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Seattle-Jerusalem latest trip for family Torah

Through more than a century of Jewish holy days and sacred occasions, the Torah in the family of AP Writer Tim Klass has been a constant, its travels reflecting five generations' journey from Russia to the United States, and more recently to Israel.
/ Source: The Associated Press

EDITOR'S NOTE — Through more than a century of Jewish holy days and sacred occasions, the Torah in the family of AP Writer Tim Klass has been a constant, its travels reflecting five generations' journey from Russia to the United States, and more recently to Israel. Klass offers a biography of this uniquely well-traveled scroll.

The story, exquisitely hand-printed on old parchment, has been a staple of sermons for centuries. Jacob, having tricked his twin brother Esau out of the birthright, flees to his trickster uncle Laban, begets many children, grows wealthy and sneaks away for home.

This recitation of the story, though, could not have been more quintessentially characteristic of my family and the continuing vitality of Jewish life in the 21st century.

Reciting it was Yonatan Gralnek, the 13-year-old son of my cousin. Even before his reading, my heart nearly burst as I held aloft our family's Torah at the Western wall in Jerusalem last month.

It was the latest journey for a uniquely well-traveled Torah, a sacred treasure that has traced my family's travels from czarist Russia to the United States and beyond for more than a century.

Longest of its many trips
I'd brought the scroll from Seattle, where I live, and I will never forget the glow on Yoni's face as he carried it from the reading table a few yards to the ancient stone wall in his coming-of-age ceremony. When I brought the Torah back home, it completed the longest of its many trips.

Torahs as small as ours, at 14 inches (35.6 centimeters) about half the size of a standard Torah, are uncommon, nor do many of any size remain within a non-rabbinic family for so long. Hardly any have covered as many miles (kilometers) as ours, made in the middle or late 19th century and brought by my grandmother, Yoni's great-great grandmother, Tuba Kastelman Gralnek, from what is now Ukraine to the U.S.

Owned by my brother, Kalman Klass, and kept on indefinite loan at Temple B'nai Torah, the synagogue we attend in suburban Bellevue, it has been read by me, my brother and our three sisters, our children and various cousins and in-laws at bar and bat mitzvahs from Minnetonka, Minnesota, to Bethesda, Maryland, and Santa Cruz, California. A rabbi and cantor have borrowed it for bat mitzvahs in unrelated families in Sitka and Valdez, Alaska.

It takes about a year to make a Torah, Judaism's most sacred object, the Five Books of Moses written by hand in an ornate Hebrew calligraphy with special ink on parchment sewn together in sections. A sofer, or certified scribe, copies each of the 304,805 letters in the approximately 79,000 words from a Torah previously checked for errors, any of which renders a scroll ritually unfit for use in Jewish services.

Over time, frayed bindings, deteriorating parchment and fading or flaking letters must be replaced.

When a synagogue closes, each Torah is usually sent to another where it will remain for decades or centuries.

Famous Torah travels on display
Once in a while a famous Torah travels on display, like an 800-year-old scroll from Portugal that is held by the Centro Comunitario Chalom in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Muslims on the Isle of Rhodes preserved it after the Jewish community was deported by the Nazis to the death camp at Auschwitz during World War II, then returned it to the few survivors.

The number of kosher Torahs is a mystery. E-mail inquiries to Hebrew University and the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem drew a blank.

Yitzchok Reisman, a sofer in New York and collector of rare Torahs, estimated that 40,000 to 130,000 kosher scrolls exist worldwide, likely more than 80,000.

The precise origins of our Torah remain unclear.

We believe it was written in or near Nikolayev Podolski, a town on the Bug River between Kiev and Lvov in what was then czarist Russia, by a sofer who was related to my mother's family.

Like one of similar size from Warsaw, Poland, that was owned by Rabbi Jacob Singer, the late founder of Temple B'nai Torah, ours may have been made for use in bar mitzvah training.

In 1904, fleeing from conscription before the Russo-Japanese War, my grandfather, Kolman Gralnek, and his brother, Morris, known in the family as Moishe, left their wives and children in the dead of winter, made their way to Le Havre, France, and emigrated to the United States. Five years later they had settled in central Iowa, Kolman in Marshalltown and Moishe in Newton, and sent for their families.

Source of religious instruction
Knowing little about where she was going except that there were few Jews, my grandmother brought the Torah, which had been housed in a synagogue supported by the family, so her children would have a source of religious instruction.

My mother, Merry Gralnek, the youngest of nine, was born in 1917. The Torah remained in the household until 1939, when Sons of Israel Congregation was organized in Marshalltown. I attended services there a few times and must have seen the little Torah, but never was I or any of my siblings told it was part of our family heritage.

None of the Gralneks from the immigrant generation would say much about the old country. Too painful, they said.

There were stories about my grandmother hiding her children in the oven during pogroms, about her oldest daughter, my Aunt Lena, knitting lace for the Radziwill family, Polish nobles, to help keep the family fed while my grandfather was away.

Nothing was said about the Torah.

When Sons of Israel was disbanded in 1985, two standard-sized Torahs were sent to other synagogues. My aunts Esther and Tillie Gralnek, now deceased, retrieved the small scroll with its vestments and took it to Mom for safekeeping.

She never told any of us.

In January 1989, as my mother lay dying, my brother and I flew to Sioux City to help my father prepare for her funeral. The morning after we arrived, he called down the hall, "Tim, can you come in here a minute? I want to show you something."

There, in the room where he was staying, the Torah lay in a dresser drawer with documents attesting to its history and ownership. Rabbis verified that it had been properly made but needed repairs, which were done in Seattle after my aunts decided that ownership would pass to my brother.

Torah taken to family events
Over the years, I carried the Torah to family events, including a reunion in Minnesota.

Israel was another order of magnitude.

First I rolled the scroll to the passage that Yoni would be reading. Then I replaced the vestment, wrapped it in a large flannel sheet and placed it into a nondescript soft gray bag that never left my sight on the flights between Seattle and Tel Aviv except when it was in the overhead luggage rack.

In Israel it was never away from the family except when it was in a fireproof safe within the ark for Yoni's second bar mitzvah service, on the Sabbath, at a synagogue his family attends in Haifa.

For me, the responsibility was a joy. Lifetimes can pass without such golden moments — and I can hardly wait to travel again with our Torah, for the bar mitzvah of Yoni's brother, Ariel, in 2011.