Scroll of a Lifetime

“Imagine your congregation gathered to witness the first strokes of the Scribe’s quill on new parchment… Feeling a real connection to the shape of the letters, the texture of the parchment, the concentration of the Scribe, holding his quill, preparing to write the name of G-d.”

This is how my friend Rav Shmuel Miller, who passed away suddenly last week during Rosh Hashanah, described on his Web site his lifelong passion for enscribing Hebrew letters on holy scrolls.

He devoted much of his working life to the shape of these letters, the texture of parchment, the holding of a quill, with the concentration of a man always prepared to write the name of the Creator.

I first met Rav Miller when I moved to Pico-Robertson about seven years ago. I had just started writing my column, so I was making the rounds of the different shuls and rabbis of the neighborhood. I had heard from my French buddies about this unusual French-speaking rabbi (his friends affectionately called him “R’bbe Shmuel”), who had a little shul in his backyard.

As I got to know him better, I started to understand why he was so unusual.

For one thing, he looked like he came from another century. He had a glorious, regal look about him. He was tall and always stood up straight, ready to greet you properly. His eyes were dark and soulful, but with a mischievous sparkle. He wore his beard perfectly trimmed, framing a face ready at any moment to light up in laughter.

At home, he often dressed in jelabas and baboushes, much the way I remember my grandfather dressed in Casablanca.

As I wrote in 2007, Rav Miller would have looked right at home on the set of “Lawrence of Arabia.”

Although he was an expert in Hebrew letters, he had a lifelong fascination with Arabic and became an expert in that language as well.

His interest in Arabic, he once told me, started because he wanted to study the writings of Maimonides in his original text. This is what I wrote at the time:

“He says this [knowing Arabic] gave him a deeper, ‘more palpable’ understanding of Jewish ideas. For example, the word in Arabic that Maimonides uses for the Hebrew daat (knowledge) is eidrak, which refers to a knowledge that you ‘apprehend’ or ‘take in.’ It is a union between the modrak, the one who understands, and the modrik, the one who is understood.

“Whereas the Hebrew daat denotes something external and impersonal, the Arab eidrak defines a knowledge that is more personal and contemplative, one that ultimately becomes part of you.”


Ordained as an Orthodox rabbi, Rav Miller was an intellectual who seemed to know a lot about everything. When he gave classes at my house about the philosopher Emanuel Levinas, he would weave in sources from the Talmud, the Midrash and the prophets, as well as the Zohar.

For years, he was my go-to person for anything Jewish. We would meet early mornings at a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf on Wilshire Boulevard, and I would pepper him with questions on a subject I was writing about. Usually, before I would finish my question, his face would light up with a big “Ah!,” as if to suggest he had a few surprises in store for me.

He also loved music.

On Tuesday nights, a group of hipsters would gather in his home for a kind of spiritual Middle Eastern jam session.

“We would sit in a circle and chant Tehilim until gravity no longer had any effect on us,” is how my friend Maimon Chocron, who played the bendir (north African snare hand drum) during the sessions, described it.

He had a small but intense following. He didn’t get much press, nor did he seek it. His home and shul became a gathering place for the eclectic Jews of Pico-Robertson.

For all the bohemia that surrounded him, there was a precision to everything Rav Miller did. Although there were stretches in his life where he experienced hardships, both personally and financially, his dignity never suffered. His thoughts and movements were always refined and meticulous, just as when he held his quill to shape letters on holy scrolls.

These scrolls are now read in countless synagogues on Shabbat, every time a Torah is opened. The letters in those scrolls are his personal legacy to our community.

His life itself, you might say, was a like a holy scroll. It had the Old-World texture of parchment, the sharpness of brilliant ink, and the permanence of great ideas.

In his distinguished, regal way, he spent a lifetime preparing to meet God.

Never Too Old to Write a Letter … of Torah

The Jewish Home for the Aging has never had a Torah it could call its own. Since the home first opened in 1912, synagogues or individuals have donated Siferei Torah to the senior-living community, but the scrolls were often old and tarnished, with faded letters or finger smudges on the parchment. These Torahs are considered pasul, or unfit for public reading, but they were the only ones available to the home for religious services.

