A Torah scroll is black fire on white fire, we’re taught; it’s fiercely alive, wondrous and potent and impossible to describe accurately using the merely human words that are all we have to use.
It’s a symbol; it’s at the core of our tradition, the most basic texts, the most condensed, fast-moving versions of the stories that have gripped human imaginations for millennia, the bedrock stories that carry the embellishments and refinements that echo and mirror the embellishments, the art-for-art’s sake designs, more black fire, that decorate its letters.
It’s also, to be more prosaic, sheets of animal-skin parchment, sewn together by sinews; the painstakingly formed and aligned letters, which make up necessarily always correctly spelled words, are handcrafted in black ink with a feather or reed pen.
So a sefer Torah is precious both as a symbol and as an object.
The Tekel family knows that. They are guardians of a sefer Torah that they use as a both physical and a symbolic object. But they — that’s Harvey and Jill Tekel, who live in Woodland Park now, but lived in West Orange for 33 years — got an airplane ticket for it purely in its physical incarnation.
The family’s history with the Torah scroll began in the 1970s, when Harvey’s parents, Yvette and Louis Tekel, who lived in Haworth, took a trip.
Both Yvette and Louis Tekel — and Jill and Harvey Tekel too, for that matter — had (and have) huge presences, which they use for good in the local Jewish community. Their name might be unusual, but it’s also well-known across Jewish neighborhoods in north Jersey.
Yvette — we’ll use first names here, because this is a story full of Tekels — was “president of Hadassah’s New Jersey region for a number of years, and then on the national board for the rest of her life,” her son said — so the Tekels went on many Hadassah missions, which took them around the world. In the 1970s, they went to the not-yet-former Soviet Union, to see if they could meet up with some refuseniks, then trying to get to Israel.
“So they were on the mission, in a small town called Kovno” — a storied city, then in Lithuanian, but because the borders shifted sometimes in Poland, home to YIVO, and a place where the Jews first were herded into a ghetto and then slaughtered, but until then a vibrant center of Jewish life.
“They were given a tour of some of the old synagogues, which were no longer in use,” Harvey said. “My father said to the caretaker, ‘Where are all the Torahs?’ And the guy said, ‘I give this tour two times a week for years, and no one has ever asked me that.’
“And my father said, ‘So, where are they?’ And the caretaker” — who was Jewish — “said, ‘We had them buried. And when the Soviet Union became a little more open, we dug them up, and we hid them under the bimah.’” In other words, the sifrei Torah had been carefully wrapped and put into a hole dug for them, stayed there for some unspecified number of decades, probably about three, and then were unearthed. They were treated with reverence but they were not used. There was nobody around to use them.
“They were buried without the handles or the silver,” Jill said. “They were detached from the wood. It was just the parchment.
“There were a lot of scrolls.”
Louis Tekel had come to that trip to the Soviet Union with attitude. “He flew B17 bombers in World War II,” his son said. “He was part of the Bloody 100th,” the American heavy bombardment group, based in Britain, that undertook a series of devastating raids on Germany and France, and lost a devastating number of brave airmen. “Most of the guys in the 100th didn’t survive,” Harvey continued. “That gave him a sense that he could do anything.”
After the war, Louis Tekel was successful in business; “he ran a large commercial industrial laundry, based first in Jersey City and then in Newark,” Jill said. “And he had the feeling that he could figure stuff out, because if the Germans couldn’t kill him, no one else could.”
Back in the Kovno shul, “my father said, ‘Can I see the Torahs?’” Harvey reported. “And then he said to the guy, ‘Could I have one?’
“And the guy said, ‘Yeah, you could. You can have one. And you can have one of the little ones too.’ ” The surviving Jews of Kovno had buried some megillot along with the sifrei Torah, as well as some haftarah portions that had been written out on scrolls as well, “so that a bar mitzvah boy could use it.”
Yvette was not around when her husband made these arrangements, their son added. “She was the nicest, most honest person in the world,” he said. If it wasn’t legal to take the scroll, she wouldn’t have taken it. Unlike her husband, she wasn’t a rule-breaker. “But my father said, ‘Let’s just see what happens.’”
So he took the sefer Torah and the megillah — which could roll up fairly tightly, without the etz chaim, the wood spindles that the Torah usually winds around — and he stuffed it down the leg of a pair of jeans, and he packed the jeans into his suitcase.
His gamble paid off. His suitcase wasn’t searched, and there was no metal to set off any alarms.
“Remember, this was the greatest generation,” Jill said. “What he and his friends accomplished was amazing.”
Once the Torah and the megillah were safely through customs, “he told my mother-in-law what he had, and she was very excited and proud,” Jill said. Everything was out in the open again.
“So then he got them back here, and he took them to the Lower East Side, where he found a scribe who could fix them so that they were kosher again,” Harvey said. “To use a word that my father would have used, he kosherized them.
