April 21, 2024 ()

2024 Torah Covers

In 2024, the three torahs in the main sanctuary’s ark are getting new covers (mantles).

An Interview with Fiber Artist, Karen Fricke

1. How/when did you get started working with textiles?
My grandmother began teaching me to sew in her attic sewing room when I was nine. I spent many wonderful hours with her there, making clothes and accessories. We had to turn off the window air conditioner when we wanted to use the iron, or we’d blow a fuse. When I was 15, and my grandmother was 75, we learned to quilt together. It was at the height of the quilting renaissance during the 1970s.

2. Have you always focused on Judaica?
I was raised in a conservative Lutheran family, and was introduced to Judaism when I met my future husband in graduate school, so my first quilts were traditional patterns. I began to explore Judaic fiber art when I made my son’s tallit for his bar mitzvah. I soon realized that many Judaic ritual items can be explored in fabric and stitch. Studying and then converting to Judaism, establishing a Jewish home and family, and participating in synagogue life allowed me to find many ways to meld the historic tradition of quilting with the rituals celebrated and honored in Jewish life.

3. What is your favorite type of project to work on?
Many artists complain about having to collaborate with committees and groups when hired to complete a commission, but I have to say, I love it. The many opinions (which are frequently strongly held and passionately expressed) and the myriad visions that committee members bring to the table, make it an exciting challenge to incorporate ideas and designs that I would never have come up with myself. It stretches my creativity, and forces me to look beyond what I might do if everything were left entirely up to me and my own aesthetic. My goal at the end of the project is that every member of the committee looks at the finished work and feels satisfied that I heard their suggestions and incorporated their ideas.

4. What’s the most unusual request / commissioned work you’ve received?
When I make tallitot for kids who are preparing to become b’nai mitzvah, I encourage them to select a verse or poem for their atarah that has personal meaning. One boy told me he wanted the lyrics of the Duke fight song embroidered on his atarah. His parents vetoed that decision, but I would have done it for him.

5. Where do you source your fabric or other supplies?
I have a stockpile of fabrics that will last long after I am gone, including bolts of silk and cotton fabric for hand-dyeing. I also have my favorite stores in the Garment District in New York, which is now only a 40-minute train ride from our new home in New Jersey. When we lived in Maryland, I would take the Vamoose bus early in the morning, shop for fabric all day, and return home at night, exhausted. There are several online sources that I use, too, but I really like supporting the small brick and mortar shops. For really beautiful hand-dyed embroidery thread, I purchase from a small company out of Canada, but I also have large cones of different weights of silk and cotton thread that I dye myself.

6. From where do you draw inspiration for your work?
I love finding inspiration in the written word: a line of poetry, a verse from a song, a quote from the torah. It is a jumping-off point, and leads me toward more ideas. I am an avid gardener, too, and find so much inspiration in nature! We installed bee hives on our property last year, and it compelled me to make a series of apiary quilts. The ideas percolate in my head day and night, while I’m driving or shopping or doing laundry. The project may change a million times between conception and completion, but the process is so invigorating and fun!

As reported in the Winter 2023-2024 Kol Kore by Jessica Bernstein and Diane Raynes-Miller, on behalf of the entire project team which also includes Sandi Marsden, Esther Starobin and Rabbi Adam:

The design is based on the olive branch, representing peace and evergreen, flourishing even in poor, rocky soil. It heralds new life and hope, and symbolizes longevity and immortality. It is synonymous with the beauty and bounty of Israel, is one of the seven species mentioned in the Book of Deuteronomy, and is associated with blessings, fertility and health. It is also a symbol of continuity: “children are like olive shoots around your table.” The design spans across all three Torahs. Each cover can stand on its own yet will form a complete design when together. The colors and shape of the leaves and flow of the branches mesh nicely with the inside and outside of the ark, as well as the stained glass windows.

We are working with the talented fiber artist Karen Fricke who designed and produced many of the wonderful quilts that adorn our Temple as well as the cover of the ark that’s in HaMakom. Many of you know Karen, a former Temple member who now lives in NJ, Karen will use a variety of fabrics and techniques for the leaves so they have diversity of color and texture.

Although we began the project and selected the olive branch idea before Oct 7, it seems especially appropriate now. Similar to other religious objects, mantles – a decorative cloth cover that is placed over the top of a Torah Scroll to both protect and beautify the Torah – are decorated as a representation of the community’s respect for the Torah. They are often made of velvet or silk and enhanced with embroidery and colored thread. The most common decorations on the front include: lions holding tablets with Hebrew letters or text relating to the Torah and sitting beneath a large crown. Other traditional decorations include Stars of David, Floral Patterns, and Pillars.

In the late 19th century, it was a common practice for Sephardic Jews in the Ottoman Empire to donate fabrics, such as clergy robes, wedding dresses, or bed coverings, to be reused as textiles within the synagogue. By donating such personal fabrics, donors ensured the preservation of their (or their loved ones) memory in the most sacred space of the synagogue, whether as a mantle cover or other item. As a removable object, many communities replace the Torah mantle used throughout the year with a white textile during the High Holy Days. We look forward to sharing the design with the community as the project progresses and celebrating together when we unveil the new mantles. We are grateful to the Flax/Adler Fund and Elayne Flax and the entire Flax family for their support of this project. Elayne worked closely with our founding Rabbi, Rabbi Leon Adler, for many years and served as the Director of Education from the early 1970s until 1997.