Eden Cemetery trial begins

The trial in the $90 million lawsuit against Eden Memorial Park, a Jewish cemetery, began Feb.11 at the Los Angeles Superior Courthouse downtown.

The class action suit, filed in September 2009 by attorney Michael Avenatti of the Newport Beach law firm Eagan O’Malley & Avenatti, alleges Eden’s management ordered its workers to disturb existing graves in order to fit new coffins in tight spaces.

That disturbance allegedly included breaking concrete coffins and then dumping some of the human remains when bones fell out.

F. Charles Sands, whose family is buried at Eden, and 30 other people are named as plaintiffs, and 25,000 more people have joined the suit.

Located at Sepulveda Boulevard and Rinaldi Street in Mission Hills, Eden Memorial Park is owned and operated by SCI California, a subsidiary of Texas-based Service Corp. International, one of the country’s largest operators of cemeteries and funeral services. About 40,000 people are buried at Eden, which spans 72 acres.

The alleged incidents date back to 1985, when SCI acquired the cemetery. The plaintiffs contend that Eden knowingly broke as many as 1,500 buried concrete vaults between February 1985 and September 2009. Avenatti argued that the cemetery had a financial incentive to do so.

“This conduct was deliberate, and purposeful, and driven by a desire to make more money,” Avenatti told the jury during the plaintiffs’ opening statement on Tuesday.

With Judge Marc Marmaro presiding, Avenatti introduced evidence including testimonies, aerial photographs and video surveillance that the 43-year-old attorney argued will show that Eden’s management deliberately mishandled the coffins and corpses that families entrusted to its care.

The case has faced a long road to trial, including court sanctions, state investigations, tampering with evidence and a dispute over whether Jewish jurors would compromise the neutrality of the jury.

In November 2009, state investigators reported that they found no evidence that Eden mishandled graves. Russ Heimerich, spokesman for the California Department of Consumer Affairs, said at the time that investigators would have found evidence if it existed. “The kinds of things that are being alleged are not easily hidden from view,” he said.

But one year later, in November 2010, Judge Anthony J. Mohr of the Los Angeles Superior Court ruled that the cemetery intentionally cleaned out the cemetery’s dump, where workers allegedly disposed of loose bones and broken concrete sections. In September 2009, the court ordered that all such evidence must be preserved.

For the last several years, both sides have collected extensive evidence, with the legal teams interviewing 110 people during deposition.

During jury selection in recent weeks, the defense has argued that, in order to ensure juror impartiality, it should be allowed to ask potential jurors whether they are Jewish. Marmaro declined that request, but did allow the defense to ask jurors for their religious affiliation and whether they are knowledgeable of Jewish burial law.

In the courtroom on Tuesday, Avenatti screened on a large television aerial photographs of the cemetery dump, located on the northern part of the cemetery, which was later cleaned out and developed in order to be used for additional burial plots.

“Additional dirt was brought in, placed over these remains, built up and plotted to be sold to other families,” the attorney said, before playing a video that alleges to show a groundskeeper placing a concrete block from a grave container into a tractor, which Avenatti said was collecting the debris for disposal.

He also showed the jury video depositions of former and current Eden groundskeepers acknowledging that they were ordered to break vaults if necessary, and to dispose of loose bones. He said that these people will testify on the stand during the trial. 

One of those depositions showed Darryl Bowden, a former superintendent, sales manager and general manager at Eden, confirming that three employees told him that a skull had been thrown in the cemetery dump.

After speaking for more than two hours, with short breaks, Avenatti gave the floor to defense attorney, Steven Gurnee, of Gurnee Mason & Forestieri.

“It’s a beautiful cemetery; it’s a well-run cemetery,” Gurnee opened. “What you’ve just heard is false; it does not tell the story.”

Breaking into a discussion of burials according to Jewish tradition, the defense attorney said that one of the witnesses will be Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a professor at American Jewish University, who will clarify for the jury how burials are done according to Jewish law.

While Jewish tradition prefers for a body to come in relatively direct contact with the earth, Eden, like most cemeteries, Gurnee said, requires that all caskets be surrounded by a concrete vault, but allows for “holes [to be] drilled in the bottom to have direct access to the earth.”

Gurnee showed photographs of tree roots that appeared to have damaged a concrete vault, which would suggest that damage could have occurred that was not caused by deliberate mistreatment. Attempting to cast further doubt on the plaintiff’s assertions, Gurnee added that, when digging rocks out of the ground, those rocks can often move and cause damage to adjacent graves.

“It’s simply an accident,” Gurnee said. “These problems that are being complained of are nonexistent.”

Outside the courtroom after court adjourned, Avenatti told the Journal that the plaintiffs will seek at least $90 million in damages. During his opening statements he said that in the 24 years spanning the suit, the 25,000 people who joined the class action paid Eden more than $99 million.

Gurnee told the Journal that the plaintiffs’ allegations are false, that “there aren’t any bones being mishandled” and that he intends to show that former Eden groundskeepers who allege disturbance of graves are trying “to get back at their manager.”

On Feb. 13, following a one-day court holiday, the defense resumed and concluded its opening statement, arguing that evidence will show that if there were any incidents, they were isolated and were responded to appropriately by management. 

Over the course of the coming weeks, Gurnee’s opening statement suggested, the defense will make the case that the plaintiffs are relying heavily on testimonies of disgruntled employees who want to hurt their former bosses.

