First imagine a Torah scroll the length of a football field. Next, imagine that instead of being handwritten on parchment by a scribe, it has been hand-embroidered by more than 1,450 people in 27 countries around the world. Then envision that each column is about seven feet high and that you can actually walk through this remarkable scroll as it winds along, experiencing its beauty in a contemplative encounter with the ancient text.
Now stop imagining because this amazing creation is well underway, thanks to the vision of Canadian textile artist Temma Gentles. A few months ago, I became one of the project’s stitchers after receiving an email forwarded by a friend. I had not done any embroidery since my early 20s, but there was something about this inspiring idea that immediately made me want to be part of it.
Known as “Torah Stitch by Stitch,” the project went viral after Gentles was featured in a Hadassah Magazine interview in 2013. Her concept was to involve diverse participants worldwide, each of whom would stitch four complete verses from the Torah. Nearly six years later, about 90 percent of the 1,464 text panels have been completed plus many beautiful illuminations. Soon I hope mine will be one of them.
Just a few weeks after I signed up online, my $18 kit arrived. Inside were a printed paper pattern with my assigned verses shown in cross stitch, a simple type of embroidery in which each stitch forms an “x”; a needle and black thread called “floss”; and a special type of fabric called “aida” with a woven grid. As a beginner, I was a little intimated by the required commitment to complete my panel within six months. It can take up to 20 minutes to do a single letter, and most stitchers put 50-100 hours into their panels.
Now just three months later, I eagerly look forward to my stitching time. It feels almost meditative, as forming each beautiful Hebrew letter word by word, line by line absorbs my fully focused attention. Stitching Torah offers an oasis of calm and peace amidst a chaotic world. It connects me in a tactile way with centuries of Jewish tradition and participants around the world.
After completing their assigned verses, stitchers may add colorful decorative designs in the manner of Hebrew illuminated manuscripts. Many stunning examples can be seen on the project’s Facebook page. Having discovered recently that Torah mantles handmade by one of my 17th century Italian ancestors, Rivkah Chefetz , are in the collection of the Israel Museum, I am excitedly imagining the illuminations I too may create.
Next June through October 2019, the Textile Museum of Canada located in Toronto will exhibit about half of the completed work (panels sewn together), or about 150 by 7 feet of embroidered verses from Genesis, Exodus and a portion of Deuteronomy. I am already lobbying my Canadian-born husband to plan a trip.
A 15-minute documentary film about the project called “Stitchers: Tapestry of Spirit,” has been shown in film festivals and at synagogues. It features interviews with several stitchers who express beautifully what I have experienced. Among them are the very first stitcher and her teenage granddaughter, a Spanish gentleman, a London-based Mother Superior, and a Muslim woman—a reflection of the project’s inclusive goals to engage, educate and foster dialogue. Stitchers are secular and religious, young and old, beginners and experts—all bringing the light of Torah into the world in a new way.
Torah Stitch by Stitch is seeking a museum partner to exhibit the completed scroll in about two years and funding to make it possible. I am hopeful that a major Jewish museum and generous donors will embrace this extraordinary opportunity, which is certain to attract a global audience.
In the meantime, I will be dedicating my panel to the memory of my beloved mother, whose first yahrzeit will be during Chanukah this year, along with the memories of her two sisters and my grandmother. And in case you are wondering what I am stitching, it is a passage from the Book of Numbers, Chapter 30, on what happens when a woman makes a vow, which I can attest is a very serious matter indeed.
Is there a Jewish project that has sparked your creativity in an unexpected way? As always, I welcome your comments and feedback by email or on Facebook.