Jewish communities have wrapped their Torah scrolls in embroidered velvet, silk brocade and luxurious fabrics for more than 500 years. As protectors of sacred parchment, Torah mantles reflect their era, makers and locale. Pittsburgh’s newest mantle, crafted by fiber artist Louise Silk and commissioned by Kohenet Keshira HaLev Fife, will be dedicated on March 13.
Along with incorporating personal effects — a wedding dress, deconstructed hats, a yarmulke and tuxedo — the piece gives meaning to the past year and the cyclical nature of Torah reading, explained Fife.
Shortly before the pandemic began, Fife got a scroll from Rodef Shalom Congregation. The nearly century-old parchment, which came to Rodef by way of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation, had belonged to Torath Chaim, a congregation in Highland Park that closed in 2004.
Fife, the spiritual leader of Kesher Pittsburgh, an independent post-denominational community, said she sought to use the Torah for instructive purposes, as working with the actual text would help children at Kesher Pittsburgh better prepare for upcoming bar and bat mitzvah celebrations.
Once the pandemic began, however, the scroll got more use.
Each Shabbat, Fife and a community of kohenet (ordained priestesses), students and loved ones across the country and in the UK and Australia gather online and read from the scroll during Saturday morning services.
Kohenet Liviah Wessely, of Herndon, Virginia, serves as a “cyber-gabbai” to ensure a technically sound and meaningful Shabbat experience.
“The kohenet community has really saved me this year,” she said, noting that Shabbat has taken on greater meaning as a separator between periods of isolation. The group of digital participants communicate outside of Shabbat as well, providing comfort, virtual shiva calls and even financial assistance when needed.
“This year of community building has been a big part of how all of us have gotten through this pandemic,” said Wessely. “I am now new friends with people I never would have met.”
For Fife, the upcoming mantle dedication is a chance to recognize a year of communal growth and hardship. Her own struggles have included a recent separation from her father due to health issues; the inability to enjoy a loved one’s touch is unfortunately something many people better understand now, said Fife.
The mantle is a connection to her father, though: Several of the fabrics used come from his wardrobe. The Torah cover also has pieces of a yarmulke from Fife’s husband’s bar mitzvah and cuttings from Fife’s wedding dress.
The remnants help bind the mantle, as do scraps from hats once worn by Silk’s uncle, who died recently.
“He was my father’s brother and was the last of a generation,” Silk said.
The mantle, like the Torah itself, “bridges time,” said Fife. “It holds memories and holds experiences that have been carried across generations.”
A special dedication will occur on Shabbat morning on March 13, marking a year of the pandemic and the communal binds that have formed.
“Although each of us finds our own way connecting to the Torah,” Fife said, “the Torah connects us to one another.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.