Cross-Stitching the Torah
When Shelley Hebert of Palo Alto, Calif., settles back in her armchair with a section of Deuteronomy in her hands, she joins the almost 2,000 women around the world—and a few men—participating in an epic project called Torah Stitch by Stitch: sewing every word of the Torah in meticulous cross-stitch. The 64-year-old consultant, who has worked for a number of Jewish organizations and recently became a Hadassah life member, places her “Mary Poppins bag,” as she calls it, beside her, filled with the tools she needs to embroider four verses about crossing the Jordan River. Hebert transfers the words from a template onto a 14 by 14-inch canvas. The letter aleph appears after 20 minutes of painstaking work, made up of neat black x’s.
Three thousand miles away in Guatemala City, Jeannette Orantes, 63, who works as a secretary, and her daughter Rebeca Orantes, 22, a recent college graduate, spent months stitching their portions of Genesis. “The feeling is that you are like a scribe,” said the elder Orantes, who converted to Judaism in 2013 with her daughter and 30 other members of their community.
Torah Stitch by Stitch was conceived by Toronto textile and Judaica artist Temma Gentles, 73, six years ago after she was invited to take part in an exhibition on religious art by women at the Mishkan Museum of Art in Ein Harod, Israel. When the show’s theme morphed into the art of religious women, Gentles was excluded because she is a Reform Jew. “I began to think about how women can express their love of holy texts in a female and participatory way,” she recalled, “and I thought, ‘Let’s stitch Torah!’ ”
To address the staggering numbers involved in executing the project—the Torah has 5,856 verses and 304,805 letters—Gentles devised a system where each participant would receive a kit with four verses to stitch onto a panel. Each individual would pay $18 and commit to completing the panel within six months. The kit includes a paper cross-stitch pattern of the verses, typically assigned in order of appearance in the Torah; a needle; black embroidery floss; and the canvas panel. Once completed, the panels are mailed back to Gentles and sewn together.
A short item in Hadassah Magazine in 2013 that described the project “went viral,” said Gentles, and her “moment of inspired lunacy” was turned into reality. The majority of stitchers are Jewish women between the ages of 50 and 70. Many are Hadassah members. There are rabbis, atheists, grandmas and their granddaughters, professional artists as well as amateurs. Fifty percent come from the United States and around 30 percent from Canada, followed by smaller numbers in Israel, Britain, Australia and Spain. There are even a few participants scattered in Norway, Japan, South Africa and South America. Thirty members of Reconstructionist synagogue Darchei Noam in Toronto stitched the last three chapters of Deuteronomy.
“For many it was an obvious extension of their faith,” said Lili Shain, 64, a retired bank executive from Ontario. She was one of the first stitchers to sign on and later became chair of the project. “But the stories of the Torah are so iconic that it even engages those who are not religious.”
When it is fully completed in 2020, the stitched Torah will include close to 2,000 panels. Only about 160 panels have yet to be completed. While a regular Torah scroll fully unrolled can reach from 115 to 150 feet, these panels when sewn together will be an astonishing 300 feet—the length of a football field.
Gentles attracted 200 Christian stitchers and a few Muslim women for the project. Ayse Yegul, 37, a Turkish immigrant to Canada, met Gentles at an interfaith program. “It’s important for people to know each other. If they don’t know then they have fear,” Yegul noted in a 15-minute documentary, Stitchers: Tapestry of Spirit, available through the project’s website. The project leaders are looking for a museum partner to exhibit the entire completed scroll and funding to make it possible.
Teresa Helik, 56, a Roman Catholic librarian in Toronto, learned about the project from a Facebook post. “Writing the Torah as a devotional practice made sense to me,” she said. “I found it very moving to connect to this valuable and large multinational, multicultural, multifaith project.”
Many of the participants get hooked on the tactile and meditative nature of the project. “It connects you with people, Jewish history, tradition, a sense of timelessness and purpose,” said Hebert, the consultant, a “total beginner” in the world of crafts.
While many of the panels just include text, about a third to half of stitchers add their own designs, woven from personal stories and memories. Some are funny: Dwayne Padgett, an Episcopalian from Placerville, Calif., stitched a fly swatter to his verses about the plague of insects. Others are tributes to past generations. Others have included poignant tributes to past or future generations. Karen Chisvin, a 64-year-old Toronto architect, adapted a floral fragment from her great-grandmother’s trousseau. Adrienne Kirschner, 75, from Surprise, AZ, created her sixth panel at her husband’s hospital bed and dedicated the seventh in his memory.
Hebert embellished her first panel—a section from Numbers about what happens when a woman makes a vow—with four blue-and-purple butterflies in memory of her mother, Mollye Smolkin, a Hadassah life member, as well as two aunts and grandmother. “It’s a beautiful expression of l’dor v’dor.”
“Tapestry of Spirit: The Torah Stitch by Stitch Project,” an exhibit at Toronto’s Textile Museum of Canada through November 17, will feature about half the Torah Stitch by Stitch project, including Genesis, Exodus and a portion of Deuteronomy, and the documentary film ”Stitchers: Tapestry of Spirit.” To place the Torah in dialogue with other Abrahamic faiths, the exhibit also includes cross-stitched extracts from the Gospels in Greek and the Koran in Arabic that explore the theme of creation.
Rahel Musleah, a frequent contributor to Hadassah Magazine, runs Jewish tours to India and speaks about its communities (explorejewishindia.com).