Telling stories, letter by letter
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Telling stories, letter by letter

Sofer Jay Greenspan's work on display at the Tenafly JCC


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Jay Greenspan stands by High Holy Day cards he created.

Sometimes things that don’t make much sense at the time become obvious in retrospect.

Say, for example, that you were a teacher, and one of your students was an easily bored little boy.

Instead of paying attention to you, this kid obsessively drew letters. Rows and rows, column after column of letters, marching along the bottom of his notebooks. Not looking up. Not paying attention. Just drawing letters.

What would become of such a child?

Although his teachers at the Arie Crown Hebrew Day School in Chicago could not have predicted it, it is not entirely surprising that now, some 60 years later, Jay Greenspan is a scribe.

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Ketubah by Jay Greenspan.

Mr. Greenspan, who now lives and works in Teaneck, is also an illuminator, a sofer stam – someone trained and qualified to set quill to parchment to create copies of sacred texts – and a prime storyteller.

He grew up in Chicago’s then heavily Jewish Humboldt Park (the neighborhood that’s as intimately connected to the work of Saul Bellow as, closer to home, Newark’s Weequahic is to Philip Roth). His parents, Philip and Sylvia Haberman Greenspan, were immigrants, and they both had stories.

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An elaborate and unusual ketubah.

Philip Greenspan was born in Wloclawek, Poland, 35 miles from Warsaw. His own father, a housepainter, had come to America in 1928, planning to send for his wife and children when he could afford it. By 1934 he was able to bring them over, and they managed to procure a visa, but “the immigration official who examined my grandmother decided that she had traucoma,” Mr. Greenspan said. Although glaucoma is a recognized condition, traucoma is not. “She had been crying all night,” Mr. Greenspan said. Her eyes were puffy and red. “But they told her she couldn’t come to America because she had a made-up eye disease.” The family went to Palestine instead.

They stayed there for two years; Mr. Greenspan’s great uncle joined the Irgun, and as it seemed likely that the British would arrest him, his mother decided it was time to move on. They went next to England, and then, finally, to the United States.

“My father, at 16, was enrolled in first grade,” Mr. Greenspan said. He didn’t speak any English. “It must have been horrendous.” He learned quickly, though, and graduated from high school two years later, when he was 18.

Next, Philip Greenspan was drafted, found himself in the Signal Corps, and fought in New Guinea and the Philippines. Once he was out, at war’s end, he put himself through the University of Illinois at Champagne with the GI Bill.

Jay Greenspan’s mother, Sylvia Haberman, was born to Polish parents in Vienna in 1920. Her father was arrested in 1938, during the Anschluss, and her mother subjected to the random humiliations in which the Germans specialized. His grandmother, the family’s brains, realized that it was time to get out. Fortunately, hers was a middle-class family, and she had the means to get the process started.

“My mother pretended to be a nurse,” Mr. Greenspan said, recounting family lore. “They got an ambulance. Her parents were the patients. They drove through Germany to the Belgian border.” Three times they made the trip but were turned back at the final border; the fourth time was the lucky one. “It was 1939,” he said. “She was 19.”

She and a brother were given $200 and put on the last boat from Antwerp. They were told not to tell anyone that they had such a large sum of money, because it would be stolen from them; they did not keep quiet, and indeed they were robbed. As a result, they had to spend a week at Ellis Island, waiting to be rescued by a family friend.

All the immediate family got out. “One of my father’s great uncles decided that it wasn’t religious enough in America, so he went back,” Mr. Greenspan said. He was murdered by the Nazis. “We lost dozens of family members,” he added.

In Chicago, though, the family prospered. “My father was an athlete,” Mr. Greenspan said. “He played soccer, and he was an incredible dancer. This was the heyday of the swing era, and he loved to dance.

“He was a semi-pro in Latin dancing.”

Mr. Greenspan remembers a family friend – he was not Jewish, but instead half Russian and half Armenian – who had the wonderful name of Yasha Nikogosoff. Mr. Nikogosoff “was a saber dancer,” Mr. Greenspan said.

