This article appeared in the May 27, 2010 Jewish Advocate.
Left-Two (gefilte) fish by Reva Katz, Right-Menorah by Sima Rynderman, Bottom-pillow by Ellen Temkin. Sima taught the workshop during which the other two pieces were begun.
Rear-Mae Rockland Tupa, "Apartment Window View circa 1909"; Laura Wallins, "2 Embroidered Huck Towels"; Zelayna Rauch, "Goldwork Pomegranate"
Front-Miriam K. Sokoloff, "People of the Book"; Laura Rosenspan, "Tree of Life"; Zelayna Rauch, "Jewish Star Quilt"
Stitching tradition, one panel at a time
By Susie Davidson
Special to the Advocate
Expression comes alive in all forms of art. But a colorful, detailed, many-layered quilt has a special value that is both intrinsic and apparent. From the soft, warm and yielding nature of its material base, to its completed, visual tapestry, to the painstaking and loving care with which it was fashioned, a quilt is a uniquely creative treasure that evokes a strong visceral reaction in the viewer. Prepare to spend a bit more time at a quilting exhibition as the viewer is wont to ponder who made it, how it was stitched, what inspired it, how long it took to create.
“Quilting can be traced back to ancient Egypt and China, where three layers of fabrics (top, batting for warmth, and backing) were stitched together to keep the middle layer from slipping and clumping,” state Marianne Fons and Liz Porter, in their 1993 book “Quilter’s Complete Guide.” The use of quilting in holding layers of padding underneath armor in the 11th Century helped make the medium a common form of needlework, according to the authors. Quilted petticoats and waistcoats, as well as bedding, emerged in the 18th Century, and the art came to the American colonies at this time, most likely emulating the styles used in England, and probably whole cloths, as opposed to the 19th Century’s American styles of patchwork or appliqué. From the 1940s to 1970, state Fons and Porter, quilting was not a major activity, but it has regained popularity since 1976. In the US, the largest known collection of quilts can be seen at the International Quilt Study Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The New England Quilt Museum is in Lowell.
Although quilts are often grandmotherly creations meant to keep descendents warm and cozy, including, for example, in quillows, with built-in pockets for housing blankets, they have taken on personified, leadership roles in causes, as in, for example, the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
Communities with well-known quilting traditions include the somber Amish, the blocked Baltimore, Bangladeshi Kanthas, British and European, appliquéd Hawaiian, Log Cabin, Italian Renaissance-era, and the Pakistani and Indian Rali styles. The beauty and symbolism of quilting is also upheld in the Jewish community. Since 1977, members of the Pomegranate Guild of Judaic Needlework have crafted beautiful quilts that honor Jewish themes and traditions, pay respect to victims of the Holocaust and beloved relatives, and are often useful accompaniments to rituals as well as stunning wall hangings. The Guild, which was founded by Jewish needle artists in New York and has 20 chapters in the US and Canada, publishes the quarterly Paper Pomegranate, with needlework tips and techniques, historical information, Jewish holiday projects, and more.
Curious? You’re in luck. The Greater Boston Chapter is currently exhibiting throughout the Brookline Public Library until June 1. According to Miriam K. Sokoloff, a Guild member who is chairing the exhibit, it includes about 50 pieces, with larger pieces shown in the library’s Hunneman Hall. The works include silk challah covers created at a workshop last month led by co-president Maxine Sorokin and her husband Henry Altmann, "Fantasy Fabric Hamentaschen" stitched at a 2009 Purim workshop taught by Miriam K. Sokoloff, and Judaica created using buttons under the guidance of Sima Rynderman. Two group pieces are shown upstairs. The group last exhibited at the library in 2005.
The 11 contributing members (out of approximately 40 who belong to the chapter, all of whom are Jewish) are Reva Katz, Carolyn Shure, Miriam K. Sokoloff, Mae Rockland Tupa, Sandra Mills, Zelayna Rauch, Laura Rosenspan, Sima Rynderman, Laura Wallins, Ellen Temkin, and Mark Jacobson. Mark Jacobson? Yes, Mark, as in male. “I learned to sew at an early age, out of necessity,” he said. “Although my mother grew up in a fabric store, she did not sew.” Jacobson creates photorealistic machine embroidery, which reflects his long-standing interest in photography and his computer expertise. “The application of the process to create a square for a synagogue quilt project brought me to the Pomegranate Guild, where I enjoy seeing the wide variety of techniques used,” he said, noting that men’s traditional knowledge bases can mesh well with those of Pomegranate Guild members. “These interactions support the inclusion of Judaic themes that would not emerge in Guilds organized by craft,” he said.
