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."

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)
hatam_soferet: Fractal zayins (zayin)
( Oct. 6th, 2009 08:56 pm)

Quill: the tubey middle bit of a feather, the pen made from same.

Nib: the business part of a quill. Note that the nib has a slit up its centre. The slit divides the nib into semiquills*. The slit forms a channel in which ink lives (as you can see in the picture), so sometimes I call it an ink channel. The ink sits in the channel and gets pulled out gradually, as the nib sets ink onto the page - like a candle wick, but in reverse (physics is so clever).

The nib is cut from the non-fluffy end of the feather.

Many people, myself definitely included, strip off the fluffy bits before working, so that the quill resembles a pen more than it does a feather. This is because when you are working (rather than playing about), the fluffy bits get in the way and are just annoying.

The quills in the top picture are goose. The quill in the bottom picture is turkey. Goose is good for smaller work, like mezuzot; turkey tends to be sturdier and more durable, so I like using it for Torah work.

Some scribes temper their quills with heat or chemicals. The idea is for the tempering process to harden the feather, and then it stays sharp longer and is nicer to write with.

Tempering can be tricky - the problem is that if you don't do it enough, nothing happens, but if you do it too much, you melt the quill. If you melt it, tiny air bubbles form and are trapped in it when it hardens so you can't cut it to a smooth edge, plus it's far too brittle to be useful. I do it sometimes, and sometimes I don't bother.

More in a bit...

* Okay, the proper word is "tines," but "semiquills" is a much prettier word. Credit to Gabriel for inventing a good word.

hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Sep. 29th, 2009 09:11 pm)
I never got around to saying, last month - one reason the soferet loves going blackberrying is because blackberries are all gleamy and black in the hedgerows, so they look an awful lot like new letters, which are also gleamy and black, albeit not in the hedgerows.

hatam_soferet: (toothpaste)
( Mar. 27th, 2009 01:04 am)
The Riverdale Press reports on last Sunday at shul. I posted then about keyrings with Hebrew names, which were apparently a Good Fundraiser.

I'm only posting this really because I like the photo, with the scary colouring. Hee.*

* (Additional commentary about root vegetables excised on advice of Rochester Potato Marketing Board)

I had the best time this evening. You know HaMelekh megillot, right? Esther scrolls which tweak the layout such that each column starts with the word HaMelekh, which means The King.

So R' Katz at CSAIR mentioned that he'd been thinking about a HaMalka (The Queen) megillah and fiddling about with it and only getting partway...

...and I, being a Total Nerd with Mad Leet Computer Tikkun Skillz, decided to give it a shot. And I did it. HaMalka megillah, looking pretty sweet.

Of course, the thing about HaMelekh is that King is allegorical for God, and since there isn't any God in the Megillah, the HaMelekh is a compensatory move. HaMalka obviously takes away from that, so if you are doing HaMalka you have to read it as riffing on the HaMelekh/God theme, rather than as a Stomping Feminist theme.

I suspect most people would assume it was a Stomping Feminist thing ("You changed HaMelekh? Don't you realise that HaMelekh refers to God?! Sheesh, you indulge your ridiculous ignorant feminism and just make yourself look stupid..."). One would get tired of explaining that no, one is very well aware of HaMelekh, and HaMalka retains the concept of sovereignty with its hints of God but adds a feminine aspect, as to say "My relationship with God is informed by my being female, and I can engage with ritual on that basis, and it is kosher and it is joyous."

You see I think people might not understand that. It makes me wonder whether alternating Melekh and Malka on the column heads would be a better move, but on the whole I think the feminine riff is worth it.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Mar. 22nd, 2009 07:42 pm)
Hebrew Name KeyringsThis is what I was doing this afternoon (clicky picture for bigger). The shul had a Lower East Side Nostalgia Fundraising Klezmer Concert Thingumajig, and I was being the Lower East Side Sofer stall, where people can get their Hebrew names written. I had a cracking time.

I do this writing-Hebrew-names thing a lot, and I rather enjoy it; names are easy, and people like them very much, so it's a very good investment-to-return ratio. I don't usually do it in my home shul, though, so today was a nice change; no travelling to speak of, and writing for people I actually know is nice also.

Normally I just write the names on parchment-look paper, but I had a Brilliant! Idea! in the form of keyrings, clear acrylic ones into which one slips the paper, and then it's cute and useful and all kinds of shiny. And my goodness they were flying off the shelf; from 12-3 I did 45 keyrings, as well as names-on-paper. I'd only brought about 35 keyrings with me, had to do the rest at home and mail them. People were buying them as afikoman gifts, which is very sweet.

