Greenwood Cemetery is usually a place of comfort and sorrow for the deceased. But on a Sunday in May, it was a scene of reverence and devotion for old and tattered holy books waiting to be buried.
The Jewish memorial park in Milwaukee was the site of a little-known ritual in Judaic tradition. The ceremony, led by two local rabbis and a cantor, calls for the burying of sacred Hebrew-language books that are worn out or unusable.
All need a proper farewell.
Rabbi Marc Berkson of Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun said that Jewish norms prohibit tossing holy texts into the garbage. “We don’t get rid of these books that contain shemot, God’s name. The books are treated in many ways as if they were living items, living companions.”
A call out to synagogues statewide drew about 175 cardboard boxes of prayer books, Chumashim, T’nachim, Bibles and commentaries to be stacked and buried in a grave, the size of two cemetery plots.
Greenwood Cemetery – 10 acres at 2615 West Cleveland Ave. – donated a section of sanctified ground for the thousands of books to be buried. The participating three synagogues shared the expense of workers opening and closing the grave.
About two dozen people attended the May 22, 2022, ceremony, representing congregations Emanu-El and Sinai in greater Milwaukee and Beth Hillel in Kenosha.
The book burial included elements of a traditional funeral. The name of God is to be disposed of with the same respect as human beings, Berkson said. “We return the body to God; the body was God’s gift as was the soul. So, in a sense, we return the book to God in the ceremony.”
As is Jewish custom, participants took turns throwing a shovel full of dirt over the boxes. Berkson and Rabbi David Cohen of Sinai led the community members in psalms and prayers including the 23rd Psalm. Cantor Richard Newman of Sinai chanted appropriate melodies for the service, which lasted about 15 minutes.
“It focused on the learning we’ve gained from the books that we were burying,” said Ben Goldstein, immediate past president of Beth Hillel Temple.
John Pereles, the cemetery board president, stood in the hole, receiving boxes from above and arranging them in rows. He wore knee-high rubber boots. Six inches of drainage water had flooded the hole after a recent rain.
Goldstein was moved by what he heard and saw that afternoon. “I have never been to one and I’m 56 years old. I have heard about them and, experiencing it, I thought it was such a touching thing to do, not just to throw these books away, but to actually bury them and give them the respect that they’re due.”
The origins of the Greenwood book burial go back a year. At that time, Karen Berk, the administrator of Sinai, contacted Pereles with the news that the synagogue was changing High Holy Day prayer books. Sinai had holy books that were no longer usable and needed a resting place. “She asked if the books could be buried at Greenwood,” said Pereles, a member of Sinai. “I said let me ask the board. One of the things that Greenwood has going for it is we’ve got lots of room.”
The board approved its first book burial and future ones, if needed, said Pereles, who joined the board in 1985. “We thought as a board that this was a natural way for us to give back to the community by supplying the land. We’re using a section that is pretty wide open.”
Pereles said Greenwood would not limit the ceremony to greater Milwaukee congregations. “If somebody from Eau Claire or Madison wants to shlep their books to Milwaukee, we’ll open it up to them.”
In February, Pereles e-blasted synagogues throughout the state with a save-the-date message. He requested that interested synagogues send the number of books and dimensions of the cartons so maintenance workers could determine the size of the hole.
Emanu-El’s sacred books were kept in a designated synagogue storage area, called a geniza. They dated as far back as the turn of the last century. “We donated many of those books to other Jewish synagogues and organizations that would use them,” Berkson said. “But we still had many books that were worn and not going to be used again. So we’re paying proper respect for what has always been our primary source of knowledge in prayer.”
A marker will be placed at the burial site, its wording not yet determined, said Berkson, who serves on the board of Greenwood Cemetery. The ceremony will be held again as needed. “We will invite those congregations in Wisconsin who wish to take these books and bury them,” he said.
Goldstein traveled 40 miles from Kenosha on behalf of his Reform temple. “We’re so used to going to a funeral and burying somebody. It’s a sad occasion, but this had a different feeling to it. It felt uplifting. We were giving honor to these sacred texts.”
For more information about book burials at Greenwood Cemetery, contact John Pereles at 414-559-3463 or JrPereles@gmail.com