“Despite 180 inspections by the plaintiffs and their experts,” Gurnee said, “Not a single bit of evidence of mishandling remains has been discovered.”

Speaking to the jury, Gurnee concluded: “You’ll have to decide whether there’s any evidence of any kind of wrongdoing, whether our client knew about it, whether our client was aware.”

Cemetery chief Herbert Klapper’s salary among highest in Jewish communal world

Herbert Klapper, the president of a New Jersey not-for-profit cemetery, has one of the top salaries in the Jewish communal world.

Klapper, of Cedar Park & Beth El Cemetery in Paramus, took home a base salary of $729,000 in 2009, according to tax documents, the paper reported.

The Forward’s 2011 survey of Jewish communal salaries—a survey that did not include Jewish cemeteries—found only two individuals earning more than Klapper: Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center received $739,000 in 2009, and Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University, received $853,000.

The paper found that only one other not-for-profit cemetery in the country with comparable revenues paid its top executive a higher salary in 2009. The cemetery, which is not Jewish, had assets 3 1/2 times larger than those of Cedar Park.

Lawrence Rose, Cedar Park’s general manager, defended Klapper’s salary.

“We have 300 acres of property and over 25,000 crypt spaces in modern beautiful buildings. There are no other facilities like ours on the East Coast,” he told the paper. “If you had visited other cemeteries, especially those in New York, you would have concluded that none offer the quality and dignity at burial, or offer mourners and visitors the opportunity to reflect in an environment like ours.”

Budapest Jewish cemetery being probed for corruption

Police are investigating allegations of corruption relating to fees charged for interment and other funerary arrangements at Budapest’s main Jewish cemetery.

Witnesses said police late last week conducted a search of the Jewish community’s downtown offices, including the office of the chevra kadisha, or burial society, and also at the office of the vast main Jewish cemetery on Kozma Street in an outlying district of the city.

The magazine Index in an article last week raised allegations of financial wrongdoing including embezzlement, double-entry bookkeeping and transactions without receipts in the sale of burial sites and interment services at the cemetery.

In response to the allegations, the umbrella Hungarian Jewish organization Mazsihisz issued a statement saying that the Budapest Jewish community had uncovered one case of abuse several months ago. It said the irregularity involved a false receipt issued for a sum that was not paid into the relevant account. The cemetery director was fired after repaying the money, the organization said.

“The irregularities that were committed did not involve the invoicing system of the funerary department” of the chevra kadisha, according to the Mazsihisz statement.  However, it added, “further inspections establishing possible penal responsibility and calling the perpetrators to account will remain at the discretion of the investigation department and of the court of law.”

Kosovo Jewish cemetery desecrated

Kosovo authorities are investigating the desecration Tuesday of a local Jewish cemetery. Swastikas and anti-Jewish slogans were sprayed on tombstones of this old cemetery which was restored less than six months ago.

Rabbi Yoel Kaplan, Chief Rabbi of Albania and Chabad representative to the region who was designated to oversee the cemetery by the Government of Kosovo, was contacted by the Prime Minister’s office, which condemned the vandalism.

“They reassured me that the authorities are working vigorously to find the perpetrators,” Kaplan told lubavitch.com in a phone interview from Israel.

There are about 70 Jewish graves in the cemetery, which lay in disrepair for years. “It was used a soccer field, and the graves were used as goalies,” said Rabbi Kaplan.

After the renovation in June by a group of American and Kosovan students, Kaplan learned that certain groups objected to the government for its help in restoring the cemetery. Kaplan says he suspects that the complaints came from neighboring Serbia.

“As Jewish life in the Balkans experiences a renewal, we’re seeing resentment and opposition by certain organizations and groups who seem not to tolerate the Jewish revival this region is experiencing,” Kaplan said.

Rabbi Kaplan made a recommendation to Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, as a cautionary measure, that security cameras be installed on the cemetery grounds.

The Prime Minister did not see reason for any real worry, said Kaplan. “We were rather optimistic. The fact is that when people in Kosovo see me—a conspicuously religious Jew—they approach with warmth and blessing. They want to learn about Judaism, and are so happy to see Jews return to this area,” said Kaplan.

President Atifete Jahjaga condemned the act. “The damaging of cemeteries presents an act in complete contradiction with the traditions and values of the people of Kosovo, based on tolerance and full respect for all the dead and all the monuments,” Jahjaga said in a statement.

Kosovo, which is largely Muslim, has a tiny population of 50 Jews. The former Serbian province declared its independence from Serbia in 2008.

Holocaust victims reburied in Romanian Jewish cemetery

The remains of dozens of Jews killed by Romanian troops during the Holocaust and found in a mass grave were reburied in a Jewish cemetery.

The unidentified remains of at least 40 Jewish victims were reburied on Monday in the Jewish cemetery of Iasi in northeastern Romania.

The bodies were discovered by archeologists near the village of Popricani last November, according to reports. The victims were killed there in the summer of 1941. More than 15,000 Jews were killed in Iasi during pogroms in 1941.

Five American and British rabbis officiated Monday at a memorial service for the unidentified victims.

Snow dumping topples headstones in Brooklyn cemetery

New York City snow removal trucks dumped tons of snow from the area’s recent blizzard into the city’s largest Jewish cemetery, toppling 21 headstones.

