"On Mount Herzl, with the Keepers of the Graves"

By Mitch Ginsburg, Times of Israel  |  Abridged by the iCenter 

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For 22 years I thought predominantly of one family. Every year the father revealed more of the anatomy of his bereavement: the son’s phylacteries that he daily straps to his own arm; the extra seat he buys in synagogue for the High Holidays; the horror of being offered wine on the dreadful flight back to Israel once he had been told, back in the summer of 1991, that his son had been killed while charging to the front of his troops in south Lebanon to assume command under fire. But only last year did a family member mention, shortly after turning away from the grave, that the older sister, a pediatrician, is incapable of eating rosemary – the herb that lies like a carpet across nearly every soil-topped grave in Israel’s national military cemetery on Mount Herzl.

The comment, made offhandedly, threw the flora into focus: who founded the national military cemetery’s captivating aesthetic ethos? How has it changed over the years? And in what way does the work itself, among the graves and alongside the families, affect those who toil daily in the cemetery?"

Uniform graves, regardless of rank or distinction, at Mount Herzl (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg, Times of Israel)

Several months before the formal end of the war in July 1949, and days before the end of the final battle of the war, in Eilat, in February, Defense Ministry officials met to discuss whether the state should establish military cemeteries; where; and what they might look like. The April 1949 Request For Tender for cemeteries in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Kfar Warbourg, Netanya and Nahariya, according to a 2012 Defense Ministry publication, “B’motam Tzivu,” by Professor Maoz Azaryahu and Menashe Shani, stated that the architects should, “while considering the past, the present, and the Jewish tradition,” submit plans for a Jewish military cemetery – a notion which, the board members knew well, was without modern precedent.

The winner was Asher Hiram, an architect born in Budapest, in 1897, with the name Sigmund Kerekes. A leader of the modernist style in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in the thirties, Kerekes had ducked out of the country after its surrender to Germany in March 1939 and arrived in Palestine, at latest, in 1942.

Hiram left his imprint on Israel’s military cemeteries: he determined that the graves would be low to the ground – 30 centimeters, one foot – so that mourners would be forced to their knees before the dead; he dictated the size and positioning of the headstones; he advocated for a uniformity of graves, despite age or rank; and he, among many other things, decided on the garden bed, rooted in soil, over the graves.

Hiram’s outer wall to the cemetery (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg, Times of Israel)

On November 17, 1949, the first of the military’s dead were buried in a communal grave in the cemetery.

A burial plot from the War of Independence and shortly afterward (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg, Times of Israel)

Today there are 3,400 graves in the cemetery. The notion of uniformity, in the newest sections, where the tide of modernity tugs toward individualism, is under assault. This bothers some of the workers and supervisors, who remain devoted to the preservation of the original vision, but all of them, from the national director of landscaping in Israel’s military cemeteries to the elderly man who keeps the Yom Kippur War plots in immaculate condition, is devoted to an unending task: soothing the pain of the families.

The Avenues of Heroes

“This is not a botanical garden,” Tomer Katz, the regional director of landscaping for cemeteries and monuments in Jerusalem and southern Israel, said in Mount Herzl’s parking lot. But the entrance way, he submitted, should be marked “with large stains of color.”

He pointed to the blotches of purple petunias, the sculpted clusters of red and pink geraniums and the yellow macarena roses, which thrive in the sun, often bloom around Memorial Day, and, as opposed to their English cousins, require little in the way of upkeep.

The avenue, and flags, which are set in place before Remembrance Day and then removed (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg, Times of Israel)

“I think that order and cleanliness can be comforting,” Katz said. “The green, the shade, the cool temperature, it creates a sort of tenderness. Something is wrapped around you. You are not exposed at the grave.”

Meet Daniel, one of the gardeners. He wouldn’t let me use his last name or take his picture. He wore a faded pinstriped shirt and work pants and the beard and head covering of an ultra-Orthodox man. He seemed close to 70. Daniel is in charge of eight specific burial plots. They are his personal responsibility. He clears out the fallen trees and branches in winter. He blows his section clear of pine needles – every day the 20-man crew disposes of 10 cubic meters of conifer foliage – and distributes compost where needed. He trims and shears and weeds, and, yes, “I am familiar with the families,” he said. “They ask me for certain things and I try to oblige to them.”

