2010. február 12., péntek

Torah scroll written entirely by women

'I feel I am being guided by our ancestors'

Small Reconstructionist synagogue in Seattle, Washington proves Torah scroll can be written entirely by women


Elad Benari
Israel Jewish Scene


Imagine a Torah scroll written entirely by women! It may sound fictional, but it is possible, and the Women’s Torah Project has proven that it can be done.

In all started the summer of 2003 when Kadima, a small Reconstructionist synagogue in Seattle, Washington, undertook the great task of composing its own Torah scroll for the synagogue. “Kadima is a small community and we’ve never had our town Torah,” said Wendy Graff, who heads the Women’s Torah Project, in a conversation with Shalom Life.

“We always borrowed and every once in a while it would be problematic because communication would get crossed and something wouldn’t be available. We thought about getting our own Torah so we looked into used Torahs. Our Judaic director at the time said: ‘Why don’t we commission the first Torah ever to be scribed by a woman?’ and that’s how the project was born.

“We were absolutely dumbfounded to learn that all the Torah scrolls ever have always been scribed by men, and once we learned about the process it made total sense. It’s been held in the Orthodox community and it’s an apprenticeship kind of thing and that made complete sense,” said Wendy.

“Once we realized that we could have a hand in changing that history, I was hooked. We felt we were being revolutionary. So we looked around for a female Torah scribe and we realized that the reason there hadn’t been any women-scribed Torahs in modern history is because there weren’t any women Torah scribes.”

Wendy explained that there are women who learn the art of being a Torah scribe, and they usually learn the traditional way from an Orthodox mentor. “There are two men in Israel who have been very generous and very open except they don’t want their names publicized.”

Once Kadima learned how the system works, the idea came along to find a woman who had been studying and pay for her studies so that she can scribe their Torah scroll. This is when they met Shoshana Gugenheim in Jerusalem, and underwrote her studies.

Once Shoshana began to scribe for Kadima, “the dam broke” as Wendy put it and women started contacting the synagogue on their own initiative, in order to be a part of the project. Women from all over the world have gotten involved in the project, from New Jersey all the way to Sao Paolo, Brazil. Once a part of the scroll is written, it is shipped by the scribe to Seattle, in a tube.

Irma Penn, who lives in Winnipeg, has been a part of the project since last summer. She heard about it and thought it had been finished, but when she found out that it was still in progress, the process began so she could join.

Exhausting but uplifting work

Irma always wanted to learn to be a scribe. “I’d been interested for years and years, and the more I learned, the more I wanted to do it but never thought that I would really do it,” she said. “Finally I had the opportunity, the time, and the money (because it’s expensive) so I thought this would be the perfect time to learn.”

She started out by doing an online course from one of the scribes in Israel, in which she learned the fundamental script and how to write each letter perfectly. Once she completed that course, Irma went to Israel to study the actual Stam script. She spent several months in Jerusalem studying. She described the experience as “very intense and physically hard”.

Irma is currently working on scribing D’varim (Deuteronomy), the section of the Torah that she is writing for Kadima. “I work on the scroll every day and I let them know when I finish every section. One section is called yeria, which is a page with four columns on it and each column has 42 lines, and that’s one yeria. The Torah has 62 yeriot,” she explained. “I’m the only Canadian on the team and I feel very honored for having been chosen to participate.”

Irma describes the experience of writing a scroll as exhausting, physical work, but at the same time very uplifting. “I feel that I am holding hands with history, in a time-honored tradition. I feel like I am holding the hand and being guided by our mothers, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel and our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is an incredible feeling. They are there to show me the way.”

“We’ve loved having Irma on board for many reasons, not the least of which she’s a poet,” said Wendy. “She’s a visual artist, she’s a writer, she’s got an amazing background, and she clearly takes such joy in this work.”

After six years of intense work, the Torah scroll is close to being finished, and Wendy estimates it will be done in 2010.

“It’s taken so long because each scribe has a different pace. One is a teacher who teaches in a day school so during the year she’s slower but in the summer she works at a faster pace. But I think we’ll be finished in 2010. My vision is to bring all the scribes and artists together in Seattle, and I’d love to see everyone who’s been involved with the Women’s Torah Project be a part of sewing it together. I actually have special silver plated needles that are used for that.”

'Just go for it'

The Torah scroll project has not only received assistance from women scribes, but also from women who have taken on the task of making embellishments for the scroll. Wendy explained about a terrific initiative that involves the community in decorating the scroll’s mantle.

“We wanted to give people an opportunity to participate and the woman who is making the mantle came across a great idea. She’s using a pomegranate seed motif for the mantle and each little seed of the pomegranate will be crafted from a piece of fabric that donors are sending in. So anybody who donates any amount to the Women’s Torah Project can send in a 1x1 inch swap of fabric from a woman that they want to honor. We ask for some information about those women and we’ve gotten some remarkable stories and some really beautiful words. This means that the Torah is going to be dressed in bits of fabric from all of these women who are part of the community.”

With this revolutionary idea almost complete, Wendy feels that Kadima has made history.

“During the time that we have been working on our scroll, there have been other Torahs that had been completed by a single female scribe but that never would have happened without the Women’s Torah Project. We definitely opened the door because ours was the first one commissioned. To me, the international community part of it is incredibly powerful and speaks to what Judaism is about, that you can go into any synagogue anywhere in the world and it will feel like home.”

For any woman who wants to be a scribe, Irma Penn definitely encourages the idea. “If you really want to do it, I would say just go for it. I would recommend doing something every day towards getting toward the goal. Learn the letters, learn how to write each one perfectly. It’s something you have to really want to do. Most people, I am told, only dream. They do not realize that they have to take action to realize their dream.

“You have to plan and work toward it. Do something (no matter how small the step is) every day, toward that dream becoming a reality. Most give up. Many make magic!!!!”

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