hatam_soferet: (esther)
( Aug. 3rd, 2011 10:48 pm)

I write Torah scrolls for congregations, and part of my job is working closely with the congregation to make appropriate programming. Such as, for instance, an opening ritual.

A good ritual starts by speaking to who the community is, and inspires them with a vision of who they want to be. My job as the consulting scribe is to come up with Torah-related ideas that will make that connection.

The clergy and lay leaders have some idea of both ends (you hope), but since I’m not part of the community, I don’t. A meeting with the Torah committee to plan the ritual can be rather intimidating, because it’s my job to figure out, in an hour, what sorts of things they are likely to find familiar, relevant, exciting, and inspirational, and to present those in ways which will fit into the logistical and emotional parameters of ritual.

They have classes on this stuff in rabbinical school, you know. I could ace one of those classes.

Well, so. This is a community that’s celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, its jubilee year. It recently-ish (within communal memory) moved into a shiny new building, and walked the Torah scrolls from the old building to the new. The dedication is right after Simchat Torah.

Elements that got thrown into the mixing bowl, when talking with clergy and lay leaders:

* Children (or perhaps adult bat mitzvah class, convert class, etc) bringing the blank parchment sheets into the sanctuary
* 42 sheets, for the 42 journeys made by the Israelites, and the 42 lines per column. The rabbi has a dvar Torah connecting the 42 journeys to the poem Ana b’koach.
* Collecting turkey feathers from local turkeys beforehand; a quill-cutting moment
* There are pre-writing kavvanot which include Ana b’koach. A kavannah moment.
* Another pre-writing thing is vidui. Since we will just have had Yom Kippur, Ashamnu will be fresh in people’s minds. A solemn moment.
* Blank sheets, Book of Life, fresh starts (see “Jubilee”). Journeys (see “New building”).
* Having six different people write the letters of the first word, images projected onto screen
* Having those people share a minute or two each of their stories
* Talking about the symbolism of each letter, matching that up with their stories
* Having the kids sing alphabet and Torah songs
* Having cards and envelopes under each chair and getting people to write about what their Torah journey this year might be; cards to be sent to participants after the completion ceremony

Yes, that’s not a complete list of every possible element of an opening ritual. That would be cumbersome. This is a good starting list, tailored to this community. Now the clergy and Torah committee will figure out how they’d like to put all this together, and we’ll go from there.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

hatam_soferet: (esther)
( Jul. 6th, 2011 03:59 pm)

I love RG.

RG has been coming to Apprentice with a Sofer on Tuesday nights.

She doesn’t count herself as valid to work on a sefer Torah (because she holds that men and women have different halakhic capabilities) so every time we do a new thing, she asks me “Can I do this? Can I do that?”

I love this. It’s so un-awkward. It makes it so easy to emphasise “Some people can’t do everything. It’s okay to be one of those people. There’s plenty you can do anyway. And no-one’s judging you.”

Cheers, RG!

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

I was going to give a class on checking your own mezuzah, but it got prevented by weather. Today I found the notes I’d made for it, so I’m typing them up.

But I’m not putting in the pictures here because that’ll take hours of scanning and photographing; if you want those you’ll have to get me to come give the class.

Anyway, this is what we would have covered:

Is the mezuzah written on parchment, or printed on paper?
Does it have all the words? (checking using a tikkun; checking using the internet)
Are all the original letters there? (flaking, damage)
Are they still in good repair? (cracking)
Theoretical interlude: why repairing letters out of order is problematic
Technical bit: checking to see if the letters have their proper form (this is the bit that requires lots of training and practice, but there are some things that you can see straight away, like letters which are connected, or really egregious malformations).

Such a class is not going to equip the average mezuzah-user to say “Yes, this mezuzah is definitely kosher,” but it will equip said user to know if their mezuzah is not kosher, or if they should be worried.

As ever, for more information I heartily recommend the book Tefillin and Mezuzos: A Pictorial Guide by Yerachmiel Askotzky. You can buy it here at his site.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

My beloved student Julie has been writing a Torah in San Francisco at the Contemporary Jewish Museum for the past year, and once she’d finished writing (yay) it came time to sew it together and have a bit of an Event.

So I went out there to help with the sewing and to be part of the Event, because your student doesn’t finish her first sefer Torah every day. I mean wow, seriously.

And I learned…that sewing a Torah together is a lot more fun when there’s two of you doing it. (Here’s a description of sewing a Torah.) It’s pretty fun anyway, but it’s even better when shared.

First we took awls and punched holes down the edges.

