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.
“Blessed are You, Eternal Source of Being, Who has created us, preserved us, and brought us to this moment for blessing.”
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.
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.