Berit Engen: WEFT and D'RASH – Weaving a Thousand Jewish Tapestries
Berit Engen: WEFT and D'RASH – Weaving a Thousand Jewish Tapestries
This page shows introductory notes to all of the tapestry series listed on the menu bar. 

A click on an underlined series title will take you to the gallery page. For series with subseries (indicated by Roman numerals) a click will take you to a subseries page with introductory notes. 

– Sacred Curtain Closing the Distance

I think of the ark curtain as a spiritual stop sign. Since mine is transparent, as is the ark curtain in my synagogue, I experience it not as much as a decorative object, but as a piece of textile that invites curiosity.
(1/2 tapestries)

Boom! Bang! Bim-Bam . . .
With its revolutionary ideas and categorical commandments, the Torah might have seemed loud and harsh when it came into being 2500-3000 years ago. Yet, many of its teachings are valid today. Over time they have found softer expressions. At times, the language of the law and the wordless niggun overlap beautifully.

(3/3 subseries)

– A Seemingly Endless Shalshelet

My version of the Genesis story about Joseph is a series of, to date, 89 tapestries woven to the verses that advance the narrative.
Shalshelet is the name of the longest of the cantillation tropes or short melodies used in chanting the Hebrew Bible; it is used only four times in the Torah. Its written symbol is a zigzag line which is fitting for the back-and-forth, and up-and-down moving melody. In illustrating the emotional Joseph story, I chose to emphasize my choice of one key word or phrase within a verse with a metallic thread echoing how cantillation melody lines (in the Masoretic text) are chosen for emphasis.

(89/100 tapestries)

– In the Wilderness of the Orchard

PaRDeS is an acronym for four levels of understanding the passages in the Torah. P’shat refers to the literal meaning of the text; Remez, to the allegorical; D’rash to the interpretive; and Sod, to the mystical meaning. Pardes is also a Persian word for a planted orchard or a walled garden.

(2/3 subseries)

– "v'Zot haTorah!"

It is nice to put the stories, history telling, and laws aside, and explore the Torah as a physical object: the making of the scroll itself, visual expressions of the text columns, and how it is dressed up and stored. In other words, the work of the artisans.

(2/3 subseries)

– The Scriptures Color-Coded

With the help of geometrical shapes and logically applied colors (i.e., color of a specific object becomes color of background in the following tapestry), the series gives an artistic and visual overview of the structure and divisions of the Hebrew Bible.
Divided into three sections – A: the 24 books (from Genesis to Chronicles) comprising the Bible and the divisions of the Torah and the Book of Prophets for the traditional weekly synagogue reading; B: text divisions (from paragraphs to cantillation marks;) C: the smaller literary units (from words to vowel marks.)
(21/21 tapestries)

– “When Will We Ever Learn?”

We have learned, but obviously not enough; the demands of the prophets still challenge us. We might have gotten tired of these persistent fellows, were it not for their ability to continuously inspire us, as individuals and as community, to improve the world.

(2/2 subseries)

– The Companion

This book of largely personal prayers, which grew out of the human experience to help us confront the tests of life, continues to move me.

(4/4 subseries)

– Slim Books, Wide Scopes
Placed in the last book of the Hebrew Bible, these five small books stand on their own and also complement each other; the stories and the poetry cover several complexities of life, both in general and of Jewish living in particular.

(6/6 subseries)

– Seven Acts From the Book of Job

I spotted a greyish combination of red, blue, and yellow amongst my 100+ yarn spools, and immediately I knew: Book of Job!
Even as a child, I never liked to use the three “appealing-to-children” primary colors together as I find that this group of colors leaves nothing to the imagination. But the yarn dye infused with a little brown, black or contrasting color makes this combination both more interesting and more fit for God’s playground. I don’t find it beautiful, but beauty is not a word we connect with the story of this most suffering of men after whom no child is named. 

​(8/8 tapestries)

– Hebrew Hints and Hooks Found in Translation
Each tapestry is my gut visual response to the literal meaning of Biblical place names. The series is set in the course of one day, calling attention to the power of living by the weather as the time indicator.

