The Yiddish Burial Ceremony

        May 2014    
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Mrs. Epstein's Songbooks

By Lewis Brett Smiler

Mrs. Epstein knew that her Yiddish heritage was quickly vanishing. It would only be a matter of time before she too would vanish from the earth. There was no denying it. Mrs. Epstein's youth was far behind her, but her memories remained strong. It seemed like only yesterday when Yiddish was the center of Jewish culture. Speaking the language was just as much a part of Jewish life as going to the synagogue. Today, the younger generation barely knew that Yiddish had existed. It was a different world now, and Mrs. Epstein was not sure if she belonged.

There was one thing that Mrs. Epstein was definitely certain of: she did not belong in her house anymore. It was too big for one person and too much work to maintain. Mrs. Epstein also did not care for the high property taxes. She knew it was time to find an apartment and sell her house, but it would not be an easy process. The house had an abundance of clutter that was accumulated over the last forty years. It would take months to sort through it all and figure out what to discard. Mrs. Epstein tried to visualize what her new apartment would look like. She could only keep a small fraction of her belongings as space would be very limited. The old woman would need to make some tough decisions.

Mrs. Epstein looked at the Yiddish songbooks left behind by her parents. She could not believe how much they were falling apart. The books had been used so much through the years that they looked more fragile than their owner. Yet, Mrs. Epstein could not bear to throw them in the garbage. The very idea sickened her. Some people would suggest recycling them, but that was not much different. As far as she was concerned, the garbage and recycling dumps looked alike.

Whenever Mrs. Epstein looked at her songbooks, she could hear her parents singing in Yiddish. They both passed away a long time ago, but their voices remained vivid in her mind. Mrs. Epstein felt that if she threw the books away, she would be throwing away the memories of her parents. The songbooks were among the few remaining links to her family, and they should be treated with respect.

Mrs. Epstein pondered what to do with the books. Even if she brought them with her to her new apartment, they would be thrown away after she died. She could ask her son Mark to bury them with her at the cemetery. This way, the books would receive the same dignified burial as a family member. They deserved nothing less.

However, Mrs. Epstein was not sure if she could rely on Mark to carry out her wishes. It seemed unlikely that he would ever understand just how special the books were. The only items Mark seemed to cherish were those with monetary value, nothing else.

Mrs. Epstein had often dreamed of playing with her grandchildren and watching them grow, but they never came into existence. Mark showed no interest in having children or in anything else that involved family. Obviously, she could never trust him with any of her important possessions, especially not her songbooks. At times, Mrs. Epstein even wondered if Mark really was her son.

The old woman continued to think about Mark and wondered how they became strangers. Eventually, her mind reverted back to the Yiddish songbooks. How could she save them from the inevitable garbage and give them the respect they deserve?

She knew that holy prayer books always had to be treated with respect under Jewish law. They contained the name of the Almighty and could never be thrown in the trash, regardless of their condition. Sometimes, one of the synagogues would sponsor a burial ceremony for prayer books that were no longer in use. Mrs. Epstein could bring her songbooks to one of these ceremonies and bury them with the holy books. Nobody should object. The more Mrs. Epstein thought about it, the more she liked the idea. She could watch her songbooks receive a proper Jewish funeral, a fitting sendoff for treasures that had been very dear to her parents.

Mrs. Epstein began to check the Jewish newspapers. If there was a book burial ceremony anywhere in the New York area, she would go. Months passed, but she could not find anything in the newspaper listings. There were plenty of Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs scheduled, but no synagogue seemed to be hosting a book burial. Mrs. Epstein started to worry. She wondered if such ceremonies still took place. Perhaps the concept of respect was becoming lost to the younger generations.

A bar mitzvah invitation came in the mail for Adam Rothenberg, the grandson of her good friend Claire. Mrs. Epstein barely knew the bar mitzvah boy and had not seen his parents in years, but Claire had an enormous heart and had helped her during difficult times. There was no way Mrs. Epstein would consider missing the bar mitzvah.

She began to think about the reception and how much she dreaded attending. There would probably be some young deejay playing rock music at the loudest volume imaginable. This music was popular among American youths, but it had the unintended function of torturing seniors. It was a far cry from the beautiful Yiddish music that had once been so ubiquitous at Jewish affairs.

The day of the bar mitzvah came very quickly. It took Mrs. Epstein at least two hours to drive there. She could not find words to describe how bad the traffic was. Mrs. Epstein vowed that she would never drive out to New Jersey again. In fact, she was not sure if she would ever drive outside Long Island again. She felt that she was getting too old for these types of trips.

However, as soon as she walked into the synagogue, she saw a sign advertising a book burial ceremony scheduled for next weekend. Suddenly, Mrs. Epstein forgot all about her vow. She was going to return to the synagogue next week and bury her songbooks. It was the best news she had received in a very long time.


