For artist Andi Arnovitz, sewing always had been an integral part of her upbringing. So it was natural for her to take essential principles of the Torah, such as the commandment to be charitable, and create vibrant artistic garments made – literally – from traditional Jewish texts.
Her “Vest of the Giver of Charity”, for example, weaves together the biblical injunction “to open your hand to your brother and to the destitute” and “not to harden your heart”, with the quintessential symbol of the hamsa – an open hand, which in her piece represents unrestricted sharing.
“Clothes are an important metaphor for me,” says Arnovitz, whose grandmother was a seamstress, and whose father owned fabric stores in Kansas City, Missouri, near where she grew up.
“There are many layers of meaning and intent to clothing. There is the superficial aspect of what you initially see, and there is the more hidden intent of what is underneath it all.”
For inspiration, she turned to traditional Jewish sources, such as the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (a summary of Jewish law) to learn how Judaism categorizes the needy.
She then attached cards with thin threads at the bottom of the colorful vest, and labeled them with the different types of people and institutions that should be supported: the Jewish poor, the hungry, synagogues, mikvahs, clothing the unclothed, the non-Jewish poor, the oppressed. Her work dramatically drives home the point that the needy literally have to “hang on by a thread” to the giver of charity.
Many of Arnovitz’s pieces are comprised of small wrapped scrolls, made from Jewish books that were sold or discarded on the streets of the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea She’arim – including prayer books, the Talmud, and the Book of Psalms.
“Andi rescued sacred and time-worn pages from ritual burial, revitalizing them and breathing new life into them,” observes curator Dvora Liss, in the catalog for Arnovitz’s exhibition “Tear/Repair”, held at Brandeis University, and at the Yeshiva University Museum, in 2010.
Wrapping, Arnovitz notes, is an essential part of many Jewish practices – for instance, wrapping the Torah scroll after it has been read, and wrapping oneself with tefillin. As a modern Orthodox woman, she has found a way to incorporate aspects of what are typically male practices into her own personal art. The result is her “Vest of Prayers”, made up of verses from Psalms and passages from the siddur, which she wrapped and meticulously stitched together.
Arnovitz conceived this piece as a Jewish response to suicide bombers, who pack their explosive-laden garb with nails and other hard, sharp items, in order to cause as much injury as possible to innocent bystanders.
“This vest, however, is made of soft things – words, paper, string. As Jews, our weapons often have been our words and our prayers,” notes Arnovitz, who made aliyah with her family in 1999.
The dearth of female voices and opinions in traditional Jewish texts, such as the Talmud, also deeply dismayed Arnovitz, who became religiously observant as an adult.
To graphically demonstrate how the Talmud could have had “a woman’s touch”, she scanned pages from various Talmudic tracts, and had them printed in 42 different colors.
She then carefully cut the texts and painstakingly wrapped 4,000 of them into small scrolls. They were sewn into a rainbow-like garment, with colorful threads protruding from the work. Color, she says, plays an important symbolic role in her feminist Jewish message.
“Jewish law would have been much more vibrant if women had been involved in writing it,” she says.
With each piece – whether its message is social, political or feminist – Arnovitz weaves her viewpoint of Judaism into a distinctly modern and artistic commentary. And she’s determined to express it, even if she has to do it one stitch at a time.