Now the Reseda-based home, which provides care to about 2,200 seniors through its in-residence housing and community-based programs, is in the process of creating its own kosher Torah — a “Torah for the Ages,” as the project is being called.

“It’s upsetting to this point we haven’t had our own Torah,” said Corey Slavin, vice president of fund development, who with home CEO Molly Forrest conceived the project.

Slavin said the $200,000 raised for the project more than covers its costs, and remaining funds will be dedicated to various programs and services at the home. The home expects its Torah, begun April 13, 2008, to be completed sometime in 2010.

Rabbi Shmuel Miller, who has worked locally as a sofer (Torah scribe) for 15 years, was commissioned to write the Torah, which will rotate between the home’s synagogues at the Eisenberg Village and Grancell Village campuses when finished. Officials hope the Torah will inspire its residents and their families to remain or become connected to their faith and community.

The Torah’s production is quite a community effort. In keeping with the 613th and final commandment mentioned in the Torah — “Now write this song for yourself and teach it to the Children of Israel” (Deuteronomy 31:19) — residents, family members, sponsors and anyone else who wants to may write a letter in the home’s Torah. Thus far about 100 people have written in the scroll.

Rabbi Sheldon Pennes, the home’s spiritual life director, said that writing in the Torah is considered the responsibility of each Jew.

During a writing session on Feb. 22, 101-year-old Cedelle Weiner found herself up close and personal with the Torah for only the second time in her life.

The first time was a year ago.

She said she did not feel very Jewish until coming to the home and found she was inspired to study with Rabbi Anthony Elman, who works at the home’s Grancell Village campus.

“This is a completely new life for me,” Weiner said as she underwent the ritual hand washing and said the appropriate blessings.

After sitting down next to Rabbi Miller, the scribe, Weiner put her hand on his and watched as he filled in a silhouetted letter from the word hamoftim (“wonders”) from the Torah’s penultimate sentence: “He had no equal for all the signs and wonders which the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh and all his servants….” (Deuteronomy 34:11).

“The home is fantastic,” Weiner said when she was done. “I have been entertained, and now I’m getting a Jewish religion I have never had. At 101, I’m doing something different, and I am now writing [in the Torah], which I never did before.”

Rose Bentow, 86, almost couldn’t contain her excitement as she fulfilled the commandment. She was one of several Holocaust survivors who were sponsored by family members, community members or total strangers to come and write a letter in the scroll.

The moment harkened her back to her small Polish town, circa 1928. Her grandfather told her to stay out of a particular room because a man was writing the Torah and couldn’t be bothered.

Little Rose’s curiosity got the better of her, so she quietly opened the door.

“I said, ‘He’s playing with a feather. He’s not writing,’” she recalled. “I asked my grandparents, ‘Why can’t I go in?’ They said, ‘This is how you write the Torah.’”

Pennes, the home’s spiritual life director, said everyone experiences the moment differently.

“It looks like just someone writing letters on a piece of parchment,” he said. “But it’s a spiritual event. People feel it spiritually, emotionally. It’s hard to put into words.

“Children see it simply. But when you’re older, you appreciate it differently, especially when we recite the Shehecheyanu. The idea of living to this point is amazing. That process heightens sensitivity to the mitzvah that’s about to happen.”

For more information about the Torah for the Ages, visit

VIDEO: Torah dedication by Chabad of Thousand Oaks

Chabad of Thousand Oaks was honored to receive a Torah, generously donated by Rabbi Mordechai and Ethel Bryski in memory of their parents (great-grandparents of Rabbi Chaim Bryski, Rabbi of Chabad of Thousand Oaks), survivors of the Holocaust. This scroll was rescued from the Holocaust as well, and was painstakingly restored before coming to its permanent home at the Thousand Oaks Jewish Center.

Shavuot 5768: Praise for the scroll

In a knowledge world ruled by books and pages and digitized memory, why do Jews hold onto the scroll?

As Shavuot (with its focus on receiving the Torah) begins, I must ask: Could it be that rolled along together somewhere in our minds with the love of Torah is the love of scroll?

We are fascinated with book forms that when opened, extended, unfolded or unrolled change shape before our eyes. In the scroll, we have a form that can also expand our minds.

