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Ancient Ritual Kept Alive Through Northwest Trees

Courtesy of David Bolnick

There are about 1,000 trees in the Northwest that share something in common. You’d never guess what it is just by looking at them. Some are tiny fruit trees. Others are towering cedars. But, under the soil, they’re connected to the same ancient ritual.

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Joseph’s Apple Tree

“Here’s Joseph’s apple tree,” Debbie says pointing to a tiny tree growing in her front yard. “It’s looking a little bit, I wouldn’t say shaggy, but the wind and the storms throughout the winter have definitely given it some interesting shape.”

Her husband planted this apple tree after their son Joseph’s bris eight years ago. The tree is still small – only a few inches taller than Debbie with a trunk slimmer than a broom handle. It sits in a plastic pot near their front door.

“Hopefully, it will keep growing and get stronger and produce some nice apples for us,” Debbie says. But, it’s not really about the apples. It’s about what the family has planted inside this pot.

The Bris

A bris is a circumcision ritual designed to welcome a new baby into the Jewish community. It’s been in practice for more than 2,000 thousand years. Now, some Northwest families like Debbie’s are reclaiming a unique custom as a part of the Bris.

“In the Northwest, I’m sure we’re approaching 1,000 trees that have a foreskin buried under them,” says David Bolnick. “Of course, you’ll never know which one it is,” he adds laughing.

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Bolnick is a mohel - someone who performs circumcisions according to Jewish laws and traditions. He’s been doing bris ceremonies for 25 years. He doesn’t know exactly how the custom of burying a foreskin under a tree originally started. “I heard it from my mentor who heard it from his mentor, so we’re going back many, many, many years. It’s probably a very old tradition.”

It’s a tradition that Bolnick remembered when he was performing his first bris ceremonies and noticed that families just didn’t feel involved with the process.

“It’s too easy, especially nowadays,” Bolnick reflects, “that you invite the Mohel in, he does all the dirty work, and then he leaves and he takes the foreskin with him. And you’re really kept out of the circle, out of the process. So, I was looking for ways of bringing people into the process, making them part of the whole ceremony itself and not just observers.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "Mohel David Bolnick in his back yard next to a cedar tree where he buried his own son's foreskin", "fid": "3986", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201305/DSC09848-2.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Sarah Waller"}]]

So, Bolnick gives parents a very hands-on way of participating in the bris. After the circumcision, he takes the foreskin and puts it into a vessel with soil from Jerusalem. “I do that as a personal symbolic gesture that our blood commingles with that of our ancestors,” he says. Then, he wraps it in gauze and gives it to the parents – along with the instructions to bury it under the roots of a tree.

“And then when the time is right, you harvest the branches from that tree, or sometimes even the flowers and whatnot to embellish the chuppah, the marriage canopy. And it’s a nice way to connect the person from where they started to where they are now in their life cycle,” Bolnick says.

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Bolnick feels the tradition of rooting yourself symbolically in the place you were born is important – especially today, when people can end up living half a world away from where they started. “It’s a neat thing to say, this is my tree and it’s located at (this particular) address,” he says. Trees, unlike people, he points out, are known for staying in one place.

But, not all families see it that way.

The U-Haul

Bolnick remembers a phone call he got a few years back from a Seattle family that was moving to the East Coast. They wanted to know if it was okay to dig up the Bris tree and take it with them.

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“I said, ‘Sure.’” Bolnick recalls. “I didn’t know what sized tree, I just assumed it was a tiny tree. But, it was like a nearly full-grown tree,” That didn’t stop the family. “They dug it up, they put in the back of a U-Haul, and they drove across country with it.” Then, the family re-planted the tree at their new home on the East Coast.

“It became something really, part of their life, part of their experience, and they wanted to ensure that experience lived on. It’s that type of story that makes all this worthwhile,” Bolnick says.

More than an Apple Tree

That’s something Debbie was thinking about when her family planted Joseph’s apple tree. “We know that at some point, most likely, we’ll be moving somewhere. So, we want to keep it in the pot so we hope to take it with us wherever we go.”

Debbie hasn’t told Joseph the full story of his apple tree yet, but she plans to someday. For now, she enjoys seeing the tree each day out her living room window.  It reminds her of her son’s birth. “There’s a little part of Joseph in there," she says.  "It’s just something that makes the tree special. It’s more than just an apple tree. It’s Joseph’s apple tree.”

Someday, when Joseph and his apple tree are a lot bigger, Debbie hopes to use its branches to build his wedding chuppah.

Watch Seattle mohel David Bolnick in a documentary about bris ceremonies.

Read more More Than A Tree stories

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni was the scientific advisor for our series. 

Funding was provided by the KUOW Program Venture Fund. Contributors include Paul and Laurie Ahern, the  KUOW Board of Directors and Listener Subscribers.