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Cross-stitching the Torah

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Judaics textile artist and designer Temma Gentles is used to taking on big, meaningful and diverse projects. In a career that has spanned decades, she has designed and created magnificent art walls, wedding canopies, prayer shawls and Torah covers.

A year ago, Gentles, artist-in-residence at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, took on her most ambitious project yet. With the help of hundreds of people worldwide, she began creating a Torah scroll made entirely from cross-stitch embroidery. She has dubbed this project Torah Stitch by Stitch.

The Torah, or Pentateuch, is the core Judaic text and contains the first five books of Moses. It is written in Hebrew and is central to Jewish learning and to Jewish life.

"We are not trying to replicate the Torah," Gentles explains, "but we are doing a word perfect text. The goal of the project is to engage in the words of the Torah."

Gentles began Torah Stitch by Stitch by graphing in consecutive order the four-verse sections that make up the Book of Genesis -- the first book of the Torah -- on to individual panels. She then distributed these text panels to artists, acquaintances and friends to be cross-stitched.

As word of Torah Stitch by Stitch spread, Gentles began receiving requests from people around the world eager to add their handiwork. To date, she has sent out panels to more than 700 participants who have excitedly agreed to commit about 50 hours each to cross-stitch specific four-verse sections. She also has encouraged all of her stitchers to add a personal touch to their panels.

"It is incredibly powerful to see how people have responded and how and why they take this project on," she says. "Participants can embellish or illustrate their panels, and it is wonderful when they grapple with the text that they have."

While the initial participants were mainly Jewish women, they now encompass women and men of all faiths and from 13 different countries. They include people from as far away as Guatemala, Zimbabwe and Vietnam, and a Mother Superior from a cloistered abbey in England.

Former Winnipegger Rhea Lazar is one of these participants.

"I liked the idea of being part of a large group folk-art project," the Vancouver resident says.

Like many other participants though, Lazar had no cross-stitching experience.

"It was daunting and slow at first," she recalls. "You have to get that first stitch in exactly the right spot, or the rest is all messed up. I had to rip out almost two whole rows."

Lazar finished her panel -- Exodus, chapter five, verses five to eight -- after almost six months of diligence and proudly presented it to Gentles in June.

Gentles hopes to have all 1,463 four-verse sections finished within the next year or so. The Books of Genesis and Exodus have been completed, and stitchers are now working on Leviticus.

Once all the pieces are cross-stitched, Gentles will begin the task of assembling the separate panels into a giant Torah scroll. She hopes that the scroll, which will stand eight feet high and stretch the length of a football field, will then be developed into a travelling museum exhibit -- an exhibit that will welcome visitors to walk among and be embraced by the ancient words and wisdom of the Torah.

Torah Stitch by Stitch's website is at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 9, 2014 D15

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