Thanks to Janet Kelman for this article in the May 2020 Washtenaw Jewish News.
May AARC Mail Call! (Wimple Edition)
by Dave Nelson
Our 250-year-old Torah’s century-old wimple
As noted in the past, most of the postal mail the AARC receives takes the form of bills, checks, services we don’t need, scams, and benign crazy talk—but we also get some really nice or interesting notes from really nice and interesting people. May was a bit thin for mail, but the one piece of non-bill, non-check, non-request, non-scam mail we did get was a doozy: A package from Rabbi Ralph Ruebner in Skokie, IL containing our wimple!
What’s a “wimple” (apart from a nuns’ hat)? This:
The wimple is an ornate, embroidered or painted cloth used to bind up a Torah scroll after it has been read. It is made from swaddling cloth used to bind a baby at his circumcision. Thus, almost from the moment of birth, a direct link is established between the child and the Torah.
The custom of preparing a wimple—the word means “cloth” or “veil” in old German—began about 400 years ago in Germany and spread from there to Alsace, Switzerland, France and the Low Countries. As German Jews emigrated to other lands, especially America, they brought the custom with them but it has remained confined to a limited section of Ashkenazic Jewry. (source)
This wimple, our Torah’s wimple—originally used to bind “Robert Hessel (corrected from Hefsel, after learning about the “Long s” see comment below) Hambuch” measures roughly 11 feet long, and is hand-painted with text and other decorative elements. It has some … interesting discoloration whose precise nature—given its original ritual duty—I decline to meditate on.
Here’s a look at the full wimple (which, given its dimensions, is challenging to photograph) via video:
As you no doubt recall from your frequent perusal of the AARC Board Meeting Minutes (meticulously taken by your dedicated secretary), although we’ve had the same interestingly idiosyncratic Torah for several decades, its ownership was long unclear (due to leadership and administrative changes both in our little Hav and the congregation who loaned us the Torah to begin with).
Last year we had the good fortune to finally hear from the current Board of the Niles Township Jewish Congregation/ Congregation Ezra-Habonim of Skokie, IL. (Niles Township Jewish Congregation lent us our Torah ~20 years ago, shortly before they merged with Congregation Ezra-Habonim). Soon after we officially (and emphatically) purchased our Torah.
Rabbi Ralph Ruebner of Skokie was kind enough to send the wimple along to be reunited with our Torah, as well as these details about this wimple, wimples in general, and the history of the Niles Township Jewish Congregation/ Congregation Ezra-Habonim, and German Jews in middle America.
A “tebah” for the Huron
by Clare Kinberg, Beit Sefer director
Last year, on the first day of our religious school, Beit Sefer, I told a story about the word Hebrew word “tebah”תֵּבַ֣ת. When we meet again for the first session this year (10am Island Park) I want to tell the same story. I’m pretty sure at least some of the kids will remember it if I tell it again. I hope so, but it doesn’t matter.
It is Jewish tradition to tell the same stories over and over again. And every time a story is told, even with the same words, it is a different story, because the hearer has changed. You are not the same person you were last time you heard the story. As adults, we’ve heard many stories in the Torah dozens of times. Yet, what you hear and understand from a story, using the exact same words, is different every time you hear it.
Here is the story at I told it last year:
The stories that Jews tell from the Torah are some of our oldest stories. In fact, something like 200 generations of Jews have passed down the stories that are in the Torah. One of the oldest ones, and a story that is told by lots of different peoples, is the story of a great flood that covered the earth, and one family–Noah, his wife Nehama and their children–and the ark they built to ride on the waters of the flood and to save the plants and animals so that the earth could start over.
In Hebrew the word for Noah and Nehama’s boat is tebah. A tebah is a special boat that keeps its passengers safe. In the whole Torah there is only one other tebah: while Noah and Nehama’s tebah was large enough to hold a pair of every animal and every plant on earth, the other tebah was so small it held only one baby passenger. In the Torah stories, about 100 generations after the great flood, the baby Moses was born and his sister, the prophet Miriam, built a small tebah, a basket more like a cradle than a huge ark, to save Moses’ life. When Moses was a grown man, so the story goes, he led the Jews out of slavery. So while one tebah played a part in saving life on earth, the small tevah played a part in saving the Jewish people.
