Jenny Wulff called them “the sewing girls”—the Jewish women in Oslo who regularly got together under her leadership to sew tachrechim, the traditional garments used for Jewish burials. A Holocaust survivor, she was the matriarch of the group and sewed well into her 80s, teaching the craft to scores of new volunteer recruits until she died in 2009.
One of those recruits was Liv London, who was a relatively young woman in her early 40s when she was first introduced to the sewing circle. “I understood this was something important that I wanted to be part of,” said London, now 70. Today, she is the organizer of the group of eight Norwegian Jewish women who carry on the ancient tradition of sewing the shrouds by hand. Normally, the sewing circle meets about six times a year. But getting the group together to sew has been more challenging than usual during the COVID-19 pandemic—and just as restrictions on social gatherings were lifted in Norway in the early fall 2021 and the sewing circle was getting ready to begin meeting regularly again, the omicron variant put a stop to the plans.
On a rainy November afternoon in Oslo, London stood at her expansive dining room table where she has served Shabbat and Yom Tov dinners for 47 years. She gently opened a large Ziploc bag where white cotton fabrics were neatly folded in a pile. “We inherited a large roll of brown wrapping paper and twine, but we have decided to modernize a little,” said London with a wink. Before she began to unfold the content, she removed a yellow Post-it note that said “Set for Woman” in neat, cursive writing. “I try to write it the way they used to, in the olden days,” she added in a soft voice. They try to have at least two completed sets of shrouds for each gender ready on hand at all times, because “there is nothing worse than having to sew tachrechim on 24 hours’ notice.”
The tradition of sewing tachrechim has been handed down from generation to generation. “They used to sit in silence and sew,” London said. “The air was solemn and respectful, with no frivolous chit-chat.” Though times have changed—the women now talk freely enjoying each other’s company—in the early days of her volunteering, London was chided when she tried to play soft music in the background. “That was too much,” she said, smiling. “So I never did that again.” Before “the war”—WWII—the sewing took place in secrecy. One of the oldest living (but now former) members of the circle, Ruth Goldstein, once told London that when she was a girl, there were times when her grandmother would not allow her and her siblings to play inside: This is how Goldstein learned that “the ladies are sewing.” It was quiet in their apartment; only hushed voices could be discerned through the crack in the door.
According to Rabbi Joav Melchior of congregation Det Mosaiske Trossamfund, or DMT, Norway may be one of the few countries in Europe—if not the only one—that still sews its own tachrechim. “The value of keeping the tradition going in a small community like ours cannot be underestimated,” he said. “It’s so intimate: We know who we sew for. We prepare tachrechim for our aunts, friends, mothers, and fathers. Sometimes we even sew for ourselves …” Though it’s easier to buy ready-made sets, Melchior points out that when a community transitions to modernity and outsources, despite the obvious convenience, something unique is lost. He gave the example of how everybody used to have their own utensils and set-up to kasher meat at home. Now that butchering and kashering is done industrially, the shared communal doing of the mitzvah is lost. “We are few enough that we are able to maintain self-sufficiency in caring for our own in death as well as in life,” Melchior said. “And this strengthens us as a community.”
Jews in Norway currently number somewhere between 1,500 and 1,700, and the organized Jewish community is a relatively recent development with a fraught history. Though a few Sephardic merchants and bankers from Spain and Portugal were permitted to enter Norway in the 1500s and 1600s, a constitutional ban was instituted in 1687, lasting until 1851, when it was repealed after much public debate. DMT was founded in 1893, and with it the Jewish cemetery in Oslo. When Germany occupied Norway from 1940-45, there were about 2,173 Jews living there, but at least 765 were deported and murdered by the Nazis. Today, Oslo has the country’s only operating synagogue with about 700 active members, and there are also smaller, loosely organized Jewish communities in Bergen, Stavanger, and Trondheim, numbering between 50 and 135 members each.
