Yom Kippur sermon by Rabbi Paul Jacobson

“The Cemetery of Forgotten Books”

In the opening scene of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s international bestseller The Shadow of the Wind, ten-year-old Daniel accompanies his father, a bookseller, to “The Cemetery of Forgotten Books” for the first time.[1] With faint light trickling in amidst the shadows, Daniel’s father explains:

This is a place of mystery, Daniel, a sanctuary.  Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul.  The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it.  Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.

When a library disappears, or a bookshop closes down, when a book is consigned to oblivion, those of us who know this place, its guardians make sure that it gets here.  In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader’s hands.  …

According to tradition, the first time someone visits this place, he must choose a book, whichever he wants, and adopt it, making sure that it will never disappear, that it will always stay alive.  It’s a very important promise.  Today it’s your turn. In the shop we buy and sell them, but in truth books have no owner.  Every book you see here has been somebody’s best friend.  Now they have only us, Daniel.

When I first purchased The Shadow of the Wind some ten years ago, I wanted to jump right into the pages of the novel, join Daniel in The Cemetery of Forgotten Books and wander that winding labyrinth, breathing in the smell of old paper and dust, letting my hand brush across the avenues of exposed spines, roaming through galleries filled with hundreds, thousands, of volumes.[2] And like a kid in a candy shop, I would have a very, very difficult time choosing just one book.

I love to read.  I always have.  My mother taught me to read when I was three and I remember spending summers in the public library, devouring books.  Lisa sometimes wonders if she has competition in our marriage – because I am rarely found around our apartment without my Kindle.  Each night, when I come home from the synagogue, I look forward to reading to Hannah and Emily.  I marvel at watching the way that my daughters’ eyes light up, perhaps with that same sparkle that filled my eyes, when my mother read to me, some thirty years ago.

Among the greatest gifts that we will ever give our children and our grandchildren is a love for reading, the ability to enter the world of books for themselves, the ability to feel literate, to feel empowered in their learning.  But what happens when a book is inaccessible to us, when for example, it is written in a different language?  Standing in a labyrinth of literature, unable to read, would be downright frustrating.  And when that language is Hebrew, I would venture to say that many of us feel pretty darn frustrated.

Yom Kippur is an occasion in our calendar in which we confront our deepest personal issues, identify that which is lacking and missing from our lives, offer our intimate confessions, bare our souls before one another and before God, and resolve to address these concerns constructively.  It is also necessary for us to engage in Jewish work, together as a congregation.  I hope that you will hear my words as an invitation, not an exhortation, an opportunity through which we might learn and grow together.  For together as a congregation, we need to reflect on the depth and the character of our Jewish literacy.

To share personally, I learned to read Hebrew in the religious school at my family synagogue.  But until my final year of university, I had taken no advanced courses that enabled me to translate or understand what exactly I was reading when I prayed.  Because of my late start, my Hebrew has never been fluent.  Nevertheless, I managed to top my rabbinical school class and receive an award for Excellence in Hebrew – a great accomplishment considering that so much of my Hebrew learning was self-directed and incomplete.

Transitioning into a full-time career as a rabbi brought many blessings, but my discipline for Hebrew-based study dissipated.  This doesn’t make sense with my expectations of what it means to be a rabbi.  And so, during my recent sabbatical, I returned to the library of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.  The Klau Library is the second-largest repository of Jewish books in the world, and recently underwent the most exquisite multi-million dollar effort in renovation and preservation.  But all I could feel as I walked through the darkened corridors of the library was an unspeakable, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching sadness.  Even in its refurbished newness, there was dankness and mustiness in the air, the smell of decay, and the smell of death.  Apart from an occasional professor, graduate student, or reference librarian passing through, the library was empty – a cemetery of forgotten books.

Like Daniel in The Shadow of the Wind, I selected one volume from the shelf.  This particular Hebrew text had been published in 1872 and I wondered if anyone had opened this book in the last 140 years. I turned the first page and the yellowed, desiccated paper tore in my hands.  And then I began to read.  I couldn’t understand the meaning of the basic Hebrew text that I had chosen to read.  It was inaccessible to me.  I felt frustrated with myself.

And why?  What’s so important about Hebrew?  Of the approximately 6,500 languages spoken in the world today[3], I have no real regrets about not knowing 6,497 of them!  But Hebrew is different.  Hebrew is the language of both our ancestors and the State of Israel.  Hebrew is the language that we regard as lashon kodesh – the holy tongue.  Hebrew is the language that grants us entrance into the literature of our people, and with that entrance, the possibility of living an empowered, inspired Judaism.  Knowledge of Hebrew enables us to feel immensely more literate as Jews.

