In 1976, Phyllis Spivak was on a quest for Jewish ceremonial art imagery. She wanted to create a needlepoint design for the atarah (decorative neckband) of the woven tallit she had commissioned for her son, Jonathan, on the occasion of his bar mitzvah.
“I was looking for inspiration. I found nothing out there,” Spivak said.
However, she did eventually connect with other women who were also interested in Judaica. In 1982, they founded the Toronto chapter of the Pomegranate Guild of Judaic Textiles and, 36 years later, the group is still going strong.
The members’ work, which includes quilting, embroidery and appliqué, will be on view at the Miles Nadal JCC (MNJCC). This textile art exhibit, titled And You Shall Teach Your Children, runs at the Gallery at the J from Sept. 29 to Oct. 29.
Deanna Di Lello, co-ordinator of adult arts and culture at the MNJCC, said she is thrilled to finally be working with the Pomegranate Guild. “I’ve been trying to exhibit their work for a while,” she said.
Spivak, who served as president of the guild from 1982 to 1986, explained that the group’s fruity name comes from Exodus 39, in which the Torah details the use of the pomegranate as a decorative motif that adorned the robes of the Temple’s high priests.
Spivak said the Pomegranate Guild was initially very small, so the group put a notice in the “What’s New” section of The CJN for a community meeting, in order to see if they could attract more people who enjoyed working with their hands and were interested in Judaica.
“All levels were welcome,” said Spivak. “We wanted to make sure that we didn’t discourage people. At our first meeting, something like 40 people showed up … from all Jewish affiliations.”
Spivak estimates the group grew to as large as 90 members in its heyday in the 1990s. “We still have a good nucleus of active members of 30 to 40 that attend the monthly meetings on a regular basis,” she said, adding that many of the group’s pioneers are still guild members.
Holy Blossom Temple was the group’s home for its initial gatherings. “The temple was very generous and supported us for most of our early meetings,” said Spivak.
The guild, which still often publicizes its events in The CJN’s “What’s New,” now holds its monthly meetings at Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue, usually on the third Wednesday of the month. (Its next meeting, scheduled for Sept. 5, is an exception, as its usual time-slot will coincide with Yom Kippur.)
Paula Shuchat Miller, Pomegranate Guild program chair and a member since 1984, said the show at the MNJCC is a repeat of an exhibition held at the Schwartz/Reisman Centre about a year and a half ago.
October will be a busy month for the group, which will also be running a hands-on workshop on Oct. 28 at Limmud Toronto, a festival of Jewish learning, culture and the arts.
Shuchat Miller pointed out that some of the guild’s work is on permanent display. For instance, Pardes (Garden), a series of six fabric appliqué hangings that took four years to complete, have been on view on the fourth floor of the hospital at Baycrest Health Sciences since 1996. Ashrei, a four-foot-by-10-foot appliqué banner finished in 2001, can be found on the fifth floor of Baycrest’s Apotex Centre.
“For our 25th anniversary, we created a huge wall hanging that’s an interpretation of a vestment piece worn by the high priests,” Shuchat Miller said. “It hangs at Darchei Noam.”
Over the years, the guild has produced other large group projects, including a huppah and an eight-foot-by-eight-foot fabric sukkah, that have been exhibited at various shows in Toronto and across Canada, she noted.
The group has also put together arts-and-crafts kits for children’s aid organization Jewish Family & Child. This year, they will be decorating or creating hats to be used by chemotherapy patients.
In addition to its monthly meetings, the Pomegranate Guild now runs a weekly crafts program at Beth Emeth for mothers on maternity leave. “Last year, we ran two seven-week series and it was amazing. I don’t know who had more fun, the moms or the volunteers,” said Shuchat Miller.