Mastering the art of chanting the weekly portion from a Torah scroll is not nearly as simple as learning how to read Hebrew.
The Torah’s text is written without the diacritic vowel and cantillation marks that guide pronunciation, punctuation, and melody.
The reader therefore must practice and memorize all those markings from a book before attempting to read the Torah properly. Every overlooked or mixed up dot, dash, or squiggle can alter or completely change the meaning of the words.
Which is why Marc Hoffman is so proud of his careful attention to those symbols when he reads the Torah at four Rockland County synagogues: Nanuet Hebrew Center, New City Jewish Center, West Clarkstown Jewish Center, and Congregation Sons of Israel in Upper Nyack.
While some readers might miss the “mappik-hay,” for instance — a tiny dot inside the letter “hay” indicating that the h-like letter is vocalized, rather than silent as in the “h” in “Sarah” — Mr. Hoffman most enjoys chanting Torah portions that have lots of them, like Matot and Mishpatim.
“My goal is to chant it correctly,” he said.
Mr. Hoffman, 43, explains that attention to detail comes easily to him.
“I have a form of high-functioning autism,” he said. “Autism is a psychological condition that involves certain challenges and difficulties adjusting to the norms of society. It can also be characterized by great attention to detail and the ability to do some amazing tasks.”
Since he was a kid, he has been able to convert Jewish dates to Gregorian dates without looking at a calendar. He’s a whiz at crossword, Sudoku, logic, and acrostic puzzles.
“My three best subjects in school were math, foreign languages, and music,” he said. “I have the ability to remember people’s names — not just people I know, but the family tree of distant family members as well as that of synagogue friends — as well as mathematical computations. I speak fluent Spanish and beginning-to-intermediate Hebrew.
“I have a really good memory for names, dates, numbers, and statistics, and reading the Torah uses the same skills.”
Born and raised in New City, in the house where his parents, Judith and Daniel, still live, Mr. Hoffman was trained for his bar mitzvah at Sons of Israel and self-honed his Torah-reading craft to the point where, when he was 16, he began volunteering — and occasionally being paid — to read the Torah at various synagogues.
Until the pandemic, he was alternating among those four Conservative congregations each week.
Barry Kanarek, who has been the cantor at Nanuet Hebrew Center since 2005, said that Mr. Hoffman “has found a loving home in our congregation and other congregations in Rockland County. People appreciate his love for what he does and his love for Torah.
“What is outstanding about Marc is that he not only overcomes his challenges but uses them to his advantage. He has mastered the art of reading Torah and to me that is very inspirational.”
Mr. Hoffman also frequently chants the haftarah and leads prayers.
The rabbi of Nanuet Hebrew Center, Paul Kurland, said that while Mr. Hoffman is not a spectacular singer — “Marc will never try out for ‘American Idol’ and he knows that, and I joke to him about it” — he is “a spectacular Torah reader, as accurate as any Torah reader can be.”
Rabbi Kurland and other local rabbis have remained in touch with Mr. Hoffman throughout the pandemic, when inhouse synagogue services are curtailed.
“He is a blessing to us, and we are also a blessing to him because of the community we give him,” Rabbi Kurland said. “Being in synagogue on Shabbat is a very special part of his social life, and he became part of the family over the years.
“Pre-covid, he was probably the No. 1 hugger in the congregation, and you’d always see him in conversation with someone. He is an excellent listener and friend. What’s really wonderful is that when anybody else reads from the Torah he’s always the first to go up and compliment them.”
Rabbi Kurland said he is grateful for Mr. Hoffman’s participation but is happy to “share him” with other congregations. “I like that he is reading in so many synagogues, because few people can read as well as Marc can,” he said. “And it also expands the number of people who have gotten to know what a warm heart he has.”
Rabbi Ariel Russo of Congregation Sons of Israel says that Mr. Hoffman “has been a wonderful gift in our community. He is an incredible Torah reader and a very big help to me because we are a small synagogue and not many members have the ability to read the Torah.”
She echoed Rabbi Kurland in adding that Mr. Hoffman has close longstanding relationships with congregants.
“It’s a warm and unpretentious community, and because of that there are many people who feel very comfortable here who might have felt socially separate in another community. We have people with lots of different abilities. Personally, I treasure having Marc as a member of our community. He is so bright and so thoughtful and it’s a joy when he is here.”
Mr. Hoffman, who describes himself as an observant Conservative Jew, graduated from the Summit School at Nyack in 1996. His Jewish education comes from the Sons of Israel religious school and the Hebrew high school at New City Jewish Center.
“Then I went to Seton Hall University and graduated in 2004 with a triple major in Spanish, philosophy, and comparative religion,” he said.
For a few years he lived in New Jersey, in an independent living home for high-functioning adults with various challenges. “But I found it was not for me, so my parents and I decided I should move back to the county,” he said. “I found my niche in all the synagogues in Rockland County and that has been infinitely better for me.
“The Rockland County Jewish community has been very excellent to me in showing that they look at me for all the valuable contributions I make to the community and the good friends I make. They look at me for what I offer the community rather than putting labels on me.”
Mr. Hoffman lives independently in Valley Cottage and follows the philosophy that “if you keep your eye on the ball, you’ll head in the right direction.”
He’s a big fan of game shows and Mets baseball, and looks forward to resuming pre-pandemic activities such as bowling, visiting museums, and traveling — and especially to going to synagogue services in person.
“The synagogue basically is my social life, my community gathering center,” he said.
His success as a Torah reader and prayer leader, Mr. Hoffman added, “goes to show you that even people with the greatest alterations in how their minds work can do amazing things for the Jewish community.”