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Al Jolson's Parents' Graves

In March, 2010, Professor Joseph Ciolino, a well known Jolson scholar, accompanied by Jolson biographer Herb Goldman, went to the Anacostia area of the District of Columbia in search of the graves of Rabbi Moses and Naomi Yoelson. Here is his story.

I am writing to share an experience of the most profound nature and one that, I hope, will resonate with you and hopefully, move you. I think that anyone familiar with the "real" Jolson story will not help but be moved, or, failing that, I hope that you will find the story at least interesting, in one way or another.

I was in Washington, DC, and as luck would have it, Herb Goldman was there as well doing research at the Library of Congress. It struck me that I had an extraordinary opportunity before me, one that has been on my mind for many years, and that was to visit the grave of Naomi Yoelson. To visit it with the world's leading Jolson scholar who had already been there, well, that was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Anacostia in red
So, I met Mr. Goldman for breakfast and began promptly to prod him about the going to Anacostia, the suburb of Washington where Naomi is buried. It was definitely NOT on his itinerary, but I believe he got caught up in my enthusiasm and before I knew it, we were in a cab headed for… well we weren't quite sure as the directions were a bit fuzzy, but I had no doubt (with Mr. Goldman on his cell phone next to me in the cab getting more details directions from the caretaker of the cemetery) that we would achieve our goal.

Here I will pause to tell you that ever since I read Herb's book in (approximately) 1990, I have held a special place in my heart for Naomi. I don't know why, it doesn't make sense, really, but I could hazard several insightful guesses based on my own family history: the often-tragic immigrant experience, un-timely death of a loved one, the suffering of a child whose loss was incomprehensible to him, and others. It wasn't so much that it was Jolson's mother in particular who died, but that it was someone's mother. And that someone seems to have suffered for years as a result, maybe for the remainder of his life. But whatever the reasons, I felt what I felt, and had wanted to visit her resting place ever since.

And so, I found myself in a cab with Herb Goldman, driving through a rather depressed section of Washington, D.C. After much twisting and turning, wrong turns, and backtracking, there it was - Congress Street - my heart began to race. Then, rather suddenly, (somehow, I thought we'd be able to see them from a distance) we saw a gated fence in front of an expanse of tombstones. Strange that, in spite of my confidence of finding it, I could not believe that we were actually there.

Approaching the Yoelson Gravesites
But we were. We pulled into the only open gate, parked and got out of the cab. I asked Herb where the grave was but he wasn't sure. We strolled about looking helplessly at tombstones - there were hundreds. I suggested we split up. I knew that Rabbi Moshe Yoelson's monument was a prominent one (Herb remembered that from his previous visit, but that was thirty years ago) and that it was not far from Naomi's. So Herb went into the neighboring cemetery and I continued to search the one at which we first arrived.

The sky began to darken, the wind began to pick up, and the threat of rain, which had been forecast, was becoming quite real. Still, we searched. I became aware of how isolated the cemeteries were: from where I stood I could hear nothing of street noise, traffic or any other sounds associated with city life. Although I was not conscious of it at the time, it lent to an atmosphere of timelessness... I did think that it might have been just like this on the day of Naomi's funeral.

But it would be all for naught if we couldn't find her grave. I saw the cab driver standing by his cab - he was not happy about waiting for us - and knew that between him, the worsening weather and the setting sun, we had little time. I began to sweat with nervousness as I scurried, thoughtlessly, about the sacred ground. Tombstone after tombstone went by my stare with no luck - no Rabbi Moshe Yoelson, and many written in Hebrew only, which sadly is not a language I can read. I stopped in my tracks and took a deep breath. Out of nowhere I said spoke the words, "Naomi, help me. Come on, Naomi, please..." as if I were speaking quite simply to an old friend. I suppose you could call it a prayer.

Meyer, Rabbi Moses Rubin,
and Ida Yoelson's Graves
It gives me chills to write this but no sooner did I finish asking for help did I turn, walk a few paces and saw three large monuments, the center one reading


I turned to find Herb who was quit a distance from me at this point. Nevertheless I began to shout, "Herb! I found Moshe!" Herb came running and before long, out of breath and exhausted, we found Naomi.

I tell you, standing there, where little Asa once stood, probably in deep disbelief, not really understanding what had happened, or why, was one of the great mystical moments of my life, even though I had completely forgotten my "prayer," to Naomi, which I didn't recall till much later. I also did not realize until much, much later that I could not have been more than several feet from her grave when I uttered the prayer, if not right next to it.

Naomi Yoelson's stone at right,
Moshe is two rows behind
From this point on Herb and I said little to each other. We placed the mementos of our visit (two small rocks) on Naomi's lovely little gravestone; I took pictures that I hoped were in good taste; we examined the gravestones of Moshe, Ida and, Meyer Yoelson. But we always came back to Naomi's. Hers is a small, simple, and, to me, quite beautiful headstone with an engraved picture of a rose near the top. Above the rose are the words, "Our Beloved Mother," the only words in English on the little stone. There was some dirt accumulating on the stone, obscuring some of the writing and the image of the rose; I tried to wipe away the dirt with my bare hand; I was able to remove some of it.

After a time, we knew it was time to go. Leaving was actually difficult, I mean, emotionally; this was a special place. Who knows if I'd ever be back, or what will happen over the years. But we had to go, and so, we did.

Herb and I hardly spoke a word to each other in the ride back across the Anacostia River to D.C. We were both caught, deep, in our own emotional experiences, which, I suppose, were to some degree quite different, in another, quite similar. I remained emotionally stirred by the visit for days afterward.

And so, the urge to write and share this with all of you was quite necessary in some way, in my own "processing" of the event, as they like to say today in "smart," circles.

But it's true.

Rabbi Moses Rubin Yoelson
Naomi Yoelson

Our sincere thanks and appreciation to Professor Ciolino for making this journey, and sharing his thoughts and images with us.

As a postscript to this story, the 2014 Jolson Festival of the IAJS was held in Baltimore. On Sunday, at the end of the weekend, there was a bus trip to the cemetery to visit the Jolson family grave sites. A video of that trip is included on the DVD of the Festival, and is available to members of the IAJS through the Video Department.

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Updated 26 Sep 10
Updated 25 Sep 16