Connecting to her ancestors

Winnipeg woman writes Torah scroll for local congregation

Irma Penn (right) holds bag that will contain the Torah scroll she is working on. With her is Ruth Livingston, past-president of Temple Shalom.


Irma Penn (right) holds bag that will contain the Torah scroll she is working on. With her is Ruth Livingston, past-president of Temple Shalom.

As she hand-lettered their stories from the Torah, Winnipeg scribe Irma Penn felt the guidance of those who had gone years before.

“You’re actually connected to all this, your ancestors — Sarah, Jacob, Isaac, Rebekah,” the Tuxedo resident says of her experience in copying the sacred Jewish text.

Irma Penn writes on Torah scroll as Ruth Livingston places her hand on Penn's hand.

Enlarge Image

Irma Penn writes on Torah scroll as Ruth Livingston places her hand on Penn’s hand. (KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

“It’s like holding their hands and they’re telling you what to do.”

What Penn was also doing was following the long tradition of copying the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, and breaking a new path at the same time.

Trained in Israel as a soferet, or female scribe, Penn is the first Canadian woman to write a Torah scroll for a Canadian synagogue, and the first member of Winnipeg’s Temple Shalom to write one for the congregation.

Penn previously lettered the book of Esther for Temple Shalom, and completed a commission of the Hebrew and English Holocaust scroll for Shaarey Zedek Synagogue in Winnipeg.

She was the only Canadian among the six female scribes participating in the Women’s Torah Project, the first ever Torah scribed by an international group of women. It was completed in 2010.

Penn copied the Book of Deuteronomy for that Torah commissioned by the Kadima Reconstructionist Community in Seattle.

“The Torah is the pinnacle of the scribe’s work,” says Penn, who has memorized the long list of laws and rules that prescribe the copying of Jewish sacred texts, right down to the shape of the Hebrew letters.

“You can’t go any higher.”

That experience fed the desire to write a Torah on her own and so she cautiously broached the idea in December 2009 to Rabbi Karen Soria and Ruth Livingston of Temple Shalom.

“It’s a speechless kind of thing,” Soria recalls of her reaction when Penn offered to write the scroll for the small Reform Jewish congregation that meets in a former Baptist church on Grant Avenue.

“I guess neither of us thought it was possible,” says Livingston, past-president of Temple Shalom, which already owns three other Torah scrolls.

But Penn persisted, and six months after she proposed the idea, she formed the first letters of the Torah on parchment using a turkey quill dipped in black iron gall ink. All materials for the project were imported from Israel.

She lettered the Torah in a font called STaM, reserved for sacred texts, laying out the words in each column in a format followed for centuries. Each letter and word must be exact, with no room for errors, and the only room for creativity is in the spacing between letters and words.

“It was hard on my hands, on my body and my mind. You can’t doze off, you have to work with intention,” she says of the work that occupied her seven hours a day, six days a week for more than a year.

“You have to read each word, say each letter before you write it. You stay focused and you improve your reading.”

Penn’s experience of being immersed in the sacred text spilled over to Rabbi Soria and members of Temple Shalom, who proofread the scribe’s work and later stitched together the 62 sheets of parchment.

“Irma wasn’t simply studying it, she was physically involved,” says Soria, a rabbi for 30 years.

“It’s that link to the past, being mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally involved, living that whole thing.”

“We have a commandment to engage with Torah and this was the ultimate engagement,” adds Livingston.

Penn completed all but the final column of what is now known as the Penn Torah by Nov. 11, 2011. According to tradition, she has only outlined the last column of words, so members and friends of Temple Shalom can participate in the experience of writing the Torah.

“Irma scribes it but you have your hand on hers,” explains Livingston.

“Everybody who does it, it’s a good deed. If you do one letter, it’s as if you are writing the Torah yourself.”

In exchange for a donation to cover the five-figure cost of the scroll, members and friends of Temple Shalom are invited to write a letter at noon, Sunday, Apr. 15 and Sunday, Apr. 22. The congregation will dedicate the scroll Sunday, May 27 at 11 a.m. at Temple Shalom, 1077 Grant Ave.

Scribing another Torah may be a possibility for Penn, a 60-something former archivist, schoolteacher and artist, whose highrise apartment is permanently set up as a studio. For now, she’s pleased that her work on the Penn Torah will live on for decades and perhaps centuries.

“I think this project will make many more people talk about the Torah and be involved with it.”

Number of letters in the Torah: 304,805

Number of the biblical commandments fulfilled by writing a Torah: 613

Size of scroll: 41 centimetres tall

Length of Torah scroll: 50 metres

Amount of time to complete: 18 months

Number of women in Canada to scribe a Torah: one

For more information, or to see photos and video of the Penn Torah, visit:

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 14, 2012 J13