Eytz Chayim: An Introduction to our Torah Table Tapestry

by Marcy Epstein

Torah Table Tapestry, photo by Nancy Meadow

It almost feels like an age ago when our congregation was a havurah, a thing of steady roots and fresh growth in every direction. Trees are a primary metaphor for us, one that is so powerful–from the Ten Sephirot, to the Cedars of Lebanon, back to the Tree of Knowledge and the mishnaic tree from under which the earth for Adam and Eve was formed. Since we are a branch of Reconstructionist Judaism and a species of Jewish life here in Ann Arbor, the secondary metaphors for us of growth and maturity, stability and change, tradition and the necessity for new ground, all make perfect sense.

Our bodies take the form of trees, while our Torah is spoken of as scroll (the spiral extrusion of a tree’s rings, as exegesis) and as a Tree of Life,  and Eytz Chayim. Trees grow among each other, as we have. Some of us are wiser for the proximity, others have felt the bittersweet tension of sharing the sun. Some of us are saplings, and we live within this tree as to create trees of life of our own, through our children, our work for justice, or our creativity. And while we relate to trees, we are also not trees. We are the recipients of trees. We breath off them, eat of them, draw sap, even wipe our bottoms and create some of our most holy texts from them. They seem within human domain, but they far exceed it. Thus Eytz Chayim.

A close up of the wall hanging we use as a backdrop on special events.

Over the 14 years that I have been active with the AARC, I have noticed the obvious, intentional expression of our community through wood. Wood is an expression of our living Torah, however we came to define that. During the gelilah (dressing the Torah), I noticed the swirls of tree and flame on our homemade Torah cover, made by several bat mitzvah and their families. Our Torah ark, so elegantly built by Alan Haber, was made from our city’s trees, no metal, as though to say that our Torah is among its own kind, among trees. I saw at high holidays the beauteous  backdrop, a wall hanging of leaves and boughs made by a Canadian artist and bestowed to us by another group of families with quickly-growing children. With Allison Stupka, I edited our Grapevine newsletter, which displayed our insignia of arching vine and laurel. Our Ann Arbor congregation has more than its fair share of artists, tzaddikim, and tree huggers. And trees.

Our traveling Torah is dressed and ready to roll.

Six years ago, in a conversation between Debbie Zivan and me on my front porch, we momentarily saw the cycle of growth in our community. It was as though we could sense the rings of growth brought to the Hav. Our community was on a long and arduous path, a liturgical and rabbinical journey, its life-cycle in motion with the Mitzvah Corp, our Beit Sefer, and our holidays together. We brought to the Board our feelings that while we may not own a building, though we are happily mishkanic (spiritually portable), we still needed more beautiful artistry. Our Reconstructionist community deserves the sort of beauty and artistry that went into the first tabernacle, the one priests carried long ago to contain the Torah, from which other rings of growth emanated: the Kohanim as caregivers and priests, the sanctuary and bima that came after, the gates of new cities, Holy Temples that were built, destroyed, and recreated throughout the Jewish world.  Or, at least, that was the lofty thinking that ran through my head and now tampers with my memory of the beginning of our tapestry. More to the point, we wanted a handsome, adjustable table for Shabbat, simchot, and holidays, and we saw this table paired with a beautiful tapestry created in the tradition of the mishkan.

The mishkan of Exodus was wood long before it received the parchment scrolls (also wood, also itself), a wonderful idea of living humbly and reflectively.  Jacob and his sons planted acacia trees in Egypt with plans to bear the wood as it seasoned, specifically as construction material for the ark. And as Exodus says, the artistic scion Bezalel and the humble, careful Ohaliab coordinated among diverse tribes and artisans; woodcarvers, metalworkers, weavers and sewers, enamelists, and craftspeople donated their best work so that the mishkan would fit the Biblical prescription. We became numerous like this, almost mystically as fast: Alan gave continuity to a Torah table, and Jack Edelstein committed some of his finest walnut and cherry (Ann Arbor) wood. Dale Sass, Debbie, and others joined them in designing the function of our fine table, slipping more tree matter (our congregants’ prayers) into its joints and grooves.

Meanwhile, a group of us also came together to create the tapestry to hang in front of the table, also metal workers and weavers, quilters and knitters, beaders and embroiderers, found object artists: Nancy Meadow, Idelle Hammond-Sass, Chava Israel, Janet Greenhut, Leora Druckman, Allison Stupka, and myself.  Friends from our artist circles joined us, too, to help boost production and morale: Elena DeLoof, Rabbi Michal, Michal Samuel, and Claudia Kraus-Piper.

We were very different people with various mediums, personalities, styles, skills, and rhythm through which to see a tapestry for the Torah table, so we took much longer than we ever expected to complete the tapestry. This could have been the Tower of Babel story rather than Eytz Chayim or Exodus. For four years, our group grew and regrouped, and our tapestry moved from dining table to studio to dining table, over 100 Sundays. Not by design, we were all women, and we came to the project for so many reasons: for mysticism and sacred creation; for a reconstruction of avodah and mitzvah; for grief over our dead mothers and their ways of mending, connecting, and creating; for the companionship of grown ups and for sharing our techniques with children; for communal art; for the Torah and its new table; for the b’nai mitzah we imagined reading from the bima; and for posterity. We were making something we hoped would last for centuries.  Our Torah itself comes from Chicago and a long way before. While we worked away at the Torah Table Tapestry, our first rabbi was hired, the Torah was purchased from its long lease, its longevity assured by careful repair. We wanted the same for its cloth.

