The men and women gathering in the Jewish Community Federation library every Friday in San Francisco share two things in common: Each arrives with a Bible in hand, and all are ready for a deep dive into the sacred text.
Meet the downtown Torah study group. It may not be as old as the Torah, but the members are working on it. The group has been meeting on Fridays at 8 a.m. for nearly 45 years, with some original members still in the mix.
After 45 spins around the book, the participants say it never gets old.
“The Torah essentially is an ethical guide for human beings to live together on Earth,” said Steve Sloan, 76, a member since 1975. “The Judeo-Christian ethic has made the world a much better place.”
The format has been fixed for years: A guest speaker introduces the Torah portion of the week, expounds upon some aspect of it, then braces for impact as the participants weigh in. After that, a quick trip to Starbucks.
“Maybe Jews have studied Torah like this for thousands of years, I don’t know,” Sloan said. “It’s really a give and take. Everyone’s respected. It’s always very enlightening.”
On the Friday after Sukkot, the group studied Ki Tissa, a parashah from Exodus (Ch. 30-34) read during the festival. It’s a big one. The portion includes the commandments to observe Shabbat, celebrate Passover and keep kosher. Basically Judaism’s greatest hits.
Manny Kagan, a Latvian-born mortgage broker and amateur Torah scholar, led the discussion, though the term “amateur” does not do him justice. At 71, Kagan is sharp and well versed in the Torah and its commentaries.
“I’m here to give a commentary on the commentaries,” he said.
Kagan pointed out that the term am-kashe oref (often translated as “stiff-necked people”) appears multiple times in the portion. The term is often invoked as a description of the stubbornness of the Jewish people through the ages.
Group members argued about the purpose of the term. Lili Naveh, the Israeli-born West Coast rep of the Israel Democracy Institute, offered up her Hebrew expertise.
“Oref is in the back of the head,” she said, referring to the Hebrew for neck. “Not the front. It has associations with the back.”
Mike Thaler, UCSF professor emeritus in pediatrics and a longtime study group member, rejected the concept of stubbornness altogether. He thought the stiff-neck reference had more to do with arrogance.
Kagan tried to get back to his thesis, saying, “We continue stubbornly to have this conversation.”
The group began when photographer Maury Edelstein, 87, joined a study group mostly made up of his fellow Congregation Beth Sholom members to study with Ike Erenreich. Meeting in a local café, the group was under Erenreich’s thrall.
“To say he was a genius doesn’t paint the picture,” Edelstein recalled of his erudite friend. “He knew every philosopher who ever lived. But he was very critical of anyone who got up just to hear themselves talk. Ike was pretty harsh with people.” Eventually, Edelstein said, “they threw Ike out of the group.”
Edelstein and his mentor met the following Friday at the legendary Mama’s restaurant in San Francisco’s Washington Square. They talked Torah that day, launching their own study group. “We never stopped meeting,” said Edelstein, although the group has changed locations from time to time.
Many members, group leaders and guest scholars have come and gone. Local rabbis have often dropped in, but members prefer to have them join as regular participants and not all-knowing sages.
Sloan, who grew up in Omaha proudly Jewish but largely secular, was hungry for a study group by the time he encountered this one in the mid-’70s. He had been a member of the famed New Christy Minstrels folk group from the ’60s, and later an activist in the Soviet Jewry movement.
“There was a handful of people meeting at Mama’s,” recalls Sloan, a Mill Valley real estate investor. “I lived a block away and was always interested in religion and philosophy. Ike was a brilliant biblical scholar, very acerbic. I would ask questions, and he would just crush me.”
Sloan admits he has a “knack for asking strange questions, which have never been disrespected. By receiving these strange questions with respect, [the discussions] developed into a very free-ranging and philosophical experience.”
Back in the discussion of the parashah, retired art gallery owner George Krevsky noted the passage in Exodus 34:11 describing God’s promise to drive out from the land the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites and several other tribes. “What do we know about the seven peoples?” Krevsky asked.
“Google it!” suggested a fellow participant helpfully.
Kagan wrapped up his presentation by noting that in Exodus 34:27, God told Moses to “write down these commandments, for in accordance with these commandments I make a covenant with you and with Israel.”
In a time when most humans were illiterate, Kagan proffered, here was a commandment to the Israelites — and to future generations of Jews — to become a learned, literate people.
And at that point in the discussion, the 9 o’clock hour struck. It was time to call it quits until the next Friday.
“We’ve become pretty good pals,” said Edelstein, who says the attendance has dropped a bit in recent years, though it’s holding steady at around a dozen each week. “The main thing I get out of it is the camaraderie.”
Sloan agrees. “The quality of the leadership is the same as it was 40 years ago. We’ve had many rabbis and brilliant Bible scholars. They talk for 10 to 20 minutes, but I interrupt them after a minute or two.”