The Yelin Family Torah: Gilah’s Story
NOTE: The young man reading from the Torah is Jack H. He is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. The woman holding the Torah is Kim B., one of his teachers. The place is the chapel of Temple Shalom, where the Torah rests in the Ark.
We are grateful to Dr. Renee Brant and Temple Shalom for their help, and for granting us permission to use this photograph.
In 2018 I was invited to have a retrospective exhibition at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art in Santa Ana, (Los Angeles) CA. It was to open Oct 3, 2020. Covid intervened and the opening was postponed to Oct 3, 2022.
I was deeply honored that Donna Stein, renowned curator, art historian, museum director, offered to curate the exhibition, which I titled, Archaeology of Metaphor. An extensive catalogue was planned, and Ms. Stein suggested that a retrospective of such multidisciplinary depth and breadth should travel to other venues after being shown in Los Angeles.
One of the venues discussed was Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass, as a large portion of my life’s work to be presented in the retrospective is my involvement in the origin of alphabet. I have spent years alone in wilderness and isolated five patterns in nature that I found in all alphabets ancient to modern. I hypothesized that these forms were chosen universally because they mirror the neurons and neural processes of perception and cognition. This theory, that I eventually called Cosmography: The Writing of the Universe, was accepted into science. The first iteration of fifty-seven permutations of the oldest alphabet, variously called Old Hebrew, Ancient Phoenician, Aramaic, etc, now dated more than 15,000 years old, was based on the five forms I isolated in nature.
Brandeis was suggested because of its Jewish affiliation. When Stein suggested Brandeis, I considered that the Yelin Family Torah had been donated to Brandeis by my father Ezra Yelin’s family. My first memory of that Torah was as a little girl of three or four in Montreal when the Torah was opened for High Holidays at my uncle Hershel and Aunt Celia’s home. Hershel, my father’s brother, was the second oldest of the seven children of Rabbi Benjamin (Bunim) and Nechama, and being pious was the designated heir of the Torah. My grandfather Rabbi Bunim Yelin, who I learned was a highly charismatic man, much sought after for his wisdom, had died shortly before I was born. I remember my grandmother Nechama’s sweet, calm presence at the reading of the Torah. I was given a yad, a silver pointer in the shape of a hand with an extended right index finger, to follow the Hebrew letters as the sacred text was read. I remember being enthralled by the solemnity of the event. I learned later that this Torah was brought to Montreal by my grandfather, Rabbi Bunim Yelin, when he fled with most of his family from Bialystok, Poland.
My mother and father met when they were growing up as their families shared a balcony in Montreal. My parents were not religious, but were Yiddishists, ethnocentric, cultural Jews, not observant. They were both university educated. My father, who had been chess champion of Poland at 14, was the last of his family to come to Montreal where he learned English well enough to go to university. He spoke, read, and wrote 13 languages.
I was sent to a 4-language elementary school, Jewish Peretz School, and studied Torah in Hebrew and Yiddish, as Hebrew was considered the sacred language to be used only in reading the Torah. At eight I asked my orthodox teacher (in Yiddish) why we referred to God only as He, Him, although all the pronouns were both male and female. My teacher ran furiously down the aisle of desks, picked me up by the hair and threw me out. I was never allowed back in the class and that was the beginning of my feminist stance. Many years later, 1999, I created a painting of a “female” Torah, with only the Hebrew words, Kol Eesha (Voice of a Woman) repeatedly written into the scroll. These words call forth the injunction in Judaism against a man hearing the voice of a woman, as this would distract from his learning Torah.
At ten I wrote Albert Einstein, asking him how he could be the smartest scientist in the world and still believed in the god of the Old Testament who created war, illness, poverty, hunger. He responded within two weeks. The key line in his response was: “Try to form your opinions always according to your own judgment.” This advice became the guide of my life. Einstein died several weeks later. Subsequently, after 27 years when I was invited to present my theory on origin of alphabet at Princeton, I was taken to Einstein’s house and the desk upon which he had written me that life-changing letter.
As a child I was sent to a Hebrew speaking camp, Massad, in the Laurentian mountains outside of Montreal. It was there that I began to make artful signs using Hebrew letters for Color War.
