Burial Society office.
Mount Herzl Cemetery may be divided into three sections:
Herzl’s Grave. Theodor Herzl, founder of Zionism, died on 20 Tamuz 1904 in Austria and was buried in Vienna. His remains were transferred to Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, on August 17, 1949, 45 years after his death. His grave is on the peak of the highest hill in the city (835 meters). Bags of earth from all the Israeli cities, villages and new immigrant camps were brought to the burial place and emptied in the grave to cover it. Close by are the graves of Herzl’s family; Vladimir (Zeev) Jabotinsky, the Zionist Revisionist leader, and his family.
The Plot of the Nation’s Leaders. Situated close to and north of Herzl’s grave are buried all the former presidents of Israel as well as their wives. The exceptions are Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, and his wife, Vera Rivka née Chatzman, who are buried in Rehovot, close to the Weizmann Institute of Science and Ezer Weizmann, 7th president of Israel who is buried in Or Akiva, along his son and daughter-in-law.
Israel’s prime ministers and their wives are also buried here. Exceptions are David Ben Gurion and his wife, Paula née Monbaz, who are buried in Sde Boker in the Negev, and Menahem Begin and his wife, Aliza née Arnold, who are buried in the Mount of Olives Cemetery
Knesset (Parliament) speakers and their wives are buried here. All the tombstones are identically designed, except that of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who was murdered on November 5, 1998.
Mount Herzl Military Cemetery is located on the northern slope of Mount Herzl, close to the Memorial Mount of Yad Vashem Soldiers who fell in the battlefields of Jerusalem and Hebron during the War of Independence in 1948 were the first to be buried here. A special memorial to the soldiers who fell during the cruel battle in the Old City of Jerusalem and other memorials were established here. One is in remembrance of Eretz Israel volunteers who served in the British army, and another commemorates the victims of Dakar, the submarine that sank in the Mediterranean Sea on its way to Haifa.
The tombstones of the officers and soldiers are identically designed. This cemetery is under the care of the Department to Perpetuate the Memory of Fallen Soldiers (Hamhlaka Lehanatzahat Hehayal), part of the Israel Ministry of Defense.
British Military Cemetery. Jewish soldiers who served in the British army during World War I and fell by the end of 1917 during the battle for the conquest of Eretz Israel are buried in a special plot of the British Military Cemetery on Mount Scopus, close to Hadassah Hospital.
Har haMenuhot (Mount of Quietude) in Giv’at Shaul, the largest cemetery in Jerusalem, is situated at the entrance to the city on a hill along the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway. The cemetery opened in December 1951.
Funerals in Jerusalem are conducted by several burial societies (hevrot kadisha), some of them connected to specific communities, such as the Babylonian (Iraqi) or the Yemenite community. Each hevra kadisha is allowed to bury the deceased only in plots determined beforehand in either of the two active cemeteries, Mount of Olives and Har haMenuhot and recently at the somehow enlarged Sanhedria Cemetery. The burial societies maintain registers in which they record the details of the deceased. The records include surname, given name, father’s given name, death/burial date and grave plot/row. Some societies have kept their records for more than a century, and many records are computerized or will be in the near future. All existing burial records throughout Israel, not only in Jerusalem, are written in various Hebrew scripts, such as Ashkenazi, Sephardic Solitreo and Oriental cursive handwritings. Generally, burial societies’ personnel speak only Hebrew, although Yiddish is spoken by the Ashkenazi personnel. Requests for information should be written in Hebrew or in Yiddish for Ashkenazim; most do not know English.
Helkat Mehokek Database
When speaking of cemeteries in Jerusalem and of death records, one cannot ignore the contribution of Rabbi Asher Leib Brisk, a yeshiva student who lived at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. Brisk planned to transcribe all the tombstone inscriptions in the Mount of Olives Cemetery but died before he could finish his work. The inscriptions he succeeded in transcribing cover the period 1760-1906 and gradually were published in Hebrew in four booklets entitled Helkat Mehokek. In 1913, all the booklets were bound into a single volume, arranged by the numbers of the plots and rows. For some entries, the author added information he found in the registers of the burial societies. The original booklets are available only at the library of the Ben Zvi Institute (13 Ibn Ezra Street, Rehavia). Each booklet includes an index arranged by given name. The book, bound in 1913, does not have an index.
A searchable database in Hebrew and the transliterated data has been built using all the numerous details found in this book One that includes 8,083
tombstone inscriptions: 1,400 for Sephardic Jews, 2,000 for children (many of them without identity), and 4,600 for Ashkenazi Jews. Details for each person are surname (mostly missing among the Ashkenazim); given name; spouse’s given name (especially for widows or widowers); father’s given name; burial place (plot, row, place in the row); date of death; place of birth (mostly Ottoman Empire cities for the Sephardim and Eastern Europe localities for the Ashkenazim); and biographical details when available, such as a family link, a position, a physical problem (generally when the deceased was blind or lame).
A major difficulty was to decipher the birthplaces in Eastern Europe, whose spellings are mostly in Yiddish. The book, Where Once We Walked, by Mokotoff and Sack, was of great help, as were old maps. Another difficulty society volunteers encountered in some of the transcriptions was the use of unusual abbreviations of names and words and the dozens of acronyms, some invented by the author without explaining their meaning.
Notes and bibliography:
* The Sanhedrin was the legislative and executive authority from the time of the Second Temple. This council was composed of 71 sages.
Levinson, Yehoshua. Har Hatsofim (Mount Scopus). [Hebrew]. Tel Aviv: Maarokhot, 1960.
Mokotoff, Gary and Sallyann Amdur Sack. Where Once We Walked: Revised Edition. Bergenfield: Avotaynu, 2002.
Pickholz, I. “Report on a Visit to the Sheikh Badr Cemetery in Jerusalem.” Sharsheret HaDorot 14, no. 2 (2000).
Tal-Toledano, Yaakov. Letter to the Editor (on Sheikh Badr Cemetery). Sharsheret HaDorot 14, no. 3 (2000).
Vilnai, Zeev. Yerushalayim, Birat Israel. (Jerusalem, the capital of Israel). Jerusalem: Achiever, 1960.
** This article is reprinted with the permission of Avotaynu, Volume XIX, Number 3, Fall 2003. It has been updated for publication here July 2012.
Mathilde Tagger has an MA degree in Library & Information Sciences from the Hebrew University (Jerusalem) and has been involved in genealogical research since 1986. In 1997 she created the Sephardim SIG, the very first one of its kind in the world. She has published many articles in various genealogical journals (Israel, US, France). Jointly for the last years, she built tools for Sephardic genealogical research that are parked in www.sephardicgen.com (a total of almost 100,000 surnames). She was the coordinator of the genealogical projects prepared for the 24th IAJGS International Conference held in Jerusalem in July 2004 and has conducted half of them. She is the co-author of “Guidebook for Sephardic and Oriental genealogical Sources in Israel. Avotaynu, 2006″ awarded by the Association of Jewish Libraries. She received the 2007 IAJGS Lifetime Achievement Award. She received the 2008 award of “Yakir IGS”. From 2008 she is the head f the Digitization team of the five Montefiore censuses of Eretz Israel Jewish population in the 19th century. Mathilde Tagger is an active member of the Israel Genealogy Research Association since its creation in July 2011.
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