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The Jewish Plot: A Story

April 15, 2013

by Leonid Poretsky

Poretsky"The Russians have really revitalized this cemetery," says Masha. She is a stocky woman with a pot-belly, a manly gait, and a fierce facial expression — except on the rare occasions when she smiles. Then her face turns warm and beautiful, resembling the face of my mother some thirty years ago.

Masha and my mother are neighbors. They live in an apartment building on Avenue N near Ocean Parkway (also known in certain immigrant circles in Brooklyn as "Russian Parkway"). Masha and my mother come from the same town in Belarus, Bobruisk, famous for the large number of Jews who settled there because of the Tsar's "Pale of Settlement" law, which prohibited them from living west or north of Bobruisk. After the revolution, Jews could live anywhere, so my mother moved to Leningrad, met my father and gave birth to my brother and me. Now we live in America: my parents in Brooklyn, my brother in Los Angeles, and I in Manhattan. Once in a while Bobruisk roots call, as they did today: my parents, Masha and I are going to the Jefferson Cemetery to buy graves for our entire family. The Jefferson Cemetery (on the corner of Bay Parkway and McDonald Avenue) is a burial site that is preferred and sought out by immigrants from Bobruisk, so my mother also wants to be buried there.

I do not want to be buried in the Jefferson Cemetery for many reasons. First, I was not born in Bobruisk, but in Leningrad. People from Leningrad like to be buried on Long Island or, if worse comes to worst, in New Jersey, where there are trees, space, and quiet. There is no quiet in the Jefferson Cemetery. The graves are shaken every few minutes by the F-train passing above the cemetery along McDonald Avenue. When the train is not passing, the Bay Parkway bus rolls by, once again disturbing those who should be resting in peace. Having lived for a few years in Manhattan, I have learned to tolerate noise as an unavoidable evil of this life — but after death I want some quiet. Another reason I do not want to buy graves in the Jefferson Cemetery is because the place is extremely crowded. In fact, until the Russians started coming, there were no longer any burials going on there, with every inch of the land already taken. Now the roads are being dug up for new graves, and I will not be surprised if at some point the cemetery takes over a portion of the sidewalk on Bay Parkway.

The most important reason why I do not want to be buried in the Jefferson Cemetery is that the graves are very expensive — $2,500 apiece! For four graves I have to pay $10,000! Nice, spacious, green, and grassy graves on Long Island cost only $500, so that $2,000 would cover the needs of our entire family. Besides, I do not even know yet where I am going to die — why buy a grave now? My mother's response to all of these arguments? "If you just return the graves to the cemetery," she says calmly, "you can always get your money back." That may be true, but what about the interest? If a few years from now I decide to return my grave, I will get at best my $2,500 back, even though, I am sure, the grave will be worth much more. "Don't be so stingy," says my mother. "After all, you have to do it only once in your life."

Why does she want to be buried here? "Because everybody here speaks Russian," she says. And this is true. There are Russians all over, both in the ground and above. Even the two clerks in the office, Elvira and Tamara, are Russians. The only non-Russian around, it seems, is a fellow named Joe, who is going to show us a selection of gravesites. The cemetery is spread out, so he will drive us around in a Ford truck. It takes some effort to lift my mother into the truck's passenger compartment — the weight, the bad knees, the weak arms. "Time to go to the cemetery," she jokes.

The first group of gravesites that Joe is showing us is in Section II (Section I is completely full), along the metal fence that separates the cemetery from Bay Parkway. My mother likes these graves because they are "close to the cemetery office." I do not like them at all. There are no trees (must be very hot in summer); no curb separating the graves from the road (I am sure some of the visitors are bad drivers and may run over the graves); and then there is the Bay Parkway bus. "Is there anything better?" I ask Joe. He does not think so, but is willing to show us some graves in Section III. "How far is that from the office?" asks my mother. "Not much farther than these graves," says Joe, "but in a different direction." "Do you want to hold any graves in this section, just in case?" he asks. This is the first time that my father gets into the conversation. "I want numbers 51, 52, 53, and 54," he says. "They are easy to remember." Joe marks these numbers as "on hold" in his lined-paper pad and we move to Section III.

I like this section much more. There is no Bay Parkway bus; there is a curb between the road and the graves; and the gravesites are not next to the street fence, but across the road from it. We tell Joe to cross off the graves in Section II since we now pick four graves in Section III with Masha's approval: "You must take these," she says. Masha likes these gravesites so much that she begins to wonder whether she herself should get graves in the Jefferson Cemetery while they are still available. Masha already has bought graves on Long Island, where her sisters live, but like my mother, she would rather be in a place where they speak Russian. We pick graves 101, 102, 103, and 104. Masha takes 105 through 109: two are for herself and her husband, and three are for other relatives, "just in case."

As we begin to leave, several Russians arrive to look at the graves next to us, numbers 97-100. My mother decides that she should make friends with potential neighbors. "Where are you from?" she asks politely and with a charming smile, reserved only for strangers. The head of the potential neighbors' family, a balding, portly man with a cigarette, replies without smiling: "Is it so important?" The conversation ends. "I do not like them," my mother says to me as we leave. "They must be from Odessa. I have tried to avoid living next to the 'Odessites' for fifteen years, and now — look where they have caught up with me!" But she might be lucky and may not have to be next to the "Odessites" for eternity, after all: we notice that a new, even better area in the center of Section IV, just across the road, is being dug up. "For graves?" we ask Joe. "Yes," he says. "But they are not yet for sale." "Can we get on the waiting list?" asks my mother. "You have to inquire in the office," says Joe.

We return to the office. Tamara and Elvira are not in very good moods (perhaps getting hungry as lunchtime approaches). We ask if we can hold graves 101 through 109 in Section III (for us and Masha), while waiting for the new sites in Section IV to go on sale. "We do not hold graves," says Elvira. "You either buy them now or not." My mother is not so easy to defeat. She says: "We are going to buy nine graves from you anyway. We just do not want to lose 101 through 109 in case something goes wrong and the new section never goes on sale." Tamara gets into action: "We can only hold graves if a member of your family is already buried here. Anybody dead yet?" she asks. "No," I reply, ready to surrender.

"Tell them you are a doctor," says my father. "What difference would that make?" I ask. "Do they expect referrals from me?" But Elvira and Tamara, having overheard our conversation, all of a sudden become exceedingly pleasant (they must have daughters who are looking for Jewish doctors to marry): "We can make an exception and hold graves for a doctor," says Elvira. "Give us your phone numbers. We will call you when the new section goes on sale," echoes Tamara.

I submit my phone number, as requested, and we leave, feeling exhilarated: we hold nine graves in Section III and are the first in line for the yet-to-come excellent graves in Section IV! "See?" says my father to my mother. "What would you do without me?"

Leonid Poretsky heads the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism at Beth Israel Medical Center and is professor of medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.