As four women hunch over a painstaking project in a University City living room, the chatter may be cheerful and light but it doesn’t undercut the uniquely deliberate nature of the task.
This is sacred work – but it’s joyful work as well.
“It’s wonderful,” said Phyllis Shapiro. “It’s for the Jewish part of me and the artistic part of me.”
That’s because Shapiro and three friends are creating a Megillah. She said the scroll, which relates the story in the Biblical Book of Esther, is unique in that many Orthodox rabbinic authorities allow that it can be inscribed by females.
“Women are obligated to hear it on Purim,” she said. “And the majority view is that a Megillah written by women is valid.”
To that end, the women, originally a group of eight, embarked on the effort two years ago. The friends trained for several months, learning Jewish legal requirements with Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Bais Abraham, where Shapiro now serves as the congregation’s first female president.
After those initial classes, they switched over to online resources but found the experience lacking without a live teacher. Soon, they found one in Rabbi Mark Fasman of Shaare Zedek Synagogue and began meeting once or twice a month to learn how to properly form the letters.
“After that, we just practiced and practiced. We started writing on the parchment only maybe two months ago,” she said noting it took awhile for the group to decide to finally go forward. “We just said, ‘Look, we could practice for another year but we’ve got to just do it.’”
Part of the impetus for accelerating the process lies with Shelly Wolf, a member of the group who will soon depart to live in Israel.“It seemed like an opportunity to participate in a project that has meaning for me religiously and it’s an opportunity for me to use a skill that I love to take part in,” said Wolf, a University City resident who attends Young Israel.
Like Shapiro, the 68-year-old has long had an interest in English calligraphy but said the experience of putting together a holy document is significantly different.
“It’s much more directed, more meaningful because of the text and the religious context in which it’s done,” Wolf said. “You have to be very focused and understand why you are doing it and the act of writing becomes part of the meaning of the text and the experience of it.”
Fasman said that’s true. A scroll is not actually valid unless the maker creates it with the proper intent. Part of that is an understanding of the weight and importance of the task. The rabbi himself first became interested in the holy art when he saw a sofer at work at a Jewish arts fair and began training in 1997 in Jerusalem.
Fasman said he made the error of simply assuming the activity was a form of Hebrew calligraphy. In fact, he found it was a much deeper experience. He said he has intentionally avoided writing the perfect name of God in Hebrew over the years.
“Suddenly, the letters took on a sanctity that they didn’t have when I was just reading them,” he said. “You could touch them.”
That’s literally true because, unlike with most writing, the ink rests on the surface rather than sinking in as it might with paper.
But even without writing God’s name, which the Book of Esther does not contain, there are many laws and traditions to be observed.
The animal skin parchment, or klaf has certain requirements. The ink is mixed with ground gall-nut, a special growth from trees. And metal nibs may not be used in inscribing the scroll as iron is associated with war and violence.
Meanwhile, each of the Hebrew letters has its own prescribed way of being written. Fasman said some take as many as 14 strokes.
Aviva Buck-Yael, 37, said she’s enjoyed being a part of the group. Though she had no calligraphy experience, she did have some relevant computer skills that helped the group to create practice sheets.
“When you are first learning to formulate the letters, getting the proportions is really challenging,” said the University City resident. “One of the things we did when we were first getting started was to create all the letters, put them onto a grid and then make graph paper to scale up what the size would actually be so we could practice.”
She said time has been a challenge but it’s just been a matter of making the commitment.
“I think most people who do this, do it professionally and they have the time to do it,” she said, “but when you are doing it as a hobby group or as an extracurricular activity, it’s hard to take the time that you need.”
She said the experience has been a positive and rewarding one.
“I think it’s really exciting when women get together and create religious space,” said Buck-Yael, a Bais Abraham congregant. “I think it’s really exciting to be a part of building and creating our tradition, especially in such a tactile way. There aren’t always as many opportunities for Orthodox women as for Orthodox men to do that, so the opportunities that there are, are pretty important.”
Shapiro said the project is fairly uncommon in that respect. She notes that though most rabbinic authorities permit it, she isn’t personally familiar with any other Orthodox women’s group that has taken on the task.
“The idea of women learning Jewish texts seriously is relatively new in the Orthodox world,” said Shapiro who felt the concept has really taken hold over the last two decades or so. “Being a scribe was a male thing.”
The group’s fourth member, Dorit Daphna-Iken of Clayton, is originally from Israel and moved to the area some two decades ago.
“You have to be very consistent practicing and writing,” she said. “I’m not quite at the stage they are yet. It’s really art, a piece of art you have to learn.”
Shapiro said the group often comes together weekly and is determined to meet its goal of having a finished product for Purim. They also hope to invite local female artists to design scrollwork on the margins and on the opening piece of the Megillah. Thanks to help from Fasman, the plan is for the sections to be stitched together by a visiting sofer from out of town.
Shapiro said it has been hard work but it’s been worth it to put her interest in calligraphy to a sacred use.
Fasman said that inscribing a holy document is a challenge but, after all, that is part of the idea.
“If something is sacred, you need to treat it differently,” he said. “Otherwise, it is not sacred.”