The History of the Torahs
by Charles Siegel

This story starts with my father, Benjamin Morton (Mordechai), son of Aaron and Pauline (Pesha). His whole life he had been an observant, conservative Jew, actively involved in Jewish politics and ideas at the local synagogue level and on a wider scale, particularly in relation to Israel. He was a scientist, but he filtered all of his thoughts and opinions through his awareness of himself as a Jew. He was diligent and persistent in demanding my involvement with Judaism when I was a child. As an adult, nothing I did pleased him more than seeing me pass Judaism on my daughters. This was because he considered the Jewish tradition he had received, starting with the Torah, as his most precious possession. He defined himself through it and it gave his life meaning.

Until I met Rabbi Daniel Siegel, in the early 80's, I had not found the same nourishment in the Jewish tradition. Through him, and carrying on in the Or Shalom of the mid-Eighties, it gave me great pleasure to be able to share this exploration with my father. I knew that Or Shalom depended on a borrowed second Torah. It seemed to me that the gift of a Torah to Or Shalom would be the perfect way to honor his memory after he died in March of 1990. I made some inquiries, and discovered that a reconditioned Torah cost about $10,000. I asked my mother if she would like to go in with me on this gift, and that made it possible to consider it.

While a Rabbi who had been a friend of my father was keeping his eye open for a good, reconditioned Torah, fate intervened. Or Shalom received an offer of a free Torah from a defunct congregation in Portage-le-Prairie. I was happy to shift the money I had been meaning to contribute to the purchase of the used Torah to cover the expenses involved in bringing this gift to Or Shalom. This seemed particularly appropriate as my father was born and raised in a Jewish community in Superior, Wisconsin, only a few hundred miles from Portage-le-Prairie. He probably attended a congregation much like the one this Torah had been in.

In January of 1991 I flew to Winnipeg one Friday morning. I rented a car and drove out to meet Mr. Greenberg, the elderly lawyer in Portage-le-Prairie who was keeping the religious objects from the now defunct congregation in his house there. Mr. Greenberg still worked part time in the law firm in Portage-le-Prairie that was now run by his nephews. They, along with the rest of the Jewish community, had moved to Winnipeg when good roads had made the commute so easy. Mr. Greenberg lived alone in a house that looked like it hadn't received a penny devoted to redecoration in at least 30 years. Across the faded rug on the worn floor boards was a ratty, 75 year old side board with two Torahs lying on it. Mr. Greenberg showed me the smaller Torah. We opened it. The lettering was beautiful, though faded in places to an attractive reddish-brown. As we chatted I told him about Or Shalom and what a special place it was. Mr. Greenberg seemed to be impressed.

I asked him about the other Torah. He seemed worried about his responsibility for these religious objects. He did not want to waste them on a congregation that was self aggrandizing. I assured him that they would be used with gratitude and respect at Or Shalom, and asked him if he had any other objects looking for a home. He opened a cupboard and took out a shofar and a Megillah Esther scroll from Odesssa in a metal case. I was happy to receive them and asked him again about the other Torah. He said that there were some problems about giving that one away at that time. I thanked him for his generosity, wrapped the smaller Torah in my father's tallit, and hastened to drive back to Winnipeg before dark. The Torah was not to travel on Shabbat.

When I returned to Vancouver on Sunday, I brought the Torah to the Bayit on 28th Ave. Rabbi Marmorstein had arranged for a Rabbi from Congregation Beth Hamidrash to inspect the Torah. We had the Torah open on the table when he arrived. From the door he pronounced it unkosher. The letters cannot have been allowed to fade. A kosher Torah must have black letters. It would have had to have been restored by a scribe. Rabbi Marmorstein thought we might be able to save the $5000-8000 that would cost by having the congregation take on the task as an arts and crafts project (after suitable, scribal instruction, of course). We were told that the lovely little Torah would be acceptable only for training purposes.

I called Mr. Greenberg and asked him once more about the other Torah whose letters were solid black. Mr. Greenberg told me he would have to check on something to find out if that Torah was available and said he would get back to me in a few weeks. After a month I gave him another call. He apologized for the delay, and said it had turned out to be more complicated than he thought it would be. When I asked him when he might know, he hesitated. Finally he announced that he had made a decision. He would let us have the Torah on the understanding that we would give it back to him in the unlikely possibility that he should ask for it. I checked with Rabbi Marmorstein, and we agreed to accept the Torah under those conditions. A few weeks later, Sharon Marmorstein's parents happened to be coming from Winnipeg for a visit, and they brought the Torah with them. On Shavuot, much to my surprise, Reb Zalman conducted a ceremony at the Or Shalom retreat in which the Torah was welcomed into our community in honor of my father's memory.

As I understand it, the small Torah with the faded letters has been given (lent??) to a gay and lesbian congregation in Seattle. It is nice to think that it has a home where it will be respected and appreciated.

Mr. Greenberg never explained exactly what the problem was in giving us the second Torah, but from things he said I think I understand. I believe that the Torah actually belonged to a member of the congregation in Portage-le-Prairie, rather than to the congregation itself. I believe that the owner had died, and all of his family had moved away from Winnipeg. Either they didn't know about the Torah, or they didn't care. Mr. Greenberg had wanted to check with those heirs before giving us the Torah, but he was having difficulty finding them. He decided to take the responsibility of letting us have the Torah so it would be used. At the same time, he wanted to be sure that he could return it, in the unlikely possibility that one of those heirs should come and ask him for it. This seemed a morally reasonable course of action to me. Since Mr. Greenberg was a lawyer, I also assumed that he would not be doing something that was not legally defensible.

So, that is the story of the Or Shalom Torahs that honor the spirit of my father, Benjamin Morton (Mordechai), son of Aaron and Pauline (Pesha).


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