From Mourning to Dancing

A Celebration of Our Survivor Torah

All praise to You, O Beloved, for You have raised me up, and have not let my fears overwhelm me…. You have turned my mourning into dancing; You set me free and clothed me with gladness.

From Psalm 30, interpreted by Nan Merrill in Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness

From the Rabbi

Our sacred Torah holds within her soul the souls of generations. Her pages bear the fingerprints of all those who, in the past three hundred years or more, have blessed her, chanted from her, and danced with her from the synagogues of Europe to the temples of North America, and even to the slopes of Mount Sinai.

Each time the scroll is unrolled and yet another person steps up to the bimah to chant, I cannot help but hear the voices and feel the presence of those countless Jews who stood in front of her, bent over her words, to sing the song written on her parchment. Though she has seen death and destruction all around her, she is as alive today as she has ever been, fulfilling her life purpose at the center of our community. And that is a great blessing indeed.

My deepest thanks go to my dear friend and Bet Alef member, Kate Elias, who approached me in early 2014 with the idea of creating this book. The impetus was an invitation from the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust to bring our Torah to London for a 50th anniversary reunion with other Torah scrolls that had escaped Nazi destruction and remained hidden for another twenty years before they were rediscovered in 1964. Though our community was unable to attend, Kate suggested that we could send a book about our Torah to the Trust as our representative at their celebrations and as a token of our gratitude for their remarkable work and the gift of our beloved scroll. Here at home we honored our Torah with a special service in February 2014, and as a gift to mark the 50th anniversary of her rebirth our community sponsored an accredited sofer to re-ink her broken letters and re-sew a few loose stitches so she will continue to be kosher for many years to come.

With this book we celebrate our Torah and rejoice in her words as our people have done for generations. As we say at the end of each book of the Torah,

Chazak, chazak, v’nit’chazek!
Be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened!

Rabbi Olivier BenHaim
6 Sivan, 5774 — June 4, 2014

From the Author

My desire to create this book was born of a deep sense of personal connection to Bet Alef’s Sefer Torah owing to my marriage to a Czech Jew who was, like our scroll, a survivor of the Shoah. Zdenek Elias was one of the “typical Czech Jews” in the story you are about to read, growing up in the “typical Czech town” of Slany, where his non-observant, free-thinking father owned a brick factory and sang as the occasional cantor in the local synagogue. My efforts are dedicated to Zdenek, to the Czech Jews who once treasured our beautiful Torah, and to my fellow members of Bet Alef who treasure her today.

B’Shalom, Kate Elias

Our Torah's Story

One day in the middle of the 17th century, somewhere in the Czech Lands of the Holy Roman Empire, a Jewish scribe called a sofer rose early in the morning and went to the mikveh with a special purpose in mind. Upon returning to his small studio, he opened the shutters to admit more light and selected a clean sheet of kosher parchment that had guiding lines and columns lightly marked on its surface. Then he recited a heartfelt prayer of sacred intention, dipped a feathered quill into a small pot of specially formulated ink, and wrote the first word of a new Torah scroll. “B’reishit,” he wrote: “In a beginning.”

It was the beginning of a months-long labor of love. From that day forward, every morning except Shabbat the sofer would immerse in the mikveh to ensure that he was ritually pure for such a holy task, then go to his study, utter the prayer of commitment, and continue inking the words of the Torah onto the parchment. “Hareyni ani kotev leshem k’dushat sefer Torah,” he would recite over and over as he dipped the quill into the ink to write another word: “Behold, I am writing for the purpose of the sanctity of the Torah scroll.” Copying precisely from a proof text called a tikkun—not daring to write from memory even though he knew the entire Torah by heart—he labored for several hours a day, pausing only for midday prayers or to select a separate quill when the text called for him to write the holy Name of God.

Many months later the sofer inscribed the final words of the Torah:

“Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Eternal singled out, face to face….” (Deut. 33:10).

And never again would there be a Torah scroll exactly like the one he had just created, with the same beautiful calligraphy and mystical flourishes so carefully inscribed on these unique parchments.

Gathering the completed parchments, he stitched them together using giddin, sinews from the legs of kosher animals. Making a stitch every six lines of text, he sewed the backs of the parchment sheets so that the stitches would not be visible from the front. Then he attached the scroll to wooden rollers called Eitzei Chayim (trees of life) so it could be rolled for safekeeping in the Aron ha-Kodesh, the Holy Ark. Finally, the new Torah was dressed in festive garb and presented to the community, who welcomed her with a joyful Shehecheyanu:
“Blessed are You, Eternal Source of Being, Who has created us, preserved us, and brought us to this moment for blessing.”
Who was this sofer who labored so faithfully to produce our Sefer Torah more than 300 years ago? We know virtually nothing about him, for sofers do not sign their work even though they have lived and breathed it for many months on end. But we can make a few educated guesses based on the script and ornamentation in the scroll herself.
We know from the script that he was a Czech Jew, technically Ashkenazi but descended from one of the thousands of Sephardim who were expelled from Spain in 1492 and made their way east to Prague, where—give or take a few pogroms—they lived in relative safety in the Jewish ghetto. Some of the most learned Jews of the Middle Ages lived in Prague, drawn by the famed Talmudic Academy and the first Hebrew printing house in Central Europe. Thus it was natural that the new refugees would join their Ashkenazi cousins, and the sofers among them left their mark literally in the style of their Hebrew script.

