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Torah Stitch by Stitch: A D'var by Temma Gentles

28/09/2016 03:36:21 PM

Sep28

Shabbat Shalom. I am honoured to be here.

I’ve been invited to speak about the Torah Stitch by Stich (TSBS) program, in partnership with Congregation Darchei Noam, that officially launches today. This partnership has been in the works for several months and, thanks to the grace of the Board, the support of the staff, and the initiative and hard work of the Art Committee, we are thrilled to make it official.

In a way, TSBS was the result of my being rejected from participating an Israeli art show on the theme of women’s religious art. I was really ok with the rejection…Otherwise getting thousands of people to stitch the Torah might be considered a massive over-reaction…

In my mind, I transformed the theme of the art show from women’s religious art; to the art of religious women. And I’m not religious. That got me thinking about ways in which “ordinary” women could engage with the Torah in an “extraordinary” way. A way that would be typically female. I thought of cross-stitching because, historically, that was how young women learned to read and to stitch.

While still in Israel, I consulted rabbis and sofers. None of them could find any issue with women stitching Torah text, as long as it was done with appropriate kavanah. Once back in Toronto, I sort of hoped the idea would leave itself behind. But, alas, it didn’t.

I thought maybe a few friends would be willing to play along with my crazy idea. I saw it as an educational opportunity for engagement. I planned that everyone who wanted to participate, could do a four-verse panel (in honour of the four matriarchs) and that this might turn into a little exhibit at a shul or JCC.

Then, in the summer of 2013, I placed a six-line ad in a Hadassah Magazine – that TSBS was looking for people to stitch Torah verses. And the project went viral!

1,464 four-verse sections. Each participant bought a kit for $18. Their only obligation was to stitch the verses correctly and return the panel within six months. On the square of aida cloth canvas there was usually some extra space and many people wanted to create borders or illuminations, so I arbitrarily chose a palette of seven colours.

I asked Miriam Wyman to do the first panel, Tohu b’bohu, Hurricane Sandy.

Sharon Binder, who helped design the font, did the 2nd: Separating sky and water.

We invited stitchers to dedicate their panel to someone significant, and many did. We asked them to document their progress and to share their stories.

People started involving family members. Local media became interested. Stitching circles started forming. People of different faiths joined in as well. In three years, we have had over 1,200 stitchers in 21 countries.

It was (and still is) overwhelming! I would receive a thousand emails per month and could spend 12 hours per day with the project. And yet, whatever time and energy I give to the project, the participants gave back even more. Volunteers came forward to make kits, format verses, create a data base and archive, coach, and to serve on our Board of Directors.

Momentum kept building. The husband of a stitcher who happens to be one of Canada’s top stage designers, foresaw that because of the sheer magnitude of the project, we would need a bigger exhibit than a wall at the JCC. Currently 75% of the panels are complete and most of the rest are in progress. We are now grappling with whether or not we can achieve an exhibition that travels to museums around the world – and that will depend on whether we can achieve the level of organization and funding necessary.

So how does DN participate? In two weeks’ time, we will reach Parasha Valyeilech in which Moses prepares for the end of his life with the knowledge that, for his sins, he will not be permitted to enter the Promised land. The week following, Parashat Ha’azinu, is his song of fundamental belief, which is beautiful in its sound and typography. And then, in the coda read on Simchat Torah as we end Deuteronomy and begin with Bereishit. Those 30 four-verse sections are DNs to stitch and to embrace. You don’t need any expertise and you will have support all along the way; about half of our stitchers have never done cross-stitch and most know no Hebrew. There are even male participants!

And you never know what you might discover about Torah, about yourself, and about the wider community.

I’ll close with a related story…In June, I received two completed panels with notes from the two stitchers. Neither was Jewish, and English was not their first language, and so the gift of their stitching was enhanced by their efforts to express their thoughts in the note.

I hope you will join us on this amazing journey.

Tue, 3 August 2021 25 Av 5781