Though the scroll is used in other cultures and religions, it remains a distinctive Jewish form, distinguishing it especially from early Christian writings that used the newer form—the Roman codex, or book, to record their writings. It is our handmade, not mass-produced form passed from generation to generation that we read, study and honor.

Seeing the words of the Torah scribed in perfect columns makes us think of a book. But as the parchment unrolls without a beginning or an end in sight, we think of a journey. You find your place in a book by turning the pages, moving through paper by the numbers. With the Torah, you turn and turn and move through place and time.

Grab on to the wooden spindles to which the Torah is attached, the etzai chaim. As your hands and arms move, you also move through time, places, names and law. As you cross the Red Sea, you cross the sea of context as well. As you scroll, and the portion is chanted, the physical action moves you inside the story: the sea parts, you hurry through, and are saved and ready to sing as you reach the other side.

Consider that in the Torah when the Ten Commandments are given, they are written on two tablets. From a book designer’s point of view, the tablets are two pages—a spread. Form-wise this is perfect—attention is focused only on the two tablets; nothing more is needed.

Yet the Torah is not contained on a series of tablets or pages, it is on a roll. So where is our attention directed?

Open the Torah scroll to a single column and that is what we see. Open it two columns, three, four, and our attention suddenly opens to the entire beautiful calligraphic panorama before us.

As time passes the scroll becomes more modern. As an information system, the scroll is a forerunner to many of our modern information systems that also work by revolving mechanisms: computer hard drives and DVD players. We scroll down our computers only reluctantly, hoping what we need is in the opening screen. But unlike the monitor, the Torah scroll encourages us by its form to scroll across—to continue to read, visualize and, week after week, make the journey’s end.

Our brains are wired mostly for visual experience. It‘s a visual system that is ready for more. As you scroll through the Torah, names and places pass by and the mind makes connections. The scroll encourages the particular form of Jewish study that requires skipping from passage to passage, and from book to book. (So, add Web surfing to the claims of Jewish invention). The form helps the mind hold together as one the words, the verses and parashot from throughout the Torah.

For those whose task it is to the find the place in the Torah for their congregations, the scroll can be a curvilinear calendar, the position of the reading being associated with season or date. Many of us know that if the left side is small, then the end of the Jewish year is approaching and it is time to send out your Rosh HaShanah cards.

Even our Shavuot readings remind us of the scroll’s circularity. On this holiday, many read the liturgical poem Akdamut, which pays poetic homage to the endlessness of Torah. The end of each line ends with the Hebrew letters tav-alef (image, right), the final and first letters of the Hebrew alphabet, reminding us that when we get to the end of the scroll we begin anew.

Our culture places high value on creating whole designed environments. In restaurants, hotels, theaters and homes, we surround ourselves with music, lighting, art and colors. We admire the seamless and the artful motif.

The scroll, the Torah, is a gateway to a whole environment as well. It unrolls in so many ways, and as it does, we can become enveloped by its words and texture, and understand that indeed everything is in it.

It is said that on the first night of Shavuot, at midnight, the heavens open.

This year, imagine they unroll.

Edmon J. Rodman, a book and toy designer, designed “Mitkadem” and “Jewish Holidays Building Blocks” and is the author of “Nomo, the Tornado Who Took America By Storm.” He is a Torah reader and occasional roller at the Movable Minyan. Rodman built a pyramid of matzah last Pesach

—Jewish Telegraphic Agency

On 27 May, 2007, 10 Sivan, 5767. The United Congregation of Israelites in Kingston, Jamaica, celebrated the arrival of a new sefer torah. The torah was carried by Rabbi Yitzhak Kimchi from Jerusalem. They were met at the Tinson Pen airport in Kingston. The rabbi and the torah preceded the motorcade through the city to the Jewish Heritage Centre in Kingston. The scroll was then taken into the synagogue Shaare Shalom. Rabbi Yitzhak Kimchi completed the writing of the torah. Then the sefrei torah were taken out of the ark and paraded in a semi-circle. The congregation exploded in joy with dancing and clapping of hands. This was followed by a service of thanksgiving.

The Case of the Missing Torah

Did a rabbi steal the Sefer Torah? A Montreal resident claims that a Torah she loaned to a local senior home has illegally ended up in a Southern California synagogue. And now she’s on the hunt to find it.