 

Fittingly for an inclusive congregation such as Bet Alef, whose founding rabbi is Ashkenazi and current rabbi is Sephardi-Mizrachi, our Torah was written in a hybrid script with features of both traditions. As you can see in these photos, some letters are clearly Sephardic, some are Ashkenazi, and some, such as the lamed, are a cross between the two.
We also know, from the ornamentation, that our sofer was something of a mystic who seems to have been influenced by the legendary Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague (1520-1609). In popular literature, Rabbi Loew was a miracle worker and creator of the Golem, a mythical creature that rescued the Jews of Prague from a series of disasters. More historically, he was a brilliant Talmudic scholar who also wrote so lucidly about kabbalah for ordinary people that he is considered one of the guiding lights behind the spiritual movement that later developed into Chasidism. His followers revered him as the Maharal, an acrostic for Moreinu ha-Rav Loew, meaning “Our Teacher Rabbi Loew.”
We can infer that our sofer was one of these followers because many of the letters in his Sefer Torah are adorned not only with the three-pointed crown seen in all Torah scrolls but also, in special passages such as “The Song at the Sea” (Exodus 15:1-19), with star-bursts over the crowns in a manner favored by the Maharal.

Rabbi Druin, a traveling sofer, re-inks faded letters in the Bet Alef Torah using the traditional methods in order to ensure our Torah remains kosher for years to come.

Let’s surmise, on the basis of her size, that our scroll was not intended for one of the major synagogues in Prague. More likely she belonged to a small congregation in a typical Czech town. Perhaps that town was Slany, twenty miles from Prague in the direction of the Terezín/Theresienstadt ghetto.

The first Jews arrived in Slany sometime in the middle of the 14th century and received the same miserable treatment that greeted Jews all over Europe. Not permitted to settle permanently, they were grudgingly allowed to ply their necessary trades in the daytime but forced to live outside the town overnight. The town suffered badly during the religious wars of the time—the Hussite Wars (1419-1434) and the Thirty Years War (1618-1648)—and there was little room in Czech hearts for the Jews with their strange ways and beliefs. Over time, however, the Jews increased in number and their situation improved. By the mid-19th century there were perhaps fifty Jewish families in Slany and neighboring villages, enough to build a handsome synagogue with a school for seventy children.

In the years between the World Wars, when the Czech Lands of Bohemia and Moravia, along with the eastern province of Slovakia, were freed from the control of the Habsburg Empire and forged into an independent country known as Czechoslovakia, Slany was a typical Czech town in terms of its Jewish population. Though there were some instances of Jew-hating in the country at large, the townsfolk were on good terms with the Jewish bookseller, druggist, saddler, brick manufacturer, lawyer, laundry owner, and shopkeepers. For their part, the Jews were thoroughly assimilated and not particularly religious. Many, including the brick-factory owner, who served as cantor for the occasional services in the synagogue, belonged to the “free-thinkers” movement and considered themselves more Czech than Jewish.
In this relaxed environment our Torah might have breathed a sigh of relief that after 300 years of service she could enjoy a peaceful retirement. But alas, it was not to be. Declaring that Germans needed more Lebensraum, more “living space,” the Nazis occupied the neighboring country of Austria in 1938 (an event known as the Anschluss, the “annexation”). A year later they invaded Czechoslovakia and established the “German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia”—a protectorate that protected no one except the German-speaking population of the Sudetenland, the parts of Czechoslovakia near the German border.
First to suffer under the occupation were the Jews, who were stripped of home, livelihood, and all human rights. In every city and village, including our little town of Slany, the Jews were rounded up and transported first to a ghetto in the old army garrison town of Terezín (Theresienstadt in German) and ultimately “to the east,” to Oswiecim (Auschwitz) in Poland. Synagogues were vandalized, gold and silver ornaments were stolen for their value, and priceless Torah scrolls were destroyed in paroxysms of hatred against the Jews.
To save what they could of their precious heritage, a few dedicated Jews in Prague gathered religious objects from all over Bohemia and Moravia, including our little Torah, and brought them to Prague for safekeeping. That museum was the Central Jewish Museum in Prague, not a Nazi creation but a Jewish institution, and it was Jewish leaders who thought the museum would be the safest place to store synagogue treasures until the war was over.

