Latkes and Loempia

There’s a woman in Memphis who gets offended when someone greets her with “Happy Holidays” instead of  “Merry Christmas”.  Imagine how offended she would be if she knew that I was Jewish when I wished her a “Happy Holiday”. It’s hard not to get caught up in the celebratory spirit of this time of year no matter what your religious belief, or whether you even celebrate anything in December. So it is a month when spirits are high and there is a collective feeling of warmth amongst us. We take the time to wish each other happiness in a personal way that is comfortable to each of us. And that’s shameful to the woman in Memphis.

Jews have always had a difficult time of it in December. The commercial bombardment on tv, the radio, print advertisements, billboards, and Christmas music seems to assail us wherever we go. It is rare that one hears the “Dreidel Song” or the story of the Maccabees anywhere other than a private home, synagogue or Jewish Community Center during this time. December is the month when we feel most invisible and often unwelcome, such as the woman in Memphis would like us to be.

Though our family is Jewish, we celebrate December holidays with a nod to our multiculturalism. In our home and community we embrace, respect and honor everyone’s religious belief and their choice of celebration. Of course we light one candle on each of the 8 nights of Hanukkah and we display a lit menorah in our window as well as hang a Hanukkah banner above our front door. We also display the many Christmas cards we receive from our Christian friends, family and colleagues. We receive red and green wrapped Christmas presents from our relatives who celebrate Christmas and share Christmas greetings with our neighbors. And on December 5 we all get our initials in chocolate to remember Sinterklaas from our family’s Dutch heritage.

If we know that someone celebrates Christmas then we wish them a Merry Christmas. If we don’t know them well enough to know their religious beliefs, then we wish them Happy Holidays. It would be presumptuous and arrogant of us to assume that everyone around us celebrates Christmas.

Food is something that unites people of many different backgrounds. And in December, it shows. Of course, we make latkes, a potato pancake fried in oil which represents the miracle of the oil that burned after the destruction of the Temple during the time of the Maccabees.

Latkes cooking in oil

But  in the spirit of embracing our diversity, we also use that oil to fry loempia, a Dutch-Indonesian eggroll. The understanding and acceptance of diversity begins at home. And what better time to teach this than during the holiday season.

Loempia with chicken and vegetable filling

So to the woman in Memphis, who cannot see beyond her own bubble of church, religion, community, listen to me. December is not only for you, it is for all of us. For all of us who choose to celebrate or not.  To celebrate Christmas or not. To celebrate Hanukkah or not. To celebrate Kwanzaa or not. To celebrate St. Nicholas Day or not. To celebrate Festivus or not. Or not to celebrate at all. December is about respect, tolerance and acceptance.

When I say “Happy Holidays” to you, relax, smile, and enjoy the season.

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A Tale of Two Tallitot

Tallitot is plural for tallit.  For those of you who are wondering what a tallit is —  it is a prayer shawl worn for Jewish worship. The shawl has special twined and knotted fringes called tzitzit attached to its four corners. There are more than two tallitot involved here, but I really liked the alliterative reference!

This previous post described one of my long term projects – a commission to weave eight ceremonial tallitot, prayer shawls for a large synagogue.  The project is currently on my loom and looks like this.

Tallit on loom - Right and Left sides are woven separately and at the same time

This is the first prayer shawl in a series of four. These are ceremonial tallitot and so are narrower than standard prayer shawls.  They will be worn around the neck  much like a scarf and with a seam in the back.  The tallitot will be lined and taper to a width of about  four inches at the seam at the back of the neck.  Here is my sketch for one side of the tallit.

sketch of tallit design

The reason that I am weaving a single tallit side by side is so that the pattern bands are equal in length as these will lie in front of the wearer and for the congregation to see. Ideally the pattern bands should line up with each other.   This means that I am weaving with four shuttles at a time:  each side has one shuttle for plain weave and one shuttle for the pattern weave. I will also be weaving a separate neck band or atarah which will be sewn over the back seam and whose design will extend onto the front of the prayer shawl. This is the blue green band that is at the top of the design sketch.

Detail of tallit on loom

The warp and plain weave weft yarn for this project is an undyed  natural 8/2 tencel yarn.  The pattern weft is Bambu 7 in solid colors and also a handpainted 5/2 tencel.  The pattern design is a variation of  a honeysuckle twill.  The weave pattern for the atarah will be in a different design. The imagery of the twill weave reminded me of a flame, and so this collection will be titled “Ner Tamid” the eternal light above the Holy Ark that houses the Torah and thus is a symbol of God’s ever presence.

