Rabbi Moshe Klein’s wiry, exacting hands scratched the last of 304,805 Hebrew characters in black ink on vellum Sunday afternoon, completing the Saratoga Chabad House’s newest Torah, and a year of painstaking labor.
It was a big day for Klein. For a full 12 months he worked eight hours a day free-handing the perfect flourish of each letter of Jewish tradition and testament, down to the last commandment, across 64 yards of carefully prepared animal hide. No lines. No photocopier. Just Klein at a desk with a quill pen, the way it’s been done since the Torah was first written.
It’s his 18th Torah, and the experience shows.
“I only do one every year,” he said. “If I did more I’d kill my hands. I have to be careful.”
He talked and let children hold the pen and posed for pictures with other rabbis — grinning all the while. But mainly, it was a big day for the local Jewish community. The new Torah was commissioned by the Saratoga Chabad House in honor of Morris and Marlene Aronson, whose passing and endowment founded the site in 2000.
“Every member of the Jewish community should really have a Torah written for them,” said Rabbi Abba Rubin, who lives on the second floor of the Chabad House, “That’s what we’ve done for them.”
Traditionally, any time a new Torah is completed, area faithful celebrate its arrival with a dance and parade it through the streets. Klein wrote all but the last letters of the new scroll in his Brooklyn home. On Sunday afternoon, the Chabad House gave it a proper welcome.
Inside the 130 Circular St. facility, bearded men in broad-brimmed black hats or yarmulkes and long black coats crowded around as Klein fanned dry the last dots of ink and rolled the whole Torah up in an embroidered case. One of them hefted the scroll on his shoulder as music started and they danced around and around and out onto the street.
A life: Mendel Beilis
The celebration was really twofold. There was the new Torah, but the event also marked a major anniversary. In Russia back in 1911, a father of five and brick factory manager named Mendel Beilis was arrested for the death and mutilation of a young boy.
He was innocent and the actual murderers were a small bunch of career criminals, but Beilis was a Jew. Russia in 1911 was a bad time and place to be a Jew. A Catholic priest testified against him. Russian officials chose a jury of anti-Semites, but in the end Beilis was acquitted in October of 1913.
“It was a huge relief for all Jews,” said Rabbi Israel Rubin. “If he had been convicted there would have been a pogrom [Russian for mass-lynching] against all the Jews.”
On Sunday more than 100 members of the local Jewish community celebrated the centennial of that acquittal.
Israel Rubin stopped the procession on a street corner in the shrinking sunlight.
“Today we have a police escort, so we can parade openly as Jews,” he said. “But Beilis was falsely arrested by police 100 years ago.”
Beilis eventually moved to the states, ending his days in Saratoga Springs in 1934.
“He was a huge celebrity,” Israel Rubin said, “but he was traumatized. He died destitute and now almost no one remembers his name.”
The Saratoga Chabad House is one of 10 Chabad Houses across the Capital Region. It’s a bastion for Jewish traditions like the Torah procession and Hanukkah and all the others.
Israel Rubin started the first area Chabad House in Albany in 1974. Traditions carried through the Holocaust and millennia of persecution were slipping away in the ease of America’s secular culture, he said. He couldn’t see them go — starting the Jewish community gathering places to stop the slide.
Sunday afternoon, his plan seemed to be working. There were many young people at the event. Young families shifted around tables before the procession, enjoying the dense fish smell of bagels and lox. Boys ran around in tiny yarmulkes.
“Chaiki is already learning Hebrew,” said Leah Rubin. “She’s 6 and practices every night.”
Leah spoke over the bustle with Chaiki clinging to her leg. She said events like the Torah homecoming are meant to cement those old traditions into the minds of children. The food, the dancing, the procession, she said, all will be remembered by little Chaiki.