An iron fence around Brooklyn’s Washington Cemetery also was damaged when crews from the Sanitation Department dumped the snow into the cemetery over New Year’s weekend, the New York Post reported Wednesday.

The damage was discovered Sunday. Family members of some relatives buried in the cemetery have visited in recent days to check on the graves.

Several cars parked next to the cemetery also were buried; some were damaged.

The cemetery reportedly will file a claim with the city.

The blizzard that hit the New York metropolitan area Dec. 26-27 dropped 2 feet or more of snow in some spots.

In saving Jewish remnants in Galicia, an effort to enlist Ukrainians

On a sloping green hill tucked between small farmsteads, the mottled graves of Jews buried here since the 1600s rise up like a forgotten forest.

Trudging through the mud between the tilted stones, their chiseled Hebrew lettering and renderings of menorahs sometimes barely visible, Vladimer Levin, an animated young historian who specializes in Jewish art, wants to save the gravestones.

“When we talk about preserving Jewish history, it’s not just about the spiritual life, thought and books but the material culture Jews produced for themselves. And that is what remains in this place,” he said, looking at the tombstones. “They are the artistic remnants of this small Jewish community.”

Levin, a 39-year-old immigrant to Israel from St. Petersburg, Russia, is part of a team of Israeli historians attempting to document what remains of a once populous and vibrant Jewish life in the regions of Galicia and Bukovina, most of which is in the western edge of present-day Ukraine.

As part of efforts to recover the world that once was in these towns and shtetls, where some 1 million Jews lived before the Holocaust, the researchers are partnering with Ukrainian academics. The idea is not only to boost the level of scholarship but to highlight to Ukrainian locals a Jewish past that spanned centuries but is rarely remembered publicly in the country.

“Jewish history is not part of the agenda” in Ukraine, said Yaroslav Hrystak, director of graduate studies at the Ukrainian Catholic University, which has partnered with the Israeli researchers. “It’s like a whole subject that disappeared.”

The project aims to collect oral testimony and document cemeteries and synagogues left derelict or used for such purposes as canning factories to storage space, and enlist young Ukrainian historians to do Jewish-related scholarship. An online database has been established on the project’s website to make the research widely accessible. The project also has set up a scholarship for Ukrainian graduate students to spend a year at Hebrew University to learn Jewish history, Hebrew and Yiddish.

“Records are being lost in front of us, and so the goal is collection and preservation,” said David Wallach, a professor of molecular biology at Israel’s Weizmann Institute who is among the group of families that helped establish a fund called the Ludmer Project to help pay for the research.

Academics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev are overseeing the project with the hope of including other universities.

Wallach, 64, became intrigued by the region’s history after his father’s death. He found among his father’s belongings a black suitcase crammed with photographs and documents he had taken with him from Bukovina before immigrating to prestate Palestine in 1932.

“There is an urgent need for this research,” said Wallach, a tall man with a graying beard.

His relatives came from various parts of Galicia, including a former shtetl called Nardvirna where Gestapo units assisted by local Ukrainians rounded up most of the town’s Jews on Sukkot of 1941. With whips and dogs, the 3,500 or so Jews were herded into a nearby forest and shot, their bodies dropping into ditches.

Here the complete destruction of the country’s Jewish communities is marked with little commemoration or public knowledge. No haunting edifices of concentration camps like Auschwitz, in neighboring Poland, stand as testimony.

The collection of oral testimonies from Ukrainians who were old enough to bear witness to this period and prewar Jewish life is part of the project’s mission.

Among the grimmer tales collected in Solotyvin was information on the approximate location of a communal grave of Jewish doctors and pharmacists and their families who were killed after most of the village’s Jews were rounded up. The grave was dug near the cemetery’s entrance, locals recalled, although no one could be sure if it was to the left or the right of the path that divides the hundreds of tombstones.

They also told of a doctor’s young son who was found hiding and brought to the cemetery to be shot and buried.

“My parents did not speak. These were not things you told children about,” Wallach said, adding that his mother only warned him of her birthplace, “Don’t go there; the land is soaked in blood.”

Now he is spearheading efforts to solicit funds and assistance to keep the project going. For Wallach it has become a mission to honor the lives lived in a world that no longer exists. Along with a small group of historians and journalists, including JTA, Wallach traveled to the southern side of Galicia last month to see some of the project’s past and future work. 

“We want to go beyond the Shoah,” said Levin, who led the tour along with fellow Hebrew University historian Semion Goldin, director of the Leonid Nevzlin Research Center for Russian and European Jewry. “Before people were killed, they lived many generations in these places. We are the result of these lives.”

In a small white van careening down pot-holed roads deep in the countryside, one of the stops was a small town known as Podhajce (Pidhaistsi in Ukrainian), an important place on the Jewish map during the 17th and 18th centuries. It was the hometown of several rabbis who went on to prominence in other parts of Europe.

Podhajce once was a walled town, an embattled place that found itself under successive attack over the centuries from raiding armies including the Tartars, Cossacks, Nazis and eventually the Soviets.

Along a narrow road, a stone-faced building rises far above the surrounding tin roofs of the neighboring houses, the oldest standing structure in the town. It is a synagogue built in the early 17th century with soaring Gothic windows. The massive buttresses on its south side suggest it may have been used as what is known as a fortress synagogue intended to shelter locals and withstand attacks.

