AN ALADDIN’S CAVE

April 27th, 2023

This week, I had an extraordinary experience – and it was all the more extraordinary because it was so unexpected. I planned to be in Miami for a couple of days, and in anticipation of my trip asked the members of my “Baker Street Irregulars” WhatsApp group if any of them knew of an antiquarian Hebrew books and manuscripts dealer anywhere in the Miami area.

Just so you know, I have been to Miami dozens of times over the years, but until now have never had any success finding such a dealer. But I never give up hope; perhaps with the influx of Orthodox Jews escaping New York and New Jersey, and even California, and the resulting exponential growth of the Orthodox community in south Florida, there was finally a Miami-based dealer I could spend time with.

Sure enough, one of the Irregulars posted the name and number of someone he’d been told had started selling old books and manuscripts in Miami, and I immediately got in touch with him. The dealer – a rabbi and trained sofer (ritual scribe) – was rather surprised to hear from me, not least because he regularly watches my Jewish history videos and listens to my Torah classes online.

We chatted about books and history – and he asked me if I own a particular rare book he needed for a project he’s working on, as his copy is missing pages. I do have it, I told him, and assured him I would bring it with me when I visited, so he could make scans of the pages missing in his copy.

It was pouring rain as I arrived at his office, and the parking lot was six inches deep in water. I waded through the flood and was met by my new friend at an anonymous-looking side door, straight off the parking lot.

What I encountered on the other side of that door was nothing less than astonishing. Tables and shelves lined the walls to a long room, and a table ran the length of the room’s center. The side tables and shelves were piled with Torah scrolls – dozens of them, of varying sizes – while on the central table, several Torah scrolls were unfurled as scribes worked on them.

I just stood there, in a trance. I’d never seen anything like it before. I felt as if I was in an Aladdin’s Cave of Torah scrolls.

“What is this?” I asked him, “Where am I?” It turned out I had stumbled on the headquarters of a Torah scroll restoration organization run by the intrepid sofer, Rabbi Moshe Druin, an American-born Israel-trained expert who has mastered the art of repairing and preserving Torah scrolls – even those that are a century old or more.

I asked to speak to Rabbi Druin, but he wasn’t in Miami. Evidently, he is constantly on the road repairing Sifrei Torah in synagogues where they are kept and used. That day he was in Norfolk, Virginia, and when I spoke to him on the phone later in the week, he was in Detroit.

Rabbi Druin has a wonderful disposition. Constantly upbeat and positive, he is obviously totally comfortable with his unique, very niche profession. “I’m a Torah restorer and conservator,” he told me, “I travel wherever I’m needed – it can be an Orthodox synagogue, or Reform and Conservative Temples – and I work on their Sifrei Torah to make sure they are kosher and remain kosher.”

Rabbi Druin trained to be a sofer in Israel, and then learned Torah restoration from experts in Johannesburg, South Africa, of all places. There’s no shortage of Torah scrolls for Rabbi Druin to restore, and he told me that he has personally worked on over 20,000 scrolls throughout the United States and elsewhere around the world, in a career that has so far spanned over 40 years. One Torah scroll he worked on in Texas is 750 years old.

“It’s a small Torah,” he told me, “that has somehow survived journeys and wars, and it then ended up in Texas.”

“That Torah is kosher,” he added, “you can use it for Kriat HaTorah.”

If a Torah is treated well, he explained, which means that it’s kept in the proper conditions while also being regularly maintained by a sofer – it can literally last for hundreds of years. If not, within 50 years it might deteriorate to a state where it is not even restorable.

The key point is that congregations and individuals who are assiduous about doing annual checks on their Torah scrolls can prevent the worst from happening.

In Miami, Rabbi Druin’s associates were working on scrolls from the renowned Memorial Scrolls Trust Museum in London. In 1964, this extraordinary collection of 1,564 Torah scrolls found its way to Westminster Synagogue in London. These scrolls were originally removed from synagogues in Bohemia and Moravia by a Nazi official in charge of the Czech “Protectorate” and kept in Prague.

The idea was to have them displayed as relics of a bygone culture once all the Jews of Europe had been exterminated. But when the Nazis were gone, the Torahs were returned to the Jews, and restoration began. Each year dozens of these Torah scrolls find new homes after being lovingly and painstakingly restored by soferim, and Rabbi Druin’s team was hard at work on a few of them while I was there.

The range of different scripts I saw in these Torahs was dazzling. Many of the customs that once prevailed in European Torah writing have long since disappeared in the mists of time, but here they were alive and well – even including one scroll that had the inverted “nun” letters within the text of Parshat Behaalotecha, that I wrote about in an article a couple of years ago. That Torah must be well over two centuries old.

As I looked at the Torah scrolls in Miami, and marveled together with the scribes at the unique and unusual aspects of each one of them, I suddenly realized that this is the week of Parshat Kedoshim, which begins with an instruction for the Jewish nation to “be holy” – God’s call to the Jewish people to always aspire to sanctity, and to always embrace the sacred.

An important consequence of the Jewish people adopting this concept of holiness as our central motif is that we treat sacred objects with care and reverence specifically so that we can maintain their aura of holiness. A perfect example of this is a Torah scroll. In and of itself it is not inherently sacred – after all, it is just a roll of parchment with writing on it – but a Torah becomes holy purely because of our attitude towards it.

And as I gazed at Torah after Torah at Rabbi Druin’s center, and witnessed the love and respect that each of them receives from those tending to them, I truly observed the concept of “be holy” come to life right there in front of my eyes. It was an inspirational moment I will never forget.

For more information or to contact Rabbi Druin see: www.soferonsite.com

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