The Odyssey of a Torah Mantle
Framed in gold on the wall of the women’s section of my synagogue in Jerusalem is my personal connection to the Altneushul (“Old-New Synagogue”) in Prague: a rich burgundy-colored velvet mantle that was used to beautify one of the Torah scrolls in the Altneushul hundreds of years ago.
Torah scrolls contain the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The text is handwritten on sheets of parchment using a feather quill and black ink. Scribes undergo years of training before they are considered skilled enough for this task. The parchment is stitched together and wrapped around two wooden rollers. When the scroll is not in use – portions of it are read out during religious services - it is “dressed” in a Torah mantle, often made of velvet, and placed in the Holy Ark. The Torah mantle that hangs in my synagogue today was given to my father-in-law when he was in Prague in the 1960s. Prague was under Communist rule, and it was not open to visitors from the West, let alone Israel. But my father-in-law was an acclaimed pediatrician specializing in rheumatic fever, and his advice was sought by hospitals around the world.
His trip was in the fall, coinciding with the holiday of Sukkot (“Feast of Tabernacles”). On this holiday, the Jews build little booths topped with branches, commemorating the huts that the Israelites lived in while wandering in the desert. In keeping with the custom, the Jews who prayed at the Altneushul built a sukkah in the yard. When my father-in-law arrived, one of the worshippers, hearing that he was a fellow Jew from the Israel, rushed over with great emotion and embraced him with tears in his eyes, like some long lost relative.
Hanging in the sukkah as a decoration was the remnant of an old velvet Torah mantle. “Here,” said the man, removing the mantle from the wall. “Take this to Jerusalem.” My father-in-law accepted the gift and brought it home to Jerusalem where it lay in a drawer for many years. In the meantime my father-in-law passed away. My mother-in-law was clearing out her drawers and wondered what to do with it.
On the mantle is a Hebrew inscription embroidered in gold that says: “In honor of the Torah, the girls and the women of our congregation.” Taking that as our cue, we had it framed and found a new home for the Torah mantle from Prague in the women’s section of Ariel Synagogue in Jerusalem.