Tags: sofrot

shiny jen

Look what's on sale at Sotheby's!

A Highly Important Decorated Esther Scroll, Venice: 1654 Scribe: Estellina daughter of Menahem

Estellina daughter of Menachem!

*Jen waves at Estellina across the centuries*

If you've got a very good imagination, you might be able to picture how happy I was when this Sotheby's catalogue arrived in my email (thanks, Lipman and PR). You don't need any imagination at all to understand why, though.

The other deeply pleasing dimension of this particular scroll is that there are no known complete decorated Esther scrolls predating this one. There are fragments, but no complete ones.

Here's a section from the catalogue text (page 272):
The present scroll is extraordinary on several accounts, first and foremost in its pride of place as the earliest complete decorated megillah. As attested to by the dated colophon at the conclusion of the text, the scroll was completed on Tuesday, 3 Adar, 5324 [= 15 February, 1564] in the city of Venice. The colophon however reveals an even more remarkable feature the individual who wrote this scroll was a woman, Estellina daughter of the Katzin Menahem, son of the Rosh Katzin Jekutiel. Estellina was clearly a member of a wealthy and eminent family indicated not only by the titles accorded to her father and grandfather (both Katzin and Rosh Katzin denote distinguished official positions within the Jewish community) but also by the presence of a coat of arms painted onto the scroll directly after her colophon. Prominently displayed in an elaborate gold frame festooned with flowing ribbons and occupying an entire column, the coat of arms consists of a gold crown above another image that is difficult to decipher, as the paint has been abraded.

As well as being "[t]he earliest complete decorated Esther Scroll," the cataloge describes it as "[t]he only known Esther Scroll to have been written by a woman in the pre-modern era."

I'm writing to Sotheby's to ask if I might be allowed to see it in person, even though there's no chance of my buying it ($600,000 to $800,000, says the catalogue. Hollow laughter). Given that I'm among the first of her successors, and all that.

I wonder who taught Estellina halakha. I wonder if her mother was cross with her for writing a Megillah instead of doing ladylike things such as embroidery. I wonder if she read from it.

I'm so glad to have met her!

Originally posted at Dreamwidth. Re-enabling comments over here because dreamwidth fail at LJ integration. Pity, because they have principles.
shiny jen

other note on ny times article/soferot generally

Further to previous post squeeing about Julie.

Her primary teacher is Jen Taylor Friedman, a New Yorker born in Britain who is just 30 but among the very few women to have completed an entire Torah. According to Ms. Wolf, she may indeed be the only one who has ever done so.

"I’ve never seen a source that says otherwise," Ms. Friedman said in a telephone interview. "But 'ever' is a big word, and Judaism has been around for a long time."

As ever, I would be charmed to see a source which says otherwise. There's bound to be one somewhere. We know we've had female copyists, general non-ritual scribes, and I've had one source sent me which speaks of a woman who wrote a chumash; it is possible to interpret that as "a sefer Torah for ritual use," but yeshiva-educated scholarly-rabbi friend RHCY says it means a regular book-type chumash, and he generally knows what he's talking about. We know women have worked on repairing Torahs, both many generations ago and within the past twenty years. Writing? Don't know.

A Torah's a big, expensive thing, right? Before the late twentieth century, if you were somehow in the Torah trade - married to a sofer, or something - and you somehow got the skills and materials and free time and you wrote a Torah, you weren't going to tell everyone about it! because then your Torah would have no market value. Scribes have never earned much; you can't afford to throw away a whole Torah like that. You're going to pass it off as your husband's and you're going to sell it.

Of course that isn't very proper, because technically it wouldn't be fit for ritual use, pre-gender-egalitarian congregations - that's why it has no market value - call it economic necessity, call it feminism, call it what you will, Judaism is a religion of human beings, not of saints. Of course it's happened. It'd be pretty darned remarkable if, in the whole of Jewish history, no woman had ever written a Torah. If nothing else, that would mean that I, me, Jen, possess some quality that no other Jewish woman has ever had, and that's preposterous.

What I have is the luck to live in a generation where I could write a Torah openly, as part of a community that was happy and excited about that. That's what's unusual about this generation of female scribes. Not that we write Torah, but that we're part of a world that can accept that.

This perspective rarely comes across in articles, you understand. Journalism doesn't really do in-depth explanations of subtle points that detract from the thrust of the story. For practical purposes, the simplified version does the job - conveys what is exciting without needing lots of feminist-historical consciousness.

This is why Julie's Torah project is arguably more exciting than mine. We've got the whole "gosh look a vagina wrote a torah" thing out of the way, and we can get on with the important thing, which is "gosh look, a Torah."

Originally posted at Dreamwidth. Re-enabling comments over here because dreamwidth fail at LJ integration. Pity, because they have principles.
shiny jen

Hooray nice articles about Julie!

