In a dimly lit alcove on the second floor of San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, a young woman has spent the last year performing a task for which the process has barely changed since about 500 A.D.
Five and a half centuries after the printing press was invented and decades after word processors came to dominate offices, 35-year-old Julie Seltzer is nearing completion of one of the few handwritten ritual Torah scrolls ever to be commissioned from a woman.
Seltzer’s work is the centerpiece of “As It is Written,” a museum exhibit that gives patrons an intimate experience with the 62 sheets, 248 columns, 10,416 lines, and 304,805 letters of the ritual, or Sifrei, Torah.
The museum estimates that more than 86,000 visitors have watched Seltzer deliberately form the letters of the Sifrei Torah with hand-made turkey quills and kosher ink. She writes on parchment made of cow hide and sharpens the quills every five lines or so.
Jews call themselves the People of the Book, and that book is the Torah. It’s comprised of the five the books of Moses, which are also the first five books of the Old Testament in the Bible.
Printed copies of the Torah are used for study, but only a Torah scroll written by a trained scribe, or sofer, is permitted for holidays and other ritual use.
Seltzer is a female scribe, or soferet, and while Jewish law traditionally permits women to write wedding contracts and do decorative work on scriptures, the Talmud, an important 6th Century Jewish text, specifically says Torahs written by women are not kosher.
Museum Director Connie Wolf decided she wanted to hire a woman anyway.
“It just felt right,” she said, because the Contemporary Jewish Museum strives to present topics in relevant and innovative ways.
Wolf wanted the exhibit to challenge the popular image of a bearded, bespectacled man being the keeper and transmitter of Jewish tradition.
“To see a younger woman makes you stop and rethink,” she said. “That’s exactly what I want. (The Torah) is not a historical but a living document. When you see Julie you can’t help but think it’s living.”
Many visitors think rabbis write or oversee the production of sacred documents, but a scribe is trained separately from a rabbi, Seltzer said.
She said she was walking in Jerusalem three years ago when she was suddenly struck by a desire to learn Hebrew calligraphy. She already loved to study Jewish texts and wanted to learn not just the meaning of the words but the meaning of the letters, she said.
She was working as a baker at a Jewish retreat center in Connecticut when she started reading a sofer’s website and buying calligraphy pens at an art store.
After a few months of practice, she got in touch with Jen Taylor Friedman, the only woman known to have written a Sifrei Torah in modern times. She began meeting with Friedman once a week to learn not just the mechanics of writing but the religious laws as well.
Although some men train at schools for scribes and are certified by international organizations, such groups are not open to women, Seltzer said. According to Talmudic law, women aren’t even allowed to buy the parchment for a ritual Torah. Seltzer bought the parchment for the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s Torah herself but didn’t tell the storeowners what it would be used for – and they didn’t ask.
She declines to name the store because she doesn’t want it to suffer any repercussions as a result her purchase.
Under Friedman, Seltzer first helped restore a Torah and got to write several passages. She then wrote some mezuzot – prayers that hang in Jewish doorways – and a Song of Songs scroll. Eventually she became involved with a Torah project in Seattle in which six women wrote different parts of the text.
The one she is writing for the Contemporary Jewish Museum will be Seltzer’s first entire Sifrei Torah. She expects to be finished writing by January and said the project, which began in October of 2009, has been like a marathon. She writes for five or six hours each day, five days per week.
“It’s probably like any other long process that you do day in and day out,” she said.
“There are hills and valleys. Some days I feel more connected to the text, others not. You hit a wall.”
Her writing has improved over the past year, she said, although even the early pages look perfect to an untrained eye. The letters are small and uniform. The strokes are so clean and the taggin – decorative crowns found on seven letters of the Hebrew alphabet – are so tiny that the writing looks more like typeface than calligraphy at first glance.
Most of the scribe’s rules are taken from a lengthy essay in the Talmud, which stipulates that each letter must be written with intent.
Every letter must be completely surrounded by blank parchment, meaning no letter can touch another letter or the edge of the page, and the writing on each line must start and end in the margin.
The scribe cannot write from memory, so Seltzer uses photocopied sheets that include notes such as which letters should be slightly larger or which lines have relatively few words.
When she makes a mistake, Seltzer must scrape off the entire letter and adjust the parchment color with a piece of chalk before rewriting the symbol.
More than anything else, it’s the intent that makes writing the Torah so mentally demanding, Seltzer said. Still, she said she’s excited to go to work every day.
“It’s meditative and tangible,” she explained.
Finding a way to open the process up to the public while still allowing Seltzer to concentrate was one of the main challenges of the exhibit, Wolf said.
Eventually they found the solution was to have very specific hours when Seltzer would be writing versus engaging with the museum- goers and answering questions.
She spent about a year writing in the museum but is now working from home to finish the project on time. She’s more than five-sixths of the way through.
Seltzer said she was particularly struck by passages dealing with the Shema prayer, which is said in the morning, evening, and before death.
“It’s very powerful to see the source for all these lines that have become second nature to a lot of people,” she said. “To be able to write those words connects me to tradition. I didn’t think I’d play favorites (with the passages), but I do.”
Although she said she feels more comfortable and more confident writing than she did a year ago, Seltzer said the experience has, as much as anything, taught her how much more there is to learn about her craft.
Several of Seltzer’s finished pages are on display at the museum but must be covered when they’re not being read. Even an incomplete Torah is sacred–as are the tools used to create it.
Her used quills and other materials will be buried in special boxes.
“I’m so excited,” she said at the thought of her finished Torah. “It’s only very recently I’m in synagogue and the Torah is walked around and I realize there’s going to be another and it’s going to be used.”
Seltzer said she’s aware that some communities, particularly Orthodox ones, will consider her Torah invalid, but she focuses more on the congregations that would be excited to have it.
Still, she said, the closer she comes to finishing the Torah, the more she realizes she might have to deal with the reality that some of the communities she’s a part of wouldn’t consider it kosher.
She doesn’t, however, feel the need to justify writing the Torah in the context of Jewish law.
“I believe in a basic egalitarian approach to Jewish practice,” she said. “It doesn’t feel wrong to me, and I don’t feel a need to justify it in a Jewish framework, but I can see why others would.”
One of the pioneering “others” was Friedman, who has published an analysis of women and the Sifrei Torah on her website.
Friedman’s study paved the way for women like Seltzer, according to Wolf, the museum’s director. The two approaches need to coexist, she said.
Seltzer said she hopes a Torah written by a woman will inspire girls to identify with Judaism and feel more connected to the text. The exhibit has brought some visitors to tears.
“I’ve had an 85-year-old woman come to me and say, ‘I couldn’t learn Hebrew because I was a girl. I never thought I’d see anything like this,'” she said.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Seltzer conducted a Q&A at the museum with a crowd of about 30 people. Although she does the writing at home now, she presents her work and talks to museum visitors twice each week.
Torahs last a long time, she pointed out when asked about the possibility of her scroll being rejected as unfit. Maybe someday her Torah will be universally considered kosher, she said.
Once the text is finished in January, the pages will be proofread and bound. They must be sewn together with thread made from the hide of a kosher animal.
An artist is being commissioned to create a cover, and in March, a celebration of the new Torah will be held, Wolf said. The museum will lend the Torah out to communities in need of it.
Like a true marathoner, Seltzer is already eying her next Torah project.
“The second time I hope to have a deeper connection to the teachings around the text,” she said. “The first time is more about the mechanical aspects.”
Photo: The scribe, 35-year-old Julie Seltzer, conducts a Q&A with museum visitors. Photos by Janna Brancolini, Bay City News Service
Janna Brancolini, Bay City News