Berit Engen WEFT and D'RASH – A Thousand Jewish Tapestries
TAPESTRIES: 37 SERIES 
 
This page shows introductory notes to the 37 series listed on the menu bar. 

A click on an underlined series title without Roman numerals will take you to the gallery page with tapestries. A click on an underlined series followed by Roman numerals will take you to a subseries page with notes. 



ANTICIPATIONS
– Presence in a Sacred Space

          A sanctuary can inspire, distract, and even detract. The first sanctuary was meticulously built according to God’s directions during the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness about 3500 years ago. Since then, many and different sensibilities have manifested themselves in architectural style, interior layout, building materials, and execution of ritual objects.  But taste regarding decor aside, this special meeting place is defined by the presence of the Torah and the people holding on to it, to the Tree of Life.  


- (1/3 tapestries, series complete)
- Click on image for more information.



THE TORAH (I-III)
– 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 Chasidic, wordless, niggun overlap beautifully.



THE JOSEPH STORY AS IF CHANTED
– 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.


- (89/102 tapestries, series in progress)
- Click on images for more information.



PaRDeS (I-III)
– In the Wilderness of the Orchard


          PaRDeS is an acronym for four levels of understanding passages in Biblical texts. 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.



THE SCROLL  (I-III)
– "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.



MY TANAKH MAP
– 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, series complete)
- Click on images for more information.



BOOK OF PROPHETS (I-II)
– “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.



SHEVA HAN'VIOT
– Prophetess Portraits as I Percieve Them in the Rainbow


          As a female weaver depicting Judaism in a thousand tapestries, I had been waiting since 2007 for the day I would feel ready to portray these seven remarkable women of the Bible. It finally occurred after January 6 of 2022, a time of unsettling situations inundating the news every day. The desire to weave the prophetesses at this time is combined with a nostalgic longing for reason and for peace and harmony – qualities that are traditionally connected with women. The Noahide rainbow seemed like the right starting point and color reference for planning the series.
           All but the last tapestry have a green shape as part of the composition, symbolizing nurturing trees and plants and alluding to women long ago as gatherers.

 
- (8/8 tapestries, series complete)
- Click on images for more information.



BOOK OF PSALMS (I-IV) 
– The Companion

 
          This poetic book of largely personal prayers, which grew out of the human experience to help us confront the tests of life, moved me long before I encountered Judaism. It continues to move me. The tapestries reflect my impulsive responses to verses dealing with personal and communal injustice, hope of reversal of fortune, and praise of God, the comforting Source.
          I began working on this on-going and open-ended series in the first year of my project, and soon it became clear to me how my childhood and later experiences of intensely staring at natural landscapes and light influence how I hear the words of the Psalmist. Thus, the series is organized in subseries according to my visual and technically diverse expressions of nature (vs. type of Psalm).
           The tapestries are meant to echo spontaneous and individual prayer uttered in non-liturgical settings. Many are woven in pairs, which underlines the poetic device of parallelism and the structural beauty of Biblical poetry.



THE BOOK OF MISERY
– Seven Acts From the Book of Job


          I often react spontaneously to colors, and one day when I spotted an accidental combination in greyish red, blue, and yellow amongst my 100+ spools, I immediately exclaimed: Book of Job!
          Even as a child, I never liked to use the three “appealing-to-children” primary colors together as I find that the combination leaves little to the imagination and lacks an inquisitive dimension. But the infusion of a bit of brown, black, or a contrasting color into the yarn dye makes the threesome more interesting and a better fit for God’s complex playground. I don’t find it beautiful, but beauty is not a word we immediately associate with the story of this most suffering of men after whom no child is named.
          The seven act-tapestries (2–8) follow the story without strictly referring to the book’s narrative or chapters and verses. After completing them I added a first tapestry, a drape-like image. I felt that the series with its theater references needed the magical anticipation experienced in a theatre setting when we stare at the separating curtain while waiting for the stage and scenography to be revealed and for the first act to begin. It also establishes the three primary colors in which the drama unfolds.
           In the ninth and last tapestry we are again outside of the story – but now in nature, and in the cleaner variations of yellow and blue we enjoy the sun and sense God’s universal grace.


- (9/9 tapestries, series complete)
- Click on images for more information.



