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Stitches in Time : Quilting: Needlework of Jewish group honors immigrants and distinguished women in history.


Meshuga , haimish and alter kocker are terms not likely to be heard at the vast majority of quilting bees, which are associated with pioneer women, the Amish and Appalachia.

But on Tuesday nights in Van Nuys, these Yiddish terms--meaning respectively, in loose translation, a crazy person, a good soul and a senior citizen--are part of the regular conversation of a group of Jewish quilters who are not about to be stopped by a cultural stereotype.

"About five years ago, we were down at the Craft and Folk Art Museum where they had an exhibit of quilts," said Ruth Silver, 71, who had been taking cultural jaunts for years with a group of San Fernando Valley friends.

"We were admiring these quilts that Amish women and other women from all over the United States had made," Silver continued, "and I said, 'Oh, hell, I'll bet we could do that ourselves.' "

They could and they did, with the results being two quilts, one of which has gained notice beyond their expectations. Their "Tribute to the American Woman" quilt--which pays homage to the contributions of 41 women in politics, science and the arts--was hung prominently in West Hollywood's City Hall during that city's monthlong Celebrating Women festival last March.

The group calls itself the Hamish Amish Quilters.

"When we started, no one expected it would become such a big thing in our lives," said Ellie Sazer, 67, who holds the meetings in her Van Nuys home. "It started out as something we did just for fun, just another reason for friends to get together. It turned out to be a lot more."

In January, 1985, the group had its first formal meeting, at Silver's house. The 14 women, who were mostly around retirement age, had known each other for a long time--some had friendships going back more than 30 years. "When we first moved to the Valley, that long ago," Sazer said, "there was not a whole lot out here to do. We met through the local Jewish center and at the synagogue and became friends. We watched each other's children grow up."

The daughter of one of the women had some experience in quilting. She attended the first several meetings to get them started. "She taught us how to make the templates and the other special things we would need to make a quilt," said Sylvia Edelstein, whose daughter, Lisa, was their teacher. "Some of us had done a lot of sewing in life and so we picked it up pretty fast."

The group decided that its first quilt would be in the traditional Amish style, with a relatively simple geometric pattern and a limited range of colors. "It looked like the simplest one we could do to start," Silver said. "Of course, when we got into it, it was not as simple as it had looked."

It took a bit more than a year to complete the 88-by-96-inch quilt. In addition to the detailed work involved, time was taken up by socializing on quilting nights. "First, we had to talk about the grandchildren," said Beverly Katz with a laugh. The slow pace was frustrating at times, but rewarding.

"Sometimes when they were all working around a table," said Bernard Kaplan, the husband of Ellie, "they would all start singing together. It was wonderful."

The conversation around the table often included politics--several of the women had long been involved in liberal causes. And when the quilt was completed, they auctioned if for $1,700 at a Fourth of July party and donated most of the proceeds to an anti-nuclear weapons group.

Most of the women were anxious to start on a second quilt. Silver, a longtime activist, felt it should display more than an abstract pattern.

"As for me, if I was going to continue to be involved, I wanted it to be a very meaningful experience on more than a social level," Silver said.

The group, now down to about 10 members, decided to do a quilt that would honor U.S. women in several different fields: government, equal rights, the arts, sports and sciences. Everyone nominated women they thought should be considered, coming up with a total of 82.

But the quilt, as they planned it, would have room for a maximum of 42 squares.

"The process of elimination brought on a lot of discussion," Silver said. Finally, after five weeks of talking, they decided that each would choose the woman she most wanted on the quilt and make that square. That first group of choices included Eleanor Roosevelt, Leontyne Price, Isadora Duncan, Bella Lewitzky, Coretta Scott King, Georgia O'Keeffe, Lena Horne, Emma Lazarus and Mother Jones.

Most of the squares included a likeness of the subject, although some represented the person in other ways. The Isadora Duncan square, for example, featured a stitched drawing of two dancers in motion. Some of the women used a transfer process to imprint a likeness on the square to make their sewing easier. Others got help from Seymour Kaplan, a retired artist who is the husband of group member Millie Kaplan.

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