True, it can be challenging to find the time to learn – to read, to speak, to translate, to understand, to follow along in any meaningful or concrete way.  But learning Hebrew is so rewarding and so necessary.  And I say this as someone who wrestles with his Hebrew constantly.  Every Monday night, I engage in study with my chevruta – my learning partner.  I sit there, sometimes feeling accomplished, sometimes feeling frustrated, and he reminds me that it is the commitment that matters – a commitment to growing, to learning, and sometimes to struggling – because Hebrew provides such incomparable access to our sacred teachings.

But learning isn’t just a responsibility for rabbis.  I want to be sure that we are dedicating ourselves to growing together as a community.  We live in a Jewish world where there are institutions like synagogues and rabbinic seminaries.  Each of these organizations exists with a diminishing number of faculty members, scholars, and professionals who we entrust with the protection of our texts.  There are Jewish day schools to which we can send our kids, and rabbis are on-call when we need them.  But in order for us to thrive as a people, we need something more.

I struggle to ask the question, if Progressive Judaism represents a meaningful, viable way for Jewish living, why must we repeatedly turn to Orthodox Jews, to Chabad, to Aish, for “authentic learning,” to circumcise our babies, bury our dead, kasher our meat, and write our Torah scrolls?  I am all for practicing a Judaism that is responsive to contemporary issues, a Judaism that embraces women, gays, lesbians, and interfaith couples into our midst.  But we as Progressive Jews must also continue to develop a base of knowledge grounded in text and tradition, so that we can stand proudly and independently.  We would feel empowered.  We would no longer need to rely on people who are “sensitive to Progressive Judaism” to assist us when we require traditional Jewish services or life cycle ceremonies.  As Progressive Jews, the best way forward will be for us to continue learning the necessary skills, building knowledge, and demonstrating together an effective level of collective literacy, on our own.

With literacy, our movement becomes even more believable and sustainable.  We articulate the need for progress grounded in our knowledge of the traditional texts of Judaism, encouraging the importance of making educated Jewish choices, based on our commitment and our dedication to the values of our faith.  We keep our synagogue libraries from becoming cemeteries of forgotten books.

For if we don’t take responsibility for learning to read and understand our texts, who will?  For decades, the faculty and administration of Hebrew Union College have fought off repeated efforts to close the Cincinnati campus.  With New York and Los Angeles emerging as the two most populous centers of American Jewish life, Cincinnati, with only 27,000 Jews,[4] appears unable to support a rabbinical seminary and such a significant library.  But time and time again, the campus survives because of the library.  Turning control of the 436,000 books in the library to another university or a non-Jewish organization is inconceivable.  Simply put, a Jewish library needs to be preserved and cared for by Jews.[5]

There is no other way – not in Cincinnati, not here in Sydney, not anywhere in the world.  These are our texts.  This is our tradition.  And we need to unlock its beauty, its majesty, its mystery, and its’ meaning, together.  That’s why I study Hebrew and Jewish text together with my chevruta – my learning partner, without fail, once a week.  That’s why we need to have a conversation as a community about the place of Jewish learning in our lives, about how we grow together.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, scholar-in-residence at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco announced to his community an opportunity to learn to read the Hebrew Bible in Hebrew.  To have an opportunity to go word by word through the weekly Torah portion, students would have to buy a dictionary, a Hebrew Bible without English, and a grammar book for around 200 dollars.  Kushner figured that he might get a dozen people to attend the course.  One hundred fifteen people signed up.  His attempt at challenging his congregation was enormously successful and well received.[6]

Could something like this fly here?  What are your curiosities, your interests, and your desires to learn?  Help us to facilitate your Jewish growth.  Challenge us.  Let us challenge you.  Learn with us.  Let us learn with you.  Educational discovery, as Rabbi Elie Kaunfer teaches, will help us to unlock the power of Jewish heritage, search more deeply for God’s presence in our lives, and enable Jews other than academics, rabbis and members of the Orthodox community to feel empowered in their Jewish lives.[7] The opportunities – spanning three thousand years of text – are enormous, from Torah to Talmud, Mishnah to Midrash, psalm and piyyut, law and lore.  Where will we choose to begin?  How will we choose to continue?

