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The 200-Year Cross-Continental Journey of a Single Torah Scroll

An antique Torah scroll, transported on donkey-back across Europe, finds a home in the U.S.

It is some 200 years ago, in Palestine. A wealthy Jew living near Moscow has commissioned a new Torah, a handwritten scroll cotnaining the Five Books of Moses--the heart and soul of the New Testament. A calligrapher works long hours to create this work of art; he makes this Torah unique by beginning each section with the letter vov.

The wealthy benefactor's servant has spent about a year traveling to the scribe on donkey-back; now he is waiting another year or so while the scribe works. Luckily for the servant--and the donkey--the sheep that gave up its skin for this holy book was small; the Torah is a little more than half the height of a modern Torah scroll. Rolled on olivewood poles, the Torah is carried safely on the long and arduous journey back to Russia.

By stipulation of that benefactor's will, it has remained in the same family ever since, handed down from father to son or uncle to nephew. It can never be donated to a synagogue, but must be used and read from regularly. Thus, it's been on long-term loan, shifting from shul (saynagogue) to shul as the generations wandered.

Since it is a rare thing for an individual to own his own Torah, each inheritor has marked his ownership on the olivewood posts. Milkmen, tenant farmers, and carpenters--most of the owners were illiterate. But each of them would unroll the Torah and either carve or paint their mark.

In 1903, the Torah left the shtetl (the tightly-knit Jewish community in a European city) for the United States, sailing from Hamburg--in steerage--aboard the Mosholu. Zachary Tropp, the current owner, recounts, "My grandfather enlisted help from three other Orthodox men. They took turns, the four of them, for 28 days, day and night, holding the Torah so it would never be put on a traif (unkosher) deck."

Tropp's grandfather brought it to a shul on New York's Lower East Side, where it stayed until his death in 1928. Then Tropp's uncle, Louis Shoob, inherited it. He was a plumber at New York Hospital's Hospital for Special Surgery, and the workers there had a small shul. On his retirement in the 1940s, Shoob took the Torah to the Jewish Center of Unionport, in the southeast Bronx.

When Tropp's uncle left him the Torah around 1968 or 1970, the synagogue "wanted to hold onto the Torah in the worst way. I took it out after a huge fight. They had 8 or 10, but they felt each was precious. It really upset them that it was going to a Conservative synagogue, because my grandfather was Orthodox, it had always been an Orthodox Torah. They were treating it as a holy mission that it doesn't leave Orthodoxy; their contention was I could only move the Torah to another Orthodox synagogue. They considered a Conservative synagogue to be traif. It took six months and the threat of a Beyt-Torah (religious arbitration) for them to release the Torah. I brought it to our shul at the time, which was Congregation Sons of Israel in Briarcliff, New York."

Perhaps the caretakers of that Orthodox shul knew something wouldn't turn out right; the Torah's sojourn in Briarcliff was marked by minor difficulties. Because of its small size, and because their shul had six other Torahs, the Tropp family Torah was pretty much ignored. Eventually, it was relegated to the Hebrew school. Still, the Tropps were heavily involved in the congregation, and felt comfortable leaving the Torah there. They themselves paid the insurance premium on the Torah .

Then, in 1983, they discovered a far worse indignity. Zachary and Yetta Tropp's son Barry was preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, and--as his older sister, Judybeth, had done for her Bat Mitzvah--wanted to read from the family Torah. Zachary Tropp went in to set the scroll to the proper portion. "I couldn't find the Torah. My only identification was the markings; there was another small one. I counted seven Torahs, but not mine. I ran to the rabbi, who picked out my Torah by size and by the writing. I asked incredulously what happened to the shafts. He told me that the powers that be decided that my Torah looked old and they wanted to make it look new. So they brought it to the Lower East Side and somebody rerolled it onto plastic, instead of on 200 year old olivewood with my family history on it! I asked the rabbi to find out from whoever it was, wherever it went to because I wanted the shafts back. He told me later that they were sold for Judaica and they were untraceable."

