The bedtime stories my father told me in our cramped apartment in the gritty Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn sketched a magical, mythical place… [even] the darker stories about hiding from the Cossacks among the tombstones… I needed to get to the cemetery where my family hid among the tombstones… I was in the very place where my family ran for their lives during pogroms. I knew this would be the closest I could join emotionally to my mother, Aunt Paula, Aunt Dina, and Buba Laika. (Dr. Ralph Snyderman, “My Parents Escaped The Pogroms In Ukraine, Here’s Why I Returned” The Forward, April 6 2021)
I believe with complete faith in the resurrection of the dead for,
just as a person who wants to return to a beloved place will leave
intentionally some book, basket, glasses, a small picture
such that he has a reason to return, just so the dead leave behind
life for which they can return.
Once, in the mists of a distant fall, I stood
in an abandoned Jewish cemetery, but it had not been abandoned by its dead.
The groundskeeper was an expert in flowers and in the year’s seasons
but he was no expert in buried Jews,
yet he said: Every night they faithfully practice for the resurrection of the dead.
I believe with complete faith in the resurrection of the dead, begins the poet, Yehuda Amichai, quoting one of Maimonides’ well-known principles of Jewish faith. True to Amichai’s poetic way, religious vocabulary such as “faith” sheds its armor in favor of a loosely woven hope based upon faithful human behavior.
The dead leave behind their lives as a sign of promise to return, enliven, reanimate—resurrect—the life still warm from their touch.
Never mind the compass and straight edge or the formal proofs of the philosopher whose sightless vision is fixed on history’s horizon not unlike the fixed bronze eyes of Maimonides’ statue in Cordoba. The philosopher’s faith is not argued here. One must have faith that Maimonides’ point is fundamental to his system.
“Faith,” at its Hebrew root, means, “dependability.” Both the poet and the philosopher would agree.
Without even a new stanza, Amichai continues his exploration of faith, whisking us away to a new venue—a distant, Jewish cemetery, at the fall of the year. In (the fall) light of resurrection, I imagine a dappled fall scene with colors both full and failing. The cemetery, says the poet, is abandoned—but not abandoned by its dead Jews. They alone remain the faithful guardians of the place. They are keepers and keepsakes of beloved Jewish life to which people will return to reclaim the lives left behind. These dead are the saving remnant of Jewish consciousness, the tombstones evidence of past, presence, and promise.
A groundskeeper appears. He knows nothing about dead Jews, but he knows a great deal about seasons of rebirth, planting, blooming, tending—and waiting. He is the poet’s twin, with complete faith in nature as the poet has faith in human nature.
The groundskeeper is very certain that these dead Jews, like everything else in this cemetery, have their season of renewal. All seeds and souls mature towards reappearance. Who is to say how long that maturing season might be? All he knows is that each night if they are like all buried things, the lives planted in the soil practice for their resurrection.
And here, in the ancient language that he resurrects, the poet joins “faith” and “practice,” bridging from theological statements to human experiences. The verb “to practice” is, l’hit-amen that sprouts from the root word of “faith/a-m-n,” a verb root that stalks and flowers into the words amen, the exclamation that validates what is faithfully accepted as true. Emunah/faith joins the faith of the poet to the (faithful) practice of which the groundskeeper is certain.
The cemetery is both the stone-fact and also the symbolic figure drawn into stories and dreams from the Ukraine to Bensonhurst, and beyond. Here image and imagination are one. Literally and figuratively, we have faith that we can find shelter and safely among the tombstones that will protect us from the Cossacks. The cemetery, in effect, saves us.
The cemetery is our earthiest place and, arguably, our most heavenly: both soil and soul are enriched here. Roots here are both the premise from past life and the promise for the future.
Perhaps it is the cemetery to which the dead return to reclaim what is theirs. Perhaps it is we who must return to the cemetery to rise renewed, to reclaim the lives that have been left there for us.