A corrugated roof was put on during the Soviet era, but inside the building is dark and abandoned. A packed dirt floor is littered with broken bottles and the odd discarded shoe. Its thick plaster walls house a deep niche, the former site of its holy ark. 

Budget allowing, the historians plan to return with a team of Israeli and Ukrainian architectural students next summer to document the structure with measurements and photographs. But they fear that the the building, in such poor shape, might not last another winter.

They also plan to document the town’s Jewish cemetery next summer. Dozens of rows of graves already are gone, leaving a massive gap between the headstones. They were taken away by locals for paving stones, some of which make up part of the stairs leading out of the cemetery.

“If the past is being erased, our response is to study, preserve and document,” said Wallach, adding the Talmudic maxim, “You are not obliged to finish the task but neither are you free to walk away from it.”

Tehran cemetery Web site links local Persians to Iran

Nearly four years ago, Shahram Farzan, an Iranian Jew living in Los Angeles, traveled to Tehran to have a hand-carved marble tombstone placed on his father’s grave at the Jewish cemetery, which has been called “beheshtieh” by the city’s Jewry for more than half a century. (The word beheshtieh is Persian for “heavenly place.”)

After Farzan had photographed his father’s new tombstone, he was inspired to create a Web site — Beheshtieh.com — to share what he had seen. For the next two months, Farzan painstakingly cleaned and photographed nearly 80 percent of the graves at the 20-acre cemetery, so that the exiled Iranian Jewish community in Southern California could view their loved ones’ gravesites online.

“After the revolution, many people lost their ties to Iran and to the cemetery because it was not a priority,” said Farzan, 52. “I thought by taking these photographs of the graves, their relatives living in Beverly Hills would maybe see this and realize that the world is not just about money and power.”

For the past three years, Farzan, who owns a Los Angeles demolition business, spent his own funds and his spare time translating, cataloging and posting more than 10,000 photographs in preparation for the Web site’s launch last June. Each photo is accompanied by English translations listed beneath.

Many of the tombstones are made from white marble and have elaborate hand-carved designs, including Stars of David, menorahs and inscriptions in both Persian and Hebrew. Others are just mounds of earth without a proper headstone or identifying marker. And many of the tombstones have been damaged by poor weather and lack of upkeep, Farzan said.

“On the grounds of the cemetery, I saw a lot of used drug needles, roaming dogs, trash dumped everywhere, a greenhouse with shattered windows and some homeless people loitering there,” Farzan said.Despite the cemetery’s worn condition, Farzan spoke only praise for the remaining Jews of Iran who, he said, have not abandoned the site.

He was also appreciative that the Iranian government has not allowed developers to build on the site, as has happened in some non-Jewish cemeteries in the country.

“I think the Iranian government has been very respectful for keeping the cemetery and not demolishing it,” Farzan said. “Historically, from the time of Abraham, we are cousins with Muslims and must foster better relations with them.”

Not all the Jews buried in Tehran’s Jewish cemetery are of Iranian heritage. The cemetery is also home to more than 60 European Jews who escaped Nazi Europe for Iran in the early 1940s and died there, Farzan said.

The Jewish community in Iran has never had a mortuary business. Traditionally, Jewish volunteers donated funds and physically helped with preparations for burial of the dead; volunteers included some of the most affluent businessmen in the community.

Woodland Hills resident Yusef Hendizadeh, 80, who volunteered at the cemetery from the 1940s until the 1970s, is one of the original caretakers of Tehran’s Jewish cemetery.

“I was a very successful businessman in the fabrics business; they [community leaders] came to me and gave me the responsibility of helping the community with their burial needs,” Hendizadeh said in his native Persian tongue. “At that time, there was a difficult road to travel to the cemetery, so we had to carry the bodies by a horse-drawn carriage; later the community helped pay for a car.”

According to Dr. Habib Levy’s “Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran” (Mazda Publishers, 1999), the site for Tehran’s Jewish cemetery was also used as a temporary refugee camp, housing thousands of Iranian and Iraqi Jews waiting to immigrate to Israel. Many had fled their homes out of fear of being killed after Israel declared its independence.

Perhaps one of the best-known Jewish burial grounds in Iran is the traditional site of the tombs of Esther and Mordecai, located in the city of Hamadan. Although Iranian Jews have long believed that the tombs belong to Esther and Mordecai, historians and archeologists note a lack of solid evidence.

“The great archeologist Ernst Herzfeld, in his book, suspected that Esther and Mordechai were buried there,” Amnon Netzer, professor of Middle Eastern and Iranian studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, told The Journal in 2005. “But [he] later indicated that he believed Shushandokht, a Jewish woman who was the wife of Yazgerd I, an Iranian king, is buried there.”

Netzer also said the tomb of the Jewish biblical prophet Daniel is located in the southern Iranian city of Susa, and is visited by both Jews and Muslims.

Local Iranian Jewish leaders said Farzan’s photos of Jewish gravesites also serve an important role in preserving historical records of Iran’s Jewry dating back more than 2,500 years.

“Some of these sites are older than the Talmud; some are as old as Queen Esther,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the L.A.-based Iranian-American Jewish Federation. “In the absence of any other guaranteed alternatives, photographs may be the best option for preserving at least the memories of these sites.”

