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Ukraine: Scribe Teaches Ancient Art Of Torah Restoration

By Tiffany Carlsen

Kyiv, 20 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- "You make one thick line at the top. Another thick line at the bottom, but this time a bit longer..." The students watched intently as Vivian Solomon used a calligraphy pen to draw the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet on a white board. "You connect the two lines with a thin line and there you have it ... a Bet," he said. "Now you try it."

Appearances to the contrary, Solomon is a repairman, not a teacher. The eleven students sitting through the calligraphy lesson are learning to fix sacred Torah scrolls damaged by seven decades of neglect. "Fantastic!" cried Solomon after he saw their efforts. "You kids are great. ... We have natural-born sofers in this room."

And sofers, or "scribes," is just what Ukraine's Jewish community needs, said Rabbi David Wilfond, leader of the Ha-Tikva ("Hope") Reform Judaism congregation in Kyiv. "You are being trained by a sofer to restore this Torah for your community and all Jewish communities in Ukraine," Wilfond told the students as they watched Solomon unroll the scroll.

The Torah is each Jewish community's most precious possession, a direct link between modern believers and Moses. The five volumes describe the Jewish nation's birth, its exodus from Egypt and the 40 years of exile in the desert. "The Torah is the source of all Jewish customs and tradition," said Wilfond. "All of Jewish life is an interpretation of the Torah."

Yet, as Jewish life in Ukraine crumbled under the double-barreled assault of Soviet religious persecution and anti-Semitism, the local Torahs ended up in glass cases alongside confiscated Orthodox icons.

"Most of these students had never seen a Torah before they came here," Wilfond said. "There was only one student who saw the Torah, and that was when he visited the Museum of Atheism in St. Petersburg." Now that synagogues are once more crowded with worshippers, there is a shortage of specialists capable of maintaining and restoring the Torahs they are now recovering.

Enter Solomon, a 75-year-old Briton of Indian descent, who learned to repair Torahs eight years ago, after retiring from his career as an engineer. His normal service area is London, but he came to Kyiv last week at Wilfond's request to tutor ten students from Ukraine and one from Belarus.

"I was mentally exhausted afterwards," said Solomon. "I gave them all I had and they asked for more. I've never been with a crowd like this. They are so keen to learn. And I'm so keen to impart information. We worked well together."

The job of Torah repair combines science, art and ritual. Thus, the task of restoring words rubbed off by thousands of fingers that have traced them piously over the years requires piety and patience of their own. The young students watched intently as the old sofer showed them how to replace faded text with letters of proper width and sections with the right number of lines. He told them which ceremonial blessings must precede their work, the way words written in a Torah scroll must first be spoken out loud, and how they must purify themselves before writing the name of God. He also showed them how to repair a damaged Torah made entirely from organic products. Pages made from kosher animal hides, inscribed with ink produced from gall nuts using a feathered quill and tied with string made from the tendon of a kosher animal's thigh demand great skill.

"It is called a living thing," said Wilfond of the Torah. "All of it is for the sake of life -- a righteous, good life." Wilfond is an American Reform rabbi, trying to make inroads for his liberal branch of Judaism in Ukraine. He runs the Institute for Modern Jewish Studies, a school that is training ten young Jews from Ukraine's 16 Reform congregations the basics of Hebrew literacy and Jewish ritual. "The Torahs are slowly being returned to the Jewish community and now Jews are learning how to read them and take care of them," he said. "What these students are doing is very brave. There is no advantage to being Jewish here."

Natasha Martyushova, a student from Kirovograd, was grateful for Solomon's lessons. "It is my first time seeing a sofer -- it is rather symbolic," she said. "It is important and interesting, especially for us, because some of us will be able to repair Torahs in the future." According to Wilfond, there are only about 100 sofers in the world, and only a handful, like Solomon, who can do Torah repairs. "People do this solely to serve," Wilfond said.

For Solomon, Torah repair is now the only calling. "I love imparting knowledge," he said. "I've gained so much in the last eight years. When I die, it dies with me. I want to impart that to others before I go."