The ProsenPeople

Naomi, Ruth, and the South

Friday, August 08, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Lenore Weiss wrote about Rabbi Levi Selwyn and Torah "Koshering" and asked Rabbi Selwyn a few question about the process. Her most recent collection,Two Places, is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

When I moved to Sterlington, Louisiana, the first question any person meeting me asked was, why did I move from California? After a certain time had passed, I began to ask that same question. The immediate answer was obvious: I had packed up my books and bags because I had fallen deeply in love and believed my mate and I could make a life together. I continue to believe that, but I’m not sure you can remove a city girl from everything she knows. Maybe I had to give up too much. It wasn’t a slam-dunk decision either. It had taken me two years to decide to move south. My friends and family watched me agonize: to move or not to move? It’s true. I’ve always had difficulty making transitions. During my elementary school years, just starting a new grade fanned me into nausea and cold sweats. So why should I expect this move to be any different?

I reflect upon Ruth and Naomi. While there isn’t a real parallel here, there are enough—both my mate and I met after we had already been seasoned by difficult marriages, enough to recognize our heart’s desire. But at issue is the question of devoted loyalty. After Naomi entreats Ruth to return to her own family in Bethlehem, Ruth tells her, “entreat me not to leave thee [or] to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge…”

I’ve often wondered what allowed Ruth to make that unequivocal declaration. Was it devotion to her deceased husband, Mahlon that allowed her to stand by her mother-in-law? Did she not wish to return to an unsupportive family where she knew she would languish and die? Or was she just young, wanting to see more of the world and knew she could do that at Naomi’s side? Whatever the reason, she did. Maybe she didn’t even have to think about it.

Which leads me to my own question. Can I love without nurturing who I am, and leave behind the multitude of flowers that the butterfly of my soul needs to drink? There’s always a chance I will discover something I never could imagine on the threshing floor of life by remaining at the side of a person who brings me joy.

Maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way—maybe there’s a chance of creating a new amalgam. Because when it comes down to it, I’m not sure if G-d placed me south so I could confront myself and my writing without the distractions of city life—something I could put off doing as long as there was somewhere else to go. Or maybe this was not meant to be a long-term assignment.

Or just maybe I need a new Bible story.

I drove to the mall today, not one of my favorite pastimes. I wanted to be around people and didn’t know what else to do with myself.

I hear my girlfriends talking in my head.

Read more of Lenore Weiss's work here.

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Torah Koshering: Take Two

Wednesday, August 06, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Lenore Weiss wrote about Rabbi Levi Selwyn and Torah "Koshering." Her most recent collection, Two Places, is now available. She is blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I was moved by Rabbi Selwyn’s explanation of Torah “Koshering” at Temple B’nai Israel in Monroe, Louisiana, and followed up with several questions.

 

Lenore Weiss: It must be a wondrous experience to repair the living words of the Torah. I see you as a “computer tech” who knows how the system operates and fits together. You understand the entire “motherboard,” working to repair parchment, letters, whatever the Torah asks of you.

Rabbi Levi Selwyn: That's a great analogy. Physically—yes. However the depth to the meaning of the Torah is infinite, so that’s a work in progress.

LW: I’m wondering how you approach each Torah, unscrolling the parchment for that first time to evaluate what it needs. Does the scroll speak to you in some way?

RLS: When I get to a place I am always excited to see what this Torah is going to have for me that day. Many times I open up the Torah I gasp—oh, I love this Torah, and that is usually when the script of the Torah is beautiful. Some of the very old Torahs have such beautiful writing. As I look through the Torahs I really take notice of all the details from the type of parchment to the stitching at the back of it and the re-enforced parchment behind the stitching. I browse through and try to notice how the letters are holding up and what they might need to keep them from deteriorating and by the time I get to the end or rather the beginning—I feel like I know this Torah and I am ready to repair it and make it good and Kosher.

LW: How does it feel to be the conservator of these scrolls?