Farzan said he would like to return to Iran and photograph the graves at various other Jewish cemeteries in the cities of Esfahan, Kermanshah, Kashan, Rezaeh, Shiraz, Sanandj and Yazd.

Kermanian said local Iranian Jews are looking to help Farzan expand his efforts in photographing and recording various significant Jewish burial sites throughout Iran.

Representatives from the Jewish Central Committee of Tehran, who control the cemetery, indicated in a written statement that there are plans to transform a chapel on the grounds of the cemetery into a small museum honoring those who helped establish the cemetery in 1933.

Farzan said he is seeking online donations from those using the site. The funds will be used for maintenance and new landscaping renovations for Tehran’s Jewish cemetery as well as to build a small memorial to Tehran’s Jewish cemetery at Groman Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills.

“We must pay our respects to the past generations lying in that cemetery [who] sacrificed by enduring hardship while holding onto their Judaism, which we still have today,” Farzan said.

We’d All Rather Be in Venice

“What a bunch of shleppers,” my father remarks, his head doing a 180-degree pan as he takes in the view. “Not one of them has anything unique to say. Such
conformists. Just looking at them makes me nauseous.”

I turn to look, so that I, too, can take in the same view. Yes, we’re at the cemetery, looking at a hillside dotted with graves marked with headstones. It’s a quiet, pastoral setting. No one is saying much, except my father, who as usual can’t — or won’t — stop talking. This particular rant has been a perennial, ongoing drama in my family’s life, ever since my mother died.

It’s been two years this week since my mother, Betty Switkes, died, and we still haven’t had the unveiling. Jewish custom dictates that you unveil the headstone a year after the person dies, but my father has not found the right stone or the right words to inscribe on that stone, so she rests in this unmarked grave. People who pass by this spot might suspect the person buried here is a forgotten soul, but nothing could be further from the truth. She is the focus of his obsession.

He explains to me and anyone else who cares to listen: “The stone should tell the world what a unique person she was. Not just her name and her dates, but it should say something about her.”

“How about beloved wife and mother?” I offer.

“No! Every headstone says that. Look around you. Beloved wife and mother. Beloved wife and mother. Dime a dozen. Not at all unique.”

“She was uniquely your wife and my mother.”

“You don’t understand what I’m trying to do,” he stresses.

Actually I do. He doesn’t want to say goodbye. Once we have the unveiling, then what? As long as he can put this final ritual on hold, he can postpone that final farewell.

“When Betty died, half of me died,” he says.

He talks about her: “She did so much with her life. We threw the best parties. She was the greatest hostess. And her charity work. Always volunteering, always helping someone. And her exercise. She was a pioneer. She developed special exercises for the elderly. Seniorcize. I want to put all that on her headstone. So people know who they are dealing with.”

Note the present tense.

“Do you really want the headstone to look like a resume?” I ask. “Besides, everyone who knew her knows what she accomplished. And everyone who didn’t know her never will.”

He doesn’t hear me.

My father has decided on a double headstone, and that makes sense. They shared a bed for 56 years, so they should share a grave.

But that further complicates the problem of finding the appropriate inscription. If there’s a unique inscription on my mother’s side of the stone, then there must be a comparable inscription on my father’s side. It has to be balanced. Maybe the inscription should be about their life together.

“Write one inscription that applies to both of you. Perhaps something about your marriage,” I offer.

His face lights up. I suggest: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”
He rejects it: “Absolutely not. That’s on every ketubbah ever written. C’mon. Think outside the box.”

Here we come to the crux of the problem. Joe Switkes is loud, fun and eccentric. He’s brilliant, expressive and totally unreasonable, a man of action, bold action. And death is the state that has no verb. Talk about irreconcilable differences.

He’s thinking about their marriage and fondly recalls the days they spent at Venice Beach, playing in the sand with their granddaughter.

How about, “We’d rather be in Venice,” I offer.

He laughs.

“That’s good. It takes it away from all this depressing stuff you see around here. I want our headstone to be unique and fun,” he explains.
But then I have second thoughts. When I’m looking at my parents’ grave, I don’t want fun.

He takes another stab at it. How about, “Betty was beautiful and caring, and Joe was smart and humorous.”

I say, “Dad, don’t clutter up the headstone with a lot of adjectives, it’ll read like a profile on JDate.”

He comes back with, “Together they lived a life that was a joy, an adventure and lots of laughs.”

I don’t think so. “Keep it dignified and sparse. Think poetry, not prose.”
Valiantly, the whole family pitches in, making suggestions. My husband suggests, “Beauty and the Beast.” Mom was like Belle – beautiful, well read and independent. Dad is like the Beast, a true prince with a heart of gold, but one must first deal with his hideous temper.

We all howl with laughter. It seems perfect, but then Dad has second thoughts. Beauty and the Beast strikes him as juvenile, and he’s not convinced that all of their friends will “get it.”

I turn to Ecclesiastes and read this beautiful passage:


Kids Learn Burial Rites From Barney

Their bagels sliced, toasted and slathered with cream cheese, the parents and students of the fourth- and fifth-grade classes at Santa Monica’s Sha’arei Am turn toward Rabbi Jeff Marx as he welcomes them to Family Education Day.