When I was eight years old my father, Ezra, tragically, was injured in a car accident that triggered a progressive, incurable neurological illness sequentially affecting the deterioration of his motor limbs and tongue. He died in 1963 after having endured the 13-year torture of his brilliant mind trapped in his declining body. I often stayed home from school to take care of him while my mother, Shulamis Yelin, taught school. She suffered severe mental illness (which would now be called Borderline Personality Disorder) and was extremely mentally and physically abusive to both my invalid father and myself. Despite this, she became a renowned author and poet in Canada and was a household name and celebrity in Montreal.
Shulamis Yelin died in 2002, and according to her wishes I expanded on the already existing large archive of her life and work in the Jewish Public Library in Montreal. As she instructed, I inherited the diaries that she kept from age 13 throughout her life to a few days before her death.
After my mother’s death, I organized a tribute evening, which began with a photographic history of her life, followed by poets, writers, filmmakers who read and showed videos about her. This was a large and significant event in Montreal at the Jewish Public Library. I also collaborated with
Nancy Marelli on Demonic to Divine: The Double Life of Shulamis Yelin (Vehicule Press, 2014), a book based on Shulamis’ diaries dealing with creativity and mental illness. Marrelli had been Shulamis’ editor in the writer’s earlier book, Shulamis: Stories of a Montreal Childhood, (Vehicule Press, 1984), and knew her work well. Marelli and I spent two weeks a year for ten years working on the diaries housed in the Jewish Public Library. They remain restricted until 2051.
I hardly knew anything about my father’s family until I consulted the stone mason regarding a gravestone for my mother. When I told him for whom the stone would be made, he said, yes, your mother was renowned, but it is your father’s family that is steeped in yiches (Yiddish for highest esteem and dignity). He turned to the Hebrew books behind him on the shelf and withdrew the Hebrew Bavli Talmud (Babylonian Talmud). He opened it to the parsha Yafeh Aynayim, written by my great grandfather, Rav Aryeh Leib Yelin who was the 7th in a line of renowned Yelin Bialystock rabbis, which continued through to Rav Bunim Yelin. While yefeh aynayim literally means beautiful eyes, the parsha deals with perspective.
The mason then told me about Bunim Yelin. Both Aryeh Leib and Bunim were misnagdim, literally those who are opposed, from the Hebrew root misnaged — to be against. This movement, although orthodox, was against the received tradition of Hasidism. They were innovators in thinking and action, encouraged new ways of interpreting old texts, considered Judaism as an evolving religion, and developed what came to be known as the modern Yeshiva.
I knew that my father had been born, schooled, and trained as a rabbi in Bialystock, had won the Polish national chess championship at 14, and had been the last in his family to come to Montreal. He spoke, read and wrote 13 languages and was accepted to McGill University. While not becoming a member of the Yeshiva his father, Rabbi Bunim Yelin founded in Montreal, he taught Talmud for some years in a secular Hebrew school. However, as a free thinker, he abandoned the family tradition, became a journalist and then a (failed) businessman in the few years before he fell ill. Although my father was a profound thinker and writer and deeply schooled in the rabbinic tradition, I knew him as an atheist. I, too, was well-schooled in the religious tradition, was fluent in Hebrew, spent my second-year university after McGill University in Montreal at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and always considered myself an atheist.
I left home at 16 and never returned to live in Montreal. After completing a BA at University of California Berkeley and graduate school at UCLA, I attained my professorship at California State University Dominguez Hills, and have remained based in Los Angeles.
During these years I learned that some of the Bialystok Yelin family immigrated to Montreal, some went to Israel and others to the United States. Although the Montreal and Israeli Yelins spelled their names with one ‘L’, and those who went to the US spelled their name with two, all Yelins/Yellins are related. As I lived in Israel, I discovered that my father’s uncle, David Yelin, instituted the Hebrew language as lingua franca in Israel and created the David Yelin Academy in Jerusalem, the largest and most respected teaching academy in the country. There are many streets and squares named in his honor.
I maintained contact with my aunt Goldie Yelin Schwartzman, my father’s sister, who had inherited the family Torah after my uncle Hershel died, and was determined to find a very special repository where it would be venerated, cared for, and used. In 2004 I visited Bialystok and villages mentioned to me in letters from my aunt Goldie that also included addresses in Horodok. The letter describing my experiences is attached to this document.