Yay Julie, in the New York Times!

Ms. Seltzer’s performance — an admittedly odd word for what she’s up to, and one she doesn’t like — at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco [is] unique and compelling...

As the central element of a new exhibition, “As It Is Written: Project 304,805,” a simply and elegantly organized introduction to the fundamental role of the Torah in Jewish life, she is creating a new holy scroll.The work is indisputably artful, but it’s not intended to be expressive. The idea is to copy exactly; writing a Torah is less an act of creativity than of sublimation.

“I know the museum sees it that way, but if I thought this was a performance, I wouldn’t be able to do it,” Ms. Seltzer said.

And indeed, in that very denial lies the art in her performance. Watching her impossibly steady hand, the deft maneuvering of the quill (each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet requires its own separate technique) and the inexorable progress of the text across a column and down a page yields a palpable sense of ancient ritual that slows your breathing, and you can’t help seeing that she is communing deeply with the text as she copies it. The writing is an act of faith...

What I like best about this is that she's in the paper not for being A Woman Coo Ur Gosh, but as A Torah Scribe Doing Something Unusual who just happens to be a woman. That is tremendous. That's the world I want to be part of - where women doing things isn't remarkable just because they're women.

Originally posted at Dreamwidth. Re-enabling comments over here because dreamwidth fail at LJ integration. Pity, because they have principles.
shiny jen



This is my chum/student/colleague Julie Seltzer. She's just started writing her first full Torah.

She's doing it as part of a year-long exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco, all about the Torah - and as the living heart of their Torah exhibition, they have my Julie writing a real Torah.

There's a GORGEOUS video of her here. It's nine minutes, and it's really really really well done. Seriously recommend watching it. I'm so proud of her I practically burst. You're AWESOME, Julie love. Awesome.

Really go watch it. And go see her if you're in SF. Tell her I sent you.

(J article IF article)

This entry was originally posted at Dreamwidth. I'm re-enabling comments over here because dreamwidth fail at making openid easy to use and I'm tired of hanging abou
shiny jen

Jewish Week's 36 Under 36

In our second "36 Under 36" section we throw a spotlight on three dozen forward-thinking young people who are helping to remake the Jewish community. They're raising our eco-IQs, blazing new religious paths, reaching beyond national borders to do good, and creating new enclaves of non-native Jews here. Welcome to the future.

In which I am revealed as hopelessly parochial. I have no plans to stop teaching, and plenty of plans involving dual citizenship and scribal workshops, but I find I miss my family and dearest friends too much to stay in America permanently.

Oh, edited to add - the article says I am the first woman in history to adopt the title of soferet, female Torah scribe, and all respect to the Jewish Week but this isn't accurate; I'm the first one to have accomplished the main job of the soferet, writing a Torah.

So will people please stop writing and telling me about Avielah! And PLEASE stop bitching me out, I can't help what other people write. I never say I'm the first to call myself soferet, I never say I'm the first soferet, I say I'm the first we know of to have written a Torah, and if people assume that means "= first soferet," that ought to tell you something about the nature of how they percieve the role of "soferet." I've written to the Jewish Week asking them to clarify the point, so please stop sending me bitchy emails calling me a liar, okay? Thanks.
shiny jen

ok I should have posted this last Tuesday, sorry

I started writing Torah #3 last week; this one is bound for Congregation Dorshei Emet of Montreal. You can follow its story at http://torat-imeinu.blogspot.com/, but I should think I'll cross-post most things, so readers here won't miss much, if anything.

Anyway, this is a bit about the day I started to write and the part with which I started.

The project is called Torat Imeinu, Our Mother's Torah, and I started writing on the sixth day of Nisan - the first month, the month of beginning, the month of finding identity, the month of discovering liberation. As it happens the sixth of Nisan was one year exactly since my student RHS lost her mother. RHS' friends made evening services at her place in the evening, and there was mac and cheese mom-style, and I went from there to the mikveh, the ritual bath.

The mikveh in this context symbolises beginnings, renewals, transitions. Immersing in a pool of mayim hayim, living waters, carries spiritual overtones in Jewish practice, so although there was no technical reason for me to go - no issues of ritual purity which bar one from writing Torah - it seemed appropriate.

The mikveh is life and the memorial service is death, and the Torah passes from generation to generation as life and death cycle by. Generations of mothers pass life to their daughters and fade with time, and generations of Torah scholars pass tradition to their students and fade with time, and me passing writing the Torah to my student RHS makes me part of the generations of scribes who have passed on the Torah, and I am on my way to fading in time also. I find this oddly consoling; it never was all about me, and being one link in a chain is more consonant with tradition than being the crest of a wave. Thus starting the journey for this Torah by remembering RHS' mom with her is profoundly beautiful in ways I cannot completely express, and they all swirled in my head while I was in the mayim hayim, the living waters flowing past and present from time gone by and times to come, mother to daughter, scribe to scribe, Jew to Jew, the waters of Torah swirling all around me and us and from that I wrote the first words of this newest Torah.

