New Torahs arrival merits parade, party

By day, Mordechai Shtofmacher is a mild-mannered Silicon Valley computer programmer. But come nightfall, he assumes a new identity — and he doesn't even require a frantic costume change in a phone booth.

After a long day of punching out code, the 25-year-old Santa Clara resident becomes Mordechai Shtofmacher, Torah scribe.

The Russian-born sofer is now finally able to rest his stained, weary hands and wrap up his hand-cut feather quill, after completing his third Torah, to much fanfare, Sunday in Walnut Creek. Chabad of Contra Costa — the beneficiary of Shtofmacher's labors — celebrated the occasion with a parade. Upward of 70 people sang, danced and marched through the streets of the city.

Coming on the cusp of Shavuot, the Torah's completion couldn't have been more serendipitous.

"It is beautiful timing because of Shavuot, which is when the Jewish people received the Torah," said Walnut Creek resident Armand Gabay, who commissioned the Torah in memory of his mother, Simcha. "The Torah continues to represent that we stay alive for eternity, and I think the neshamah, the soul of the person, stays for eternity."

Gabay, a wholesaler of kosher foods, hopes the dedication of the Torah to his mother allows her soul to be "as close to HaShem as possible," using one of the names for God.

"My mom left the legacy of six children, all Orthodox, and she is linked to that," he added. "This is a wonderful present to remember her for generations, for my kids as well."

Befitting Shtofmacher's high-tech proficiency, he first contacted Chabad of Contra Costa's Rabbi Yaakov Kagan via the Internet, after firing out a volley of e-mails offering his services to various Chabad rabbis. Shortly after accepting the commission last year, the scribe moved from his home in Brooklyn's Crown Heights to the Peninsula, closer to his wife's family — and a high-tech job.

"What's unique about this Torah is it was written in the Bay Area," said Kagan, adding that while the scribe started writing it in New York, "most of it was done right here in California, perhaps 80 percent. It's not that common that a scribe lives here in the Bay Area. It's nice to know it was written here, elevating the godly sparks right here in our own community."

The St. Petersburg-born Shtofmacher learned his craft at a yeshiva in Israel after he left Russia. It usually takes him a year to complete a Torah, working eight hours a day, quill in hand. But because he moved during the process, this Torah took a year and a half.

Being a Torah scribe requires a good hand, incredible concentration and meticulous attention to detail, Shtofmacher stresses. A Torah with one typo is not kosher.

"If one letter is missing, a Torah is no good," said Kagan. "The Torah itself is an expression of the unity of the Jewish people. This is the first Torah written for us special, so there's much more resonance behind it."

Kagan hardly waited for the ink to dry before breaking in the brand new Torah, reading the Ten Commandments Monday. The reading is traditionally one of Chabad of Contra Costa's most well-attended, a trend accentuated by the new Torah's debut.

Shtofmacher, for his part, has decided to hang up his quill. Instead of writing new Torahs, he hopes to move into the Torah correction and repair business, in addition to his day job as a high-tech worker.

"I am not up for writing anymore. It is very difficult and painful and the salary in the U.S. makes it difficult to live on the money," he said. "It's for the mitzvah, not the money. I love this job just because of tradition, the holy stuff. It feels very great."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.