Sweets and Cemeteries—My Weekend in New Jersey (Part 1)
I spent this weekend in the Garden State, where I officiated
at a wedding for a former student and congregant.
The festivities were held Sunday evening at
an historic inn in Bernardsville.
wedding was intimate and joyous, and the accommodations very lovely, in classic
George Washington-era style, the inn’s walls festooned with brass gas lights
and dark oil paintings of horses, fox hunts, and Revolutionary War generals.
In a happy juxtaposition to all of these
high WASP colonial icons, there was also a terrific bagel place right across
the street, where I enjoyed real New York bagels, with whitefish salad to die
for, both Sunday and Monday mornings.
But during the daytime hours, I did not hang out in
Instead, I took two
interesting road trips, each memorable in its fashion.
So here, for part 1 of this post, Sunday’s
Sunday morning, I set out to visit the grave of my
great-great grandfather, Rabbi Yehudah Tzvi Finkelstein.
Thanks to my father’s years of genealogical
research, I’ve learned a bit about R. Yehudah Tzvi’s life.
He was born in 1824, in Keidan, a largely
Jewish shtetl north of Kovno in what is now central Lithuania.
Like his father, Shimon HaLevi Finkelstein, and
eight generations before him, Yehudah Tzvi became a rabbi who studied and
taught in Slabodka, the materially-poor but spiritually-rich Jewish ghetto of
He was, according to family lore,
a student of Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the modern Mussar movement;
later he would go on to teach this tradition to students of his own.
Together with his wife, Faige Rivka, R. Yehudah Tzvi had
five children: daughters Chana Ettel, Reise (Rose), and Rachel Esther, and
sons, Shimon and Mendel.
Channa would later move to Palestine with her first
Shimon Finkelstein followed in
his father’s footsteps, learning Mussar in Slabodka and receiving rabbinic
He emigrated to America and
served Orthodox congregations in New York and Baltimore; his son, Louis
Finkelstein was a pre-eminent American rabbi and historian, who was, for many
years, the chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological
My great grandfather, Mendel
Finkelstein, also became a rabbi and came to America, with the blessing of his
renowned Lithuanian teacher, Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Spektor.
He settled in Dayton, Ohio with his wife, my
great grandmother, Tobba (Tillie) Kagen, who grew up in Srednick, Lithuania,
along the banks of the Nemunas River.
Their son—my grandfather—Rabbi Joseph Fink, broke with Orthodoxy,
studied at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in nearby Cincinnati, and
spent most of his illustrious career at Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, New York,
where he was a major public figure, teacher, and activist well beyond the
But to return to Yehudah Tzvi. . . this “Old Country” Litvak
came to the United States as a widower in 1906, with his daughter Reise, her
second husband and their six children.
He was 82 years old at the time.
He lived twelve more years in New York and
died on the exact same secular date as my own father—March 28—in 1918.
Dad’s records told me that he was buried in the Old
Montefiore Cemetery in Queens, in a section belonging to the United Hebrew Congregation
of New York: Gate 148 N, Block 88, Row 20 R, Grave 20.
So that is where I headed from Bernardsville.
Well, the trip is not the arduous journey it would have been
back in 1918, but it is still quite a
After almost ninety minutes,
twenty-plus dollars in toll, and way too many miles of decrepit pot-holed roads
(where is all that toll going?
through the grim and graffiti-blighted bowels of the Bronx, I arrived at the
I checked in at the office,
where the thoughtful and accommodating receptionist very graciously outfitted
me (contrary to the stereotype, I almost always find New Yorkers to be unusually
helpful) with a map and directions to the section.
I parked the car, passed through gate 148N, and walked among
crowded rows of tall, weathered, mostly-granite headstones to where my
great-great grandfather’s gravesite should have been and found. . .
I thought maybe I had counted
wrong, but a recount of rows shed no new light.
So I made my way, slowly and carefully, through the entire section,
probably containing over four hundred graves, examining each stone and
searching for Yehudah Tzvi Finkelstein—to no avail.
Eventually, I drove back to the office and
asked if they would come out and help me, which they agreed to do.
Well, as it turns out, the grave is exactly
where it is supposed to be, but the headstone has toppled over and is lying
face down on the grass, partly covered with leaves, dirt, and moss, so I could
not get even a glimpse of the inscription.
I was deeply disappointed, but there was nothing to be done, as the
fallen headstone weighs hundreds of pounds, which ruled out the option of
trying to raise or even move it.
insult to injury, at the very moment that I tried to take a picture of the sad
cemetery scene, the batteries in my camera went dead.
I did leave a lovely round pebble, which I had taken from
the banks of the Boise River before leaving home, atop the prostrate stone, as
the traditional token of my respects, as if to say, “Despite all this, I was here.
” As I did so, I imagined how utterly
unfathomable it would have been to Rav Yehudah Tzvi Finkelstein to imagine his
great-great grandson a Reform rabbi in Boise, Idaho.
Such is the mystery and miracle of Jewish
But equally unfathomable to my family patriarch would have
been the presence of hordes of Hasidim buzzing around the cemetery where he is
I wondered what brought them
there, until one of them approached me and asked if I had put on tefillin
As it turns out, the last Chabad Lubavitcher
Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is buried just a stone’s throw from R.
Needless to say, his
headstone is very well-tended, as it
is a pilgrimage site for Lubavitchers from around the world.
A Talmudic Litvak and misnagid,
my great-great grandfather was a undoubtedly a zealous
opponent of Hasidism, which spread rapidly through most of Eastern Europe but failed
to take hold in proudly rationalist Lithuania.
How ironic that he now lies in the shadow of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who
most Chabadniks actually believe to have been the messiah as they pray for his
imminent resurrection and return.
I bid my great-great grandfather farewell and made the long,
expensive trip back to Bernardsville, arriving just in time to shower and
change for the wedding.
All in all, a
bit of a frustrating day, but also educational.
And, just maybe, for the best.
For in the end, of course, no headstone lasts forever.
With the passage of sufficient time, even
words etched deeply into the hardest rock are worn away by wind and rain.
Even the Ohel
the Chabadniks’ venerating complex built over the Rebbe’s grave, will one day
yield to history and weather.
Of course R. Yehudah Tzvi’s entire world in Lithuania is
also gone—not as a result of time’s slow ravaging but, rather, the Nazis’ swift
and brutal annihilation.
I thought of all of these passings, slow and swift, as I
reflected on my great-great grandfather’s toppled headstone.
Perhaps my memories are somehow better—more fitting—than
the picture I might have taken had my camera batteries lasted just an instant
Perhaps the best that I can do
is to just tell his story, to try to keep his memory alive for another
generation or two.
And live up to that
memory in my own personal and professional life as a rabbi and a Jew.
his memory be for a blessing.
And in the sprit of his memory and fallen headstone, I will
conclude with a favorite poem, by Jane Hirschfield:
of the gold time’s
their blue crowns on
from the sky’s white
the ones who cross
alone and ask for no
however the passing