The Tropps were furious; their sense of betrayal is still palpable a decade later. Yetta Tropp notes, "The United Synagogue said we could sue them, but we couldn't bring ourselves to do anything about it. I don't know if they realize to this day what they destroyed." The Tropps still don't know who made this decision, why they weren't consulted, and how it came about without anyone mentioning that this Torah was privately owned.

Once the Tropps decided to leave Sons of Israel, they had to figure out what to do with the Torah. Zachary Tropp recalls: "We thought about having a synagogue in the house. In the old days, a rebbe passed a test from another rabbi. I'm yeshiva-trained, and I passed a test from a rabbi. So technically, I'm a rebbe. We laughed about the tax possibilities for a while."

But the stipulation in the will that requires the scroll to be read regularly would have been a problem. "I was not going to read the Torah three times a week, so I didn't want it at home." The Torah remained at Briarcliff, despite the bad feelings. "I wasn't going to take it out, regardless of what I felt, unless it could be read."

In the fall of 1985, their daughter, Judybeth, entered Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts. The elder Tropps came up to be with her for the High Holidays and attended the joint Smith-Amherst College Hillel services, run by Rabbi Yechiel Lander. Yetta Tropp describes their initial impression. "We were very taken with his warmth and his love of Jewish things. What he does is so purely good. There's no power play for what the synagogue is going to buy you and how big your house is. He was very genuine, hamish. We were impressed. We felt that if we placed this Torah in his care, it would be safe."

Zachary Tropp talked to Rabbi Lander after the services, and discovered that Smith Hillel had no Torah of its own; Amherst College had a single Torah that was transported back and forth between the two chapels. "We felt that the Torah would be given special homage and read, because it was the Torah, it was the only one," comments Yetta Tropp.

For most of its history, since their family Torah resided in Orthodox shuls, women never touched it. For the Tropps, it was especially moving to bring it out of this background into an environment where most of the people handling and reading from it are women. It brought up emotions not only in the Tropps, but in some of the congregants. Zachary Tropp remembers the Torah's arrival.

"I brought it in during a Hillel meeting, wrapped in a tallis, (prayer shawl) which is how you have to transport it. I unwrapped it and I unrolled it to show to Rabbi Lander. A couple of the girls started to cry--one girl in particular. I said, 'what's the matter?' She said 'Can I please touch the Torah.' I said 'sure.' She said, 'I'm Orthodox. I was never allowed to touch a Torah.'"

Now, this Torah may be one of the only ones in the world to be used primarily by women. Yetta Tropp enjoys the irony: "It has crossed our minds that this may not have been what his ancestors had in mind. But we're happy with the way things turned out. It takes on a broader mitzvah (good deed) in the feminist aspect. One of the reasons we sent our daughter to Smith is that a woman had every advantage. Orthodox Jewish women now have the advantage of getting into as close proximity as they want to and reading the Torah.

"I come from a family where Jewish women were very involved in Jewish organizations and in Yiddishkeit (Jewish culture). It is a great thrill for me to see this strictly Orthodox situation transform into something that women can really gain from. Initially, when Conservative Jews got into to letting women participate, I was one of the first generations to get up and run a service. To bring that kind of Jewish freedom to women at Smith College meant a great deal to me. To see this woman touch a Torah with great joy, with tears in her eyes, meant a great deal to me."

But the Tropps are not done creating mitzvot with their Torah. Zachary Tropp plans at least one more. He points out that every Jew is commanded to write a Torah; this mitzvah can be fulfilled by filling in the outline of a single letter.

"Torahs are supposed to be koshered regularly. The ink doesn't set into the parchment, it sits on top. If a piece of ink breaks off it can change the meaning of the world. We will take off the last how ever many letters we want, and each person who wants to can fill in the outline. I would like to find a time when we could do a service for writing of the Torah, and the students in Smith and the students in Amherst can write their Torah."

And so this Torah's journey has come to the present, residing in the ark at Smith College, where it continues to change lives and deepen the meaning of modern Judaism. And no one can tell what adventures this scroll will have in the generations to come, or what impact it will have on the people around it.

And where has your Torah been?

Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review and owner of FrugalFun.com, is the author of the e-book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, and the creator of the Ethical Business Pledge campaign.


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