A project that unites Jewish converts from Guatemala, a Mother Superior who lives in a convent in London, England and a Russian-Jewish man in Hamilton, Ont. is taking shape piece by piece in a Toronto art studio.
The idea, to cross-stitch the entire Torah, four verses at a time, is slowly coming to life as volunteer stitchers around the world complete their meticulously worked canvases. The canvases are laid out end to end in Temma Gentles’ temporary studio in Holy Blossom Temple, some bursting with vibrant colour, others starkly elegant with just the unembellished black text.
By the time the project is finished, 1,463 canvases will have been completed and stitched together to form a massive scroll nine-feet-tall and about 100-yards-long (around three by 90 metres).
Gentles, a textile artist, conceived of the idea while on sabbatical in Israel two years ago. “The purpose was to engage people with the words of Torah,” she says. “I didn’t know if there would be three people or 10.”
But after a call for volunteer stitchers appeared in Hadassah magazine, the project took on a life of its own.
Gentles and a team of volunteers, devised a font for the Hebrew script and transcribed it, letter by letter, onto graph paper for the stitchers. Kits with a canvas, pattern for four verses and embroidery floss are mailed out for $18. In return, stitchers agree to complete the text accurately and within six months.
Volunteers coach other stitchers, sometimes over Skype, proofread the finished work for mistakes and even “adopt” and complete half-finished canvases.
To date, about 900 sections have been assigned and more than 500 canvases have been returned.
The project has captured the imagination of men and women of all faiths in 15 different countries. Groups of stitchers meet in Florida, London, Los Angeles and Ottawa, among other places, to work on the project together. Orthodox men and women are also participating and can request verses without God’s name in them.
The impact of the project has been beyond what Gentles ever imagined.
Some of the stitchers have started learning Hebrew, others have read their verse from the Torah in synagogue. Participants are also encouraged to dedicate their project to someone.
“One man dedicated it to his Russian mother, who taught her sons how to cook and sew,” Gentles said.
One day Gentles received a call from a woman who had been randomly assigned verses from the section that deals with the death of the matriarch Sarah.
Gentles said she feared the worst when the woman, who was almost in tears, told her that by coincidence she had a daughter named Sarah.
The daughter was alive and well, however, with children of her own, “the light of my life,” the woman said. However, the woman had gotten pregnant while she was still in university and had considered aborting the pregnancy. “For her to be able to affirm the life of her daughter gave us all goosebumps,” recalled Gentles.
The project is a curious mix of folk art and high-tech. The progress of each canvas is tracked and recorded on a spreadsheet and then photos, anecdotes and dedications are all being scanned into a computer, to be compiled into a book and searchable database.
As word of the project spread and more stitchers joined, Gentles realized she was in over her head. She recruited a longtime friend, Marilynne Cass, to serve as an executive co-ordinator and began planning the project’s next step – public exhibition in a museum.
“People have every expectation that they’re going to be able to take their children to see it,” Cass said. “I feel we have been entrusted with a serious responsibility.”
Phillip Silver, former dean of fine arts at York University, has drawn up plans for the exhibition, with the project winding through a large room, much like an unwrapped Torah scroll only considerably taller and longer than any handwritten scroll.
Cass, Gentles and the board are now fundraising to cover the costs of finishing and exhibiting the scroll, which Gentles expects will be ready for display in about three years.
As a final nod to the homespun nature of the project, the canvases will be sewn together by volunteers. Some out-of-town stitchers have already offered to come to Toronto to work on the project. The scroll will be assembled in pieces and Gentles envisions the sections being joined by buttons, again sent in by the dedicated global network of stitchers.
“People are sending buttons that belonged to their grandmother, [or] that held up their kids’ pajamas,” Gentles said.
The buttons “add a little charm, it’s a little anachronistic,” added Cass. The same thing could be said for the idea of asking people around the world to cross- stitch a Torah.
If you’re interested in participating in the project, email: [email protected]