Many centuries ago, in l65 BCE, the Temple in Jerusalem was rededicated by a small band of guerrilla fighters called the Maccabees who forced the Syrian army out of Jerusalem and restored the Temple, which had been defiled.
Throughout history, synagogues, heirs of the Temple in Jerusalem, have been central to Jewish community life. “Even tiny synagogues in houses or in nondescript buildings-congregants always tried to make them beautiful,” points out Samuel Gruber in his new illustrated book on synagogue art and architecture, Synagogues.
“Religious experience is more commonly absorbed through the senses than through the intellect,” writes Dr. Abram Kanof in Jewish Ceremonial and Religious Observance. The rabbis understood the sensual aspects of religious observance, and to that end established a whole category of mitzvot or good deeds called hiddur mitzvah-which literally translates as the beautification of physical objects that are used when performing good deeds-to express that very human impulse. Today, through the revival of handcrafted ritual art, artists and lay people are rededicating themselves to Jewish tradition by discovering the connection between spirituality and the work of their hands.
Many people, some of who have never sewn a stitch, use their hands in art projects that bind them inextricably to the rituals for which they have been created. Parents and their children choose the colors and the fabrics for a bar or bat mitzvah tallit or prayer shawl, and weave the fibers that will envelop them in prayer.
The revival of handcrafted ritual art has drawn Jews seeking a spiritual center in a world where the power of ritual and ceremony is often absent. Three decades ago, Ruth Hefter sat at a table-sized loom at the Jewish Community Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The room was a modern setting for an ancient craft, where Hefter and seven other women learned to weave tallitot-prayer shawls-for their sons and grandsons, who were soon to celebrate their bar mitzvah. After taking turns weaving several rows of their own tallitot the boys then tied knots into fringes, transforming the fabric into a ritual garment of remembrance. The Wilkes-Barre project anticipated two current trends: Jews seeking to rededicate themselves to ritual as well as to finding spiritual fulfillment in art .
When eight new hand-painted and hand-stitched silk Torah covers are dedicated this winter at Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, Maryland, the congregation will see a unified design created from tiny pieces of fabric stitched together by 25 volunteers from the congregation. Inspired by the idea of a community project, member Julia Weller succeeded in selling the idea to the executive committee.
Project director and artist Shirley Waxman of Potomac, Maryland assured potential volunteers that they had to make only one commitment-to attend two embroidery-training sessions. At the first session each volunteer was given a letter, a packet of thread and told to choose his or her own stitch. Waxman made the kits, dyed the fabric, cut the multi-colored pieces which the members helped sew, supervised attaching the pieces to a larger fabric and did the final finishing. Weller carried her precious small bag of embroidered letters with her everywhere over the past year. She worked on planes and trains, answering curious questioners, growing more involved in the why of her tradition and the meaning of the letters she was embroidering.
The project was also special because it was intergenerational. Weller involved her teenage daughter, Anat, who worked on the rays of the sun, sewing swatches of orange on a silk background. “Now I can go to the synagogue and look up and know I had a part in the Torah covers,” she says. Another member, Barbara Garlock, brought her teenage daughter, who was comfortable mingling with the adults at the first embroidery session. “A little piece of me [and my daughter] now lives in the synagogue,” says Garlock
“The handmade things forms a link between the heart of the person who made it and the person who uses it,” wrote Japanese artist Hiroshima Kazuo. Allan Abrams of Rockville, Maryland, a retired IBM engineer and programmer who creates Judaica out of metal and wood, recalls the painstaking hours that went into the creation of a silver ataraor collar for a tallit. He carefully cut out the silver Hebrew letters that spelled, “It is a tree of life to them that hold fast to it.”
“I began to bond with the letters, singing the words of the prayer over and over again as I worked,” he says. When he completed the letters, he found he could not part with the atara. It now adorns his tallit. “It was probably the deepest connection I ever made to something I worked on,” he says. And for the first time he feels that his work is personal and enduring.
The lights of Hanukkah remind us how the Maccabees made the Temple pure, worthy of becoming once more the center of ritual and prayer. Yet the Torah also reminds us that God dwells in the sanctuary only if the people themselves remain holy. Art is one path towards that kind of spiritual renewal and rededication.
Helen Belitsky is a Maryland-based writer. She wrote this article for the on-line magazine-Jewish Family & Life!-www.jewishfamily.com