Liat Bartal is a Jewish Israeli from Givataym, near Tel Aviv. Mother Xavier is a Christian nun at Tyburn Convent in London, England. Ayse Yegul is a Muslim from Turkey who now lives in Toronto, Canada. These women have never met, but they have something in common: all three are involved in a creative project that has engaged more than 1,400 people of different faiths from around the world to embroider the Torah in cross stitch.
Managed exclusively by volunteers who have contributed 130,000 hours of unpaid work over the past six years, the Torah Stitch by Stitch Project is now nearing completion. The first half of the enormous tapestry consists of panels of four individual verses and illuminations sewn by the participants. It is on display until November 17 in an exhibition entitled “Tapestry of Spirit” at the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto.
The project organizers hope to complete the entire tapestry within two years and establish partnerships allowing it to be shown in other places around the world. When completed, the sewn Torah will include some 2,000 individual Hebrew texts and lighting panels. It will stand over two meters (seven feet) high and be almost as long as an American football field (about 91 meters, or 300 feet).
When Toronto artist and art educator Judaica, Temma Gentles, founded The Torah Stitch by Stitch project in June 2013, she had no intention of seeing it grow as big as it did.
âI envisioned it as a limited educational project of engagement with Judaism that I would lead while I was artist in residence at the Holy Blossom Temple in 2013,â Gentles told The Times of Israel.
Gentles, 73, had thought about how people might want to express how Judaism âpermeates their being,â and after considering several artistic approaches, she opted for cross stitch.
As someone experienced with calligraphy, she liked how the cross stitch could focus on the shape of the Hebrew letters of the Torah. She also appreciated the historical context of cross stitch as a folk art associated for centuries with women of many cultures.
âI never claimed to complete the entire Torah or have an exhibition. But the project took off globally after Hadassah magazine published a feature article about it in 2013, âsaid Gentles, who became the creative director of the project.
According to Torah Stitch by Stitch president and president Lili Shain, 65, people of many faiths – and no faiths – from 28 countries have asked to sew panels. The majority were from North America, but there were also many other parts of the world, including Japan, Guatemala, South Africa, Spain, England and the Philippines. Most of the embroiderers were women, but some were men, and their ages ranged from teenagers to 90s. In some families, sewing panels has become a shared multigenerational activity.
Bartal, a Hebrew teacher, is one of some 30 pickers in Israel. Like all attendees, she paid $ 18 for a mailed kit containing all the necessary materials, including a needle, threads, a fabric panel, and a pattern for the four assigned Torah verses (only the first pickers of the project had the choice of verses). Stitchers were encouraged to illuminate or embellish their panels with borders or illustrations. For those looking for inspiration, the organizers have provided examples of designs created by Gentles and other artists.
Bartal, 40, had no serious cross stitch experience, but that didn’t matter. âWe didn’t have any prerequisite skills test,â said Gentles.
âI had just done some stitching for fun when I was traveling to India 20 years ago,â Bartal said. Still, the idea of ââjoining hundreds of people around the world and using the opportunity as a way to connect with her Jewish heritage in a different way encouraged her to stick to the task. for nearly two months it took him to finish his four lines. (According to Torah President Stitch by Stitch Shain, it took individuals between 50 and 100 hours on average to complete their panels, depending on the length of the verses and the complexity of the illuminations added.)
Bartal, who describes himself as non-religious, has been assigned a section of the Book of Numbers. The Hebrew name of the book is BaMidbar, which means âin the wildernessâ. It was a fitting selection for Bartal, who sewed his worms while helping care for his sister’s newborn baby girl at her sister’s house in Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev Desert in Israel.
âI sat there sewing like an old aunt,â Bartal joked.
She chose to light up her panel with an image of a desert tree. While praising the project for bringing so many people together, she also appreciated that it had personal significance forever. âThese four stitched worms will always remind me of my new niece,â she said.
Bartal was fortunate to have met Torah Stitch through Stitch’s Shain while the latter was on an extended visit to Israel. Shain introduced Bartal to the project and taught him how to embroider correctly. The project organizers arranged for experienced embroiderers to instruct and mentor the beginners, in person or virtually, and individually or in groups.
Long-time Jerusalem resident Sharon Binder is an artist, designer and calligrapher. Binder, 71, was one of those Gentles consulted as she tried to decide which specific Hebrew font to use (it had to be geometric in nature and lend itself to the pixelated effect of cross stitch).