This first  set of four prayer shawls should be completed by the time of the Jewish New Year, or the High Holy Days which this year occurs the first week of September.  And at this time as well, Lark Books will introduce a new book: “500 Judaica:  Innovative Contemporary Ritual Art.” This is one of Lark Books’  “500 series”  of publications showcasing collections of contemporary design by an international array of artists in varying media.

Lark Books' "500 Judaica"

And it just so happens that four of  my original design handwoven tallitot have been selected for publication in this book. This book will be available in September and can be purchased at all book stores and online shops.  To find out more visit Lark Books.

Diary of A Mad Weaver

Like realtors whose mantra is “location, location, location”, the weavers’ mantra is “sample, sample, sample”. But as a weaver for 30 years, I’m very bad at this.  I just don’t have the patience to weave a small sample to represent a larger piece, and my attention is so short, that by the time the sample is off the loom, I’ve changed my mind completely as far as pattern, colors, yarn, textures, etc.  With my limited production of handwoven scarves and purses that I sell at fairs and shows, I like to design directly on the loom. This gives me creator’s license to make one of a kind items.  Even though my loom might be set up to weave a dozen scarves for example, each one will be unique.  When I see the weave pattern develop as I  throw the shuttle, that is the time when my creative juices flow most freely.  My stash of yarns is within my visual field while weaving, and my eye always seems to rove in that direction. I see nubby yarns, metallic yarns, blended yarns, exotic yarns, and I like the idea of “contrasts” in my weaving:  dark/light, thick/thin, smooth/nubby, dull/shiny etc.  And so I prefer designing directly on the loom rather than sampling beforehand.

But  (and there’s always one of those) I also weave commissions for the religious community here in the Memphis area.  And because I often work with a committee representing the church, synagogue, or clergy I have to create samples to show before getting a final design approval.  And when I do, I usually go overboard, creating many more samples than necessary!  Currently I am working on a commission to weave two sets of 4 tallitot, prayer shawls with a neckband used in Jewish worship, for a large synagogue.  After a brief presentation with the senior rabbi, I decided to use bamboo and tencel for the warp and weft of the prayer shawls.  My decision was largely based on  the clergy members’ requests that they won’t get hot from wearing the tallitot. So my usual materials of a silk and wool blend yarn was out of the question.  I had previously woven a tallit for a girl’s Bat Mitzvah ceremony with a bamboo warp and weft.

bamboo tallit

Handwoven Tallit (prayer shawl) woven with bamboo yarn

This prayer shawl was woven in a diamond twill pattern.  The twill weave structure really lent itself to the light weight of the bamboo and this combination created an elegant drape – something that would be appropriate and attractive for a tallit.

And so I set out to order samples of both bamboo and tencel yarns in varying weights.

yarn samples 2

bamboo and tencel yarn samples

Sample yarns and color cards began to pour in from a number of suppliers and manufacturers.  There were yarns of several different weights:  16/2, 10/2, 8/2 and 5/2.  There were solid colors, variegated, mill dyed, hand dyed.  It was time to get organized!  No more designing on the loom – I had to create samples and decide on some successful patterns that could be presented to the design committee. All the sample cards were given their own sleeve protector which were all filed in my new loose leaf binder from Office Depot.

I threaded my looms six times to get an elegant twill weave that would also create a natural drape.  Most of my samples proved to be useless – the pattern was too small, or too detailed, or did not match any of my visual preconceptions of a final design.  So sampling turned out to be a good thing!

weaving samples 1

Handwoven samples in twill and overshot weave structures

With the materials I was using- a 10/2 tencel yarn in the warp and Bambu 7 in the weft, a variety of twill weaves packed down too much and became a dense fabric.  Not at all what I was looking for.  With much procrastination I rethreaded my looms once again with a few overshot patterns, not my favorite weave.  But it turned out that I really liked the way the fabric draped and the look of the overall designs.

Here are some of the overshot patterns that I am considering to present to the design committee for a decision on the final tallitot designs.

weaving samples 6

Honeysuckle Twill Overshot Pattern #1

weaving samples 7

Honeysuckle Twill Overshot Pattern #2

weaving samples 2

Double Diamond Pattern

My instructions from the design committee were to make these prayer shawls “colorful” and “grandiose” in a design that would represent this synagogue for the twenty years that they expect these tallitot to last.  Not too much pressure there, right? So as I continue this journey, I will try to post more about this project and possibly dear reader, you will watch me descend into madness…..