​(6/8 tapestries)

– The Man-Made Treasure

I think It is impossible not to be fascinated by Jews’ love of the Talmud, how the book came about, its status, history, teachers, and students. The time line of this series spans 1800 years – from the redaction of the Mishnah around 200 CE to our new millennium with study groups connected by the Internet. Jews could and can point to the Talmud and say, “This is who we are.”

(1/4 subseries)

– A Jewish Pastime and Pirkei Avot

Although Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) is a tractate in the Mishna, it is often printed as a separate book. Dealing with ethical and moral principles, it gained importance and popularity centuries ago. When my husband was a little boy, he used to study it with his father, as have many sons with their fathers, students with their rabbis, and my Tuesday Morning Women’s Torah Study Group with its stack of commentaries. Everyone wonders what new wisdom will be revealed.

(2/3 subseries)

– Maimonides, Nachmanides, and Me

What does little me have in common with Sephardic men of the Golden Age, these highly accomplished poets, Bible commentators, grammarians, translators of Latin, Greek, and Arabic, not to mention military and diplomatic leaders. Some of these already hardworking guys were also educated as physicians. Those who were not, if their work of passion did not pay the bills, sometimes declared themselves medical doctors and earned money by seeing patients.
Well, I weave poetry. With my tapestries I comment on Biblical texts. I have knowledge of Hebrew, Arabic, and Greek grammar. Every day I spend as many hours as I can on my work. And one day, in the twelfth year of my twenty-year project, I felt disillusioned, wondering whether I ever would have more income than expenses. So, I hung up a sign on my front door: “Doctor.”

(3/3 tapestries)

– Hidden in Rays

The Kabbalah, that which is received, is the most difficult thing for me to study. I try to receive it the best I can.

(5/5 subseries)

– The Rock We Fashioned

(2/2 subseries)

 – A Liturgical Chant From Trondheim and Skokie

The first time composer and cantor David Brandhandler (born Norway, 1913; died Skokie, 2016) sang his Modim for me was a moment when my rarely shared and sometimes misinterpreted identities determined by birth (Norwegian) and choice (Jewish), finally fell into place. Moved and comforted by his haunting musical setting of this thanksgiving prayer, I wanted to weave its words and his melody.
The continuous graphic line in all the pictures, woven in a metallic thread, traces the composition note by note. It represents a single voice calling to God, transcending space and time.

​(11/11 tapestries) (Series is to be viewed from right to left.)

– The Comfort of Rituals

Sinikka was our first child, and she lived only nine days. The experience forced us to face the dilemma of not being connected to an organized religion and therefore having to invent our own rituals..

(10/10 tapestries)

– Prayer Without Grey

The medieval piyyut (liturgical poem) recited on the Day of Atonement, which famously states “On Yom Kippur it is sealed,” bluntly forces us to face our own mortality. The stark either/or quality of the poem is both distant and shockingly immediate. The poetic comprehensiveness of every manner of human demise chills the reader with the repetitive “Who?”
Visually, the emotional distance needed to reflect upon these questions translates in this series into contrasting black and white images resembling traffic signs: to-the-point, minimal, and static.
(The titles in quotation marks are from the traditional piyyut and from Leonard Cohen’s version, “Who by Fire?”)
​(24/24 tapestries)

– And a Man With a Plan

The Song of the Sea, a poem and prayer of praise (Exod. 15:1-18), concludes the story of safely fleeing Egypt and underscores God as the Redeemer. I chose to weave five tapestries in which the viewer finds herself in the midst of this suspenseful chapter of history, ending the series with a faded-looking sixth, an old photograph of the joyous finale at the shore of the Sea of Reeds.

​(6/6 tapestries)

 – Hey God, FYI, It Is Not Pretty Down Here Right Now

I heard chanted at my synagogue on Rosh Hashanah four prayers by Levi Yitzchak, the Berdichever Rebbe, (1740 1809). Stunned by their stirring words and melodies, I wove four tapestries; the series is named after one of the songs whose title states we are putting God on trial.

(4/4 tapestries)

– The Colorful Prayerbook

I think of the Haggadah as a rich and challenging book which we color differently each year at a gathering where children are guests of honor.

