I let it be known in the cyber-circles I frequent that I was in the market for a Torah. Start-up synagogue, fledgling, stressing excellence serious study of languages the deep story and good music, the kind of institution that will retain standards but never fashionable, we received a secret grant from two couldn’t-be-more-different quiet sources to purchase a Torah. The synagogue also teaches the healing arts to suffering individuals: addicts, alcoholics, those living in and around mental illness, prisoners in-and-out of jailhouses.
One gift came from the mother of a son struggling with at that time a crack cocaine habit, she had a little family money and quietly whispered in my ear: buy a Torah. Another source from a family clear-headed about values and without need for recognition, neither source cited then or now.
I received a message back through the Internet: We have a dozen Torahs. From my home town, pursuing the message a phone number in return (it was the era of beepers): call this number when in Detroit and we can arrange a meeting.
Such a connection in Detroit was not unknown to me and it was as good a lead as any. I went to Detroit.
In Detroit I punched in my number, a phone call returned, and a rendezvous arranged at a warehouse space in a small strip mall next to a discount carpet center.
I was met at the warehouse by a man with a beeper. The Torahs were from a synagogue near my boyhood home that I recognized, the symmetry of finding a Torah from a synagogue not a mile from where I grew up stirred something in me approximating trust.
Maybe it marked some sort of spiritual reconciliation with my past, that would be nice, but I don’t think so. The place I came from is far away, nothing like the place I landed. It was tugging at me to think-feel it through but I was on a mission and I had money in my pocket for one purpose: Torah. A legitimate Torah.
He opened the warehouse and took me into the back where there was a table full of Torahs. It was summer and a little close in the room but the room had high ceilings and the climate was right.
The strip mall location was the last stop of a synagogue that had been in decline for years. It was now time to close up.
At the warehouse, I eye-balled a table full of Torahs. I was drawn to one that needed some repair, the Torah staves were broken and the cover was seriously discolored. I opened it up anyway, and it unrolled to me with an unusual style of scribal art, unfamiliar to me, not too big, not too small, exceedingly clear and clean but different from the style of Torah scribal art I was familiar with.
It didn’t look like the borrowed Torah we had been using. But there was something beautiful, more Mizrachi (eastern) in the swirl, in the movement in the letters that I felt as I stared into this particular Torah, and somewhat intuitively I picked that one, the one that looked from first inspection a little funky with its broken wood and faded cover.
There were other Torahs that were larger, with script more like the common Torah scribal art that I was familiar with, wood intact, covers in better shape. They were also about a thousand dollars more than the smaller Torah I picked, with the uncommon scribal art, with the broken wood, the faded Torah cover. It wasn’t about the money.
I picked out that Torah, pinned my name to the cover, left a deposit, returned to St. Louis to gather the money. I sent the chazzan of the shul in Detroit a check, waited for shipment.
It came boxed up. When I opened it, I realized that I had not been in good light when I rolled through it in the back room of the warehouse in Detroit. Perhaps I just didn’t look closely enough the first time I saw it, but this time, under good natural light, the rare beauty of this particular Torah was overwhelming.
It was perfect, better than perfect, it was beautiful, the way the sefirah [one of the ten energies] of tiferet [beauty] is at the middle of the sefirotic diagram, the way all the paths of connectivity pass through tiferet, the way all roads pass through beauty. It read, by the way, on the faded Torah cover, tiferet Tzion [the beauty of Zion].
I put it back in the box and brought it to a ceremony we were holding that night [Slichot]. I unpacked it and unrolled it on the table and showed it to everyone at the synagogue. Again, I was dazzled by the beauty of this particular Torah, coming from Detroit, out of the same loam I arose.
One of the Torah staves that was broken crumbled into several more pieces in the handling of it, we sent the cover off to the cleaners, and I wondered how we were going to fix the wooden parts. I took the Torah home. The next day I rehearsed with the band, I attended a master class with an excellent guitarist from LA (he played before Segovia when Segovia was in his Nineties, it was like playing before Grandpa, he said, as long as you didn’t come on too haughty, then he took you down), I came home trying to imagine who could fix the Lotus Torah the Tiferet Torah this week and have it ready for Rosh Hashanah.
About six o’clock I went temporarily insane and drove over to Home Depot, bought a little attachment to go into a drill to sand a delicate piece of wood, some stain, shellac, came home and set about the fixing of the Torah myself.
Ordinarily I can’t fix much. I sanded it, glued it, sanded it again, stained it, shellacked it, found some nice chunky Yemenite looking beads to decorate the wood on Ebay, I think I fixed the Torah.
There is a principle in the midrash, that something you love changes your nature, (something you hate can also change your nature by the way), it changes you, what you think you are, your definition, your limitations I suppose. Love changes nature, it reads in the midrash.
Maybe that’s what happened.
A year later, one of my Aunties was visiting from Detroit. So you are in a new location? She asked me. Yes. Can I see it?
My work life had never been the focus of our relationship, though we are close, her request to see the synagogue surprised me.
I drove out there, showed her around, we had a small ark we had commissioned a nice carpenter across the river to build for us.
Do you have a Torah? My Auntie asked.
Yes, again surprised by the question, and I told her the story of the mystery purchase from our homeland.
Can I see it? More surprise. Sure.
I took out the Torah and opened it up, showing her the qualities of the scribal art I prized, and she looked at the end of one of the staves where there was writing, a place name, the date of its dedication, who the scroll was dedicated to, all details I had not paid much attention to.
Jimmy, she said, that’s the synagogue where your parents were married. I was there.
I then calculated the date from the Hebrew. It was the same year. One year before I was born.
My parents had been gone for over ten years. There was no one else to ask. She was the last person I know who had this information.
We stared at each other and at the Torah for a long time before we rolled it up and returned the scroll to its Ark.