“And then he got a yad, and he got a mantle, and he got a crown — it was the biggest crown anyone had ever seen — and he was very proud of it. And the inscription on the outside of the Torah was in honor of his grandchildren, and that we could pass it from generation to generation.”
Harvey and Jill talked about Louis and Yvette’s generation. Louis’ parents, Abe and Ida Tekel, and Yvette’s parents, Sam and Esther Gitlow, all lived in Spring Valley, and Louis and Yvette knew each other a bit from high school, and kept sporadically in touch. But “my father left high school halfway through his senior year to join the army. He didn’t want the war to be over without his being involved. His father — my grandfather — had served in the Russian army, so he wasn’t too happy to have him go. My grandmother signed for him.”
After the war, Louis and Yvette both went to NYU, met again there, fell deeply for each other, quickly married, and had two children, Harvey and his sister, Tova Szporn, who lives in Parsippany now.
So — back to the Torah. Once they got it home, to Bergenfield, they gave it to their shul, the Bergenfield-Dumont Jewish Center. But in 2008, when the shul merged with Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, Yvette and Louis gave the Torah to Jill and Harvey, who loaned it to their shul, Bnai Shalom in West Orange. “Although they have a lot of Torahs, they use it a lot,” Jill said.
When he moved the sefer Torah, Harvey had it appraised. “I went to Queens and found an appraiser, and I said, ‘This came from Russia,’” he reported. (And of course it didn’t come exactly from Russia; Kovno is in the former Soviet Union, but it’s in Lithuania. Eastern Europe is not a place with firm borders.)
“The appraiser looked at me, and he said, ‘No it didn’t.’” Harvey continued. “I said ‘What do you mean?’ and he said ‘You might have gotten that Torah in Russia, but it was written by someone from Romania.’ I said, ‘How can you tell? Hebrew is Hebrew!’ and he said ‘Not to a scribe, it’s not.’
“So our Russian Torah is really Romanian.’”
On the other hand, the appraiser couldn’t tell how old the scroll is; he said it could be around 100 years old, Harvey said, but it’s just a guess.
“It’s in regular rotation in West Orange now,” Jill said. “Our kids and their cousins have read from that Torah, and friends of our kids borrowed it for theirs.
“Jill also has read from it,” Harvey said. “Our daughter, Erica, has read from it. It’s been in Agudath Israel in Caldwell. It’s been around the neighborhood.
“And my father was able to see his great grandchild use it,” he added. “Do you know how special that is?”
Yvette Gitlow Tekel died in 2015, at 89; Louis Tekel died in April 2021, at 96. When he died, Louis had five great grandchildren.
The two oldest, Zachary and Zoe Lieberman, the children of Glenn and Erica Tekel Lieberman, live in North Caldwell. They became b’nai mitzvah at Agudath Israel, reading from the Tekels’ Torah. That was easy.
The third of those great grandchildren, Hannah, was set to become bat mitzvah — but she lives in Florida. “We were trying to figure out what in God’s name we were supposed to do,” Harvey said. “How would we get it there?
“All of the companies that should ship it wanted so much money for it. And we decided that it was stupid. Instead of shipping it, we could just buy another ticket for it.” Not only was it not more expensive to fly with the Torah, it was safer and felt much better. The Torah’s not cargo. Instead, “We bought three tickets, for three seats. Harvey Tekel. Jill Tekel. And Torah Tekel.”
There was a question they had to fudge because they couldn’t answer it, Jill said. “What’s Torah Tekel’s birth date?
They carried it through the airport in a stroller that they bought from Target, she added. It went through a special x-ray machine. At the gate, the Tekels were able to board early, with the stroller-to-stow group. Once they got on the plane, “we had to bungee-cord it into the seat, because it doesn’t have any legs.”
The Torah sat covered with a blanket. “It was just before the end of Chanukah, and there were a lot of Orthodox people on the plane” going to Florida, Jill said. “They knew right away what we had wrapped up there. Everybody was like, yeah, you got a Torah in there.
“When we got there, we waited for everyone else to get off the plane before we took the Torah off. The stroller was waiting there for us.
“We took the Torah to the shul where Hannah was having the bat mitzvah,” Harvey said. “The rabbi put the Torah on the couch in his office, and covered it with his tallis.”
“It was dor l’dor,” Jill said. From generation to generation. “When we had our aliyah, with this Torah, Harvey and I absolutely felt that our parents were in that room, watching us.”
After Hannah’s bat mitzvah and the party that followed were over, Torah Tekel reversed its trip home. Covered with a blanket, pushed in a stroller, sent carefully through an x-ray machine, sitting in its own seat (but resolutely not looking out the window), it came back home, and now is in the ark at Bnai Shalom in West Orange, waiting for its next adventure.