“Each of us has a name given by God and given by our parents.”
That’s a truth that the Ukrainian/Israeli poet Zelda knew.
It’s a truth that Mickey Levine also knows. Mr. Levine is the head of the Cemetery Association of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. His organization is responsible for 18 old Jewish cemeteries in Bergen and Passaic counties — places that are no longer in use and generally no longer visited, often because they’re not particularly accessible, and even more often because the people buried there not only had died, but also had passed out of living memory.
Most of those 18 cemeteries had not been well maintained between the time that the communities that established them either dwindled into nonexistence or moved away and the time that the Cemetery Association took them over.
Now, though, Mr. Levine, who lives in Manhattan but was born and grew up in Paterson, has taken on the job of maintaining the cemeteries, and he does it with passionate intensity.
He visits them, in rotation, two or three times a week. That means that he spends time in each cemetery about every three weeks. He walks up and down the rows of graves in each one, paying close attention to what he sees as he walks. He’s done that for more than 20 years; over that time, he’s become familiar with the names on the headstones and footstones, and the family relationships they reveal.
As he’s walked the cemeteries, Mr. Levine said, he’s noticed that there are places where there are no headstones or footstones, but the outlines he sees in the ground — the rectangular, slightly sunken, roughly casket-sized patches of earth — make clear that someone was buried there.
Someone who by definition had a life. Even though no memory of it is left behind, there are the gravesites.
Mr. Levine decided to research the names of the people buried in those unmarked graves, and to mark them properly. He has gone through the cemeteries’ old, often crumbling, handwritten records, and the records he’s gotten from the synagogues that used to own the cemeteries, and he’s painstakingly matched that data to the facts he’s seen, literally, on the ground.
As a result, the association has marked 39 graves, and it’s working on providing footstones for another 20.
All the graves he’s found have been for adults; he knows that there also are babies’ graves, but he is fairly certain that he won’t be able to find the names of the infants buried there. “In the old days, people did not necessarily mark the graves of babies, or put their names in any records,” he said. “So those graves will continue to be unmarked.”
The unmarked graves are mainly from the 1920s through the 1950s, “but there have been graves from as recently as the 1990s,” Mr. Levine said.
When he discovered who was buried in an unmarked grave, “we have attempted to reach out to the next of kin,” he continued. “Sometimes they have passed away themselves, or we just can’t locate them. And I know, from conversations with some families, that they are not in a financial position to take care of it.
“So we are taking care of it.”
That means constant fundraising, Mr. Levine said. “But there’s not a question about whether we should mark those graves.”
There are a finite number of unmarked graves, he said, and they are a very small percentage of all the graves. “If I walk through a cemetery, I might find one or two, maybe half a dozen in the larger cemeteries, but there are thousands of people buried in the larger cemeteries.”
The association also has provided footstones for people who are buried unmarked in family plots. “It could be that there wasn’t a child,” when the second member of a couple died, “or there were cousins or other relatives who forgot, or didn’t realize that they had to do it, or just didn’t have the money.
“It wasn’t necessarily anyone’s fault, and we don’t put any blame on anybody. It’s just something that we’re doing.”
When he talks about the work, Mr. Levine is quick to thank the people and organizations who helped. “Koch Monument,” in Hackensack, “did a phenomenal service to us,” he said; the company provided footstones at cost. “And T D Maintenance,” in Rockaway, “went out of their way for us in the price of pouring the foundations.”
In June, after the first 39 headstones were installed, the Cemetery Association held a service to mark it; one of the stones was unveiled, as representative of all of them, and all of the names on each of the newly placed stones was called out.
People ask why this matters to him, Mr. Levine said. “The answer is simple. All of these people had names.”
Or, as Zelda concluded:
“Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
If you are interested in contributing to this project, email Mr. Levine at firstname.lastname@example.org.