Black fire on white fire

Black fire on white fire

West Orange soferet’s grandson will become bar mitzvah reading from his grandmother’s Torah

Linda Coppleson holds a sefer Torah she wrote; she’s at a siyyum to celebrate it at Temple Am Shalom in Glencoe, IL.
Linda Coppleson holds a sefer Torah she wrote; she’s at a siyyum to celebrate it at Temple Am Shalom in Glencoe, IL.

This Shabbat, Linda Coppleson of West Orange is going to experience something that very few other women have had the chance to live through.

She will be in the congregation when her grandson, as he celebrates becoming bar mitzvah, will leyn from a sefer Torah that she wrote.

(To be absolutely clear, that means that her oldest grandchild, Jeremy Coppleson of Springfield, will chant from the Torah scroll whose calligraphy is her handiwork.)

Writing a Torah scroll is hard, painstaking work that can be done only after a great deal of study, practice, and intellectual and spiritual preparation. Until recently, all the sofrim — the scribes — who undertook such work were men; the Orthodox understanding of the halacha, the Jewish law, that officiates over such decisions, teaches that women cannot become scribes, and that any sefer Torah that a woman writes by definition is unkosher.

But that is not the Conservative movement’s interpretation of the relevant halacha, and Ms. Coppleson is a Conservative Jew, and a soferet.

She came to her art indirectly.

Ms. Coppleson grew up in Newark. “When I was a kid, in elementary school they gave you a choice of music or art,” she said. “My mother was a piano teacher, and my sister is a professional pianist. I chose music.” In fact, when she went to college, at Brandeis, she was a music major “for about 15 minutes,” she said; then she switched to Judaics. Next, she went to NYU, where she earned a master’s degree in Jewish education.

After that, Ms. Coppleson became a teacher; for many years, she worked in West Orange, at what first was the Solomon Schechter School of Essex and Union and then became the Golda Och Academy. “I taught Tanach, rabbinics, and Jewish history; a few times I taught a senior elective in scribal arts,” she said.

Linda Coppleson writes a Torah scroll; she’s using a tikkun. The unusually formatted column she’s finished is Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea.

Her interest in calligraphy was sparked by “The Jewish Catalogue,” the 1973 do-it-yourself pre-New-Age hippie-ish Jewish classic that spawned chavurot and indie minyanim, Jewish crafts and Jewish learning and Jewish awareness and had a long afterlife with reverberations that still are felt today. “‘The Jewish Catalogue’ was my inspiration for learning calligraphy,” Ms. Coppleson said. “There was a whole section in the book about scribal arts. I thought it was the best thing ever. I even bought pens and ink. They were metal pens — it was not until I started learning safrut that I learned to use a quill, and to cut one.”

Wait, what? To cut a quill? “Well, yes, you have to cut your own quills,” Ms. Coppleson said.

“So I learned Hebrew calligraphy about 40 years ago and I started to write ketubot” — marriage contracts — “and to illuminate them. Part of the reason I became a soferet, many years later, was to combine the teaching aspect of Judaics with the skill of doing calligraphy. I felt that I hadn’t gone far enough with my calligraphy, and learning safrut” — the art and craft of Hebrew calligraphy, used to write sacred texts — “would be a way to develop that more.

Safrut “brought my love of teaching and love of interacting with kids together with my love of writing letters,” she said; by writing letters, she did not mean correspondence, but the shaping of each component of the alphabet, making each letter perfectly itself.

This was about 20 years or so ago. Her husband, Victor Coppleson, suffered from a long-term illness — he died in 2019, just before the pandemic — and eventually she stayed home to take care of him. Learning calligraphy and then practicing safrut was practical as well as soul-satisfying; she could do it from home.

“It took me a while to find a teacher who would teach a woman,” she said. “My first teacher, Eric Ray, was an incredible artist and teacher and scholar of Torah scrolls.”

Rabbi Dr. Ray, born in England in 1926, “served in World War II,” Ms. Coppleson said. “He was not yet a sofer, but he was well known as an artist and calligrapher. After the war, he was recruited by the Haganah and smuggled into one of the DP camps controlled by the Soviets. His job was to forge passports and visas for Jews going to Palestine,” where they fought in Israel’s War of Independence. “After he finished that, he settled in Israel and learned sofrut. Eventually, he came to the United States, where he taught at the University of Judaism for many years. And then he came to New York and lived in Great Neck. That’s where I knew him.

