SAVANNAH, Ga. — Darryl Crystal has a passion for preserving Jewish history, and he has done it at Savannah’s Mickve Israel, Georgia’s oldest Jewish congregation.
The interim rabbi has made sure some of the congregation’s finest treasures – its oldest Torah scrolls – are professionally documented to preserve what he called a “living legacy.”
“What we’re really focusing on is giving people a chance to see inside a 500-year-old Torah, which would usually just be in a museum case, but you’d never get to see it up close,” Crystal said. “And then to see inside a Torah that survived the second World War, and then see inside a scroll that came to the congregation in 1850 and see inside a modern scroll.”
The oldest two scrolls date to around 1500 in Spain and Portugal and are made of deer skin. One came to Savannah in 1733, the other in 1737. Three are dated to 1850, and one scroll dated to 1890 survived World War II.
Crystal brought Will Kirk, a Johns Hopkins University photographer with whom he has worked on similar projects, to Savannah to photograph the scrolls. Unrolling the scrolls – which Crystal said were about 450 feet each – was a time-consuming process. They would use books to flatten individual pages to get the perfect shot.
When all was said and done, Crystal said, they had completely documented the two oldest scrolls and had taken plenty of photos of the others.
He said it was moving to see members of the congregation coming in to see the work being done.
“You’re touching literally the deepest part of people’s roots,” Crystal said. “Coming to a new land, which was a land of economic opportunity and free from religious persecution was really a dream come true. And not just to be coming to the land for your own prosperity, but to be carrying with you a Torah scroll, which represented the continuity of Jewish heritage but also represented your flight from persecution and now the scroll is here today as the Jewish community is established and people are secure in this land of freedom.”
Seeing one scroll in particular meant a lot to Marion Levy Mendel. Just shy of her 95th birthday, Mendel got to see the 500-year-old deerskin scroll her ancestor Benjamin Sheftall brought to Savannah from Europe in 1733.
“It gave me pause to say the least,” Mendel said. “Especially when I saw it spread out in its entirety and realized
what they must have gone through to get it over here. And
after they got over here, they took such good care of it.”
Such good care, in fact, that it weathered two fires. When the old synagogue on Perry Lane burned in 1829, the scroll stayed in Charleston and then at the home of Benjamin Sheftall’s son Mordecai until a new synagogue was built. Then, when the roof of the current Mickve Israel caught fire in 1927, Mendel’s mother risked her life to save the scrolls.
“My mother happened to be playing bridge across the street, and my mother and her friend … ran over and rescued the Torahs out of the ark,” she said.
Crystal said it’s all part of preserving what he called the “majesty of what this is all about.”
His hopes are that members of the congregation and visitors to Mickve Israel will be able to look at a digitized version of one of the 500-year-old scrolls.
“If you read from the Torah scroll at a certain point in your life when you become bar mitzvah … on a computer, you’d be able to look and find what you read but from a Torah scroll from 1500,” he said. “So a living legacy is really what it is.”
The styles in which the scrolls are written change over time, he said, so some of the intricacies of the older scrolls wouldn’t be found in modern scrolls. Being able to see and compare the scrolls, he said, is seeing how the tradition has been carried on for hundreds of years.