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Live at the CJM: Re-Writing of the Torah

The sacred word  -- its ancient and contemporary visions, handwritten and digital -- is the fascinating focal point of “As It Is Written: Project 304,805” now on exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Even if you’re unfamiliar with the history, ritual, and tradition embedded in the most holy object in Judaism, you’ll find yourself enthralled by the project. The CJM has undertaken the major endeavor of commissioning the creation of a new Torah and, in the process, revealing the ordinarily private work of a soferet, a professionally trained female scribe, as she writes out the text over the course of a year. It’s the first public institution of its kind to unveil this unchanged process.

And the process is beautifully detailed, to the CJM’s credit: the Torah in progress is on display -- you can view sections of it by lifting a velvety protective covering -- as are the animal-skin parchment and feather quills that are used in its creation. The exhibit looks the Torah’s calligraphy and traditional ornamentation and offers examples of the scripture as a historical artifact. Particularly compelling is an old scroll on display that was found in a Polish shtetl and belongs to a Bay Area family.

The star, however, is the scribe, Julie Seltzer -- on hand regularly to answer questions from the public. I happened to have missed her (she’s not in the gallery on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays), but an eloquent, well-detailed documentary featured in her stead is definitely worth viewing. The 34-year-old, extensively-trained scribe discusses her process, her so-called scribal quirks, and the way she copes with mistakes.

Also illuminating: a display of original contemporary works by local and national artists such as Ken Aptekar, John Bankston, Beth Grossman, and Jordan Kantor, commissioned by the CJM and created in response to the Torah. Alan Berliner’s piece -- which invites viewers to create their digital analogs to specific words in the Torah text -- was a witty acknowledgment of the mutability of language and the expansiveness of interpretation. Look for “People’s Torah” to open Jan. 24, as part of “As It Is Written” -- and submit your digitally rendered hand to make up each of the 304,805 letters of the Torah.

“As It Is Written: Project 304,805” runs through Oct. 3 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., SF. Hours are Mon.-Tues. and Fri.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m., and Thurs., 1-8 p.m. $5-$10. (415) 655-7800.