Although I have been doing Daf Yomi (studying a page of Talmud a page a day), I fell asleep a few days ago before I could finish learning my page of Talmud. I was worn out. And it was a page particularly relevant to my life.
Bava Kamma 99 talks about the value a craftsperson brings to the raw materials. For instance, if a customer brought wool to be dyed but something went wrong and the dyer made a mistake, the dyer would owe the customer the value of the wool. The value of the craftsperson’s enhancement is a different, additional calculation on top of the raw materials’ value. The skill and artistry that the craftsperson brings to their craft has economic value, which is part of what this tractate of Jewish law covers.
I’m a maker. I create lots of things, from baking bread to making labneh and many homemade family meals. I can make jams and pickles. I’m a hand spinner. I also dye yarn. I knit and design things. I even occasionally weave. I sew clothing, too, if in an elementary way. I appreciate it when I read about how a craftsperson adds value to raw materials in a Jewish text because it’s personally relatable. It shows that, in a time when everything was handmade, the rabbis valued the skilled work involved to make functional and sometimes beautiful things.
Since I had to study the rest of page 99 before heading on, I did half of that page and the next on the same day. Bava Kamma 100a talks about how teachers “go beyond” – not just in how they teach Torah, but in how they do mitzvot (commandments) and help others. Even though I trained as a teacher long ago, nobody’s an expert at everything. I teach some things, like hand spinning, and not others. I’m not able to “go beyond” as a sewing teacher, for example, and, instead, I searched for someone who could teach my kids.
My kids took sewing classes and attended sewing camp for two summers at a studio nearby. The small business owner was warm and inviting. It seemed to be a safe place. When she asked people to write blog posts for her, I did. It didn’t pay much but I thought it was a good community business, promoting slow fashion and reuse.
As many people were, I was in shock after Oct. 7. I didn’t immediately see anything concerning about this business, as it felt like it was “mostly” about sewing. Then, eventually, I began to realize that, in fact, there was an increasing trickle of activism on this social media feed. Like many Canadian progressives, this was part of a wider theme. Nothing was expressed in solidarity with the hostages or those who died on Oct. 7. Rather, the business began acknowledging and amplifying Palestinian influencers, posting participation in a raffle for the Red Crescent and posting ceasefire comments.
Every time I ask questions of someone I know – Why are you posting this? Do you support the right to a democracy to protect itself? – the exchanges, often disappointing, take an enormous amount of energy. Being brave and speaking out is tiring with so much antisemitism circulating.
I finally got up the nerve to ask the business owner … why are you posting about this, what does this activism about Israel and Gaza have to do with your small business? Are you Israeli or Palestinian? Are you an activist about a lot of things beyond slow fashion? If so, where is your outrage about Nigeria, Sudan, Syria, Uyghurs…?
In response, she did say she wanted all the hostages released, but she had never posted that publicly. Instead, she had reposted images promoting a tatreez (Palestinian embroidery) class. Fine, I thought, this aligned with her sewing business – but the image posted showed the outline of Israel with Arabic on top that read “PALESTINE” across the whole country. It erased Israel altogether.
I engaged via social media messaging, but saw it wasn’t likely to help. She asked, well, what do you want me to say? I suggested one could choose to be an ally of people you taught or worked with, or could choose to listen and to not amplify only one side. She didn’t choose either of those options. Instead, she decided to take down my writing from her site. I’d suggested that she could remove my name, if she chose, as it was her prerogative, that she’d bought my writing and owned it.
She then made things clear, saying it was “Only Jews who told her to ‘shut up’ or ‘stay in her lane as a Canadian.’” She said plenty of Jews aligned with her beliefs … although, based on the polls, I responded they were likely a minority. I suggested maybe only those Jewish customers brave enough to say something had spoken up.
I was initially sad to lose this community connection. I could have unfollowed this person without this discussion. My kids would never have taken another class. I’d never do business with her again. The depth of her concerning opinions wouldn’t have been revealed.
By exposing this small businessperson’s attitude, I learned more about what was “out there” in the local makers’ community. This included a willingness to lose business and relationships with students and clients who feel uncomfortable with these views.
I struggle sometimes to create a positive sewing lesson environment for my kids at home. However, there’s a different outcome here. I might grow as a person from “adding value to raw materials” as a craftsperson, to teaching more. This was something I could do. I falsely hoped that, if I tried hard to communicate, build bridges and connect with this person, things would change. But I need to continue learning and growing, too. Even this negative experience might have positive potential for growth.
When telling my family about the experience at the dinner table, my twins surprised me by saying, “Well, what took you so long? We could never go back there again.” Indeed, sometimes we give intolerant people too many chances to rise to the occasion, to become upstanding people. In this case, my kids knew the way before I did.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for the Winnipeg Free Press and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.