In this Q&A, Jodi Eichler-Levine discusses her new book Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis: How Jews Craft Resilience and Create Community, out now from UNC Press.
Exploring a contemporary Judaism rich with the textures of family, memory, and fellowship, Jodi Eichler-Levine takes readers inside a flourishing American Jewish crafting movement. As she traveled across the country to homes, craft conventions, synagogue knitting circles, and craftivist actions, she joined in the making, asked questions, and contemplated her own family stories. Jewish Americans, many of them women, are creating ritual challah covers and prayer shawls, ink, clay, or wood pieces, and other articles for family, friends, or Jewish charities. But they are doing much more: armed with perhaps only a needle and thread, they are reckoning with Jewish identity in a fragile and dangerous world.
Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis is now available in paperback and ebook editions. It is the newest addition to our Where Religion Lives series.
Q: What inspired the book title, Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis?
A: After I had begun my work on the book, I rediscovered an old needlepoint of a rabbi that my paternal grandmother made decades ago. It’s an immensely kitschy piece, and yet, I couldn’t let it go. The story of that picture became the prologue to the whole book. “Painted pomegranates” comes from the Pomegranate Guild of Judaic Needlework, one of the major sites for my research. At their biennial convention in 2017, I was struck by a banner that featured an enormous painted pomegranate. I love that this book title mixes the pomegranate, an ancient near eastern fertility symbol that was the talisman for an organization predominantly made up of women, with this stereotypical image of a bearded old, male sage grasping a Torah. It plays on our notions of femininity and masculinity in a book that explores how Jews do gender.
Q: Speaking of gender, how has Jewish crafting reinforced, challenged, or evolved traditional notions about gender and womanhood?
A: In the Jewish world—as in many other cultures—crafting was the province of people of all genders. But Jews always live in the context of the cultures around them, and for many modern Jewish women, crafts like sewing and knitting got coded as feminine. So, that reinforced ideas about a woman’s Jewish role being primarily domestic. But there are ways to interpret this subversively. For example, I wrote about the tradition of wimpels—Torah binders sewn from a baby’s circumcision-day swaddling cloth. Among Jews in early modern Europe, these elaborately decorated cloths would be presented to the synagogue by the child’s family. They inserted the work of women’s hands into the realm of the Torah scroll at a time when women could not literally approach that scroll. More recently, many Jewish women have turned to craft in an overtly feminist way to reflect on gender in Jewish texts or express their complex feelings about parenting and Judaism.
Q: What is the relationship between “art” and “craft”?
A: Part of my goal in this book is to show that this is a fuzzy line. Some people say “art” exists for its own sake: it’s conceptual. It asks or tries to answer a question. Think of an oil painting in a museum painted by a “master.” In contrast, “craft” labeled the process used for a utilitarian object that could be made by anyone. Picture a crochet afghan on a living room couch. There are several problems with this divide, and they’re all about power. The biggest one is gendered: media associated with men, like painting and sculpture, became “art,” while techniques people think belong to women, like embroidery and knitting, became “craft.” And “art” got more money and prestige. Since the 1970s, artists like Judy Chicago have challenged that divide. This book studies both things. I consider art and craft as two poles on a continuum, not as an either/or binary.
Q: How has crafting played a part in Jewish culture throughout history?
A: There is no Jewish culture without crafting. In the Hebrew Bible, ancient Israelites wrote about many craft activities: embroidery, weaving, wood carving, jewelry making. On a scholarly level, most of the biblical texts are not history in the way we think of modern historical writing—but on a symbolic level, those stories, especially the ones about an artisan named Bezalel, are tremendously important for the women I interviewed. Later on, in the rabbinic period, Jews developed the principle of hiddur mitzvah, the “enhancement of a commandment.” The short version is: make it beautiful. You can use any candle holder for the mitzvah of lighting candles on Shabbat, but why not adorn it to add to the experience? That action of enhancement is considered holy. So, in pretty much every time period of Jewish history, we can point to both simple and elaborate craft traditions for a host of ritual objects.
Q: What is “generative resilience”?
A: “Generative resilience” just means this: crafting is a way of coping. While conducting interviews and sitting in with knitting groups, I noticed how many people had said crafting helped them get through something difficult: a death in the family, loneliness, or despair over the state of the world. Generative resilience is that process. Crafting is not just an escape: because creation is the opposite of destruction, it has a particularly powerful capacity to heal.
Q: What is Tikkun Olam and how does it relate to “craft activism” or “craftivism”?
A: “Tikkun olam” is best translated as “repairing the world.” It’s an idea drawn from early modern Jewish mysticism. The key point is that it means humans have a part in fixing a broken world, and there is a spiritual overlay to that mandate. For a lot of contemporary Jews, “tikkun olam” more broadly means social justice, and that was true for many of the people in my book.
Q: Have you seen examples of craftivism or resilience through crafting in response to current events?