I do feel a bit guilty for contributing to rampant consumerism - if Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is the thing, cutesy keyrings fail on the first step - no-one actually needs a cute keyring with their Hebrew name on it. So perhaps I should come up with something made of paper instead - a bookmark, or something - that is less wasteful of resources. Any bright ideas?

Part 1

Unlike a Torah, practically anyone's allowed to write a get, according to the Mishnah. Gittin 2:5 says Anyone is kosher to write a get; even a deaf-mute, even a witless person, even a child. A woman may write her own get, and a man may write his own receipt, because the get is solely established by its signatories.

Well, I'm just a little bit of a halakha nerd, and it pleases me very much when unlikely halakhic situations apply to my own life. Not, you understand, that I would have chosen to get divorced, but accepting that as a fact of life, it's clearly much cooler to write one's own get.

So I did.

The actual process is very formal. There's a whole ritual during which the woman stands silent while the rabbi, the husband, and two witnesses, establish that the husband wishes to divorce his wife here and now of his own free will. The husband appoints a scribe and instructs him to write the get, and instructs the witnesses to sign, and all while the woman doesn't say anything.

As the sofer, I had a more active part. I got to accept the responsibility of writing the get.
I learned that although the wife is allowed to write the get, the husband isn't allowed, which pleased me very much; the balance of power is not usually tipped that way. In any case, I was glad to be a real part of the process. I like my Judaism to be part of me - or should that be, I like to be part of my Judaism?

Then I wrote it, copying from a text. You can't write it in advance, and you can't print it. This is because the verse says "he shall write for her a severance document," and we take "writing" and "for her" very literally indeed. This is unlike a ketubah, where you may take a printed form and fill in the names - a get has to be produced wholly for the specific recipient, and has to be written, not printed (see Part 1).

Most of the text concerns itself with name and location. The city is not just named, but identified as being in the vicinity of bodies of water (the idea being that these are hard to mistake or mislay). The participants are not just named, but are named by all the names that they use or have previously used, so I'm Yonah Esther otherwiseknownas Yonah otherwiseknownas Jennifer otherwiseknownas Jen. That's about two-thirds of the text. Then there's a little bit at the end which says, more or less, I, Husband, am not being coerced and you, Wife, are free to go.

I made a couple of mistakes; these I fixed in the usual way, with a knife. I'd brought some moral support, who was also a sofer, and he and the rabbi talked shop. It was most interesting to listen to.

When I was finished writing, the rabbi and the witnesses checked it through very carefully for mistakes. Then the witnesses signed it. It passed from my possession (as the scribe) into the X's possession, and then he passed it back into my possession, this time in my role as wife. Ex-wife, that is. It was very amusing to be playing two parts, scribe and wife, especially when the script required the X to appoint the scribe Hatam-Soferet to write a get for the wife Hatam-Soferet.

After I had accepted it as my get, releasing me from the marriage, the rabbi took it and tore into it with a knife. This shows it has been used, so there is no possibility of anyone's using it for another divorce.

The ceremony finishes with an admonition that now this get has been written, signed, and delivered, anyone who casts doubts on its validity is subject to excommunication and is a really bad person and doesn't get any cookies. I like that very much: it's a recognition that messing with this could really cause trouble, and we believe we've done it properly, and for the sake of Jewry, don't go looking for problems. Very humane, and sensible.

So anyway, there we go. I've written my own get. I bet there aren't many women around who can say that.

PS - It feels good now it's done, and I rather enjoyed doing it. I'm really rather a nerd.
hot days
When it starts getting warmer, one's parchment wakes up and remembers what it used to be. You can tell it's a hot day when it stops lying nice and flat, and starts trying to go back to being a cow.

Certainly keeps life interesting. And besides, it's another of those powerful reminders that like it or no, rabbinic Jews are part of a world where people use animals for their own ends - and that that has implications.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( May. 17th, 2008 10:43 pm)
Lovely experience Wednesday night, thus:

I'm writing Torah at Drisha, because Student S is working on her first mezuzah and I want to be close at hand to field any questions. We have Scribal Zone going in the back of the beit midrash, very nice.

I'm writing parshat Metzora, around ch. 26 of Leviticus. Various sorts of impurities.