THE FIVE M'GILLOT (I-VI) 
– 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.



GIVAT HA'ARALOT
– 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/-- tapestries)
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THE TALMUD (I-IV)
– 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 timeline 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.”



“HAFOKH V’HAPEKH!” (I-III)
– Pirkei Avot and a Jewish Pastime
 
          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.



THREE (JEWISH) DOCTORS
– Maimonides, Nachmanides, and Me

 
          What does little me have in common with Sephardic men of the Golden Age, these highly accomplished Bible commentators, philosophers, astronomers, rabbis, kabbalists, poets, grammarians, translators of Latin, Greek, and Arabic, not to mention military and diplomatic leaders. Many of these already hardworking guys (everyone of them worked in several disciplines) were also educated as physicians, and some who were not sometimes declared themselves medical doctors and earned money by seeing patients , when their work of passion did not pay the bills.
          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, series complete)
- Click on images for more information.



THE MYSTICAL TRADITION (I-V)
– 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.
          There is no horizon in my mystical tapestries. Landscapes often evoke in us a sense of the mystical, but in order to express the idea of ‘olam (endlessness in time and space), I have chosen not to depict these beautiful views.




OUR PRAYERBOOK (I-II)
– The Rock We Fashioned


          I can best describe this series as an homage to the Siddur, the book that sums up the basic tenets of Judaism in poetic language and embellished with quotations from the Hebrew Bible. The prayerbook makes it possible for us to engage in emotional outpouring as we remember our history, remind ourselves of the preciousness of our existence, question why we are here, and try to make sense of the answers while struggling and rejoicing in our individual lives.



THE MOST BEAUTIFUL MODIM
 – 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 complete)
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KADDISH FOR SINIKKA
– 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, series complete)
- Click on images for more information.



UN’TANEH TOKEF  
– 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. In some of the tapestries I chose to limit the interpretation to the method of killing or way of dying without depicting death itself.
 

- The titles in quotation marks are from the traditional piyyut and from Leonard Cohen’s version, Who by Fire?
- (24/-- tapestries)
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SONG OF THE SEA
– 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 tapestry, an old photograph of the joyous finale at the shore of the Sea of Reeds.


- (6/6 tapestries, series complete)
- Click on images for more information.



"A DIN TOIRE MIT GOT"
 – 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, series complete)
- Click on images for more information.



THE WHIMSICAL HAGGADAH (I-XIII)
– A Colorful Prayerbook


          I think of the Haggadah as the liturgical book which we color differently each year at a gathering where children are guests of honor.
          Delighted in its many variations, expressed with illustrations and through commentaries (often ideological: denominational, feminist, vegetarian, etc.), I started weaving my way through this charming, theatrical, and structurally challenging text. Like the Haggadah itself, the result is a series both logical and quirky.


-Titles in capital letters refer to the 15 steps of the Haggadah. Titles in quotation marks are lines from the Haggadah text.




THE ILLUMINATED SHLEP
– 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, series complete)
- Click on images for more information.



HOLY DAYS (I-VIII) 
– 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.



LOST BUT FOUND (I-III)
– From Dark to Shrine: Three Stories


          A cave in the Judean desert, an attic in Egypt, and a basement in Poland – all served as hiding and storage spaces for the three most important caches of writings discovered between 1896 and 1950. The times of the treasures themselves date from 408 BCE–1943. When found, the documents were cared for: dried, cleaned, sorted, organized, and stored safely. Parts of the collections are beautifully displayed in symbolic settings. Further organizing, decoding, and analyzing is being shared within a scholar-led community worldwide.
           Although the stories of these important discoveries are intriguingly different, each could easily not have happened. If the documents had been lost, we would be void of the vast light-shedding information, perspectives, and histories they provide all important pieces of our common heritage. 
          Rather than focusing on the artifacts themselves, I wove their specific stories of being hidden, discovered, and displayed as well as their unique storage ‘wrappings’: ceramic jars; dust; and metal boxes and milk cans.



THE EXILE (I-VI) 
– A Test in Creative Reinventions


          When I started to explore Judaism, it seemed to me that the word ‘exile’ popped up everywhere: in the liturgy, books, classes, and conversations. I realized this was a historic heritage and mindset foreign to me.
          The tapestries 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.



