Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Like Bread and Torah

Every successful couple has their special recipe for getting along, for living with each other’s differences. Bingo on Tuesdays for him, bowling on Wednesdays for her. Then there’s Jonathan Rubenstein and Linda Motzkin. He makes the bread; she makes the Torah. His passion is kneading and braiding dough into traditional Jewish challahs; hers is using a turkey quill to faithfully hand-write on animal hide, over years, the roughly 300,000 Hebrew letters of the first five books of the Bible. Somehow it works for them. They get along.
Of course, Jonathan Rubenstein and Linda Motzkin are no ordinary couple, and their secret sauce isn’t so secret. They are co-rabbis of Temple Sinai, a reform synagogue in Saratoga Springs. They were the first husband-wife team in the United States, if not the world, to job-share a rabbi position, and after twenty-eight years co-officiating at Temple Sinai, they’re still going strong, as is the temple.
LIndaYet at the heart of their relationship, which stands as a role model for the congregation’s 200 families—including mine—is a basic tenet of getting along. They give each other space to pursue their separate passions. They come together where it makes sense—whenever they chant arm-in-arm in front of the congregation, say, or team-teach Bar and Bat Mitzvah students. What works for them, works for the community they lead. Because the lines are blurred.
Because the truth is that bread and Torah aren’t that different, after all.
“Without bread there is no Torah. Without Torah there is no bread.” So says the Talmud, the venerable compendium of Jewish teachings and commentary. Inspired by that ancient message—sustenance of body and spirit go hand in hand—the rabbis in 2004 created the Bread and Torah Project, a one-of-a-kind program that unites their distinct areas of focus. The couple travels to schools, conferences and retreats to give participants hands-on experience. Participants split into groups—one focused, say, on the processing of deerskins into Torah parchment panels; the other kneading dough into long spindles and braiding them together. Then the groups switch.
To those who might scoff that baking yeasty dough has little in common with scribing animal skin, the rabbis are quick to elaborate on the Talmudic explanation. Both activities involve rolling, they explain to their students—one of dough, the other of scrolls. Both are sacred processes involving blessings or statements of sanctification. Tree taps are used for each— for both maple syrup to sweeten Rabbi Jonathan’s bread, for acacia trees for gum Arabic crystals, an ingredient in Torah ink.
gothicThen there’s the whimsical answer seen in a photo of the rabbis that’s posted on the Bread and Torah website. Paying homage to the farm couple in Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting, Rabbis Linda and Jonathan stand side-by-side, absurdly grim-faced, clasping similar-looking plants—she holds a bunch of reeds, which are sometimes used to make Torah quills; he holds a bundle of wheat, which of course goes into dough.
“This is another area where each of us, being who we are—pursuing our own interests and passions—turns into something, almost magically, that’s perfectly complementary,” Rabbi Linda told me last week, as she took time from her rabbi duties to chat and sip a hot beverage at Coffee Traders in Saratoga.
But even as they’ve embraced Torah and bread making, Jonathan and Linda, who have a socially liberal bent, have turned these traditional roles on their heads.
Trained as a soferet, or Torah scribe, Linda—who has the slender, strong-looking hands of a writer—is one of the tiny handful of women in the world engaged in a craft traditionally dominated by men. And she is unique among female scribes in that she is the only one who hand-makes her own parchment, using deerskins donated by local Adirondack hunters for the Torah scroll she is currently writing.
Rabbi Jonathan, for his part, runs Slice of Heaven, a bakery located in the temple that makes challahs, a bread traditionally in the hands of women for special occasions like Shabbat and life-cycle rituals.
“There’s something delightful about the areas we’ve staked out,” Rabbi Linda says. “The male is in the kitchen baking. The female is out there handling hides from hunters and fleshing dead animal skins.”
Rabbi Linda’s first passion in life was art. She is an experienced calligrapher, which she describes as an expression of the artist’s vision and ego. But another side of her, later in life, was drawn to the structure of Torah scribing. A scribe gives up his or her ego and becomes a “channel for transmission of a sacred text you didn’t create,” she observes. In 2007 Rabbi Linda completed a scroll of Ester and now is at work on a full-length Torah. And now she’s bringing together, in a sense, these two parts of her life. Her latest project is illustrating animal hides that are damaged or otherwise unfit for use as Torah parchment. In June, she opens a show of her parchment artwork, called “Sacred Scraps,” at Spring Street Gallery in Saratoga.
A defining event in Rabbi Jonathan’s passion for bread making came decades ago when he was twenty-seven years old, living at home with his parents and his 96-year-old grandfather, a former baker who’d given it up because of age.
One day Jonathan was kneading a challah. His grandfather looked up from the couch. A light came into his eyes. With a great effort he staggered over, nudged Jonathan aside, and began to knead the dough.
photo (50)“He really wanted to get his hands in that dough and feel the process,” Rabbi Jonathan recalls. He’ll never forget that moment. It was when Jonathan realized he too loved the process of shaping and braiding and letting the yeast do its miraculous job. He felt inspired to write a poem.  “For Shabbat, the dough gives its gift of rising,” sings the last line.
“Every time I go away the bread rises,” he explains. “I feel like I’m participating in this elemental and miraculous process. It probably sounds a little romantic. But I love making bread. I love everything about it.”
Bread and Torah. Jonathan and Linda. There you have it.
David Kalish is the author of the novel, The Opposite of Everythingwhich will be published in March. His author events this spring are in Saratoga, Brooklyn, and Long Island. Click here for more information.

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