With the unexpected death of musician Arik Einstein just two weeks ago, and the daily treks being made to his graveside in Tel Aviv’s Trumpeldor Cemetery, it’s time to ponder local burial grounds and consider which cemeteries are the most interesting in the land.
We’re not talking about where to be buried, mind you; that’s a conversation for another time and column. This is simply a guide to finding the country’s most significant cemeteries, judged by location, beauty and history.
This week, the top five burial grounds, where the entry is free and the history lessons are yours for the taking.
1) Tel Aviv’s Trumpeldor Cemetery is probably the best-known in the land. It’s an 11-dunam burial ground located on Trumpeldor Street in Tel Aviv, just a short walk from the beach. It was established in the early 1900s, when Shimon Rokach, the founder of Neve Tzedek, Tel Aviv’s first neighborhood, had to deal with an outbreak of cholera, and needed to distance the bodies of those felled by the disease from the rest of the settlement. He established the plot six years before the city of Tel Aviv was founded and it became the burial ground for the Who’s Who of Tel Aviv. There’s Hayim Nachman Bialik and his wife, Mania, as well as his lover, Ira Jan. Ahad Ha’am is also in situ, as is Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor of Tel Aviv. It’s a magical place, each tombstone different from the next, each with its patina of history.
These days, everyone’s visiting Trumpeldor to see Arik Einstein’s plot, situated in a back corner of the cemetery. It’s covered with bouquets and love notes, and has a running playlist of his music amplified from a nearby balcony courtesy of a loving fan. According to Channel 2 news, singer Shoshana Damari’s grave cost a quarter of a million shekels seven years ago, and Ephraim Kishon was buried in Trumpeldor at the low cost of NIS 80,000, because his wife thought to buy plots back in 1998. Given that shipping magnate Sammy Ofer was also buried in Trumpeldor in 2011, it clearly costs a pretty penny to get buried with the stars. Trumpeldor Cemetery, on Trumpeldor Street, between Pinsker and Hovevei Zion Streets. Open from Sunday to Thursday, 6:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Fridays and holiday eves, 6:30 a.m. – 2 p.m.; in the summertime, Sunday to Thursday, 6:30 a.m. – 7 p.m.
2) Comedian and actor Sefi Rivlin, who died recently after a long battle with cancer, was buried in Rishon Lezion, the city where he was born, and whose oldest cemetery, Ganei Esther, is considered one of the country’s historic spots. The city was founded in 1882 by Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, and was the second Jewish farm settlement in the land. Rivlin was buried in a newer part of the city’s old cemetery, which was first established after a particularly gruesome battle between Turkish and New Zealand soldiers for the land. The hill became the burial ground for some of the settlers who perished fighting for it. The original sycamore has since died, but there’s a sculpture of it at the top of the hill. One more interesting note: Shoshana Damari was also from Rishon, but chose to be buried in Trumpeldor. Rishon Lezion Old Cemetery, Ganei Esther, Rishon Lezion.
3) One of the best-known and most beautiful cemeteries is up on the Kinneret, overlooking the lake and serving as the burial site for the region’s first two communities, Kibbutz Kvutzat Kinneret and Moshava Kinneret, both located just across the road. It’s unofficially known as the pantheon of the Labor Party, wrote academic Amos Ron, but it became the burial site of many non-pioneers as well, and now functions as a kind of holy site and place of pilgrimage for many Israelis.
There’s much that’s unusual about the Kinneret Cemetery as a Jewish burial place, including the many trees, greenery and flowers that grow in this well-shaded site, the graves that face in all directions, not just toward Jerusalem, the tombstones with unusual epitaphs, and and the inclusion of those who died from suicides. There’s also a distinct lack of chronological order, exemplified in pioneer and journalist Berl Katznelson, who is buried in between his first love, Sarah Shmukler, who died of malaria in 1919, and Leah Meron, who died in 1976. The grave of Rachel the poet, located at the top of the cemetery, is near that of singer Naomi Shemer. Shemer was born on the kibbutz, and was known for her version of “Kinneret,” the poem written by Rachel. Kinneret Cemetery, Route 90.
4) The smaller cemeteries, those that are attached to kibbutz and moshav communities, tend to offer the most charm and, often, the best history. I’ve long been a fan of the cemetery at Kibbutz Gezer, located in the Shfela, near Modiin, Ramle and Rehovot. Set in a grove of pine trees in a far corner of the kibbutz, surrounded by the plains of the Shfela, and reached through a tunnel of multi-colored bougainvillea, it’s a quiet, pensive place, dark with shade but not gloomy.
The kibbutz itself was established in 1945 by pioneers from Europe, who named it after the biblical Tel Gezer, located on the land. Some of the earliest graves date from 1948, when kibbutz members were killed during a battle with an Arab Legion force. It took some time for the kibbutz to succeed, and it wasn’t until 1974, when a group of North American immigrants reestablished the kibbutz, that it succeeded. Most of the graves now belong to kibbutz members, their parents and any of the founders of Gezer. Kibbutz Gezer, Route 424.
5) The final stop in the list of top five cemeteries isn’t technically a cemetery, but rather the gravesites of David and Paula Ben-Gurion, the founder and first prime minister of Israel and his wife. The Ben-Gurions retired to Sde Boker in the Negev following Ben-Gurion’s dream of settling the Negev and making the desert bloom.
His grave, just a short walk from “the hut,” their simple, spartan kibbutz home, is a pilgrimage site for many, and always worth the trip. Walk through the lush desert garden until you reach the quiet plaza overlooking the Zin Valley and the greenery of Ein Avdat. Set with two simple stone slabs for the couple (Paula Ben-Gurion died five years before her husband), the grave is worth a visit. Route 40 toward Midreshet Ben-Gurion, three kilometers south of Kibbutz Sde Boker. Open all day, free entrance.