Scrolling Through History
By Elissa Hutner
You’ve got to love it when a plan comes together – especially when the coming together bonds our small Mexican town with a tiny Maryland town, drawing on celebratory customs spanning centuries, if not millennia. And it happened right here in October.
This remarkable story started with the Lake Chapala Jewish Congregation’s (LCJC) need for a new Torah, the single scroll that is the most revered element of a synagogue. The Torah comprises the first five books of the Old Testament, sacred to Jews and Christians alike. The Torah is even mentioned several times in the Quran. Jewish doctrine says God gave the Torah to Moses who wrote it down. Recent scholars dispute this and suggest that it was written by a number of men, but all agree the words go back so far, that even King David read some version of the Torah daily.
In synagogues worldwide, Jews read identical Torah passages on the same day, until the end is reached – and then they start over. Torahs must be written by hand with a quill on parchment, so it’s not surprising that LCJC’s current Torah, a genuine Holocaust survivor, is worn and faded, making it difficult to read.
Enter Jan with a Plan – that is LCJC member Jan Marx Braverman who realized that she knew where another Torah might be had. Jan’s hometown is Cumberland, Maryland, (Pop. 20,000) where the Marx family settled over 100 years ago. Her family was a member of Congregation Beth Jacob one of two temples in Cumberland.
In 1963, Jan’s parents donated a breastplate for the Torah to commemorate Jan’s grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary. A breastplate is a decorative metal shield hung by a chain on the Torah’s cover or mantle -something like a statement necklace. Breastplates go back to at least the 1100’s and are fashioned in all sorts of decorative designs.
Jan reached out to the President of Congregation B’erChayim of Cumberland, one of the oldest synagogues in Maryland, which, in 1998, absorbed the congregation of Beth Jacob together with the Torah and donated breastplate. This meant that B’erChayim might have a Torah to spare, and indeed they did. The synagogue’s board, led by President Doug Schwab, was all too happy to donate to LCJC the very Torah the Marx family enhanced with its commemorative breastplate.
B’erChayim sought, not only to bestow the Torah, but also to represent the town of Cumberland as a sort of sister town to the Lakeside community. In fact, there are unexpected similarities between the two towns: both nestled between mountains; both on important bodies of water; both originally populated by indigenous people. Chapala might even adopt Cumberland’s town motto which rings true for many of our North American transplants:
“Come for a visit – stay for life.” And so, on October 22, eight dignitaries of Congregation B’erChayim, including the Rabbi and President Doug Scwab, escorted the Torah to Mexico. They joined LCJC, which sponsored rituals and festivities to perform the rite of what’s known as inaugurating the Torah.
Like so much of Jewish tradition, there are age-old practices surrounding a Torah Inauguration, and that’s where the festivities begin. The transplanting of a Torah is a joyous occasion filled with honor and fun. Jewish tradition says that welcoming a new Torah has its source in the ancient times when King David led the procession of Israelites to bring the Ark of the Covenant (holding the Ten Commandments) to Jerusalem, after which he sang and danced before it.
Welcoming a new Torah into the community is like welcoming a bride and groom, signifying the marriage of the community with God, and so, the Torah is carried under a chuppah (marriage canopy) in a festive parade through the streets, sometimes accompanied by hundreds or thousands of people engaging in whatever festive local customs usually attend joyous occasions.
Which brings us to October 22, 2019, and the inauguration of LCJC’s new Torah. October 22 was the second day of the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah. The first day marks the day when Jews have read through the entire Torah and have reached the last word: the second day is when Jews worldwide start reading the Torah from the beginning.
Starting at 11:00 a.m., LCJC hosted members of the community regardless of religious persuasion, to a light lunch at Pancho’s Deli, followed by an inauguration parade, with our Torah carried under a chuppah to the Samuel L. Shibko Sanctuary on Santa Margarita in Riberas de Pilar, a walk of about two blocks. Following local Lake Chapala parade customs, this procession featured four Mexican dancing horses and all who wanted to join in.
Once at the sanctuary, there was singing and dancing around the Torah as it was lifted high, a call back over 4,000 years to King David and repeated countless times through the centuries. This was followed by a repast of sweets. Between the dancing and eating, was a short service to mark the holiday, thus starting, for the first time in its new home, the first reading of the first Hebrew words of the Torah: In the beginning. . .
In today’s climate, this is an especially meaningful story which demonstrates the respect between an American community and a Mexican one. It’s a story to last through the ages, from the ages and for all ages.