Greenwood Cemetery donated space for thousands of books
Greenwood Cemetery is generally a place of comfort and grief for the deceased. But on a Sunday in May, it was a scene of reverence and devotion to the tattered old holy books waiting to be buried.
Milwaukee Jewish Memorial Park was the site of a little-known ritual in Judaic tradition. The ceremony, led by two local rabbis and a cantor, calls for the burial of worn out or unusable Hebrew holy books.
All need a proper farewell.
Rabbi Marc Berkson of Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun said Jewish standards prohibit throwing sacred texts in the trash. “We don’t get rid of these books that contain shemot, For God Sake. Books are treated in many ways as if they were living objects, living companions.
A call to synagogues across the state drew about 175 cardboard boxes of prayer books, Chumashim, T’nachimBibles and commentaries to be stacked and buried in a grave, the size of two cemetery plots.
The Greenwood Cemetery – 10 acres at 2615 West Cleveland Ave. – donated a section of hallowed ground for the thousands of books to be buried. The three participating synagogues shared the cost of opening and closing the tomb.
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 burial. God’s name should be treated with the same respect as human beings, Berkson said. “We return the body to God; the body was a gift from God 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 at the boxes. Berkson and Rabbi David Cohen of Sinai led community members in psalms and prayers, including the 23rd Psalm. Cantor Richard Newman of Sinai sang appropriate melodies for the service, which lasted about 15 minutes.
“He focused on the learning we took from the books we were burying,” said Ben Goldstein, outgoing president of Beth Hillel Temple.
John Pereles, the chairman of the cemetery board, stood in the hole, receiving boxes from above and arranging them in rows. He wore rubber boots up to his knees. 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’ve never been there and I’m 56 years old. I’ve heard of them and experiencing it thought it’s such a touching thing to do, not just to throw those pounds away, but to bury them and give them the respect they deserve. from.
The origins of Greenwood’s book burial go back a year. Around this time, Karen Berk, the Sinai administrator, contacted Pereles to tell her that the synagogue was changing the 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 in Greenwood,” Sinai member Pereles said. “I said, let me ask the board. One of the things about Greenwood is that we have a lot of room.
The council approved its first book burial and future ones, if needed, said Pereles, who joined the council in 1985. “We thought as a council it was a natural way for us to give back to the community by providing the land. We use a section that is quite wide open.
Pereles said Greenwood would not limit the ceremony to large congregations in Milwaukee. “If someone from Eau Claire or Madison wants to send their books to Milwaukee, we’ll open the door for them.”
In February, Pereles broadcast e-synagogues across the state with a save the date message. He asked interested synagogues to send the number of books and the dimensions of the boxes so that maintenance workers could determine the size of the hole.
Emanu-El’s sacred books were kept in a dedicated storage area in the synagogue, called Geniza. They date as far back as the turn of the last century. “We donated many of these books to other synagogues and Jewish organizations that would use them,” Berkson said. “But we still had a lot of books that were worn out and will no longer be used. So we respect what has always been our main 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 Greenwood Cemetery board. The ceremony will be renewed if necessary. “We will invite Wisconsin congregations who wish to take these books and bury them,” he said.
Goldstein traveled 40 miles from Kenosha on behalf of his reformed temple. “We’re so used to going to a funeral and burying someone. It’s a sad occasion, but it had a different feeling. It was uplifting. We honored these sacred texts.
For more information on book burials at Greenwood Cemetery, contact John Pereles at 414-559-3463 or [email protected]