A Megillat Esther of one's own in Safed

"I never had a strong desire to read the megillah publicly, but was happy to get involved writing. I had no idea how much I’d learn, and how empowering it would be," said Zehavi.

CHAYA SHEVA SHAIMAN in her glassblowing studio.
Safed. The city steeped in mystical tradition, where the influence of Kabbalistic sages and saintly men and women resonates in living people’s minds as clearly as notes struck from a great bell. Rabbi Isaac Luria Ashkenazi (the Ari), the revered medieval scholar who is considered one of the fathers of Kabbalah, lies in Safed’s cemetery. People can be seen at his grave at all hours, meditating and praying. You can even physically experience something the Ari did every day, if you make your way to the cave where freezing spring water flows from the hillside, and dip into his mikveh.
That is, if you’re a man. A local hassidic community has forbidden women to dip in the Ari’s mikveh. Although women used the mikveh for centuries, today a woman trying to have her dip there will find a man full of righteous wrath stationed at the entrance.
Things move slowly for women in Safed. This coming Purim will see Safed women read Megillat Esther in public only for the third time, although women’s readings have been taking place all over Israel for years. It’s unheard of anywhere for a woman to take parchment, ink and quill and write a megillah herself. But in Safed, ordinary people do extraordinary things. Four Safed women learned the intricate halachic laws, acquired the equipment and wrote a kosher Megillat Esther. They are Chaya Ben-Baruch, Allison Ofanansky, Susan Zehavi and Sheva Chaya Shaiman, all ex-pat Americans and Safed residents.
The scroll has been approved as kosher by two sofrim (certified scribes). The Safed women’s megillah is the second such; a women’s group in St. Louis produced the first in 2013. One of the St. Louis group donated funds to buy the parchment for the Safed megillah.
Ben-Baruch is the leading light of the Safed women’s megillah project. She conceived it when she took her adult daughter Keren, who has Down syndrome, to a woman’s reading last Purim. Although Keren reads, she could never keep up with the text as typically read by men.
Women read in a more leisurely way than men,” Ben-Baruch says. “At that reading, Keren was able to hear and understand every word for the first time. I thought, what if women wrote a megillah, together, and used it for reading?”
A man studying how to write the sacred text sits with a tutor, and practices writing under his supervision. When he receives approval to begin work, he usually rents a studio, obtains a space in another scribe’s office, or at least sets up a corner in the house where he can work undisturbed.
“You never hear of men collectively writing a megillah,” Ben-Baruch says.
None of the women involved in the Safed megillah project had the luxury of peace and privacy. All run their homes, have paid or volunteer jobs, or care full-time for a seriously ill family member. The women’s megillah was written on their dining room tables, in moments snatched from family life and work.
“You don’t know what can be accomplished when no one person gets all the credit,” Ben-Baruch notes. It took nine months for the group to learn the laws and produce the megillah. 
It wasn’t easy to find a mentor, or to acquire the writing tools. Ben-Baruch found that most sofrim wouldn’t even talk to her. She eventually found a sofer in Jerusalem who was willing to sell her the tools and answer questions. “I didn’t have to humble myself because I’m a woman,” she says wryly.
Her husband bought the handmade ink and quills through a sofer friend when it became impossible for Ben-Baruch to leave her sick son and travel to Jerusalem again. She paid an online tutor to teach her how to write. She learned to make a quill and to practice on paper, afterward switching to parchment. One other woman, Zehavi, also took the course. She and Ben-Baruch taught the remaining two women.
Each woman received parchment and the appropriate template for the section she was to write.
“We practiced all the time, any time there was a quiet moment,” says Ben-Baruch. “First letters, then words. My kitchen table was full of scraps of paper with letters on them. We met once a week to practice together, first with pencils, then with a calligraphy pen. When we felt confident, we went on to quills and ink.” The women had a template of the entire megillah, ordered from a sofer in Bnei Brak.
“Because it’s a megillah written in Safed, we chose the writing style of the Ari as our font,” she explains. “Each time we switched to a new media – calligraphy pen to ink, paper to parchment – it took weeks or months to master it. We even changed the humidity to 50% in the rooms where we wrote, according to advice from a sofer.”
When all pieces were completed, Ben-Baruch sewed the scroll together with gidim – threads made of sinews. The women built the case for the megillah themselves, and another local woman sewed the embroidered cover.
Each woman's writing is slightly different from the others’, and so are their personal experiences.
“I gained an emotional and intellectual connection with the letters that I didn’t have before,” Ben-Baruch says. “It made me feel closer to God, in a way I never anticipated. It’s been a journey. I’m not the same person I was before. I changed, like a woman who’s given birth as compared to one who’s never gone through labor.”
Zehavi runs a bed and breakfast in Safed. When she heard of the project, she joined immediately, she says.
“It was a fantastic opportunity to do something interesting and meaningful. I never had a strong desire to read the megillah publicly, but was happy to get involved writing. I had no idea how much I’d learn, and how empowering it would be. It connected me to my roots as a Jewish woman. I felt the desire to be holier.
“It was hard to master, but as a woman, you know that if you keep going, you’ll get it right. I had to rewrite a piece when someone shook a wet umbrella near the table where I was working and some of the letters got blotted. But I enjoyed rewriting. I think that we practiced too long. We were ready to write a kosher megillah way before we did it.
“I love that we did it together. Despite our differences, it created a bond between us.”
Allison Ofanansky, editor, translator and author of 11 children’s books, derived something unique from her experience writing the megillah: healing of a wounded spirit. 
“I’ve had a long interest in Megillat Esther,” she says. “Years ago, when I was having a hard time, I studied it with another woman, and it helped me get through.” Ofanansky refers to a time lived overcoming trauma after surviving rape.
“I read the megillah over and over, delved into Esther’s perspective. The story is often viewed as a Cinderella story, but the reality is that Esther didn’t want to be queen. She was rounded up with a lot of other girls and taken to Ahasuerus against her will. Essentially, she was raped. She had to live the story out, and as a result she became someone she hadn’t been before. I found it helpful to understand that this event made Esther stronger.
“Women’s experiences aren’t gone into too much in the Torah,” Ofanansky continues. “And only one story was authored by a woman, Esther. But there’s drama and even humor in Megillat Esther. We get a full character who changes and develops throughout the story.
“It was empowering to learn to read the megillah and write it together, as a group – dividing the work and making it happen. We have to create the face of Judaism that we want to see.”
Ofanansky’s most recent book, Esther Didn’t Dream of Being Queen, touches on the Purim story as one whose ending isn’t necessarily happy, but full of purpose. “I had to work hard with the editors to make it meaningful and appropriate for children,” she says. “I had the megillah out in front of me the whole time I was writing it.” The book is in press at the moment.
Sheva Chaya Shaiman is an artist and glassblower with a studio in Safed.
“My family isn’t observant. When I first reconnected to Judaism, I was fascinated by the beautiful shape of the letters. I was an art major at Princeton University. A big part of my thesis was the Hebrew letters. During the megillah project, I learned how hard it is to keep the halachic details in mind when you’re actually writing. It was special, but also intimidating. I had to get over being intimidated, because I had a goal, and I was working with a group who expected my work. It demands focus, and when you’re focusing so intensely, you have time to contemplate the story. It became so much more real to me. It’s not like hearing it read out loud like you do on Purim.
“I grew as a person, as an artist, and as a part of the community. It’s germinating, and will take its time, but I feel the process getting into my art. Ultimately, it was about connecting to God in a deeper, more authentic way.”
The megillah will be read this year by the women who wrote it. Until next Purim, it will be on display at Shaiman’s glassblowing studio in Safed’s Old City.
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