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A storied sefer Torah is reborn generations later

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Noah Ezra Anzarut, left, rehearses for his bar mitzvah as his father, Phil Anzarut, right, and grandfathers Ezra Anzarut and Len Podheiser look on. (David Curleigh photo)

A sefer Torah that belonged to a prominent Middle Eastern Sephardic family for generations, but spent a half-century unused in an Ashkenazic Montreal synagogue, was rediscovered and given new life recently.

The silver-encased, centuries-old scroll was read by Noah Ezra Anzarut, the son of Alissa and Phil, at his bar mitzvah at Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem. Members of the large family came in to town to see the forgotten Torah, which had travelled from country to country as the Anzarut family dispersed throughout the globe.

In 1964, the Torah was donated to Congregation Shaar Hashomayim by Noah’s great-grandfather, Benjamin Anzarut, who arrived in Montreal from Egypt a few years earlier.

In the 1800s, the Torah was given by his father, Ezra Anzarut, to a synagogue near Beirut, which the latter had built in memory of his father, Jacob Anzarut.

The Torah was later transported to Alexandria and kept in the Shaarei Tefillah Synagogue, which was also built by Ezra Anzarut.

In 1956, when many Jews left Egypt, the family launched a concerted effort to get the Torah, and others that it owned, out of the country. Some were donated to synagogues in Britain and Israel.

Benjamin Anzarut, who died in 1994, chose the Shaar because his eldest daughter married one of its members, Alissa Anzarut explained. The Anzaruts were never members.

As time passed, they forgot that the Torah was at the Shaar, she said, although older relatives occasionally recalled the distinctive scroll.

Last year, as they began preparing for Noah’s bar mitzvah, Alissa and Phil Anzarut decided to track down the scroll. They had heard it was given to a local synagogue, but thought that most logically would have been the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue.

A cousin, Karen Shiller, uncovered the synagogue bulletin announcing its dedication to the Shaar 55 years ago. She said that no one in the family knows the exact age of the Torah, which was likely written in Aleppo or Damascus.

For many years, due to its beauty, the Torah has had pride of place in the Shaar’s magnificent Aron Kodesh. The synagogue gladly loaned it out to the family for the occasion.

Apparently, it was not used because it stands on its own, to be read vertically, rather than unspooled horizontally. That would not be possible on the Shaar’s slanted platform.

To see the Torah at the heart of his son’s rite of passage was very meaningful to Phil Anzarut. “It was an honour to our heritage when Noah read from my great-grandfather’s Torah, considering Noah is second-generation Canadian born and that our family broke ties with Egypt and Lebanon more than 60 years ago,” he said.

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Noah appreciates the significance, too, saying that, “It was special to read from a Torah that’s been in my family for many generations and a Torah that is a few hundred years old.”

There was, however, a logistical problem at the shul: the scroll did not fit into its ark. That was resolved by putting it on a pedestal within the curtained enclosure, Alissa Anzarut said.

According to the family’s research, Ezra Anzarut was born in 1860 in Aleppo, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire, where the Anzaruts had lived for at least 400 years.

As an infant, Ezra Anzarut was brought by his parents to Manchester, where the family established a shipping company that transported cotton from the Ottoman Empire to Manchester’s mills. They became very wealthy.

As a young man, Ezra Anzarut returned to Beirut and married the daughter of the Farhi banking family of Damascus. They had 14 children.

The family moved to Aley, a resort town in the mountains about 15 kilometres from Beirut. There, Ezra Anzarut built a synagogue that he called Ohel Yaacov, in honour of his late father. (Today, the municipality touts what remains of the synagogue as a tourist attraction.)

During the First World War, Ezra Anzarut, who remained a British subject, moved the family to Alexandria, which was under the British Mandate.

There, he built another synagogue, Shaarei Tefillah, across from his villa. The building later became a mosque and the residence a school, or at least it was when the family last visited 10 years ago.

The last of Ezra Anzarut’s descendants left Egypt by around 1960, as conditions worsened for Jews. Benjamin Anzarut was the youngest of his sons.

The Torah’s pages are made of brown leather, not parchment, and although the calligraphy is slightly different to what the Bialik High School student is used to, Noah had no trouble reading his portion, which coincidently makes mention of Egypt.

The bar mitzvah was an occasion to weave together Sephardic and Ashkenazic traditions, introducing customs that were unfamiliar to some of Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem’s members, noted Alissa Anzarut.

Each of the relatives who attended played some part in the rite and just getting to touch the Torah was moving to them, she said. “As one aunt remarked, ‘If only its pages could speak.’ What a history. We took a family legacy and made it into a living legacy.”

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