11 January 2009

Seattle: A Torah in the family

AP reporter Tim Klass writes about a Torah that has been in his family for five generations. A relative's bar mitzvah in Jerusalem inspired this tale.

SEATTLE — The story, exquisitely hand-printed on old parchment, has been a staple of sermons for centuries. Jacob, having tricked his twin brother Esau out of the birthright, flees to his trickster uncle Laban, begets many children, grows wealthy and sneaks away for home. This recitation of the story, though, could not have been more quintessentially characteristic of my family and the continuing vitality of Jewish life in the 21st century.

Reciting it was Yonatan Gralnek, the 13-year-old son of my cousin. Even before his reading, my heart nearly burst as I held aloft our family's Torah at the Western wall in Jerusalem last month. It was the latest journey for a uniquely well-traveled Torah, a sacred treasure that has traced my family's travels from czarist Russia to the United States and beyond for more than a century.

Klass brought the scroll from Seattle to Jerusalem and back, the longest of its many journeys.

At about 14-inches - an uncommon measurement - it is half the size of a standard Torah. It was brought to America by Klass' grandmother, Tuba Kastelman Gralnek, from what is now Ukraine. The scroll has been read by Klass, his brother, three sisters, children, cousins, in-laws at bnai mitzvot in Minnesota, Maryland, California and Israel, and used for non-family ceremonies in Alaska.

Klass' family believes the Torah was written in or near Nikolayev Podolski, a town on the Bug River between Kiev and Lvov in then-czarist Russia, by a sofer related to his mother's family. It is possible that this smaller size might have been made for use in bar mitzvah training, he says, like another of similar size from Warsaw.
In 1904, fleeing from conscription before the Russo-Japanese War, my grandfather, Kolman Gralnek, and his brother, Morris, known in the family as Moishe, left their wives and children in the dead of winter, made their way to Le Havre, France, and emigrated to the United States. Five years later they had settled in central Iowa, Kolman in Marshalltown and Moishe in Newton, and sent for their families.

Knowing little about where she was going except that there were few Jews, my grandmother brought the Torah, which had been housed in a synagogue.

Klass includes information about producing a Torah scroll. The Five Books of Moses is written in Hebrew calligraphy with special ink on parchment sewn in sections. The specially trained scribe - sofer, in Hebrew - copies each of the 304,805 letters in about 79,000 words from a Torah previously checked for errors. An error makes the scroll unfit for Jewish rituals. Scrolls must be checked over time for other problems, such as frayed bindings, deteriorating parchment, flaking or fading letters, which must be repaired or replaced.

Klass also mentions the 800-year-old Portuguese Torah at the Centro Comunitario Chalom in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Moslems on the Isle of Rhodes preserved it after the Jews were deported to Auschwitz, and then returned it to the few survivors.

How many kosher Torahs exist? Klass reports that New York sofer and rare Torah collector Yitzchok Reisman estimates some 40,000-130,000 exist worldwide.

The story includes Klass family history, relating stories of the old country, of synagogues founded and disbanded.

Over the years, I carried the Torah to family events, including a reunion in Minnesota. Israel was another order of magnitude.

First I rolled the scroll to the passage that Yoni would be reading. Then I replaced the vestment, wrapped it in a large flannel sheet and placed it into a nondescript soft gray bag that never left my sight on the flights between Seattle and Tel Aviv except when it was in the overhead luggage rack.

In Israel it was never away from the family except when it was in a fireproof safe within the ark for Yoni's second bar mitzvah service, on the Sabbath, at a synagogue his family attends in Haifa.

For me, the responsibility was a joy. Lifetimes can pass without such golden moments — and I can hardly wait to travel again with our Torah, for the bar mitzvah of Yoni's brother, Ariel, in 2011.

Do read the complete story at the link above.

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