 

Tragically for the Jews, very few survived the Shoah—the curators of the museum all perished—and the first order of business for the faithful remnant was to figure out how to live again, not how to reclaim the artifacts of their vanished way of life. In the meantime, it was the Russian Army that liberated Prague from the Nazis, and the liberators had no more respect for Jewish culture than the occupiers had. Thus, with no one to claim them, the collected Torahs languished in various states of disrepair for another twenty years before the Communist government then ruling Czechoslovakia realized they might be worth serious money on the market.

 

Through the secretive channels of collectors who specialize in antiquities, a London art dealer learned that the scrolls were for sale. Immediately he put together a team: a generous donor who agreed to buy and donate the scrolls, a specialist who inspected the scrolls in Prague, and a rabbi who provided critical guidance about what should be done with the scrolls. Thus was born the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust, the organization of British Jews who rescued 1,564 scrolls from a mouldering warehouse in Prague and brought them to Westminster Synagogue in London. The year was 1964. 

Some of the scrolls were so badly damaged—torn, burnt, and stained with blood—that they were no longer kosher and had to be retired. All the others were carefully restored and offered on permanent loan to synagogues that could provide them with a loving home. Some went to synagogues where they are revered as Shoah survivors and preserved in special display cases, symbols of the past but no longer functioning as active Torahs in the present. Others share space with several scrolls in a community’s Aron ha-Kodesh and are brought out only for special occasions.

Little scroll #364 is one of the lucky ones that got a second chance at a joyful life in a community that reveres her as a survivor and also chants her words and celebrates her presence with dancing and hakafot—a celebration that includes not only men, as in the Old Country, but also women and children. That happy life began when she was entrusted to Rabbi Ted Falcon for his synagogue in Los Angeles, and has continued at Bet Alef since our founding by Rabbi Ted in 1993.

Our Beloved Scroll

It is a Tree of Life to all who hold it fast,

and those who uphold it find happiness. 

Like a true refugee, the scroll arrived from Europe without a thing to call her own. Rumor has it that her binder was a bathrobe sash. Early on she was dressed in a burgundy mantle created by Mary Gorfine, a talented mixed-media artist who also crafted her white velvet mantle for the High Holy Days.

Later, in 2011, she was adorned with an antique silver breast-plate from Terezín, kindness of Mark Bonyhadi and family. The breastplate had been in Mark’s family for several generations, so it is at least 150 years old. On the basis of linguistic “politics,” it may be even older. A label on the front of the breastplate says it came from “Theresienstadt,” which is a German name for Terezin. But the Czechs stopped using the German name during a surge of national pride in the early 19th century, so the breastplate may be more than 200 years old.

Now, what are the chances that an old, unusually small Czech Torah and an old, unusually small Czech breastplate would both show up in Seattle, some five thousand miles from their homeland? The possibility of a miraculous reunion is indeed enticing….

For many years our Torah resided in a plain wooden Ark finished with an Israeli-blue Magen David and felt lining. In 2013, in celebration of Bet Alef’s twentieth anniversary, she was ensconced in a new Aron ha-Kodesh especially commissioned by our community and custom built by artist Gabriel Bass in Israel. The shape of the Aron is reminiscent of the portable Ark of the Covenant that traveled with us in the desert three thousand years ago. The carving on the doors—stylized Hebrew letters engulfed in flames but not consumed—can be interpreted in many ways. The Torah behind those doors was nearly destroyed, and yet she survived to tell us about different kinds of flame. They are the flames of the burning bush that summoned Moses in the desert. They are the flames of divine fire and smoke at Sinai, where we received the tablets that describe the Jewish path. And they are the flames of love that we create when we join our individual divine sparks in common worship and community service. The fire of hatred from which our Torah escaped surely can destroy, but the flames of love that she inspires can bless and enlighten the world.

The story of our precious Torah doesn’t end here; it will continue until she is finally retired to the geniza for a well-earned rest. Nor is the scenario in Slany or some other Czech town the only possible story. We could imagine a different narrative, in which the scroll was created for a rabbi who had to travel between far-flung villages and would have wanted her to be as small and portable as possible. Perhaps, in this scenario, she really was created for the personal use of the Maharal, who traveled between Prague and his other synagogue in Mikulov, a Moravian town that also had a sizable Jewish population. Such a story would also suit our traveling Torah, which has logged a good many miles since the Shoah: from Prague to London to Los Angeles to Seattle, and even to the top of Mount Sinai!

Of all her travels, surely the most rewarding ones today are up and down the aisles of Bet Alef in the arms of B’nai Mitzvah and other devoted members who carry her in celebration at Simchat Torah and other special events. May her parchment be strengthened by our love, and may we be strengthened by her words every day of our lives.

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