“Yasha was a fabulous dancer; elegant, charming, with a cigarette holder and a cravat. He and my father would go to clubs, and everyone would want to dance with them.” That’s where his parents met. “She was not as great a dancer as he was, but she was a great cook,” her son said. “She made chicken soup; her brisket was famous, and she made great gefilte fish.”

Whoops, though. “My father hated the smell of gefilte fish.”

Jay, their first child, was born in 1947. “I was the oldest grandchild on my father’s side, and my grandfather owned the building we lived in,” he said. He grew up surrounded by family – the building had six apartments, and relatives lived in three of them. “Because I was the oldest, I was the one who was sent to day school,” he said. “Everyone else went to public school.” His grandparents must have paid his tuition, he said.

The school was not close to his home, so “at a pretty early age I took two buses by myself to get to school,” Mr. Greenspan said.

The family belonged to an Orthodox shul called Ateres Zion; it is now a Hispanic church, he reports.

“Since I was the firstborn, every Friday night I would go down to my zayde’s for Shabbat dinner. They didn’t speak much English, and it was very quiet. But my grandmother made wonderful tollhouse chocolate chip cookies.

“And then, on Saturday mornings, I would walk with my zayde to shul. I was the only one under 60, and usually there were only about 16 people there. My grandfather was president of the shul, and I was bar mitzvah there.”

Mr. Greenspan stayed in Arie Crown until high school, and then he went to Lane Technical High School on Chicago’s North Side. Like New York City’s Bronx High School of Science, it is aimed at students who are gifted in the sciences, and they have to pass a test to be admitted. Unlike its New York counterpart, it also heavily stressed the skilled trades. It offered wood shop, print shop, forge, and foundry, as well as demanding four years of English and at least two of a foreign language.

“I had to take architectural drawing, and I loved it,” Mr. Greenspan said. “That’s where I learned to work with a T-square, a rule, and a triangle square.

“That’s where I learned to love architectural lettering. I didn’t know about lettering before; I just knew that I loved to print. I didn’t know anything about calligraphy.”

Mr. Greenspan’s parents moved north of Chicago to Skokie when he was a senior in high school, so he stayed with his grandparents. “In the middle of my senior year, my grandfather died,” he said. “I lived with my grandmother for six months. She was a wreck.

“She would cry all night, and every morning her eyes would be bright red.

“Breakfast always was silent. She’d make me eggs.

“She died on my grandfather’s first yarzheit. I woke up one morning and there was no breakfast. I called her, and she didn’t answer. I called my parents, and they came.”

He had been accepted to the University of Chicago but had planned on living with his grandparents; he could not afford it otherwise. With his grandparents dead, he went instead to the public University of Illinois at Chicago Circle; he was in the first graduating class there.

“I had a great time there,” he said.

Mr. Greenspan commuted to school from his parents’ house in Skokie. There, he and his family joined and grew active in a Conservative synagogue, Congregation Bnai Emunah, and became, as he put it, a disciple of its rabbi, Harold Stern. There were five young men who found themselves drawn to Rabbi Stern. All five entered the Jewish Theological Seminary; of them, only Mr. Greenspan dropped out.

That’s because he had found his true calling.

“That is when I discovered calligraphy,” he said.

Mr. Greenspan’s roommate was Mark Loeb, who later became a Reform rabbi; he spent his career in Baltimore and died in 2009. “Mark was a calligrapher,” Mr. Greenspan said. “He had studied English calligraphy with a man named Lloyd Reynolds, a premier calligrapher, who studied with Edward Johnston, who had revived calligraphy in England.”

It’s interesting, listening to Mr. Greenspan talk about calligraphy. Rabbi Loeb’s work was in Hebrew as well as English, but his teachers – none of whom were Jewish – worked in English. Still, Mr. Greenspan puts artistic education in the context of a chain of transmission that is familiar to Jews. Mr. Greenspan learned upward, through that chain, from his teacher’s teacher’s teacher. (It’s also the traditional apprenticeship path, he pointed out.)

Mr. Greenspan’s roommate at JTS was David Moss, who also went on to be a great -and greatly in-demand – Jewish artist. “He claims that he taught me everything I know – and I claim I taught him everything he knows,” Mr. Greenspan said.

