October 17, 2019

19th-Century Berlin Torah restored at B’nai David-Judea

V’zot haTorah — the scroll was hoisted into the air, pinky fingers stretched toward the split-column poetry of Parshat Ha’azinu, and one of the Los Angeles Jewish community’s original sifrei Torah testified to the words of God and Moses for the first time in more than a decade.

The Berlin Torah, as the scroll is referred to due to its city of origin, is a testament to the survival and spread of Jewish tradition. Written almost two centuries years ago, it became a staple of L.A.’s first minyan in the 1850s, which convened in the home of the city’s first kosher butcher.

A modest late-afternoon crowd at the Modern Orthodox congregation B’nai David-Judea celebrated the recently repaired Torah’s rededication during Shabbat Mincha between Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

“One of the unusual features of sifrei Torah in general is the way in which the craftsmanship links us to traditions centuries old,” said B’nai David-Judea Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky. “When a sefer Torah is literally a link to generations past, the feeling of being part of this grand historical sweep of Jewish history is amplified.”

The process to make the pasul, or invalid, scroll into a kosher one took less than 20 hours to complete, and was underwritten by B’nai David congregants Albie and Debra Cohen in memory of the former’s parents. It cost less than $1,000, according to Rabbi David Rue of the Los Angeles Beit Din, who led the restoration efforts. He said that aside from sewing together a torn seam, the flaws he corrected were minor and, for the most part, cosmetic.

“There’s some wear and tear,” Rue said. “Some words are fading. But the only reason it was pasul was it was torn.”

Ensconced now in one of the most populous and diverse Jewish communities in the world, the scroll’s characteristics reveal its roots in what was once a great European melting pot. Because Berlin’s community held two branches of Ashkenazic tradition —Nusach Ashkenaz (the German custom) and Nusach Polin (Polish/Lithuanian custom) —the Berlin Torah’s columns are 60 lines long in accordance with German practice and its words are inked in Polish script.

A selection from Parshat Chukat in the Berlin Torah. In the first row pictured here, the word l’moav is squeezed to fit the end of the line. Four lines below, the letters reish and mem are stretched out. Limiting end-of-line accommodations is an aesthetic challenge for any sofer, or scribe. Photo courtesy of David Rue, illustration by Louis Keene.

A passage in the newly rededicated Berlin Torah. In the first row above, the word l’moav squeezes to fit the end of the line. Four lines below, the letters reish and mem stretch out. Limiting end-of-line accommodations is a challenge for any sofer, or scribe. Photo by David Rue, illustration by Louis Keene.

Rue said the scroll originally belonged to one of the great Jewish pioneers in American history, Joseph Newmark. A Prussian immigrant who also founded the first Ashkenazic synagogue in New York City, Newmark arrived in Los Angeles in 1854, where he started a retail dry goods business and served as the city’s shochet, or ritual slaughterer.

After hosting a minyan in his home for several years, Newmark helped found Congregation B’nai B’rith in 1862 and served for a few years as its lay rabbi before bringing in a pulpit rabbi from San Francisco. The Berlin Torah was one of the Orthodox synagogue’s three scrolls.

When B’nai B’rith joined the Reform movement — it’s known to today’s Jewish Angelenos as Wilshire Boulevard Temple — Newmark’s sons wrested back their father’s scrolls and founded a new congregation, Etz Chaim. (They were returned with little resistance, Rue said, because B’nai B’rith met only on Friday nights.) In the 1930s, Etz Chaim became Judea congregation, which merged with B’nai David in 1975.

Newmark’s three Torahs — one of Bavarian origin, one from a Jewish community along the Rhine River and the Berlin Torah — are still among those at B’nai David, but the Berlin scroll is the only one of the three in use. The Bavarian is damaged to the extent that it would cost more money to fix than it would to purchase a new one; the Rhine’s restoration, though not as expensive, would still cost a few thousand dollars by Rue’s estimate.

Though Rue rated the Berlin sofer’s penmanship as “fair, not great” based on the amount of stretching and squeezing of letters to fit words at the ends of lines, “the quality of the materials used to write it were very good,” he said. The key to its impressive durability, he said, was top-notch tannery and excellent ink. If the klaf — parchment taken from the skin of a kosher animal — isn’t tanned properly, oil can rise to the surface over time and cause letters to change shape or slip. Weak ink runs and fades.

Rue read from the scroll in the 1990s when he was working at B’nai David, so he knew that even if it was not structurally intact, its contents — the 79,976 words of the Five Books of Moses — would be in decent condition. Still, he checked, rolling and inspecting it from the first bet to the final mem. Ultimately, most of the instances in which Rue brought quill to parchment were light reinforcements — a fine line getting extra shading here, a chipped letter patched up there.

Kanefsky said the Berlin Torah has been added to the regular main-sanctuary rotation for reading on Shabbat and on special occasions like Rosh Chodesh or fast days. But because “it’s very big and very tall,” he said — most modern sifrei Torah are only 48 lines — it won’t be traveling to shivah minyans.

It’s not the oldest sefer Torah in use in Los Angeles — consider that Temple Beth Am has a Portuguese scroll that’s more than 500 years old, according to former president Mark Wolf — nor is it even the oldest in its own ark. B’nai David has a 350-year-old scroll from Beirut, clad in a silver jacket. But the Berlin Torah’s return to use still is cause for significant celebration.

Ha’azinu’s timeless verse seemed appropriate for the occasion.

“Remember the days of old,” the portion reads. “Consider the years of generations.”