Nearly every major museum has a conservation department that goes largely unseen, from New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Met to the Louvre in Paris and The National Gallery in London.
While their work may be taken for granted, it is indispensable — crucial to the survival of beloved masterpieces. Without them, there would be no one to clean and restore the priceless paintings on view that, over the years, build up dust, grime and dirt that compromise their life expectancy.
And for the Jewish Center of the Hamptons, their Torahs — some upwards of 100 years old — are no different, according to Rabbi Josh Franklin.
“If you go to a museum and you look at some of the older pieces of art, you just assume that this painting from the 18th century has always looked this nice and has held up for so long,” Mr. Franklin said. “But, really, there is a maintenance process to keeping a fine piece of art in sunlight for so long, and having the public be able to see it. The same is true for our Torahs.”
Earlier this month, the East Hampton synagogue launched a week-long cleaning and restoration of its seven active Torahs — which is an art unto itself. Led by Sofer Neil Yerman, the process is repeated once every three years to ensure that the collection, which includes a Holocaust scroll, is immaculate.
“This is one of those things that most people don’t realize happens,” Mr. Franklin said. “The goal is for the Torah to always look pristine, but nobody wants to know why these ancient scrolls that we’ve had for 100 years are still in such good shape. They’re just happy to see it that way.”
The Torah, which comprises the first five books of the Hebrew Bible — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy — is the central and most important document of Judaism, read by practitioners for centuries.
It is the religion’s most sacred object, Mr. Franklin said.
“The word ‘Torah’ means ‘teaching,’ and Torah is the symbol for all of Jewish wisdom,” he said. “It’s a symbol for our commitment to Judaism and Jewish living, and the experience of holding and seeing and being around a Torah is very powerful and palpable in our community.”
On average, a Torah scroll is 126 feet long, composed of approximately 61 parchment panels that are hand-sewn together. And, on them, a sofer — or scribe — calligraphs 304,805 Hebrew letters into 242 columns, all using a quill.
The process takes over a year to complete, Mr. Franklin said.
“It’s not like you’re writing very quickly. You’re writing, actually, very slowly and intentionally,” he explained. “You can see very clearly that the text, each letter, is beautifully hand calligraphed. So if you think 304,805 of these calligraphed letters that are very slowly, patiently and intentionally written, a year sounds like a reasonable amount of time — and sometimes it takes longer even.”
Coincidentally, before attending rabbinical school, Mr. Franklin worked as a summer apprentice for Mr. Yerman to learn more about the Torah writing process.
“He worked for the Jewish Center long before I arrived here,” he said. “Any rabbi can read from the Torah, but not every rabbi can write a Torah. This was really interesting to be able to learn Hebrew calligraphy, to be able to learn how to write with a quill, but also, there’s really a spirituality of writing sacred text.”
As a result, Mr. Franklin also learned about the restoration and repair process, which begins with sanding down the back of the Torah, where grime typically builds up — a task he left to the professionals this time.
“No one wants to inhale the animal hide dust,” the rabbi said with a laugh. “Kind of gross.”
Because the parchment is made from animal skin, certain complications can arise for Torahs in storage — the most problematic being that they attract hungry critters, who have no qualms about taking large bites out of the sacred text.
“There’s no, ‘Go to CVS and find some Elmer’s glue in order to repair the scroll,’” Mr. Franklin said. “You have to use specialty products in order to do all the cleaning and repairs that take place.”
Other fixes can include re-sewing torn panels and reinforcing them, and using a cleaning agent on the text itself that will still clean the dirt and not remove the ink.
“One of the common problems is letters might chip or letters might fade,” Mr. Franklin said, “and in order for our Torah scroll to be what we call a ‘kosher Torah scroll,’ a scroll that’s really used on a regular basis, the letters need to be able to be legible and seen, and not cracked or chipped.”
To repair any damaged text, the sofer uses a quill — which is typically a turkey feather, but some are goose and even peacock — to trace over the letter, restoring it to its original form.
“Looking at a Torah scroll, you would think that, ‘Oh, why don’t we just convert to a book already? It’s so hard to roll a scroll and why not just use paper? It’s so much cheaper, and why can’t we just print it, as opposed to having to write the whole thing?’” Mr. Franklin posed. “The reason why the Torah is so important for us is it’s a physical presence of our tradition. It’s beautiful, it’s holy, it’s a real experience to be up close with one.”
Before reading from the Torah during a service — predating the COVID-19 pandemic — the scroll would be removed from its Ark and circled around the synagogue sanctuary, allowing the community to touch the covered text as a sign of reverence.
This tradition is not necessarily about any one of the words, or chapters, in the Torah, Mr. Franklin explained. It is more about the Torah as a symbol that links the Jewish people back to previous generations, he said, and marks a commitment to and a love of Jewish life.
“There is something that is incredibly meaningful about the tradition of reading from this ancient document in the same way that we’ve been reading from it for thousands of years,” he said. “And certain traditions, when they get passed down, we imbue them with a particular meaning. So reading from a Torah scroll and using a Torah scroll is just a rich tradition of something that’s been carried all the way from antiquity that’s never really changed — and that continuity is incredibly important for us.”