Can needlework be Jewish?

By Debbi K. Levy

Exodus 28:33-34 describes the priestly garment for Aaron this way: “On its hem make pomegranates of blue, purple and crimson yarns, all around the hem, with bells of gold between them all around: a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, all around the hem of the robe.”

This sacred verse speaks to me. Each word lovingly feels like an invitation to embroider a pomegranate and sew on a bell as a remembrance of the exacting Divine instructions for the robe to be worn by the priests, or priestesses, as I relate to our prayer leaders.

Preparing the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the wilderness required a variety of skillsets. If I had been present during that instruction, I would have enthusiastically volunteered to work with the sacred vestments constructed for Aaron initially. I dream about how the tiny pomegranates might have been stitched. I am fascinated with weaving. I wouldn’t have minded sewing the length of the curtains to create chambers and spaces for the Holy of Holies. Given my mindset, is it any wonder I find myself to be a passionate needlepointer? Is my enthusiasm influenced by my Jewish roots? I determined that I would explore this recurrent musing.

“Hello?” my dear friend Karen Cohen answered the phone and I asked her to put down her crochet hook and have a serious discussion with me. (I know her crocheting voice.)

“Do we know enough Jewish women who work in needle arts to form a kind of minyan, or gathering?”

We ran out of fingers on both hands to count as we named them out loud. We inquired of a few people we thought might be knitters, cross-stitchers, crochet artists or needlepointers. We counted 15 and thought it best to curtail our number of participants there. We were way past the 10 that echo an important Jewish number we had hoped to include.

On the third Monday of the month, the members of the Keepsake Craft Club walk through the alternating open door of Karen’s or my home, beginning at 5 p.m. We aim for about four hours together. Our artists bring a refreshment or not but focus more on simply bringing themselves. We show up however we are. No need to impress. We require a very large dining room table, just like it is a lively Shabbat — and perhaps in some small ways it is.

Our next gathering will be our sixth. Six months running! I am excited to share with you, reader, some of what our group has experienced, learned and begun to learn about our Jewish selves.

We make blankets for our newborn grandchildren. We make tallitot. We create beautiful challah covers. We make crocheted dolls. One member of our group (Connie Dufner) is stitching individual leaves to be sewn together as a table runner adorning her table for Sukkot. Debbie Weinstein makes small, intricate baskets with no other tool than her fingertips. We are creating projects that truly have the potential to be keepsakes as our club’s name affirms. And all the while our hands and minds are at work, our lives are becoming a weaving in themselves.

“Tell us about your daughter’s wedding,” someone curiously prompts.

“How is your mom?” asks another, knowing things have been a bit touch-and-go over the past few months.

“Where are you spending the High Holy Days?” the group brings up.

Before we commenced, Karen and I consciously decided that no hard-and-fast rules or policies would govern our “club” and that that would be the most meaningful kavanah (intention) for this assembly of women who are family and community doers and leaders. We envisioned that the loose structure we were leaning into could be refreshing and even joyful. A container with no expectations other than sharing our projects and our conversation, our experiences and maybe a snack.

Following the last meeting of our crafters, both Karen and I received messages from our members feeling the feels of this “weaving” and warmth pervading our meetings. Care for one another has become a group practice, grown organically, we have found.

If this group of 15 had been assembled in the wilderness to follow Divine instructions and create ritual and generational artwork to be cherished over the generations, the process might have looked something like ours does today.

And what of the cloud that the Torah tells us covered the Mishkan conveying the sacred sense of security and honor to those residing under its canopy? We feel that affection, too, as our fingers fly over our work. May we continue to gather with the blessings of good health and peace. Amen.

Debbi K. Levy is finishing a needlepoint as you read this, absorbed in the joy it brings.

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