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Saved from Munich and Michigan, a 400-year-old Torah scroll is brought back to life

Aliza Chodoff, her husband Dov and their son Nati reading from the Torah scroll they brought from America. The scroll is over a meter tall. (Photo by Hagai Frid )

The 400-year-old Torah scroll could have ended in a basement in Michigan, or buried under Munich, or even licked by the flames of Kristallnacht, if not for the work of some.

By Raphael Ahren,

As the Jews of Eshchar celebrated Simhat Torah earlier this month, one scroll, a gargantuan meter-long affair, made it’s long awaited debut, being carefully unrolled on the bimah for ritual use for the first time in over 70 years.

The story of the 400-year-old Torah scroll could have ended in a basement in Michigan, or buried under Munich, or even licked by the flames of Kristallnacht, if not for the work of a number of people. Today it is one of the oldest specimens of its kind in use, thanks to the work of a number of Anglos, including the grandaughter of the man who brought it to America from Germany, where it sat in a Detroit basement for nearly half a century.

“My grandfather has been told at least twice that the Torah was either beyond repair or that it would just cost too much to get it done,” said Aliza Chodoff, 29. “His original idea was that maybe it should be given to Yad Vashem or some Jewish history museum. But as soon as we found out that in fact this Torah could be restored, we said we’re going to raise the money to do it. If a Torah can be read from, it should be read from.”

The Torah scroll would have been destroyed by the Nazis if it weren’t for the synagogue’s non-Jewish janitor, who buried the Torah in a nearby cemetery. After the war, Chodoff’s grandfather – who survived thanks to Oskar Schindler – became the cantor of Munich’s reestablished Jewish community.

The janitor dug up the Torah, but the community elders deemed it unfit for ritual use. As the shul grew and acquired additional Torahs, the community leaders wanted to bury the old scroll for good.

But Chodoff’s grandfather objected and took the scroll home with him, and eventually brought it to Detroit when he moved there.

Growing up in Michigan, Aliza Chodoff remembers seeing a Torah in her parent’s basement. All she knew was that the scroll was unusable but never thought much about it – until she moved to Israel six years ago and was inspired by seeing a Simhat Torah celebration.

“I thought, wouldn’t it be really nice if it could be brought to and danced with in Eretz Yisrael instead of sitting in a basement in Michigan,” she recalled.

Chodoff discussed the idea with her husband Dov and her father-in-law Elliot, who agreed to fly to Detroit and bring the scroll over. They took it to Jerusalem’s Ott Institute, a leading authority in the repair and restoration of Torah scrolls.

Based on the chemical makeup of the parchment and the ink, they determined the scroll was at least 400 years old.

The text was written in a way that is no longer done today, and because of that some people would not use it for ritual purposes.

But it was indeed possible to render the Torah kosher again, said the institute’s co-director Rabbi Yitzchak Shteiner, who compared restoring it to working on a long-lost Rembrandt.

“Working with this scroll was powerful, to see that such an old scroll can still be used,” he told Anglo File, adding that it was one of the few Torahs of its kind in the world that are still in use.

“They analyzed the ink and did all corrections necessary using ink identical in composition with the ink that the original scribe used,” explained Elliot Chodoff, 55, who was born in New York and later co-founded the northern community of Eshchar. “This is not normally done when you fix a scroll – you fix a letter with whatever ink you have. So here they restored it, they didn’t just fix it.”

After years of logistical efforts – including raising about $10,000 – the restoration of the parchment was completed earlier this summer. The Torah’s cover was finished the day before Simhat Torah started. Carrying her 3-year-old son in her arms, Chodoff held back the tears as Dov and Elliot carried in the scroll and rolled it, preparing it for the service. “This is part of my family legacy, I can’t believe this is actually happening,” she recalled thinking. “When they actually started reading from the Torah scroll, it was surreal. I couldn’t believe it was happening. My heart was beating out of my chest.”






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