SALT LAKE CITY, UT — Earlier this year, Rabbi Benny Zippel strolled into a Provo store on a rescue mission.
He’d gotten word about a Torah scroll, Judaism’s holiest object, that was in the hands of an antiques dealer. He needed to check it out himself.
“I went to see it and became horrified when I found out that the Scroll [sic], originally from Holocaust-ridden Europe, was getting cut up in single columns, framed and then sold to individual collectors in the area,” the rabbi wrote in a recent statement. That treatment, he described in a phone call, proved “the ultimate sign of desecration.”
Evoking a commandment he called pidyon shvuyim, or redeeming captives, Zippel offered on the spot to buy what was there. A Torah scroll, which contains the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, is considered a living document by the most observant of Jews. This one, he thought, needed saving.
About nine months later, in a Thursday evening dedication ceremony at Chabad Lubavitch of Utah, the ultra-Orthodox organization Zippel heads, the restored scroll was reborn.
From Poland to Provo
Seventy-six-year-old Alvin Segelman of Orem tipped off Zippel. About a year ago, the retired Rutgers University professor went to visit Brent Ashworth, an attorney who, for 46 years, has been collecting rare books, manuscripts and art. While he was poking around Ashworth’s store, something caught Segelman’s eye.
“I noticed, hanging on his wall, what to me was obviously part of a Torah scroll. It struck my attention because the damn thing was hanging upside-down,” Segelman recalled with a laugh. “I said, ‘Where the hell did you get this thing?’ ”
Ashworth, who counts among his collectibles a first edition King James Bible from 1611, had been in the market for old Torah scrolls. He’d purchased a fragment from a 500-year-old Moroccan deerskin scroll from a Jerusalem dealer. And along with the piece framed on the wall, he had bought a larger section that is from Eastern Europe and believed to have predated the Holocaust. That one spoke to Segelman, who says Nazis killed 67 of his relatives.
“I said to Brent, ‘I think perhaps someone else should look at this thing.’ ”
Purchasing what Ashworth had was a no-brainer for Zippel, who spoke of the Nazis’ efforts to destroy all things Jewish. On the back of Ashworth’s scroll section – which included part of the book of Exodus, all of Leviticus and part of Numbers, or about one-third of an entire Torah scroll – was a handwritten message, indicating it had belonged to a man in Poland, Zippel said. The rabbi told the store owner it belonged in a Jewish sanctuary.
Ashworth agreed and sold the scroll portion to the rabbi for half of what he’d initially paid.
To be clear and fair, Ashworth had never taken scissors to the sacred item. Zippel knows this. But the guy Ashworth got it from three or four years ago did. Enter Jim Young, owner of Provo’s Brigham Book & Copy, whom Zippel called on next.
Young had framed cut pieces of the scroll that he intended to sell. Zippel purchased what Young still had and said he’ll likely bury those pieces in a Jewish cemetery, a practice observed when sacred text is damaged beyond repair.
Although he repeatedly hung up on a Salt Lake Tribune reporter, Young admitted he “cut a couple pieces” and said he got the scroll from Reid Moon, “a Bible guy and Torah guy in Texas.”
From Turkey (or Turkow) to Texas
Moon, owner of Moon’s LDS Bookstore and the Antiquarian Bible Shoppe in north Dallas, has been working with religious books and antiquities for about 20 years. He said he remembered this scroll well because he bought it from a New York dealer, whose name he couldn’t remember, the week before 9/11. When he made the purchase, the scroll was in six separate sections. Moon said he knew it was incomplete and therefore not kosher for use. Its history was unknown to him, until a Holocaust survivor came in one day and noticed Hebrew writing on the back of the scroll. The writing, she told Moon, was the signature of a Torah scribe, or sofer, and beside it was the name of the country where it originated: Turkey. At least this is what he remembered hearing.
That section never made it to Utah. Young only purchased one section, in early 2002, Moon said. Selling sections or fragments is nothing unusual, he added. A quick search on eBay earlier this week showed about 50 Torah scroll fragments being hawked to would-be Web buyers.
Rabbi Moshe Klein, a fourth-generation sofer living in Brooklyn who became Zippel’s contact in restoring Utah’s newest Torah, knows his scrolls and was unruffled by the Turkey suggestion. Based on its style of writing, he has no doubt this original full Torah scroll came from Poland about 90 years ago. He speculated that perhaps it had been commissioned by someone living in Turkey. When a portion, even a letter, of a Torah scroll is damaged, a sofer is tasked to fix it. Perhaps a piece of parchment had been repaired in Turkey.
More likely, he said the scribe was from Turkow, in Poland. The spelling of this town and Turkey, in Hebrew, only differs by one letter.
So what happened to the five sections Moon still had? He said he wrapped them around wooden staves, dressed them with a Torah covering, and used it when he spoke in Dallas-area schools about the origins of the Bible. At least, this is what he did until Rabbi Aryeh Feigenbaum caught wind of it.
The Orthodox rabbi of Dallas’ Congregation Ohr HaTorah reacted much as Utah’s Zippel did when he learned about this scroll two summers ago.
“My feeling was at one point it had been a complete scroll, the property of the Jewish community,” he said. “It somehow ended up outside the Jewish community, and we needed to bring it back.”
Though he hasn’t done it yet, Feigenbaum plans to hire a sofer to make his five sections part of a complete scroll. He was shocked to learn that any portion had made its way to Utah and said he wished Moon, who at the time didn’t seem to understand the scroll was incomplete, had told him as much.
“If what you’re telling me is the truth, I feel I was lied to,” he said. “I kind of thought it was a finished story, and now you’re telling me a lot more I didn’t know about.”
From one Zion to another
The story, at least for Utah’s portion of the original scroll, is now complete. Thanks to a $36,000 gift from Utah real estate developer, former U.S. Ambassador and Jewish philanthropist John Price and his family foundation, Zippel said the scroll has been redeemed, made whole and kosher again. Not without additional obstacles, though.
A sofer in Jerusalem had been enlisted, by Klein in Brooklyn, to write that which was missing. But a man traveling by taxi across Jerusalem with the newly completed portions (two-thirds of Zippel’s new Torah), as well as other scrolls, somehow left Utah’s pieces behind. They were lost in transit, the Jerusalem sofer had to start over, and the originally planned November dedication had to be scrapped. And the man hired to create the ornate wooden staves around which the scroll is wrapped suffered a stroke before finishing the job.
Klein, who often sends scrolls by UPS, wouldn’t take any more chances on this one. He flew out of New York Wednesday night not just to participate in Thursday’s ceremony but because he would only hand deliver it.
“I have to schlep it around,” he said by phone the day before his flight, which ended up taking 17 hours. “It’s not leaving my sight for one second.”
Now, with its final letters written amid ceremony, the scroll, one that has been through so much, can finally rest.
“All things that come your way difficult,” Zippel said, “are a sign from above that they’re definitely meant to be.”
After Rabbi Moshe Klein, below and far right, completes the new Torah scroll, he joins Rabbi Benny Zippel, left, in singing prayers as Harris Lenowitz holds up the sacred document for all to see. (Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune)
Ron Zamir assists Rabbi Moshe Klein, from Brooklyn, as he writes the final Hebrew letters to complete a Torah scroll during a dedication ceremony at Chabad Lubavitch of Utah. (Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune)
John Price, who financed the Torah scroll’s restoration, assists Rabbi Moshe Klein, from Brooklyn, as he writes the final Hebrew letters during a dedication ceremony at Chabad Lubavitch of Utah. (Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune)