Taken from A Patchwork Life: The Hands-On Guide To Living by Louise Silk
Available as an ebook: A Patchwork Life: The Hands-On Guide To Living
Quilt making generally regarded as an American form, most European-born women learned the skill here. Jews tended to congregate in large cities, associating almost exclusively with other Jews. For most, quiltmaking was an invisible, alien craft. How did Katie come to make quilts, when so many other Jewish grandmothers did not? Could the difference be the result of her assimilation with her “American” neighbors?
Julie Silber; A Family Story in Cloth
Pretty much from the beginning, I understood that quilters were not Jewish, and Jews did not quilt. Because it was rare to find a Jew among my quilting contemporaries, I made the faulty assumption that Jewish women by nature did not have the patience for quilting. In some crazy unknown way, I was the exception.
With this rationale, it made sense to me to keep my Jewish life as a volunteer and my work as a fiber artist, completely separate. There were many examples of this, like that I steered clear of a beautiful gallery at the Jewish Community Center as too Jewish, and assumed Jewish women enrolled in my class would not be able to master the craft.
On the odd occasion I met a Jewish woman who told me there were quilts in her family, I quickly discovered that either she was a convert with a non-Jewish mother, or her mother had grown up in a very small town, isolated from the larger urban Jewish community.
Some years later, an article by a curator explained that American Jews, like other ethnic groups, lived together in shtetl-like communities practicing the needlework popular in their countries of origin. For European Jews, it was embroidery, cross stitch, knitting, and crocheting. It is not until we get to be assimilated in American culture, that we become exposed to and then involved in the American craft form of quilting.
This new understanding of the confluence of being both Jewish and a quilter, influenced my quest to find a new and innovative quilting subject. I was the head volunteer for the local resettlement of Soviet Jews. Pittsburgh settled 540 individuals as a part of our participation with the international community. To organize this, I attended regular meetings. Driving home after a meeting, I had an ah-ha moment: the thought that infusing my quilts with some kind of Jewishness, might somehow forward my work.
The first piece was a small applique diptych about the Russians. On the left, the Russians standing in a long line wearing drab browns. On the right, they danced the hora in bright pastel colors. The second was a curtain, representing the fall of the Berlin wall, with patchwork words like freedom and perestroika.
Following those, I made a piece envisioning my authentic Jewish self. I shared the quilt with the JCC gallery director and agreed to an exhibition 2½ years ahead in February 1994. The idea was to develop my personal individual Jewish identity and practice through the process of making the quilts.