Binder does embroidery. However, she initially found learning to cross stitch a challenge. âA 90-year-old friend showed me how to do it. There is a technique in there. It took me three times to get it to work properly. You have to be very careful with the counting, âBinder said.
Even more difficult was figuring out how to create the illusion of movement in the abstract illumination that Binder herself designed for the verses in Genesis recounting the creation of the first and second days. She had to do this using only the seven approved thread colors.
âI ended up combining yarns to create color variations,â she explained.
As the individual panel embroiderers faced obstacles, the biggest challenge fell to a team of 20 volunteers who worked tirelessly to assemble and hand-sew all 2,000 panels to create the final product. The panels are sewn in columns and then in units (three columns per unit). Each column should be exactly 1,092 squares (a “square” is a single cross stitch, with 14 squares per inch.) Not all panels are the same length, so lighting panels should be used to fill in the gaps. spaces to create units of uniform length.
This painstaking work is primarily the responsibility of Pat Little, 73, who volunteered to lead this editing team, which usually meets at Little’s home in Toronto.
âThe work often has to be taken apart and redone. It’s an exercise in patience, âsaid Little, who is a Christian and married to a Jewish man.
The display of the partially completed tapestry moved Little to tears.
âI was upset and cried when I saw him come up to the museum. I was amazed we did. It was so meaningful, especially since I know the personal stories of so many embroiderers, âshe said.
Indeed, Gentles said the panels “took life journeys with people.” For example, some sewed them in the hospital. Some terminally ill people held on until they could finish their panels.
Binder said she loved the contemplative nature of breaking down the letters of the Torah into tiny squares, while at the same time zooming in to gain a new perspective on the Torah as a whole through this particular art form. In fact, the way the exhibit is set up reinforces the feeling of literally standing inside the Torah. The tapestry is mounted on a structure specially designed by Martin Gaudet which translates the curvature and fluidity of a roller, which can be free-standing or fixed to the walls of the gallery.
âIt is visceral and powerful for people to be among the words of the Torah,â said Gentles.
Although the organizers of Torah Stitch by Stitch are committed to ensuring that every letter and word is correct and that the presentation of the work mimics the shape of the Torah scroll, Gentles quickly noted that it was was a work of folk art – not the true Torah in any way. (Nevertheless, Gentles had several oversized wooden yads [Torah pointers] for museum guides to use for touching the tapestry, just as it would be for touching a real Torah.)
âWe had the project validated by several Orthodox rabbis in North America and Israel and they agreed,â Gentles said.
Shain mentioned that Orthodox attendees were not comfortable with sewing God’s name. They were assigned verses that did not have the name of God in them.
Embroiderers knew the Hebrew letters to varying degrees. For Janice Rock, 73, a Christian from Oakville near Toronto, it was an exciting opportunity to learn more about the Hebrew alphabet. Her work on Torah Stitch by Stitch has led her to read books on mystical aspects of the Hebrew alphabet, such as “The Book of Letters: A Mystical Hebrew Alphabet” by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner.
âLamed is my favorite letter. I like its shape. And when I got back to my sign, it turned out the first letter I sewed was lame! said Rock enthusiastically.
The project also includes two small tapestries, one with suras from the Quran and one with verses from the New Testament. Both texts refer to creation. âThe three religions share the story of creation. We chose something in common, âShain said.
Although Torah – in Hebrew – is the main focus of the project, it has attracted a large and diverse audience to view it at the Textile Museum of Canada, according to museum director Emma Quin.
âThis is a gigantic and incredibly powerful project. Although we have handmade items in our collection, I had never seen anything like it before. It’s a testament to the power of the global manufacturer community, âsaid Quin.
In a short film made on Torah Stitch by Stitch that plays on repeat at the museum’s exhibit, stitcher Yegul from Turkey said the project is timely.
âI really believe that when people come together for a purpose, they are doing something together. In this world, especially in these times, it’s really important that people know each other – because if you don’t know you’re scared, âshe said.
âI am very grateful to have the roots of my religion in Torah,â Mother Xavier said in the film.
âThe whole world is so filled with violence and angerâ¦ All these women come together who don’t even know each other, and here they are, sitting peacefully and stitching stitch by stitch,â she said.