WOMEN OF S'FARAD (I-III)
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 white; vibrant hues; and strict and soft lines and shapes.



“SHPIL, KLEZMORIM!”
– 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)
- Click on images for more information.



YIDDISH WISDOM
– 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/-- tapestries)
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YIDDISHE CURSES 
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 hilarious. Add to that the sound  of the curses when exclaimed in the original language, and one easily gains an understanding of differences in cultural sensibilities.


- (12/12 tapestries, series complete)
- Click on images for more information.



THE SHOAH (I-III) 
– Darkness of the Bleakest Days
           
          This three-part series is structured around the Yiddish songs of the Holocaust, many of which were written and composed by the victims during the war and as the atrocities unfolded. These songs, and others which fit their experience, were sung in that most hopeless of times by people awaiting their fate. A few were sung afterwards in the ruins, or later, in remembrance.
           If a sound from a war can linger, I think it must be through songs like these.

 

THE LAND (I-V)
– Ancient and Contemporary Dreams and Realities

          In spring of 2022 my husband, Steve, and I visited Israel for three weeks; it was the first time for both of us. Of the countless things deserving of a commentary in this tiny nation, which by the Israelis is referred to simply as Ha’aretz, The Land,  I am limiting my series to places we visited and reflections I made during our three weeks stay. We left with a strong desire to return and to explore more of Israel’s complexities.




MOUNT SINAI ON ROUTE 43
– From the Shore of the Sea to the Mishkan in Our Hearts

 
          In 2019, in a suburb of Chicago, I wove this series of ten tapestries on the 3000-year-old story of receiving and accepting the covenant at Sinai as recorded in the Torah. My hope is that, in addition to contributing to the established beauty of Temple Har Zion in River Forest, IL, which commissioned the work, the tapestries will serve both to memorialize events on and by a mountain in a Middle Eastern desert 3500 years ago and to encourage the ongoing process of defining who we aspire to be. 
          As a color motif, I chose a deep purplish blue to symbolize t’khelet, the blue color mentioned in the Tanakh 49 times, and which we were commanded to use in the tzitzit in the four corners of our prayer garments. I have woven it into all ten tapestries, symbolizing a specific event, object, or concept in each piece.


- The tapestries are to be viewed from right to left.
- (10/10 tapestries, series complete)
- Click on images for more information.



OUR UPS AND DOWNS, AND KING SOLOMON’S
– “This, Too, Shall Pass”

 
          The series was woven during the first year of Covid-19. One day our rabbi sent a kind and comforting email to the congregation in which he included a tale about King Solomon, who suffered from wild mood swings. He assembled his wisest men and requested a magical item that would in sad times make him happier and in exuberant times curb his enthusiasm. After much thinking and head scratching, they advised him to have a ring engraved: “This Too Shall Pass.” Wearing it, he would constantly be reminded that everything changes: When it is dark, remember that it will eventually be light, but when things are great, prepare for difficult times. The first part is consoling, but it is in the second that the true wisdom lies.
           I first wove the virus story itself (tapestries two, three, and four), but then felt a need to add contrasting prelude and finale tapestries depicting life before Covid and our dream of returning to normalcy. All are woven from the guts as we are living this pandemic piece of history.


- (5/5 tapestries, series complete)
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ISAIAH IN MANHATTAN
– “And You Shall Be a Light Unto the Nations”


          A few years ago, in Madison Square Park in NYC, I spotted the unusual bright, green top of a lamppost. At noon, on a bright, sunny day, one does not expect an electric lightbulb to illuminate its surroundings but the light, shining onto and bouncing off the millions of small bright, green leaves was so remarkable. I knew I had found the starting point for my series based on Isaiah 49:6, challenging the Jews to become “or la-goyim” – a light unto the nations. Then I noticed an astonishing contemporary sculpture: a large, dark, and naked tree-like creation, its few branches carrying huge and heavy-looking rocks. The dead-looking tree seemed to drain everything and give nothing. Light and dark were in my face, a few yards apart, as if they insisted on reminding me of two sides of the human story: Striving to live an exemplary, ethical life are either embraced or dismissed.

 
- (3/3 tapestries, series complete)
- Click on images for more information.



NEW PSALMS FOR AN OLD BOOK (I-X)
– Rustlings 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.
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