Burying sacred books

Burying sacred books

Cemetery Association of Northern New Jersey plans a project at a local cemetery

Left, Mickey Levine; right, one of the cemeteries the association oversees.
Left, Mickey Levine; right, one of the cemeteries the association oversees.

It’s hard for many of us to throw books away.

There’s something about a book, something about the power of rows of inked shapes on paper, some kind of inherent sanctity, that keeps many of us from tossing them in the garbage, along with the coffee grounds and eggshells.

Those are just regular books.

Then there are the shemot, the material that includes the name of God.

There are all sorts of halachot about how to dispose of written material — starting with no-longer-kosher sifrei Torah and prayer books, going through a range of other kinds of texts, and ending with the humble xeroxed handouts that teachers use to provide snippets of source material. It also includes art, photographs, and embroidery with God’s name on it.

Whether or not printed matter counts as shemot varies by the stringency of the halacha applied to it — what name is it? how esoteric? in what language need it be written? — but the need to store it in a genizah — a special storeroom dedicated to that purpose — and then bury it with respect, in a gravesite also called a genizah — is felt across the Jewish religious streams. Ritual objects like the fringes of tallitot or the straps and boxes of tefillin, which take on sanctity because of what they touch and how they are used, also must be buried rather than thrown out.

But it’s not so easy to bury lots of books and ritual objects. Yes, you can inter them in your own backyard — carefully, respectfully — but there isn’t that much communal land ripe for this purpose.

Except — wait for it — cemeteries. How about dedicating some space in a cemetery for shemot?

That’s what Mickey Levine, the president of the Cemetery Association of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, has planned for Sunday, June 12, at the Americus Cemetery on Midland Avenue in Saddle Brook.

“We know that when people come to discarding Hebrew books, they try to give them away,” Mr. Levine said. Often, there are no takers; when shuls buy new editions of siddurim, for example, if they act quickly, sometimes they can find smaller, poorer communities who will be grateful for the older ones. Sometimes they can sell them; sometimes they can give them away. But eventually the market becomes glutted — especially when many local shuls are closing or merging — and there are no takers for old books.

Shul leaders try to store their shemot in a genizah when they can. Individual book owners, not necessarily so much.

“When they can’t give them away, they try to throw them away,” Mr. Levine said. And when they can’t do that, when they can’t bring themselves to do that, they take the third path; they just hold onto them.

He knows that there is a demand for the burial of old books because he’s gotten many requests for it, he said. So “we will do a mitzvah. We will provide a means for the proper disposal of Jewish books and other writings.

“We will open up three graves for this purpose.”

The burial society cares for 17 cemeteries in Bergen and Passaic counties. There are some graves that hold shemot, but they cannot be re-used. “Temple Emanuel had a huge burial site, but we can’t open it,” Mr. Levine said. “The concrete on top would just crack.” Why is there concrete on top of the genizah? He’s not sure, but its presence is undeniable, he said.

(That’s Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, now in Franklin Lakes; it used to be one of the sources of pride of Jewish Paterson. It was designed by Fred Wentworth, who generally focused on creating movie palaces. Temple Emanuel also was palatial, Mr. Levine said, and he knows. His grandfather, Meyer Levine, and his family were an influential presence there, three quarters of a century ago, and Mr. Levine, who lives in downtown Manhattan but spends much of his time walking through the association’s North Jersey cemeteries, checking on their upkeep, feels the obligation to the community through those connections.)

This is the first time that the Cemetery Association has undertaken this project; Mr. Levine does not know exactly how much demand there is, and he does not know if this will be the first of an annual or every-few-years project, if it will happen infrequently, or it will be a one-off.

He sent an email to local Jewish organizations, both to tell them about the project and to try to gauge interest. Because it is one of the by-now-rare-ceremonies in which participation across the Jewish world is possible, he wrote to the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, the liberal North Jersey Board of Rabbis, and the not entirely classifiable Chabad rabbis.

Mr. Levine’s not exactly sure how many books can fill a grave, and he doesn’t know exactly how many books to expect. The requirements for digging a genizah are less precise than for a kever, a grave for a human being. “You can dig them as deep as you want,” he said. But he would have to know in advance; the graveside will have to be dug before people arrive.

Because a cemetery not only holds deep emotion — love, grief, loss, paralyzing pain — and history — gravestones, when you take the emotion away, tell brief but compelling stories and raise so many questions — it’s also a very physical place. The depth of the graves will depend in large part on the equipment that will be available on Friday, June 10, when they are dug. The bigger the available excavators, the deeper the hole.

Mr. Levine wants to ensure that no matter how much shemot there will be, there will be enough room to bury all of it. “I was going to dig only two graves, but we have the third because Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge reached out to me, and told me that they have a large number of books,” he said. “I want to be sure that we have the room. I don’t want to have to dig another grave on Sunday.”

When they get there, the ceremony, overseen by two rabbis, will include putting the books in the grave; the people bringing shemot will have the opportunity to shovel some earth in on top, as they do at a funeral, if they chose to wait until the end.

Mr. Levine’s also not sure about what the ceremony will include. “I’m not a rabbi,” he said. “I don’t know.” One of the rabbis will be Andrew Schultz, who is a chaplain for the Fair Lawn police department and the executive director of the Community Alliance for Jewish Cemeteries. The other rabbi has not been named yet, Mr. Levin said. But he wants the community to know about the project even before all the final decisions are made.

People are free to bring books to be buried, he said . “All I ask is that they email me by Wednesday, June 8, if they intend to bring more than two boxes of books.” That’s to help estimate if three graves are the right number to dig.

“And in my email to the rabbis, I said that I thought it would be a nice thing if you could bring a couple of kids with you,” Mr. Levine said. “It would be a good way to learn about this mitzvah.”

Who: Mickey Levine and the Cemetery Association of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey

What: Will bury worn-out texts including the name of God

When: On Sunday, June 12, from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m.

Where: At the Americus Cemetery on Midland Avenue in Saddle Brook

How: Bring books to the cemetery that day; if you are planning to bring more than a few books, email Mr. Levine at msl11@verizon.net by Wednesday, June 8, so he can plan more accurately.

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