Rats! Former maker of toy rodents, now Torah scribe, visits S.F.

Rabbi Kevin Hale’s life is as unusual as the lettering on his beloved Torah is uniform.

After all, how many men have graduated from Yale, traipsed around Berkeley for the better part of a decade crafting toy rats out of bits of manufacturer’s seconds blanket material and a jury-rigged wind-up device, graduated rabbinical school and then gone on to become Torah scribes?

Well, at least one.

“Even a rough day with a migraine working on the Torah is still a delightful day,” he said. “There’s a very refreshing feeling like the one I used to have when I was a toymaker.”

Between Nov. 30 and Dec. 2, Hale will host a trio of free events at San Francisco’s Beth Israel-Judea.

Unlike some college graduates of his generation Hale, 46, knew what he wanted to do — it just wasn’t the usual fare for an Ivy League-graduate. Even as the dean placed the parchment in his palm, Hale couldn’t wait to head out to Berkeley and hawk toy vermin on the street.

Doesn’t everyone go through that phase?

But the toy rats were anything but ratty. Creating one was a 40-step process that required the exacting care, concentration and dexterity that Hale still employs in his Torah workshop in Leeds, Mass.

But back to creating the rats. First he bought yards of surplus material used to make Vellux motel blankets, dyed it by hand and boiled it in a 40-quart kettle. He then glued on the little eyes, noses, whiskers and tails.

Finally, he rigged up a mechanical device similar to a roller window shade that gathered up a rubber band when the user pulled the rat backward, causing it to scurry forward when released (oh, and he baked several parts of the roller in a kiln).

Each rat sold for $10, but he would let it go for $9 if you told him a good joke.

When asked how he made ends meet, Hale noted that he made sure the ends were never that far apart: “I lived extremely modestly.”

Hale was always involved Jewishly; indeed, he recalls taking classes at Berkeley Hillel and buying Kiddush wine at the liquor store that is now Netivot Shalom. But it wasn’t until an impromptu career counseling session that he began to consider the rabbinate.

“I was hitchhiking back to visit my brother David in Vermont and was picked up by a wonderful career counselor,” he explained.

“She told me that when I got home, I should imagine images of what really matters. One was my connection through [family], coming to terms with the Holocaust and all the Jewish issues that come to that.

“The other was a memory of how much I loved sitting in the very back of my parents’ station wagon and waving to people. I was working on a roof when I put that together and thought ‘I could be a rabbi.'”

Hale spent five years at the Reconstructionist rabbinical school near Philadelphia and another five studying under Eric Ray, an Orthodox Torah scribe living in upstate New York. Since Ray refused payment, Hale always brought his toolbox and fixed the old man’s house.

With Ray’s blessing in 2005, Hale became one of the world’s few non-Orthodox Jewish scribes.

It’s been quite a journey, but Hale will be the first to tell you that it isn’t as far as you’d think from rats to the rabbinate.

“There’s a connection between what I did then and what I do now,” he said. “I would make these toys, which is kind of solitary work, but then I periodically had a license to be a street artist in Berkeley. And people would take a look at my obviously hand-made toys, then look at me, and have a sort of magical moment of connection when they realized ‘you’re the person who made this thing!’

“That excitement is something I picked up again when I became a Torah scribe,” he added.

Rabbi Kevin Hale will speak 8:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 30 at Congregation Beth Israel-Judea, 625 Brotherhood Way, S.F. He will give a talk on the temple’s Torah scrolls at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1 and lead a calligraphy workshop 1 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 2. All events are free. Information: (415) 678-0327.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.