To be sure that the Torah was Kosher, Goldie hired Orthodox scribes to go through the Torah line by line, letter by letter before donating the Torah. Torah scribing is a painstaking, sacred art form performed by particularly trained orthodox scribes. No mistakes are tolerated in a Kosher Torah. Goldie asked her nephew, the late Judge Jonathan Brant, son of Goldie’s and my father’s sister, Naomi and Bertram Brant, and Jonathon’s wife, Dr. Renee Brant of Newton, Massachusetts, to help place the Torah. Goldie told me that the Torah was given to Brandeis University.
On Friday, May 14, 2021, I wrote to Brandeis University in search of the Yelin Family Torah, prompted by the possibility that the retrospective exhibition may be welcomed based on the affiliation prompted by the Yelin Torah. I described my position in the family and how my earliest memories included following along the letters and words of the Torah when I was three or four years old. I also briefly stated how that initial imprinting may have been the impetus to my life’s work dealing with the relationship between form in nature, form of neurons and neural processes of perception and cognition, and alphabet, specifically the Hebrew alphabet, which I found to be the oldest alphabet of all. After several unyielding attempts at contacting someone who might have information about the Torah, I was grateful to receive a note from C.G. at Brandeis.
Thank you for your request for more information regarding this Torah. I consulted with our Judaica Librarian and our Rabbi who tracked down the Torah at the Temple Shalom of Newton. You may want to be in touch with their Rabbis for more information about it. Here is a page on their website related to the Torah.
Please let me know if you have any questions, or if I can assist you further.
Reference and Instruction Archivist
Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections
I was elated to finally be on track and wrote to the general address (“info at Temple Shalom”) but received no response. Thinking that the email may have been overlooked in the chaos of Covid, I resent my letter and this time I received a note from D.N., the new Executive Director of Temple Shalom who suggested we find a time to chat. He informed me that the Yelin Family Torah, now called the Yellin Family Traveling Torah, was indeed at Temple Shalom and was featured on their website. We arranged a telephone date, Friday, May 14. D.N. wrote again with the exciting news that he had located Renee Brant, a psychiatrist living in Newton and a long-time, dedicated member of the congregation who had, along with her late husband Jonathan, donated the Torah to the Temple and had arranged a new mantle (Torah dress) for the sacred gift. While I was deeply saddened to learn that my first cousin, Judge Jonathan Brant had died in 2010, I looked forward to meeting Renee, who would join our zoom call that morning.
The wonderful conversation between Renee Brant and myself was heartfelt, adding to family news of more than 20 years when we had last met. There had been no communication between the family members in all that time.
Renee Brant filled in the Yellin Traveling Family Torah story with astonishing fairytale-like adventures including Torah-knapping and Torah-changeling chapters. Brant related that my aunt Goldie was not satisfied with how the Torah had been welcomed at Brandeis and had sent two orthodox rabbis to kidnap the Torah and return it to her in Montreal. An additional detail in the Torah’s adventure resembled Cinderella and the Glass Slipper! An imposter Torah was determined to have replaced the Yelin Torah in the synagogue’s holy Ark in the sanctuary because the newly made celebratory mantle did not fit the pretender. Adding to the Nancy Drew-ish effect of the mystery, synagogue Rabbi and donor organized a nighttime raid on the Ark, (Raiders of the Lost Ark-ish?), lit by flashlights to examine the ill-clad Torah. Delicately and respectfully disrobing the Torah revealed that the resident Torah was indeed the wrong one, also evidenced by the missing Hebrew inscription which graced the Yelin torah wooden handles (called Aytz Chayim, Tree of Life). The original Torah was found and dressed again in the mantle made for it, and restored to its rightful place in the Ark. The proto-Dickensian adventures of the Traveling Yellin Family Torah could easily become a sweet, illustrated book or movie. (For some of the answers to the Torah changeling mystery, please read Renee’s letter at the end of this article.)
