Female scribe writes Torah scroll
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Female scribe writes Torah scroll

CALIFORNIA, Feb. 27 (JTA) — In the history of the Jewish people, there is no record of any woman ever having written a Torah scroll. But history is about to change. Aviel Barclay, an artist based in Vancouver, Canada, has become the first known certified soferet, or female Torah scribe. And there’s more. She’s landed her first commission and is now completing a Torah for Kadima, a Seattle-based Jewish community. The project has generated excitement. Several women artists have asked to contribute, with San Francisco artist Aimee Golant pegged to create two silver Torah crowns and Berkeley, Calif., poet Marcia Falk signed up to write a blessing for the yad, or pointer. “I fell off my chair, I was so excited,” says Golant from her studio. “That these woman had the chutzpah to make this happen is so special. It adds another dimension.” Other female artists will be creating a mantle, a breastplate and the etz chaim — the “tree of life,” or wooden spools that hold the scroll. And when it’s finally unveiled sometime in the fall, Kadima likely will throw a Simchat Torah party for the ages. “This was done through force of will,” says Kadima’s Wendy Graff, chair of the Woman’s Torah Project. “It wasn’t an easy sell within our own community. But so far we’ve received donations from 300 donors in 30 states.” Graff, who grew up in San Mateo and attended Peninsula Temple Beth El there, says the idea for the project evolved out of real need. “We don’t have our own Torah,” she says of her 80-family congregation. “We borrowed Torahs from other synagogues, like neighbors asking for a cup of sugar. Sometimes we borrowed non-kosher Torahs. We even had one that had all these yellow Post-it notes inside.” Kadima launched a new Torah fund, which grew slowly over a period of years. Finally Rabbi D’rorah O’Donnell Setel, Kadima’s Judaic studies director, asked Graff, “Why don’t you commission the first Torah inscribed by a woman?” The initial answer was: because no one ever had. Jewish law does not expressly forbid women to become scribes, but it is a role that traditionally has been filled by men. That is, until Aviel Barclay came along. She remembers being drawn to Hebrew letters even as a small child. She taught herself the aleph-bet at age 10, and starting taking Hebrew calligraphy seriously at the same time. She went on to attend art school and became a proficient gemologist. But a serious cycling accident in 1991 changed everything. “I was off work for six months,” she recalls. “Doing calligraphy was much easier on my hands. This got me closer to God. “I remembered my Hebrew calligraphy and put two and two together. I thought this is what I was supposed to do. Then I asked, ‘Do women do this?’ ” She didn’t wait around for an answer, and instead began to talk to soferim around the world. At first it was a case of woman hitting a brick wall. “One sofer told me it would be better if I got married and had children, ” she remembers. “He said that was a better way to serve the Jewish people. “But I didn’t give up.” She finally found a teacher in Israel willing to take her on, as long as she lived a frum — observant — life, and as long as the arrangement was on the down-low. At first she studied through correspondence courses. Later she moved to Jerusalem and studied at a yeshiva. The process took years and involved a good deal of scorn and abuse, but Barclay persevered. Once back home in Vancouver, Barclay heard from Kadima about writing a Torah. Now the project is something of a mission to the people involved. “We could have gotten a Torah for less money,” says Graff of the $60,000 project, “but once we realized that a woman had never scribed a Torah, I knew I could never look at one the same way again. “This project called to me, knowing that I could help open that door.” Graff is openly appealing for donations to speed completion of the project — her e-mail address is wendyg@seanet.com. Most of costs relate to Barclay’s fee and expenses, but all the women artists involved will be paid for their services. Meanwhile, Barclay toils on, up to six hours a day, one letter at a time. “I’m pleased with the work I’m doing,” she says. “I feel in awe.” But she’s much more excited about creating a Torah than being some sort of feminist pioneer. Says Barclay: “I don’t have to be Yentl.”