“I’ve been sewing since I was five, and have used a sewing machine since I was seven,” said Sokoloff, who also co-chaired the Brookline 300 Quilt project. “I have sewn clothing for myself since ‘Home Ec’ at the Baker School in Brookline, and I also took classes at the School of Fashion Design in Boston,” she said. She became interested in quilting in the early 1980's, partially due to an interest in collecting first-day cover Israeli stamps. “I saw a stamp set of the Biblical Moses and just had to interpret that in a quilt, so I learned,” she said. Sokoloff has taught sewing to young girls in the community ever since, and also teaches adults, at Brookline Adult Education, and at a quilting group at the Brookline Senior Center.
Her father, Simon Kandler, z"l, served as Cantor of Temple Emeth for almost 60 years. “He came to this country in 1923 and passed away at 100 in 2001,” she said. Like his father in his birthplace of Libau, Latvia, he was also a tailor, and his uncle had made theatrical costumes. “So maybe my interest in using a sewing needle is genetic,” Sokoloff suggests. She chaired a large needlework project for her synagogue, Young Israel in Brookline, but the six large panels of ‘Stained Glass Applique’ were destroyed in the 1994 fire at the shul.
Tupa has two pieces in the Library show. “The smaller one in a display case uses snippets of my grandmothers tablecloth as the ‘curtains’ for a window,” she said. Tupa, a Bronx native, learned sewing in Kindergarten from Irish immigrants. Three pieces that had belonged to her Grandmother (her mother’s family disappeared during the Holocaust), however, taught her even more. “One was a cross-stitched table cloth, another a painterly embroidery
of a bird with silk foliage on a black woolen background, and the third, an appliqué and
embroidery depicting two young boys smoking pipes and looking sick while a little dog, also affected by the smoke, looks on,” she said. Her grandmother’s ability to draw and tell a story through a picture captivated her. In the 70s, she followed her grandmother’s example and drew pictures of Judaic-themed projects such as challah or matzah covers; her first book, “The Work of Our Hands,” was released by Schocken Books in 1972 (she has written others since). She joined the “Pom” from its inception, and started the Greater Boston chapter in 1992 (she had moved to Brookline in 1977). “My two younger children were getting married, and it seemed like a wonderful idea in celebration,” she said. Tupa’s paintings, etchings, silkscreens, and varied textile works have been shown globally, including at the Jewish Museum in New York, and at the Judische Museum in Berlin.
Most of the monthly meetings are held at Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Chestnut Hill, according to Sokoloff. The group also meets for "stitch-ins" at the Sheepskate knitting shop in downtown Dedham. “Our programs vary between hand-on workshops and lectures and field trips,” said Sokoloff. “We try to learn new techniques in needlework as a way of enhancing our Judaica.” ("Hiddur Mitzvah," she said, is the Hebrew term for this.) She taught her "Fantasy Fabric Hamentashen" workshop at the 2009 biannual National Convention in Enfield, Connecticut. “We used felt, embroidery thread, beads and charms to create decorative hamentaschen that could be table decorations for a Purim Seudah (festive meal), or worn as a pendant and used as a gragger" during the Megillah reading,” she said. The pieces ranged from realistic (their beige-beaded authenticity disappointed her husband), to colorfully fanciful.
The pomegranate, popular in Judaism for its reputed 613 seeds, which correlate to the number of required mitzvot, was chosen by the Guild chose it as a link to the heritage; its site quotes the depiction of the garments of the High Priest Aaron in Exodus 39, verses 24 – 25: "And they made upon the hem of the robe pomegranates of blue, and purple, and scarlet and twined linen.” A founding member designed the organization’s logo, a pomegranate with a threaded sewing needle for a stem.