“He accepted me as a student.”

At some point, Dr. Ray was ordained; he was a Conservative rabbi, although not a pulpit one. “He started a school for nontraditional scribes — for non-Orthodox men and for women,” Ms. Coppleson said. “He accepted me as his student.” After that, she’d drive out to Great Neck to work with him. “He would teach me, and he spent a lot of time telling me stories,” she said. “He was terrific.”

Next, Ms. Coppleson worked with another sofer, the Mount Vernon-based Neil Yerman, who specializes in repairs. “Next, I had a chevruta,” a study partner, “another woman, Jen Taylor Friedman, who is the first woman to have completed a sefer Torah.” That was in 2007. “We studied the halacha together.”

To become a soferet — which is not a formal degree or title — “you study the halacha.” From there, the route to safrut is like the one to Carnegie Hall — you practice and practice and practice. “You start out by writing a megillat Esther,” the Book of Esther, Ms. Coppleson said.

And then she became one of five women who were commissioned to write a Torah scroll for Kadima, a Reconstructionist shul in Seattle.

There are usually about 62 separate pieces of parchment in a sefer Torah, Ms. Coppleson said; although the number used to vary more, it’s becoming more standardized, she continued. “That’s because we use a tikkun,” a printed version of the scroll, laid out to resemble the original. “You can write a Torah by copying either a tikkun or another Torah.” When you use a tikkun, it’s more standardized. That first Torah scroll to which she contributed did have 62 pieces of parchment, and she wrote 17 of them.

“Since then I’ve had private commissions,” she said. “Right now I’m working on my eighth Torah, and I also do repairs.

“Commissions usually are by word of mouth. My first solo torah was for Beth Elohim in Park Slope. I also am part of a website — maybe it’s a guild — a group of probably around 25 to 30 women who are or are studying to be sofrot. Probably no more than half a dozen of us actually are engaged in writing new Torah scrolls.”

It takes her about 14 to 15 months to write a Torah scroll, Ms. Coppleson said, and she works about four days a week. “It takes me approximately 5 to 5 1/2 hours to write a column, and I write one column every working day.” That means that her speed is roughly average, she added.

“I feel that there is a kind of pressure about writing a Torah,” she said. “You want to be sure that you are doing it with the right kavanah,” the most pure intention. “You want to be sure that you make each letter you write the best that you can make it be. You have a responsibility — it’s a burden, but a good burden.

“When I write, I say every letter before I write it — I don’t necessarily say it out loud, but I say it at least in my head.”

According to some mystics, the Torah is black fire on white fire. It is to be handled with great care. She does handle it with great care.

And she thinks about the sound and the meaning of what she writes.

“For example, the first time I wrote the story of the akeida,” Abraham’s binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac, “I realized that although it is a really short account, barely more than a paragraph, the word b’no,” his son, “was there six or seven times. The name Yitzhak” — Isaac— never is on its own. It’s always Yitzhak b’no. The impact is powerful. This is what Abraham is being asked to do.” To sacrifice his son. “I don’t think I would have noticed it if I wasn’t writing it.

“The writing opens up a different path to understanding Torah.”

This Shabbat, at Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield, her grandson will read from a Torah that she wrote for her own shul, Congregation Ohr Shalom — The Summit Jewish Community Center. (Although she lives in West Orange, she still belongs to the synagogue that was her family’s community when her children were growing up, she said.)

She wrote the scroll during the pandemic and finished it just before Simchat Torah in 2022; the idea, which became reality, was that it would first be used when the shul reopened after the pandemic. “It was symbolic of coming back together,” she said.

“I asked if I could borrow it to bring to Beth Ahm so Jeremy could read from it, and they said that I could, as long as there wasn’t a bar or bat mitzvah in Summit,” she said. “Fortunately, there isn’t.”

Linda and Victor Coppleson had two children. Their son, Micah, and his wife, Sari, live in Springfield. They have two sons, bar mitzvah boy Jeremy and Noah, 10. Their daughter, Yael, and her husband, Richard Greenberg, live in Irvington, N.Y.; they have two sons, Henry, almost 6, and Charlie, almost 3. Another baby is on the way.

What will it feel like, does she think, when Jeremy, her older child’s older child, reads from the sefer Torah that she wrote?

“I am proud to be able to do it,” Ms. Coppleson said. “I feel that I am passing along something vitally important.”

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