My fabrics carry the smells and hues and love of Israel, local pomegranate, sage, sumac, and eucalyptus are my weapons of choice. It is all a big exercise in patience, and self restraint. These silks, cottons and linens, the way I make them, they take days to come to life. Collecting leaves, extracting pigments by soaking and boiling, coaxing hidden colours by pressing and tying and steaming. Waiting another day to let the secrets come out. Unrolling my bundles, when the heart skips a beat because of the sheer beauty nature has given me.
There is a lot of learning here, constant study of the dye techniques that have been passed on from generation to generation, the laws of sha’atnez, how to make a Torah cover, a prayer shawl. Once the men and women of the tribe would all know the secrets of weaving and twining, mordanting and dyeing. Now it has become a well-tended relic of the past, kept by a handful of guardians who have made it their mission to be part of keeping the traditions alive.
At first, it was just about making something pretty for myself. When I decided I would start covering my hair as a married woman, might as well make it something special, right? I don’t want to be political, I don’t want trouble. My younger self craved discussion, now I just want peace and quiet. But deep down I still can not help myself, this need to make a statement, to ask questions, to take things back in a feminine way, while staying within the fold, the framework, the family. With fabrics, I think I found my language, and I have turned this into my small business of wraps, tichels, prayer shawls and other Judaica.
“… Deep down I still can not help myself, this need to make a statement, to ask questions, to take things back in a feminine way, while staying within the fold, the framework, the family.”
It started out with ‘wearing Israel close to your heart,’ but with time, more and more references to the Jewish traditions started creeping into my work. Indigo blue like the techelet, vibrant tie marks on a wrap that remind me of the tefilin my husband wraps around his arm each morning. Next thing I made a scarf with tallit-like lines and reclaimed part of that ancient custom. Maybe nobody will notice, but I know it is there, right on my head, my personal expression wrapped tightly on my skull. I also started to screen print pictures of abandoned synagogues in gold on tallit bags, to keep alive what others turned away from. My work has become full of references to ‘what could have been’ and ‘what should have been.’
The first time I tied tzitzit to the first tallit I ever made, I felt chills all over. To be part of this holy mitzvah was an excitement I can not even describe. There it was, this work of art, hand-woven wool with silk adornments in shades of gold. Gold dye from onion skins according to ancient recipes and customs. There is no bigger satisfaction that making this vibrant color with something so humble as onion skin, and to tie strings of wool to it, like they have done for thousands of years, with ancient blessings and a beaming heart. Excitement mixed with a bit of sadness, because I make these beautiful art tallit that I, myself, will never be able to wear. Not because I do not want to, but because it is frowned upon at best in the Modern Orthodox community I chose to be a part of.
“My work has become full of references to ‘what could have been’ and ‘what should have been’.”
Do not get me wrong, I could, of course, decide to wear a homemade tallit every day and wrap myself in this wonderful custom just like my husband and my male neighbors do, to have this daily private conversation with G’d while being cocooned in striped wool or silk. Is my private pleasure worth the discussion, the raised eyebrows, the spoken and unspoken disapproval? What you wear, and how you wear it defines what part of the scale of frumkeit (religiosity) you are on, and wearing that would tip the scale, and cause exactly the discussion I grew so tired of. So I satisfy these needs and my wants by lovingly tying the wool to the garments I make with slow intention, softly whispering blessings for someone else to wear it, some day. I keep unwrapping rolls of silks loaded with smells and hues of Israel, and they find their new owner, who feels that same connection, full circle.
About The Project
During the High Holiday season, The Jewish Week and “The Layers Project” will be collaborating to bring you the series, “Hidden Reflections, Revealed: A Communal Introspective on the Thresholds of Orthodox Femininity.” This is the fifth installment in the series that will contain images and essays that serve as a communal cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul) on the topic of several women’s issues in Orthodoxy. Read the rest of the series here, and look out for the next installment on The Jewish Week. For more personal stories and ‘in-depth insights into the lives of Jewish women,’ check out “The Layers Project” on Facebook. Images created by Shira Lankin Sheps, founder of “The Layers Project.”