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  • Writer's pictureTzipporah Johnston

The Fruit of Her Hands - About the Project

I was just beginning a career as a textile artist when Covid-19 hit. I’ve sewn, felted, knitted and embroidered since I was in college, but only to please myself and my family. In 2019 I decided to pursue it more seriously and it was just a few months after my first exhibition when we went into lockdown. I felt two competing pressures – everyone else seemed to be creating prolifically, responding to the strange new world, “making use” of lockdown. There were online exhibitions and hashtags. I was supposed to be using this unprecedented time to Make Art. But I also felt that in a time of crisis, I should be stepping up to help. I’m vulnerable to infection due to chronic illness, so I wasn’t able to volunteer outside the house, but I had skills that, for once in my life, were actually useful. It felt like a duty to use them.

At the time the WHO was advising people to wear masks if sick, or caring for the sick, but there was also huge pressure on respirators and surgical masks that I didn’t want to add to, given how badly health care workers needed them. So I did some research and came up with a three layer mask pattern that seemed as effective as a homemade mask could possibly be, and I started making them for friends, neighbours and family, in anticipation of someone getting sick. As increasing evidence came out in favour of widespread community mask-wearing, more and more people were asking for them. Then I was contacted by a friend in London – a mutual friend with complex disabilities was in trouble. Her parents had both come down with Covid-19; she, fortunately, had not been exposed, but was now being looked after by carers who had no PPE, and she was very vulnerable. Could I send her some masks? It was the first of many requests for masks for carers who had nothing else available.

Cloth masks made for community distribution

I eventually found a local group making masks for care charities and that’s when production started on an industrial scale. By the time I finally stopped, as commercially-produced became available once more, I had given away 1560 masks, and the Edinburgh Mask Makers had made and distributed over 6000. There were other groups making scrubs, caps and scrub bags, all to fill the gaps in the NHS procurement system (the shortages went on long after the government insisted that everything was back on track. I still see cries for help from dentists who donated all their PPE at the start of the pandemic, expecting to be able to buy more later, only to find a worldwide scrub shortage just as they tried to reopen). A decade of poor governance has left us woefully unprepared for the pandemic. Thousands of women – and in my experience, it was overwhelmingly women – stepped into the gap left by the shabbiness and self-interest of our politicians and gave their time, skills and resources to protect their communities. These efforts have been largely ignored by those politicians, because the need for this domestic army shames them.

History is full of invisible female labour, nameless women thanklessly holding their communities together. Jewish history is no different. We learn long genealogies of rabbis and disciples, but we don’t know the names of the women who looked after the young and the sick, kept businesses running, made clothing and soft furnishings, or cooked, cleaned and generally made life comfortable for the men writing them out of the community’s history.

I wanted to do something that memorialised the work of the women who sewed scrubs and masks, so that it wasn’t just written out of our community’s history. It felt appropriate that it should be textile-based, but what form should it take? A tapestry? A quilt? A banner? These formats have all been used to great effect for celebratory or commemorative purposes, but none seemed quite right for this. An embroidered tapestry seemed too remote from the type of work the women were doing; it would be difficult to incorporate elements of what they made into such an embroidery-centred format. A quilt would better suit the types of fabric used in scrubs and masks, but I am not by preference a quilter – they’re beautiful, but they don’t really speak to me, perhaps because I don’t have any warm childhood memories of grandmother’s quilts. A banner felt out of step with a world that would not be safely gathering for some time. All three also felt essentially ephemeral – something that would be admired briefly, and then put away in a cupboard to be forgotten. I wanted something that would be useful as well as beautiful.

I remembered one intriguing place where Jewish women’s voices and intentions were recorded historically – in synagogue textiles. The inscriptions on antique Torah Mantles (fabric coverings for the Torah scroll), parokhot (curtains for the ark), Torah binders, and bimah (reading desk) covers show that for much of Jewish history they were frequently made by women as gifts to the community. There’s evidence in responsa literature (answers to Jewish legal questions) of this being a popular form of piety across the Jewish world, but it was particularly significant to Italian women’s lives. There’s even a misheberach, a special blessing recited in front of the open ark, for the women involved in sewing for the community:

He who blesses our matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, may He bless all the daughters of Israel to merit in creating a skirt or covering for the Torah scrolls, or set up candles in the synagogue for the glory of the Torah. May His Blessed Name return the favour and reward these righteous women; let us say, Amen

Three antique Italian Torah mantles in a case at the Jewish Museum, Rome.
Italian Torah mantles. IC:"Torah Dressings, Jewish Museum, Rome" by Mike Legend is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Ritual textiles were given as voluntary expressions of piety, in fulfilment of vows, in celebration of joyful events, in memory of a loved one, or in thanksgiving for a safe delivery or recovery from illness. Some communities had very specific textile traditions. Ashkenazi women developed a custom of embroidering Torah binders (locally called Wimpels). These were made from cloths used at a baby boy’s circumcision, cut into strips and embroidered by the mother with his name, date of birth, and an inscription. These were then donated to the synagogue when the child was old enough to start attending (about 3 years old, but it depended on local custom). Like the Italian mantles, these were an opportunity for personal expression and celebration, as well as demonstrating communal belonging.

Detail from a Torah binder with embroidered Hebrew text
Detail of a German Torah binder. IC: "Torah Binder" by Jewish is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Given this history, a Torah mantle and binder, using fabrics from scrub- and mask-making seemed apposite as a way of honouring women’s textile work. There is also another dimension that makes it particularly suitable; the Torah scroll is the holiest object in Jewish life, and proximity to it is an honour in itself. When we want to celebrate or reward someone in the Jewish community, it’s often done by giving “Torah honours” – inviting people to perform tasks related to the Torah scroll, e.g. reading from it, being called to recite blessings over it, lifting it up in front of the community, or holding it in procession. Objects absorb the Torah’s sanctity by proximity – like the scroll itself, if a mantle or binder is damaged beyond repair, it cannot be thrown away, but must be buried, like a deceased person. People donate ritual objects in honour of important birthdays, in memory of a loved one, or in thanks for a safe birth or recovery from illness. These accrue spiritual merit for the donor every time they are used in the commission of a mitzvah (commandment), and the reading and study of Torah is perhaps the most important mitzvah in Judaism. In the case of a memorial gift, the person’s soul will be “elevated” by the merit accrued from its use. I can’t think of a better way of celebrating women who have contributed to their communities than making a Torah mantle and binder, to be used in their honour and merit long after the pandemic is over.

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