Then we took burnishers and folded over one edge.

Then we sorted all the sheets into order.

Then we each took part of the pile

laid two sheets right sides together (this is Sewing 101)

checked that they were the CORRECT two sheets (this is Sewing 101 section 1.1.1)

cut lengths of gid

threaded needles

tied knots




knotted off the threads

cut them

smoothed the seams

and rolled the new sheet up

and continued

and the rolls grew and grew and grew!

until there was a whole Torah

just sitting there

where before there had been a pile of sheets of parchment.

Pretty magical eh?

The museum isn’t a shul. It doesn’t have Torah readings. But don’t you think it’s awfully sad to write a whole Torah and then not have it read from? Julie did, and so did the museum. So they arranged for the Torah to visit Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, and on Shabbat we read from it.

Now, the funny thing is, that you write a Torah, and everyone involved is all, whoop-de-hey! amazingcakes! spiffettydoo!, but once you’re reading from it, it’s just like any other Torah. Kind of like pouring water into a lake. The water you’re pouring may be terribly special to you, but once you pour it into the lake, it’s part of the lake, and it doesn’t matter that once it was your special water. It becomes essentially anonymous, just part of the greater body.

No-one would know, to look at it, unless you told them that it was your special Torah. It acquires a life of its own, independent of you (it’s not a mixed metaphor if you start a new paragraph, right?). It’s rather beautiful, in a funny sort of way.

Julie looking slightly surprised, rather relieved, and altogether joyful to have written a Torah.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

Girl-shaped tallit katan

Girl-shaped tallit katan

I couldn’t get to Limmud this year because of the snow closing all the airports. This is one of the sessions I would have given.
Wearing tzitzit under your clothes isn’t just something men do, but commercially-available tallitot katanot are definitely man-shaped. Bring a strappy top and come learn how to make a tallit katan that fits your body. Sewing skills not necessary.

Basically we’re going to go through the steps detailed in Danya’s classic post: take a strappy top, turn it into a four-cornered garment by removing stitches, make holes in it, and attach tzitzit.

(Translation for speakers of American English: strappy top is what you call a tank top.)

We’re assuming that you want to wear tzitzit, and that you’ve got over your “but that’s a MAN’s thing!!!” wibbles. People are welcome to discuss their wibbles, but that’s not the focus of the session, so I’m not providing sources on that here. Email me if you want sources.

Strappy top: fits under girl clothes, and is not a man’s garment.

Now, the Mishnah Berurah (16:1) says that the shoulder parts should be wide, and davka shouldn’t be straps: ויעשה הכתפים של הטלית-קטן רחבים כדי שיהיו נכרים ויהיה עליהם תורת בגד ולא שם רצועות. He seems to be saying that anything with shoulder-straps is not a garment and therefore doesn’t qualify for tzitzit. I rather think that, certainly in women’s clothing, the statements is a garment and has shoulder straps are not mutually exclusive, and therefore it’s probably okay to make a girl tallit katan out of a strappy top.

So, strappy top.

  • I don’t believe you can buy wool/linen blend strappy tops, but just in case: don’t buy a wool/linen blend.
  • Some say you shouldn’t put tzitzit on cotton or certain types of synthetics; if you’re of that camp, buy a mostly-wool top (Good luck with that. You might have to make one). If you’re not of that camp, go right ahead with your cotton or synthetic top. If you’re not sure, ask your rabbi or your google or read this and make a decision that’s consonant with your other values.
  • Some say there’s a minimum size for a tallit katan. Others don’t. Women’s clothes are generally smaller than men’s clothes; compare childrens’ sizes of tallit katan, which apparently hold that it’s all relative to the body size. You might care to find out which way your community holds on the minimum size for a woman’s tallit katan.

cece's tzitzis
Turning into four-cornered garment: slitting the seams 51% up the side.

  • The straps don’t count as part of the 51% reckoning.
  • Either rip the stitches or just CHOP THEM ALL OFF, WAHEY.
  • Optional sewing part: hemming the edges and putting in a few stitches to stop the seam tearing any further.

Reinforcing the corners:

  • With sewing, like a buttonhole, to stop the holes ripping open.
  • If the holes rip open, it’s still ok to wear, but it’s shvach.
  • I find that the armpit part goes yucky long before the corners start ripping, so I tend to skip this step. Then again, if I wore the tzitzis hanging out more often, they’d catch on things, in which case reinforced corners would be a good idea.
  • You can also reinforce the corners with awesome things like a certain JTS rabbi does.

