Something Sacred in the Southern Soil

Throughout history, Jews have had many names, including one of my favorites: The People of the Book. We have a past which dates back thousands of years, and we connect to through the books we read. Books such as the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and the Talmud (Jewish Law) give us a shared experience and connect us to the traditions of Judaism. The texts might be timeless, but the bindings are not. So what happens when these books can no longer be used? What happens when these books become worn down, torn, or damaged?

Certain books cannot be thrown away or recycled. According to Jewish law, books that are written with the four letter name of God, the Tetragrammaton, must be buried as they are imbued with a piece of God’s essence. The storing and burying of these works is known as a genizah.

Over the summer, Rabbi Jeremy Simons and I had the pleasure of being able to bury a genizah, filled with old prayer books and papers, at the URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi. With the Chalutzim Unit (10th grade) campers, we were able to develop a ceremony and program around the grave where these books would be buried. Planning the ceremony, I set out with the hope that the campers would learn about the ritual and why it happens. But looking around at the faces of the campers as we stood around the hole, I realized that I had underestimated what would happen.

From the first moment we began, the campers were picking up prayer books they had never seen before, opening them, reading the English and trying to read the Hebrew, truly connecting with the books and what they represent. They were excited by the sight of stamps from synagogues they knew, and copyright dates older than they imagined. Some even decided to keep them to continue their usage!

There is something unique in engaging with ceremonies that have existed for hundreds of years. Connecting to the past is something I like in general, and something I love in particular about Judaism. But with this project, that was brought to a whole new level as I saw a new generation connect to its past, to a ritual they did not know and to books so outdated they had never seen. As we prayed, a reverence fell over the circle, and as they laid the books into the grave, the gravity of the ritual was apparent on each camper’s face.

Something sacred was placed in the Southern soil, and also in the souls of these Southern Jewish kids.

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