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The People of The Book

Yesterday I visited the Jewish Museum in San Francisco. I’d been wanting to go there for awhile, and finally had a free day. It hasn’t been around that long–the new building just opened in 2008–and it’s a relatively small museum, which I appreciate–unlike most museums, you can actually cover the whole place in a few hours.

Current exhibits are A Portrait of Bay Area Jews; Sendak on Sendak; Jews on Vinyl; and As It Is Written: The Torah Project. The Bay Area exhibit includes an NPR StoryCorps booth, where people can record stories from their lives and families, by appointment; the stories are regularly played on NPR.

Predictably, crowds of people, including lots of little kids, swarmed through the Maurice Sendak exhibit–but the most fascinating thing I saw, and it will stay with me a long time, was the Torah Project. I’ve seen Torah scrolls, but it never really dawned on me that somebody had to have written the whole thing. As I learned yesterday, each Torah is painstakingly copied from another by an individual–all 304,805 words–onto parchment made of the skin of a kosher animal by a scribe using a feather quill. This particular Torah is being inscribed by Julie Seltzer, in public view (check Museum schedule); it will take her one full year to complete. We’re talking about Hebrew letters here: writing them is more like painting than writing the ABC’s. It’s focused, back-breaking labor, with a rule for every aspect of the job.

After watching a video of the scribe at work, and studying the information on exhibit, I could only conclude that I come from a tribe of lunatics–brilliant, but insane. What could be more neurotic than enacting hundreds of rules and regulations to govern the creation of a religious document, an already arduous task? And while other religions got on board the Gutenberg Express early on, my people are still, today, writing these things by hand. Is that not insane?

But also brilliant. I’m not religious, but I am, on occasion, ethnically proud–and this is one of those occasions. I love it that I come from the People of the Book. I love it that my people care so much about The Book that if a Torah is damaged, it must be ritualistically buried. After Katrina, many damaged Torahs were rescued by boat from the synagogues to receive their proper burial.

The Torah Project will be at the Museum until next Fall, so there’s plenty of time to catch it. You can find out more about the subject, and fill in the enormous gaps in my knowledge, on the website.


2 responses »

  1. You’re right. The Jews are smart, but the religion itself is insane.

  2. Well, all religions are pretty much insane.–MS

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