Stones Not Flowers: Visiting My Grandparents’ Graves
One of the oddest Jewish traditions I’ve encountered is the custom of placing a small rock on top of the headstone or somewhere close to a gravesite rather than flowers. I love the color, the reminder of life flowers offer the gravesite of a loved one. It’s comforting to see another living thing when you’re surrounded by so much death. I had to wonder why bring a cold, hard rock. What message does that send?
There is of course little consensus as to where and when this costume developed. I’m learning this is not uncommon. Ask two Jews a question and you’ll get three opinions. I will say most of the answers do have a common element: the solidity and longevity of stone.
Flowers are full of life but they fade, die. They are a reminder of death as they wither — an apt metaphor for the cycle of life. When someone dies we will forever keep him or her in our memory. We pass on stories to our children like how their grandfather built a salmon empire in the early part of his life and spent the later part supporting the arts. A stone represents permanence like our memories, something that should not wither over time.
Humans have used stones for thousands of years to cover a body when someone died or to mark a gravesite. As the act of burial changed, the habit of leaving a stone did not. A stone marks a person is remembered. It is there for other visitors to know memories of the deceased lives on.
Another explanation is derived from the Talmud (for those of you who don’t know, this is a compilation of writings covering Jewish laws and traditions written in the third to sixth centuries). It is suggested a soul will remain with a body for some time (a few days, a year, until resurrection depending on one’s interpretation) after death. It is thought a stone will weigh down the soul keeping it from leaving the burial site. On the superstitious side, some think stones prevent evil spirits from entering the soul of the deceased.
Regardless of wherever the custom originated from, I decided I wanted to visit my new family’s graves to introduce myself and let them know I was thinking of them. I went for a walk around my property looking for two perfect little stones to take with me. However, before I could go anywhere I needed to figure out where Sam was buried.
I scoured the Internet trying to find Sam or Gladys’s graves but could find no mention of where they were buried. When I met with the rabbi at Temple De Hirsch, I asked if he knew where they were buried since this was where they attended temple. He too couldn’t find anything. What I did locate were Sam’s parents’ graves, my grandparents Carl (or Kalman as he was born) and Dora Rubinstein.
I wish I knew more about these two souls both of who died almost 20 years before I was born. It’s amazing what you can find on the Internet. Carl was born in Mielec, Galicia, Austria to Mordecai Rubinstein and Reisla Perlstein in 1883. It’s strange to think my grandfather was born almost 100 years before me. And, I am now a second-generation immigrant.
Carl married Dora Tiefenbrun in 1908. Dora was born in Tarnow Poland in 1887. Through genetic matches, I’ve identified Dora must be related to Efraim Tiefenbrun and Szprinca Albert and while I believe these are her parents, I’m not 100% sure. I do know Carl originally supported his family by selling vegetables from a cart drawn by a horse. He built up his peddling business and eventually became a salmon broker. Carl and Dora had two children, my father Sam and his younger sister Rose.
I drove north until I reached the cemetery, Herzl Memorial Park. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d never been to a Jewish cemetery before but it looked like any other gravesites I’ve visited. It’s a small cemetery so it only took me a few moments to local their gravestone. It was a beautiful sunny day and not another soul was present.
I kneeled before the waist-high granite gravestone with Rubinstein carved in the stone marking their gravesite. The sun fell across my face. Rubinstein, I thought. I am a Rubinstein and these are my grandparents. There’s so much that wasn’t, that could’ve been. I squeezed the rocks in my hands willing myself not to cry for everything that wasn’t meant to be.
I thought about my life. My love of eating strawberries in the sun. Images of my art. My mom hugging me. Living overseas. Getting married. Graduating from college. Adventures with my husband. The birth of my sons. My joy in reading, planting, and knitting. My Jewish journey. And laughter. I focused on the happy times hoping to infuse love into the stones I held.
After some time I stood. I felt drained but content. I placed the two rocks on my grandparent’s gravestone and smiled.
Carl and Dora Rubinstein, you are remembered. I am grateful to you for without you, I would not be here nor would my three beautiful boys. May your memory be for a blessing!