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Newsletter of the Adelaide Jewish Museum – November 2002

Goatskin scroll

This month, I had my first opportunity to identify an item of Judaica. I received a call from the Shorter/MacPherson family who have in their possession an old scroll with Hebrew calligraphy on vellum (goat or sheep skin). The great-granddaughter of the original owner brought it in to my office. The provenance of the object is undocumented and uncertain, but goes back at least 90 years to a wealthy man who travelled widely, fought in the Boer War, and collected unusual objects. Rolled-up and stored in a cupboard in Wales for decades, it escaped numerous garage sales, and was finally handed down to the grandson as a family heirloom.

Not having a clue as to what it is or why it was kept, the family is now trying to determine its value. What interests them more than financial value is its possible cultural or historic value. I put on my white gloves to handle the object, as a trained museum worker should do. I’ve never before seen goatskin, but that’s what it looked and felt like. The authenticity of the material was fairly convincing. Without a magnifying glass, it was difficult for me to tell whether the black Hebrew lettering had been hand-written or machine printed, but there seemed to be signs and sufficient wear and tear to suggest that it had been written by a scribe. The edges of the scroll had been pierced with tiny holes where once upon a time it would have been stitched to other portions of text.

We took the item to Rabbi Engel for further identification. He recognized immediately that it was a portion of the Torah from Exodus, concerning the Ten Plagues. He did something that I would not have dared to do – he handled the object roughly, pushing and pulling it, and then, he tore a tiny piece at the edge. Rabbi Engel had correctly identified the material as paper – parchment made in imitation of animal skin, but not necessarily made to deceive. Suddenly my ambitions of being an astute evaluator of Judaica floated and popped in my face.

Thereafter, we had an interesting debate as to whether the object was a forgery or an original, whether it was made for religious or commercial use. Whether it was a part of a greater whole, and what may have happened to the rest of the Torah. Whether it is or is not of cultural significance to the Jewish community, is still to be determined. Whatever it turns out to be, and my fascination with this object will ensure further investigation, it points to the fact that objects have the potential to tell the most intriguing stories. An expert will have to identify the age of the paper, decode the object, verify its authenticity, and attempt to piece together its history. The inherited owner who may have held the key to some of the questions about this mysterious object lives in Wales, has had a stroke, and can no longer communicate. The object, having survived at least 90 years, regardless of the circumstances of its creation, is now an antique.

I would love a second chance to test my evaluation skills and I’m hoping that someone out there with another interesting item of Judaica will have faith in me to give it a go.

I have had many emails from people out of state wanting to visit our Museum in Adelaide. Without wanting to misrepresent the situation, because the very word “museum” suggests a building with artefacts inside it, I commissioned the only cartoon artist that I know, my ex-secretary at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg. Completely untrained as an artist, Sue Isaac has a natural gift – she is able to capture a scene by means of a few quick lines. Here, she tells it like it is: The Adelaide Jewish Museum does not exist in physical form. It is a virtual museum on a website. The Museum building exists as a dream image in the mind of the Curator. Anyone who has visited the website can be sure that they have already visited the Museum. Keep looking however, because it is constantly being updated.

Roslyn Sugarman, Curator Adelaide Jewish Museum