Jodi Eichler-Levine is the Berman Professor of Jewish Civilization at Lehigh University. To complete her new book, Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis: How Jews Craft Resilience and Create Community, Eichler-Levine took up needle and thread with Jewish crafters from across the United States to document how small acts of tactile creation have helped preserve an ancient culture in a modern world.
ECM: What prompted your interest in Jewish crafting, and what inspired you to begin work on this project?
JEL: 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.
ECM: 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 21st 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.
ECM: 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.
Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.