Sunnyvale man weaves yarns with original tapestries

Artist Manny Pepper gazes proudly at a picture he created using his needlepoint skills. It's a portrait of Tevye, long-suffering hero of "Fiddler on the Roof," posing next to his burdensome milk cart.

"Tevye is like me," Sunnyvale resident Pepper states enthusiastically, "big and loud."

Though the comparison is just — Pepper even played the role of Tevye in a recent production — the two characters diverge on one important point: Pepper does not dream of a leisurely life. On the contrary, he dreads a day without work.

At 76, Pepper is the epitome of the '90s multitasker, juggling his work as an artist, crossing guard and philanthropist. Friends in his retirement community call Pepper the "kid of the place." It's a nickname not based on his physical age.

"I've got a reputation for being ornery and I don't want that to change," Pepper explains. "I like to be on the move, not just sitting around."

He spends the majority of his time embroidering, latch hooking and weaving Judaic crafts. Initially, needleworking was a hobby he picked up in his native Salt Lake City 25 years ago. But when Pepper's wife, Lorraine, and daughter, Barrie Lynn, died of cancer eight and six years ago respectively, his hobby turned into a full-time occupation.

"I do it because it is a pacifier, something to keep my mind occupied," Pepper says. "I'd rather do this than sit at a bar drinking."

As he sits in his living room and surveys what must be thousands of hours' worth of work, he is uncharacteristically at a loss for words. "In my short life it doesn't seem possible [that] I've made so many things," says Pepper, who would next like to learn quilting. "When I look at all of this I can't believe it."

Pepper's work has been exhibited at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto and Congregation Adath Israel in San Francisco. Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City has Pepper's vibrant tapestry version of Chagall's stained-glass windows, "The Twelve Tribes of Israel," hanging in its sanctuary.

But Pepper keeps most of his pieces or gives them to loved ones. "I don't want to sell myself," he firmly states. "I'm not in it for the business."

The artist's cozy home, which he shares with his energetic poodle, Silver, serves as testimony to his lifework. Textiles resplendent with images of Israel, Jewish culture and family life form a tableau illustrating what he regards as important.

An intricate needlepoint portrait of the Western Wall reminds Pepper of the time he held the Torah at his nephew's bar mitzvah in Jerusalem. Colorful tallitot made on a hand loom, with tzitzit he tied himself, lie on the dining room table awaiting shipment to relatives and friends.

Pepper's bed is covered with a crocheted blanket done in "the colors of Israel," with a Star of David in the center. Polaroid snapshots here and there show people wearing Pepper's embroidered shawls.

On one wall hangs a fading black-and-white photo of Pepper's family having a seder in Utah, circa 1919. Pepper explains that he was less than a year old in the photo and that the 14 others shown have all passed away.

Pepper's family history stretches back to a small Ukrainian village called Omelno, near Rozhishch. The Peppers, or Pfeffers as they then called themselves, came to the United States and settled in Utah before World War I.

Raised in an Orthodox household, Pepper says his Jewish heritage continues to influence his life. In addition to Judaic needlework, he has donated generously to Jewish communities in the Bay Area and Salt Lake City. In Palo Alto, Pepper donated two Torah covers to Kol Emeth and has helped visiting Israeli families put their kids through school.

He also serves the wider community. Each weekday, Pepper is up with the sun for his job as a school crossing guard in Sunnyvale. Immensely popular with students, he was asked by school administrators to play Santa during this year's holiday celebration.

But most of all, Pepper likes to create. His choice of media, needlework, requires keen eyesight, nimble fingers and a king's ransom in patience — none of which are attributes that many 6-foot-tall 76-year-olds possess.

In fact, the needleworking field is almost entirely dominated by women.

"I once tried to buy a yarn cataloguing business from a woman in Van Nuys," Pepper recounts. "She wouldn't sell it to me because she thought a man would lose the business. So she sold it to a woman instead."

Fran Shuster, national president of the Pomegranate Guild of Judaic Needlework, agrees that Pepper is an unusual case. Of the Guild's 650 members nationwide, less than a dozen are male. "Very often a man doesn't have the small hand manipulation needed," she explains.

Pepper once met the famous ex-footballer and fellow needleworker Rosey Grier on board an airplane. The two men showed their solidarity by doing needlepoint together during the flight.

Shuster encourages everyone to take up needleworks, which she calls a satisfying and fulfilling art form. "It's a way to perpetuate our Jewish culture and heritage." "Needleworking has existed through the ages. You can go back to biblical times and see the work that was done by both men and women."