The Jewish Cemetery in North Arlington, New Jersey, home to Zayda’s remains, is no tribute to the dignified life that he lived.
In fact, a number of our other family members share this decayed grave site. This is in sharp contrast to the peaceful immaculate gardens surrounding the Herzliya graves of his son, my father, and my mother.
What happens to small cemeteries when the chevrot kadisha, the burial societies of the organizations that founded them, no longer are in existence and cannot provide loving care and supervision of its cemeteries? What happens when a synagogue closes its doors forever? This is a brief chapter of a defunct shul in Newark’s Weequahic section. The only visible connection between those graves in North Arlington and the synagogue of my youth is that some of those gravestones are etched with the names of those I knew and loved.
There can be found, a distance away from the fractured graves, adjacent to the collapsing fence near the cemetery property line, the bent puzzle-like pieces of a rusted iron gate that can be moved together to form most of the words Congregation Rodfei Shalom. Perhaps 100 years ago, when Newark was evolving into the promised land for about 70 vibrant synagogues filled with congregants from several different countries in Eastern Europe, that shul that chose the name Pursuers of Peace, Rodfei Shalom, purchased graves in North Arlington so that its community could rest in peace, together, for eternity. In this cemetery, however, there is no longer any comfort for the living. Perhaps the deceased have found peace, but that is hard to conjure up in a place like the North Arlington Jewish Cemetery.
We did see plenty of living things during our visit. A snake crawling out of a grave. Rabbits. We did not hear the cheerful sounds of lively birds or humming crickets. I think that even for them, this was not a place to linger.
And we saw gravestones that were reminders of cemeteries we had visited in post-Holocaust trips to Jewish graves in Poland, overturned and desecrated, but not here by vandals or Nazis, but by time and neglect. The ignored little markers for perpetual care seemed to mock us as we cautiously walked by, fearful of being ensnared in deep animal burrows, huge tangled tree roots, crumbled grave stones, and saddest of all, fragile pine coffins with sometimes visible contents spewing out.
There was not even a place to leave stones so that others might know that Zayda had visitors. And it is very likely that there will be no visitors ever again. This is a haunting place. It is not welcoming to visitors. The close relatives of the deceased are mostly long gone themselves. The office is deserted, sinking into the marshy earth. New graves for the more recent dead are situated in other cemeteries, in other places. This is a long-abandoned spot that eventually will be reclaimed by the earth, with its markers and stones forgotten.
This is not a place to remember Zayda. We cannot hear the echoes of his long and happy life in this place.
For those who knew the thriving Rodfei Shalom, and the other organizations that sanctified this as a holy place, they will have to go elsewhere with their shared memories. This is a graveyard built on a lovely wooded knoll that, over the years of broadening industrialization and deterioration, was simply forgotten by all connected to it.
Rodfei Shalom was Orthodox, the shul where I grew up. It was on Clinton Place, right around the corner from the four-family house that Zayda built on Aldine Street in 1927. I don’t know which came first, the house or the shul, but there were plenty of shuls in the neighborhood for Zayda to choose from. Newark, in those halcyon days, was like that. Mostly we didn’t even call the shuls by their given names, but instead by the streets where they were situated. Thus there was the Wainwright Street shul and the Leslie Street and the Schley Street and so on. Absolutely no one drove to shul, so they were located within walking distance of their members. They had to be!
Zayda, and a bit later, Pop, my mother’s father, who joined our household in the late 1940s, walked to the synagogue twice daily, no matter the weather. They had to “make” a minyan. There were people saying kaddish. Their very lives revolved around the shul clock.
It’s easy for me to close my eyes and see the two of them, Zayda somewhat bigger and rounder than Pop, who had a slight frame, walking together in endless conversation. What did they talk about, these two men who had both left Europe to create new homes for their families in America? They each had struggles, of course, but both were strivers who worked hard and ultimately led successful lives, eventually each earning enough to climb the ladder into the middle class.
Neither ever worked on Shabbat or missed a synagogue service. That would have been seriously unthinkable.
Their children, our parents, however, the next generation of Jewish Americans, mostly born in places like Passaic, or Brooklyn, or the Lower East Side, or Newark, in the early decades of the 20th century, supported the shul differently. They became officers, involved themselves in committees and fundraisers, but rarely attended a minyan. The services they supported were only those held on the High Holy Days. I don’t remember the grandfathers openly criticizing their children for this lapse, but I’m sure it did not make them happy.
And certainly our family mirrored the families of the kids of my own generation. Practically none of our Weequahic families could be called religiously observant, although just about every home was kosher. How else could you explain the huge number of kosher butchers that dotted the neighborhood?
As the Jews became more affluent and migrated to the suburbs, Rodfei Shalom was ultimately dissolved and replaced by a public school. I was too young to remember the details of the closure but I’m sure my parents attended numerous meetings about how to deal with the precious memorabilia, holy items, yahrzeit plaques, sefarim (religious books), furnishings, and the like. One item I can attest to is a Torah scroll that my father took to Israel. He would not entrust the Torah to El Al and so he sat with it on his lap for the entire flight, including the typical stopover, in those days, at London Heathrow. There are pictures attesting to that feat and newspaper articles as well.
Zayda was already gone, so he never saw how my father really did revere the Torah after all.
That Torah was given to the Israel Defense Forces, where our grandson Aaron now proudly serves. I think about the twain meeting, and Aaron reciting an aliyah or reading from the precious Torah, which crossed half the world searching for holiness.
I wish I could share that with Zayda. Perhaps then he would find peace. Wouldn’t that be something?
Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!