Who has the right to ritual? That’s a question my entire life is asking. Does someone who keeps kosher and the Sabbath have more of a claim on defining what is or is not Jewish than I do? Or is it enough that my bones hum with Jewish identity? Is it enough that when I was ten years old and caught a high fly ball to centerfield I thought, “Hmmm, I wonder what it would feel like to catch this ball if I wasn’t Jewish?”
The novel I am writing is filled with Jewish characters living complex lives that are both in harmony and in opposition to tradition.
In that sense, my characters are living out lives that are not all that different from others in the mid-1700s. Jewish life was changing. Recently passed laws limited land ownership and access to professions. Hasidism was on the rise. It was manifesting in diverse manners: from rule bound to mystical to imitations of royal courts. There was an explosion of new tradition and new myth-making. There was also opposition to the new ways of expressing Jewishness. Identities were formed as a result of the opposition.
What a time. Not so different from now. Just take a look at all the ways that expression of Jewish identity is taking. It’s an exciting time to be a member of the tribe.
Writing this book, I became curious about the history of women scribes in the Jewish tradition. Women certainly copied many texts and worked on marriage certificate. The notion that a trans man might have written a Torah at some point is not out of the question. But it’s only recently that women have begun writing Torahs. There are not many of them. In this article on Tablet, Marjorie Ingall writes about “the women of the deerskin:” a small group of women who are now writing Torahs. My favorite part of the article was when one of the women described how she sourced her own hides for the parchment:
She explained how she avoided the problems other women had in getting klaf, parchment, and supplies, which religious vendors wouldn’t sell to women. She didn’t want to send a male emissary to buy for her like the other women did; to her, it felt like starting a spiritual project on a note of inauthenticity. So she decided to tap the huge number of hunters who live near her to get skins so she could teach herself to make her own klaf. (My jaw was on the floor at this point.) “During deer season, bucks are plentiful, and where I live, everyone’s a hunter,” she said. “Skins are worthless; they just throw them in the woods. So, I put out the word that I wanted skins and I got so many. I’m impressed with the ethos of hunters; they don’t want anything to go to waste. I get all the hides I could want. I just throw them in the chest freezer in my garage and process them over the following year. That was after my kids were all, ‘Mom! You are not allowed to hang hides in the laundry room!’ ” She added serenely, “Hides do smell terrible.” *
The requirement for a hide used for the Torah is that it come from a kosher animal, not that it be ritually slaughtered. Dozens of hides are needed to create just one Torah. And kosher hunting is quite a challenge given the fact that the animal, hunted or not, needs to be ritually slaughtered in order for the meat to be considered kosher. This may account for the paucity of hunters in the Bible. There are just two: Jacob’s brother Esau and Nimrod who was a “mighty hunter…”
I’m learning all this because one of my characters is a time traveling hunter who provides hides for the writing of a Torah. Imagine a 21st century person going back to a time when the Holocaust is not a defining feature of Jewish life. That’s why she’s there, to observe a relatively peaceful time for Europe’s Jewish population, even in a time of upheaval and change.
That’s why I’m there too. Writing this book is as much an exploration of possibility as it is of plot. It’s a ritual. It’s a call to our ancestors. It’s a lost path.
Just to prove I think about ritual quite often: Who Has the Right to Ritual
Here’s an interview with Julie Seltzer who is a scribe (sofer) and has created a Torah for the Contemporary Jewish Museum:
Speaking of podcasts, cousin Jacob Siegel hosts a podcast with Phil Klay called Manifesto. I always feel the need to talk more about the ideas they discuss. Start anywhere: Manifesto
This past week I listened to an engaging episode of Jewish History Matters with David Biale, the co-author of Hasidism: A New History. I can’t wait to read the book in case anyone wants to buy me a gift.
My partner Kamran Ashtary has been studying the Holocaust for the past nine years. Yes, he *is* a lot of fun at parties ;-). The artwork he is creating as a result is breathtaking. Please check it out: kamranashtary.com