Nov 9, 2009

NYTimes: "A Torah Scribe Pushes the Parchment Ceiling"

The New York Times

NOTE: "As It Is Written: Project 304,805" continues through fall 2010 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission Street, San Francisco; (415) 655-7800,

NYTimes: "A Torah Scribe Pushes the Parchment Ceiling"

In Hebrew the word for Julie Seltzer's arcane profession is soferet; she's a scribe, a Hebrew calligrapher who writes sacred texts on parchment. A mere handful of women do what she does, and an even more select handful are practiced in the especially ritualistic craft of writing particularly holy scrolls, including the Torah, considered the foundation of Jewish life and thought.

Age-old Jewish law declares that only men be trained for such work, and that a Torah that has been created by a woman is unsuitable for use in worship, strictures that are still upheld in Orthodox communities and congregations. But Ms. Seltzer, who is 34, and a few others are widening an ancient tradition in a modern age. She estimated that perhaps 10 women in the world write the Torah and the other restricted documents containing quotations from Hebrew Scriptures, including those for the tefillin, small leather boxes housing Scriptural passages, and mezuzot, which are affixed to doorframes.

All of this makes Ms. Seltzer's performance — an admittedly odd word for what she's up to, and one she doesn't like — at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco unique and compelling. As the central element of a new exhibition, "As It Is Written: Project 304,805," a simply and elegantly organized introduction to the fundamental role of the Torah in Jewish life, she is creating a new holy scroll.

Working in a gallery in full public view, amid displays that explore the Torah as both historical artifact and contemporary object of inspiration, Ms. Seltzer is painstakingly reproducing the ancient text — which consists of the Five Books of Moses, who is said to have received them whole as a divine message from God — on sheets of parchment made, as prescribed by law, from the skin of a kosher animal (in this case a cow). Her writing tools are black ink and quills she carves from turkey feathers.

Letter by letter (the exhibition is named for the precise number of Hebrew characters in the Torah), line by line (there are 42 lines in a column of text), column by column (four columns constitute a sheet of parchment) and sheet by sheet (62 sheets will be needed to complete the scroll), she is adhering to the complex laws, outlined in the Talmud, that were developed by early scribes and well established by the sixth century.

Among them: Every word should be spoken aloud before it is written, and no word may be written from memory. (Ms. Seltzer is working from a copy of the text known as a Tikkun.) When her scroll is complete, no letter may be touching another, a stricture that often requires corrections with a blade and chalk to restore the parchment color. Ill-formed letters must be corrected as well, with the offending ink scraped away and then re-inked; no letter may be made correct by an act of erasure. The different names for God must be treated with special care.

Ms. Seltzer began her work in early October. Writing six or seven hours a day for five days a week, she estimates that the project will take 14 months to complete. According to Connie Wolf, the museum's director and the curator of the exhibition, this will be the first time a Torah has ever been written from beginning to end in public, though synagogues that commission Torahs often have scribes demonstrate their work for the congregation.

"We wanted a woman for this project," Ms. Wolf said. "We're a contemporary institution, and women are making progress in this arena; we wanted to provide the opportunity."

Ms. Seltzer, a small, dark-haired woman with pale blue eyes and an easy smile, radiates calm not only in conversation but also within the fierce concentration her work requires. She began her training only two years ago — "I'm a newbie," she said — and continues to study. Her primary teacher is Jen Taylor Friedman, a New Yorker born in Britain who is just 30 but among the very few women to have completed an entire Torah. According to Ms. Wolf, she may indeed be the only one who has ever done so.

"I've never seen a source that says otherwise," Ms. Friedman said in a telephone interview. "But 'ever' is a big word, and Judaism has been around for a long time."

Ms. Seltzer said she had much to learn and that her work would only get better and more confident over time, but to an inexpert eye, at least, her calligraphy is lovely. The script style, developed in the 16th century, features staunch strokes and delicate flourishes; seven Hebrew letters are embellished with three-pronged antennaelike crowns.

The work is indisputably artful, but it's not intended to be expressive. The idea is to copy exactly; writing a Torah is less an act of creativity than of sublimation.

"I know the museum sees it that way, but if I thought this was a performance, I wouldn't be able to do it," Ms. Seltzer said.

And indeed, in that very denial lies the art in her performance. Watching her impossibly steady hand, the deft maneuvering of the quill (each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet requires its own separate technique) and the inexorable progress of the text across a column and down a page yields a palpable sense of ancient ritual that slows your breathing, and you can't help seeing that she is communing deeply with the text as she copies it. The writing is an act of faith.

"I was into the 'begets,' " she said during a break on a recent morning, recalling a moment of elation. She was referring to two segments of Genesis next to the story of Babel that trace the Biblical generations from Noah to Avram, later renamed Abraham by God.

"They go on for a while, so I smiled when I saw Avram," she said. "I was excited."

She pointed at the place in her written text.

"There he is!" she said, beaming.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

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