Female Torah Scribe Part of a Small and Unique Sorority

Julie Seltzer is a female Torah scribe, or soferet. She is believed to be just the second soferet in the world to transcribe an entire Torah.

Julie Seltzer works in a profession so small that she literally can count the number of members on her fingers and toes.
Seltzer is a female Torah scribe, or soferet. She is believed to be just the second soferet in the world to transcribe an entire Torah.
She returned to her childhood home of Yardley on Sept. 25 for a three-part workshop at Congregation Kol Emet, which included a PowerPoint presentation describing her craft, a “tour” of the Torah, and time for participants to try their own hands at the scribal arts. An eager crowd participated.
Seltzer, 41, took a roundabout route to becoming a soferet, although her background experiences are all tied to a deeply ingrained Jewish heritage.
“At a certain point, out of the blue, I decided I wanted to write the letter,” she said, touching upon a general love of language and letters, as well as the mythical history of the Jews.
Seltzer studied theater at Brown University, then volunteered at an Israeli kibbutz, which ignited her love of Hebrew and language.
“I got more and more interested in studying Jewish texts,” she said.
Other stops included time working for Hillel in Madison, Wisc., scholarly exploration at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, teaching at a Jewish day school in Maryland, living a couple years in Israel, and working from 2007 to 2009 as a baker at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut.
The latter stop is where she began to learn the soferet craft, first from the internet, then under the tutelage of Jen Taylor Friedman, the first woman to write a complete Torah.
Ironically, Seltzer said she has terrible handwriting.
Writing a Torah is a painstaking process completed to exacting standards. Laws outlined in the Talmud were developed by early scribes and have been established for centuries.
The parchment sheets must come from the skin of a kosher animal. Seltzer uses quills carved from turkey feathers to apply the black ink.
There are 42 lines per column of text and four columns on each parchment sheet. There are 62 sheets per scroll, which are sewn together.
Each word is spoken aloud before Seltzer applies it to ink. No word, she said, can come from memory — Seltzer follows along with a scanned copy of a real handwritten Torah.
“It’s a lot about the rhythm of writing,” she said, noting that she writes for about five hours per day.
Aside from now needing reading glasses — a plight familiar to anyone in their early 40s — Seltzer has suffered no physical ailments and her hands work just fine.
If Seltzer makes a mistake, she has two options. For major mistakes, it means starting over with a new page. With smaller mistakes, she can use a razor blade to lift off the top layer of the parchment.
“Once, or maybe twice, I skipped a line and had to start over,” she said, noting that she’s never had a major ink spill.
At the moment, Seltzer is working on her third Torah, which was commissioned by Tamid NYC. She expects it will take 16 months to complete. She now works in a shared space, but is used to tuning out distractions; her first Torah, which was completed for the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, was written while she was in public view.
Although the number of soferets is increasing, there are still some minor roadblocks, including traditional Jewish laws that proscribe women from joining the scribal profession. Orthodox congregations don’t recognize female scribes.
“I know of people who would not accept my Torah for their congregation, but they don’t disapprove of what I’m doing,” Seltzer said.
Now living in Beacon, N.Y., in the Hudson Valley, Seltzer does some non-Torah commissioned projects, including custom-designed ketubahs, wedding invitations and other calligraphy works.
Aside from continuing to practice and improve at her craft, Seltzer is pondering a memoir to keep her writing muscles sharp and wants to spread the word about soferets.
“I would like to do more of these workshops and of teaching what I have learned,” she said.
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0797


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