January 19, 2020

The Youngest Victim

For Olga and Yevgeny Pesachovitch, it was as if their son, Grisha, died three times. The 15-year-old Russian immigrant boy was the youngest of the 13 Israeli civilians killed by the twin suicide bombers who blew themselves up in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market last Wednesday. His body was so mangled that the pathologists had to do blood tests before they could identify him.

But that was only the beginning of the family’s anguish. The father, Yevgeny, is Jewish. The mother, Olga, is not. As it happens, the couple is divorced. When they settled in Israel two years ago, the mother and son were registered as Christians, though they lived as secular Jews in Russia and came here under the Law of Return. The father, who immigrated shortly afterward, lives separately.

The religious authorities refused to bury Grisha in a Jewish cemetery. Since the mother was not Jewish, nor, according to Jewish law, was the son. Innocently believing that Israel honored its martyrs of Arab terror, Olga offered to have him buried in a secular ceremony. The trouble is that there is no secular graveyard in Jerusalem.

A sympathetic official recommended quiet, nondenominational burial in a Christian cemetery he knew of on the Mount of Olives. The family agreed, and a small, sad congregation of Russian Israelis followed the casket to the grave.

To the family’s horror, a black-robed Greek Orthodox priest asked permission to start the ceremony. Olga burst into tears. “No, no priest,” she wailed. “My son, Grisha, lived as a Jew in the Land of Israel. He was not a Christian. I am not ready to let him be buried as a Christian.”

The priest replied that if the Pesachovitches wouldn’t accept the funeral rites of the church, Grisha could not be buried in the Greek Orthodox cemetery. As reported by Ma’ariv, a distraught Yevgeny demanded a spade and offered to dig a grave with his own hands. But the priest would not yield, and the casket had to be reloaded on the hearse.

At City Hall, officials tried desperately to find a kibbutz or a secular cemetery where Grisha could at last be laid to rest. Either they had no one to prepare the ground on a Friday afternoon, or they were too far from Jerusalem. Olga, a high school science teacher, wanted to be able to mourn at her only son’s grave.

The Minister of Immigrant Absorption, Yuli Edelstein, heard about the saga of misery on Israel Radio and rushed to help. “It was an absurd, tragic spectacle that doesn’t dignify the State of Israel,” said Edelstein, a kippah-wearing Russian immigrant whose own parents converted to Christianity. “I was ashamed. When I met Grisha’s parents, I didn’t know what to tell them. It was a desecration which profaned the dignity of the deceased.”

From his car in the City Hall parking lot, Edelstein telephoned various religious officials in the hope of finding a civilized solution. This was not the first such case with which he had dealt. The religious authorities had previously agreed to bury people whose Jewish identity was in doubt in separate areas of Jewish cemeteries, divided not by the traditional wall but by a simple path. In fact, it transpires that nothing has been implemented.

Eventually, Edelstein reached the Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, who promised to arrange for Grisha to be buried on Sunday in an area set aside for “questionable” Jews in the city’s main cemetery at Givat Shaul.

Decency, it seemed, was prevailing. But the Pesachovitches’ humiliation was not yet over. The chief rabbi of Jerusalem, Yitzhak Koolitz, barred them from even a “questionable” Jew’s grave. Grisha was not Jewish at all, and there could be no concession, the rabbi determined.

In the end, the youngest victim of the Mahane Yehuda bombers was laid to rest in a vacant lot, belonging to the Bahai faith, adjacent to the Jewish cemetery.

Olga declined this week to talk to reporters. She had applied for Orthodox conversion before Grisha’s death, and she didn’t want to jeopardize her chances. The rest, as a more liberal-minded Jewish sage once said, is commentary.