The Power of Crafting as Jewish Practice

By Eric C. Miller | March 9, 2021

(JOKER /Alexander Stein/ullstein bild/Getty Images)

Religious practices are not confined to houses of worship. They arise and entwine in daily life, in ritual observance, and in creative works. A new book follows Jewish American crafters, many of them women, for whom these forces are deeply, quietly enmeshed in acts of tactile creation. In Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis: How Jews Craft Resilience and Create Community, author Jodi Eichler-Levine explores the religious and political meanings and messages threaded through quilts, shawls, clothes, and lives. “It is a book about the power of craft in relation to Jewish identities,” she writes.

Eichler-Levine is the Berman Professor of Jewish Civilization at Lehigh University, and the author, previously, of Suffer the Little Children: Uses of the Past in Jewish and African American Children’s Literature. To complete her new book, Eichler-Levine took up needle and thread with Jewish crafters from across the United States, documenting through interviews and surveys how creative works have helped preserve an ancient culture in a modern—often dangerous—world.

Eric C. Miller spoke with Eichler-Levine about the book recently by phone. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Religion & Politics: What prompted your interest in Jewish crafting, and what inspired you to begin work on this project?

Jodi Eichler-Levine: Well, for starters, I am a Jewish crafter. When I was in graduate school, I took up knitting because it provided me with something to create immediately, unlike my dissertation, which seemed very amorphous by comparison. Soon I began to notice that there were books with titles like Zen and the Art of Knitting or Mindful Knitting or The Quilting Path: A Journey Into Quilting and Kabbalah. So even though I was writing a dissertation about children’s books—which also featured textiles—I was intrigued by the idea that creating something with your hands could be understood as a religious practice and have an intimate connection to religious identity. Once I had finished my first book and moved to Lehigh University, where I now teach, I was able to focus on these themes and begin work on the project.

R&P: Early on, you grapple with a pair of interesting definitional questions: “Which works count as Jewish?” and “What distinguishes art from craft?”

JEL: I define Jewishness very expansively. I like to think of Jewishness as a horizon rather than a container. I’m not interested in normative or legal definitions of Judaism, and I’m not after a one-size-fits-all understanding of who counts as Jewish. Many of the people in the book were born Jewish, many others converted, some had Jewish mothers, others had Jewish fathers, and overall they demonstrate that there are lots of ways to be Jewish. Similarly, Jewishness is not something that takes place only in a synagogue, and it’s not simply about religious belief. I was looking for a fluid way to approach both Jewishness and crafting, and in that sense the very action of crafting informed how I understood Jewishness. Crafting is a process. The people that I spoke with never talked about their work only as finished projects. They talked about going to the store, picking out the fabric, the meditative quality of stitching by hand, etc. That’s true for Jewishness, too. Jewish life isn’t a nice, neat pattern that you cut out and apply perfectly. Rather, it’s a lot of little actions, all the time, every day, that make up Jewish life. For many people, especially in twenty-first century America, informal Jewish activity and Jewish education have become much more important than whether you follow every single Jewish law. But that’s been true throughout history—there’s always been wide variability in Jewish practice.

To your second question, there’s a really gendered power dynamic at work in how we talk about art and craft. I started out primarily interested in “craft,” which has been distinguished from art, especially since the modern period when the notion of “fine art” emerged and we began to see areas dominated by men, like the Royal Academy of Art, in which oil painting was recognized as a “high” or “fine” art, while forms generally associated with women, such as knitting or spinning, were increasingly consigned to “craft.” It’s important to keep this in mind, and feminist artists have been pointing it out. I wanted to capture both, and to think of art and craft as a continuum rather than a binary. Anyone can make art; anyone can make crafts. Some of the women in the book have studied art and hosted shows, while others make blankets for charity and never show a thing. There’s a whole range in between. There’s something very political in deciding whose work matters, whose creation gets recognized.

R&P: Most of your interview subjects were women, and your analysis is informed by gender questions throughout the book. Why did you choose this approach?

JEL: I started out very interested in women in an unapologetic, second-wave feminist kind of way. There are certainly important things to be said about gender queer participants and about men, and a few do feature in the surveys. But I opted to focus primarily on older Jewish women, because Jewish studies as a guild has tended to privilege younger people, and it’s a field that has often focused narrowly on official texts and synagogues and institutions.

Looking at gender and crafting allows me to get at the texture of everyday life for these women, and to disclose a Judaism of feeling—literal feeling, in terms of the tactility of the objects, but also of the emotions that go into the work. This allows me to re-read Jewish practices in new ways. Historically, for example, when Jewish women have made wimpels—swaddling clothes associated with circumcision—and these are then wrapped around a Torah scroll, women crafters have been able to insert themselves into a part of the synagogue from which they are otherwise excluded. There’s actually something quite subversive about the history of Jewish women and crafts, and I was interested in getting at that. We have enough books about famous rabbis. I wanted this book to be about everyday people and to center women’s experiences.

