Knitted and crocheted ribbons at the Mid-Westchester JCC in Scarsdale, New York

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Tie a Yellow Ribbon

Knitters and crafters around the world are reviving a symbol of hope as they wait for the return of hostages taken by Hamas on Oct. 7. Here’s the story behind the ribbon.

Tanya Singer
May 30, 2024
Knitted and crocheted ribbons at the Mid-Westchester JCC in Scarsdale, New York

Tablet Magazine

This article is part of Hamas’ War on Israel.
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The first thing you see as you approach the Mid-Westchester JCC in Scarsdale, New York, is a floating wall of yellow ribbons, in shades from lemonade to goldenrod. As of May 23, there were 129 of them—one for each of the hostages held in Gaza. (Two of the ribbons are orange, representing the two little ginger-headed Bibas boys, Kfir and Ariel.) Some ribbons are hand-knit, some are machine-knit, and some crocheted, and they all hang in midair, suspended on a transparent deer fence.

This installation is not the first of its kind since Oct. 7. The giant ficus trees on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard sport a variety of knit, crochet, and embroidered yellow ribbons. Some resemble granny-square quilts, others include heart-shaped motifs, and they hang alongside a giant knitted and cross-stitched sampler that reads “Bring Them Home.” Locals meet under these trees week after week, crafting ribbons and securing them to the trees.

Crafters turn to their handiwork to find healing in difficult times. Following the events of Oct. 7, crafters from around the world made hundreds of hats for IDF soldiers, blankets for new mothers, and created new groups like Yarn Yisrael Chai—whose founder, Stacey Betsalel, sent over 40 oversize duffel bags filled with yarn and supplies for the dozens of knitting groups sprouting up for displaced evacuees living in hotels. And knit and crochet enthusiasts around the world, from Tel Aviv to Paris, picked up their hooks and needles and got to work making yellow ribbons.

When New York-based knitwear designer Jamie Kreitman came across the Tel Aviv ribbons on social media, she knew what she had to do. “Everyone wants to do something besides donating monetarily,” she said, and she and others “want to actively participate in a communal activity to create a meaningful project.” She turned to Tablet’s Beautifully Jewish group and found just the people she needed to get the job done, with design help from fellow community member, fiber artist Sarah Divi.

Divi sought to channel her “awful feelings and inner turmoil” to keep the hostages and their families top of mind. She and crocheter Caline Friedli-Nappi created simple knit and crochet instructions, or patterns, for yellow ribbons, which they made available free of charge. Divi then designed ways of arranging the ribbons to create large-scale impact—either in rows, as a giant ribbon made of ribbons, or floating among the trees, calling the effort Stitch Them Home. The project was meant to appeal to anyone ready to “make a statement on any scale, from one person making a ribbon or thousands of people stitching them,” and she was delighted to hear people learned to knit and crochet just to be a part of the project.

Kreitman started her efforts in Scarsdale and brought her skills to her local community in Rockland County, New York, where she taught new knitters, young and old, to create a public display of ribbons. While she focused on her hometown, her thoughts were also of her son, living in Tel Aviv. A “proud and unabashed Zionist,” Kreitman was overjoyed when her adult son made aliyah and credits her late father, Rabbi Benjamin Z. Kreitman, former head of the Conservative United Synagogue of America, for cultivating her connection to Israel.

Why are crafters around the world choosing to craft yellow ribbons? The answer: Yellow ribbons have a long connection to showing love and loyalty to men away at war, with a newer connection to hostages in particular.

Americans of a certain age likely remember the 1973 song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree,” which captured the hearts of a beleaguered American public longing to see their prisoners of war and troops home from Vietnam. The cheery anthem performed by Tony Orlando and Dawn topped the Billboard Hot 100 charts for four weeks, and was named the magazine’s Song of the Year.

The ditty shares the story of a just-released prisoner who served his three-year sentence and is on his bus-ride home, longing to be welcomed home by his beloved. He wrote his love, asking her to tie a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree in town to show she still awaited his return. If she didn’t, he would take the blame and stay on the bus. At the song’s climax, the whole bus cheers at the sight of 100 yellow ribbons his love tied around “the ole oak tree” ensuring he wouldn’t miss her sunny welcome.

The verses were inspired by a Reader’s Digest account of a letter a soldier sent his beloved as the U.S. Civil War drew to a close. The soldier reportedly asked her to tie a yellow handkerchief around a tree in the center of town to signal she hadn’t moved on and was eager to welcome him home. Songwriters L. Russell Brown and Irwin Levine changed the handkerchief to a ribbon.

A few years after the song topped the pop charts, the yellow ribbon became a symbol for longing for the return of hostages following the 1979 siege of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, which led to Iranian student protesters taking 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

Bruce Laingen, a State Department foreign service officer at the embassy and the highest ranking of the hostages, was seen as the informal leader of the group. Back at home in the U.S., his wife, Penne Laingen, offered support for fellow hostage families. In one interview during the crisis, Penne’s calm demeanor surprised the reporter. When asked what Americans should do, Penne told the journalist: “Tell them to do something constructive, because we need a great deal of patience. Just tell them to tie a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree.”

The hit song had new urgency, giving Americans something to do. Once the hostages were released and ready to head home to the U.S., the plane’s cabin door was adorned with a giant yellow ribbon and the military band played the anthem The Washington Post later dubbed the “unofficial hostage theme.”

The yellow ribbon’s role in popular culture didn’t start in the 1970s. Earlier mentions of yellow ribbons as a sign of hope for the return of loved ones appear in popular culture in the 1917 song “Round Her Neck She Wears a Yeller Ribbon,” and, as the song’s chorus explains, “It’s fur my lover who is fur, fur away.” The yellow ribbon also served as title in a 1949 John Wayne film, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, a nod to a woman who wore a yellow ribbon in honor of her beau in the cavalry. But it was the Tony Orlando song—and the Iranian hostage crisis a few years later—that solidified the symbol in most Americans’ minds.

After more than 200 hostages, including 12 Americans, were taken by Hamas on Oct. 7,

Israel knitters Moria Shlomot and Nirith Ben Horin turned to their craft to create yellow “tree huggers.” Shlomot grew up in northern Israel, on Kibbutz Baram, and her parents have been displaced since Oct. 7. The project gives the knitters a sense of purpose and helps them feel they will “ensure that we make the topic of the hostages remain in the public discussion,” Shlomot told me. Though she has not been in contact with the families of the hostages, the project helps her support them “in our day-to-day life and join all the Israelis to do something daily to remind ourselves of the hostages.”

In Paris, crafters knit yellow and orange scarves. Les Bracelets Jaunes, a knitting collective, hosts public knitting circles and recently hung their work in Place de la Republique, the city’s hub for protest and activism of all types. Knitter Dominique Esthel Kalifa told me, “I hadn’t knitted since middle school, and since the day we met with the collective (men and women) to start the project, I haven’t stopped knitting.”

As so many people try to balance feelings of despair with the anticipation of seeing the return of the hostages taken by Hamas on Oct. 7, healing can be found in coming together in community to signal support for the missing. “Stitching a ribbon is repetitive and calming,” said Divi, “like a meditation or a prayer,” providing a respite from “endlessly doom scrolling.” Shlomot added: “We want people to feel an obligation to fight for the hostages’ release,” and “everyone can contribute to this cause in their own way.”

“I won’t stop until the last hostage returns,” said Paris knitter Kalifa. One last thing these groups have in common: Each group thanks the other for inspiring them to start or keep on stitching.

Tanya Singer is the general manager of Tablet Studios and a co-host of Beautifully Jewish.