Personal Stories of America at Work
Passover Special: How One Woman Makes her Mark on an Ancient Profession
Torah scribe Julie Seltzer rewrites her own career story
I do ritual Hebrew calligraphy. I just finished writing my first torah, which took fourteen months. The torah is the five books of Moses—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—which is the first part of the Hebrew Bible. Sometimes when people ask me what I do, I’m tempted to say, “I’m a writer. I’m just finishing up a book, historical fiction, lots of family drama . . .”
Can you make a mistake?
I was hired to write a torah as part of an exhibit for The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. There aren’t many women doing this work—in fact, there are only about ten female scribes in the world right now. It’s a fairly new phenomenon, and I think that helped me get hired for this position. Usually a scribe works alone all day, having little contact with the outside world. However, during the fourteen months it took to write the torah for the museum exhibit, I wrote part of it on display, in an exhibition room as museum visitors strolled by and observed me. I also conducted question-and-answer sessions about how a torah gets written. I was once asked, “Is this considered woman’s work, or are there also men who write torahs?” That was memorable!
There is a common misunderstanding that a scribe can’t make a mistake when writing a torah. That’s wrong—it just wouldn’t be practical. You scratch it out and then rewrite it. It’s a human endeavor, there are going to be mistakes. However, the torah must be carefully proofed, and errors must be fixed.
Learning the craft
I have studied Jewish texts most of my adult life. There was always something really magical to me about the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. When I was thirty-two and visiting Israel, I was walking down the street one day and, seemingly out of the blue, it came to me that I really wanted to learn how to write torah script. I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, I want to be a scribe,” or “I want to change my career.”
When I returned home to a Jewish retreat center in Connecticut where I worked as a baker, I went to an art store and bought a calligraphy pen. I didn’t even know how to put the pen together. For a couple months, I just practiced. I looked for a teacher to help me, and found Jen Taylor Friedman online. She is a scribe in New York City. I started to meet with her once a week. She showed me how to form the letters properly. I practiced, making a whole page of one letter and then a whole page of another letter. Over time she taught me the rules for doing this particular kind of writing, the ritual of it. It took about a year to develop basic proficiency.
Jen is my teacher, passing along the tradition. And that really is the way that this is taught. It is a craft as well as a body of knowledge and traditionally was passed down through a familial line (i.e., a father teaching his son). It’s a different line that is forming now, but it’s still a line.
Twists and turns of my twenties
In college, I majored in Theater Arts, and afterwards hopped around different careers like a lot of people in their 20s. I earned a living working in non-profits and Jewish education. My parents were always supportive of whatever I was doing, even if it seemed kind of “out there.” I worried that maybe I wouldn’t find something that fit, and felt the pressure and stress of the search. I hit thirty, let go, and realized that I wouldn’t necessarily find one thing. I decided to explore and relax a little, and that’s when the opening happened.
My mom was a teacher. She passed away almost three years ago. She taught English as a second language and was always interested in grammar and language. I didn’t grow up in a very traditional Jewish home. I had a Bat Mitzvah and went to synagogue on the major holidays, but we didn’t keep kosher or the Sabbath (I do now). My life has definitely shifted in that realm—now I’m very involved in Jewish community and Jewish life. I was just starting to learn to be a scribe when my mom was already quite ill, but she was able to see the beginnings of it, which I think brought her joy.
One thing led to another, and my teacher Jen introduced me to someone who was working on torah restoration and needed some help. I started working there once a week and then asked for a full-time job. I had the opportunity to work on restoration projects and learned a great deal about torahs and torah repair.
Every day, to prepare for my work as a scribe, I say a prayer called “Ana B’Koach” that is recommended for scribes to get into the right state of mind. I sit and slow things down a bit and prepare to focus. Then there are the technical aspects, like I haven’t used the quill since yesterday, so I need to check it and make sure that nothing happened to it overnight. I may have to re-cut it.
Every text must be written with sacred intention. Before you write the words, you must read them out loud. I take a lot of breaks because my hand needs a break, and so does my brain. It takes a lot of focus to copy the words properly and have the right intention while I am writing. I have my own associations and thoughts about the content as I write. There are the interpretations going on in my head, which are then layered with the interpretations of generations upon generations of others who have read this text. The text doesn’t change, but the way that we think about it does. The creative element happens in what people call “the white fire”—the parchment—the white space in between the letters.
Tools of the trade
All Jewish sacred writings need to be written on the skin of kosher animals. You’ll see writing on cow skin, deer skin, and goat skin. I wrote this torah on cow skin, which is most typical these days. I got the parchment from a store, and they got it from a factory that makes parchment. Some scribes make their own parchment. This is one way in which things have changed. It used to be much more individualized, and now it’s more standardized, and there are specializations for every aspect of the work. You have the experts making the ink and the experts making the parchment. There isn’t just one recipe for the ink. Some scribes make their own ink. I don’t because it’s very, very technical. The ink has to be black—the black comes from the gull nut of a walnut tree. It’s made through a very bizarre process involving a wasp . . .
You don’t have to write with a feather though most scribes these days do. The more ancient instrument was the reed. Plastic nibs have been developed too, but they’re not as good. They don’t stay sharp; they’re not stiff and strong. You have to sharpen your own quills. Every time you sharpen them, you cut off a little of the quill. You need to know how to re-cut it yourself. I sharpen mine every five to ten lines.
A great day, a harder day
This work is very meditative. It’s a practice with its ups and downs. A great day for me is when the parchment is taking everything really easily, smooth but not too smooth, and the quill is beautifully cut. The narrative is interesting—maybe there’s dialogue. The writing is going quickly, and I’m connecting with what I’m writing.
On a harder day, I’m spending an hour and a half or two hours trying to cut a good quill, and the parchment is really rough or really smooth, so it’s not taking well. I’m making mistakes. The ink is bleeding. Everything is taking longer than I think it should.
What scribes actually do hasn’t changed a lot in at least 1,500 years or longer. We’re still writing out the same words on a sheet of parchment with score lines on it. We’re not printing it out on a computer. It takes about the same amount of time. We still make statements of intention out loud. Elements have changed. Now there’s a computer program that can check a torah to see where the mistakes are. It doesn’t take the place of checking with the human eye, but I see it as a benefit to have that added step. Sometimes now, there is less of a connection between the scribe and the community that the scribe is writing for. A scribe doesn’t necessarily know all aspects of the craft. Even if we know the basic process, we may not be doing it all ourselves. Some of that is practical. I don’t think the neighbors in my apartment building would appreciate dead cow skins hanging about.
I don’t know that I’ll do this forever, but I do love it, and it feels very true to who I am. I’m really looking forward to teaching someone else the craft. Sometime soon, I hope that student will find me, and me her.
Related Posts: My Life Undercover Come Fly With Me in Space Organics Are My Life My Time In Limbo Living The Chinchilla Life It’s Candy All Day Long Etc...
The Working Chronicles
The Working Chronicles captures an intimate look at work in 21st century America through candid interviews with people from all walks of life and all corners of the country.
Have a story about changing careers? We want to hear from you!
For a short time we are accepting submissions from readers and will publish the top stories on our blog and possibly include in a book.
We'll accept an autobiographical story or interview with someone else--check out the Submission Guidelines.