Shared Stories: Gifting of the Torah

Among the Torah’s stored in the Holy Ark of Downey’s synagogue, Temple Ner Tamid, is a handwritten scroll from the seventeenth century that was acquired on a trip to the Holy Land in 1902 by Charlene Farnsworth’s great-grandfather, a Christian minister. More than 100 years after this Torah was brought to California, Charlene attended the Bat Mitzvah of fellow writer Dora Silvers where the scrolled “books” were an important part of the ritual. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns.

By Charlene Farnsworth

My great-grandfather, Reverend Edward Martin ("E.M."), was a minister of The First Brethren Church in Los Angeles.  In 1902, he took an extensive trip to parts of Europe and the Holy Land where he saw many of the places talked about in the Bible. 

During his trip, he took 4¼" slide pictures of the land and the people. He also purchased authentic costumes, 100 stereopticon slides and several of what he referred to as curiosities. His most important purchase was made in Jerusalem, a Sefer Torah dating back to the 17th century.

The Torah consists of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Christian scholars usually refer to these five books as the Pentateuch, a Greek name meaning "five scrolls." 

A Sefer Torah is a handwritten copy of the Torah on a scroll made from kosher animal parchment. It is written entirely in Hebrew by a trained sofer, or scribe. The scroll is mainly used in the ritual of Torah reading during Jewish services. 

At other times, it is stored in the holiest spot within a synagogue, the Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark). This is usually an ornate, curtained-off cabinet or section of the synagogue built along the wall that most closely faces Jerusalem, the direction in which Jews face when they pray.

When my great-grandfather returned home, he was invited by several churches in the area, and in other parts of the country, to show films and lecture about his trip. At that time, there was no color film so he had the slides hand-tinted.  He had some of the congregation put on the costumes. 

My great-grandfather also displayed the collection of items he brought back from the Holy Land, including the 17th century Torah. The Torah is scribed on eighty pages of sheep skin and is 70' long. It is rolled so that the beginning of the roll, to the right, starts with Genesis.

After my great-grandfather and grandfather passed away, the lecture material was left in my Mom's care. In 1992, she donated the Torah to Temple Ner Tamid, a local synagogue in Downey, California. 

My parents met with Rabbi Ettelson and had an interesting discussion concerning its scribing. Mom was given a pointer and asked not to touch the printing. The Rabbi then showed them a silver pointer he used which was about six inches long and had a small hand at one end in a pointing position. 

Upon my parents' departure, the Rabbi gave them a copy of the Pentateuch. He also invited all of us to Simchat Torah scheduled for the forthcoming Sunday, during which their newly-acquired Torah would be dedicated.

On May 20, 2011, I attended my friend Dora Silvers' Bat Mitzvah at Temple Ner Tamid. At that time, I talked with the cantor and the organist about the donated Torah that was among other Torahs being presented in a ritual fashion to the congregation. That was certainly a very moving, very memorable sight for me to witness.

While looking through some family albums recently, I ran across the 1992 transmittal document I typed for Mom that explained the history of the gifted Torah. I then called the synagogue and asked if they would be interested in receiving a copy of Mom's document. 

My thinking was perhaps there were new leaders of the synagogue unfamiliar with the story behind the gifting. I immediately received a call back from Temple Ner Tamid President David Saltzman. He was very interested, and we agreed to meet before a Sisterhood dinner scheduled for November 13, 2015, at the synagogue.

Upon meeting David, he escorted me to the Holy Ark where five Torahs are kept for safekeeping. The ornately-decorated cloths, or mantles, that cover the Torahs are breathtaking. David gently removed my great-grandfather's Sefer Torah from the Holy Ark and placed it on the podium for viewing. The excellent condition of the Torah and the reverent care in which David handled it brought tears to my eyes.

After a very interesting and educational discussion, David carefully returned the Torah to and secured the Holy Ark. He then accompanied me back to the nicely-appointed dining area where I enjoyed a wonderful feast with my friend Dora and fellow members of Temple Ner Tamid.