“Let’s stitch Torah!” said Temma Gentles, award-winning Judaic textile artist and educator who created Tapestry of Spirit: The Torah Stitch by Stitch Project (Torah Stitch) in 2013. The inclusive social project, now 95 per cent complete, was designed to create a cross-stitched representation of a Torah and is on exhibit at the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto until Nov. 17. With more than 1,500 participants from 28 countries, the installation features texts from the books of Genesis, Exodus and Deuteronomy, along with selections from the Scriptures and the Qur’an. Visitors to Torah Stitch will journey through 50 metres of tapestry with 950 individual panels displayed in three languages: Hebrew, Greek and Arabic.
The stories of the Torah are foundational in Jewish culture. Torah Stitch ambassadors will show visitors how to cross-stitch, a popular form of embroidery in which X-shaped stitches are used to form letters and images. Participants can personalize designs at an activity table.
“Stitching is quite mathematical,” explained Gentles. “Kids like graphics. At the activity table, they can design something and then cross-stitch it. There are docents, professional educational staff, who lead tours and arrange custom programs for students or groups. It’s not out of the ordinary to see kids counting sheep on a treasure hunt; there are a lot of sheep in the Torah.”
Visitors may also choose to reflect in a quiet space or write out cards depicting a favourite story from the Torah as an award-winning short documentary film plays throughout the exhibition.
Gentles asked of herself, “What is the ultimate experience in Judaism?” and came up with a definitive answer: reading Torah.
“I have read Torah, because I’m liberal, but lots of women have not read Torah. We (asked) several Orthodox rabbis in Israel and in Toronto, and they were universal that we weren’t writing the Torah, we were creating an artwork based on the Torah,” said Gentles.
“The project went viral after Hadassah Magazine ran a few lines looking for stitchers to cross-stitch the Torah,” said Lili Shain, president and chair of Torah Stitch by Stitch.
As Torah Stitch kits were scattered to volunteers around the world, each person would commit to 50 to 100 hours of work. “The person gets a blank piece of cloth and a template, and they follow the counted cross-stitch. It’s not something that’s pre-printed on the fabric, and it’s taxing. Doing each letter the same, everything is justified, just like a real Torah. Many of the stitchers added a decoration, an illustration or an illumination,” said Shain, who did seven panels – four text and three illuminations – spending 450 hours on the craft.
“Among the Scriptures, verses show two Coptic windows above the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The central window area is an ancient Coptic tree of life motif. I stitched this panel in memory of two young sisters who were murdered in a terrorist attack. I learned about this terrible event from the doorman in my building, the uncle of the two girls. I resolved to weave their story into our tapestry,” said Shain.
“I felt that this was a project of all peoples,” said Gentles. “There are Jews and Buddhists, an atheist, Muslims, Catholics, nuns, people who just appeared and were enthralled with it for one reason or another; they liked to stitch or they really wanted to build connections in brotherhood.”
The completed Hebrew text gets proofread three times. Susan Mogil from Toronto stitched a panel in Genesis and has spent some 3,000 hours on the project since inception. “I’m first to proofread the texts and then I send people personalized thank you notes,” said Mogil. “There have been touching stories. Stitchers have told us that this work has linked them with their grandmothers and grandchildren.”
“One of the things that has been so amazing is that it’s an old craft – it’s slow, it’s meditative – but the project couldn’t have happened without the Internet,” said Gentles. “So there is a deliciousness, to my thinking, that here we are in the modern world, doing something that is not of the modern world, and you need both kinds of skills of communications to be able to do that.”
A documented catalogue detailing a little more than half of the Torah, including stitchers’ names and dedications, accompanies the project. “I am shepping nachas, but I am tired. It’s been six and a half years, and writing the catalogue was 17 hours a day,” said Gentles.
The full project is expected to be completed in 2021 and will include close to 2,000 individual panels: 1,464 text panels (each with 4 verses) and several hundred illuminations. It will be approximately 90 metres in length and 2.1 metres high.