עור חדש | Or hadash: Sustainable PARCHMENT For contemporary hebrew scribes, 2016-Present
In a post industrial revolution world where productivity and efficiency is valued at the highest degree, the contemporary (though ancient) practice of parchment making by which skins are sourced from industrially farmed animals for the writing of sacred Jewish texts raises a singular outstanding question: How does the Jewish community reconcile the par between the inhumane treatment of the animals upon whose backs we are literally writing and the sacred texts inscribed on these very skins?
Or Hadash | חדש עור is an art and marketplace intervention into the ancient practice of parchment making. It disrupts the current model which sources skins from industrially raised animals, by offering a different vision working directly with shepherds, a shochet (ritual slaughterer), parchment makers, store owners, contemporary scribes and the communities they serve, to sustainably manufacture parchment for sacred Hebrew writing while attending to high animal welfare practices.
While the industrially sourced animal skins are shipped in freezer containers from the US, Argentina and New Zealand to Israel where they will be made into parchment, leaving a huge carbon footprint, Or Hadash | חדש עור sources all of the skins from local Israeli or Palestinian shepherds and back yard “farmers.” This eliminates the industry and models a sustainable alternative for making parchment that is humane and local.
Or Hadash | חדש עור raises awareness while changing the parchment industry from the ground up. The project unites communities' ethics and values with their practice of Jewish tradition in a way that has been overlooked for the past many 100s of years. While issues of food sourcing, kashrut (kosher practices), animal welfare in the food industry, farming etc. are central conversations that occupy Jewish spaces, parchment making and its sourcing do not yet do so. Through my expanding partnership with farmers, shochetim (slaughterers), parchment makers and Torah scribes, individuals and Jewish communities can now commission a Torah scroll and other sacred texts to be written on these high animal welfare parchment skins.
The parchment above is Megillat Esther written on Or Hadash | עור חדש by Torah scribe, Julie Seltzer, pictured on the left.
What you see above is a photo documentation following the path of sustainable parchment making from the pasture to the store front and finally to the סופר סת״מ / scribe. Award winning photojournalist, Heidi Levine, and I traversed the country in an effort to understand this ancient/indigenous practice from the inside out. The trail covers a complex geography from a highly contested West Bank settlement to an insular Haredi yishuv / small community near the coast, to an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem, to the west Jerusalem home of my contemporary minded, Orthodox scribing teacher and mentor of 18 years. Interviews accompany these images and will be added at a later date.
Photos and copyright @ Heidi Levine
A background note: “The skin of kosher animals that is used for the writing of a sefer Torah (Torah scroll) and any of the other sacred writings mezzuzah (prayer amulet) and tefillin (prayer phylacteries) in the Jewish tradition must be sourced from a kosher animal - most commonly, sheep, goat and cow and for some, deer. The animal need not be killed through a sh'chitah (kosher slaughter.) The skin of an embryo counts as skin for this purpose, and we may write sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls), tefillin and mezzuzot on it. This is the best kind of skin. After that, bird skin followed by the skin of wild animals, the skin of domesticated beasts and animals which died naturally. “(translated from Keset HaSofer by Jen Taylor Freedman).
A single, standard size Torah scroll is written on the skins of approximately 62 fetal cows. Why fetuses? Simple (or not so): Fetal skin is supple. It is easier to write on than the skin of a full grown cow. It is the post industrial revolution market demand. And for the sake of fairness, was also discussed and approved as kosher in Talmudic times (when industry did not exist on the scale with which we are dealing today). A startling 99% of the parchment used in the writing of Jewish sacred texts is manufactured in Israel from the skins of industrially raised animals from overseas.
The Haredi parchment making family from whom I and other women scribes have been purchasing parchment for over 10 years, owners of parchment making facilities and a scribing supply store in Jerusalem, explains that Israeli parchment manufacturers, like them, have contracts with packinghouses located primarily in Argentina and the US. These are agro-business factories where animals are factory farmed for meat and other products. The conditions in such facilities are generally known to be inhumane. These are packinghouses where animals are beefed up in horrific conditions, often standing belly high in their own feces, crowded and fed substandard diets with fillers, sugar candies and other unfit substances for growing cows preparing for slaughter. These are the animals we read about and saw footage of in the works Eating Animals and Food Inc.
About 2% of the cows brought to slaughter each day are pregnant and the skins of those fetuses meet the market demand for scribes. The parchment makers have contracts with the packinghouses who put aside these skins until about 500 are salvaged in a month’s time. These frozen skins are then shipped in giant freezer containers to the parchment factories in Israel where they are processed into parchment for the purpose of writing sacred texts. The making of parchment is according to very strict religious law and the highest standard of craftsmanship. These skins are the raw material for the most sanctified ritual objects of the Jewish people – sacred texts for use in public and private spaces - tefillin, mezzuzot and sifrei Torah.
For the past three years I have been working with a shochet (ritual slaughterer) in the southern Hevron hills of Israel and the West Bank. This shochet travels the country performing sh'chitot (ritual slaughters) for families, small farmers and shepherds who raise/graze sheep and goat. We first met when I heard about the organic, pasture-raised kosher meats he had available for sale. After hearing of my interest in sustainable sourced parchment and my need to find a source for skins, Jonathan agreed to bring me skins from these humanely raised animals. I could and do, in turn, bring them to the parchment making facilities for processing later to be sold to scribes and the clientele for whom they write.