Connecting threads … one Hebrew letter at a time
A time to sew: Lili Shain coordinates an extraordinary textile project which connects cross-stitchers of many faiths with sacred text
Torah Stitch by Stitch
Torah Stitch by Stitch
ALMOST SEVEN YEARS AGO, I picked up a 14 square inch piece of blank aida cloth, a needle and black embroidery thread and began to cross-stitch four verses of Genesis. Twenty minutes later, as I finally finished the first letter of the first word, that piece of cloth was looking bigger and bigger. Eventually this slow, exacting work became a kind of meditation: both on the beauty of each letter and on the meaning of the text that I was stitching. At the same time, I could not help but wonder how I, and my fellow stitchers, would ever finish even the book of Genesis, much less the whole Torah (also known as the Pentateuch). Torah Stitch by Stitch is the brainchild of Toronto-based Judaic textile artist Temma Gentles who, in thinking of a project that would serve to engage women with sacred text, naturally thought of using textile as a medium. Thinking big, in a moment of ‘inspired lunacy’, she hit upon the idea of cross-stitching an artistic representation of the entire Torah, complete with illuminations. She recruited volunteers from among her friends and fellow synagogue members and began to stitch the book of Genesis, four verses at a time. In what turned out to be a prophetic move, she stitched the last verses of Deuteronomy, thinking at the very least we would have a beginning and an end.
That might have been the extent of it, had it not been for a short article in Hadassah Magazine that raised awareness of the project in the USA. From that moment, the project went viral and soon there were stitchers signed up from all over the world, including many from the UK. Today there are over 1400 participants from at least 28 countries comprising women and men from a variety of faiths. Jewish stitchers range from Orthodox to Reform, there are several Muslim women from Toronto, Christians of many denominations, a Mother Superior from London, and a Mormon fire-chief from Florida. Rounding out the group are Buddhists, a Wiccan and many stitchers of no faith. All of them have devoted anywhere from 60-100 hours to each panel, often more if it includes an illumination. Thanks to this huge group, each of the 5856 verses of the Torah are now complete.
This is not only a joyful story about collaboration and inclusivity; it is also about a beautiful work of art. The almost 1900 individual pieces so lovingly created by our far-flung community are being assembled, by hand, into an exquisite Tapestry of Spirit that already includes Genesis, Exodus and the last third of Deuteronomy. This incredibly complex and time-consuming task is the work of a small group in Toronto that we call our awesome assembly angels. Their meticulous handiwork presents an extraordinary tapestry that stands 7 feet high and already stretches over 170 feet. When completed in 2021, it will be the length of a football pitch!
The elegant Hebrew text is enlivened by hundreds of creatively stitched illuminations. Some serve to illustrate the narrative, some reflect personal stories, others simply delight the eye. Many are designed by artists and many more are the spontaneous work of our stitchers, both novice and expert. Whether beautiful, touching, clever, or sometimes even humorous, all reflect a love of the text and often considerable thought, research, and skill. In this respect, the work is a contemporary echo of the illuminated manuscripts of the Renaissance and Middle Ages.
The project also includes two separate smaller works: one with selections from the New Testament in Koine Greek, and one from the Qur’an in Arabic. Each focuses on the theme of creation. Their presence emphasises and honours the common origin of the three Abrahamic faiths, integral to our message of inclusion and outreach.
A filmmaker became intrigued by the project, and in 2017 a short documentary was commissioned by a Canadian broadcaster. The award-winning Stitchers: Tapestry of Spirit introduces us to Temma, the project team, and a variety of engaging stitchers, each telling this amazing story in their own words.
An exhibition followed in 2019, at the Textile Museum of Canada entitled Tapestry of Spirit:The Torah Stitch by Stitch Project. We mounted Genesis, Exodus and part of Deuteronomy on a unique structure: a tall, sweeping evocation of a Torah scroll, accompanied by an English synopsis of each column of text, along the base.
We are now assembling Leviticus, Numbers and the rest of Deuteronomy, and expect to complete the entire project in 2021. It will be a monumental tribute to the power of collaboration, love of the textile arts and, most importantly, the Torah itself.
Lili Shain is President and Chair of the Torah Stitch by Stitch project.
For updated information about this project, or for enquiries about the documentary and/ or exhibit catalogue, readers are encouraged to visit https://torahstitchbystitch.org/.
For the Canadian exhibition see: Textile Museum of Canada: https://textilemuseum.ca/event/tapestry-of-spirit-the-torah-stitch-by-stitch-project/
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