I chose to start with Sarah, the first matriarch, the Mother of all Jews. Converts to Judaism are given Sarah as their honorary mother. My own Hebrew name is Yonah Esther bat Sarah. The first piece I wrote was the moment of transition in Sarah's life, where she leaves her old name Sarai, princess, and becomes Sarah, in partnership with God. In this story, God tells Abraham that Sarah will bear him a son, and Abraham laughs in disbelief. Sarah laughs. Their son is named Yitzhak - Laughy. Sarah has wanted a son all her life and here her wish is granted. God will bless her, and through her Abraham and his descendants will become a great and populous nation, blessed by God and in covenant with God. For a Mother's Torah, this seemed a wonderful place to start writing.

I should perhaps explain that one does not have to write the Torah strictly sequentially. I started my first Torah with the Exodus story of the giving of the Torah, because it seemed appropriate. My second Torah was for Congregation Shir Tikvah, Song of Hope, and there is a verse in the Torah which self-referentially says "Write for yourselves this song," so that one I started at the beginning and wrote through to the end. Now I am writing with the Mothers in mind, so we are starting with Sarah.

It seems appropriate to finish with a nod to my own Mother. The Torah scroll is the foundation upon which Jewish identity stands; today's Jews have come a long way from the foundations but know that it is still there at the centre. My Mum believed that with a firm foundation at home, her children would be able to go far, and I jolly well did. Thanks, Mama. L'chaim.
shiny jen

R' Ovadia Yosef on megillah reading, part 2

Here's part 1. In brief, R' Yosef said that potentially women could read and write Megillah, and there was lots of hoo-ha. Part 1 talks about the hoo-ha.

This part is about the writing. R' Yosef said
ancient megillahs written by women have been found in Yemen
. I would like to know more about this! Anyone got any leads? I am reasonably sure that R' Yosef is much too busy to reply to any query I could send him, and anyway I am not nearly important enough to bother someone like him.

Anyway, he used the Yemen women by way of illustration that women may write megillot.
However, he admitted wryly, it is an open question "whether anyone would buy it."

I've sold eight. Add in the other soferot working today and you must get up to, ooh, coming on for a couple of dozen. News of this bit of creeping feminism obviously hasn't crept very far.

But that's okay, halakhic-egal Judaism has had female rabbis for twenty-some years, but it only just got a Torah scribe (not that it's commissioned any Torahs yet, only the Reform and Recon do that, isn't that silly). Scribes aren't exactly at the forefront of things.

Anyway, I'd be jolly interested to hear about women and megillot, in Yemen or anywhere else really. Ideally actual sources, and not just "X said that Y said that Z said."

On to part 3, not that they're all that sequential really.
shiny jen

R' Ovadia Yosef on megillah reading, part 1

Women are allowed to chant the Scroll of Esther on behalf of men if no competent men are available, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Israel's Sephardi community, ruled in a landmark decision liable to outrage many of his Ashkenazi counterparts.
From Vos Iz Neias, or Haaretz, and loads of people emailing me.

Let's start with how this isn't a landmark decision.

The above is roughly akin to saying "Prisoners should not be detained unlawfully, Democrats ruled today, in a landmark decision liable to outrage many of their Republican counterparts." It's not exactly an innovation. A lot of people have been doing it that way for quite some time, left-wing Orthodox Ashkenazim as well as the liberal movements, so it doesn't really count as "landmark." It also wasn't a "decision," in that he's been saying and teaching that way for some time, in line with quite a lot of rabbinic Judaism over the past couple of millennia. And he didn't "rule," it just came up in a class on the laws of Megillah reading. So, less of the sensationalism.

What is interesting is that suddenly people felt the need to make a big deal out of it. For some reason, the idea that women might read for men has become interesting enough to make headlines. Why should this be?

It's possible that it's part of "Who Owns Judaism?" - it made the news because the ultra-Orthodox said it. Basically all Jewish movements, from centre-right Orthodoxy and leftwards, look to the ultra-Orthodox for authenticity. So it doesn't matter that other flavours of Jew have had women reading Megillah for simply ages; it's only news when the ultra-Orthodox talk about it. Perhaps that's what's going on; if so, it's a great pity.

A tangent: It's a pity for what it shows about how other Jewish movements think about Judaism, perpetually looking over their shoulders measuring themselves against the ultra-Orthodox. Other kinds of Jews don't want to be ultra-Orthodox for a great many reasons, but there is the unfortunate tendency to assume, deep down, that it is basically laziness - that if we were just a bit more prepared to deal with discomfort, we too could be like that. This results in an unspoken but evident assumption that only ultra-Orthodox Judaism is the "real" Judaism, that only the ultra-Orthodox do it "properly," and the necessary corollary that if we're in another movement, there's no point committing to it with our whole heart, if it's just inauthentic toy Judaism.

