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Book Review: Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis: How Jews Craft Resilience and Create Community by Jodi Eichler-Levine

I love it when a good title catches your eye, draws you in, and makes you go, “Ooh, what’s that about?” That’s how I felt when I saw the cover of Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis: How Jews Craft Resilience and Create Community by Jodi Eichler-Levine (University of North Carolina Press, 2020) on NetGalley this spring. “Is this about rabbis doing needlepoint?” I wondered, until I caught sight of the subtitle and went, “Ohhhhh, fascinating!” As an occasional crafter, I understand how important making things can be to one’s identity, and as my (Re)Introduction to Judaism class was winding down, I definitely wanted to keep reading and learning. And to my surprise, I was quickly approved for the book! Totally made my day.

Jodi Eichler-Levine has penned an academic deep-dive into the intersection of arts- and craft-work and Jewish identity, a study that spanned three years and included not only interviews but observation and research into online crafting communities (Pinterest, anyone?). Her focus is not necessarily on individual artists- although plenty of those are celebrated as well- but on what crafting means as a collective and for the collective. How do crafters express their Judaism and connect with it on a deeper level through the things they create? How does the process of creation help them connect with other Jews? What messages do their various forms of creation send when viewed through the lenses of Judaism? Her study answers all these questions and more in a way that artists and crafters will appreciate.

Horror vacui, the fear or dislike of leaving empty spaces, especially in an artistic composition, is discussed in terms of a crafter’s need to create and fill their friends’ and loved ones’ lives with the fruits of their hard work, as is the fact that creation, by necessity, also means consumption, something that I’ve been trying to come to terms with over the years. Keeping one’s supply stash under control and down to a manageable amount while still ensuring that you have what you need in a pinch (or a pandemic when the stores are closed!) is a never-ending battle for every crafter; do you overbuy and run the risk of never using those materials, or do you save money and not buy but potentially regret it later? “Things ground, though they can also overwhelm,” she states succinctly, something that I very much understood. Another quote summed it up perfectly:

“Acts of creation are never simple. They are not isolated from the act of consuming, and consuming in a hypercapitalist culture has itself taken on a religious valence. Those who can afford to do so revel in their possessions but are also possessed by them, leading to a sense of claustrophobia that sparked the latest minimalism purge.”

(And yes, Marie Kondo does earn several mentions!)

The sections that resonated the most with me were about parenting and how one’s identity as a crafter, an artist, a creator, is often dashed to the ground once the task of caring for tiny humans becomes front and center. Everything falls to the side, leaving parents, particularly mothers, feeling lost and like overworked automatons. She acknowledges that even as we celebrate these new lives, there is grief as we mourn for the loss of ourselves and the identities that kept us afloat Before Parenting. Ms. Eicher-Levine’s analysis of Heather Stolz’s work, Hanging By A Thread (viewed here in Ms. Stoltz’s Kveller article, Being Jewish Kind of Sucks Now That I’m a Mom), very much hit home for me. Her piece has to do with the difficulties of finding a connection to her Judaism when her more immediate responsibilities are to ensuring the safety and well-being of her children, but it’s something to which most moms will be able to relate. I know it took my breath away. A quote from another crafter echoed another familiar, sobering realization:

“I tried to embroider a Hebrew wall hanging for my son when he was born. That was before I realized that having children would end, for a while at least, my embroidery career.”

This is the circle of women I needed when I first began having children, but I’m grateful that a new generation will have Ms. Eicher-Levine’s words to reassure them that these feelings are normal.

Stories of craftivism; of religious restrictions on creation during Shabbat and how artists deal with that; the juxtaposition of two craft movements that seem to be, on the surface, different, but have more in common than they first appear; Ms. Eichler-Levine covers so many different topics in this book with a scholarly look, but one that has heart. One of the most poignant sections deals with Jewish crafting in the wake of the Holocaust and the urgency to fill the void of having no family heirlooms, and whether there’s a deeper meaning to it. That wasn’t an aspect of the Holocaust that I’d ever really considered, so I especially appreciated her work making me aware of that.

There is some discussion of infertility in the book, and how that affects one’s artwork and identity. Infertility can be a painful subject to read about for many people, while others find comfort in seeing they’re not alone in their struggles and feelings. Be kind to yourself and never feel ashamed about waiting until you feel ready to read subjects that may be difficult for you.

While the book is more academic than literary, it’s definitely enjoyable if you’re interested in how artistry and crafting intersect with identity- Jewish identity specifically, but if needlework or painting or quilting is a part of who you are, you may find much with which to identify in these pages regardless of your connection to Judaism. Terms with which the non-Jewish or non-Jewishly educated reader may not be familiar are defined, making this book accessible for readers of every background.

Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis is a lovely take on how what Jewish women (and some men!) create furthers their Jewish identity. Maybe it’ll inspire you to pick up or continue your own work! It absolutely did for me. I’d been working on this blanket for a while and had put it down after getting close to finishing it. But reading this book put me in the crafting mood again, and I finished the last few rows and the border. The blanket, laid out on the floor, takes up half my living room! Thanks for the inspiration, Ms. Eicher-Levine!

Much thanks to NetGalley and the University of North Carolina Press for allowing me to read an early copy of this.

Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis: How Jews Craft Resilience and Create Community by Jodi Eichler-Levine is due out on October 19, 2020. Order your copy here (not an affiliate link), or from your local bookstore.

Read a bio of Jodi Eichler-Levine here, and then join me in wishing I could take every single class she offers.

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