Cutting holes:

  • They’re supposed to be two etzbaot from each side. 5cm gives you a bit extra to allow for stretching and such.

hannahstzitzitTying tzitzit:

  • There are about a billion squillion explanatory videos, blog posts, photos and websites out there explaining how to do it. Here’s the Jewish Catalog version.
  • When pulling halakha off the internet, often a good idea to compare several independent sources and make sure they’re all saying the same thing.
  • Remember to say leshem mitzvat tzitzit, that you’re doing this for the purpose of the mitzvah of tzitzit.

Girl Clothing:

  • There is a stringency to have the tzitzit be the same colour as the garment, but Ashkenazim (dunno about non-Ashkenazim) don’t bother with it any more. Still, girls’ clothes tend to be colour-co-ordinated, so if you like dyeing things, you might consider it, like this Hadar fellow has.

The order’s important. First make the four corners, then attach the tzitzit. Not the other way round.

On wearing them – depending how you view womanhood and tallit katan and the intersection of same, you may or may not want to be making a bracha when you put the things on. Again, ask your rabbi, ask your google, ask your friends.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

A very Rodeph-Sholom couple of weeks.

Rodeph Sholom, for those not intimately familiar with Manhattan’s Upper West Side Jewish Scene, is a Reform synagogue of epic proportions, with after-school religious school program, and eponymous Reform day school a few blocks away. I have the good fortune to visit them relatively often.

Week before last I was giving an enormous crowd of second-graders a bit of an Introduction to Torah Writing with pieces written by one of my students for demonstration. (SEVENTY of them, my goodness. Impeccably behaved, too.) I was telling them about how you’re not supposed to kill an animal specially for making Torahs out of it, the cow has to have died for something else, and one of them said gravely “Ah…cow recycling?” which was sublime and a phrase I will definitely be using in future.

The third-and-fourth-graders were very pleasant as well. At the end, I let everyone come up and try to break the gid, the thread that’s used for sewing the panels, and one of the girls actually managed it. So I gave her the broken bit, she deserved it!

And then last week the b”mitzvah prep class, which is a whole rather excellent thing in itself; the shul does a package of six sort of meta-sessions where the kids and families get to think about What and Why and suchlike; space given over to consciousness which might otherwise be swallowed in details of Torah portions and party planning. I would think it was a pretty neat idea even if they didn’t have me at the first session giving people a close-up encounter with the Torah scroll — joke — but seriously, it’s rather lovely to be able to say to these families “You’re about to put a lot of effort into reading from this thing. Here’s why it’s special” and share a bit of Torah-scrollage with them.

With a bit of bonus Torah-fixing — rolling up afterwards, I noticed that one of the reinforcement strips was coming loose, and I had my soferet field kit with me so I could just glue it back down. And then I noticed some pencil marks on the back of the scroll that would be better off removed, so I did those too. In the book of Bereshit — next time I’m there we’ll be in Shemot, so I expect I’ll do Shemot then.

NYC = good place for soferet to be.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

hatam_soferet: (esther)
( Jul. 7th, 2010 04:23 pm)

I finished writing the sefer Torah for Dorshei Emet. You might have worked this out, from the lack of Torah-writing posts of late, but I didn’t actually get round to making a post about it yet.

I tweeted the final stages of putting the sefer together on May 11 and 12, and it was delivered to its new community on May 16.

You may remember that I spent a couple of days a week writing at Yeshivat Hadar, being the unofficial soferet-in-residence. Being in a friendly, welcoming, Torah-filled environment was a tremendous boost.

So, when I’d finished writing, we celebrated together, and there was cake for breakfast.

Then the sefer Torah got collected by someone driving from New York to Montreal, and driven to Montreal. This is safer than trying to come through Montreal aiport customs early on Sunday morning with a sefer Torah, a process liable to take an indefinite amount of time.

Because I had what to be doing on Sunday morning, namely, writing letters with congregation members:

In the afternoon, the sefer Torah was brought in under a chuppah with much rejoicing:

Then there were miscellaneous speeches, the filling in of the very last word, dancing and so on, and the sefer got its new clothes, and it was unrolled around the children of the congregation. Who were possibly slightly bemused, but it was all terribly symbolic and meaningful and so on.

I heard from a Torah reader a few weeks later. Apparently they had had a nice time reading from it. Good to hear.

This was my third sefer Torah.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

Session blurb: If one writes a sefer Torah, say the Sages, it is as if he had himself received it on Mount Sinai. How can the simple act of writing take someone to such heights? By transcribing small amounts of text, we will explore how writing Torah can be experientially very different from reading or learning or leyning; how the pace of transcription can give one fascinatingly different perspectives on the text, and how the act of transcription can cause one to process it differently.

