Sisters Brenda Silver, Susan Rubin and Mimi Wolch are among the hundreds who will contribute to the Torah Stitch by Stitch project. (photo by Phillip Silver)
A new Torah scroll is in the making. The brainchild of Temma Gentles, Holy Blossom Temple’s artist-in-residence in Toronto, the project originated from a chance encounter Gentles had with Marilynne Cass a year ago.
Gentles, an award-winning Judaic textile artist, is the artistic director of Torah Stitch by Stitch (TSBS), while Cass is the project’s executive coordinator.
“I fell in love with the concept and have thoroughly enjoyed seeing this dream turn into a reality,” said Cass about accepting Gentles’ invitation to join the team when the project was just beginning.
Gentles came up with the idea while on sabbatical in Israel several years ago, when seeking a way to help people engage in the words of Torah. As a textile artist, she envisioned creating a cross-stitched Torah.
“Temma chose cross-stitch because it’s a universally known craft that has been traditionally taught to young girls around the world for adorning clothing and household items,” said Cass. “It was also often the way in which girls learned their letters and numbers. While it’s a simple skill to master, it can still produce amazingly beautiful pieces of work. Using cross-stitch for TSBS has been an inspired choice, as it has allowed people from around the world to work together on a single project.”
Gentles designed a new font for Hebrew letters and divided the entire Torah into 1,463 four-verse segments for people to work on. TSBS participants range from men and women in their teens to those well into their 90s, from skilled stitchers to novices.
“There is no skill test to pass,” said Cass. “The only requirement is that each person commits to following the stitching graph correctly, complete their canvas in a timely manner and treat the work with respect.”
TSBS stitchers come from many different religions – from Judaism to Christianity, Buddhism to Islam. “Even though we’re doing the Torah (the Five Books of Moses), this isn’t an exclusively Jewish project,” said Cass.
“The Torah is the basis of three of the world’s major religions and TSBS has universal appeal,” she added, noting the project includes avowed atheists and the mother superior of a convent. “Everyone is welcome,” said Cass. “In fact, we’re actively looking for more Muslim stitchers.”
While many TSBS stitchers are from the Toronto area, the project has spread throughout Canada.
“I found out about this project from my sister, Brenda Silver, who met the artist through her synagogue in Toronto,” said Susan Rubin, chief financial officer of a downtown Vancouver junior mining company, who resides on the North Shore. “Both of my sisters volunteered to do panels, so I decided to sign up for a panel, too.”
Rubin paid $18 to cover the kit cost and received the template for the verses, the fabric and the embroidery threads in the mail. “At first, it was difficult to figure out how to start, but soon I got the hang of it,” she said. “I hadn’t done any cross-stitching for about 40 years, but it’s not that difficult. I worked on the cross-stitching at night, doing an hour here and an hour there. After about six months, it was done. It was very satisfying work and fun to do.”
Gentles asked Rubin to be more involved in the project and asked whether she would like to be a coach. “I was pleased to take a position,” said Rubin. “I’m one of many volunteers assisting Temma. Some volunteers are helping people with the stitching, while others are helping to compile the finished panels.”
Rubin is helping keep track of the 700 stitchers. “I assign each stitcher a coach, so they have someone to contact if they run into trouble,” she said. “I also follow up with the stitchers who’ve had their panel for over six months and haven’t yet completed it. If someone cannot complete their panel, we try and find out why and offer help or, if need be, find a volunteer to adopt the panel. It’s important that all panels are complete, so the finished project is the entire Torah.
“It’s been interesting to hear feedback and personal stories from the volunteers. Even though this is a folk art project, there is a spiritual overtone and the stitchers receive great satisfaction in working with the words of the Torah.”
TSBS now has nearly 900 participants in 13 countries, with more applications coming in each week.
“Our ultimate goal is to have all 1,463 panels completed,” said Cass. “We’re more than halfway there.” The books of Genesis and Exodus have been finished, and stitchers are now working on Leviticus.
“We expect it to take another year before all the remaining canvases have been assigned,” she added. “Meanwhile, we’re working on the final details for the display format.”
The display has been designed by Phillip Silver, one of Canada’s foremost stage designers. It will be about 2.5 metres high and nearly 100 metres long. “The finished work will be museum quality and we hope it will be exhibited in several museums,” said Cass. “The goal is to allow people to feel as if they’re wrapped in the Torah.”
The project’s registration form, more information and helpful tips are available at torahstitchbystitch.temmagentles.com.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.