This article appeared in the Pioneer Press this morning. I must thank Steve Scott, the paper's religion editor, & Craig Bork, the photographer, for their excellent work.
Little kids were coming up to me today at services & saying, "hey - HEY! I saw you in the paper this morning!" They were so cute. Since when do small children read the Saturday morning news? I spoke last night before Shabat dinner, just toward the end of services, to about 300 people (so I'm told). They were really good about my not using a microphone on Shabbat, & thank G@d I think I reached most everyone.
I've been staying with Rabbi & Mrs Konigsburg & I just adore them! They've been so kind. & as an extra blessing, they only live about a block from the synagogue, which makes all the difference in the world to me. This West Coast girl gets cold easily.
I did a little show & tell today with part of the Hebrew school & then later spoke on some letter-midrash. All in all, my patrons, students & audience have been very enthusiastic. People are very sweet in the Midwest, ken ayina hora.
& tonight after Shabbes I had the great honour of going to Rabbi & Mrs Raskas' home for dinner. They were really lovely hosts with a very sharp Judaism. I like them. We drank rye - which they call "VO" for some reason - neat & talked Jewy-feminist-Halakhah. They both have some great stories to share. He went to school with such luminaries as R' Harold Shulweiss & apparently "used to hang out with Kaplan". & no, not this Kaplan. THIS Kaplan.
I left with a fleece kippah embroidered with "Go Vikings!" in Hebrew...
Torah scribe has followed sacred calling to the letter
'Soferet' to help Temple of Aaron congregants fulfill commandment
BY STEVE SCOTT
The writing was on the wall when she saw "Fiddler on the Roof" as a 3-year-old.
Mesmerized by the Hebrew letters she saw in the movie, Avielah Barclay sensed a sacred calling that would not let her go, until decades later she became the only female Torah scribe in all of Judaism.
In a St. Paul synagogue this weekend, she will do what no Jewish woman before her has done for at least 250 years: inscribe letters in a Torah scroll, one of the holiest acts of Judaism.
"The Torah is the heart and soul of what the synagogue is all about,'' said Rabbi Randall Konigsburg of Temple of Aaron, celebrating its 50th year in its synagogue on Mississippi River Boulevard. "So our congregation is very excited about having her here."
They're not the least bit opposed, either, to having a female scribe — a soferet — put quill to scroll.
That hasn't been a universal response. Barclay, an Orthodox Jew from Vancouver, British Columbia, has been accused of heresy.
"Oh, yeah, but that's boring,'' she said. "People send me e-mails saying, 'You're going to burn in hell.'
"It's perfectly fine for people not to accept this, but I would rather people would engage in intellectual discussion with me.''
There will be plenty of that during Barclay's visit to Temple of Aaron this weekend. The highlight is Sunday, when she will help several hundred congregants fulfill a Jewish commandment by writing a letter in the Torah.
"That's a lot of letters to be written all at once in one day,'' said Barclay, 38.
Her apprenticeship as a scribe was more laborious — and painful.
She was a gemologist 15 years ago when a bicycle accident derailed her career. Her writing hand was crushed against her handlebars.
"I'm bionic now,'' she said, alluding to the pins and screws that keep her hand together.
A long period of recovery prompted a soul search that harked back to the movie house of her childhood.
"My dad used to manage movie theaters, and I would go with him during the day while my mom worked,'' Barclay said. "I must have seen 'Fiddler' a hundred times.
"When I saw the Hebrew letters, I very much had a sense they were sacred, even though I was only 3 or 4 years old. That followed me through my childhood.''
What followed was another long search: to find a mentor who would teach her the methodical and intricate craft of writing Torah.
Barclay couldn't find a sofer willing to risk his reputation by teaching a woman.
"They discussed it in the Talmud, whether a woman could write a Torah,'' said Rabbi Emeritus Bernard Raskas, who saw a magazine article about Barclay that prompted him to encourage Temple of Aaron to invite her to St. Paul.
"It's inconclusive. They don't rule either way. It's just a discussion. But I think the men just didn't want any women writing, that's all.''
Barclay nearly gave up.
"Until I got this e-mail one day,'' she said. "I wasn't going to open it. I thought it was from a Jewish dating service. But I looked at it, and it was from a sofer in Jerusalem.
"He said, 'I like your Web site. But I thought your calligraphy could use some work.' "
He agreed to teach her calligraphy. It took several years, and careful research by her home rabbi in Vancouver, to persuade the Jerusalem sofer to help Barclay complete a full apprenticeship as a soferet.
Since being certified three years ago, she has helped other synagogues complete a Siyum Sefer Torah, the restoration project like the one at Temple of Aaron this weekend. She has written the Book of Esther for congregations to use during Purim. And she is negotiating with some West Coast congregations to write an entire Torah, a process that can take up to two years.
Barclay also has discovered as many as 10 other women who were Torah scribes, but none more recent than the 18th century.
"I guess every 250 years, we've got to try to get another one,'' Konigsburg said.
Steve Scott may be reached at 651-228-5526 or sscott@pioneer press.com.
If you go
Avielah Barclay, Judaism's only female Torah scribe, will give a public talk after today's 6 p.m. Shabbat service at Temple of Aaron, 616 S. Mississippi River Blvd., St. Paul. She will speak about the meaning and mysticism of the Hebrew letters of the Torah.
On Sunday, Avielah Barclay will help several hundred congregants at Temple of Aaron fulfill a Jewish commandment by writing a letter in the Torah. In a ritual called Siyum Sefer Torah, the congregant literally holds the hand of the highly-trained scribe, who precisely guides the writing of the letter.
As with other news articles about me featured here, I'm going to make some comments & corrections when I have a minute - for now I'm so pleased to be here in St Paul with the Jews at Temple of Aaron! Stay tuned :)
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