His introduction is interrupted by Lori Daitch, the director of education. The suddenly somber rabbi informs the group that he has just learned that Barney, a congregant, whose real name is Bernard Dinotzuris, has just collapsed in the sanctuary.

With much giggling, and a touch of consternation, the group enters the sanctuary where the purple plush 3-foot-tall Dinotzuris is sprawled near the pulpit.

“What should I do?” the rabbi asks, appropriately concerned.

A call to 911 leads to the swift arrival of a “paramedic,” in vest and plastic firefighter’s hat. He takes a good look at the patient, does a bit of CPR and announces that Bernard is most certainly and irretrievably dead.

This is, in fact, the fourth time Bernard has passed away. For the past four years, Marx has conducted this discussion on the Jewish rites and rituals surrounding death. The participating parents have all been informed of the contents of the session in advance. For the students, depending on the efficacy of the sibling grapevine, it is more or less a surprise.

“What do we now? ” the rabbi asks.

The kids boisterously offer solutions, ranging from a toss in the Dumpster to cremation.

“Well,” Marx says. “As it happens, Bernard had written me a letter saying he wants to be buried.”

When someone dies, the rabbi explains, mortuaries take care of the body. Jason Schwartz, a teacher, who was just the paramedic, now returns as the “Man From the Mortuary.” Carefully lifting Bernard onto a book cart transformed into a gurney, he efficiently wheels him away.

The giggling has stopped; kids who had been jostling and fidgeting have found seats near their parents.

It’s an impressive transformation.

With Bernard on his way to the mortuary, the rabbi fields questions on Jewish burial rituals and beliefs on tattoos, cremation, embalming, organ donation and much more.

Everyone knows that a speedy burial is important, and the discussion ends as the students and parents, accompanied by teachers Schwartz and Jennifer Flam, head for the Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary.

“I’ve wanted to do a program on death for a long time,” Marx says on the way to the cemetery. “It’s good for the kids, but lots of parents haven’t had much experience dealing with questions of death and dying either. My congregation is the sandwich generation, caring for both their children and their parents. This is education about the real world,” he said.

The real world, but in fuzzy purple and green.

“Our first problem was to figure out what we would do for a body,” he says. “We hit on Barney as the perfect solution — he was no longer an object of attachment for fourth and fifth graders, but they were completely familiar with him.”

Michael and Elaine Sachs attended the first burial of Barney in 2003 with their older daughter Rebecca. Six months later, Elaine Sachs, 41, suffered an aortic aneurysm while on a Girl Scout camping trip with Rebecca, and could not be resuscitated.

Michael Sachs remembers that he had initially thought that a program on death wasn’t really important for people in their 40s.

“But, in fact,” he now says, “I learned things I assumed I wouldn’t need to think about for many years. I thought the program dealt with potentially distressing material in a nonthreatening, matter-of-fact fashion,” he said.

“Even under the shock and duress, the fact that we’d gone through that program, made the process somewhat more manageable and less difficult,” he says. “As a part of Jewish education and life experience, I now feel that it’s almost essential.”

Even when the experience does not become as immediately and painfully relevant as it did for the Sachs family, programs such as these help children understand that death and dying is an open topic for discussion.

“It’s always helpful to children to give them experiences of seeing death as a normal part of life,” said Natalie Levine, program director of Family Service of Santa Monica, a division of Vista del Mar Child and Family.

“Children in the fourth and fifth grade don’t yet think abstractly, so this emphasis on the concrete steps taken when someone dies helps them manage their emotions,” she added.

When the cars full of kids from the Santa Monica Synagogue pull up at Hillside’s Chapel, Jill Glasband, the mortuary’s director of community outreach is waiting.

She gives a tour of the premises, including the casket selection room, as well as displays of shrouds and caskets and urns for cremation.

In the chapel, with Bernard Dinotzuris settled into a simple pine casket, the rabbi delivers a eulogy. Students, enlisted as pallbearers, carry the casket to the hearse. They proceed to the far end of the cemetery, where the rabbi leads a brief graveside service.

This year, Hillside has prepared a marker for the grave, so with a quick flash forward, the group moves a few feet and a year into the future for an unveiling of Bernard Dinotzuris’ gravestone.

All services concluded, the group disperses. As they look at gravestones, noting the life spans of grandparents as well as young children, everyone seems engrossed in quiet conversations — ones that will no doubt continue.


Looking for A Legend

Years ago I’d heard from someone or read somewhere that Wyatt Earp is buried in Colma, near San Francisco, a bit of provocative trivia whose truth I’d never been sure of. One day a while back I decided to check it out. I would have thought that one of the most famous figures in the history of the Old West would have ended up in the landscape of his legend. In the case of Wyatt Earp, this would mean Dodge City, Wichita, or more appropriately, Tombstone.

As a boy, I watched Wyatt Earp gun down, pistol whip and give barefisted beatings to legions of outlaws and romance plenty of clear-eyed frontier beauties in countless movies and TV shows. Saying the name now, even with the hindsight of adult skepticism, stirs up a chill of the old childhood wonder, which is why after all these years I found myself on my way to Colma looking for the final word in the legend of Wyatt Earp.

Colma is a necropolis a few miles south of San Francisco, the place to which the city’s dead were removed in 1914 and where they have been buried ever since, near the Serramonte Shopping Center in Daly City. Several cemeteries line both sides of El Camino Real, many catering to specific religious or ethnic groups — Japanese, Chinese, Italians, Jews, Greeks, etc.

