Never before was the name of Scribe more denotative than the day the Shadyside stationery boutique invited Rabbi Hershel Pfeffer to display his hand-written creations. In a corner of the small retail space, perched above a stand beside the sofer himself were Pfeffer’s handwritten documents. Mezuzahs, ketubahs (marriage contracts) and other materials, each individually constructed, revealed the nonagenarian’s artistry.
“He’s very talented,” said Miriam Reichman, a Squirrel Hill resident who attended the Sept. 5 program.
“It takes a skilled hand to do that,” echoed Paul J. Shapiro, of Mt. Lebanon, upon seeing the master and his makings.
Pfeffer possesses an exhaustive catalog of more than a half century’s worth of work in his Squirrel Hill home; a mere sampling was brought to the Shadyside shop.
Within Scribe, one of Pfeffer’s works showcased bluebirds and colorful wildflowers adjacent to Hebrew text, while another item displayed dates, pomegranates, wheat, barley, grapes, figs and olive oil — the seven species of agricultural products listed in the Bible — alongside the text of a ketubah.
The pieces reveal just a glimpse of Pfeffer’s accomplishments, said his daughter, Neshi Pfeffer, who pointed to a drawing her father made of the first Lubavitch rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.
Pairing Pfeffer and a store specializing in stationery, invitations and other gifts was a match made in heaven, said Sara Hargreaves, Scribe’s proprietor.
“Neshi came into the store and said, ‘My dad is a real scribe,’ and I about fell on my face because I’ve been looking for a real one for a long time.”
Scribe hosts regular events in the spring and fall.
While previous engagements have featured calligraphers and designers, “we have never had a true scribe before,” said Hargreaves. Compared to the other talented people the store has hosted, “he is a true artisan” with a tradition guiding his every move, she added.
Pfeffer came to Pittsburgh upon the advice of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. As it pertains to safrut, or the Jewish scribal arts, Pfeffer has practiced the craft for decades. But while sketching letters has long been his vocation, as a child it was merely for amusement.
“For fun, I used to write the aleph bet,” he said. When he would finish, Pfeffer would show the creations to his mother, a Polish native who raised him on Canon Street, a now nearly forgotten road in New York City’s Lower East Side.
“She used to criticize me in the beginning — ‘This should be longer. This should be shorter.’ — because she knew,” recalled Pfeffer. “She was brought up in a house [where] they were all sofrim and her father too.”
Eventually, after stints as a shochet (ritual slaughterer) and a Hebrew school teacher, Pfeffer joined the family business, as it were. He decided to pursue it because so many scribes were slaughtered during the Holocaust, and there was a need in Pittsburgh.
More than 50 years after having decided to follow his family’s calling, Pfeffer remains committed to the work. Whether he is checking the parchments within a pair of tefillin, or the text of a sefer Torah, Pfeffer does it all while seated at his dining room table.
“It’s the only table big enough,” said his daughter.
The trade has busier seasons — summer is a popular time for weddings — but Pfeffer has been pleased with the journey.
As for the Shadyside event, which treated visitors to complimentary kosher wine and snacks while they perused Pfeffer’s art and possible purchases within the store, he said he was “surprised” by all of the recent interest.
It was a sentiment he shared slightly before offering an insight into a fiscal reality quite familiar to many artists: “I didn’t become a millionaire,” he said. PJC