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Sewing the Seeds of Tradition : A needlework guild uses the fiber arts to enhance the religious objects and rituals of Jewish life.

February 26, 1993|NANCY KAPITANOFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Nancy Kapitanoff writes regularly about art for The Times.

For centuries, American women have gathered together in sewing circles to share their needlework abilities and their friendship, support and encouragement.

Little did Rita Lipshutz know, when she took a needlepoint class more than a decade ago, that she would be instrumental in continuing not only this tradition in the San Fernando Valley, but also some customs of the Jewish religion.

In 1981, she organized the Pomegranate Guild of Judaic Needlework on the West Coast. Taking its name from a verse in the Book of Exodus--"And they made upon the hem of the robe pomegranates of blue and purple and scarlet and twined linen"--the guild had been established four years earlier in New York.

"We needed a Jewish sewing circle," said Lipshutz. "We want to remain connected to our past." That past contains cultural, religious and emotional ties.

Lipschutz, who lives in Woodland Hills, enlisted Sheila Paley, who also took the needlepoint class, in her effort to start the group. She said it grew like Topsy.

The Pomegranate Guild, which today has 650 members, more than 300 of them in Southern California, uses the fiber arts to enhance the religious objects and rituals of Jewish life. Women from 18 to over 80, ranging from beginners to advanced, design and make such items as a tallit (prayer shawl), a bread cover for the Sabbath bread, and a chuppah --a canopy under which a couple marries.

More than 100 textile works by more than 50 members are on view at the Finegood Art Gallery in the guild's "Seventh International Exhibit of Judaic Fiber Arts." Although some of the pieces were submitted by women as far away as New York, Pennsylvania, Florida and Maryland, most of them were made by Southern Californians, especially members of the Valley chapter.

"This is the first time we've had a show in the San Fernando Valley," said Sandy Seligman, a co-chairman of the exhibit.

"We live in and around this community, and to be able to expose our work to the community is very exciting," Lipshutz added. She and Paley belong to the Art Council of the San Fernando Valley Region of the Jewish Federation Council. Pomegranate members Seligman and Pamela Rishfeld were also prime organizers of the show.

Most of the pieces on display are not for sale but are near and dear to the hearts of the women who made them and are being used in their homes and synagogues.

Helen Longwill embroidered the chuppah that was designed by Lipshutz's daughter, Keri, for Keri's marriage last year to Seligman's son, Howard.

Miriam Ulman used quilting and embroidery to create the wall hanging "And they came to America," a pictorial history of her family in Europe. To convey the feeling of Europe, she had old family photographs printed on fabric and attached them to the piece. The bottom section reflects the family's migration to the United States. The top portion represents the Jewish influence on Ulman's life.

Among the most stunning works in the show, in technique and content, are the embroidered tapestries "Jewish Calendar" and "Russia 1942" by Trudie Strobel. The latter re-creates an incident from her own childhood, when a Nazi officer grabbed her favorite doll from her as she was being loaded onto a boxcar to be taken to a concentration camp.

Several women have made things to hand down to their children and grandchildren. Helen Lippman used cross-stitch, buttonhole stitch and crochet for a tallit for her grandson. His bar mitzvah will be in September. It was Lippman who in 1982 crocheted a tallit for her granddaughter and entered it in a show.

"Half the people in the show were shocked, and half were delighted," Lipshutz said, referring to the fact that at that time, tallits for girls and women were generally not available. "That was a new way of thinking, and it made a big impression on us.

"That's the thing about the women in this guild. We all teach each other," Lipshutz said, referring not only to their exchange of ideas about religious customs, but to fiber art techniques. "Women who stitch, there's a bond between us."

Where and When What: "The Seventh International Exhibit of Judaic Fiber Arts." Location: Finegood Art Gallery, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays, through April 25. Call: (818) 587-3200.

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