A Life Well Lived: Remembering Eric Ray

There are many ways to remember Dr. Eric Ray, many chapters in his richly diverse life. Eric Rozenman published a great article about Dr. Ray (reprinted here with permission from B’nai B’rith Magazine), in the National Jewish Monthly, May/June, 2000 issue, “Artist Forger Soldier Spy: Eric Ray’s Improbable Life.”

Dr Ray’s (and my) friend and colleague, Sofer Rabbi Michael Plotnick Tayvah, z”l, delivered this Hesped (eulogy) at Dr. Ray’s funeral in July 2005:

Dr. Eric F. L. Ray of Great Neck, New York, Rabbi and Master Scribe, and international authority on ancient Hebrew scripts, Jewish Art, illuminated Hebrew manuscripts, and synagogue architecture, died on 8 July 2005 (2 Tammuz 5765) from complications of pneumonia. He is survived by his wife Lali, three adult children (Jason, Dani & Kenan), and three grandchildren (Samantha, Alex & Adam).

Prior to coming to New York in 1978, he was Director of Visual Arts at the University of Judaism for 15 years. He served a Director of the University’s Press and Museum as well as Chairman of the Visual Arts for its School of Fine Arts for 10 years.

Eric’s loss will be mourned worldwide by those who knew him personally, and by those touched by his children’s book Sofer, the Story of a Torah Scroll (first published by Torah Aura in1986).

Born in London, England, in 1926, Eric’s father was a hair-dresser to the royal family. This connection served him well when, during WWII, he secured a commission at age 16 with the Imperial Frontiersmen, a subsidiary of the Household Cavalry, which guarded the Royal residences during the London Blitz.

Even before the war, his artistic talent budded and bloomed. He learned Chinese brush calligraphy at age 16 in London, and before he turned 18 he studied some Hebrew, English and Latin calligraphy from William Walman (the featured calligrapher at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London). Later in the war, he was transferred to the Admiralty’s Maps and Charts Department of the Royal Navy where is artistic gifts where put to work.

Following the war, he became involved with the underground “Aliyah Bet” operation of the European Zionist movement to move Shoah survivors out of Europe to the Land of Israel-Palestine. He was smuggled into Dachau to use his calligraphic and artistic skills to forge documents to get sick survivors into France and displaced persons out of the camps.

Eric joined survivors on the Altalena, the historic Irgun ship, sailing to the newly born state of Israel, arriving just after the declaration of the State. In a conflict over competing armed groups in the young state, the ship was shelled by the Israel Defense Forces (under the command of Yitzhak Rabin) and sunk in Tel Aviv Harbor. Eric swam ashore, shoeless, and walked into Tel Aviv. Seeing a tall young man, dripping wet and bare-foot, a shoe store owner took pity in him and gave him a pair of shoes. Such was his first arrival in Israel.

During the War of Independence he served as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces and later created the first map department for all of the services under the auspices of the Chel HaYam, the Israeli Navy. During the course of his service he was wounded twice. He also had the opportunity to do “vacation” fighting under General Yigal Yadin in the taking of Beersheba. Through his friendship with Dr. Yadin, he later studied archaeology in Los Angeles.

Eric received his Bachelor’s Degree in England from the St. Martin’s School of Art where he earned a National Diploma in Design and as well as a National Diploma in Architecture. He held a Master’s Degree in Art History and a Doctorate in “Symbolism in the Arts of Ancient Religion” from the London College of Applied Science of London University. His Doctoral dissertation proved the authenticity of the magen david the six pointed “star of David” as pre-Solomonic in religious art in Biblical Archaeology, another of his specialties.

Dr Eric Ray, Sofer
ca 1986 Torah Aura

Eric served as principal advisor on age and provenance of Torah scrolls for the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York and was recommended by London’s Westminster Synagogue as a major restorer of their rescued Holocaust Torahs. He had the honor and pleasure of restoring Europe’s oldest known Torah scroll (written by three separate scribes, originally in Spain in the 1300’s) in the Liberal Synagogue in The Hague, Netherlands. In 2001 he traveled to the island of Curacao where he identified the age and provenance of the twenty-one scrolls in possession of Congregation Mikve Israel-Emanuel. In 2004, he completed the repair of the world’s oldest scroll in existence written by a single Spanish scribe, dated by Eric to 1320 CE.

In addition to his work as a Torah scribe, Eric was been in demand as a Scholar-In-Residence, lecturer and consultant to museums. A number of television programs on his work as a sofer have been made in England, Holland and the United States. Eric has been featured in scholarly and general publications in Europe, Israel and the United States for his work as a scribe and for his synagogue and fine art. He is credited with originating the renaissance in the “Ketubah” (Jewish marriage contract) as a popular form of illuminated art. His work is in several museums, the White House, the Israeli Knesset and in many private collections.

Eric’s studies as a sofer began in Jerusalem and were completed in Los Angeles under the tutelage of Rabbi Shemu’el Zadok, a Yemenite scribe. In 1976, he was awarded the title of “Master Scribe” in Jerusalem, based on his ability to write all 2,000 of the letter designs in Hebrew developed through history. His rabbinic degrees are from the Batei Din (Rabbinical courts) of Jerusalem and London.

Eric Ray served on the faculties of Hebrew Union College, Immaculate Heart College and Long Island University, among others, as well as at the University of Judaism, in Los Angeles, CA. He and his wife, Lali, were recently recipients of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Educator Award.