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Nov. 11, 2005

Local scribe on Vision

The Torah being written by Aviel Barclay is a first.

There are few people in the world who have the gumption and the determination to follow their dreams, let alone if those dreams conflict with societal norms or religious doctrine. This month, VisionTV will air Soferet: A Special Scribe, a documentary about Vancouverite Aviel Barclay, who has chosen to become a Torah scribe (soferet), despite the fact that most Jewish authorities believe that rabbinic law forbids a woman from writing a Torah scroll for ritual use.

"I was told by one [sofer, male scribe] that I would better serve the Jewish people by getting married and having children," says Barclay in the documentary. She then laughs confidently, adding that she told the sofer that she wants to do that, too.

Barclay's husband, Joel Rothschild, is one of the many people interviewed in Soferet. He underscores Barclay's assertion that she is obligated to be a scribe. She "believes she has been given this work to do by God," he says.

Such conviction and self-assuredness seems to have directed much of Barclay's life. Born Alison Barclay in Prince George, in 1968, and raised as a Christian, Barclay converted to Orthodox Judaism in adulthood. In the film, she explains that she never felt at home in church. When her father died suddenly, when she was 16, Barclay stepped back from religion entirely for a couple of years. After her right hand was crushed in a cycling accident, she had to undergo much therapy to write again. During the rehabilitation process, Barclay began to read about Judaism and found that this was where she belonged – living as a Jew.

During the conversion process, Barclay started doing Hebrew calligraphy – reviving an interest in Hebrew letters that she had had since childhood. It was then, she says, that it dawned on her that she was to be a soferet; that she would write a Torah scroll.

Soferet includes a brief history of Barclay's life, including an interview with her mother. It touches upon some of Barclay's struggles in finding a willing scribe to teach her the art. Many rabbis are also featured, such as Or Shalom's Rabbi Hillel Goelman and Shaarey Tefilah's Rabbi Shachar Ornstein. Other clergy are interviewed as well, and the documentary cogently explains the central role played by the Torah in Judaism and sensitively presents the controversies surrounding whether a woman can be a soferet.

Seattle's Kadima congregation has decided to push traditional boundaries and has commissioned Barclay to write a sefer Torah. According to the synagogue's website, the Women's Torah Project was started in 2003 and will see Barclay and fellow Judaic artist Shoshana Gugenheim become the first women to scribe a Torah scroll. For more information on the project, visit

For more information on Barclay's ritual and mystical art, which includes ketubot (marriage contracts), amulets and other work, visit Soferet: A Special Scribe airs on VisionTV on Wednesday, Nov. 16, at 7 p.m., and repeats on Thursday, Nov. 17, at 8 p.m.