(6/6 subseries)

– Halakhah as a Fountainous Way
I chose to weave this small series on the major, defining, and divisive topic of Jewish law in vibrant purple and golden orange – contrasting colors on the color chart. Both yarns are infused with blue, and so is the pink in the tapestries. Thus blue symbolizes the color that unifies us. 
How special is the word chosen for a legal system: ‘Halakhah’ does not mean ‘law,’ but rather, ‘the way to walk.’

(4/4 tapestries)

 NOT Holidays

I love the days set apart for joy, relaxation, reflections, study, aspirations, and mourning. While structured in commandments and traditions for celebration and observance that make us feel rooted, they stimulate and inspire our Jewish sensibilities with food, words, melodies, and ritual objects. Time is set aside for something larger than our individual selves in community with others.

(7/8 subseries)

– From Cave to Shrine: 3 Stories

(1/3 subseries)

– A Test in Creative Reinventions

The series begins by the waters in a distant land. The tapestires are bound to be numerous and full of contradictions, all of which are true, as the Jewish exile story presents an endless source of expressions for sadness, joy, horror, success, irony, wandering, rescue, humor, longing, and disbelief - just to mention a few.

(6/6 subseries)

Sun and Moon-Filled Sensibilities Entwined

In weaving tapestries inspired by Sephardic songs, I chose the women to take center stage. The lyrical glimpses I get of their joys, struggles, adornments, and natural settings are turning into tapestries of contrasts: the color-absent black and vibrant hues; primary tones and their opposite shades; strict and soft lines and shapes.

(1/3 subseries)

– Play, So We Can Dance and Sing!

Interestingly – or beshert – my German studies and my pursuit of learning Hebrew served a higher purpose: to know what I sing when I sing in Yiddish, this fascinating language of exile struggling to survive. And to which I am so fortunate to be able to feel quite drawn to.

(4/4 tapestries)

– Glittering Shards and Rough Gems

Somewhere I saw Hebrew described as the language of Jewish aspirations and Yiddish as the language of Jewish reality.

(8/8 tapestries)

A Study in Browns and Blues

“God protect us from goyishe hands and Jewish tongues!” (“Got zol op’hitn fun goyishe hent un yidishe reyd!”) No wonder this saying came into being. The curses, Yiddish prophesies of doom – although mostly unfulfillable – are vividly painted and funny.
The sound of these curses in Yiddish truly conveys the verbal outburst.

(12/12 tapestries)

– Darkness of the Bleakest Days

This three-part series is structured around Yiddish songs of the Holocaust. Most of them were written and composed by the victims during the war and as the atrocities unfolded. They were sung in that most hopeless of times by people awaiting their fate.
If a sound from a war can linger, I think it must be through songs like these.

(3/4 subseries)

– From the Shore of the Sea to the Mishkan in Our Hearts

This series of ten tapestries on the story of receiving and accepting the covenant at Sinai was woven in Oak Park, Illinois, USA, about 3500 years after the event. The artist hopes that the series will both memorialize the dramatic episode and profound commitment on a mountain in a Middle Eastern desert long ago and encourage the ongoing process of becoming who we aspire to be.
As a color motif, I chose a deep purple-blue to represent t’khelet. God commanded us to use this blue hue, mentioned 49 times in the Torah, on one thread in the tzitzit attached to the corners of our garments (Numbers 15:37-39). This color is woven into all ten tapestries, symbolizing a specific object or concept in each piece. Thus, t’khelet connects the story elements from the first tapestry, depicting the Israelites’ celebration by the Sea of Reeds, to the last, symbolizing the internalization of the commandments in our hearts.

(10/10 tapestries) (The series is to be viewed from right to left.)

– Expressions From Lives Unchanged
 The tapestries are based on quotations from contemporary poets, known and unknown, struggling with the timeless complexities of life while influenced by or searching for comfort and answers in Judaism and the Jewish experience.
The use of single Hebrew letters as titles of the subseries is based on a Chasidic tale of the letters as prayers.
(3/10 subseries)
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