With quill in hand, Rabbi Menachem Youlus scrutinizes his latest treasure – a centuries-old Torah, stabbed and burned by Nazis during World War II. Many of the onyx-colored Hebrew letters of the scroll are so damaged they now appear to float like rafts on a sea of tea-colored parchment.
The Torah scribe will painstakingly retrace the letters – 300,000 of them – reapplying the ink six times on each letter to preserve the original penmanship.
It's a quietly tense job he performs. A single mistake on the battered but sacred scroll could render the entire Torah pasul, or unfit. His labors in the sanctuary of his workroom might be considered the easy part of Rabbi Youlus's specialty of Torah restoration. But before he can restore, he must locate and unearth the scrolls. And therein lies the very unlikely cloak-and-dagger lifestyle of the unassuming, sparkling-eyed man with the deft fingers of a surgeon.
Thousands of Torahs lie buried or hidden wherever Jews have been persecuted – from Eastern Europe to the former Soviet Union. Many other Torahs have found their way into hostile hands – such as Baghdad's Saddam Hussein-era National Museum.
Part Indiana Jones and part Sherlock Holmes, scribe Youlus travels the world following leads on sacred scrolls, brokering secret deals for them, smuggling them in ingenious fashion across hostile borders, and even digging in the earth for them. In arranging an interview for this article, the scholar-sleuth had to cut the call short because he was due to meet an ex-KGB general at Exit 11 on the Jersey Turnpike. The former Soviet spy hoped to cut a deal for hundreds of Torahs; to prove he had the Torahs, he mailed Youlus a piece of parchment torn from one of them.
"The Torah is different from other artifacts. Seventy years from now we will not see a Holocaust survivor," says Youlus. "Having these Torahs will make it more real for people than just reading about the Holocaust; the Torah is tangible."
Youlus embarked on his mission more than 20 years ago. One Friday night, a car struck his father and brother-in-law as they were walking to synagogue. They weren't expected to live. The young rabbi prayed. He promised to devote the first year of his marriage to the Torah if they survived. Today the pair work alongside Youlus.
The time came to fulfill his vow. After studying in Israel, Youlus completed his training in Leningrad, Russia. Today the rabbi – who speaks Polish, Hungarian, Russian, and Yiddish, plus a dollop of Spanish – works with antiquities departments worldwide. He has rescued 523 Torahs, many of which come from places the Holocaust completely obliterated. Often a town's sole survivor is the Torah.
That's how his current project – the Nazi-damaged, 228-year-old scroll – found its way into his workshop at the Jewish Book Store of Greater Washington (D.C.). The Torah comes from Breznice, Czechoslovakia, where 200 Jews once lived. When the Third Reich thundered into town, only 30 remained. The Nazis confiscated all Jewish property and dispatched the Torahs to Prague to be displayed as relics of an extinct people. Unlike Breznice's Jews, the Torahs survived.
A generation later and a continent away, Adam and Monica Chusid, of Westport, Conn. lost their 13-month-old daughter, Rebecca, in 1994. Gripped with sorrow, the Chusids yearned to heal.
"We searched to find something that would honor her memory and link her memory with our other children," said Mr. Chusid, father of Hannah, now 16, and Rebecca's twin, Jenna, now 13.
Chusid hoped to save a Holocaust era scroll. Through the London-based Westminster Synagogue, Chusid located the Breznice scroll, which he was able to get put on permanent loan to The Conservative Synagogue in Westport. It will remain in Maryland until Youlus finishes repairing the Nazi damage. It keeps company with scores of Torahs, stacked floor to ceiling, awaiting the ministrations of the scribe.
The Torah, written in Hebrew, contains the Old Testament. For Jews the Torah transcends theology and law; it embodies Judaism's soul. For that reason there have been those from the Spanish Inquisition to Stalinist Russia who have sought its destruction.
It's a visceral feeling Youlus recalls when once, in the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad, he stood before one of the oldest known versions of the Talmud. "All I wanted to do was break the case and rescue this work from a regime not known for treating Jews very well," he says. Hussein considered Torahs talismans and ordered hundreds of Iraqi scrolls defiled. Youlus hopes to someday save these Iraqi Torahs.
According to Jewish law, damaged Torahs, unless repaired, must be buried. Thus the Westport scroll must be restored, explains Rabbi Robert Tobin of The Conservative Synagogue. "If we bury that Torah scroll we will lose the last living thing from that community," he says.
"Rabbi Youlus may be the only person who can save the scroll," says Rabbi Tobin. Some argue that preserving these scrolls intact, keeping their scars from Nazi bayonets and Jewish blood, can refute Holocaust deniers.
But for people like Chusid, "putting them in display cases is not much better than what the Nazis intended. It makes the scrolls relics."
Youlus's Save A Torah Foundation retains 27 scribes and 20 spotters who help find endangered scrolls. The spotters may be Jewish, Roman Catholic, or Muslim; they may be priests, diplomats, or curators.
Once Youlus locates a Torah, he brings it back to the US to assess damage with digital cameras and infrared scanners. The Torahs can cost between $8,000 and $12,000 and are then resold to carefully screened communities for between $12,000 and $20,000. Youlus earns nothing from this work and, in fact, has gone into debt.
In the beginning he faced many hurdles: "I didn't know the laws for getting Torahs out of countries. I made too many unscrupulous contacts."
He has disassembled a Torah into 62 panels to conceal it in a false-bottomed suitcase. He once even "wrapped a Torah around my body and hid it under a trench coat to get it out of Iran," he says.
Recounting his experiences with all the calm of reciting a grocery list, he says, "I once spent a night in a Soviet prison. I was beaten up in Germany and lost two front teeth. I was once knocked out."
Many governments, including Russia, have nationalized their Torahs. This riles Youlus: "They have no more Jews, but they're still keeping our property – our cultural property."
Several years ago, he had his most startling discovery. In Kamenets-Poldoski, Ukraine, a farmer approached Youlus, staring at his yarmulke. The farmer offered him a map for $1,500. His father had instructed him to sell it to the first Jew he met. Like a child's treasure map, an X marked the spot. Tiny pictures of shoes showed how many "boots" it took to get to the spot.
Ivan, Youlus's bodyguard, looked wary. "But my gut told me something was there," recalls Youlus. "I paid him and climbed into his wooden cart. It was an old cart with an older horse." Ivan ran behind. Then, Youlus says, a farmer told him that "we have to own the land to dig. So we pay. Ivan digs like there's no tomorrow, because our plane is [leaving] in less than three hours. We hit upon something."
Two Torah scrolls lay nestled among 260 sets of bones that belonged to Jewish children slaughtered in the Holocaust. Unable to identify the remains, Youlus's father suggested that words from psalms grace each headstone.
Since Youlus began, he has resettled Torahs everywhere from New Orleans to Uganda, he says. "I have kept my promise but I'll never be done. There are thousands of Torahs out there."