To my amazement and gratitude, I am turning 70 this year. While I don’t believe that endows me with any particular wisdom, I do find that the lessons of a life lived this long certainly add perspective to many experiences. For example, last year I attended the latest Broadway incarnation of Fiddler on the Roof. Having seen the original production in 1964, I enjoyed the new version—whose every song I had long ago committed to memory—but was struck by a different reaction to its denouement. Whereas I remembered the expulsion from beloved Anatevka as a heartbreaking tragedy, this time it hit me forcefully that Teyve and his neighbors were fortunate. As they bade each other farewell upon their journeys to America and Palestine, I realized that, despite their travails, they would be spared death in the Holocaust, and I thought of my own good fortune that the Russian pogroms that began in 1881 caused my paternal ancestors to flee the Pale of Settlement and seek a better life in the United States. My great-grandfather, Solomon Landowne, arrived in New York at that time, and began a new life on the Lower East Side.
Another incredible thing about life is that, if you are lucky, it can offer opportunities to close circles you never imagined you could. A few months after thinking of my grandfather while sitting in that audience, thousands of miles away, I was given a chance to reconnect with him—even more powerfully.
Directly across the Kidron Valley from the Temple Mount is the vast Jewish cemetery on Har HaZeitim, the Mount of Olives. Jewish burial began there over 3,000 years ago in the First Temple Period, and continues to this day. It is in that cemetery, in a plot directly opposite the Dome of the Rock, that Solomon Landowne was buried, in 1933. You see, Solomon, after marrying, fathering five children, and seeing them all, in Fiddler “loshon,” to the marriage canopy, decided that his destiny was to live in the Holy Land, and, in 1923, boarded a ship and did just that, spending the last decade of his life studying in a yeshiva in the Mea Shearim section of Jerusalem. My grandfather, Joseph, never was able to visit his father in Palestine, and his dream of one day reciting the kaddish prayer at his father’s grave was dashed by the partition of Jerusalem after Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. The ceasefire left the Mount of Olives under Jordanian control, and forbidden to Jews.
The tale of my great-grandfather’s aliyah was a staple of my childhood, as was my grandfather’s oft-stated dream of visiting his father’s grave, which ended upon his death in 1964, the year in which I made my first visit to the Jewish State. For years, though, the thought of visiting those sites seemed as far-fetched as (and here’s another reference that dates me) seeing the dark side of the moon.
Three years later, and 50 years ago, all that changed.
I spent the following summer, 1968, studying at the Hebrew University, and vowed to fulfill my grandfather’s dream. These were pre-database days, but at the office of the chevra kadisha on King George Street, a check of the records quickly obtained the location of Solomon’s grave. I was directed to go to the cemetery and look for a Mr. Zicherman, who would guide me to the site. Sure enough, I found the chevra kadisha representative at the cemetery and he took me to the grave. My great-grandfather’s headstone was shattered into scores of pieces.
Still, it was one of the fortunate ones. The cemetery, resting place of such Jewish notables as Nahmanides, Ovadia of Bartenura, Rav Kook, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, and Henrietta Szold, had been systematically destroyed during the Arab hegemony: Every tombstone was pulverized; an Intercontinental Hotel had been built atop thousands of graves at the summit of the graveyard, and roads paved over broad swaths of it. With Mr. Zicherman’s help, I ordered a new tombstone, reproducing the one that had been destroyed, and, before returning to New York at summer’s end, was able to unveil it.
Psalm 122 urges us to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love it.” Among the many pieces about the reunification of Jerusalem, I would like to add a personal prayer of gratitude for the chance I was given to pay my respects to a beloved ancestor, and a wish that all who claim a share of the heritage of that storied city enjoy its multitudes of beauty, both spiritual and physical, in peace and prosperity.