A Year Later
Last year, b’etzem hayom hazeh, on this self-same day, As It Is Written: Project 304,805 opened. Another important event in my life happened on this day as well: sixty-one years ago, on October 8th, 1949, my mother, z”l, was born.
While this convergence may seem a mere interesting coincidence, there is precedent in our tradition for the notion that related events occur on the same date. Perhaps the initial event creates a vortex that pulls the next event under its energetic wing. A classic example of this is the destruction of the first and second temples; according to tradition, both occurred on the 9th of Av. The concept extends to location as well – the binding of Isaac, God’s test of Abraham’s faith, took place at the same spot from which the world was created, and the same spot on which the temples would be built.
Exactly one year ago, dressed in my mother’s lavender shirt, I stared at my notes from behind the podium, dedicated the talk to the memory of my mother, and spoke softly of the Ramban, black fire on white fire, and secret meanings beneath the surface of a seemingly misogynist torah verse, which you can read about here.
My mother always wanted the best for me. She wanted me to be a normal child who would grow into a normal young woman with a career and a direction and a home (if not a husband and a baby). But God did not lead me by the most direct path. At age 18, I went to a kibbutz and hung out with sheep. In college I made theatre and stopped shaving those body parts that women in our culture are supposed to shave. My clothing didn’t match and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Then I enrolled in yeshiva to learn Talmud and other completely impractical and irrelevant ancient texts. To top it all off, at age 31, I left my job in New York City for the secure title of “Seasonal Housekeeping Volunteer” at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in rural Connecticut.
It was during the last few months of my mother’s life, winter of 2008, that I began exploring the art of the Hebrew letters. So while she could not be at opening night for the birth of this Torah project, she did witness its birth inside of me right at the juncture of her death. Soon thereafter is when I first met my scribe teacher Jen Taylor Friedman, and year later, Jen wrote the first words of her Torah project “Torat Imeinu: The Torah of Our Mothers” on the evening of my mom’s first yortzeit. She writes about it here: (in the blog I am referred to as RHS, an acronym for my Hebrew name, רחמה חיי שרה):
Reflecting on this past year and the process of writing Torah, I’d say it’s much like any other process, including the grieving process: it’s not linear, you think you know what’s in front of you but you’re usually wrong, sometimes you feel close and sometimes far from the "Source of Life", and time moves you forward as you try to stay present.
On October 8th one year ago, for her birthday, my mom’s spirit was at opening night to hear about the Torah I’d be writing. She was celebrating in her lavender shirt, which almost kind-of-sort-of matched my two-tone purple skirt, proud of me like no one else ever could be. She’s here today too, quietly watching as I write in Deuteronomy about the mountain and the fire and the tablets that Moshe brought. Happy birthday, mom.
Julie Seltzer is a a soferet (female Torah scribe) and is part of a living exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, portraying the painstaking process of writing the 304,805 Hebrew Letters of the Torah. Learn more about the project in This Week in History.