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August 20, 2014 | 24th Av 5774

Dust to dust

Galilee Diary #409, September 28, 2008

Marc J. Rosenstein

…Until you return to the ground – for from it you were taken.
For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.
      -Genesis 3:19

Avraham Buxdorf died last week. Avraham and Zina made aliyah from Moldava with their extended family around 1990, when they were about 60 – at the peak of the wave of Russian aliyah (and right around the time we came from the US). He had worked as a driver in the old country. Indeed, he actually arrived in Israel with his Lada and kept it running for a number of years (there were many jokes about Ladas – like about the guy who filled the gas tank and thus doubled the value of his car. Today, at $8 a gallon, that is less funny). They settled in Karmiel, and early on found work here at Shorashim in our seminar center – both Avraham and Zina – and at times one of their sons, and Avraham's sister, and her daughter, and the teenagers of the next generation – did housekeeping, laundry, repairs, deliveries, dishwashing, waiting – all the support tasks involved in operating a youth hostel. They were also much in demand by the residents of Shorashim for child care, house sitting, etc. Avraham was a big barrel-chested bear of a man. He never mastered much Hebrew, getting by in Yiddish, Russian, and with Zina's help. He kept working, hard, despite his age and illnesses (heart, throat cancer). We saw less of them after we closed the hostel in 2003; indeed many people on Shorashim didn't even know that in 2006 they had won a green card lottery, and, traumatized by the impact of the war in Karmiel, departed for Brooklyn, where Avraham's cancer recurred and ultimately took his life.

It seems that Zina, who does not plan to return to stay in Israel, decided that Avraham should be buried here, and brought the body back. Many of us attended the funeral. Waiting for it to start, we talked among ourselves in English. Everyone else was speaking Russian. Karmiel, a town of 50,000, has one cemetery that is typical of Israeli municipal cemeteries. It is located at the end of the industrial zone, surrounded by a shopping mall parking lot, an aluminum extrusion factory, and a ready-mix cement silo complex. The ground is coarse limestone gravel. Graves are side by side in long rows. There is no room for greenery; there is no shade except a canopy over the "eulogy area" – a stone slab in the center of a plaza near the entrance. Since there are no "funeral homes" in Israel, the entire funeral generally takes place at the cemetery – the body is placed on the slab, the mourners stand around it, and eulogies and Psalms are recited there before the crowd follows the body to the grave site. The Chevra Kadisha (burial society) is part of the religious bureaucracy, and takes care of all arrangements. In this case, there was no rabbi and no eulogy. The body was brought in on a cart (in a shroud, covered with a velvet blanket – no casket), we all gathered around, and a member of the Chevra Kadisha, wearing a plaid shirt and a baseball cap, recited some Psalms from a laminated notebook and helped the sons recite Kaddish; he then led the way to the grave; the rocky earth had been put in plastic garbage cans, which made it relatively easy to fill the grave quickly by just dumping them in. Then the many people who had brought bouquets and wreaths piled them on the grave. Few of those present had much knowledge of traditional practices; the custom of lining up and paying respects to the family as they leave the cemetery was skipped; people drifted away.

Interestingly, one can find beautiful, green cemeteries in Israel – generally on kibbutzim and other small communities for whom the esthetic element is a value. However urban cemeteries share the same desolate, industrial atmosphere we found in Karmiel. On the one hand there is something to be said for cemeteries being pleasant places to visit. On the other hand, maybe there is also something to be said for letting death be death, harsh and final, without trying to soften it, disguise it, euphemize it… No casket, no limousine, no perpetual care. Just dust.

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