A: Yes! One truly uncanny part of writing this book was its timing. It went into production just as the COVID-19 pandemic began in the United States, and a lot of the responses to lockdowns were a perfect case study of how generative resilience works. Around the world, the people fortunate enough to be sheltering in place were sewing masks, baking bread, and embroidering witticisms about staying at home. I literally had the book proofs beside me in my home office while my computer was a window into how millions of people were coping with isolation and fear through the work of their hands. Baking bread or knitting a scarf showed you weren’t just surviving the pandemic; you were also putting something new into the world.
Q: How have crafting and craft-focused organizations played a part in Jewish community building?
A: It’s become such a naturalized part of contemporary Jewish life that I think people sometimes take it for granted. I can’t imagine a Hebrew School or Jewish summer camp without crafts, or a synagogue with no covers for the Torah or prayer shawls in the gift shop. At the same time, for specific groups, like the Pomegranate Guild of Judaic Needlework, a shared love of Judaic crafts has been a real source of bonding. For a lot of the women I spoke with there, the guild was both the way they had met close friends and a central part of their Jewish identity. More and more, it’s important for us to see how groups that are not synagogues or schools or Federations—and not led by the usual Jewish professionals—are a real source of Jewish meaning making.
Q: How has technology influenced Jewish craft culture?
A: When people hear the word “technology” they tend to either think of things that are digitally based—such as computer culture—or at least modern, like the sewing machine. But needles and string are some of the oldest technologies in human history. I wouldn’t say that technology influences craft culture: crafts and technology are comingled concepts. What has happened, since the advent of the internet, is a kind of acceleration: Jewish crafters can disseminate ideas, patterns, and images much faster, with a much wider reach.
Q: How has the sharing of Jewish art on the internet shaped public perception about Jewish crafting and culture?
A: It has really opened it up. Before, you primarily saw Jewish art in museums, in synagogues, and in homes. Now, you can go onto Pinterest and find hundreds of boards filled with Jewish craft ideas, or browse the Jewish Museum’s collection online. It also means that people can see that Jewish art is about much more than the proverbial macaroni picture at Jewish summer camp.
Q: What is the role of gift-giving in Jewish craft culture?
A: As in any culture, gifts are a powerful form of social exchange—but the stakes are even higher when they are handmade. One of my favorite quotes about this came from a California grandmother who made many gifts for her grandchildren. “You have to give them emotion,” she said. This play on words really encapsulated what gifts do: they are repositories of sentiment.
Q: Do you have any personal stories related to Jewish crafting and how it has affected you?
A: In 2018, when I was in the middle of writing this book, I was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. Suddenly, resilience wasn’t something theoretical. It was how I got through each day. I had always found knitting to be a comfort, but when you spend that much time in hospitals and waiting rooms, it really is a lifeline. When I received a gift from one of the Jewish knitting groups I was working with, it was a profound and humbling experience—one that really enhanced how I thought about the sense of touch and the bonds forged by gifts.
Q: Are there any stories, people, or experiences that you weren’t able to include in this book, but would like to share now?
A: One of my favorite stories came from an artist named Heather Stoltz, who is in the book. She told me about trying to find just the right border for a creation-themed piece in a way that would represent God. She told me she had asked friends and family, “What color is God?” She still couldn’t make up her mind, so she decided to just go to the fabric store to see what jumped out. At the quilt store, the saleswoman kept asking her if she could help, ultimately saying, “What are you looking for?” Heather answered, “Well, I’m looking for God.” And the salesperson politely replied: “Well, that’s a very personal decision. So, I’ll just leave you to that.” It’s simultaneously a hilarious anecdote and very poignant. I’m not a theologian, but if I were, I think I would ask everyone “what color is God?”
Q: What was the most difficult part of conducting this ethnography? The most rewarding?
A: The most difficult part of ethnographic work is knowing that people are entrusting you with such beautiful, powerful stories, and in the final version of the book you will just be offering a brief glimpse into these lives. I dedicated the book to all of the crafters—everywhere—because there are so many stories I wasn’t able to tell, and so many more people I never even interviewed. You reach a point in ethnography where you start to hear similar answers over and over again—it’s a point of redundancy, or saturation, in terms of data—and then you know you have enough to tell the story, and you have to make yourself stop and write, but it’s such a painful point in the process, too. I would say for me it carries a strong sense of guilt.
The most rewarding part of ethnography is the flip side of this: I was warmly welcomed into so many homes and it is so immensely humbling to be entrusted with other people’s stories. Especially now—with the book coming out in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic that has changed how we physically interact—I am so grateful for the fact that I was able to interview people face-to-face, in their own environments, and to see and touch their objects. I can picture myself sitting in one home in California, going through piles of quilted challah covers—it was amazing, marveling over the colors and stitches and fabrics. You learn so much about people from how they arrange their space and the order in which they show you their creations. In the end, it’s so central to being human. We tell our stories and we share our objects. Being welcomed into these homes was an invaluable gift that I will always treasure.
Jodi Eichler-Levine, Berman Professor of Jewish Civilization at Lehigh University, is author of Suffer the Little Children: Uses of the Past in Jewish and African American Children’s Literature.
Watch a recording of the Oct. 21, 2020 virtual book launch for Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis here.