R&P: Most of your subjects were also politically liberal, and some of them made pink hats for the 2017 Women’s March. Was that work also religious?

JEL: Many of the women said that it was, but not all. Both in public statements from the Women’s March founders and in my interviews, I found that there was a very strong connection linking religion and politics and crafting. One of my interviewees acknowledged that pussyhats were not going to change the world—she said that we could knit all of these hats and still never have another free election—but also saw the hats as a resilient way of resisting the neoliberal state. Knitting was never the most efficient way to do something, but it was a way of making activism fun and profound. For a lot of other women, including Pussyhat Project co-founder Jayna Zweiman, the act of making hats was an example of tikkun olam, which in Hebrew translates to “repair of the world.” It’s an idea that comes to us from early modern Jewish mysticism, but for contemporary American Jews, tikkun olam, as a way of doing social justice, is truly a hybrid performance of religious ritual and political activity.

R&P: You refer to this sort of work as “craftivism.”

JEL: Right. That term was coined in 2003 by writer and activist and crafter Betsy Greer and a collective of other crafters. You can find the Craftivist Manifesto online. It’s a way of making activism into a creative, sustaining practice. Activism, as we’ve seen, is hard. There are lots of setbacks, and often there is physical danger. Bringing activism and crafting together keeps people engaged and helps to ensure that they experience a sort of personal growth. Activism is about changing the world, but it’s also about changing the self.

R&P: Your focus on faith and craftsmanship documents a practice that you describe as deeply “technological.” Can you explain how you use that term?

JEL: It can cut in several ways. First of all, it’s important to remember that everything that gets used in making textiles is a technology. Needles, for example, are a technology—just a very, very old one. Secondly, in religious studies, we think of ritual as a kind of technology. It’s a spiritual technology in the sense that it’s something humans create to alter their emotions, their communities, and even the world. When the pussyhats happened, they generated a viral meme that became material and meaningful. One of the things that religions do is to take the profane and make it sacred. We often resist those sorts of large terms in the field, and it’s true that nothing in the world is inherently sacred or profane. But when these collectives, though the use of both spiritual and digital technologies, come together, they really can alter their reality. There’s something going on there. A lot of the people that I interviewed used technological metaphors to describe their ritual practice.

 R&P: Many of the items that you and your subjects work on are made for others. How important is gift-giving to this culture?

JEL: It’s really vital. People give gifts to make and to cement social connections. One of my favorite parts of the work was traveling to Atlanta, Georgia, to meet with an artist named Laurel Robinson who makes yads and always gives them away as gifts. A yad is a pointer used to read the Torah ritually. Robinson makes yads out of various materials—she may use a block of wood, or even the ivory from a piano key—and then gives them to members of her congregation. She’s known for this, and it connects her to so many people.

Gifts are the building blocks of religious communities, and they provide the means to give away a tactile piece of the self. A lot of the people that I interviewed or that responded to my surveys made comments to suggest that holding a sweater or a shawl that someone else had made was a little bit like holding the person who made it. There is something almost enchanted about how, on a scientific level, we are porous and our objects are porous and so, when you give someone an object that you made yourself, you actually are giving away a bit of yourself. A lot of the people I interviewed saw handmade gifts as superior to store-bought gifts, suggesting that there is some kind of craving for physical intimacy and authenticity that gifts are able to satisfy. It’s a way of talking back to a political and cultural climate in which people feel a good deal of alienation.

R&P: Your final chapter looks at ways that craft traditions have helped to maintain Jewish ways across the generations. How important is craftwork to forming connections through time?

JEL: I like to think of memory as something that exists not just in words or thoughts but also in thread. Many of the women I spoke with were octogenarians, and they were thinking very consciously about what they will leave behind and how it will help Jewish identity to endure. I spoke with a crafter in California—her pseudonym is “Gertrude” in the book—who made the comment that, if these threads of life ended, it’s like the whole world would end. There is a tremendous sense of fragility in Jewish American memory and it comes from a lot of historical sources. Holocaust memory, for example, traumatizes even those whose families had nothing to do with the Holocaust. For Gertrude, what she leaves behind will be most important when it’s material, and this mindset was common among the women I spoke with.

Another of my favorite objects was a Passover towel, made by another woman in California, who took her grandson’s hands, traced them, and then stitched the outline onto the towel to be used during ritual hand washing. I find that so powerful because bodies are always in motion and always changing, but she was able to freeze that moment in carbonite, like Han Solo, and keep the memory of her grandson’s childlike hands alive even though her grandson is now an adult. The spirit of that act informs so much of my project because it informs so much of this tradition. 

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