Inscription on the Yellin Torah handles
שייך לר” משה שמואל בן בנימין צבי ע”ה
וזאת התורה אשר שם משה לפני בני ישר
ולזוגתו מרקה בת ר’ צבי נסיום בשנת תרס”ח
דרכיה דרכי נועם וכל נתיבותיה שלום
Belongs to Rabbi Moshe Shmuel ben Binyamin Zvi RIP
This is the Torah that Moses put in front of the children of Israel
And to his wife Marka bat r. Zvi Nisiom in the year 5668 (1907)
Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace.
Shayach l’R” Moshe Shmuel ben Binyamin Zvi alav hashalom
Ve’zoth hatorah asher sam Moshe lifnei b’nei Israel
U’le’zugato Marka bat r. Zvi Nisiom bishnat tarsach
Darkei’ha darakei no’am v’chall netivothe’ha shalom
Questions: Where was the Yelin Torah found after the changeling event? Who, how was it taken? Who Torah-knapped it and how?
Who was Rabbi Moshe Shmuel ben Binyamin Tzvi RIP, and his wife Marka bat r. Zvi Nisiom, who are said to own the Torah in the inscription on the Torah handles?
The Brant-Yellin Traveling Torah
(Extract from the Temple Shalom website)
1. From Poland to Canada
Escaping Poland for Montreal in the late 1800s, Rabbi Bunim Yellin carried with him a sacred possession: a small, beautiful Torah scroll. As the last in a long line of rabbis, Rav Yellin knew the value of the scroll. After landing safely in Canada, he used the Traveling Torah for years while serving as the head rabbi of an Orthodox school and synagogue in Montreal. With the members of the synagogue aging and the Montreal Jewish community changing, the shul closed its doors. The Traveling Torah was passed to Rav Yellin’s daughter, Goldie, who took it upon herself to find a new home for it.
2. A Short Trip to New England
Now, Goldie was particular in her tastes and not an easy woman to please. She cherished the Traveling Torah. To be sure it was kosher, Goldie hired Orthodox scribes to go through the scroll line by line, letter by letter. She wanted to find the right spot for it, a place where it would be used, cared for, and accorded the respect it deserved. Goldie had a favorite nephew, Jonathan, a caring and considerate man whom she felt she could trust to help her find a home for the Traveling Torah.
For awhile, it looked like a prestigious New England university would be the place. But Goldie wasn’t satisfied and enlisted some daring Orthodox rabbis to rescue the Traveling Torah from the clutches of academia.
3. Home at Temple Shalom
Finally, in 2005, Jonathan and his wife Dr. Renee (Brant, by the way, long-time members of Temple Shalom), convinced Goldie that the Traveling Torah could find a loving home at Temple Shalom of Newton. The Bunim Yellin Traveling Torah, born in Poland, revered in Canada, now lives proudly in the Chapel at Temple Shalom of Newton. We believe Rabbi Yellin would be pleased.
In December 2017, a new Torah mantle was dedicated for the Torah.
Letter from Gilah to Goldie and Jon
October 5, 2004
Dear Goldie and Jon,
I am quite jet lagged, but before I get into my real life, I want to give you a sense of the Bialystok journey you both facilitated.
Before the symposium in Slovakia, I visited Budapest (Hungary), Bucharest (Romania) and Bratislava (Slovakia). I left Slovakia after the opening of the exhibition in the glorious cathedral in Komarno (I have been invited to return and have a solo show in that cathedral, and to live there while I prepare the work…I am thrilled about it…), and took the train to Krakow. There I visited with the gallery dealers who wish to have a show of mine as well. I spent a haunting day at Auschwitz Birkenau, another at the Salt Mines, and then the train to Bialystok.
I had a reservation at the Cristal Hotel (would you believe Best Western?), and was met on arrival by Tomasz Lippoman, Tomek Wisneiwski’s colleague. Tomek was busy with two other American couples who were staying at the same hotel, also doing genealogical tracking of their Jewish forebears, and I met the visitors as well as Tomek. Tomek is indeed a lovely guy and gave me a copy of his large book about Jews in Poland, with drawings, etc, mostly in Polish, but a paragraph about each town in English. He also told me that he has not had a chance to look more closely into our family history, but had charged Tomasz with touring me through Bialystok, to look for the address in Grodek (Horodok) and the mill in Michalova.
