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Female Torah scribe observes and battles tradition

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Media captionAvielah Barclay talks about her work and inspiration

Avielah Barclay is an Orthodox Jewish woman who aims to live "sincerely and 100%" inside the traditions of her faith.

She leads a fastidiously observant life, wears a head covering and a long skirt - in line with Orthodox views on female modesty - and keeps a kosher kitchen.

Yet she is, in many ways, a most unorthodox Jewish woman.

Avielah is a scribe. She writes and restores sacred Jewish texts, a job traditionally done by men.

In fact, for years she has been wondering whether she is the first female scribe in millennia of Jewish history.

Fully trained and certified, getting commissions to restore the sacred texts, and teaching students, she is aware of the importance of her work.

The scrolls she restores today will be used in ritual for generations after she is gone.

"At the beginning, my biggest concern was whether this is the right thing for me to do. Am I being honest with myself? I don't want to face God, when my life is over, and for God to say, 'you know, you did it all out of ego'!"

'Letters like fire'

Born into a Christian family in Canada, she was drawn to Jewish letters from the age of three, after she saw the film Fiddler on the Roof.

"The letters looked like fire to me. I knew they were important and I wanted to be close to them," says Avielah, who is now based in London.

At the age of 10, she started teaching herself Hebrew. Other interests took over in her teenage years, but in her 20s, her life suddenly took a new direction.

As a result of a car accident, her right hand was totally crushed.

While teaching herself to write again, she remembered how much she had enjoyed Jewish calligraphy.

She says she felt God's calling to take up the sacred art, and eventually converted to Judaism.

Her rabbi's response to her interest in calligraphy was cautious: not willing to discourage her, he was however aware that many Orthodox Jews would disapprove of a woman taking up an occupation traditionally held by men.

But Avielah persevered, and after seven years of training, travelling between Vancouver and Jerusalem, she finally qualified as a scribe.

Today, though, she chooses not to display her certificate, as the rabbi who signed it does not want to attract attention to what he has done.


Image caption Avielah is only hired by non-Orthodox congregations

As for Avielah, she knows she does not have the option of staying out of the limelight: as an Orthodox Jewish feminist, she has always attracted plenty of attention, not all of it welcome.

Some respond to her story with rage, some celebrate her achievements, and others expect her to rebel against the rabbis and the male religious authority in Judaism.

"But this is not me," she smiles. "I am not rebelling against men. Male rabbis have helped me to learn the art and to qualify, and to find the foundation in Jewish law on whether it is appropriate for a woman to be a scribe. Actually, I am being quite obedient in a way!"

Obedience is not the word that comes to mind when you meet Avielah. She is a spirited and engaging woman who seems comfortable speaking her mind.

Patience, on the other hand, is key to what she does, since she is working in a tradition where change is not welcome.

Though an Orthodox Jew, she is currently hired only by non-Orthodox congregations.

The majority opinion in Judaism suggests that it is acceptable for a woman to write sacred texts, says Avielah, based on her study of Jewish law, but then again, not everyone accepts this view.

Even in her own synagogue in Canada, the rabbi can ask her advice on whether a scroll needs restoring, but will hire a male scribe to do the job.

This, Avielah explains, is where you need all the patience you can muster: "I understand. I am not upset. I know I am the first in a few hundred years. Any change in Orthodoxy has to be very, very slow, almost imperceptible for some people."

'Not appropriate'

The first in a few hundred years sounds daunting, but not as challenging as the first ever.

Avielah spent years trying to find out whether there have been other women scribes before her.

Jewish religious scribes don't sign their work, and women hardly ever get a mention.

Image caption Avielah's tools of the trade

"With women's history, notoriously we get forgotten. We aren't named. Our experiences are told through a male narrative, and not through our voices."

Eventually, she found at least 10 female scribes who she can name, who lived hundreds of years ago, all over the Jewish world.

The most recent seems to be Sarah, the daughter of the chief rabbi of Prague, who lived 250 years ago. She wrote the Book of Esther, which is part of the Jewish Bible.

But even the chief rabbi of Prague, respected though he was, could not rule whether it was appropriate for his daughter to write the sacred text.

So he referred the case to a colleague, who ruled that it was not appropriate.

Sarah went on to marry and have children, but we don't know what happened to the scroll.

As we are talking and looking at the ancient scroll Avielah is currently working on, a question keeps coming to my mind - what does obedience mean for her?

To leave the tradition you are born into, to take up an art which is not usually practiced by women, to insist on teaching it - while at the same time keeping all the rules and rituals of your religion: is this obedience?

"You mean, am I obedient?" She shrugs, then laughs.

"You should ask my mother!"

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