The Tattooed Torah
“This Little Torah is the story of our people, tattoos and all…”
The film The Tattooed Torah, based on the beloved children’s book by Marvell Ginsburg, recounts the rescue and restoration of a small Torah taken by the Nazis from Brno, Czechoslovakia now living at Solomon Schechter Day School in Chicago. The story is filled with love and respect for Torah. Brett Kopin (Co-screenwriter) and Marc Bennett (Director, Co-screenwriter) brilliantly wove basic Jewish concepts into the screenplay, enabling a better understanding of the story to a broader audience. I thought I’d go deeper…
My son, Brett Kopin, has been fascinated by Torahs his entire life. He went road tripping across the US (before becoming a Rabbi) and on occasion “couch-surfed” at people’s homes. One night his host (discovering Brett was a Jew) asked a simple question, “Who is a Jew?” It struck me as funny.
What makes us Jewish? Persecution forced us to scatter to all corners of the earth. We are a diverse people, all colors, nationalities, languages, and with different customs regarding Jewish ritual. The one common denominator binding us is Torah!
We know that the Nazis knew that. Hitler had to destroy the book/scroll that binds and teaches us as a people in order to eliminate us from this earth. Besides desecrating our most sacred possession he had to decide who was a Jew. Hitler defined us using bloodlines, going back several generations. It was difficult for some Holocaust victims to come to terms with why they were considered Jewish they neither practiced, married, or raised their children as Jews. We joke once a Jew always a Jew, apparently, Hitler felt the same.
What is it about the Torah that is so special? The word Torah means instruction, law. In addition to the rich stories and laws embedded in the scrolls that teach us how to look at and behave in the world, there is something more fundamental to consider. It takes a village to create and maintain a Torah.
The Torah takes a year to create. It is made of two hand-carved rollers where multiple sheets of vellum parchment pieces (cured animal skin) are sewn together and attached, formed into a scroll. The parchment is written on by ascribe: a person who copies documents by hand. The scribe spends years learning the art of biblical calligraphy; creating special ink, writing with a feather quill, learning the laws about writing a Torah. The writing takes an enormous amount of patience and a steady hand, labor of intensive Divine Love.
Many artisans are involved in the creation of a Torah and the Aron Kodesh (ark) which stores it. 1- woodcarver creates rollers, 2- vellum producer makes parchment, 3- scribe creates ink, writing instrument, writes the Torah, 4- wood craftsman designer/builder of the ark, 5-fabric artist-designs/sews a wimpel (fabric ties the scrolls together), mantle (Torah dressing), parochet (curtain hanging on the ark), 6- silversmith creates crowns and breastplates adorning scrolls, yad (finger pointer to aid in Torah reading), 7- lighting designer creating a Ner Tamid (eternal flame), hanging above the ark.
Upon completion, a Torah is dedicated in the synagogue celebrating it’s “birth”, similar to a (bris) circumcision/baby naming. Bris/Brit ברית, in Hebrew means covenant, a relationship of commitment between G-D and his people. The community dances the new Torah into it’s home, the Aron Kodesh. This is just the beginning…
Torahs carry powerful energy.
Torahs are called עץ חיים, Aytz Chaim, Tree of life. When taking the Torah from the ark we sing… עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה, this is the tree of life and all are strengthened by it…Before chanting from the Torah we sing על פי ה׳ ביד משה, From G-D’s mouth into Moses’s hand declaring the Divine presence.
The Torah is chanted three days a week: Monday, Thursday and Saturday. We need people who are willing to learn and read from our scrolls. We educate our young to read/chant from the Torah. For some people the first time they hear the Torah chanted is at a Bar/Bat Mitzvah when a child (girls 12 boys 13) reads from the Torah officially for the first time. Some say this extremely difficult rite of passage makes us strong. I think there is something to it…
For those of you who have not had the opportunity to see a Torah up close it is incredible. Hebrew is the ancient language of the Torah, now revived and a living/spoken language in Israel (a miracle in itself). To chant from a Torah, which is quite challenging, one needs to learn the Hebrew alphabet. Our language is written from right to left. Mature readers (past third grade) are expected to read without vowels.
We learn to chant from a book called Tikun with vowels. There are tricky little ancient forms of musical notes embedded into it, (the notes were passed down in oral tradition). Memorizing the pronunciation and tune to the week’s portion is essential so on the appointed day the chanting is fluid. Sometimes the columns from the Tikun do not line up exactly with the scroll causing people who have memorized their portion to blank out. I’ve seen industry giants turn pale while trying to read from a scroll.
It takes a village to read from, bless, hold up then return the Torah to the Aron Kodesh. When you grow up knowing that each one in the community has an obligation to participate in the care, learning and teaching of the Torah it binds us as a people. It’s in our DNA.
It is crucial for the life and well being of a scroll to be used, loved and opened. It is a miracle that Little Torah was plucked from the ashes, rescued, repaired, restored, and now chanted. We are guardians of the sacred trust. We breathe life into Little Torah by honoring it and our tradition.
Video above, vintage documentary: Westminster Synagogue scrolls and dedication ceremony of Little Torah at Solomon Schechter Day School, narrated by Rabbi Stanley Schachter.
We are in the top 96 long list as contenders for the Animated Shorts/Oscars…The films/trailers are listed alphabetically we are #77. Please put out good energy. Click below: