INSIDE A MODEST HOME ON Sonoma’s East Side sits our town’s best-kept open Jewish secret.
Dubbed the “France Street Shtibbl” (or, for non-Yiddish speakers, the “France Street Beit Midrash (house of study)”), our living room has hosted a semi-monthly (or, sometimes, thrice a month) Torah study since late 2002 and a weekly “text study” (ranging from Talmud to Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah to the early prophetic books and currently, at this writing, the Book of Psalms) since mid-2016. Attendance over the years has varied from one to 12 people, with a usual “core” of about six or seven enthusiastic souls.
Our method is simple and timeless: Everyone has a different chumash (Torah book), which they either bring themselves or select from our home library such titles and translations as the Orthodox Artscroll Stone Chumash, the Conservative Etz Hayim and The Pentateuch and Haftorahs (aka “The Hertz Chumash”), the Reform Torah: A Modern Commentary and Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s The Living Torah, and others. We take turns reading aloud the week’s Torah portion until someone has a question or a comment, then we stop and hash it out for however long it takes. Then we go back to reading, then commenting, then reading, et cetera ad (hopefully) infinitum. The different translations and interpretations shed a variegated light on our study, as well as help us tease out meanings from the original Hebrew. We allot two hours for this (and one hour for the “text study”) and, so far, make our sessions completely on time.
Ann first got the idea to do this while attending the Reform Movement’s 2002 Western Kallah, a three-day retreat filled with more-or-less intensive study of a variety of Jewish topics (and the eating of lots of food). Acclaimed author and rabbi Lawrence Kushner was giving a talk on the mystical aspect of Torah, wherein he taught that the ancient rabbis believed that Torah study — in the proper spirit — could unite Earth and Heaven. Intrigued, Ann asked the rabbi how to go about doing that. “Just open the book and start reading,” Rabbi Kushner said. “Use a chumash with commentary. And make sure you read a little Hebrew now and again.”
While I can’t vouch for any above/below unity, the effect on Earth has been staggering. Like painting a house, each year’s Torah study adds a new layer of depth and richness. We are different people every year, and we bring those differences to the text. Sometimes the weekly text mirrors events going on in our lives (and vice-versa). A deep camaraderie has formed among the attendees, and we are apt to discuss during our sessions such ancillary topics as cooking, Middle Eastern politics, childrearing, the Hero’s Journey (often as manifested by the Star Wars movies) and boundless others. “It’s all Torah,” someone is wont to remark when the subject matter drifts a bit.
Sadly, some of our attendees are no longer with us. But I like to think their memories and presence live on through our continuing study. As the Talmud says, “Quoting a saying in the name of one who said it causes their lips to move in the grave.” As we are a complement to the semi-monthly synagogue Torah study, we take great joy and pride in the fact that, every Shabbat, someone somewhere in Sonoma Valley is studying Torah. (If you’d like to be one of them, send me an email and I’ll tell you how to find us.)