The tapestry itself is layered with this history and a hope for our congregation’s long and happy life. When I describe how the Tapestry formed and what it means, it may sound contrived, like a thank-you list.  But I assure you that it was the opposite: we avoided contrivance. We never said no to daring ideas and nudged each other out of our comfort zones. It took a month or two just to get our ideas out on paper. We imagined a few things before we saw the tree, a whole tree. Idelle and Chava were entrusted to draw and assemble the design of this tree based on so many parameters and wishes that it was a miracle that we could exhibit it for community feedback at Rosh Hashanah four years ago.

It also feels like a miracle that we were able to recreate Idelle and Chava’s vision. We decided on a great tree that would be seen all at once, roots, trunk, branches, leaves, and cherry fruit, laid out in a large circle that contained four seasons, four states of the tree above and at ground. This would be a Michigan cherry tree in the endless cycle of its splendor (right now, my backyard cherry tree is heavy with ripening, imperfect spheres). Our easiest challenge was accepting our mistakes and allowing the layers of the design to form both from design and from intuition. Our hardest challenge was to find love rather than criticism for our work or the work  of others, and then also the long tasks of presentation and colorization.

Torah Table Tapestry, in progress, about two years from finished.

One thing that was so important to us as Reconstructionist artists was that the material be largely donated, that it would come from our community. One of our group donated yards of her finest blue raw silk for the base of the picture, and another donated heavy red damask for the exterior and back. AARC’s community responded to our call for meaningful materials with more richness than we could ever have expected. Here are just some samples of the cloth that became our tree: someone’s wedding gown and dress shirt, someone’s birth shirt, someone’s bounty of silk ties, someone’s skirts from her days of Orthodoxy; a hippie shirt; a slip and someone’s cape; someone’s elderly mother’s dress, someone’s young son’s pajamas, someone’s entire sample box. We also received with awe the materials of two AARC members who have passed away, Lisa Gayle’s Guatemalan scarf and Nancy Denenberg’s colorful shawl (these line the sheath for the tapestry). There were dozens of stories behind these cloths, and our group found ways to include every single one, even the fuzzy pajamas.

From these we established the first layers of the tapestry, a range of blue and gray silks from darker to lighter to represent day and night, all sorts of weather. We sorted a mountain of cloth into seasons. We learned and unlearned as we went. We disciplined ourselves to learn each other’s crafts. Chava shared her techniques for application and beading for the sparkle of snow and flowers, for the cherries. Janet taught us to embroider leaves as they grew and fell, snow, the difficult horizon and mountains. Over the years, we needed to redesign and reflect, with Idelle sharing how things could be seen. Nancy and I often experimented with stitching and blending the outer layers, meeting nearly every Sunday. Leora reminded us of the wonderful kavanah going into the tapestry, as months suddenly past between viewings, like her own found objects.

Layers went on, layers came off. The horizon shifted. Leaves changed color, the ground (like humanity to the divine) mirroring the time and decor of the tree’s canopy. The tapestry seemed to become beautiful right before our eyes, and then there were times when the work seemed endless, fruitless. We took pictures of cherry trees and talked about how they are unique among trees. We sneaked in a squirrel, a pair of birds, a bit of spilt wine, and dandelions. We learned to stop questioning ourselves and just give this freely. Our children went to school, went away, came back from college, and parents and siblings passed away. We changed jobs, fell very ill, cared for our sick, came on and off the Board, lived through Art Fair, watched Torah being read for the first time on its new table, wondered and plugged away. We met under my Sukkah two years ago just to figure out the tapestry’s endgame. The tapestry had required so much of our energies, and we were so grateful for Claudia’s infusion of skill and verve in our last months. Julia Piper spent over two hours untangling our floss. Mollie Meadow pored over the tree for missing stitches. Cherries joined the seven species to embellish all four corners. We hired a local tailor to put on the tapestry’s backing, make the bag of memorial cloths.

All this time, Chava beaded the lettering in Hebrew calligraphy in the silvery ornateness recalled by the original mishkan. I think this was a labor of love, perfection, and responsibility for her, reminiscent of Bazalel and Ohaliab. The saying that goes around our Torah tapestry (for we dedicated it to our congregational use last Rosh Hashanah) means in English, referring to the living Torah, from the Mishna 7b (3:18): “It is a tree of life for those who take hold of it, and those who support it are fortunate.” We attached each word separately, creating the arc above and below the tree. There is another truth from Mishna on the Tree of Life which I felt true over the more than four years we worked the tapestry. We had finished just in time for Rose Basch’s bat mitzvah, and we marked our first year as the AARC. The teaching is this: ‘For length of days, years of life, and peace will they [the Torah’s teachings] increase for you’ (3:2).”

Yad by Idelle Hammond-Sass, with wood box by Dale Sass.

The Torah Table Tapestry and AARC’s artistic tradition continues to grow. Our group is resting for the year (after Shmita), but soon we hope to share the tapestry and the story of its creation with other congregations, perhaps even to have it displayed among other Judaica and fiber art shows. For our repaired Torah, Idelle and Dale have created a beautiful yad of wood and metal to mark our place as we chant. Idelle is also starting on a beautiful piece of wrought metal to turn into our eternal light. And just as the artists of the Temple turned from the Tabernacle to the next growth, we are thinking about what needs to be made next. Likely it comes from the earth, maybe from the increase of trees, and their beauty. Even if you haven’t made anything before, join us. It takes everyone to see the Mishkan on its path, and Eytz Chayim is for us all.