This past Spring I brought my 6th and 7th grade students into the sanctuary, and gathered them around a Torah scroll. For several, it was the first time that they had been this close, but all of them were filled with questions. How can someone write this perfectly? Is this really deer skin? How much do they cost? I explained the ritual a sofer undertakes, reciting the morning prayers, using the mikveh before writing the Holy Name, singing the letters as they are written. Dressing the Torah became a group effort, as they tested the scroll’s weight as its garment was slipped on, and multiple hands affixed the breastplate, yad and crowns. Beyond the text, the royal garments provided another lesson on the High Priest Aaron and Temple ritual.
The Torah scroll displayed at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust often serves as an introduction to Judaism. Many of the students who visit the museum attend public schools, and while they may have heard of the ‘Old Testament,’ it is a surprise to encounter the book as a scroll. Through the display, they learn about the Jewish practice of chanting the Torah on Shabbat morning. For everyone, however, this scroll has a special meaning, for it survived the Holocaust and was brought to Los Angeles from Czechoslovakia. The Jewish students recognize a familiar ritual object, but one that reaches back to another generation. Whether their family was affected by the Shoah or not, seeing the scroll elicits comments about grandparents and personal experiences of attending services.
The Shalom Institute in Malibu also had a Czech scroll that had survived the War, and their director, Bill Kaplan, approached the museum with the idea of inviting other holders of the Czech scrolls to bring them to the museum for a special exhibit, that would span Yom HaShoah. The museum’s director, Samara Hutman, finds this sort of collaboration between the community and the museum to be the essence of the institution. Eighteen communities brought their scrolls, contributing congregational narratives and photos. The scrolls, which came from a trove of 1,056 Torahs requisitioned by the Nazis, were brought to London in 1961, repaired and given new life in synagogues throughout the world. One hundred have found their way to California, but in the intervening decades, the memory of their history has faded among some. The museum staff found that contacting synagogues led to a revival of awareness of the history of their scroll, leading congregations to engage their youngest members as keepers of this knowledge.
How do you teach through artifacts? When I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. two years ago, I came upon a twisted Torah scroll on the floor of the Kristallnacht exhibit. Amidst the anguish which the museum’s exhibits provoke, this beautiful scroll bent my heart. In Los Angeles, the curators chose a different route. Instead of the sight of a sacred object desecrated, they decided to evoke the familiar by displaying the scrolls in their royal garments, just as any contemporary synagogue keeps their scrolls. The museum strengthened the connection to past generations by placing the scrolls in a row under their digital Tree of Testimony, which displays the Shoah Foundation’s first person accounts. Many visitors reported a sense that lost communities are living through the new life that these scrolls have found. When people talk about Torah scrolls, a sentient quality sometimes enters their choice of words. Indeed, the scrolls themselves are created from once living things: the deers (or sometimes cows) that gave their skin, the sinew of kosher animals that bind the parchment sheets together, the birds that provide the quills a sofer uses—even the ink is derived from a solution a mother wasp uses to feed her young. The humans who bring these materials together to create a scroll do so as an act of prayer, and the people who use the scroll, chant it as the central act of worship. For many people, the act of chanting connects them to thousands of years of Jewish life.
Learning to chant Torah requires memorizing the vowels and the melodies, as well as of course reading the Hebrew letters. I spoke to several chanters. One mentioned a strong sense of community: she learned from someone and she is now one of the people who can transmit this knowledge to others. It is her chance to perform a mitzvah. Another chanter spoke about her experience as a girl who was not allowed to read from the scroll during her bat mitzvah. Her USY rabbi heard her read haftorah, however, and suggested she read Torah. Lacking a teacher, she worked questions into casual conversations with the boys she knew. Now when she chants, she wears a big hat, and says this is her moment between the text and G-d.
Sophia Avants is working on a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic Texts in a joint program between the Claremont School of Theology and the Academy of Jewish Religion in Los Angeles.