Embroidering tales and tallitot

A Judaica needlepoint artist and retired early childhood educator, Stanger’s tale of the tree on Gezer Street relives her childhood and the people who influenced her.

Ofra Stanger (photo credit: BATSHEVA POMERANTZ)
Ofra Stanger
(photo credit: BATSHEVA POMERANTZ)
The narrow, winding lanes of Nahlaot come alive in the recently published children’s book Grandma’s Cocoa Tree by Ofra Stanger, who grew up in the 1950s in this colorful and tranquil neighborhood dotted with water cisterns and courtyards, adjacent to the bustling center of Jerusalem.
A Judaica needlepoint artist and retired early childhood educator, Stanger’s tale of the tree on Gezer Street relives her childhood and the people who influenced her, foremost among them her father, Shalom Zaken.
Zaken fought for Jerusalem in the War of Independence.
“As a member of the Hagana, he took part in fierce battles in Katamon and on Mount Zion,” Stanger says. “For many years he would walk to Mount Zion for Yom Kippur services.”
He was a greengrocer for the Tnuva food company, then in Kiryat Moshe.
Stanger’s mother, Hana Huja, served in the British Army during World War II as a truck driver in Egypt.
Stanger recalls Nahlaot in the early 1950s.
“There were no roads or cars, only dirt pathways,” she relates. “There was an ice seller and a seller of kerosene on a horse. The milkman, Moshe, would bring milk in two buckets. We would play in nearby Sheikh Badr, the hill that is today Givat Ram.”
She related stories from her childhood to her three children as they grew up, and then to her grandchildren.
One of the stories became Grandma’s Cocoa Tree.
In it, grandson Rotem goes to Nahlaot to see the location of the tall tree – Grandma’s “special tree.”
Stanger went to a nursery school, run by teachers Chaya and Ahuva. It was across from Mahaneh Yehuda.
Azarriya, the Yemenite handyman, greeted the children every morning as they entered the small gate of the nursery. His wife, Shima, was the assistant and cook.
“I grew up during the tzena [austerity] of the early 1950s, and food was rationed,” she says.
“We hardly had food at home,” she continues. “The main hot meal for us children was the one cooked by Shima.
She would also serve the children a hot cocoa drink every morning, since milk was very important for the children.
Many families were poor and didn’t have milk at home. I didn’t like the strong taste of hot cocoa, so I pretended to drink it.”
The book highlights her connection to a potted plant in the nursery school, and its metamorphosis into a tree.
Both the English version of the book and the original Hebrew, Etz Hakakau Shel Savta, were published by Orion and are enhanced by the illustrations of Inna Katzeva. Stanger’s husband, Michael, originally from South Africa, translated it into English.
Her first book, Grandma’s String of Pearls (Mahrozet Hapninim Shel Savta), is written in verse. It was translated into English by poet Janice Silverman Rebibo.
In it, granddaughter Noam sees that her grandmother is upset when her string of pearls breaks and the pearls vanish from sight. The two search for the lost pearls, discovering together the seasons, Jewish holidays and their love for each other.
Stanger presents workshops on a voluntary basis in preschools and libraries.
In addition to reading the books, she creates with the children arts connected to the stories, the cycle of life, the month, holidays and seasons.
While her grandchildren are the motivation to tell and write her stories, it was her father who was the inspiration for her needlepoint works of art.
Shalom Zaken bought her a loom when she was five. Self-taught, she has been embroidering for over 50 years.
Her creations, many of which highlight the cycle of life, combine colors and various techniques.
She started to create Judaica after a trip in the 1980s to Prague, where at the Jewish Museum, she saw embroidered curtain-coverings for the holy ark.
“I was impressed by the artwork of Jews before the Holocaust – an art that was lost,” she says. “I thought then about what was left from it. Since then, I decided to embroider objects of significance to the Jewish people.”
Among her works are the diadem (neck inscription) for tallitot (prayer shawls), bags for tefillin and tallitot, mezuza covers, halla covers and a pillow for circumcision ceremonies.
A special huppa (wedding canopy) commemorates her parents.
“In 2001, a short time after my oldest daughter, Renana, announced her plans to get married, my father passed away,” Stanger says. “The shiva fell on Independence Day. Since my father fought in 1948 defending Jerusalem, I decided at the shiva to embroider a huppa in his memory.”
One side of the huppa has a large Magen David around the words “Mazal Tov” and two sheaves of wheat. The other has a dedication to her father and mother, who has since died.
She lends it to couples, and on the day of the wedding, adds their names and wedding date.
“At the end of the ceremony,” she says, “we take down the huppa, which is hung as a screen for the couple to see their names. To date, the names of over 50 couples are embroidered on the huppa.”
She also lends out the pillow, embroidered with names of her father’s descendants, for circumcision ceremonies.
Stanger flows with creativity. Her Judaica works sometimes commemorate people, including fallen soldiers.
She embroiders smaller tallitot for young boys who sing Anim Zemirot on Shabbat, with the first verse of the prayer embroidered on the diadem.
Others she donates to synagogues where fallen soldiers prayed. After Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, she embroidered 15 such tallitot, commemorating and linking together the generations.
One Anim Zemirot tallit commemorates fighters from the War of Independence.
Moshe Yaakov Eliash fell on Mount Zion in 1948 at the age of 24.
“I met a woman who was the sisterin- law of Eliash,” she says. “When I heard his story, I then connected this to my father, who as a fighter on Mount Zion may have fought with Moshe. So I embroidered one side of the neckband in memory of Eliash, and the other side in memory of my father and the fighters from the War of Independence.”
Today, the tallit is in the synagogue of Kfar Eldad, where Eliash’s nephew lives.
For about a decade in the 1970s, Stanger taught immigrant children from North America, South America, Romania and Russia at a preschool in the Mevaseret Zion Absorption Center, just west of the city. She received an award from then-education minister Aharon Yadlin for her work.
She also lent a sympathetic ear to the challenges faced by adult immigrants as they juggled ulpan (Hebrew classes) with their search for work and permanent housing.
“Many of the trees at the absorption center today were planted as saplings by the immigrant children and their parents,” she recalls fondly.
As a preschool teacher for 33 years, she had a garden she cultivated year round. She would sing to her students this song, written by Aharon Zeev (translated from Hebrew): I planted on the holiday of the tree a sapling I planted in my small garden a sapling And to the garden’s earth, I said: You and I are forever connected By the young sapling, the young sapling Which continues growing and flourishing.
“The connection of the adam [person] to the adama [earth] is very important,” she states. “The small sapling grows, like the young children I have taught over the years. My intention was for them to become good citizens.”