I started with a bit of me-background – what I do, how I learned to do it, where I’m holding professionally, that sort of thing. Why, in an orthodox framework, what I do is a problem. The session blurb said “This session will not include halakhic discussion,” because that wasn’t what I was interested in talking about. There’s only so much time you can spend on sources that basically say “No…uh, no” and I’m not into spending time that way, at present.

So I asked the group (fifteen or so people, counting one who left halfway because she’d got the Quills workshop mixed up with the Quilting workshop) who’d read Torah the previous day. Sure enough, someone had, so I passed over a tikkun sheet and had her read a few verses, to make the point: this is what these verses sound like when we read them in shul.

Then I asked if anyone had heard a dvar Torah this week, with the idea of getting people to focus on another way of interacting with the text, that of using it as a starting-point for an idea or a halakha.

I talked a bit about how the Sages mandate writing, rather than inheriting or buying, a sefer Torah, and about how they say of one who writes an entire Torah that it is as if he’d himself received it at Sinai. I asked people to think about how writing a text is different than reading or, say, printing – handwritten envelopes and thank-you cards featured, and I brought up writing as a learning technique also, in its role as a way of getting information into your brain.

Then we did a spot of practical calligraphy. I most particularly didn’t want this to be a calligraphy workshop; I wanted people to experience writing at the Torah-scribe pace of three or four words per minute and to focus themselves within that. So I gave a quick demonstration of how one might write words in ordinary handwriting and then adorn them with colour, or alternatively how one can trace letters from a tracing sheet. Both of these don’t require much in the way of calligraphic expertise, but they entail about as much engaging with the letters and words as more practiced calligraphy does. I thought this would be the best way of simulating the experience I was after.

I gave out tikkun sheets from the parsha the Jews had read the previous day – most people there, if they hadn’t heard it the previous day, had heard it or read it at some time or another, I figured, and I wanted the contrast fresh in people’s minds as far as possible. Then I just had everyone write what was in front of them for a good twenty minutes.

This is the bit where you can tell if it’s working or not. If people are engaged, you can tell, and if they’re bored, that infects the others and everything falls apart. Happily, people seemed engaged, and got into it.

I picked everyone up, when I judged we’d had time enough, and asked people to compare their experiences of writing to their experiences of reading or otherwise engaging with the text. Which they did, most satisfactorily – it was very interesting.

I could do another post on what people said, but this’d be more interesting if you went away and did it yourselves, and came back and commented. Don’t you think?

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

Fun times at JOFA yesterday.

That’s the intermittently-annual conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, for those not au fait with Modern Orthodox slang. I admit I was rather surprised when they asked me to present, given that I don’t identify as Orthodox, but I said as much and they were still interested, so I guess whatever I am, it’s closely-related enough that they figured the conference attendees would be interested.

I very much like opportunities to talk about my work that aren’t the standard Look At The Torah Scroll or My Life Story that constitutes 90% of the public presentation I do. Last month I was in Boston, at Tufts University, talking to undergraduates, and that was great fun – undergrads tend to be deliciously interested in thorny issues, and they’ve often just discovered the joy of tussling with a problem, puppy-like, so undergrads are one of my favourite groups to work with.

Then, as now, I was using presenting as a forum to tackle the following question: classical halakha says there’s basically no way to argue that what I do is okay. My present justification is based on emunat hakhamim – community leaders whose learning and integrity I respect seem to think it’s okay, and since egalitarian practice is in large part a matter of communal acceptance, that’s something upon which to rely.

However. When I contract to write a sefer Torah, and we specify that the sefer is to be written in full accordance with normative Ashkenazi halakha with the exception of the gender of the scribe, it’s kind of analogous to someone who provides meat, which has been selected and slaughtered in full accordance with normative Ashkenazi halakha with the exception of the species of animal. That is to say, sometimes I feel rather like unto one who performs ritual slaughter on pigs.

All this leaves me wide open to the question “So why write sifrei kodesh?”

The workshop I was presenting at JOFA attempted to give an experiential perspective on that question. I wanted to convey the manner in which writing out verses of the Torah gives you a very particular and close relationship to them.

Session blurb: If one writes a sefer Torah, say the Sages, it is as if he had himself received it on Mount Sinai. How can the simple act of writing take someone to such heights? By transcribing small amounts of text, we will explore how writing Torah can be experientially very different from reading or learning or leyning; how the pace of transcription can give one fascinatingly different perspectives on the text, and how the act of transcription can cause one to process it differently.

