The stitched Torah: Toronto tapestry project inspires volunteers from around the world – National Post

ByAlison Broverman

An agnostic Jewish woman. A Mormon fire chief. A Muslim immigrant from Turkey. A Mother Superior at a church in the English countryside. These are just a few of the hundreds of people who have lent their fingers to Toronto textile artist Temma Gentles ambitious project Torah: Stitch by Stitch. As the name would suggest, the goal is to cross stitch by hand the first five books of the Bible.

There are over 300,000 letters in the Torah. To write them out is considered a mitzvah and it can take up to a year and a half for a scribe (or sofer) to complete the task by hand. To cross stitch each character takes even longer.

The five books are divided into 1,464 sections. Volunteers are sent a kit containing a piece of high quality canvas and enough black thread to complete their assigned portion. This is the best canvas in the world, the best threads in the world, says Gentles. Theyre really archival materials.

Each section contains four verses. I wanted the stitchers to be aware, as they progressed from verse to verse, that they were honouring, at least in their head, one of the matriarchs Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca and Leah, explains Gentles. The only thing weve added thats not in the Torah is the punctuation, the colons at the end of a verse, so theyre aware of when theyre moving from verse three to verse four. But otherwise it has to be absolutely word perfect if its not perfect, we correct it.

(Gentles is proud, however, that most of the sections that have been returned to her have been mostly correct.)

Stitchers have to commit to returning the finished portion within six months (a volunteer working with Gentles is the unofficial noodge, who does their best to keep the stitchers on deadline).

The first book, Genesis, has been assembled and is hanging on display at the Congregation Darchei Noam in Toronto until December. (Exodus and Leviticus have also been fully stitched, but have yet to be assembled for display. And the project is still accepting volunteers to finish stitching portions from Numbers and Deuteronomy.)

Gentles is shocked and delighted that the project has attracted so many far-flung volunteers. I thought, Maybe 30 of my friends will sign up, she says. Fortunately, shortly after she had conceived the project, Hadassah magazine profiled her, and she was able to advertise that she was looking for stitchers. It was a four-line quote, you know, looking for stitchers, and it went viral.

Ultimately, stitching the Torah feels like an appropriately biblical activity, lengthy and meditative. And the activity has had a meaningful impact on the volunteers who signed up to stitch. Gentles has received countless messages from her stitchers around the world, many discussing how moving and spiritual they found the experience of stitching their Torah portion. A woman named Amy signed up to stitch after spending most of her life ignoring her Jewish heritage and avoiding going to synagogue. She found the experience so spiritually transformative that Gentles received an invitation to Amys adult bat mitzvah. And with so many volunteers from other faiths, Torah: Stitch by Stitch has become a meaningful cross-cultural project as well.

At Darchei Noam, the display is visually impressive, with tapestries lining the walls of more than one space. But its not until you get up close that you see the details that make the project so inspiring. In addition to the verses, each portion of stitching has an allotment of free space where stitchers can include their own designs. Often these feature illustrations of the stories from the respective sections for example, Josephs coat of many colours, or Noahs ark and pairs of animals. Stitchers are also encouraged to include a decorative border, and some people have thrown in little visual puns, or secret references that are meaningful to them.

Currently, only Genesis has been assembled and is available for viewing (along with a few sections from Deuteronomy, which were stitched as an act of faith that the project would be completed eventually), but the project is ongoing, and Gentles has high hopes that the completed tapestries will eventually be displayed and toured to museums around the world.

For more information on how to sign up to stitch, or to visit the exhibit at Darchei Noam, visit torahstitchbystitch.org.

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The stitched Torah: Toronto tapestry project inspires volunteers from around the world – National Post

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