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Writing the Torah, a letter at a time

A new parchment page, right, next to the old one from which scribe Neil Yerman copies. (Jane Ulman)

A new parchment page, right, next to the old one from which scribe Neil Yerman copies. (Jane Ulman)

ENCINO, Calif., May 8 (JTA) — “See that aleph in ‘asher’ “? Gabe, 18, asks. He points to a piece of parchment that is securely taped to a drafting table and that contains the first seven verses of Genesis in carefully calligraphed Hebrew letters. “That’s my aleph.” My husband, Larry, and I, along with three of our sons — the oldest, Zack, is studying at Tel Aviv University this semester — are fulfilling the Torah’s 613th commandment — to write a sefer Torah. The commandment is derived from Deuteronomy 31:19: “Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel.” We were present on the sixth day of the month of Sivan 3,317 years ago, along with every Jew who would ever be born, when, amid thunder, lightning and the sound of the shofar, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, as well as, many believe, the entire written and oral Torah. That day marks the holiday of Shavuot, the giving of the Torah, which begins this year at sundown on June 12. And we are present on this night, along with several other families in the beit midrash at Milken Community High School in Los Angeles, where, amid solemnity, joy and awe, we are carrying out the Torah’s final commandment. Well, maybe we aren’t each writing a complete sefer Torah, a project that generally takes 2,000 hours, or a full year, but we are each writing a letter. “A letter qualifies,” says Neil Yerman, an observant Reform Jew who has gained certification as a sofer, or scribe, and, since 1987 has written five complete scrolls and participated in the restoration of more than 700 others. He is one of few scribes to allow women and children to inscribe letters in the Torah. Yerman, who lives in Manhattan, has come to Los Angeles to assist in the writing and restoring of a Torah for my sons’ school. It’s a project that according to Head of School Rennie Wrubel “gives each person who writes an opportunity for an intimate relationship with an ancient tradition.” The entire school community — all seventh- through 12th-graders as well as interested faculty, parents and alumni — will have a turn at writing in the first three columns of Bereshit, Genesis, on a new piece of parchment. That entails about 3,600 letters. A full Torah contains 304,805 letters. Yerman then will restore the remainder of the Torah, which was rescued from Poland after the Holocaust by Shlomo Bardin, founder of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, Calif. The scroll also survived a fire at the Institute. Next, Yerman will bind the scroll to a new set of “atzei chaim,” the wooden spindles that are called trees of life. “The Torah is holy,” Yerman tell us this night. “Writing in the Torah is a holy act.” And so, before we can write, Yerman educates us about the process while creating an appropriately respectful atmosphere. “What does holy mean?” he asks. “Holy means what’s inside the Torah,” Jeremy, 15, says. “It’s God’s words and God’s name.” The oldest known Torah, found in Alexandria, dates back almost 1,400 years. Our scroll, Yerman estimates, was written 120 to 130 years ago. Some of its sections are even older. And while it’s impossible to pinpoint its shtetl of origin, it reflects styles found in Russia, Poland, Lithuania and Germany. “This Torah has seen a lot more than any of us,” Yerman says. Yerman recites a traditional prayer, thanking God for teaching our hands to write the letters. Then, on a small piece of parchment, he carefully calligraphs the name Amalek, the archetypal enemy of the Jews, and, as commanded by Deuteronomy 25:19, blots it out. Calling us up one at a time, Yerman instructs us to place our hand around the quill atop his. He looks at the original scroll, also taped to the desk, to check what letter comes next, because a scribe cannot write even one letter from memory, and he sings out that letter’s name. Yerman holds the quill in a firm grip, alleviating the possibility that any of us will make a mistake, and together we meticulously and seemingly magically create each letter. “It’s amazing to think that Jews for later generations will read something that I wrote,” Jeremy says afterward. As parents, we made a promise at Sinai that our children would be the guarantors of Torah. They are surely the guarantors of this Torah, a Torah that they rescued and wrote. A Torah that they have become part of and that has become part of them. Our sons and their classmates will use this Torah for prayer services and Judaic studies classes. It will be interpreted, debated, revered and argued over. It will challenge, teach and engage; it will continue to be, as Danny, 14, says, “the thing that’s kept us Jews here for thousands of years.” After they graduate, our sons, along with all Milken students, will pass this Torah down to the next generation. And the next. And we hope that some day they will bring their own children to the beit midrash to show them the Torah. “See this Torah here? I saved it for you,” we can hear Gabe say as he takes it down and scrolls back to Genesis 1:7. “And see that aleph in the word ‘asher’? That’s my aleph.”

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