Many of the people who come to the plots he is in charge of – mostly from the Yom Kippur War – are the children and spouses of the fallen. Many of them were reservists, he explained.

He knows their stories, but keeps his distance. He can point to a grave and tell of the fallen soldier’s journey from a monastery in war-torn Europe to Israel, but has never discussed it with the direct family members. Sometimes the families thank him for his labor, and “sometimes they can’t talk and I have no hard feelings about that at all.”

On Memorial Day he comes to work at six in the morning. After a year of toil, his last act is to hand-wash each headstone to make sure there are no bird droppings on the pale slab of stone. “That’s very important,” he said. “They can get upset about something like that.”

Hagai Admon, the director of the cemetery, is a slim 66-year-old. He wore a faded gray T-shirt, blue work pants, and a battered straw hat that was adorned with a porcupine quill. He answered an ad in the paper in 1993 and has been working at Mount Herzl ever since. “As soon as you get into a place like this, you can’t get out,” he said.

On his first walk around the grounds, he stopped randomly next to a grave. After taking in the view, he looked down and saw, engraved on the stone beside him, the name Cpt. Ehud Shani – his company commander during the Six Day War.

Admon alongside the graves of Hannah Szenes and other paratroopers dropped into Europe during WWII (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg, Times of Israel)

Today, no one knows the ground more intimately than Admon. Winding past the graves of the prime minister’s brother, Yoni Netanyahu, and the IDF Chief of the General Staff during the Yom Kippur War, David “Dado” Elazar – both  identical to those surrounding them – he arrived at the newest plots.

The departure is startling. Flags and guitar necks protrude from the soil-topped graves. Pieces of corral and stalagmite, in one instance, have replaced the traditional bed of rosemary. There are colorful headstones and citrus trees and rose bushes and plastic sunflowers. There are group photos and metal-backed bibles; berets, rifle straps, unit insignias, and sun hats. “Hiram would be rolling over in his grave, in my opinion,” Admon said.

One of Mount Herzl’s newer burial plots (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg, Times of Israel)

The doors to the cemetery, momentarily closed for maintenance (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)

Katz described a dividing line between those who empathize with the bereaved and those who have the misfortune of experiencing bereavement. “There is a fence,” he said. “There’s us and there’s them. And you don’t want to be on that side. You see that their pain is unbearable. It’s unbearable and it never passes. It never subsides.”

The rules, he said, might theoretically allow them not to be involved with the families. There are other branches of the Defense Ministry that handle such things. “But we cannot say, you deal with the families and we’ll deal with the gardening,” he said. “In the most personal manner, as soon as you realize that this is the last thing that they have – then you give your all. These graves, when all is said and done, are the last things they have – of their sons, of the memories of them.” 

Discussion Questions

  • What parts of the story resonate with you, and why?
  • What themes are touched upon in the story?
  • What did you learn? What do you want to learn more about?

What Makes Mount Herzl Unique?

Select a quote from one of the workers in the article:

  • Why did you choose this quote?
  • What's unique about the relationships between the gardeners and the families?
  • If you could ask a gardener a follow-up question, what would it be?

In the older sections of the military cemetery, all of the graves are identical; the grave of the highest-ranking general is no different than that of a private. More recently, families of the fallen are allowed some leeway in how they adorn the grave and with the language on the stone marker.

  • Why do you think there is a policy of uniformity of military graves?
  • What are the implications of the change?

One of the gardeners describes the difference between feeling for those who have lost a loved one and actually experiencing such loss: “There is a fence. There’s us and there’s them. And you don’t want to be on that side.”

  • How do you understand this?

Despite differences of opinion among those who work in the cemetery, the article says all are “devoted to an unending task: soothing the pain of the families.” · How is this illustrated in the story?

  • What are some situations in which we use nature to express empathy and/or remembrance?

On Yom Ha'zikaron, Israel pays collective and individual respect to their fallen.

  • What kind of connection do you feel to Yom Ha'zikaron?