So happens that there's a learning session going on nearby; I'm vaguely listening to bits of their Torah floating over, and I realise that it just so happens they're learning parshat Metzora. So I'm writing this stuff with most of my attention, giving half an ear to the discussion going on nearby; precisely the same material I'm writing, but overlaid with traditional and modern commentaries tossed around by two very bright minds.

I've mentioned this before; I adore writing at Drisha, when I'm writing a piece of Torah and I hear people nearby talking about the same piece of Torah from the other side of thousands of years of rabbinic tradition. We're six feet apart and engaged with exactly the same thing, but in between us is the whole development of Judaism.

It blows my mind.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Mar. 21st, 2008 12:35 pm)
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.
Jewish Women's Archive - Go & Learn

Tefillin Barbie: Considering gender and ritual garb

Do women in your community wear tefillin and tallit when they pray? Do you? For many, the relationship between gender and ritual garb is still evolving, as women and men consider their personal and communal associations with these objects and practices. This edition of Go & Learn uses the provocative image of "Tefillin Barbie" – created in 2006 by soferet (ritual scribe) Jen Taylor Friedman – to explore issues of gender, ritual, and body image.

We have created 3 lesson plans based on "Tefillin Barbie."

* For youth:
Tefillin Barbie: Body image and gender roles in Judaism (PDF)
* For family/congregational education:
Barbie wears Tefillin, do you? Exploring ritual garb (PDF)
* For adults:
Barbie lays Tefillin: Discussing women and Jewish ritual (PDF)

The rest of it's rather impressive, as well. I'm entirely charmed by the JWA's choosing to use my work as a springboard for discussing some really fundamental issues.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Dec. 11th, 2007 04:57 pm)
Spent the weekend in Detroit, with Congregation Shir Tikvah, who will be the owners of my current (second) Torah scroll. Properly thoughtful posts on that to follow; in a word, Shir Tikvah is what it says it is: innovative, yet traditional, friendly and inclusive. And it has incredible attention to detail; that struck me over and over again. As I say, proper post to follow.

For now, a little bit of yay-bouncing - regular readers may remember Tefillin Barbie's making the front cover of New Voices magazine, and me saying it was rather unlikely I'd do the same, Barbie being much more photogenic; well, I made the cover of the Detroit Jewish News. So hah, Barbie! It's a very nice article, as well, props to journalist Shelli Dorfman.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Dec. 2nd, 2007 12:06 pm)
Sometimes people say to Orthodox types, on my behalf:

What do you MEAN a woman can't be a scribe? The Talmud says women, slaves, heretics and so on can't be scribes? How can you say a woman is like a slave or a heretic? That's DISGUSTING!

To which I say:

They're right. Technical explanation ) My community chooses to say that we should view women as equal to men, and that women should have the same obligations (and hence the same ritual capabilities) as men. Non-egalitarian Orthodoxy does not.

In fact, their choosing to maintain traditional gender roles is probably more in line with existing trends in the secular world - certainly in the USA women's and men's roles are still definitely distinct; look at almost all advertising, as well as expectations re careers, childrearing, care of elderly parents, etc. When a community chooses to maintain gender roles in ritual, it is absolutely reasonable for them to maintain that women do not write sifrei Torah. Challenging this is asking them to alter something pretty fundamental to their culture and way of life - it is asking them to accept an absolutely foreign premise, rather similar to how you would feel if someone insisted you accept Christianity. They are entitled to their view, just as you and I are entitled to ours.

The best thing we can do is build a sustainable, committed Judaism which incorporates egalitarianism into the existing matrix. For that we need mutual respect, self-respect, and self-confidence. We gain authenticity not through others but through ourselves.
Session with photographer today for upcoming article in the Detroit Jewish News - which is pretty classy of the Detroit Jewish News, frankly - bit of a change from the usual daily fare of writing Torah and learning Torah. I still find it odd being photographed; it's continually rather surprising that people find me that interesting. Intellectually, yes, I understand, but it's not an intellectual reaction.

My sister's got that happy ability to come out beautifully in a photo on the first shot; I'm always the one with her eyes closed and looking like a cross between a potato and the living dead. And the Detroit Jewish News wanted a rather ambitious pose involving a large sheet of parchment, which needed some fairly specific lighting conditions; I was at Drisha today, and Drisha doesn't have amazing light sources, so overall it was pretty hard work for the poor photographer, but he managed not to slide into the litany of "Open your eyes...okay now smile...no, not like that a real smile...no, not like that..." which must have taken some doing, all things considered. Jolly good show.

