On March 9, community members gathered to bury sacred Jewish texts at Beth Israel Cemetery. (photo by Cynthia Ramsay)
According to Jewish law, no sacred texts and objects are allowed to be thrown out. This includes anything with God’s name printed on it. These texts and objects must be buried in a respectful way,” explained Rabbi Jonathan Infeld of Congregation Beth Israel in an email to the Jewish Independent about the March 9 Genizah Project ceremony at the synagogue’s cemetery. “Since a burial spot is not always convenient, people store their sacred material in a special place called a genizah until they can be buried.”
A few months ago, Infeld received a phone call from Eugene Barsky, a librarian at the University of British Columbia. Barsky was looking for a place to bury a considerable number of sacred books that were beyond repair. Infeld “immediately said yes.”
“But I wanted to do much more than just bury the materials,” the rabbi said. “I asked if he would be interested in a community-wide program, and Eugene also agreed. After that, we sought other interested parties including UBC Jewish studies, Hillel BC, King David High School, Peretz Centre and the Waldman Library.”
Representatives of these organizations were present on March 9, including students from KDHS and UBC. Infeld spoke about how sacred objects and texts not only give Jews a connection to our spiritual existence, but a social connection as well.
“And, no matter what differences we may have as a people, we are brought together within a rubric of study, of prayer, all connected to the written word,” he said. “For us, as a Jewish people, the book is sacred. For us, as a Jewish people, study is a sacred task, a sacred opportunity. And so, it only makes sense that, when we have studied, have brought a book to its conclusion, that’s literally falling apart, we don’t just throw it away, but the book, or the sacred object, has become our friend and become part of us. And so, according to Jewish tradition, we bury it.”
Barsky highlighted one of the many books being buried: a Pentateuch (the Five Books of Moses) published in Furth, Germany, in 1805. “I wish we could preserve these books, but some of them are molding,” he said. “We have a preservation lab at UBC but they reviewed them and some of them just could not be preserved.”
Barsky asked two members of the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir – Stephen Aberle and Aurel Matte – to sing a couple of songs. The pair led “Hinei Ma Tov,” about how pleasant it is when sisters, brothers, all of us, gather together; and “Al Sh’loshah Devarim,” about the three things on which the world stands (Torah, divine service, acts of love) and by which the world endures (truth, justice, peace).
For UBC student Ellie Sherman, the burial ceremony was particularly meaningful, “as someone who spends every day reading more and more information, paying close attention to authors and narrators, and focusing on crafting assignments with correct references, to give credit where credit is due.”
She said, “The need for the genizah recognizes that the significance of words is beyond two-dimensional figures on a page, that the lessons we learn and the knowledge we gain from our books can be infinite, just as the meaning behind the words.”
Gregg Gardner, associate professor and Diamond Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics at UBC, shared how the name genizah came about. “The ancient rabbis of the first centuries tell a story about a king,” he said. “The king’s name is Munbaz. This king travels to Jerusalem, where there is drought and a famine. To provide relief, Munbaz gives away his fortune to the needy. Munbaz bizbez, Munbaz spends. His brothers confront him and demand an explanation as to why he’s giving away the family fortune…. Munbaz says that he does not bizbez the fortune … but rather he ganaz the fortune, he stores it, he saves it…. Munbaz explains that, by giving your money to charity here on earth, you do not waste your money … you save it in the world to come, in the afterlife.
“The word genizah literally means ‘storing’ and, in doing so, it can denote hiding from view,” he said. “Ancient Jewish traditions going back to the first centuries, the Second Temple period, talk about hiding many things, even the holy vessels from the Jerusalem Temple, and there are traditions in which the word ganaz is associated with storing valuables.”
Gardner said, “We are here at a cemetery, essentially taking these books out of use, laying them to rest, and yet, at the same time, going back thousands of years, the genizah has been a story not only about death, but about Jewish life.”
Richard Menkis, associate professor of medieval and modern Jewish history at UBC, picked up on this last aspect. During the planning for the burial, he said, there was a feeling towards solemnity, even mourning. But, he said, “there was a whole other sensibility that we could be bringing to it.”
He spoke of the Jews of Algeria, who would place items wherever they could around the synagogue and “several weeks later, they would carry them, the books, the other objects, in sacks. They’d escort them to the cemetery and bury them and, on that day, there would be a feast and special hymns for the occasion. There were similar customs in the community in Morocco of Meknes.
“The Sephardic Jews of Jerusalem had a custom of placing sacred objects and texts in the walls of the synagogue and, every three to seven years, would … joyously take them from the synagogues to a special section in one of the cemeteries in Jerusalem.”
The joy would come, said Menkis, from knowing that “the respect and honour that they were giving to these items would bring down upon them a variety of divine segulot, a variety of blessings. For some, it might be, we can call down rain. For others, it might be to prevent a plague.”
Menkis said, “I embrace the Genizah Project as the moral opposite of a horrible feature of modern life – the book burning. While the book burning denigrates ideas and discussion, the genizah shows reverence for ideals and aspirations.”
Those gathered were reminded of this reverence by Rabbi Kylynn Cohen, senior Jewish educator of Hillel at UBC, who led the service by the gravesite. As in the burial of a human body, she said, it is up to us to do the carrying when a person – or, in this case, the books – cannot go forth themselves.
Everyone helped transport the books from the chapel to the gravesite. Maiya Letourneau, head librarian of the Waldman Library, held up a book with gold embossing, another with lace embroidery. She said, “When we’re thinking about the memories that books create and the importance that they have in our lives, as a librarian, it can be really, really hard to take a book out of the collection, but it’s part of maintaining a healthy library, it’s part of making sure the library is useful for years to come, and it’s just an important part of what we do.”
After those gathered recited the Kaddish d’Rabbanan, the prayer that is said whenever a minyan of Jews finishes studying, Rabbi Stephen Berger, head of Judaic studies at KDHS, spoke about the class he brought to the ceremony, which has been studying Malachi, the Book of Kings. “It’s not just that we study to know,” he said. “The studying itself, opening the book and learning the book is a religious act in Judaism. And that’s why we treat it so carefully and so succinctly and sanctify it…. All these acts [serve to remind us] this is who we are, and we should live up to the title of the People of the Book.”
BI Rabbi Adam Stein concluded the ceremony with Eitz Chayim Hi, which most congregations sing when putting the Torah scrolls back in the ark at the end of a Torah service. It describes the Torah as a tree of life.