The Ancestral Presence I’d Invite, If I Could Do It Again by Erika Dreifus

  Erika Dreifus, pictured in front of the Torah scrolls at her home congregation in New Jersey, 1982.

Erika Dreifus, pictured in front of the Torah scrolls at her home congregation in New Jersey, 1982.

Frankly, when it comes to my Bat Mitzvah, there’s precious little that I wish I could re-do. When I recall the May 1982 occasion, I might confess that I’d likely have been significantly more comfortable had I not insisted on wearing my ill-fitting contact lenses (oh, adolescent vanity!). But overall, the event was everything I could have wished for at the time. I’ll admit that in recent years, I’ve envied some of my younger cousins the video-recordings of their ceremonies and celebrations. But there’s a part of their Bar and Bat Mitzvah experiences that I envy even more: the presence of “the Altdorf Torah”.

In 1938, the small Jewish community in my grandfather’s home village of Altdorf, Germany, had asked his sister—my great-aunt Bella—to take the Torah with her when she left Altdorf for good. Through their mother, who had died shortly after my grandfather’s birth, Grandpa and his sister could trace their ancestry in the village back to 1764. Their grandfather, a baker, was also their little congregation’s chazzan. In 1937, my grandfather was able to immigrate to the United States. I can only assume that by the following year, the Jews who remained in Altdorf saw the proverbial writing on the wall; that’s why they relinquished the precious Torah to Bella’s care and a future, however uncertain, in Mandatory Palestine.

Bella, her husband (also a German-Jewish refugee, whom she met in Netanya), and their sabra daughter remained in Israel until the mid-1950s. During that time, I am told, the Altdorf Torah rested in a closet in their moshav home. When they were able to rejoin their family in the United States, the Torah came with them.

In America, the Torah migrated to Williamson, West Virginia, where Bella’s daughter, Hedva, and her husband raised their family. At that point, the Altdorf Torah became a “Williamson Torah,” housed within the ark at B’nai Israel. Bella’s grandson, my cousin Julius, read from it at his Bar Mitzvah. (I was a small child at the time, and was not present for that occasion—it’s only as an adult that I’ve even discovered the existence and story of the Altdorf Torah—but I cannot help wondering now how the Altdorf-born generation might have felt as they watched.)

  The Altdorf Torah in 2013, as Erika’s cousin, Sophia R., the youngest great-grandchild of Erika’s great-aunt Bella, became a Bat Mitzvah in Columbus, Ohio.

The Altdorf Torah in 2013, as Erika’s cousin, Sophia R., the youngest great-grandchild of Erika’s great-aunt Bella, became a Bat Mitzvah in Columbus, Ohio.

I’m also told that the Altdorf Torah is not entirely “kosher”—some passages are difficult or impossible to read. But it was indeed used in Williamson before the synagogue closed; it was subsequently shared with the American Hebrew Academy (where one of Bella’s great-granddaughters was a student); and it has been present at multiple Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies within the family. I was able to see and touch it in Columbus, Ohio, when it was walked around the congregation during the Bat Mitzvah service of Bella’s youngest great-granddaughter in 2013.

By then, my grandfather and his Altdorf-born siblings—most, blessedly, present for my own simcha in 1982—had long since passed. And yet, the same Torah—the very same scroll—that had animated their lives and generations before them remains. In those eternal, cherished words of our people: l’dor va’dor.

Erika Dreifus lives and writes in New York. She is the author of Quiet Americans: Stories, a collection infused by the experiences and histories of her paternal grandparents, German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s. Currently, Erika works as Media Editor for Fig Tree Books, a publishing company specializing in fiction and memoir on the American Jewish Experience. Visit Erika online at www.erikadreifus.com and follow her on Twitter @ErikaDreifus, where she tweets on “matters bookish and/or Jewish.”