I went with a friend, and we picked out a cemetery office at random, went in and asked the people behind the counter if they could tell us where Wyatt Earp was buried. After a couple such tries, we were told to try the Hills of Eternity Cemetery. Pulling up the entrance, we read the sign:

Hills of Eternity
Portals of Eternity
Gardens of Eternity
Temple Sherith Israel

I was surprised that it was an exclusively Jewish cemetery.

At the end of the driveway, hundreds, seemingly thousands, of headstones and monuments stretched back along a low slope. We got out of the car, and an old-timer wearing a Hills of Eternity baseball cap sitting in a nearby blue station wagon noticed us. After watching us look indecisively at the countless headstones for a few moments, he called, "You boys looking for Wyatt Earp?"

"Do many people come out here looking for him?" I asked.

"Oh, yes, five or six a week," he said. "There are always people, all kinds of cowboys come out looking for his grave. He’s the most visited man in Colma."

We followed the foreman’s directions, walked up the hill past headstones and monuments of every size and imposing crypts. We found the spot — his name was on one of two flat metal plaques set into cement and seemed almost inconspicuous.

Wyatt Earp, 1848-1929

Josephine Earp, 1861-1944

And sharing the same plot:

Max Weiss, 1870-1947

Wyatt Earp is buried in a Jewish cemetery, surrounded by tombstones adorned with stone doves, Stars of David and menorahs, amid a sprinkling of palm trees. All my life I had never given any thought to his ethnic background, but now found myself wondering if Earp is a Jewish name or if his wife was Jewish. And who was Max Weiss, the man buried beside them? Had Max Weiss been Wyatt Earp’s agent?

Wyatt Earp was not Jewish, but his wife was. "Pioneer Jews" by Harriet and Fred Rochlin offers a portrait of her life, much of which is drawn from a book titled "I Married Wyatt Earp."

The book tells how Josephine Weiss ran away from her parents in San Francisco when she was 15 to the Arizona Territory as a cast member of Pauline Markham Troupe’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s "H.M.S. Pinafore." She was apprehended and returned to San Francisco but in the meantime had acquired a suitor, Johnny Behan, who followed her back to ask her parents for her hand in marriage. Josephine then went with Behan to Tombstone where, after the romance soured, she met Wyatt Earp, then a deputy sheriff, proprietor of the Oriental Saloon, and married to his second wife, Mattie. A love affair ensued.

Wyatt and Josephine spent nearly 50 years together, moving around the West. Despite her claim that they were married, no record of the marriage has been found. At one point they operated a saloon in Nome, Ala., during the Klondike gold rush. Ultimately they settled in Los Angeles, where Wyatt hoped to cash in on his experiences through the movie industry, but it never happened.

"Wyatt’s family were almost all gone and we had no children. My only home was where my parents rest. So I took Wyatt’s ashes to San Francisco," Josephine Earp wrote about her husband’s burial.

Looking at a photograph of the real Wyatt Earp, I wonder to what extent his legend followed him during his lifetime. Of all the actors who have played him (Burt Lancaster, James Garner, Hugh O’Brian, Henry Fonda and Randolph Scott, among others), the first was Walter Huston in "Law and Order," which came out in 1931, two years after Wyatt was brought to Colma. I wonder what those last 30 years must have been like for a man who saw the frontier close, gave up his guns and horses, and became part of a world in which the changes made were total and spectacular: seeing the coming of electric lights, telephones, motion pictures, airplanes, automobiles, radio, machine guns, battleships, comic strips, neon signs and zippers.

Whatever the truth was about Wyatt Earp’s life as a lawman and the gunfight at O.K. Corral, the romance and the legend endure, as they will. As for the real Wyatt Earp, he lies in the earth a short drive from a shopping center in a place far from any drifting tumbleweeds or howling coyotes.

But well over half a century after his death, the visitors keep finding him. The cowboys come to stand among the stones and hold their hats in their hands while saying a few quiet words or thinking a few private thoughts before walking back down the slope to drive off in their pickups or Japanese cars.


Building a Bridge

The new Israeli consul for communications hopes to create dialogue between Israel and Jewish communities in the United States

By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Young Arthur Lenk, a native of Patterson, N.J., was at his desk in the protocol division of the Israeli foreign ministry, when the radio flashed the news that Yitzhak Rabin has been assassinated.

His immediate assignment: to make all arrangements for the visit of 14 heads of state from the Middle East and Africa, who would arrive for the state funeral of the slain prime minister two days hence.

“I didn’t sleep for three days,” Lenk recalls, sitting in his office at the Israel consulate general in Los Angeles. “I didn’t have time to mourn. It didn’t hit me until much later.”

Five weeks afterward, his second daughter was born, who was named Ilana Rabin Lenk.

As the newly arrived consul for communications and public affairs, the 34-year-old Lenk doesn’t expect quite as intense an experience here, but he takes his new assignment seriously.

“As an Israeli who is a product of the American Jewish community, I hope to serve as a bridge between Israel and the Jewish communities of the southwestern United States,” he says. “My goal is to create a dialogue between equals.”

Pointing to the often acrimonious confrontations centering on the conversion bill and religious plurality in Israel, Lenk believes that “there have been many misconceptions on both sides. We have to learn to listen to each other, because we’re in this together.”