I’ll continue in Part 2 shortly.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Dec. 14th, 2008 11:22 pm)
So last weekend I was in Berkeley. There were persimmons on trees, and a cute bunny in the garden next door going hoppity-hop!

Basically, I was there to be Inspirational. Jewish Milestones is a group that, hm, let's say, it recognises that quite a lot of people want to be Jewish off their own bats and don't want to join a shul so that the rabbi can be Jewish for them. Further, it recognises that sometimes people need a bit of help with that cos not everyone has a full set of Jewish Skillz. So it helps Being-Jews find Action-Jews and make Judaism, and to that end, it also has a stock of Jewish Stuff - which didn't include a Torah, which is a bit of a handicap when e.g. doing services.

Then it got a Torah, and that is rather a big deal, so there was a Hooray-We-Have-A-Torah event, and I got to play the role of Yay-Torahs-Are-Super.

So you can read about that in this nice newspaper article, here.

I also...

did a lot of stuff, actually... )Talking with the Milestones staff about what they do and the general Berkeley Jewish Scene, was both really nice and really interesting.

There's a story about Rabbi Meir, who in addition to being a sage, was also a scribe. He came to a little community one Purim, and they didn't have a Megillah, so he sat down and wrote them one so they could have a Megillah reading. Strikes me the Milestones peeps are like that.
The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale describe themselves as Open Orthodox, which means Tolerant and Nice and so on, so when they said did I want to come and speak about me-and-my-stuff between mincha and maariv on Shabbat, I said yes. Then I got there, and I haven't been so scared in a long time. It was very strange. I normally anticipate such affairs quite happily.

HIR is where I generally go on Friday nights, I'll start by saying. It's a nice place, friendly space, I'm comfortable there, I like to think I'm part of the community. The clergy are the sweetest people in the whole world, and the congregants aren't far behind.

However, I'm not usually there in a professional capacity. Coming to Orthodox space in my professional role as Jen the Soferet reminded me that this is a space where I am more liable than usual to encounter hostility because I am a woman. It's sad but true that what hostility I encounter comes from the Orthodox world - by no means are all Orthodoxim hostile, and I don't suppose any of the people at HIR hate me, but to a degree Orthodoxy is Orthodoxy, and emotions don't always listen to intellect.

I got there Shabbat afternoon for mincha, and the way the space is divided - mechitza, solid wooden fence, right down the centre - hit me, smack. Suddenly it was giving me a more compelling message than usual. It was making Men's Space and Women's Space, and saying, You are Other. You must stay over There. Your Otherness is such that we must make a fence. I was Other. Very powerfully, compellingly, Other.

When they have talks between mincha and maariv, any women in the women's section come over into the men's section - that's where most people in the room already are. So, having gone into the other space, I looked at the people assembled, and there was this sea of men in suits. Perhaps four or five women amongst them, but mostly, men. Lots. And. Lots. Of. Men. Feeling out of place? I felt out of place. Not part of the group, not even remotely.

I wasn't even there to talk about controversial stuff, either, I was attempting to convey how it is that being me, and delighting in life, results in what I do. And I was so scared because I felt so out of place and Other and liable to be rejected.

Of course, they were all very nice and it was perfectly fine, just as I'd known it would be. But it was an unexpected and startling experience, which I am sharing. I will not attempt to draw general conclusions from a single data point, but it is perhaps worth thinking about the messages we send as groups, and the messages we hear as individuals.

x-posting to jewschool, when my login gets fixed :)
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Nov. 21st, 2006 01:08 pm)
Filming again today, this time for a PBS documentary on The Jews Of America. They were doing stuff at Drisha and Drisha suggested me as a nice visual, so I went down to Drisha and wrote there.

Flat desks and weird lighting plus camera people bumping into the table far too often = me making too many smudges. So they'll have lots of footage of me making blots. Ho hum. I think next time anyone wants pictures of me they're just going to have to come to Riverdale. The Fox chaps in St Louis were much more efficient, and they didn't bump the table at all.

In any case, I've been Being Interesting for ages - more than a week. There's a difference between sharing things and Just Being - if I share something on a blog post, it's because I feel like I've got something worth sharing (for varying values of "worth" - I know at least some of you care if I'm having a Pink Socks Day, for instance). But I find people filming me or watching me qua me very disconcerting - I just don't feel like I'm that interesting. Intellectually I understand, but emotionally it's just weird.

I'm going to have a cup of tea and hide in my cave and write some Torah. Tzuri ve-goali.