And let’s also be open to seeing Jewish learning as including a world beyond our texts too.  Arnie Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York recently wrote, “I propose a different page for Jewish learning, one that is open to the larger world and bears the impact of modern thinking.  It would cleave faithfully to texts, rituals, history and faith while being informed by art, music, drama, poetry, politics and law.  Imagine if every Jew who wished to do so could awake to a platform of daily Jewish text not limited to Talmud—and to Jewish media not limited to text.”[8]

The sky’s the limit and our background, our previous knowledge, shouldn’t matter.  I’m still working on my Hebrew.  And our tradition teaches that up until the age of forty, the renowned Rabbi Akiva was a shepherd and had not studied a thing.  One time, standing by the mouth of a well in Lydda, he inquired, “Who hollowed out this stone?”…And he was told, “Akiva…it was water falling upon it constantly, day after day.”  At that, Akiva asked himself: Is my mind harder than stone?  I will go and study at least one section of Torah.  Akiva went on to become one of the most learned Jews in the history of our people.[9] We can do this.  We can learn, together – for our sake, for the sake of our children.

We strive to give our children everything in life.  We want our children to be resilient and safe, to have awareness of the world, to act with confidence, compassion, civility and respect.  We want them to have an ethical compass and to demonstrate sensibility and decency.  But we also want them to be Jews; we want them to be knowledgeable, passionate, capable, empowered Jews.  Who better to guarantee them this empowerment than each of us?  Psychologist and author Wendy Mogel writes:

Religious school alone won’t accomplish the two things you may most hope to give your children: a lifelong commitment to ethical and spiritual teachings and a legacy that they can pass on to your grandchildren. Children can learn to play tennis whether or not you play. They can even become champions. They can learn desktop publishing and how to do refined Web searches, but learning values and developing a sense of the holy must start at home. The Hebrew word for parents, horim, shares a root with the word morim, teacher. You are your child’s first teacher. If you turn the religious and spiritual education of your child over to professionals, he may lose what he needs most—your touch, your life experience, and your angle on the issues. By carting a child off to religious school when there is no whiff of religion at home—no Shabbat candles, no prayer, no discussion, no rituals—parents send the message that religion is good for children but irrelevant for adults; that it is something to be outgrown, like cartoons.[10]

Our synagogue needs to be a place in which we empower you, as parents, in your Jewish learning.  We are here to help you become even better parents, even better teachers, even better role models, even better Jews. The best way to preserve our texts and pass their lessons on to the next generation is by learning and studying, by growing together.

It can be done.  And we can do it, together.  If you were Daniel, wandering “The Cemetery of Forgotten Books,” where would you begin your journey?  Which Jewish book would capture your fancy and seize hold of your imagination?  Which book would you call your own and what would you want to learn?  And then, with whom would you want to share your newfound knowledge?  If each of us walked into such a library, and started by reading just one book, think of the passion, the love, with which we would transmit many new ideas.  Think of how our eyes would light up, and how our children’s eyes would light up.  Think of how we could grow ethically, spiritually and Jewishly, together.

Let us make time to grow together as a community of learning Jews, discovering the wisdom that our timeless texts impart to us, unearthing sacred meaning for life through the awesomeness, the brilliance, and the beauty of our teachings.  Let our texts, our books, remain close to us, close to our hearts, and let these texts become our best friends.  Our books have only us.  Our tradition has no guardians, except for us.


[1] Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind. Translated by Lucia Graves, 2001.  Prologue, Kindle Locations 109-183.

[2] This is Zafon’s language.

[3] http://www.infoplease.com/askeds/many-spoken-languages.html

[4] http://www.jewishdatabank.org/FAQs/FAQs_Tables1_And_1a.pdf

[5] http://www.docstoc.com/docs/97819630/THE-KLAU-LIBRARY-IN-CINCINNATI

[6] Rabbi Mike Comins, Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voice on Why Prayer is Difficult and What to Do About It. Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010, p. 172.

[7] Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us About Building Vibrant Jewish

Communities. Woodstock: Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010, pp. 157-161.

[8] Arnold Eisen, “A New Page for Jewish Learning,” wsj.com, 9 August 2012.

[9] Michael Katz and Gershon Schwartz, Swimming in the Sea of Talmud: Lessons for Everyday Living.  Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1998, pp. 3-4.  Quoting Avot derabbi Natan 6.

[10] Wendy Mogel, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, Kindle Locations 3790-98.

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