It was during that time that Mr. Greenspan started being asked to make things for friends. “I did, and eventually someone asked me to do something for money.” He spent a year in Israel as part of the rabbinical program, and “by the end of that year I was asked to do my first ketubah on parchment,” he said.

“And guess who was the mesader kedushin? Saul Lieberman!”

Rabbi Lieberman, who officiated at that wedding, a great scholar and looming presence at JTS, was the author of the Lieberman clause, an addition to the traditional marriage contract that specified when a husband would be actively obligated to give his wife a get – a Jewish writ of divorce.

Mr. Greenspan was nervous when he showed his ketubah to Rabbi Lieberman for approval, but Rabbi Lieberman accepted it.

The Israel year over, Mr. Greenspan went back to New York. Two years before he would have been ordained, he decided that he did not want the life of a rabbi. He supported himself by teaching in synagogue schools, and by doing more and more calligraphy.

Just before he dropped out of the seminary, Mr. Greenspan decided to become a sofer stam; he wanted to write such sacred documents as Torah scrolls, tefillin, and mezzuzot.

The only way to become a sofer stam is through apprenticeship, and Mr. Greenspan endured some misadventures as he bumbled his way toward finding one. Eventually, after going to the Lower East Side to check out every sofer there – and it was long enough ago that there still were many – he found one. “He was kind and nonjudgmental, and I am pretty good at being an autodidact,” Mr. Greenspan said. He found another teacher in Israel, and eventually he found his services in demand in the Conservative and Reform world, although not among the Orthodox.

This was a time of great ferment in the Jewish world, particularly in liberal New York circles. Mr. Greenspan, who lived on the Upper West Side for 25 years, was part of it. He wrote the article about calligraphy for the bible of do-it-yourself tie-dyed hippie Judaism, the Jewish Catalogue, and soon after he wrote “Hebrew Calligraphy: A Step by Step Guide” for Schocken Books. He taught at the 92nd Street Y and took courses at the marvelously named Society of Scribes.

He cobbled together an artist’s life.

Mr. Greenspan also was part of the New York Chavurah, another one of the exuberant outgrowths of Jewish culture that sprang from the prewar buildings and very postwar worldviews of the Upper West Side. The chavurah – which included such people as John Ruskay, Peter Geffen, David Ellenson, Bill Aaron, and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, began in about 1970, and he was asked to join in 1972. More than 40 years later, many of the friendships begun there are still strong.

“It was supposed to be an alternative seminary,” he said. “It was a great egalitarian institution.

“It grew to maybe 40 or 50 people.

“It was incredible. We would go on a retreat once a month. We got it down to a science. We would study all weekend. And on Shabbat we’d all take turns leading the davening.

“We would have Friday night dinner once a month; we’d arrange it with a different coordinator for each event. We had a meeting once a week. It was way before cellphones; you did everything by telephone.

“People who didn’t have kids would babysit.

“It was just amazing.”

In 1988, Mr. Greenspan and B.J. Gluckstern got married. (“Her parents really liked the name B.J., but they lived in California and weren’t allowed to do that, so they named her Barbara Joy, but her name really is B.J.”)

“Her father was a brilliant physicist,” Mr. Greenspan said. “He graduated from college at 19, did some work on the Manhattan Project, was provost at the University of Maryland in College Park, and then taught physics there.

“Her mother, also a very bright woman, was the warden of Patuxent, a men’s prison in Maryland.

“In fact, the weekend we got married, Thanksgiving 1988, she was asked to go on Nightline that Friday night because Willie Horton had just escaped. Patuxent was supposed to be a model prison for rehabilitation.”

It was a whirlwind romance; the couple married about five months after their first real date. A year later, they moved to Teaneck, where both their daughters, Rachel and Sophie, were born.

The family belongs to Congregation Beth Sholom.

Mr. Greenspan estimates that he has created more than 4,000 ketubot, as well as invitations, awards, plaques, diplomas, and papercuts. He has restored hundreds of Torah scrolls and is now at work on creating a Purim megillah.

He works in a studio in the basement of his house, surrounded by glowingly beautiful pieces of art, gold leaf in glassine envelopes, bottles and jars and brushes and rulers, photographs of his family and his wife’s family.

And he has so very many stories; they are almost as visible in the air around him as the physical art that he has created.

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