Moderate Americans don't secretly feel that only hard-line Republicans are the "real Americans," do they? (I really hope they don't, anyway). With notable exceptions, Americans seem to manage the idea that first and foremost you're an American, and you can have political affiliations, and that different political groups are more or less equally valid. Democrats don't go around more or less identifying as Republicans who can't be bothered to do it properly, but an awful lot of liberal Jewish movements have an undertone of being lapsed Orthodox. Either this is a great shame and the liberal movements need a lot more self-confidence, or it is evidence that ultra-Orthodoxy is the only true Judaism. Speaking for the liberal movements (what hutzpah) it's our choice. End tangent.

It's also possible that women-reading-Megillah made the news this particular year because the concept of women participating in things has risen in the public consciousness enough that it's now something people are ready to think about.

Over the past - I don't know, decade? couple of decades? - women's participation in this sort of thing has been increasing. It's now easier for Orthodox women to learn how to read Megillah, and it's a good deal more acceptable these days for women to have women's Megillah readings, for instance. As long as women participating was strictly a non-Orthodox thing, the Orthodox world could comfortably ignore it, writing off the non-Orthodox practices as not really Judaism, but perhaps once it's made its way into the left wing of the Orthodox world it's harder for the right wing to ignore? In other words, perhaps this is creeping feminism crossing a threshold?

So the idea that women might participate in ritual a little more, in the form of a comment about women reading megillah, may have crept into the Sephardi real-world setup. Having crept into the ultra-Sephardi world doesn't mean it's crept into the ultra-Ashkenazi world - doesn't mean it hasn't at all, just evidently less so - which means that the looking-over-their-shoulders-at-the-ultra-Orthodox Jews can't feel authentic about involving women yet. But that's okay, because they ought to be acting on conviction anyway.

In any case, such events are pieces of evidence that even ultra-Orthodoxy is influenced by ideas percolating in the rest of the world, which itself is evidence that exchange of ideas goes both ways, into ultra-Orthodoxy as well as out of it. That is, there is not one true Judaism and a host of lesser Judaisms, but many symbiotic Judaisms.

R' Yosef, being Sephardi, might possibly agree.

But possibly not.

On to part 2
shiny jen

Mezuzah/Taxes offer...

Would anyone like to do a little bartering?

What you get: A mezuzah written for you by one of my students
What you give: Tax preparation for a freelancer who moved to NYC from CT during the last year.

You do her taxes, she writes you a mezuzah... email me if interested. A nice mezuzah. Not one of those rubbishy little scribbled jobbies.

(Female student, hence this mezuzah is no good to you if you have a non-egal household...c'est la vie.)
shiny jen


Well, that was fun.

I sewed a paper plate and cup, and plastic cutlery, to a tablemat, and pinned it to a waistcoat. That is, I went as the Shulhan Arukh (the major law code whose title means Set Table).

I went to CSAIR in the evening - that's the local Conservative shul. I'd thought about going into the city, to Hadar's reading, but CSAIR's my community at the moment, and that won out, overall. There was a lot of noise, so it probably wasn't a very kosher reading for someone sitting at the back, but I was being one of the checkers, which means standing right next to the reader anyway, so I heard the whole thing. Some jolly good readers, two of whom are tiny wee things - one of them looks as though she's about ten years old, but she's presumably older than that; she was very good. Pizza bagels afterwards, yay.

Morning, got up at stupid o'clock to read at CSAIR's early reading. Only hardcore people get up for stupid o'clock readings, so this one was much more kosher. Also some jolly good readers. I like leyning, but I also like listening to leyning done well; it's like when people read foreign poetry, it just sounds nice. One doesn't hear it very often - too often people who can read well also read self-importantly. Competent but modest readers are rare gems. So anyway, there was one reader like that at the early reading, which was very much a treat.

Then zooming to the subway and downtown to Drisha's reading, since they're my community too. Also with one reader in particular who combines competence with modesty, exceedingly pleasant to listen to. And a couple of first-time readers, who are generally entirely precious, and all in all a very nice reading.

And I got to use my regel, yay, and we read from the megillah I wrote four years ago, and I read the bit about Esther writing. Esther's the only named woman in the Bible who writes, and when I wrote my first Torah I added Esther to my Hebrew name, feeling some sort of resonance with that. So it was particularly pleasing to read ve-tikhtov Esther.

Yummy food afterwards, and passing out fortune hamentaschen (i.e. fortune cookies, but with Yiddish proverbs and rabbinic aphorisms inside, and folded into the triangular Purim-cookie shape instead of the Chinese fortune-cookie shape), which were a smash hit, hurrah. Worth the fiddliness of making them for the fun of sharing them.