Torah binders and tallitot describe rich life of Italys Jews life

For 15 years Beth Kellman has woven people's histories into handmade tallitot. Now, after a recent trip to Italy, she rediscovered another Jewish historic art form that meshes family stories together to bind Torahs.

The East Bay artist and educator will be teaching a class on Italian Jewish history and Torah binders beginning Wednesday, July 12 at Berkeley's Judah L. Magnes Museum.

Today, most Jews around the world use metal and Velcro straps to keep Torah scrolls in place beneath velvet and intricate needlework covers. But there was a time when the fabric securing the scrolls of Jewish history, thought and law held family sagas within its rubric: tales of britot, bar mitzvahs, weddings.

In Poland, Yugoslavia and Germany, the wooden Torah scrolls were bound with swaddling cloth from a son's circumcision, embroidered with the child's name, date and place of birth, father's name and good wishes. Called wimpels, the folk art pieces were dedicated to the synagogue as a birth record and brought out for the son's bar mitzvah and wedding.

In Italy, instead of creating chronicles, Jews pieced together brightly colored swatches of silk into similar binders. They too donated the binders to the synagogue in honor of births and weddings.

Kellman, the director of school services for the S.F.-based Agency of Jewish Education, learned about these art forms in April, visiting Italy's Jewish communities on a trip funded by a grant from the Seymour Fromer Foundation.

After studying the colorful Italian Torah binders in Rome, Venice, Florence and other Tuscan cities, Kellman decided to pass on the nearly lost art.

During the six-week class, Kellman will teach students to create their own Torah binders.

"They can make them in any style they want — embroidered, painted," she said. "And if they're not artistically inclined, the Italian way is perfect because it's more about beautiful fabric than anything."

Until now Kellman has worked in wool, silk and cotton, weaving elements of people's personalities and individual stories into each tallit. She has also invited clients to her studio and taught them to weave, "so they [became] a part of the [creation] process."

The Torah binder class, she said, is a way of combining what she saw in Italy with her craft — "what I love to do."

She will also lecture on Italy's Jews. Unlike many European countries, Italy retains a great deal of its Jewish art and ritual objects.

Because the Nazis marched into Italy so late in World War II, "Jews had time to prepare," Kellman said, adding that Nazi troops destroyed almost everything Jewish in other countries.

But the Italian Jews hid Torahs, menorot, tallitot and binders in the Catholic churches, schools and homes, or inside fake floors built into mikvehs (ritual baths).

Jews who survived Nazism moved "where they were accepted," Kellman said, to cities such as Florence, Venice and Pitigliano, a small town in southern Tuscany.

Today, most of Italy's 50,000 Jews, both Ashkenazim and Sephardim, follow the same traditions as before the war. Most are Orthodox, Kellman said, because Italy lacks enough Jews to support more than one religious movement. Also, "Italians cherish history and culture andsee no reason to change Judaism."

Today Italian Jews also keep pieces of the past alive. Old embroidered Torah binders, covers, tallitot and ark curtains decorate synagogues. Stars of David and Jewish family crests also adorn many churches designed by Jewish architects.

"In a church in Florence, I first saw the Jewish star. The architect was Jewish. I found 10 other churches with Jewish stars on them or in them. It showed me tolerance and appreciation of other cultures. Only the popes [in years past] said [to Italians,] `the Jews are not our friends.'"