RLS: I know that before I leave a Torah, it has to be in the best shape possible and that all my repairs must be done according to the laws of Safrut. It takes many hours of concentrated work. When I’m back on the plane I go through my head many times to be sure that I did not leave anything out.

LW: How many states/synagogues have you helped in this way?

RLS: I've been to about ten states and many congregations in each state. I couldn't give you a precise number unless I beat through my calendar. However, between us here at Sofer On Site, we have probably done the entire states a few times over and in a few countries.

Read more of Lenore Weiss's work here.

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A Job for a Sofer

Monday, August 04, 2014 | Permalink

Lenore Weiss's most recent collection,Two Places, is now available. She is blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

With a ready smile, Rabbi Levi Selwyn stood behind a Torah that is spread open on a long bridge table at Temple B’nai Israel in Monroe, Louisiana. Congregants and community members faced him on the opposite side of the table as he discussed the repair of two Torahs belonging to this northeastern Louisiana synagogue of approximately seventy-five families.

A member of Sofer On Site based in Miami, Florida, Rabbi Selwyn was born in London and has served as director of youth programs in the United States and as the Chief Rabbi of the Newtown Synagogue in Sydney, Australia.

He explained how he “Koshers” Torah scrolls—it’s not unusual for scrolls to have traveled across climates and borders to reach their current homes, he said. Some can be more than a hundred years old. Scrolls can be neglected; especially if a congregation is lucky enough to have several Torahs, but reserve a few for special occasions. Over time, parchment can deteriorate, become hardened, discolored, and letters can crack. That’s a job for Rabbi Selwyn who evaluates the condition of each Torah and takes his cues from there.

The basic Torah repair kit consists of parchment (cowhide), ink, and sinews that are used to sew together each section. Suppliers sell these specialized materials and are based in Miami and Israel. Inks are of a certain consistency; their mixture can include iron sulfate, gum Arabic and sometimes honey. Like a secret sauce, approximately four to five families hold the recipe and have been providing these inks for generations. As prescribed by the Torah, the color must be black.

Rabbi Selwyn brought along a collection of quills that he uses to repair the letters, white feathers from domesticated turkeys (they tend to be larger), and also chicken feathers. Each quill is cut by hand to absorb enough (but not too much) ink, allowing the sofer (scribe) to form Hebrew letters, and match them to the original Torah. Rabbi Selwyn explained how Torahs employ different styles of writing, which include Beit Yosef, often used by Ashkenazi communities, AriZal, Kabbalist in its origin, and Vellish, often used by Sephardic communities.

Frequently, a sofer will need to scrape the parchment to allow for letters to be rewritten or reformed correctly. Older Torahs, he explained, are glazed on their unwritten side. As a result, material can rub off onto the letters. For this purpose, he keeps a high polymer eraser handy and an Exacto knife for scraping parchment. Elmer’s glue also plays a role, especially when a sofer needs to cut and paste an entire word or section. Rabbi Selwyn shares that once he found a tic-tac-toe board written in the margins of a Torah. Of course, it had to be scraped.

There are thousands of laws governing the scraping and writing and about everything else concerning the repair of Torah. A certain amount of white space must surround each letter. Letters are repaired based upon the ability of the reader to see them from an appropriate distance, although a magnifying glass may be employed to reform the writing of YWVH’s name. Four empty lines separate each book, and in case you’re wondering, the Torah contains a total of 304,805 letters, letters that originally spoke everything into existence in white and black flames.

Read more of Lenore Weiss's work here.

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Spinoza, My Significant Other, and Baking Soda

Friday, October 05, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Lenore Weiss wrote about a postcard she received, her "still, small voice", and her decision to move from Oakland, California to Monroe, Louisiana. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I was reading a book about Spinoza this evening and had a thought about my significant other and baking soda. You see, he stashes boxes of baking soda everywhere, in the refrigerator, in the cat’s kitty litter, in the bathroom cabinet, plus, stored in the ordinary place for baking soda, next to the baking powder on the shelf with the flour and sugar, waiting until they are called upon to replenish others.

Why, does he do this, I ask, not to be critical or to suggest some other methodology, only to be curious. Why does one household require so many identical boxes of baking soda?

