By Stacey Dresner
WESTERN MASSACHUSETTS – Miriam Lewin was in Leeds visiting her first cousin Rabbi Kevin Hale in August of 2016 when she learned of his work with the Czech Memorial Scrolls.
Hale is one of 17 authorized scribes who work on the restoration and repair of scrolls that were rescued after World War II by the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust in London. Today more than 1,500 restored Czech Torah scrolls are on permanent loan in Jewish communities all over the world.
“I always knew what he did,” Lewin said. “But one day I was visiting him at his house in the Pioneer Valley and he was telling me about the work that he does with these specific scrolls – the Torah scrolls from the Memorial Scrolls Trust – and that he goes to a lot of congregations and works on the scrolls, and I blindly said, ‘That sounds like a film!’ Kind of like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney saying, “Hey, let’s put on a show!’”
The result of that family encounter is “Commandment 613” a 23-minute short film, directed and produced by Lewin that will be featured in the Pioneer Valley Jewish Film Festival from March 5-8. A virtual discussion of the film with Lewin, Rabbi Hale, and cinematographer/editor Randi Cecchine will be held on March 8 at 7 p.m.
Commandment 613 tells not only the story of Rabbi Hale’s work, but shares some of the history of the historic Czech Torah scrolls.
Czechoslovakia had a thriving Jewish community for more than 1,000 years, but the community was all but destroyed after the Germans invaded the country in March of 1939. During the war, Judaica, including 1,800 Torah scrolls from the regions of Bohemia and Moravia, was taken from synagogues, collected by the Nazis and eventually stored for decades in a basement in Prague.
In 1964, the Czech government offered the long forgotten scrolls to a British art dealer, and they were acquired by the Westminster Synagogue in London. Soon the Czech Memorial Scroll Trust was founded to protect and keep track of the precious Torahs. And for more than 50 years, scribes like Rabbi Hale have painstakingly restored these scrolls so that they may still be used in Jewish communities around the world.
The documentary got its title, Rabbi Hale explains in the film, because “it is “generally accepted that the last [commandment] – 613 – is God saying to Moses, ‘And now write this song for yourselves and teach it to the children of Israel’”…or write your own Torah.
Hale took an interesting journey in becoming a sofer. Growing up Reform on Long Island, in a family that he calls “classic Jewish German secular,” he dropped out of Hebrew school before he could be bar mitzvahed.
After receiving a BA in Classical Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Studies and Archaeology from Yale, Kevin Hale worked as a “self-employed toy maker” in Berkeley, California for several years. At the age of 29, after a trip to Germany to see extended family still living there, he had a calling to become a rabbi.
“I sensed that there were treasures in Judaism,” Hale says, “and I wanted to find them.”
Growing up with Hale “No one saw ‘Rabbi’ coming,” laughed Lewin. But she says his work as a sofer makes sense.
“Kevin is curious and creative and a tinkerer,” she said. “He comes from a family of people who build things. His father’s an engineer. His brother is a photographer and maker of tiny incredible objects. They are all builders, and Kevin has all of those ‘want-to-build it’ tinkerer skills.”
Lewin and Cecchine were able to spend time filming Rabbi Hale at work in his Leeds office/workshop. Hale shares some of what goes into restoring a Torah – from the ink and tools used for different parts of the process, to the animal skin parchment and how the Torah panels are sewn together, to ancient customs and rules scribes follow during different steps of the scribing process.
“I really pushed for us to film in his studio,” said Cecchine. “I love his relationship to his objects, to the tools and toys that he tinkers with, and his relationship to sacred craft and fun.”
Before making Commandment 613, Brooklyn-based Lewin had mainly made documentaries for professional development for teachers, many dealing with teaching the arts.
“I’ve never made a film longer than 30 minutes. This is the first time that I’ve made a film without a client, a budget or a deadline,” she said. “
While filming, Lewin and Cecchine followed Hale to Media, Pa., where he was working to restore two of the Czech scrolls.
One, Scroll No. 795, had belonged to a synagogue in Prostjav, Moravia and was now at a Conservative synagogue called Congregation Beth Israel. The home of the scroll, No. 586 is Wesley Enhanced Living. Both scrolls are on permanent loan from the Memorial Scroll Trust.
Lewin and Cecchine spent three days filming Hale as he shared his knowledge of the Torah and the art of scroll restoration in Pennsylvania with groups from young religious school children up to the elderly residents of the assisted living center, all eager for a glimpse of Hale’s sacred handiwork.
“Some of my favorite moments in the film is when you see the people crowding around and Kevin is teaching them things…And people have this look on their faces, like ‘I’m so close to this thing!’ With these particular scrolls that have such meaning for those congregations, the emotion is even stronger.”
Lewin and Cecchine began filming in September of 2016; filmed some scenes in both 2017 and 2018; then finished shooting in 2019. The film was completed in May of 2020.
Lewin says that the more than 20 screenings of the documentary that she has attended virtually have been as emotional as in-person ones might have been, especially for the synagogues that have one of the scrolls.
“These people who can’t get together personally, can get together online and focus on something that has great significance for them. Those sessions have been very meaningful for us.”
“Commandment 613” will be shown virtually from March 5-8. To register for the film or the virtual film discussion on March 8 at 7 p.m. visit pvjff.org.
Main Photo: Rabbi Kevin Hale, left, and his cousin, filmmaker Miriam Lewin, working on “Commandment 613.”