You never know what can be accomplished when a group of amazing women come together to do something, and no one person has to get all the credit. Miracles really happen.
Four Jewish women from Tzfat decided to write a Megillat Esther that was used in the Collective Women’s Reading last Purim, and just like a pregnancy, it took them about nine months.
The idea was the brainchild of Chaya Ben Baruch, one of the readers who read Megillat Esther in Tzfat in 2019. She learned the trope for Megillat Esther, including reading the names of Haman’s ten sons in one breath. Chaya brought her daughter Kirin to the reading, a young married woman who experiences Down Syndrome. The group of women read slowly with lots of kavana (intention), so Kirin was able to keep up following along in her printed megillah. This was the first for her.
Chaya thought: If we can read a megillah, why not write our own megillah as well? Having been taught to think outside the box, she started researching and learning the halachote of Sofrute and watched as many videos about sofers, ink, and more. She found out about the Collective Megillat Esther written in 2013 by Phyllis Shapiro, Shelly Wolfe, Dorit Daphna Iken and Aviva Buck-Yael in St. Louis. The Jewish connections started clicking, women in Tzfat who knew some of the women in St. Louis and they helped Chaya connect with the St. Louis group. Chaya then approached several women in Tzfat including Allison Ofanansky, Sheva Chaya, and Susan Zahavi with the idea of collectively writing a Megillat Esther scroll. In the end the four became the core scribes. If you visited anyone’s home you would have seen practice papers of Hebrew calligraphy letters on desks and kitchen tables (pictures included in the article). Susan even took it with her on her vacation to Canada.
In the end the four became the core scribes. If you visited anyone’s home you would have seen practice papers of Hebrew calligraphy letters on desks and kitchen tables.
Initially we shared as much information as possible and got together once a week. Susan invited a young sofer to her home, and he taught us the pencil exercise: one takes two pencils and tapes them together in such a way that one pencil tip above the other. This exercise helps the writer learn the angles of the different calligraphy lines needed to write the letters. It was an excellent way to begin to learn the fine motor techniques required to be a successful calligrapher.
Since they live in Tzfat, the home of the Holy Ari z’l, they decided to write the Megillah in Ari z’l script. From pencil practice they switched to calligraphy pens, then they started using plastic nibs and ink. The biggest step was transitioning from paper to klaf. Hours of writing became very meditative. The group learned to write each letter and developed a relationship with it. Each letter was ingrained into each woman’s soul consciousness in ways it had not been before.
Chaya and Susan took a formal course online but our work needed to be shared with the other male students using pseudonyms such as “Chaim” and “S. Zahavie”. They shared their learning and spoke to as many Sofrim that were willing to speak to them. Little by little their knowledge and expertise grew.
Chaya went to Yirushalayim and went to two stores that carried Sofrute supplies. One store employee hardly spoke to her but the other, Kulmus, near the shuk, was very welcoming and helpful. She bought Yeminite gid (thread made out of animal sinew) to sew the megillah and her husband helped get supplies from a sofer in his kollel who was very open to the work.
They learned about different plastic nibs that can be bought and printed templates that can help with the spacing and when to elongate a letter. They all worked on light tables made from lucite picture frames and a lightsource underneath. A template would have a sheet of paper on top or eventually a sheet of klaf to help copy the letters and words.
Each scribe’s writing is slightly different, but similar enough for a reader to flow from one person’s work to another. Allison and Chaya wrote portions that they would read. Susan did not want to read, and Sheva Chaya may read next year.
When Phillis Shapiro came to Israel, Susan and Chaya went down to Raanana to meet her and Shelly Wolfe who had by then immigrated to Israel. The willingness to share ideas and information was so encouraging. The Tzfat women looked in awe and respect for the accomplishment of the St Louis women. It gave them an attitude of “If they could do it what can’t we?”
The Tzfat women looked in awe and respect for the accomplishment of the St Louis women. It gave them an attitude of “If they could do it what can’t we?”
The weekly practice sessions were more than just writing, they were an opportunity for the women to bond together and become dear friends. The improvement in their calligraphy was steady. Each new change took a while to perfect, going from calligraphy marker to ink, going from paper to actual klaf scaps. All of us had a hesitancy when it came to actual writing on real klaf. It took a while to build up the courage and awe to do something this kadosh. Our community depended on our ability to produce a kosher megillah.
One woman’s work needed to be corrected because of a water drop caused by a wet umbrella, another was hesitant to erase, in the end Chaya did the sewing of the klaf together. Elana Shacter, a local quilter offered to make the case cover.
Since it was a Melach Megillah, in which most every column starts with the word Melach or Hamelach, other women could paint little crowns on pieces of Klaf that would be used to decorate the megillah display but not put them on the actual megillah. Arrangements were made for the megillah to be checked by computer and by an experienced sofer who could only do half of the checking and another sofer needed to be found to check it. It felt like for every two steps, forward there would be one step back.
There was an indescribable feeling of pride and accomplishment when the megillah was used at the collective reading. The friendships between the women made the writing a success even before the Megillah was finished and used. Each of the four women developed a closeness to Hashem through the letters that they did not have before this journey. That is why they want to teach others who want to learn.
The friendships between the women made the writing a success even before the Megillah was finished and used. Each of the four women developed a closeness to Hashem through the letters that they did not have before this journey.
They are currently working on a collective writing of Megillat Ruth that will be read by women this Shavuot. JOFA’s Megillat Ruth trope app has come in handy to prepare for the collective reading.
Chaya’s son Ori who experienced Down Syndrome died this past Elul and she is writing a Megillat Esther in his memory known as “The Mother’s Megillah.” People can donate toward a letter, with a personal prayer request and Chaya will daven for them as she writes. The proceeds will go toward the Tzfat Mothers support group whose children have special needs.
The Megillah can be seen at Sheva Chaya’s Blown Glass gallery in Tzfat. Any questions can be relayed to the women through email@example.com.
Chaya Ben Baruch made Aliyah from Alaska, but originally was from New York. She is the mother of ten children, half of whom experience Downs Syndrome.
Susan Zehavi is a Baal Teshuva who made Aliya from Canada, eight years ago. She is a proud mother of four, two currently serving in the IDF, and grandmother. Susan runs The Artists Colony Inn in Tzfat.
Allison Ofanansky made aliya from the US in 1996. She is married with a 20-year-old daughter. She writes children’s books, and works as an editor/translator.
Sheva Chaya Shaiman made Aliyah in 1999 from Denver, Colorado. She is the mother of 5, and a professional glassblower and painter sharing her work from her gallery in Tzfat.
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