Since one word, tebah, is used to mean such different things, a colossal ship made of gopher wood and a baby basket made of reeds, perhaps the meaning of tebah, is “life-saver.”
Or maybe it is the stories themselves that are the ark, the boat, that keeps us afloat. The stories I mean are both the stories that have been passed down generation to generation, and the stories we are creating with our own lives.
Last year, on the opening day of Beit Sefer, we passed a small boat shaped basket around a big circle of parents and students. As we passed the basket, we each recited, “This basket holds our stories, pass it on.” Then, the person accepting the basket replied, “Thank you, I will learn the stories and pass them on.”
This year on opening day, we are going to make the baskets, and we are going to make a new story, all together. Beit Sefer begins at Island Park at 10am. Parents are asked to stay for a meeting, and to play a special role in writing a story and helping the students launch a tevah on the Huron River. Immediately following the launch, will be our AARC Annual Picnic. Noon to 3pm. Bring protein to grill, a side dish to share. AARC will provide drinks and paper goods.
See you there!
The Curious Case of the Too-Tall Traveling Torah
by David Erik Nelson
Here at the AARC we are blessed with a very weird Torah that gets a tremendous amount of love.
Most Torahs rarely travel more than a dozen feet at a time, from ark to torah table. Ours gets hauled through the JCC, chauffeured to b’nei mitzvah venues, and schlepped across town to the Unitarian Universalist building for High Holidays. It is a remarkably well-loved—and notably well-traveled—oddball of a scroll. It is also old, a little delicate, and very unwieldy. Our traveling Torah badly needed a traveling case—something with wheels and handles, easy to maneuver, and able to protect our scroll from a sidewalk stumble, fender bender, or sudden downpour.
Anyone who’s been called to the AARC bimah (such as it is) has no doubt noted our scroll’s large Kabbalistic script (embellished with many little hooks, hats, and curly tails)—a relative rarity among “high use” Torahs like ours. This calligraphy is a hallmark of Torahs crafted in the last great center of Kabbalistic learning, in Prague. You may have noted our Torah’s age—the scroll is almost certainly several hundred years old. If you’ve ever done hagba, you have first-hand experience of how unwieldy it can be to handle. But few folks point out how extremely tall the thing is.
Most Torahs are about two feet tall, in accordance with suggestions made by Moses Maimonides back in the 12th Century, and might weigh around 30 pounds. Ours—in accordance with the fashion of the Kabbalists of Prague—is almost four feet tall. I have no clue what it weighs, but I know it is a bear to haul up over your head.
As Amazon shoppers, you no doubt imagine that there is a robust, highly competitive global market for Torah travel cases. Thus you will be shocked (shocked!) to learn that there is a very limited selection of torah-specific travel cases for 47-inch tall Torahs.
In fact, that selection is limited to zero.
For that matter, there is a very limited market for travel cases for anything that’s four feet tall, a foot wide, and just shy of eight inches deep. No instrument case is long enough and wide enough, no gun case is deep enough, even cases for synthesizers and keyboards either fall short or are far too large—and either way, they are extremely expensive and heavy.
Fortunately, golfers love to travel. Two companies make bare-bones, hard-sided, lockable, wheeled, extra-large cases to protect those precious clubs. Our ancient, mystic Torah fits perfectly in one of these cases. Appropriately enough, this product is named “The Vault.”
And we now own it.
With the addition of a padded, custom-crafted foot-hold, The Vault holds our well-loved Torah snug as a bug in a rug. When not in use, the case tucks perfectly into the back corner of the official “office” (storage closet) of Ann Arbor’s only Reconstructionist congregation.
Now our Torah can wander in style.
According to Rabbi Moshe Druin, of “Sofer on Site,” our Torah is between 200 and 250 years old; it has many distinctive letters that associate its scribe with the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel. It will be challenging and fun to look for corroboration of this interesting information. Rabbi Druin speculated that this Torah came to the U.S. from Europe before WWII. Dave Nelson, who was there when Rabbi Druin opened the Torah, was particularly impressed with the age of the scroll, and with the fact that, if properly cared for, how the torah can be used indefinitely, connecting us with Jews past and future.
In addition to the special lettering associated with Czechoslovakia of a period 200 or so years ago, Rabbi Druin said that the varying sizes of the 52 pieces of parchment and their unusual height of almost 4 feet were also an indication of the age of the torah. More on this topic in an upcoming blog post.