Lenk was raised in New Jersey in a traditional home, attended a “Conservative/Orthodox” day school, and after high school went to Israel to study at Hebrew University.

Two years later, he enlisted in the army, because “that’s the admission fee to be an Israeli.” A more pragmatic inducement for joining up was because “that’s where the girls were. And if you wanted to meet them, you had to speak Hebrew.”

After serving as a medic for 2 1/2 years, he went back to Hebrew University as a law student, and eventually passed the bar examinations in both Israel and New York state.

“I practiced business and trade law in Jerusalem for several years, and hated every minute of it,” he says. When he noticed a recruiting ad in a newspaper placed by the foreign ministry, he responded and changed his career path.

For the past two years, Lenk has been the cultural affairs consul at the Israeli embassy in New Delhi. Among other accomplishments, he introduced Indians to their first encounter with a klezmer band.

Lenk is awaiting the arrival of his wife, Ruth, also an American-born Israeli and a graphic artist, with their two young daughters.

He has found an apartment not far from the Israeli consulate. “If it weren’t illegal in Los Angeles,” he says, “I would walk to work.”

A Final Resting Place?

Hollywood Memorial Park faces closure unless a buyercomes to the rescue

By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Photos by Peter Halmagyi

Hollywood Memorial Park is the cemetery of the stars, and rightnow it is starring in a cliffhanger of its own.

At stake is whether the memorial park, whose graves and cryptshold the last remains of Rudolph Valentino, Cecil B. DeMille, DouglasFairbanks Sr., Tyrone Power and John Huston, will remain open andfunctioning, or whether it will be padlocked and abandoned.

Equally atstake is the future of Beth Olam Cemetery, the park’s Jewish sectionand the last resting place of an estimated 20,000 Jews, includingactors Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson, Peter Lorre and Mel Blanc,producers Harry Cohn and Jesse Lasky, composer Erich WolfgangKorngold, and mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.

In the worst-case scenario, the entire place will be closed down,thus barring mourners from visits to relatives’ graves and deprivingothers of their pre-paid plots and mausoleum niches.

In a happier ending, a responsible buyer will ride to the rescueat the last moment and not only keep the memorial park open but,hopefully, restore neglected buildings and grounds to their formerglory.

At press time, the final outcome was still uncertain.

The Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery, to give its full name, wasfounded in 1899 by two historical figures, I.N. Van Nuys and Col.J.B. Lankershim. It stretched over 100 acres south of Santa MonicaBoulevard and east of Gower Street. Later, the southernmost 40 acreswere sold to the expanding Paramount Studios.

The 1994 Northridge earthquake damaged some of the structures andgrounds at the cemetery, which is operated as a for-profit business.The following year, alleged questionable business practices by theformer owners, which depleted the endowment funds for care andmaintenance, came to a head and accelerated the downward spiral.

In late 1995, the state Department of Consumer Affairs seized thecemetery’s records. During the first half of last year, the cemeteryfiled for bankruptcy, further sales of plots were prohibited, and acourt-appointed trustee took over daily operations.

For more than a year, the trustees have looked for a buyer to takeover the cemetery, but have found no takers. In a last-ditch efforttwo weeks ago, the trustees held a nationally advertised auction.

The only bid came from Buck Kamphausen, a successful operator ofcemeteries in Sacramento and Fresno, who offered $275,000.

Now enter another party — the Heritage Auxiliary Company, a CoastFederal Bank affiliate that holds the mortgage on the cemetery.Heritage is owed $2.7 million for pre-bankruptcy loans extended toHollywood Memorial. Before the auction, it announced that it wouldentertain a bid of at least $500,000.

Currently, Heritage and Kamphausen are in negotiations, and it isreported that the gap over the sales price has narrowed considerably.

A court hearing has been set for Dec. 10, and it will likelydetermine the future of Hollywood Memorial and Beth Olam cemeteries.

Meanwhile, three major players are working intensively to save thecemetery, while fielding hundreds of phone calls from worriedcitizens.

One is David Isenberg, attorney for the trustees, who has beentrying to bring the cemetery’s plight to the notice of the media andthe general public.

Another is Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, whosedistrict includes the cemetery. Goldberg vows that she is absolutelycommitted to saving Hollywood Memorial and that “there is no way wewill abandon it.”

Her deputy, Roxana Tynan, has been canvassing motion picturestudios and charities and says that she has had some encouragementfrom neighboring Paramount.

She is also seeking city and state support and hopes to have thecemetery recognized as a national historical monument, which mightunlock funds from the Getty and other foundations.

She is also considering an approach to the Los Angeles Times.After all, the daily’s founder, Gen. Harris Gray Otis, and hissuccessor, Harry Chandler, rest under tombstones at the cemetery.

Another activist is Lauri Lopp, an executive with the Bank ofHollywood and a volunteer ambassador for the Hollywood Chamber ofCommerce.

As a banker, Lopp judges that a settlement between Coast Federaland Kamphausen is feasible. She reserves high praise for Homer Alba,the cemetery’s office manager, who has been “polishing tombstones”and trying in other ways to maintain the grounds, said Lopp.

Concerned persons are encouraged to call Tynan at Goldberg’soffice at (213) 913-4693. If she is not in, leave a message for her,including your name, address and phone number.