(NOTE: After you finish reading this column, click on link below to see a KQED special about the Torah scribe.)
Back in December, I was on the web- site for the Contemporary Jewish Museum when I noticed the Torah scribe was taking a couple of weeks off for an injury. Then in January, the CJM issued a press release announcing that the rules for watching the scribe were changing: No longer could visitors gather around her and bombard her with questions at will, and her museum hours were being reduced so she could work at home.
At that point, I began to wonder: Did the scribe experience a nervous breakdown? Did having people continually watch her and interrupt her send her over the edge? Heck, I couldn’t work under such conditions (could you?).
And then it hit me: Maybe the “injury” wasn’t an injury at all; maybe she just needed a mental health break.
I had to find out, so I scheduled an interview with Torah scribe Julie Seltzer.
Down to earth, spiritual and affable, Seltzer was hired by the museum last fall for “As It Is Written: Project 304,805,” an “exhibit” in which the 34-year-old soferet is writing an entire Torah (62 sheets, 10,416 lines and 304,805 letters) over the course of 14 months. Right there in the museum. In a windowless room. With people strolling past and watching her. At all times.
She began the daunting project in October. By December, had she gone bonkers?
“I was trying not to,” Seltzer said. “Hence the request for a [policy] shift.”
Seltzer, who needs total concentration on every single letter she transcribes, told me there were a number of challenges: “It was very hard to focus. There were people and energy in a constant flow, and I’m very sensitive to noise and energy in general.”
She tried headphones first with white noise, then with wave sounds. “But the problem with that was that people thought I couldn’t hear them, and they’d talk to me really, really loud.”
The hovering rule was the first thing that changed. People now had to stand behind a rope about 15 feet away from Seltzer’s desk. But still, there they were, for five or six hours a day.
“It’s a strange feeling to be watched while you’re trying to focus on something else,” Seltzer said. “There’s a constant awareness of that feeling of people watching you.”
Imagine being shadowed on your job. “You can handle it for a short amount of time,” Seltzer said, “but then it’s like, ‘Hey, can you please leave me alone now? I just need to do my work.’ ”
Unable to work efficiently, Seltzer then realized she had another problem: not enough time to write the entire Torah during her museum shifts.
So now she writes in the gallery for just an hour a day, four days a week, and museumgoers can’t pepper her with questions at will. Instead, she holds two 15-minute Q&A sessions daily.
The new schedule allows her to do most of her work at home. In natural light from windows. At her own pace, usually starting at 8 a.m. Alone.
“For the sake of my mind and my hand, I needed to work over a longer course of time and take breaks in between,” she said.
Seltzer, a baker-turned–observant Jew, can’t remember what her thoughts were coming into this project. “I guess I didn’t know it was going to feel so enclosed,” she said.
She said she didn’t go crazy, but she did admit she was stressed out and even had trouble sleeping. So, was her injury really some much-needed time off?
“People think it was, but no, nuh-uh,” she said. Then again, she added, “I do think it was stress-related. It was like when you wake up one morning and you’re like, ‘Oh, I can’t move my neck.’ And then the pain just kind of shot down my whole [right] arm, and I couldn’t write.”
So, yes, it was a real injury. “But it did coincide [with the early stress], so maybe it was my body telling me that I needed to do this in a slightly different manner,” Seltzer said.
That’s where things are now. And the good news is that, thanks to conditions that have allowed her to make up for lost time, Seltzer is on schedule to finish in December.
Andy Altman-Ohr lives in Oakland. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.