Several people were able to observe and talk with Rabbi Druin as he worked. Jack Edelstein, who arranged for Rabbi Druin to do the repair, was interested to find that our Torah is much lighter than most of its size because the parchment is not coated with a certain material that torahs are typically coated with, and that the poles that the scroll is attached to are not the original ones; they are a few inches shorter than they should be, which is partially what accounts for the crinkliness of the top and especially bottom of the scroll. Evelyn Neuhaus and Mike Ehmann, Clare Kinberg, Dave Nelson, Danny Steinmetz, and Stephanie Rowden also watched as Rabbi Druin worked. Evelyn says she felt a closer connection to the Torah after learning so much about it and having so many of its details pointed out.
Now that Rabbi Druin mended and stitched all the parchments that needed it, we should be able to enjoy Hagba–the display of the Torah to the Congregation after it’s read–without stress!
Come see a sofer at work, fixing our Torah
AARC’s Torah is old and much-loved. In fact, it seems to be over 200 years old. In recent years, it’s gotten a bit unstable; there are a number of tears in the scroll, and the stitching at the edges is coming unraveled. Hagba–the display of the Torah to the Congregation, after it is read–has gotten a little too exciting.
So we’re pleased to say that Rabbi Moshe Druin, of Sofer On Site, will be visiting us on Tuesday, March 29, to fix all the stitching/tears. He’ll work at the JCC, and you’re invited to come and watch. Kids and adults–come by at 2:30 or 3. Sofer on Site frequently does community events for Torah restorations.
Also, if you are able to be there for a bit and take some pictures, please let me know (email me at firstname.lastname@example.org).
MLK Day and the Ten Commandments
by Margo Schlanger
In honor of Martin Luther King Day, Monday January 18, 2016 , I got together with the Beit Sefer kids the day before, to talk about the Torah and civil rights.
We started with this picture:
I asked the students what the Civil Rights movement was about. They talked about African Americans’ claims on equality–voting, jobs, buses, restaurants, and more.
So why did Rabbi Eisendrath think it was important not just to carry the Torah during the Selma march in 1965, but for the Torah’s mantle to show the Ten Commandments? We looked together at the commandments, focusing on the “Don’t” commandments, illustrated on the Torah mantle with the Hebrew word “לא” (lo — “no” or “don’t”).
Our conversation was mostly about three of the commandments: Don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t lie about important things (“bear false witness against your neighbor”).
What do these commandments have in common? Some people think we can develop from them (and the others in the ten) a full statement of the requirements of a moral life. But so many things are left out. If we can deduce a principle behind these commandments, maybe that principle can help.
The students first developed a “results-oriented” justification. Who would want to live in a world where other people were allowed to murder and steal? they asked. Then they moved to the justification that ties the Ten Commandments to civil rights–equality. You don’t kill people, or steal from them, or lie to them, they said, because those other people are equal to you. Their lives matter, their stuff matters, their feelings matter.
In other words, the students ended up in the same place as Rabbi Hillel. We each stood on one foot while I repeated the Talmudic story:
Once there was a non-Jew who told Rabbi Hillel that he was thinking about converting to Judaism, but first, he wanted to know everything he needed to know, while he stood on one foot. And so Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is explanation.”
D’varim, Tisha B’Av and the Meaning of Justice
My d’var Torah for Shabbat, July 24, 2015.
I want to talk today about what I see as a connection between two things: Tisha b’Av, the fast day that begins Saturday evening, and D’varim, this week’s parsha.
I’ll start with Tisha b’Av, the holiday when, traditionally, Jews mourn the destruction of the Temple and the forced exile of the Jews from Jerusalem.
Here’s a story, a fable, from the Talmud about how it is that that destruction came about:
There was a man who was very good friends with someone named Kamza and did not get along with another person with a similar name, Bar Kamza. This man was preparing to host a large banquet. He told his servant to invite his friend Kamza. But the servant made a mistake and invited Bar Kamza.
The host was very surprised to see his least favorite person, Bar Kamza, at his party, and ordered him to leave. But Bar Kamza did not want to be thrown out; he thought that would be humiliating. So he offered to pay for his portion of food. The host refused. Bar Kamza next offered to pay for half of the expenses of the large party. Still the host refused. Finally, Bar Kamza offered to pay for the entire banquet. In anger, the host grabbed Bar Kamza and physically threw him out. [Read more…] about D’varim, Tisha B’Av and the Meaning of Justice
“We heard God’s words without using our ears.”
