I’m almost through an inch of gold when my bobbin suddenly spins empty. I’m tempted, briefly, to cut it short a line or two and move on to the ivory. Who would notice? I snip the metallic thread and tuck it through the outer lines of the warp. Later, I’ll cut off the excess length. Then I rise to spin more gold. I can’t shortchange a tallis.
I’m in the weaving room of the JCC of Wyoming Valley, Pennsylvania, where the Jews of greater Wilkes-Barre have been weaving their own tallisim since 1966. The night before, I had unfurled my great-grandfather’s tallis across my parents’ dining room table in New York City. It was linen, not cotton, woven somewhere in Belarus, sometime before he sailed to the United States in 1924. It was heavy, creased from where it had been folded and hung on a shtender in my mother’s prayer room. As it lay across the dining room table, I carefully counted out the lines of black, gold, and ivory, noting the width of each stripe, and the broad expanse of the back. I was making a pattern, in preparation for the next morning’s bus ride to Wilkes-Barre, where the majority of my mother’s family still lives—and where I intended to weave a new tallis for my sister’s fiancé, who would be converting to Judaism in a few weeks.
Between the family history and the wedding, it was really not the time to cut corners.
I amble over to the shelves of bright colored yarn and spin a fat bobbin of gold, threading it through the shuttle. I return to my loom and step on the floor pedals, opening the shed, and then toss the shuttle along the back of the loom, the shuttle race. I beat down the line and switch feet, capturing the gold weft between the parallel threads of the warp, sealing it into the fabric. A handwritten Post-it note on the frame reminds the weavers: beat, switch feet, repeat. I repeat until we have an inch, and then once again snip and tuck before reaching for the shuttle of ivory. I mark the task “complete” on the pattern I had written out, now taped above me. The repetitive motions of weaving beckon a focus and attention that settles in over my body. Weaving requires the constant engagement of both hands and both feet, the shuttle being passed between right and left, the feet switching the pedals with each line. Slowly, the lines add up. Hours go by. Gold, black, ivory, black, gold, black, ivory. A tallis begins to emerge.
In 1966, Sy Hefter, education director of the JCC of Wyoming Valley, and his wife, Ruth, had a loom shipped to the JCC from Canada. Hefter was known for his emphasis on hands-on Judaism; he would collect ram’s horns from slaughterhouses and teach children to shape them into kosher shofars, he built an active woodworking program on how to make dreidels and groggers, and engaged the community in creating complex and elaborate Sukkot. A tallis-weaving program was right up his alley.
Though Ruth would teach the women of Wilkes-Barre how to weave, it was soon discovered nobody in town knew how to warp the loom, the process by which the foundational threads are wound through the machine. A local manufacturer was recruited to try and figure it out, and after some trial and error, the loom was ready for weaving. At first, only women reserved the loom, weaving tallisim exclusively for the men in their lives: sons, brothers, husbands, nephews, grandsons. Bar mitzvahs were the most popular occasion, but weddings, anniversaries, and even special birthdays often warranted a special tallis. In the early years, the color palette was limited to traditional colors, with ivory, dark blues, gold, silver, and black the options available, though the patterns varied widely. By the early 1980s, women began to have their own bat mitzvahs, and the demand for their own tallisim rose. An interest in more colors also emerged, and today, the weaving room bursts with crimson, burnt orange, royal purple, hot pink, dusty rose, and every shade of green and blue imaginable. Some weavers began to create designs that could be embroidered across the back of the tallis. Each tallis, starting in the late 1970s, was dutifully photographed with a Polaroid once it was cut off the loom, with the name of the weaver, the date, and the occasion recorded. These albums still line the shelves of the weaving room.
While most of Hefter’s programs came and went, the weaving room proved an enduring success. For decades, through the mid-2000s, the waiting list ran 50 people deep at any given time, and the four looms eventually acquired were always in use. The weaving room had a dedicated director, and a few experienced experts on call, to assist with the warping and to troubleshoot more complex problems and requests. In addition to tallisim, people began to weave chuppahs, challah covers, afikoman bags. For the past several years, an increasing number of out-of-towners will call in to request specially woven tallisim, which director Steve Nachlis arranges. A few other synagogues in Pennsylvania began their own programs, though with more limited capacity. In Allentown, the Sons of Israel Congregation has a loom and two longtime volunteers who oversee the weaving of close to 30 tallisim a year, in a program that was inspired by Ruth Hefter in 1973. Yet when it comes to capacity and size, the weaving room of Wilkes-Barre remains the gold standard, and sometimes the only option, for tallis-weaving in the United States under guidance. But as the Wilkes-Barre community ages, with most residents’ grandchildren already bar and bat mitzvahed, the demand for weaving has slackened. When I was at the loom in June, the other three looms stood empty.