The 60-year-old scroll was housed at the King David Senior Residence in Montreal, and in August, the owners say they gave it to Rabbi Simcha Zirkind to find out its worth, who then took the Torah to New York, where a sofer, or religious scribe, in Brooklyn bought it from him for $8,000. The sofer then allegedly resold it for a higher sum to a New York-based philanthropist who donated it to a baal teshuvah (newly observant) synagogue somewhere outside of Los Angeles.

The dispute highlights a disturbing trend of trading religious goods of questionable origins.

But Montreal resident Betty Malamud-Bloomstone disputes that the Torah ever belonged to the King David. Malamud-Bloomstone claims that her father, Shloime, donated the Torah to the Rabbinical College of Canada in the late 1940s, and that the College loaned it to the old-age home in 1974 because the residents needed a Torah for services. According to Malamud-Bloomstone, even though the residence has been sold five times in the years since, the Torah has always remained in the chapel, on loan from the college.

"The Torah was very precious to my father, and he would turn over in his grave if he knew that it had been sold," said Malamud-Bloomstone, who is now trying to locate the California synagogue to which the Torah was donated.

Malamud-Bloomstone admits that without the cooperation of the Brooklyn sofer, who has divulged no other details of the sale, finding the synagogue is like "trying to win the lottery."

Neither Malamud-Bloomstone nor Josie Solito, the owner of the King David Senior Residence, allege that the sofer knew the Torah did not belong to Zirkind. Solito told The Journal that Zirkind had offered her the money from the sale, but she refused it.

Solito lodged a complaint with the Montreal Police Department against Zirkind.

Rabbi Saul Emanuel the executive director of the Montreal Vaad Hair, the city’s Jewish council, told The Journal that the Vaad has issued a summons for Zirkind to appear and explain his side of the story.

Zirkind would not comment to The Journal, except to say that Solito’s story was incorrect.

According to Malamud-Bloomstone, Zirkind maintains that the King David donated the Torah to him.

Up to 100 Torahs are stolen every year from synagogues in Israel alone, says Rabbi Yitzchak Goldshtein of Machon Ot, a Jerusalem-based Torah identification service ( Torahs are handwritten by sofers on parchment and are worth anywhere from $2,000 for a nonkosher Torah (one in which letters or words are missing) to $35,000 or more for a new Torah.

Generally, synagogues wanting to purchase a Torah scroll will contact a dealer, who — budget permitting — will either negotiate with a scribe to write a new scroll, or will find a secondhand scroll for the synagogue to purchase.

Stealing and selling a stolen Torah can be relatively easy. Many synagogues do not have good security around the Ark where the Torahs are kept. And since people in synagogues basically trust each other, no one would necessarily question someone walking out with a scroll. Also, without its velvet covering, one Torah is almost indistinguishable from another to the untrained eye, so a thief can easily concoct a story about the scroll’s origin when he unloads it on a dealer.

Yet, synagogues can prove ownership of a Torah. Machon Ot runs the International Torah Registry, which assigns a unique code to each scroll and then enters it to a computer database. Machon Ot locates the code by placing a template of a line from the top of the scroll to the bottom in six different locations of the Torah, and then registers what words fall directly beneath each other. Since every Torah is handwritten, the shape and size of the words and letter differs slightly between each one, and no two would have exactly the same word alignment.

With a registry system in place like this (as well as other Torah registry system such as the Universal Torah Registry System, which uses a similar method of identification), any synagogue purchasing a secondhand Torah can get a reliable assessment of its provenance, providing it is registered. Many of the old Torahs in synagogues today are not registered.

In the case of the Montreal Torah, Malamud-Bloomstone says that she has evidence that the Torah was loaned to the old-age home and is now trying to recover the Torah. She has contacted the Board of Rabbis of Southern California to see if they could help her, and is considering placing ads in Jewish newspapers all over the state for anyone with information to step forward. The Board of Rabbis, the Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of California were unable to provide any leads. Once the Torah is recovered, Malamud-Bloomstone will consider hashing out the question of its ownership in the beit din (religious court).

"We just want to get the Torah back," Malamud-Bloomstone said.