“We heard God’s words without using our ears.” So Shavuot is described at the end of Shuli and Me: From Slavery to Freedom, the storybook Omer calendar by Joan Benjamin-Farren you will hear at the AARC havdallah and Shavuot observance. The story, told from a freed slave child’s point of view, imagines those first seven weeks in the desert. We have been following the cloud. Today we are camped at the foot of the mountain. We’ve washed our clothes. We are waiting.
After havdallah, Rabbi Michal will lead us in a discussion of approaches to the concept of torah; the capital “T” Torah, the five books in our traditional scroll, and other uses of the concept of torah. A couple that speak to me, for instance: In a Kol Nidre sermon Rabbi Mona Alfi quoted the medieval scholar, Bachya ibn Pakuda: “Days are like scrolls, only write on them what you want to be remembered.” She explained, “In essence, what Bachya ibn Pakuda was saying is that each life is a Torah for future generations to examine and learn from.”
A description of Carol Ochs’ book Our Lives as Torah: Finding God in Our own Stories, says “Through the process of seeing our experiences in relation to Biblical stories, we begin to recognize our lives as part of the ongoing story of the Jewish people–as Torah.”
Let’s meet there, at the mountain, and discuss: May 23rd 7:30pm till ? At the home, still, of Rabbi Michal and Jon Sweeney, 2960 Lakeview Drive. Dairy, dessert potluck. Early evening all ages, after havdallah for adults, childcare available. Email Clare or Rabbi Michal.
A Torah Story
Our Torah scroll was acquired, according to Bev Warshai, at the time when the Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Havurah was about to celebrate our first bat mitzvah, the Warshai’s daughter Gal. Although Bev and her husband Yuval belonged to both the AA Havurah and T’chiya, a Detroit Reconstructionist congregation, they wanted Gal’s bat mitzvah Torah service to be here in Ann Arbor. However, the Havurah did not have a Torah scroll, an ark, or a table to use during a service. Around this time, in 1997, several members of the Havurah–Aaron and Aura Ahuvia, Deb Kraus and Danny Steinmetz (and their children Isaac and Jonah Ahuvia (3 and 1 years old) and Molly Kraus-Steinmetz (2 years old)–drove together to Kenosha, WI for a regional Reconstructionist workshop. There they met a member of a Reconstructionist congregation in Chicago that happened to have an excess of Torah scrolls. How does a congregation acquire an excess of Torah scrolls? Danny suggests that “Back in the day, giving a Torah was a big thing, whether or not the shul needed another one. The symbolism of dedicating the ultimate sacred object (since the destruction of the Temple) in memory of deceased relatives is so strong, if a shul was around long enough and had enough members with some money, collecting Torah scrolls was not unusual.” Bev also remembers that two congregations merged, creating even more of an excess of scrolls. Deb remembers the initial discussion, “I was in a workshop and someone was lamenting that they don’t always have Torah readers and I said, ‘at least you have a Torah,’ at which point a person from a Chicago congregation said, ‘Talk to me after this. We have an extra Torah.’”
Arrangements were made. Because the Torah was a gift to the Chicago congregation, they could loan it to us and give us responsibility to take care of it. Although Yuval’s subsequent communications with the Chicago congregation indicated that they have relinquished all claims to the scroll, out of an excess of caution, AARC will continue to care for it in trust. If we ever come into possession of any other Torah, we could decide to gift this one on, again, to another congregation in need. But back to the story!
Yuval and Harry Fried made the trip to Chicago to bring the Torah scroll back to Ann Arbor. Alan Haber made the ark, and other necessities and niceties for a Torah service were collected. In future blog posts I will write more about those objects, including our Torah covers and our yad. So far, we know nothing more about the provenance of our Torah scroll. Since we’ve had it, the scroll has been repaired twice at Borenstein’s in Oak Park, including new wooden spindles. It still has need of stitching repairs and there are many faded letters that can make it challenging to read.
AARC has a fund for repairing or replacing the Torah, though it contains only a fraction of the money needed. Board member Jack Edelstein is leading a new effort to figure out the best path forward. If you’d like to be involved in this effort, contact Jack. And if you’d like to donate to the fund, click here.