There is nothing left in Bialystok except memorials, street names etc and the one synagogue near the market which has been turned into corporate headquarters of an international firm, no longer identifiable even as a former synagogue. Tomasz and Tomek both said that they are looking into the Hebrew schools — no longer extant, and all else that Jon and I asked about.
After Bialystok, Tomasz took me to Tekocyn, where there still stands a beautiful 16th C synagogue that is very well preserved, a national monument. Alongside it is the Beyt Hamidrash, etc. And most interesting the sweet town looks as it did, with the cathedral at one end of the large rectangular square and the synagogue complex on the other. I happened to be there to witness the laying of schach on the sukkah. The synagogue is a gorgeous, central bimah with enormous liturgical writings covering the walls. A true gem and very heavily visited.
From there we went to Grodek. There is no record of the address that Goldie had sent along, nor did that street exist in Grodek. I failed to mention that we visited the cemeteries in Bialystok, Grodek, Tekocyn and Michelova. I did not find any familiar names in any of the cemeteries.
And from Grodek to Michelova, a lovely town indeed, quite a bit larger than Grodek. There was no evidence of any Jewish past there at all. But enthralled by the exterior of an orthodox church, I asked Tomasz if we could see the inside. He said that the churches are not open except for special days, but just then we met the priest who was leaving and who asked his wife to show us the church. This is surely one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen anywhere, painted with the greatest of skill and unusual design by a single priest. The priest’s wife then invited us into the parish house which they had built, and then came an unexpected and generous lunch with homemade vodka, kielbasa and various salads etc. As we talked, the priest’s wife became more and more sure that she could help in the search for Yelins, Serlins, and Rudys and took us to meet her friend, across town, who is actively engaged in looking for Jewish families. It turns out there were seven mills, all owned by Jews and so it is as yet impossible to identify which was whose. However, this lovely Polish woman — and her husband who is the editor of the local paper — have been finding families for quite some time now. She will be going to Germany later this month on such a mission and will continue inquiry on our behalf. She showed me photos of various families she had put together and continues contact with them.
I told Jan that I would ask Goldie to furnish more information so that she would have more to go on and she is very excited about discovering more and more. And she would not let me leave without giving me a jar of her home pickled mushrooms from the forest.
Ks. Jan Javoszuk
Tomasz Lippoman is at www.bilaowieza.com.pl
No one of course spoke English but Tomasz is very fluent in English and was also able to translate the various dialects we encountered in the country villages.
It turned out that Tomasz is also a famous nature guide. And a very sophisticated political activist etc. When he met me he looked up my website and knew that I was deeply affected by nature. So he took me to the oldest primeval forest in Europe, which happens to be in Poland, Biebrza. This was a most moving experience for me as it is here that I understood the genetic love of that sort of mysterious, mystical forest. And although Tomasz is not Jewish — there are NO JEWS in Poland — he is a great admirer of Bashevis Singer, the Jewish writers and artists etc, and could relate the effect of the environment on the art of these artists — and my own!
We had a marvelous two days together and I know that I have a life-long friend in Tomasz who will, of course, continue to look for further clues, but also keep in contact on many other levels. Tomasz also put me on the train to Warsaw after showing me the latest in Polish painters, literature, etc and a gift of pottery, decorated by his wife.
It was already very cold, grey and wet in Poland, and I did get a sense of the climate that our family came from. It is not that different from Montreal after all.
Interesting, and gruesome, was discovering the “Canada’’ solution in Auschwitz. When Jews were rounded up in Poland and told they were going to a new country, many of them were already planning to go to Canada, as many had already gone. So the Nazis called their round-ups, the Canada Plan, feeding into the plans already underway by so many Jews. Thus the Jews were not surprised to be taking just 25 km “to Canada’’ as there was a long way to travel etc. and they were still not savvy as to their fate until they were taken into the “bath houses,” their clothes taken from them, and instead of baths, were hosed down by the Nazis, then led to the gas chambers.
I was very moved by being in Poland. Strangely, everyone is very curious about people who are Jewish, want to meet them/us, are interested in helping in any way.