Overall, another experience to add to the list of Things I Never Expected When I Got Into All This - implausibly examining a sheet of Torah on a roof in midtown Manhattan, clutching at flapping parchment with frozen fingers, praying it wouldn't get whipped out of my hands and blown across the city, with a chappie behind a lens leaping about trying to make all this appear serene and inspirational. And to think I could have been an accountant.
Selections from a collection I'm slowly gathering, whimsically entitled Torah Girls - Buds on the Tree of Life.

Faces of minors are blurred because this is the internet. The prints hanging on my wall are not blurred.

Writing Torah

Reading Torah 1

Reading Torah 2

The first reading from the first Torah written by a woman - a bat mitzvah

מי יעבר לנו אל הים ויקחה לנו, Who will cross for us to the land beyond and fetch it for us...

Image and title by Jeane Vogel. Image used here with permission of the artist. Please do not reproduce without permission.

hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Nov. 14th, 2007 09:41 pm)
Interview today with "Too Jewish" with Rabbi Sam Cohon and Friends (although I didn't get to talk to his Friends). It will apparently air on December 2nd, if you're interested to listen to it.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Nov. 8th, 2007 09:03 am)
I'm in the Forward 50, the paper's list of people who, this year, are "doing and saying things that are making a difference in the way American Jews, for better or worse, view the world and themselves."


I'm on a list with Chancellor Eisen, Ruth Messinger, and Mayor Bloomberg. My goodness. Two other interesting points: I'm joint youngest - there are two other 27-year-olds on the list. And the gender breakdown is 17 women and 33 men.

hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Nov. 7th, 2007 11:00 am)
I was supposed to do a phone interview at 8:00 Arizona time, which they said was 11:00 Eastern Standard time. A bit before 11am EST, I turn the phone on, and they've been trying to get hold of me for an hour.

Turns out Arizona doesn't do daylight savings, so when we put the clocks back, they stayed in the same place, and 8am for them is 10am for me. I have an inbox full of irritated "where-are-you" messages, which is decidedly galling, since I really don't think I should be expected to guess that Arizona doesn't change its clocks with the rest of the country.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Oct. 25th, 2007 09:41 pm)

Hi Jen,

Just got an email from a friend with 200 FWD FWD infront of it and got to
know your Barbie tefillin.

Before I knew it I ended up on your website and read about you. I think it
is a cute Barbie. Yehh it is cute.

I also am very happy that you like being a soferet.

Also I read the "Conservatives think I am an orthodox and orthodox think I
am a conservative"

Well I really think that it doesn't matter what people think. All that
matters is that what you think of yourself and how YOU talk with god when
you need him.

Beside all that I was just wondering if you really belive that a Jewish
lady needs to wear Teffilin and tzitzit?

I mean Tefillin and tzitzit are religious items that God ordered Jewish men
to wear.

If you belive in God and Judaism and you know that God didn't see the need
for a Jewish lady to wear it, why push it then?

Judaism thinks very highly of women as we can see in many parts of Talmud,
how when a man is not married to a woman his life is not in order and he
doesn't have "beracha" blessing in his house etc.

Hashem created women holy with built in understanding of spirituality

Men don't have as much of that and that is why they need to go to bet
hakeneset for every tefilah and wear tzitzit and kipah and tefilin etc to
bring them up to that level and remind them of all that.

God who created us knew the need of each one of us in order to be a better
person and ordered us certain things.

I don't know you and not sure what your philosophy is, all I know is that
you are Jewish and belive in god and that is all that matters.

I think this cute Barbie sends a wrong message to people specially to
younger or uneducated Jews.

It might look like this statue is a way of making fun of the laws of God, by
holding the torah in hand and doing all the "Do Not Do S" in it.

It was just a thought and I would be very happy to hear your point of view
on that.

Gluck to you and kol am yisraell.

I think the response goes like this:
I have found overwhelmingly that emails phrased like yours come from people who are primarily interested in describing their point of view, and who are not actually interested in hearing what I have to say. If this is not you, and you are actually interested in how I view Judaism, you may read my blog, Hatam Soferet. Please bear in mind that you are not saying anything I have not heard many, many times before. I do not find your opinions compelling, or, for that matter, interesting, which is why we will not be continuing this correspondence.