Page 97 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 40

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I glanced at the Torah in question and realized immediately
that both its general appearance and calligraphic style were
somewhat unlike those of every other Torah I had ever seen —
and also that the chances that I could be of help in tracing its
origins were practically nil. The fact was that my acquaintance
with soferic traditions was at the time limited to the very little that
I had managed to pick up about these during the occasional
aliyahs with which I had been honored over the years. I was, to
put it bluntly, almost totally unqualified to fix the provenance of
Bridwell’s patently uncommon Torah.
Still, the challenge was there, and it was not to be brushed aside.
But it took more than two years before I was able to unravel the
mystery, and this came about only after it occurred to me to send
photocopies of several passages from the Bridwell Torah’s text to
Dr. Menahem Schmelzer of the Library of the Jewish Theological
Seminary of America and ask him to compare these with the
reproductions of a series of Hebraic scripts available to him. The
script style of our Torah in Dallas, Dr. Schmelzer thereupon
informed me, appeared to be akin to that found in the Sifrei
Torah written several centuries ago in — of all places! — China.
Proceeding from this startling bit of news, and supported by an
enthusiastic Bridwell staff, I succeeded in obtaining interlibrary
loans and photocopies of numerous books and articles which
eventually made it possible to demonstrate that Dr. Schmelzer
had hit the nail on the head. Bridwell’s Torah, it turned out, was
written for a synagogue in the central Chinese city of Kaifeng
during or shortly before 1663.
Quite naturally, the emergence deep in the heart of Texas of so
improbable a Judaic treasure as an old Torah of Chinese origin
stimulated my curiosity about the people who had commissioned
it, with the result that I decided to attempt an in-depth study of
their history. This was a subject, I already knew, for which a
comprehensive bibliography of the literature that had to be
examined could not be built up from the meager resources at
hand. Help had first to be sought from distantly located Judaica
and other libraries, some of them outside the United States.
Then, when a good working list of pertinent references was
finally assembled, I would of course be compelled to turn again to
these institutions, and to still others, for more interlibrary loans