One week passed. Mrs. Epstein had her Yiddish songbooks packed away in her old tote bag, ready to be buried. She knew that it would take no more than two and a half hours to get from her house to the ceremony. Mrs. Epstein decided to allow an extra hour. She was not going to miss the ceremony on account of a traffic jam. If anything should delay her on the highway, she would never forgive the other people who called themselves drivers.

Mrs. Epstein arrived at the synagogue in plenty of time. She saw a large trench dug near the parking lot that was serving as the grave for old books. A small group of Boy Scouts was running the project and constantly adding more books to the trench. Mrs. Epstein could not believe that young people would be so interested in burying Jewish books. She was also surprised at how busy the ceremony was.

Mrs. Epstein never anticipated that this type of event would attract so much attention. The old woman walked over to the trench with her tote bag and pulled out her songbooks. She wanted to take one last look before they went to their final resting place.

"May I see those books?" the rabbi asked. Mrs. Epstein showed the songbooks to him. "The burial is just for holy items, such as siddurim. The songbooks don't need to be buried."

"I know they don't need to be buried," answered Mrs. Epstein, "but I want to see them buried. These books belonged to my parents and were an important part of our lives."

"I understand how you feel," answered the rabbi. "The problem is that we only have a limited amount of space."

"Do you realize that these books are in Yiddish? It used to be the language of the Jewish people."

"I realize that. But if we buried every Jewish book that was ever printed, we would need entire cemeteries. There isn't room to bury everything. This is why we are only burying books that are holy." The rabbi started to explain to Mrs. Epstein what holy books were and why they had to be buried.

"I understand what Jewish law states," she interrupted. "The question is, do you understand how special these songbooks are for me? Did you have any books that were special for you? How would you feel if they were just thrown in the trash without any respect?"

The rabbi was silent for a moment. "You can bury your songbooks here, but only if we have space left over. I can't make you any promises."

"How big is the trench?" asked Mrs. Epstein.

"I believe that it's ten feet long, four feet wide, and four feet deep," said the rabbi.

"I'm not worried. There should be plenty of space." But Mrs. Epstein soon realized that she was mistaken. A young man appeared with a wheelbarrow filled with scores of books. They were all respectfully placed into the trench. A car pulled up and a married couple came out with more bags of books. It was not long before the trench was filled to capacity. One of the Boy Scouts commented that the trench contained about 1,700 holy books. About seventy more books were going to be stored in the synagogue, saved for some future burial.

"When will the next burial be?" a woman asked.

"That's a good question," answered the rabbi. But Mrs. Epstein knew what the answer was. The next burial ceremony would not be held until sometime after she passed away. There was no doubt in her mind. The rabbi had destroyed her one opportunity to bury her Yiddish songbooks. If she had cursed him in Yiddish, he would not have known the difference. He was too young to understand how important the language was to the Jewish people.

It seemed that Mrs. Epstein had driven all the way out to the ceremony for nothing. All that she did was waste time, money, and gasoline. She placed the songbooks back in her tote bag and began walking to her car, trying to keep from crying. Her parents' songbooks had more soul in them than many human beings, but they were denied a proper burial. The modern world was clearly a mess.

There was a beautiful knitted yarmulke lying on the ground. Mrs. Epstein picked it up.

"Does this belong to anyone?" she asked.

"It's mine," a voice called out. One of the Boy Scouts was walking towards Mrs. Epstein. He looked to be about seventeen years old and had curly red hair.

"My father had the same red hair," said Mrs. Epstein. "I wonder if we're related."

"Red hair was common in central Europe," replied the Boy Scout. "What country was your father from?"

"We're from Poland," the old woman replied.

"Really? My Mom's family is also from Poland. We're planning a trip there next year."

"That should be exciting . . . "

"Definitely," the redhead continued. "I'm hoping to see the town where my family lived, but everything has changed so much since the war. I wish my grandmother were still around. There was so much I wanted to ask her about Jewish life in Poland. I'm eager to learn about my heritage . . ."

"I'd be glad to tell you anything you want to know," said Mrs. Epstein. "I spent part of my childhood in Poland." The redhead began to hum a tune that was very familiar to her. It was such a lovely sound.

"Do you know this melody?" he asked. "My grandmother used to sing it all the time."

"The song is 'Mein Shtetele Belz.' It was one of our favorite Yiddish tunes."

"Maybe you can tell me what it was about . . . Actually, do you have any old Jewish songbooks I could borrow? I'm hoping that the choir could possibly do some Yiddish songs." The redhead looked towards the trench. The Boy Scouts needed him to assist with the digging. "I have to get going, but I hope we can talk later. I'll give you my phone number."

Mrs. Epstein watched as the Boy Scouts and others helped themselves to shovels and buried the books in the dirt. Before long, all the books in the trench had completely vanished from view and the funeral service was about to start. Mrs. Epstein was glad that the rabbi had stopped her from burying her Yiddish songbooks. They were obviously not ready to be buried yet. The old woman displayed her biggest smile in several months. It would be a long time before she was ready for burial.


from the May 2014 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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