Goldie, you asked about getting land back, the mill, etc. There is no getting anything back. Tomasz’s father’s factory, home etc were taken and his father, a trial lawyer, has been trying to get anything back for 40 years with no success, only imprisonment by the Communists.
Everyone I spoke with had been jailed for some time, including Tomasz, for the smallest things, including activism, play writing, painting, poetry, standing in line, not standing in line, etc. One could never know whether one would see home that evening. And he tells me that the new president is a former communist with the same corruption going on. People are very fearful everywhere.
In Slovakia, where there are also NO Jews, I performed the Rosh Hashanah service for an all-non-Jewish audience. They and I were moved to tears. The director of the symposium got apples and honey and wine and candles, as I desired, and I explained the symbols, the shofar, the Yomim Noroyim, and sang the prayers, the brochot, and a special Shehechyanu that they and I could celebrate 5765 together.
My travels of the last six months have affected me very deeply. I consider going to live in Bratislava where I found a community of soulful mystical artists which feels like home. My work is very much loved in Europe, appreciated in all respects. Not only do they love and admire painting, but especially mystical painting.
Well, my dear friends, enough for right now. I will email this to Jon, and snail mail to Goldie.
Again, thank you both for your help in making this journey an especially wonderful one.
Shana Tova and much love,
Email conversation between Gilah and Renee Brant, 09/22/2021
“By the way, what/who caused the Torahs to be exchanged in the Ark? That detail remains a mystery to me. And how/where was the original discovered after the one in the Ark proved to be an imposter because it did not fit the new mantle.”
“Dear Gilah: Every year before Rosh Hashana, some members of the synagogue remove the Torah covers from all of the Torahs and “dress” the Torahs in white for the High Holidays. At the end of the holidays, the white cover is removed and the original cover placed on each Torah. The Yellin Torah usually resides in the Ark in our chapel, but sometimes it is moved to the Ark in the main sanctuary. It is favored by many because it is somewhat smaller and lighter and easier for women and teens to carry. Yes, women read from the Torah in our congregation. Our co-rabbis are women. Fall 2017 was the time when the new Torah cover that I commissioned was being created. The plan was to have it ready and dedicate it at a service on Hanukkah in December. As one of the final steps in making the new cover, the artist came to the synagogue to measure the Torah so that sections of fabric could be made in the correct size. I knew that the artist had measured the Torah and was ready to stitch the mantle together. What I thought was the Yellin Torah was in the Ark in our chapel. I was attending services on a Friday night. “Out of the blue” I had a strong urge to see the Torah without its cover. I remembered that there were written Hebrew inscriptions carved into the round wooden end pieces at the top of each wooden rod attached to the ends of the Torah scroll. In anticipation of the dedication of the new cover, I thought it would be wonderful to translate the Hebrew inscriptions. At the end of services I approached Ofer, a member of our congregation born in Israel, who is very proficient in Hebrew. After everyone else left, we took the Torah out of the ark, removed it’s cover, and to my surprise, there were English inscriptions, not the Hebrew ones that I remembered. This was someone else’s Torah! Although the Yellin Torah is a traveling Torah, I did not believe that it could have wandered too far. However, I went home quite distraught that our family Torah was “lost” on my watch. It turns out that Ofer’s wife Rhoda had taken on the role of archiving temple ritual objects. The next morning when I met Ofer, he had spoken to his wife, and told me they had a good idea where our “missing Torah” was. Rhoda remembered that the Torah covers had been changed during the High Holidays and guessed that there had been an unintentional Torah mix-up when the covers were replaced. Ofer and I went into the empty sanctuary, dark except for the Eternal Light. He brought a flashlight. Ofer opened the Ark, which has five or six Torahs, scanned them, and then directed the light to the one he believed was the misplaced Torah. (It was slightly smaller than the others.) We took it out, undressed it, and there were the Hebrew inscriptions! We redressed the Torahs and put them in their proper places.
However, I knew that we now had a Torah cover emergency. Because the artist unknowingly had measured the wrong Torah, the measurements she had were too big and the Torah cover would have been too large. We were able to contact her before she cut and stitched the cover and lining. She made another trip to the synagogue and took the new measurements. The end result — a beautiful perfectly fitting Torah cover.