The quiet, busy atmosphere of Cabell Library was joyfully torn apart on the afternoon of March 30, 2017 with the sudden appearance of an energetic klezmer band, closely followed by a centuries old Torah and a massive congregation of clapping followers. The Torah made its slow procession through three floors of the library and attracted a growing congregation of curious students looking for an excuse to stop working, with frequent stops for spontaneous Hora dancing, a traditional Jewish circle dance.
The noisy parade of the Torah preceded its official dedication and placement on display at Cabell Library. The Torah scroll, a 105-foot-long length of parchment scribed in the customary Hebrew, was composed in Romania around 1750. It survived World War Two and Nazi efforts to erase Jewish identity, and was donated to the VCU Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives by alumni Martin L. Johnson, M.D. and Olinda Young in 2014.
“This wonderful document, this scroll, is more than just a scroll as part of our collections and it’s even more than a part of Jewish worship. Even more than that, it is also an astonishing tale of faith, perseverance and survival that we can all learn from,” said John E. Ulmschneider, university librarian.
The Torah contains the first five books of the Jewish bible, beginning with the creation of the Earth in the book of Bereshit, also known as Genesis, and ending with the death of Moses and the arrival of the Jews to the promised land in the book of D’varim, or Deuteronomy.
“The Torah contains a great deal of wisdom, it contains a great deal of history, it contains beautiful stories, it contains wonder and mystery and those things are the special gift of the Jewish people, the Israelites who wrote this,” said Dr. David Weinfeld, visiting assistant professor of Judaic Studies in the School of World Studies, part of the College of Humanities and Sciences. “Because of all the different ways we can look at this artifact it doesn’t just belong to the Jewish people, it belongs to everyone. It belongs to students and scholars and to all of us as something that shaped our civilization.”
This particular scroll is a sefer Torah, meaning it was handwritten with a quill by a sofer, or scribe, who is specially trained to precisely duplicate the Torah. Depending on the scribe, this process can take months or even years to complete.
“If there is an error made that piece cannot be used. It can take as much as five minutes or more to write one letter because it has to be absolutely perfect. Once the word of god is written you cannot erase, and the whole section has to be buried like a human person,” said Jay Ipson, a Holocaust survivor and co-founder of the Virginia Holocaust Museum who assisted in the restoration of the Torah along with his partner, Dianna Gabey.
The Torah arrived at VCU in 52 separate sheets of parchment that needed to be sewn back together using thread from a kosher animal, meaning an animal that has split hooves, chews its cud, and was slaughtered in a precise ritualistic manner.
“We opened it up all the way from end to end for the first time in maybe 60 years and then with the same thread we wrapped it on the Etz Hayim, the tree of life,” said Ipson.
Ipson learned to fix the Torah by observing professional scribes who came to his synagogue, and Gabey used her experience as a curator at the Virginia Holocaust Museum to advise VCU on the materials they needed to display the text.
The Torah dedication was followed by the 32nd annual Brown-Lyons lecture entitled “Jews and Booze” by Marni Davis, Ph.D, associate professor of history at Georgia State University, on the history of American Jews’ relationship to the alcohol industry during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Davis’s talk focused on the ways that Jewish immigrants became ingrained in the alcohol trade and how the prohibition movement shaped American Jewish identity and mainstream perceptions of Jewishness.
“What has remained constant is that American Jews are seemingly never-endingly negotiating between maintaining difference and merging into the American mainstream,” Davis said. “The desire to be both part of the people and a people apart remains a constant in American Jewish life.”
With the addition of the Torah to their collection, VCU is now the 12th university library in the country to own a Holocaust surviving Torah. It is currently on display on the 4th floor of Cabell Library. It is available for research and for use by faculty and visits by classes.
Written by Megan Schiffres