From the beginning, the sewing of tachrechim took place privately in someone’s home, but in 1960 the Jewish community center was built adjacent to the synagogue, and the sewing women—who were all homemakers at the time—would meet there during the day. Not until 1988 did the first among them say she could no longer sew during the day because she had to be at work. Today, it is mostly older, retired women who make up the circle and they have continued their regular daytime meetings, since most of them prefer to not venture out in the evening.
The rules for making tachrechim are very specific: Only unbleached cotton fabric, cotton thread, and basic basting stiches should be used—long and loose, the stitches are intended to just temporarily join the fabric. To demonstrate how the garments are put together, London spreads out two miniature sets, often used to educate school children and museum curators in Jewish traditions. One set for women and one for men, but regardless of gender, they include a tunic, pants, hood or bonnet, and belt. Modest with no frills, these simple shrouds have reaffirmed a fundamental belief in human equality for generations of Jews, as the universal use of tachrechim has historically protected the poor from embarrassment at not being able to afford lavish burial clothes. Furthermore, since the shrouds have no pockets, wealth or status cannot be expressed or acknowledged in death.
When the women meet to sew, they put on white aprons to prevent the white shrouds from getting stained by their own clothing. Each session starts at 11 a.m. and they sew diligently until 3:30 p.m. with a short break for lunch. “When we put down our projects, we enjoy a tasty lunch, and we breathe and use our voices differently,” said London. Usually they are able to finish one set for each gender in one sitting, if at least six or seven seamstresses show up. “And the work is not done until everyone has completed their part,” she added, “which means most stay put until everyone has finished their sewing.”
Anne Cath Fischer agreed to join the circle when her father, a tailor, died in 1997. She said it was meaningful for her to continue the family’s tradition of being involved in preparing the shrouds. Her father who was born in 1917 ran his own tailor shop in Oslo for more than 50 years, and was in charge of cutting the material for the tachrechim during his long professional career. Fischer enjoys recalling when her dad celebrated a big birthday late in life and the president of the synagogue toasted him and his skills, adding, “All the work you do for the dead must be good, because you never get any complaints!” Fischer lost her husband suddenly about two years ago, and said she gets quite emotional thinking about the fact that she contributed to sewing the tachrechim in which he was buried, although she didn’t know it at the time.
London’s close friend Katrine Jutrem Cohen, 60, is a longtime active member of the Jewish community in Oslo, and the youngest and newest member of the sewing club. She just returned from living for five years in Israel and said that after she observed what she felt was a conveyor belt approach to burial there, and the roughness with which corpses were handled, she was shocked. “I understand that it’s more complicated in Israel,” she said, “since it is such a crowded country,” but the experience made her decide she definitely does not want to be buried there. When she and her husband moved back to Norway, she agreed to join London and the other sewing women. She had a new appreciation of how a small Jewish community like theirs shares in the commitment to care for their own, every individual, “from cradle to grave.”
London pointed out that in recent years, the sewing circle has begun to consider more acutely their preparedness. For example, how to deal with crisis situations such as potential terrorist events, major accidents, or disasters. She said that if COVID-19 infections were to occur in the Jewish home for the aged, it may not be sufficient having only two sets of tachrechim for each gender on hand. At the onset of the pandemic, Melchior reached out to contacts abroad to make sure they had a backup plan in case there should be a sudden need for many sets. However, during the most severe government mandated COVID-19 shutdowns, it was no longer the Jewish community that prepared their dead for burial, as it was relegated by the state to take place in official funeral homes. “We had three burials during that period when we were unable to prepare our dead, and that was difficult for us,” London said.
Waiting out the latest surge in COVID-19 infections, the women of the sewing circle have yet again to sew by themselves in their own homes, separated for a task that is especially meaningful to perform together. “Whether we do it together or individually, it’s a truly special experience to be part of creating something so important for our community,” London said. Meanwhile, until they can gather again around her inviting dining room table, London dutifully drives around Oslo delivering the necessary materials to each seamstress.
Nina Lichtenstein is a writer, teacher, and storyteller who divides her time between Maine and Tel Aviv.