G'niza and the American Consumer

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

Every several years the Chicago Rabbinical Council in cooperation with Jewish Funeral Directors in Chicago sponsors a community wide G'niza at one of our Jewish cemeteries. Conducted to facilitate the disposal of sacred texts - Torahs, Prayer Books, Bibles, Talmuds, etc. it is designed to give proper burial to those texts which have fallen into disrepair as a result of years of usage. I am sure you will agree that a siddur, warn and stained from years of prayer offered with devotion from its pages enjoys a sanctity not only for the words contained therein, but for its years of sacred usage. Tears of joy and sadness stain its pages making it a living tapestry of life itself.

This year, our G'niza program was held at Shalom Memorial Park on Sunday, June 27th. Chicago Jewish Funerals, Lloyd Mandel Levayah Funerals, Piser Chapels and Weinstein Family Services all served as drop off points for the G'niza. The funeral homes transported the over 500 boxes of material to the cemetery for burial. Shalom Memorial Park did an outstanding job in preparing everything needed for the actual G'niza service. Rabbi Joel Lehrfield of Lincolnwood Jewish Center and Rabbi Zev Shandalov of Congregation Kehillath Jacob Beth Samuel joined me in leading the interment service. It was an orderly and dignified event befitting the sacredness of our task. Yet I left the Cemetery feeling a bit sad.

The sadness was not engendered by the burial of all those books. What brought it about was the realization that among their number were quite a few texts that had hardly or never been used. Let me explain.

At the service a few boxes were opened to allow us to place books in the grave. The content of those boxes was unbelievable! True there were many old books. Yet mixed among them were a significant number of new or slightly used texts as well. Almost instinctively those present began searching through the books removing prayer books, Bibles, copies of the Mishna and other Rabbinical works, a quite few of which, seemed literally to have come right from the printers. Those present could not fathom how these books could have been set aside for burial.

"Am HaSefer," The People of the Book, is one of the titles ascribed to our People that we collectively bear with pride. A book is sacred. Do you recall as a child coming home from school with your text books for covering. In my home this meant going to Grandpa's home. There he would have already prepared brown shopping bags to be utilized as book covers. There I would sit munching on the cookies my Grandmother would have prepared for the occasion watching with a sense of pride as my Grandfather loving covered each book with a brown paper bag cover. He then would carefully inscribe the title of the book on the face of the cover. His exquisite European penmanship was the final touch to this special ritual at the beginning of each school year.

Affluence seems to have changed even our attitude toward sacred books. Institutions and individuals alike seem to acquire these texts by the pound. From what was contained in the boxes sent to the G'niza for burial, it would appear that books are discarded as easily as they are bought.

Many of my Congregants, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, oftentimes tell me that they literally could live a comfortable life utilizing that which the average American discards. "One man's trash is another man's treasure" takes on new meaning when one visits the modest section-8 apartments that serve as their "castles." Simply and tastefully furnished, the proud occupant explains how he/she recovered an abandoned chair, rewired a discarded lamp making them into beautiful and functional parts of the decor of their home. How often they remark on the tremendous waste of food that is so commonplace in American homes.

Americans truly are the Kings of conspicuous consumption. And now tragically it seems that this propensity toward extravagant purchase has even reached into the former sacred domain of the Jew and his books. Frankly, if I had the time and help, I could have salvaged a rather formidable Judaica library from the over five hundred boxes of discarded texts that made up the burial for this year's G'niza.

Books their feel, their look and yes, even their aroma, not to mention their contents, held a magic all its own for the "People of the Book." Sadly, as the G'niza seems to give evidence, even this quality of our People has fallen prey to the avarice of the American consumer.