He looks at me and says, “They are cheap enough. And I need them.”

We are long past any friction regarding wayward toothpaste caps or discussions about which way the toilet paper is supposed to roll. In no way, do I wish to cause a brou-ha-ha about baking soda. But maybe, if I were to be totally honest, maybe I had other motives.

I think the ghost of his mother lives here. I know that sounds very B movie-ish, but I don’t consider it a bad thing, I simply recognize her presence. We are living in his mother’s house, a lovely woman whom I met twice before she passed away. I have been given clearance to do what I will with rearranging and redecorating, but it takes time for me to settle into a place.

I see his mother in the curtains neatly piled on closet shelves for different times of the year, an array of colors to allow her and the house to change with the seasons. I recognize her practicality in the kitchen with the coffee and measuring cups within easy reach. I see her understated love of nature with pictures she has placed on her walls, scenes of flowers and birds. Mostly, I understand the choices of a woman who once she had the option to build her own house, decided on the best she could afford, thick rugs, lots of storage space, and a garden filled with the iris and zinnia.

The logical systems she organized during her lifetime are still in place, including her appreciation of baking soda that has been passed along to her son.

I also see a small gift that I gave her in the front of a display cabinet that contains her prized doll collection, and I thank her for everything she had put into place to help us to build our lives together.

We start now.

Visit Lenore Weiss's website here.

How Long Did He Stand Alone?

Thursday, October 04, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Lenore Weiss wrote about her "still, small voice" and her decision to move from Oakland, California to Monroe, Louisiana. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I received a postcard today from a K. Satterfield in Berkeley, California with a picture of an elk cut and pasted from what looks like a magazine with a hand-written entry, “How long did he stand alone on Pike’s Road, due center, branched horns curling north?” I’m not sure I know the answer to the question, but I did wonder about it, admiring the red and yellow triangles pasted on the back of the card. K. Satterfield took care in sending this message, part of a weekly exchange amongst a list of poets. 


The elk stands poised on the center of the highway. The edges of either lane appear hem-stitched in white. The road is empty. Not a car in sight. Why is the elk on Pike’s Road and what is it waiting for?

I am also waiting. Rain is coming from the northeast, rolling slowly into the parish. Birds hearing the same thing, call out to each other, anticipating a downpour as the skies begin to light. And crackle. The storm cannot be far away. It gets humid just when everything should be cooling down. The sky is dark and ponderous. Cars make their way to work. It’s Friday and everything can use a good soaking after a week’s worth of triple digits. One yellow leaf floats to the ground, then another. A breeze lifts the fronds of the ferns on the porch; mailboxes stand at attention. The Southern Oak across the street stretches its limbs. Suddenly everything gets quiet. Leaves rustle. Thunder marches closer. Lightning streaks the sky. Cassie, the cat, jumps into a rocking chair and sits next to me on the porch. Then she decides to stalk the marigolds and chews a blade of grass. I have been sitting here for more than an hour and I’m growing impatient. I hear signs and sounds of rain, but Mother Nature doesn’t deliver.

Isn’t that the way it is, the long wait for some new creative force that comes out of nowhere but was always there in the first place?

The elk and I are kin.

This evening I attended services at Temple B’nai Israel in Monroe, Louisiana. The rabbi noted that the birthday of Edna Ferber, author and writer of “Showboat,” had just passed. Her motto, he said, was “seize the day.” Somewhere between waiting and seizing, that’s where I must go.
 

Check back tomorrow for more from Lenore Weiss.

A Still, Small Voice

Wednesday, October 03, 2012 | Permalink

Yesterday, Lenore Weiss wrote about her decision to move from Oakland, California to Monroe, Louisiana. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

As I write this post in August, I’m aware that the High Holy days are approaching. I recall the teachings of the rabbis at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, California where I’ve been a member. I’m wondering about that “still small voice” that resides somewhere inside me. Where is it, maybe hiding in my throat, balanced on my vocal chords and waiting to speak, embedded in an artery at some juncture between my heart and my foot, or in both places?

