If Only the Scrolls Could Talk

The sun rose over Mount Sinai, illuminating the other-worldly landscape and imbuing the unusually thin parchment with a translucent glow. Reciting the Ten Commandments on the spot in Egypt that represents perhaps the best guess of where God, according to tradition, revealed the law to Moses amounted to a sort of homecoming for a 200-year-old Torah scroll, recalled Rabbi Marcia Prager.

A decade ago, the Mount Airy religious leader and her husband, Jack Kessler, a cantor, led an interfaith trip focusing on the themes of slavery and freedom. The mission began in Cairo, continued on to Sinai, and ended with a Passover seder in Jerusalem.

At each stop, participants read from the well-traveled scroll. But that Exodus re-enactment represented only a tiny slice of one Torah's journey through history, tragedy and rebirth.

"This scroll has an extraordinary story, much of which we can't know. I wish the parchment and ink could tell its own tale," said Prager.

Simchat Torah, celebrated this week, marks both the beginning and end of the annual journey through the Torah and points to one constant in Jewish life over the millennia: The public reading of the Torah scroll stands at the center of Jewish worship.

With the Torah itself as the central theme of the holiday, Simchat Torah focuses attention not only on the words written on parchment, but also on the physical, holy objects themselves.

And whether it has recently been painstakingly written or completed in the distant past, each scroll tells not only the saga of the birth of the Jewish people — and the laws that define the covenant with God — but has its own story as well.

Yet even with their frequent use, how often do people consider the provenance of these sacred and central objects?

Some Torahs have lived extraordinary lives, or may be all that remains of a vanished community. Others may have a less dramatic history, mirroring the more prosaic movement of Jews from the city to the suburbs, or the merging of one synagogue with another.

A Sense of Mystery
In fact, some area rabbis acknowledge that they prefer brand-new scrolls, because they hold up better during regular use and can go longer without needing repairs. (Most shuls have a Torah fund used to hire scribes to repair existing scrolls, or to assist in the purchase of a new one, which can run anywhere from $25,000 to $65,000.)

Often, the stories behind scrolls are difficult to piece together or become lost over time; a certain amount of mystery often seems to figure into the equation.

Such is the case of the Torah that is kept in an ark in Prager and Kessler's home, but is sometimes used for worship at P'nai Or Religious Fellowship of Philadelphia, a Jewish Renewal congregation that Prager leads. Congregants will be dancing with it on Simchat Torah, she said.

According to Prager, the family heirloom is more than 200 years old and originated in northern France. In Nazi-occupied Paris in 1941, an elderly man presented Kessler's father, Martin, with the scroll, telling him: "You are young, and you might make it."

Martin and Rachel Kessler did manage to escape, first to southern France, and ultimately, to the Boston area; Martin lived to the age of 101.

These days, Prager said, she and her husband are more wary of taking the scroll on globe-trotting adventures and try to limit its use to prevent damage. For the record, the congregation owns three other Torahs, but if they have such elaborate histories, nobody knows them, said Prager.

Sometimes, in trying to investigate a particular Torah's back story, the challenge is just matching up the right anecdote with the right Torah.

Rabbi Albert E. Gabbai of Congregation Mikveh Israel says that he's about 90 percent sure which one of their 20 Torah scrolls once belonged to Revolutionary War financier Haym Solomon. He donated the Torah around 1775 — 35 years after the synagogue was founded. Experts can determine age largely on the appearance of the parchment and the style of the calligraphy. But Gabbai said that no one has ever felt the need to try carbon dating or other types of scientific inquiry to know for certain, in part because the shul has no shortage of other historic items.

But where exactly did the Torah originate? That's an even murkier question. One thing for certain, attested Gabbai, is that it didn't come from Philadelphia since there weren't any scribes in the colonies at the time. It most probably was shipped from Amsterdam — since the city still boasted a large Sephardic community — but it could have been composed someplace else in the Sephardic world, perhaps Morocco, posited the rabbi.

In the end, he said, the mystery doesn't detract from the communal connection with a historic, sacred object.

"It's a tree of life for those who hold it," Gabbai said, quoting the book of Proverbs. What makes the scroll so important, he added, is that it contains the word of God, and is used by Jews in a living community.

Saved From the Depths

When it comes to Torahs rescued from the ashes of the Holocaust, they are invariably more questions than answers.

During its 1995 Rosh Hashanah service, Congregation Kol Ami — then a new Reform synagogue without its own building — dedicated a scroll donated by members Byron and the late Gay Schader.

According to the shul, now with a building in Elkins Park, scholars determined that the scroll was made in the mid-1600s, perhaps in northern Italy. All that's known, according to Schader — who purchased the scroll from a dealer in Miami — is that it was seized by the Nazis, shipped to Prague, and was intended to be used in a never-built Nazi Museum of the Extinct Jewish Race.

"Who knows how many eyes lovingly lingered over its words?" Rabbi Elliott Hollin wrote at the time in the synagogue bulletin. "Can we begin to imagine what stories this scroll could tell of Jewish children gathered around it on Simchat Torah, hovering over it during Bar Mitzvah, blessing it before entering the chupah?"

The congregation has two other Torahs, one of which was donated by nearby Old York Road Temple-Beth Am. Hollin said that it was a rare case of an existing, vibrant congregation giving a scroll to a nearby synagogue in need of one.

Sometimes, the most interesting part of the tale doesn't involve the parchment at all.

Near the turn of the 20th century, Israel Schatz, who owned a restaurant in Camden, N.J., co-founded a Conservative synagogue, Ohev Zedek.

He donated the crowns that were part of the dressing of the synagogue's Torah.

The idea, in a sense, is to treat the Torah scroll like royalty.

The shul closed in the 1950s, as Jews were leaving Camden for Cherry Hill, and the crowns were returned to Israel's son, Benjamin. Eventually, they were passed to Benjamin's daughter, Leona, who kept them in her china cabinet — first in South Jersey and later in Florida — for more than 40 years.

But five years ago, she donated them to Congregation Or Shalom in Berwyn — which happened to be short a pair of crowns — to mark the Bar Mitzvah of her grandson, Cameron Benjamin Peltz, now a college freshman.

Marsha Peltz, Benjamin's mother, helped trace the crown's history before they were donated to Or Shalom.

"A lot of people in the congregation don't know the story," said Peltz. "But those that heard the story know they belong in the ark, they don't belong in my mom's china cabinet in Florida."

Dan Haas, of West Chester, has had a Torah breastplate in a wooden box since his mother died in 2004. He's sure that it belonged to his grandfather, Ludwig Haas, who never made it out of Germany and died in a concentration camp, though he did manage to ship some valuables to relatives in Philadelphia.

(Haas's parents escaped Germany, and eventually were married in Syria before settling, first in Israel, later in New York.)

Haas, 73, felt strongly that the breastplate should finally have a new life.

So the member of Temple Sholom in Broomall approached the current rabbi, Peter Riegler, about donating the object.

On Yom Kippur, the plate was officially dedicated in front of hundreds of worshippers during afternoon Yizkhor service, where Haas spoke emotionally about its history.

The plate was handed to the rabbi, who placed it on a Torah inside the opened ark.

"It was a tremendous feeling, and I am very sentimental," said Haas, still having difficulty days later holding back the tears, "and I have a tendency to crack as I talk about it."


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