Honoring his father and mother


Bucky Levin is the kind of Jewish man who knows more about the glory days of the Baltimore Colts than about the intricacies of his faith. For years, he traveled with the team, owned 107 pairs of season tickets at Memorial Stadium and counted the players as friends.

But at 84, with the cheers for Alan Ameche long silent and most of his life behind him, Mr. Levin finds himself embracing the Judaism of his East Baltimore childhood the way he used to hug football stars after a big victory.

"I'm definitely a Jew, there's no question," said Mr. Levin, referring to his heart as much as his heritage.

With his parents long dead and in a place Jews call "the world to come," the retired pharmacist is honoring Max and Sarah Levin and the faith he inherited from them by giving his synagogue a new Torah scroll in their memory.

"My Mom's an angel, my father too. And the Torah is the holiest of holies," said Mr. Levin, who purchased the scroll -- the five books of Moses from Genesis to Deuteronomy hand-inked onto parchment -- with his sister and brother.

At 2:50 p.m. tomorrow, members of the Suburban Orthodox congregation will carry the Torah in a 1965 convertible from Mr. Levin's Pikesville home to the synagogue about a half-mile away.

For the last 200 yards of the parade, the Torah will be carried under the traditional Jewish wedding canopy, symbolizing the marriage of God and the Jewish people at Sinai. At the synagogue's door, two officers of the congregation bearing old Torahs will welcome the new scroll into the Suburban Orthodox family.

Once inside, the faithful will recite Psalm 100 in thanksgiving, a prayer will be offered for the health of the Levin family, and Bucky will touch up one of the final letters in the scroll before turning over the quill to Rabbi Binyamin Spiro, a sacred scroll expert who will ceremonially finish the job. When he's finished, the final paragraph of the Torah will be read out loud by Sheldon Berman, the shul's regular reader.

"I'm a rabbi since 1961, and this is the first time I've presided over an actual Torah presentation," said Rabbi Ervin Preis, who found the order of the ritual in an old book published in Hungary. "Of our 613 commandments, the last one is that each of us should ideally write our own Torah. When Bucky fills in the last letters before handing the quill to the scribe to finish the word Israel, he will fulfill this commandment."

Founded in 1962, the congregation has eight Torahs in its ark, but only three of them good enough to pass rabbinic muster. All of the documents are decades old, most likely carried to Baltimore from Europe between the turn of the century and World War II. The ink was crumbling, characters were missing, and the animal sinew used to sew the parchment together was beginning to fray. Scribes who do Torah repairs suggested that further touch-ups would be futile.

A used, kosher Torah (as opposed to questionable ones that float on the black market and are often stolen) run $5,000 to $8,000. Rabbi Preis found that available used Torahs were not in much better shape than the ones his congregation already owned.

It takes a full year for a Jewish scribe, standing at a drawing table, to ink more than 300,000 Hebrew characters on parchment that must come from kosher animals. The parchment alone costs about $4,000, and the intensive labor makes the final product expensive, with the Levin Torah costing more than $25,000.

"In Christianity, the New Testament is simply a vehicle" for the message, said Steven Fine, professor of rabbinic literature and history at Baltimore Hebrew University. "In Judaism, the book and the contents are fused. The notion of the scroll as the same as the one Moses received on Sinai is extremely powerful. Jews come close to God by coming close to this book. People kiss it when it's carried -- it's the closest we can get to God through a physical source."

And for Bucky Levin, presenting such a thing to a community of observant Jews is the closest he can get to the departed souls of his mother and father.

"If I could ever come back to this life again, I wouldn't change a thing," he said. "My father wasn't making any money when I was a kid growing up in Patterson Park, maybe three dollars a week, maybe seven. But I was a kid who always had a bat and ball to play with."

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