Tallis-weaving came to me as symbolically intergenerational, a way to replicate the past through a new future. In 2003, my father was running through a hotel lobby to catch a plane, when he was asked to make a kaddish minyan. He stopped, prayed, then dashed off, only to realize when his plane had landed that he was missing his tallis bag. Inside were his bar mitzvah tefillin and his father’s tallis. An extensive search by the hotel and the airline came up empty. My mother, confronted with the weight of his sadness, quickly whisked me and an older sister away to our great-aunt in Wilkes-Barre, where we would often go on family trips. I was 12, my sister 14, and we were tasked with making a new tallis, the only way my mother could imagine replacing the emotional significance of what my father had lost.
For three days, the three of us learned how to snake the cotton yarn through the open shed of the loom, to straighten our edges, beat the line down firmly. We counted down the pattern, marking off our progress, watching this garment be willed into being, one line at a time. We stayed with my great-aunt Esther Davidowitz, our family matriarch, an institution in and of herself; little seemed to happen in Wilkes-Barre without her knowledge or oversight. When my brother had his bar mitzvah a few years later, I returned with my mother to Wilkes-Barre, and then again when our family and the community organized a surprise tallis as a gift for my “Tante Esther,” who herself has woven over 19 tallisim. And so, when the date for my future brother-in-law’s conversion was set, I knew I wanted to weave him a tallis, and I knew I wanted to base it on my great-grandfather’s tallis, who was a significant rabbi in early American Jewish life. The only pictures I have of my great-grandfather show him in his long black coat and black hat, with an imposing beard. Born in 1888, two hours by horse and carriage outside of Minsk, I don’t know if he could imagine a world where women wove hot pink tallisim for their bat mitzvahs, or a world where his great-grandson, a soon-to-be-Jew from Australia, would wrap himself in the same design he had worn every morning during prayer. But I like to think he would be delighted.
A loom can only be used for one project at a time, and weaving a tallis comes with its own set of demands. In addition to the tallis itself, the weaver usually weaves a separate tallis bag, and an atarah, the collar attached at the top center of the back. The pattern, once devised, is woven through on one side, and then the back is woven in one color, at which point the pattern is then repeated in reverse. Another band must be woven to reinforce the four corners of the tallis, where the tzitzit will be attached and tied. Once completed on the loom, the tallis is cut off the warp, usually with a shehecheyanu blessing. The garment will then be laid out on a table, and the threads must be snipped; every time a weaver switches colors, the previous thread is snipped and tucked into the fabric, leaving a sea of loose threads throughout the fabric. Once snipped, the tallis is then sent to be washed, and the tallis bag must be sewn and lined. The atarah can be embroidered with the Hebrew name of the recipient, if desired, and often the tallis bag is embroidered as well. The corners must be cut and sewn on, and the tzitzit tied. Sometimes, the warp thread will snap during weaving and must be tied to new threads to avoid any gaps, and now they need to be sewn back in, too. Typically, a complete tallis will take about 20 hours to weave. Its finishing details require about two weeks to turn around, depending on the schedule of the women in Wilkes-Barre who, for decades, have taken on the tasks of washing, embroidering, lining, and sewing the tallisim of the community. The work is nothing if not a community effort.
When I arrive in June, it has been many years since I touched a loom. The JCC of Wyoming Valley is now the JCA of Northeastern Pennsylvania, a multimillion dollar project that opened in March 2019, and which houses the looms in a room that no longer overlooks the river. I am staying with my great-aunt, and the bed I am sleeping on is the one she picked out before her wedding, in 1956, on the advice of my great-grandmother, whose tastes ran more eccentric. There is a story behind every piece of furniture in this house, the home she shared with my great-uncle for 63 years.
The second day of my weaving, I have lunch in the cafeteria of the new building. I watch as word spreads among the tables that I have arrived, as “Essie’s great-niece.” For the rest of the day, I have visitors come by to watch my weaving, telling me stories of my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother Rose, my aunts and uncles and cousins and family members I have never even heard of. I hear conflicting versions of the same events, descriptions of my great-grandmother’s legendary Passovers. Wilkes-Barre, and the nearby smaller town of Hazleton, are the epicenter of my maternal family history, the place I have always known I was from, the place where the stories are becoming memories.
For decades, the Jews of Wilkes-Barre have woven their tallisim tightly, for successive generations, in a small community that rarely moved farther than a few hundred miles. As my Tante Esther explains, moving from her hometown of Hazleton to the big city of Wilkes-Barre after her marriage was: “a big deal.” Today, few of the grandchildren who sport these tallisim live in Wilkes-Barre. They say that very few Jews alive today have great-grandparents who were born in the same place in which they live. My great-grandfather, and my grandfather, traveled an ocean with their tallisim, and now, as the recipient of this tradition, I am struck by the resiliency of the tallis. Soon, the fabric I am weaving will be cut off the loom, washed, sewn, and then it will be taken back to Australia, for the next branch of the Jewish people, and somebody, in some number of years, one day, will carefully unfold its creases and begin to count the lines of black separating two stripes of gold, and notice if I had been short by an inch.
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