December 14, 2018

Scrolls for sale

The calligraphy on the coffee-colored parchment is crisp and clear, with delicately ascending crowns adorning the Hebrew letters. But rather than being unfurled on a bima and read by a proud bar mitzvah boy, this water-stained fragment of a Torah scroll from Turkey — thought to be about 300 years old — is spread out on a drafting table in the backyard studio of Sam and Debbie Gliksman.

The Gliksmans have recently launched Spiritual Artifacts, a business that preserves, frames and sells fragments from decommissioned Torah scrolls.

“We really love the concept of taking something that was discarded and giving it a place of honor in someone’s home,” said Sam, who is a software developer and director of educational technology at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills.

Spiritual Artifacts offers a selection of scrolls from around the world — Germany, Poland, France, Morocco, Iraq, Libya. Debbie, a designer now working in landscape, found a way to custom frame each portion on acid-free board covered in raw silk inside a Plexiglas box. She uses chemical-free Japanese hinges to preserve the lumpy topography of the parchment, in hues and textures ranging from the paper-like ecru of the Eastern European scrolls to the leather-like brick red of scrolls from Yemen and Tunisia.

They range in price from $350-$1,100, depending on the number of columns in the fragment, the beauty of the calligraphy, its age and its origin.

The scrolls come from scribes or from attics and basements around the world, where they have been discovered, musty and worn, and put up for Internet auction. The oldest ones the Gliksmans have are about 500 years old, but most are about 200-300 years old, nearly all from communities that have been displaced.

“My parents went through the Holocaust and Debbie’s family is from Iraq, where there is no community anymore, so I guess we have this real appreciation for what the scrolls represent,” said Sam.

The Gliksmans, members of the Conservative Temple Beth Am, consulted rabbis before they began.

Jewish tradition treats kosher Torah scrolls with ritualized respect — the letters cannot be touched, the scroll may not lie on the ground, and when a scroll is in motion, everyone in the vicinity must stand. When damage builds up — letters rub off, the parchment becomes worn, the hand-stitched seams rip — the scroll is rendered pasul, no longer fit for use. At that point, it has traditionally been buried in a special section of a Jewish cemetery, called the geniza.

The Gliksmans see their endeavor as rescuing scrolls from that fate — a notion that traditional rabbinic authorities upheld, especially after the Holocaust, to allow scrolls to be displayed in museums.

Still, the idea of further cutting up fragmented scrolls, using the scrolls for a business venture, and allowing the scrolls to fall into the hands of young teenagers rubs Orthodox rabbis as demeaning to the Divine texts.

“It’s one thing for a community synagogue or museum to have it in glass on display for the public’s edification,” said Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, spiritual leader of Kehillat Yavneh in Hancock Park, “it’s another for little Joey the bar mitzvah boy to be expected to put it on display in his living room instead of keeping it with his baseball card collection in the bottom of the closet.”

Korobkin maintains that just as burial is the most dignified end for a deceased human body, likewise a pasul Torah scroll, which no longer can perform the living function for which it was meant, should be buried.

But Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector at the American Jewish University and vice chair of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, countered with another human life comparison. Unused frozen embryos already would be discarded, but using their stem cells allows the embryos to perform a Godly mission of medical advancement that might save human lives.

“This process makes sure that the scrolls are honored, and not just discarded,” said Dorff. “You are using them for a sacred purpose to instill a sense of honor and respect to the Torah, and to put it in a place in the home where it will be a constant reminder of the Torah and all it represents — our values, our history, our hopes and our beliefs.”

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