Stitching lives

Yaffa Bar-Giora creates embroidered ceremonial art from memories and celebrations.

holding Torah 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
holding Torah 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
With a steady hand and a keen eye, 84-year-old Yaffa Bar-Giora has been beautifying Israeli synagogues with embroidered parohot (curtains for the holy ark) and Torah mantels for over two decades. What began as a single project, embroidering a parohet in commemoration of her son-in-law who was killed in the War of Attrition, has morphed into a regular occupation. Bar-Giora has produced dozens of beautiful pieces of ceremonial art, which she categorizes as "folk art," embroidered memories and celebrations. A recent nine-day exhibit at the Cultural Center on Rehov Hillel celebrated Bar-Giora's work, although most pieces were not available to be viewed since they are now in weekly use in surrounding synagogues. The exhibit attracted some 200 viewers. Bar-Giora herself, who was on hand the entire time, was clearly the gem of the show. Dressed all in green, from her cable-knit sweater and pleated plaid skirt to her crocheted hat, she moved about with amazing alacrity, eager to explain the pieces, open and willing to talk about her life. Bar-Giora was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1922. As a girl, she was a member of a religious, Zionist youth movement and describes herself as passionately Zionist. When she was 12, a non-Jewish girlfriend ended their friendship when she discovered that Bar-Giora was Jewish - and she recalls that from that point on she viscerally knew that Jews have to, "be like other peoples and have their own land." Bar-Giora's family left for the United States in the late 1930s; she came to Palestine in 1937. Eager to fulfill a long-held dream, she settled in Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu in the Beit She'an Valley. She married a kibbutz founder, Naftali Bar-Giora-Bamburger, and they had three children. In 1948, looking to escape the heat and recurring malaria, the Bar-Giora family relocated to Jerusalem, settling in the Katamon neighborhood. Stirred by the post-1967 reconstruction of the Old City, the family purchased an apartment in the Jewish Quarter in 1972. Bar-Giora, now widowed, continues to live in this same toasty-warm apartment, crammed with books and artwork. In 1969, the Bar-Giora's son-in-law was killed in Suez in the War of Attrition. When, a few years later, an ark was brought from Italy for their newly refurbished Menahem Tzion synagogue, one of 58 synagogues in the Jewish Quarter which had been desecrated or destroyed during Jordanian rule, she felt compelled to embroider the parohet in his memory. But she had never undertaken any similar project, so she asked a graphic-designer friend to create the pattern of flames in the shape of a crown, which she appliqued and embroidered. Bar-Giora herself chose the inscription, taken from the daily prayers: "May you return to your city, Jerusalem, with mercy and may you dwell there." She did not anticipate that embroidering Jewish ceremonial art would become her occupation. However, as others approached her to create ceremonial art in memory of their loved ones, Bar-Giora found that she had enough work to keep her busy full-time. She switched from applique to embroidery because the latter is longer-lasting, although admittedly even more time-consuming and painstaking. Soon others, inspired by her work, began to come to Bar-Giora for help to complete their own memorializing embroidery. One young man, whose mother had also been an avid embroiderer, brought Bar-Giora a halla cover which his late mother had never finished. She taught him to embroider so that he could complete it. Another woman came for help in embroidering a huppa for her son's wedding which would also memorialize her daughter who had been murdered in a terrorist attack. Asked if she had been aware of her own talent, she grins and her eyes, surrounded by lines of wisdom, become nearly slits. She waves her hand dismissively. "What talent?" she chuckles modestly. She explains that her designs always include phrases from prayers that are particularly meaningful at that time. Looking back at her choice of phrases, she can see an evolution in her thought. "Back then [when she made her first parohet], what was most important to me was the idea of mercy. I was thinking all the time about suffering, not only of the people in whose memory I embroidered parohot, but the suffering of the entire Jewish people." Today, she says, she is disheartened by intra-Jewish conflict, and so the concept of peace is most prevalent in her work. She is reluctant to tell the stories behind many of the people who commission projects from her. "It is too sad, it is not good to write about sad things," she explains. Asked how often she thinks about those in whose memory she stitches, she responds, "I think about them all the time and I do weep." She whispers solemnly, "I don't like to make too many [parohot] to remember fallen soldiers. I can't sit all the time and cry. I like making things that are more cheerful." Other, more cheerful, projects have included wedding canopies, Torah scroll mantels, wall hangings, and pillow cases used for the circumcision ceremony, including one for her great-grandson who was born 10 years ago. Recently, she embroidered a pair of unilluminated wall hangings with verses from the High Holy Day liturgy in memory of her husband. who passed away exactly six years ago. Bar-Giora's designs are varied. Sometimes, she uses gold or silver thread to create intricate patterns of leaves and flowers surrounding Hebrew text on a background of rich velvet. Sometimes, she uses colored thread to embroider juicy-looking fruits or colorful flowers and animals. Her themes are traditionally Jewish and Israeli - the seven species, the Jerusalem landscape, flames, lions and flowers. She often finds designs in old prayerbooks, art books and calendars or at the Israel Museum. She has designed Torah scroll mantels based on illustrations from 14th-century high-holiday prayer books from Leipzig and Worms, Germany and wall-hangings based on wooden panels from an 18th-century painted wooden synagogue. Yaffa buys all her supplies, the finest threads and fabrics, in Mea Shearim. Back in her bedroom, which doubles as a studio, she uses an architect's illuminated drawing board on a small wooden table next to the only window to trace the designs on the reverse side of the fabric. Small projects may be completed in a week, but larger ones, like parohot, can take months. At times, she has worked for over eight hours without a break to complete a parohet in time for the High Holy Days. Today, she says, most parohot and Torah scroll mantels are made by machine. A machine-embroidered Torah mantel costs about $200, which is about what Bar-Giora charges for one of her hand-embroidered, custom-designed works. When asked if, at age 84, her hands are ever unsteady or her eyesight fatigued, Bar-Giora responds, "Baruh Hashem, no. I eat lots of carrots and carrots are good for the eyes!" Yaffa Bar-Giora can be found on Rehov Misgav Ladach in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.