The Baby Torah

“Do you want a Torah?  It belonged to my great-grandfather. My family is either going to donate it to our synagogue or give it to you.” The year was 2011, and the question came from a student, Emma Cooke, as she entered the K, our kosher kitchen and meeting space.

I replied what any rabbi would reply in that situation (especially a rabbi who has to borrow a Torah every year for High Holy Days): “Absolutely, yes.” When someone offers you a Torah, you do not think before you speak.

The next Friday evening, Emma walked into the K carrying a small box. A really small box. 7″ by 9″ by 16”. It was covered in a black and white zig-zag pattern and tied with a ribbon and a bow. My son’s Cabbage Patch Doll had come in a bigger box.

“Here’s the Torah,” Emma said.

I put the box on the not-yet-set Shabbat dinner table. I glanced at Emma with skepticism and a bit of concern. I untied the ribbon and bow that decorated the box like a Chanukah gift. I opened the flaps. And there it lay: the baby Torah. That was and still is the only way I can think of it. “The baby Torah.” When I saw the tiny scroll in the box, it was all I could do to keep myself from uttering a motherly coo.

Then fear set in. What if this was not a genuine Torah? The only scrolls of this size I had ever seen were the replica Torahs sold in Judaica stores. Had this family been cherishing a toy for decades?

I took the baby Torah out of the box. It was maybe fourteen inches high. It was covered with a tiny white cloth mantle that had embroidered writing on it and an embroidered crown. Pretty standard for a Torah mantle. However, when I took off that mantle, there was a second, plainer mantle under it. I paused in my doubt and skepticism. Toy Torahs do not have two mantles. Even grown-up Torahs have only one mantle. Having two meant that the Torah, or its owner, was very important. I took off the second mantle and undid the ribbon that kept the scroll closed. There before me, on a roll of parchment only five and a half inches wide, was tiny Hebrew writing. Baby script to go with the baby Torah, painstakingly written with ink and quill by some scribe long gone.

“How did your great grandfather come to have this Torah?”  I asked.

“A rabbi named Unterman gave it to him when he was in Tel Aviv.”

Here begins the tale of the Baby Torah That Lived—in spite of all that history brought forth to end its existence.  Here are our clues: embroidered writing on each mantle; engraved names and dates on the handles; questions. Who was great grandpa, and how did he come to possess this Torah? His name, Max Delfiner, is not on either mantle.

But it turns out that Max Delfiner was quite a man. He was born in 1895 in Bucovina, where he was listed as someone who gave a great deal to charity; he died in 1987. He became a citizen of Austria. He was a close friend of Bialik, the poet laureate of Israel, and actually funded some of his poetry books. There is a famous death mask of Bialik; it exists because Max Delfiner was called as soon as Bialik died and ordered that a death mask be made. Bialik, in turn, warned Max to get out of Austria in 1933.

Delfiner was active in the Zionist movement at the turn of the 20th century and attempted to build a silk factory in British-mandate Palestine. He convinced Austria to sue Britain in the World Court when the factory was destroyed due to lack of promised protection from the Mandate government. The rabbi who gave Mr. Delfiner the Torah, Unterman, was none other than Isser Yehuda Unterman, Third Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel. For Rabbi Unterman to give Mr. Delfiner that Torah was somewhat equivalent to the Congressional medal for courage. A very big deal.

But the baby Torah has another part of its personality. The fancier mantle’s embroidered letters tell another story. The mantle is filled with idiosyncratic abbreviations, but as far as I can tell, Meir Leib son of Tzvi (probably both of them rabbis) and Hava daughter of Yoshua (probably also a rabbi) were married and were important enough to be given this Torah at their wedding and have both of their names embroidered on the mantle. The handles on the Torah are covered in silver—unusual. The bride’s name is engraved on one handle, the groom’s on the other along with his birthdate—very unusual.

The simpler mantle repeats the information, albeit more crudely in craft. “To the young man Meir leib son of Rabbi Tzvi…” Then there follow two lines of abbreviations I cannot decipher. Then the big punch line: in large letters at the bottom of the mantle, the words “Nadvorna Rebbe.” The Nadvorna are a sect of Hasidim. They are named as all Hasidic sects are, after the town from which they came. Nadvorna. The Rebbe is the name for the spiritual leader of the sect. Either Meir was a son of the Nadvorna Rebbe and so was given the Torah, or Meir was valued enough that the Nadvorna Rebbe gave him the Torah. I don’t know.

There are Nadvorna Hasidim around the world in varied branches with different names because they come from different places. Almost every child of the Rebbe established his own lineage. But I think for this Torah to have been in Rabbi Unterman’s possession means that the particular Nadvorna Hasidim who had held it and loved it no longer existed. A young couple, married somewhere around 1900-1910, which I am guessing from Meir’s birthdate of 1886. Thirty-five years later only the baby Torah lived. Only the baby Torah was not turned to ash. It was protected and hidden and carried until it reached the Land of Israel and its Chief rabbi. That rabbi then placed it with Max Delfiner and finally with us.

So it is that every Rosh HaShana, in our Ark stand two Torahs. I still have to borrow the very big Torah scroll. But next to it is the baby Torah, the focal point of two great Jewish movements. The Torah is held, paraded, kissed, and I daresay cooed over. Perhaps, given its history, this is not a truly happy ending—but it’s close.


This entry was posted in History, Holidays, Interfaith Matters and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.