I know. Not likely.

The thing I loved about living in the in Bay Area all these years with its confabulation of marvelous music (Yoshi's in Oakland for superb jazz), techies galore (try Tech Liminal for expert help in getting your WordPress on), food (wonderful restaurants everywhere and note to reader, I miss baguettes slathered in creamy butter), museums (Jewish Museum, Oakland Art Murmur for a museum of the streets), incredible vistas (drive along Highway 1 to Bolinas), and a list that could fill up the remainder of this blog post, is also the thing that wore me out. With the constant availability of physical and intellectual riches and feeling like I could never miss an event, I found it difficult to know my own priorities. I guess I had a classic case of burn out.

The Bay Area with its swirling diversity of all things made possible, also made it difficult to hear my still small voice, especially at a time when my muse was advising me to dig into new territory. With a greater maturity that age and experience brings, I felt ready to begin that exploration, much like the way Rabbi Isaac Luria and his followers advised that a person only study Kabbalah after developing some serious life chops.

Can I hear my voice more clearly in Monroe, Louisiana where my own true love resides, where I enjoy daily bike rides around Bayou Bartholomew and watching the neighborhood kids stride across the bayou ditch, hunters in search of small prey?

I’m told that to skin a squirrel, you must nail its head to a tree, slit it up and down its middle and pull off its fur.

There’s something reassuring about the specificity of those directions. 

Check back all week for more from Lenore Weiss.

Love is the Answer

Tuesday, October 02, 2012 | Permalink

Lenore Weiss's most recent collection, Cutting Down the Last Tree on Easter Island, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I’m in the process of relocating to Monroe, Louisiana from Oakland, California. Love is the reason and answer.

Most of my friends who live in California where I’ve resided for the past 20 or so years can only relate to New Orleans—thank you Gulf Oil Spill, Hurricane Katrina, and also Louis Armstrong.

Monroe is about four and a half hours away from New Orleans, located in the northeast corner of the state. When I explain this to my friends, they respond with a clouded look of pity.

I wonder to myself, "Can I move to the south from Oakland, California, a city that is smack dab in the middle of the flourishing Bay Area where almost anything is possible to a place where there are no direct flights from or to anywhere and frankly, where I feel like I'm a converso amid blocks and blocks of Baptist churches, where I’m always sweating in 95 degree plus summer heat?"

Okay. You got the drift. So back in the Bay, I was working in high-tech. A specialized niche as a writer. Now what, I ask myself, recently returned from a writing workshop in Istanbul where I attended Shabbos services at an Orthodox Sephardic synagogue, Neve Shalom. The synagogue was bombed twice, the last time being on November 15, 2003. The bombing turned the synagogue into ruins and killed many people. Since then, the building has been restored. Security is tight. I had to submit a copy of my passport several days in advance to be admitted.

The once active community surrounding the synagogue, located near the Galata Tower in the Beyoglu District of Istanbul, has dispersed. Services are held only on Shabbat mornings, special holidays, or occasionally rented out for weddings.

Mel Kenne, a poet and expatriate who translates many outstanding Turkish poets and who lives near the Galata Tower, told me that he often hears Jewish neighbors speaking Spanish. So it seems that all congregants living in the area have not completely moved away.

When I left the synagogue after Kiddush, an accordion player stepped out on the cobblestone streets and started to play Tumbalalaika, a well-loved Ashkenazi tune. Istanbul is a mélange of languages, cultures, and civilizations. When I was there, I wrote a poem entitled, “Faith Has No Name.”

So what am I going to do in Monroe? I don’t want to be a cashier or a security guard, job posts that frequently appear on indeed.com. There’s a different economic basis here, a back and forth between environmental cleanup and ongoing pollution thanks to companies like Dow Chemical, Georgia Pacific, and refineries that form the underpinnings of Baton Rouge. Maybe after years of being a single mom and raising a family, I could dedicate myself to writing fulltime…I mull the thought over and it mulls well.

Check back all week for more from Lenore Weiss.