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Friday, October 1, 2010

Words Across Time and Space

Josh Stein


New Torah connects generations.

The room, which moments earlier had been filled with the sounds of adults talking and children running and laughing, was suddenly hushed, profoundly quiet except for the scratching of a quill. The last two lines of the book of Deuteronomy were being inscribed onto a parchment section that would soon be sewn to its predecessors in the completion of a Torah scroll.


As the scribe, Jamie Shear, dipped his quill into ink and then wrote, reciting each word before he did so, we, his audience at Temple Emanu-El, silently witnessed the fulfillment of an ancient commandment – that of writing the words of the covenant for every generation. When he was finished, the children and the adults started to dance and to sing, but there was more one task to be done before the secular could be called holy, before the skin of an animal and wood and ink transcended the level of commonplace to become the sacred.


Our new Torah at Temple Emanu-El had been paid for by subscription. We’d recently lost a favorite teacher, Lea Eliash. Someone, I don’t know who, proposed that a fitting tribute to a woman who had devoted her life in America to teaching Hebrew to young children and mature adults after surviving the terrors of the Holocaust in Europe, would be to honor her memory with a new Torah scroll; and so the “Lea’s Letters” campaign was launched. And now the last of those letters, the word Yisra’el, was being inscribed as permanently as anything in this world can be, to be read by b’nei mitzvah and their parents and grandparents, and by their children and grandchildren for as long as there is a Temple Emanu-El, and beyond, I imagine.


Its rollers and handles (called, in Hebrew, atzei hayyim, in English “trees of life”) were carved by Lea’s grandson from the wood of her dining-room table. Many in the community – and I count myself among them – sat at that table, where we enjoyed meals and conviviality. The table now is reduced in size, but increased in stature.


Lea is gone, we all knew that; but this piece of her home will provide an ample reminder of her presence and importance to the community for as long as we remember where they were from.


The collective gasp as this “table to Torah rollers and handles transformation” was revealed was akin to the sound of a breeze through tall grass. In time, I suppose fewer and fewer people will recall that the wood of the “trees of life” came from the dining-room table of a loving and gentle woman who once lived here. For a while, at least, we who were there will remember, and when we do, her sweetness and grace will be called to mind.


In my mind, scribes are old men in black suits, potbellies, blackened fingers and shtreimels, or at least black fedoras. Shear does not fit the mold. Rail-thin and smiling shyly, he covers his head with a knitted kippah and, while he does have a beard, it’s a stylish goatee (I recently had one like that until my wife pointed out that enough was enough). Born and raised in Montreal, he attended high school and Bar Ilan University in Israel, moving there permanently four years ago.


Emanu-El’s is his sixth Torah scroll. It has the standard 245 columns, each checked by the scribe and then by two rabbis and then by a computer that scans it and spots errors, if any. At Emanu-El, just as he was about to sew the final stage onto the rollers, he noticed that an alef, one of the letters he’d just written, was just slightly “off.” He described an alef as a vav with two yods, one above and one below. The upper yod was more of a blob than he felt appropriate. With the audience surrounding him, he scraped off the offending digit and replaced it with a better one. Now he was finished.

When the last stitch connecting parchment to roller was completed, we broke out into a Sheheheyanu – “Blessed are you, Lord, who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion.” Nothing less seemed appropriate.


Lea Eliash now has a suitable memorial; Shear now has completed another Torah – and he has another almost done which he’ll deliver to a congregation in Hong Kong next month. And we at Temple Emanu-El have a new Torah; light enough to be lifted by 13-year-olds and solid enough to contain the words of our people as they have been laboriously penned by earlier scribes, again, and again, and again.


Josh Stein is a professor of history at Roger Williams University. Contact him at

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