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Searching for family on the Mount of Olives

Mourners at the Mount of Olives in February 2019 (Amy Hirshberg Lederman)
Amy Hirshberg Lederman (Courtesy Lederman)

On a cold and windy day in February, I drove an hour and a half from Haifa to Jerusalem in search of my great-great-grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Yehudah Franco. I had learned about him from stories my mother told me and a family tree carefully constructed by relatives who were deeply committed to preserving our family history. But I actually saw him numerous times, staring out from a gilded frame on my mother’s bedroom wall, with his long white beard, dark caftan and a silk turban. The photo shows a serious looking man, his grim-faced wife, and a towering servant; sitting together, they created a triad both somber and mysterious.

Rabbi Moshe Franco, his wife Perla, and a Turkish servant, circa 1909 (Courtesy Amy Hirshberg Lederman)

Rabbi Moshe Franco’s life began in 1837 on the island of Rhodes. But centuries before, the Franco family had its origins in Northern Spain, most likely in the region of Galicia or Navarra. Then, on March 31, 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella issued the Alhambra Decree requiring all Jews to leave Spain within three months or face death. My family, along with between 100,000 -165,000 other Jews, fled to neighboring countries such as Portugal, Italy, France, Morocco, Greece, Egypt, and Turkey.

My great-great-grandfather learned Torah from his father, known in our family as Yussef “Kodja” Franco, a great scholar and sage who peddled goods on the side to support his wife and five children.

At the age of 40, my great-great-grandfather was appointed chief rabbi, or hakham bashi, of Rhodes, where he served for more than 30 years in this highly esteemed position. In 1911, at the behest of the Sephardi community of Palestine, which was experiencing great internal conflict, he was brought out of retirement at the age of 72 to serve as the rishon le-Tzion or hakham bashi (head rabbi of the Sephardic rabbinate in Jerusalem), the highest religious position a rabbi could hold.

From 1911 to 1915, he attempted to arbitrate between the Sephardic factions as he continued to serve as the authorized representative of the Sephardim in Jerusalem. He retired as the last hakham bashi before the advent of World War I and the establishment of the British Mandate.

I drove as close to the entrance to the Mount of Olives as I could, skirting tour buses and construction workers from the neighboring Arab village of Silwan, before finding a place to park. The Mount of Olives is considered by many to be the holiest Jewish burial ground, dating back over 3,000 years to the First Temple period. In the Second Book of Samuel 15:30, it is written that “David ascended the Mount of Olives, crying as he ascended, with his head covered, going barefoot.”

A shattered headstone at the Mount of Olives (Amy Hirshberg Lederman)

I almost did the same as I stared into the awesomeness of Zechariah’s Tomb and looked up at the more than 150,000 gravesites (estimates range between 70,000 and 300,000) that cover this sacred site. Directly opposite the Temple Mount, three millennia of revered figures have been buried here. From Biblical Prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi to rabbinic sages like Nachmanides (the Ramban), from modern-day leaders Prime Minister Menachim Begin and Henrietta Szold (the founder of Hadassah) to the father of modern Hebrew, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, and Nobel Prize laureate Shai Agnon, this cemetery holds some of the greatest Jewish personages in history.

From the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 until the 1967 War, the Mount of Olives was under Jordanian control, during which time thousands of Jewish graves were desecrated, vandalized and destroyed. Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967 now affords it control over these sacred grounds and a continuing opportunity to repair and protect the gravesites.

What I encountered when I arrived was a far cry from what I had imagined. The small metal kiosk that housed the attendant to whom I had spoken on the phone the previous day, was locked and shuttered. Sadly, the man who had assured me he would help me locate my great-great-grandfather’s grave was nowhere to be found. I scanned a tattered map posted on the kiosk but it was clear that finding his grave would be more difficult than locating the proverbial needle in the haystack because my haystack was complicated by 3,000 years of history, conflict, and rubble.

The sky darkened and rain clouds threatened as I found the huge section dedicated to Sephardic Jews. Like a mountain goat, I climbed over rocks and shattered pieces of headstones in search of Moshe Yehuda Franco. It took less than an hour to realize the futility of my search. But then I came upon a plaque that helped me understand that I was not alone. A family headstone simply said: “In honor of our mother who is buried somewhere within this area.” While I couldn’t actually find my great-great-grandfather’s grave, I still had the opportunity to honor him.

I stood overlooking the valley of Kidron, one of the most hotly contested pieces of real estate in the world, and silently said the Mourner’s Kaddish. There was nothing more I could do.

As the rain began to wash over the headstones at my feet, I felt both comfort and connection, knowing that somewhere in this great morass of graves, my great-great-grandfather had been laid to rest.

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney who lives in Tucson. Her columns in the AJP have won awards from the American Jewish Press Association, the Arizona Newspapers Association and the Arizona Press Club for excellence in commentary. Visit her website at